Read Chapter XXVI. In The Judgment Hall of The Ward of King Canute, free online book, by Ottilie A. Liljencrantz, on ReadCentral.com.

Strong is the bar
That must be raised
To admit all.

Ha’vama’l.

While he kept a firm hold upon the spear which he had dropped like a gilded bar across the door, the English sentinel repeated for the tenth time his respectful denial: “I will take it upon me to admit you to the gallery, noble lady; but you were the Queen herself, I dare not let you in to the lower part. There be none but men with the King, and it is not fitting ”

“And is the son of a Saxon serf to decide where it is fitting for me to go?” the Lady of Northampton demanded, facing him in a tempest of angry beauty. “Whatsoever you shall do by my direction, dog, will in all respects be available to your credit. Let me through to my husband, or I can tell you that you will find your wariness terribly misplaced!”

The guard discreetly held his tongue, but he likewise held his position. Elfgiva’s bosom was beginning to heave in hysterical menace when a second soldier, lounging against the wall behind the first, ventured a soothing word.

“For your own safety, noble one, ask it not. The King is listening to a quarrel between an Englishman and a Dane; and by reason of it, there are many in the room whose tempers may ”

Randalin, who alone of all the maidens had remained undauntedly at her mistress’ elbow, caught that elbow in a vice-like grip. “Take the gallery, then, lady!” she urged in a piercing whisper. “The gallery, as quick as you can.”

As an angry cat wounds whoever is nearest, Elfgiva scratched her in the same undertone. “Stupid! Do you imagine that the only Englishman who has part in the world is the one you showed yourself a fool for? Do you not understand that if I let them assign me to some dark gallery, Canute will not be able to see me?”

It did not appear that the girl so much as felt the claws. Her eyes had a look of strained listening as they gazed past the sentinel and across the ante-room to the great curtained doorway. “He will succeed better in seeing you through a dim light than through a stone wall,” she returned.

Biting her lips, the fair Tyrant of Northampton measured the man through her lashes. He might have been of the same material as his spear for all the sign he showed of yielding. She could not understand such defiance, and, like mysteries in general, it awed even while it angered her. Affecting to draw herself up in disdain, she really gave back a step. “Perhaps it would be wise to put off our visit until a day that there is a man at the door instead of a blockhead ”

Randalin’s arm was an iron barrier behind her. “Now I do not know where you think the power to do that will come from!” she hissed in her ear. “Do you not see that if you go back to your grooms and let them know that you have not got enough honor with the King to gain an entrance, they will never dare do your bidding again? Do you not see that you must do one of two things, or now win, or now lose?”

Apparently Elfgiva saw. After a moment’s bridling, she whirled back with an angry flounce of her draperies. “The gallery, then, dog! I shall reach my lord’s ear from that, which will be an unlucky thing for you.”

Saluting in silence, the guard drew back to let her pass, at the same time signing to a row of men-at-arms standing motionless as pillars against the stone wall of the ante-room. With a rattle and clank they came to life, and the little band of five kirtles, surrounded and led, was marched to a low side-door which gave in upon a short flight of stone steps, white-frosted now with the dampness and their distance from the fire. At the head of the flight, another door gave entrance to a narrow passage that probably reached the length of the hall below, though it seemed to the shivering women to extend the length of the Palace itself. A third door, ending this corridor, admitted them to the gallery that ran across the upper end of the hall.

As she passed the threshold Elfgiva exclaimed in vexation, for the light of the log fire, whose rudely carved chimney-piece broke the long side-wall, succumbed at the balcony’s lower edge to the shadows of the raftered ceiling, and all above was wrapped in soft twilight. “He cannot tell me from a monster,” she fumed, letting herself sink into a faded tapestry chair, standing forgotten amid a pile of mouldering cushions.

The three English girls, pressing timidly to her side, answered with indistinct murmurs which she could interpret to suit her pleasure. The Danish girl made her no reply whatever. Half kneeling, half sitting upon the cushions, her head was already bent over the gallery’s edge, and the scene below had claimed her eye and ear to the exclusion of all else.

Whatever its shortcomings as a show-case, the balcony was excellently adapted both for spectators and for eavesdroppers, its distance from the floor being little more than twice a man’s height, while the fire which doled its light so stingily, lavished a glory of brightness on the spot where the King’s massive chair stood beside the chimney-piece. After one petulant glance, even Elfgiva’s pique gave way to a curiosity that gradually drew her forward to the very edge of her seat and held her there, the three maids crouching at her feet.

Encircled by a martial throng, so massed and indistinct that they made a background like embroidered tapestry, three figures were the centre of attention, the figure of the young King in his raised chair, and the forms of the Dane and the Angle who fronted each other before his footstool. Shielded from the heat by his palm, Canute’s face was in the shadow, and the giant shape of the son of Lodbrok was a blot against the flames, but the glare lay strong on Sebert of Ivarsdale, revealing a picture that caused one spectator to catch her breath in a sob. Equally aloof from English thane and Danish noble, the Etheling in the palace of his native king stood a stranger and alone, while his swordless sheath showed him to be also a prisoner. He bore himself proudly, one of his blood could scarcely have done otherwise, but his fine face was white with misery, and despair darkened his eyes as they stared unseeingly before him.

