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"Odin sends out his Valkyries to choose the slain,” said the Viking Sigurd to his nephew, Gurth; “ I go, and may not return; you know my will — see, Gurth, that you do it.”
His hands were on the heads of two children of nine. He kissed them, and leapt to his yolle, in which two champions rowed him to his dragon-ship lying near. As the lug-sail bulged hugely to the breeze, and the long galley stepped, gay with gilt spar and purple flag, down the fjord, Sigurd, on the poop, turned from his steering-oar and waved a hand. The setting sun glittered on his rich war-gear. He stood looming big, a towering bulk, with the long tile-beard of old Assyrian kings, a silver wire showing here and there in the russet flow.
He waved his hand — his eighty rovers commenced the chant of a sea-song — and a bluff hid them from the bay.
The bay was at the inner end of the long, winding fjord. A greensward sloped gently up from the beach, crowned at the top with an edge of forest; and midway stood the low, widespread burg, or manor-house, of the Viking’s domain. To this turned Gurth, holding a hand of each of the children. So fast he walked that he dragged them; his grasp hurt them. Exultation was dancing in his heart and gloomy eye. He was master at last — perhaps for good — for Odin sends out his Valkyries, and Sigurd the Viking was but mortal man.
Gurth, at a time when most men were warriors, was not a warrior; one saw that in his face — a puffy face, dark as a Norman’s, seamed with deep lines, and hairless; with shifty dark eves, and a broken nose. His back stooped deeply. Standing by Sigurd, his head just reached the Viking’s shoulder.
He sat late that!light in the low, wide hall; around, on benches, lolled the residue of Sigurd’s retainers, drinking mead from horns. From the long hearths by the table sprang the fire-smoke to the open louvres in the roof. Gurth, brooding, sat at the table-head, fingering his embossed cup. Presently he sprang up, somewhat fuddled, and there was silence.
“ Men,” he said, “I am your overman now; if there be thrall, or churl, or champion here disputes that, let him say it. By the belt of Thor...” He glared cunningly round, but no one stirred.
“Sigurd,” he continued, “is gone a-Viking in Britland. When he may return, who knows? Meanwhile we have scarcity of much — of corn, fabrics, gold. Sigurd was a free-hand, a feaster, winking at sloth, so it were brave and bloody. I am for gathering together and husbanding. No idleness on the lands while I lord it here! Let every thrall do his sweating: everyone bring his share from land or sea. He who fails will know me better. I call a cheer! ”
Silence reigned. Malignity and a painful anxiousness contorted the face of Gurth. But, slowly, the men stood up and drank.
When a snore or two began to sound, he rose and glided across the courtyard. Frigga’s lamp, westering low, burned dim in the heavens. After passing three corridors, he tapped at a door, and was admitted into a chamber by old Gunhild, the vala of the burg. He sat near, peering into her face.
“ Well, now,” he said, “ have you wrought the spells for me? ”
The old dame nodded meaningly far within her wimple. She was dressed in white. From its cloudy pomp the setting moon shone through the window upon them.
“And is the good hap of Frey, vala, or the mischief of Loki to rule this life of mine? ” Gurth’s soft hands were writhing clammily together. An agony of interest gazed from his eyes upon the wrinkled, grave old face.
“Loki or Frey?" she said, looking far away; “ both, if you must know.”
“ Ah! tell me."
“ You will conquer the living."
His eyes glowed.
“ But beware of the dead.”
“ How! the dead you say? ”
The vala pointed a bent finger. In a corner, on two beds, lay the children. The hair of the girl, Gerda, spread rich over the coverlet like a mat of gold. The arm of young Hrolf, the son of Sigurd, lay under his head, the fist clenched.
“ If harm come to them,” said Gunhild, “All-father will see to it, I tell you."
Little Gerda was an orphan, the daughter of a neighbouring Jarl, a close comrade of Sigurd. The Jarl, dying, had committed her to Sigurd, together with his lands and burg. The last injunction of the Viking to Gurth had reference to the marriage of the children, as soon as they attained something like maturity. It was a project near to his heart, and a foreboding that this his expedition might be one of those unending voyages that brave men take at the call of Odin had lent stern emphasis to his command.