As well as though he had put his thoughts into words, the girl who loved him knew that his mind was back in the peaceful manor between the hills, foreseeing its desecration by barbarian hands, foretasting the ruin of those who looked to him for protection. From the twilight of the balcony, she stretched out her arms to him in a passion of yearning pity, and all of selfishness that had been in her grief faded from it utterly, as her heart sent forth a second prayer.

“Oh, Thou God, forget what I asked for myself! Think only of helping him, of comforting him, and I will love Thee as though Thou hadst done it to me. Help him! Help him!”

Answering a question from the King, Rothgar began to speak, his heavy voice seeming to fill all the space from floor to ceiling: “By all the laws of war, King Canute, the Odal of Ivarsdale should come to me. The first son of Lodbrok took the land before ever this Angle’s kin had seen it. He built the tower that stands on it, and the name it bears to this day is the name of his giving. Under Guthrum, a weak-kneed son of his lost it to the English Alfred, and we fell out of our fortunes with the tipping of the scales, and Angles have sat since then in the seat of Lodbrok’s sons. But now the scales have risen again. Under Canute, Ivarsdale, with all other English property, comes back to Danish hands. By all the laws of war, my kinsman’s inheritance should be my share of the spoil.”

Ending roundly, he drew himself up in an attitude of bold assurance. Wherever a group of scarlet cloaks made a bright patch upon the human arras, there was a flutter of approval. Even the braver of the English nobles, who for race-pride alone might have supported Sebert in a valid claim, saw nothing to do now but to draw away, with a silent interchange of shrugs and headshakes, and leave him to his doom.

In the shadow of his hand, Canute nodded slowly. “By all the laws of war,” he affirmed, “your kinsman’s inheritance should be your share of the spoil.”

Again an approving murmur rose from Danish throats; and Rothgar was opening his lips to voice a grateful answer, when a gesture of the royal hand checked him.

“Recollect, however, that just now I am not only a war-chief, but also a law-man. I think it right, therefore, to hear what the Englishman has to say for his side. Sebert Oswaldsson, speak in your defence.”

Not even a draft appeared to stir the human tapestry about them. Sebert started like a man awakened from sleep, when he realized that every eye was hanging upon him. Swiftly, his glance passed around the circle, from the averted faces of his countrymen to the foreign master on the throne, then bitterly he bent his head to his fate.

“I have nothing to say. Your justice may most rightly be meted out.”

“Nothing to say?” The King’s measured voice sounded sharply through the hush. For the first time, he lowered his hand and bent forward where the fire-glow could touch him.

As she caught sight of his face Elfgiva shrank and clutched at her women. “Ah, Saints, I am thankful now that it is dark!” she murmured.

Sebert sustained the look with proud steadiness. “Nothing that would be of use to me,” he said; “and I do not choose to pleasure you by setting up a weak plea for you to knock down again. The right which gave Britain to the Saxons has given England to the Danes, and it is not by words that such a right can be disputed. If your messengers had not taken me by surprise ” He paused, with an odd curl to his lips that could hardly be called a smile; but Canute gave him grim command to finish, and he obeyed with rising color. “If your messengers had not come upon me as I was riding on the Watling Street and brought me here, a prisoner, I would have argued the matter with arrows, and you would needs have battered down the defence of stone walls to convince me.”

Mutters of mingled admiration and censure buzzed around; and one English noble, more daring and also more friendly than the others, drew near and spoke a word of friendly warning in Sebert’s ear. Through it all, Canute sat motionless, studying the Etheling with his bright colorless eyes.

At last he said unexpectedly, “If you would not obey my summons until my men had dealt with you by force, it cannot be said that you have much respect for my authority. Do you not then acknowledge me as King of the English?”

Rothgar betrayed impatience at this branching aside. Sebert himself showed surprise.

He said hesitatingly, “I I cannot deny that. You have the same right that Cerdic had over the Britons. Nay, you have more, for you are the formal choice of the Witan. I cannot rightly deny that you are King of the Angles.”

“If you acknowledge me to be that,” Canute said, “I do not see why you have not an argument for your defence.”

While all stared at him, he rose slowly and stood before them, a dazzling figure as the light caught the steel of his ring-mail and turned his polished helm to a fiery dome.

“Sebert Oswaldsson,” he said slowly, “I did not feel much love toward you the first time I saw you, and it is hard for me not to hate you now, when I see what you are going to be the cause of. If your case had come before Canute the man, you would have received the answer you expect. But it is your luck that Canute the man is dead, and you stand before Canute the King. Hear then my answer: By all the laws of war, the land belongs to Ivar’s son; and had he regained it while war ruled, I had not taken it from him, though the Witan itself commanded me. But instead of regaining it, he lost it.” He stretched a forbidding hand toward Rothgar, feeling without seeing his angry impulse. “By what means matters not; battles have turned on a smaller thing, and the loyalty of those we have protected is a lawful weapon to defend ourselves with. The kinsman of Ivar a second time lost his inheritance, and the opportunity passed forever. For now it is time to remember that this is not war, but peace; and in times of peace it is not allowed to take a man’s land from him unless he has broken the law or offended honor, which no one can say this Englishman has done. What concerns war-time is a thing by itself; as ruler over laws and land-rights, I cannot give one man’s lands to another, though the one be a man I care little for, and the other is my foster-brother. Go back therefore, unhindered, Lord of Ivarsdale, and live in peace henceforth. I do not think it probable that I shall ever call you to my friendship, but when the time comes that there is need of a brave and honest man to serve the English people in serving me, I shall send for you. Beware you that you do not neglect the summons of one whom you have acknowledged to be your rightful King! Orvar, I want you to restore to him his weapon and see him on his way in safety. Your life shall answer for any harm that comes to him.”

With one hand, he struck down the murmur that was rising; with the other he made an urgent gesture of haste, which Orvar seemed to understand. Even while he was returning to the Lord of Ivarsdale his sword, he seized him by the arm and hurried him down the room, the Etheling walking like a man in a dream.

From the dusk of the rafters, the girl who loved him stretched out her hands to him in tender fare-well, but there was no more of anguish in the gesture. Gazing after him, the tears rose slowly to her eyes and rolled slowly down her cheeks, but on her mouth was a little smile whose wondering joy mounted to exaltation.

No need was there for her to hide either tear or smile, for no one of the women about her was so much as conscious of her existence. The murmur below was growing, despite the King’s restraining hand; and now, crashing through it in hideous discord, came a burst of jeering laughter from the Jotun. What words he also spoke they could not catch, but they heard the Danish cries sink and die, aghast, and they saw a score of English thanes spring upon him and drag him backwards. Above the noise of their scuffling, the King’s voice sounded stern and cold.

“While I act as law-man in my judgment hall, I will hear no disputing of my judgments. Whoso comes to me in my private chamber, as friend to friend, may tell his mind; but now I speak as King, and what I have spoken shall stand.”

Struggling with those who would have forced him from the room, Rothgar had no breath to retort with, but the words did not go unsaid because of that. Wherever scarlet cloaks made a bright patch, the human arras swayed and shook violently, and then fell apart into groups of angry men whose voices rose in resentful chorus:

“Such judgment by a Danish King is unexampled!” “King, are we all to expect this treatment?... This is the third time you have ruled against your own men ” “Sven you punished for the murder of an Englishman ” “Because you forced Gorm to pay his debt to an Englishman, he has lost all the property he owns.” “Now, as before, we want to know what this means.” “You are our chief, whose kingship we have held up with our lives ” “What are these English to you?"... “They are the thralls your sword has laid-under, while we are of your own blood ” “It is the strong will of us warriors to know what you mean ” “Yes, tell it plainly!"... “We speak as we have a right.” Snarling more and more openly, they surged forward, closing around the dais in a fiery mass.

In the cushions of the balcony, Leonorine hid her face with a cry; “They will murder him!” And Elfgiva rose slowly from her chair, her eyes dark with horror yet unable to tear themselves from the scene below. The mail-clad King no longer looked to her like a man of flesh and blood but like a figure of iron and steel, that the firelight was wrapping in unendurable brightness. His sword was no more brilliantly hard than his face, and his eyes were glittering points. The ring of steel was in his voice as he answered:

“You speak as you have a right, but you speak as men who have swines’ memories. Was it your support or your courage that won me the English crown? It may be that if I had waited until pyre and fire you would have done so, but it happened that before that time the English Witan gave it to me as a gift, in return for my pledge to rule them justly. My meaning in this judgment, and the others you dislike, is that I am going to keep that pledge. You are my men, and as my men you have supported me, and as my men I have rewarded you, no chief was ever more open-handed with property toward his following, but if you think that on that account I will endure from you trouble and lawlessness, you would better part from me and get into your boats and go back to my other kingdom. For I tell you now, openly and without deceit, that here henceforth there is to be but one rule for Angle and Dane alike; and I shall be as much their King as yours; and they shall share equally in my justice. You may like it or not, but that is what will take place.”

How they liked it was suggested by a bursting roar, and the scuffling of many feet as the English leaped forward to protect their new King and the Danes whirled to meet them, but the women in the gallery did not wait to see the outcome. In a frenzy of terror, Elfgiva dragged up the kneeling maids and herded them through the door.

“Go, before they get into the ante-room!” she gasped. “Do you not see that he is no longer human? We should be pleading with iron. Go! Before they tear down the walls!”