“ If harm come to them...” said Gunhild.
“ But look here, vala," coaxed Gurth, spreading his hands, “ I mean no harm to them! Harm, do you think? As for the boy, if his father comes not back, in a few Yules we send him Viking, where let him bide the chances of the sea-fight; and glorious, we all say, is death in the fight. As for the girl, seven, eight, passing summers will find her fit and marriageable. Harm, vala? Why should not I, myself... ’’
“ What? ”
“ Well — rain — marry her."
Gunhild looked calmly sidelong at the cunning, oily face.
“ And so make quite sure of the wealth of the dead Jarl, Gurth? ”
He chuckled low. “ A wish to get, and increase in store, is but natural to us all.”
“ Yet do you, Gurth,” she answered, shaking a warning finger, “curb well your lust for wealth! for if I read right the signs . . . but fie! Gerda is for none of your marrying. There is whiteness already in your hair.”
“ When — when will Sigurd return? ”
“ You mean to ask," she said bitingly, “ whether he will return at all.”
“ Well, put it so.”
“ But I may not tell you. All, even to the rain, is not revealed. But I know this, that he is of those high and great warriors who do return, though the world oppose them. And I say to you, Gurth, do your will and prosper; but beware of wrong to those
Gurth rose. A greyness of morning mingled now with the dark. He bent his knee, and walked away.
In nine years no one any longer expected Sigurd. The cruises of the Vikings were annual; and the bones of a hero absent nine years were well known to whiten on some shore, or roll with the tides of the ocean-flood.
Gurth, meanwhile, had “conquered the living.” The rovers disliked him, but the trophies of their excursions they laid at his feet. That slight, dark man acquired an iron power over them. They feared him. Ditlew, the Berserk, the jotun-furious, and least erect of all the spirits of the burg-guard, returning from a voyage on the Throndheim coast, and deeming himself ill-rewarded with his share of booty, deserted at dead of night, and sped fugitive, his horse burdened with stolen things.
Ditlew, a huge body ending in a tiny, broad-bearded head, had reached a point where fear of pursuit no longer troubled him; and at this point, springing from the dark of the forest, stood before him — Gurth. Ditlew did not suspect that Gurth was trembling with even chillier fears than he himself, although six thralls lurked near to protect him. The sword-arm of the brutish Berserk hung limp in the presence of this alert eye and all-divining brain. He returned submissively with Gurth, and from that night was a mere cringing cur, waiting upon the glance of his master. So, one by one, by force, by fraud, Gurth “conquered” them.
One, however, no device could tame. Young Hrolf, at seventeen, had been ordered to sail a-Viking. Dying to go, he had refused. Ditlew, at a glance from Gurth, dragged him to the bay. Not till the Norway coast was low on the horizon did they release him. At once Hrolf sprang from the poop. His return he announced by firing a shed on the crags, which was the watch-tower for the signalmen placed to flash approach of enemies by means of beacons on the heights. Gurth believed himself invaded, while Hrolf dried his scarlet-and-yellow Viking-clothes at the burning shed.
At eighteen no love of opposition could longer keep him from the sea-joy. Gerda, sprung gracious now like a young larch from the hill-side, did the clasp of his ring mail-coat, and with a little mock curtsey put “Tyrfing,” his grandfather’s falchion, into his hand. Hrolf stooped, and brushed with his lips the full pink bloom of her cheek. She hardly noticed the caress; but three days later, folding his clothes, he being then far away, she remembered, and faintly blushed.
So Hrolf had drunk delight of battle, and returned brown; and the brine had whipped him out a short, reddish beard. Gerda, at the signal, went fluttering down the fjord, and he, seeing her white dress, put oil‘ from his “schip,” and met her without the usual kiss; and they walked to the burg together.
Gurth, seeing them come, said: “ Not too hasty, my young birds! You make a hand- some pairing, and your wings grow fast, but I have a grave thought to clip them — and the time seems come.”
Half a mile off, in the forest-depth, spread a lakelet, on which swam a high-prowed shallop. Through many an autumn afternoon Gerda had drifted here among the sedge of the shallows, noting the cry of kittiwakes or the poise of tern, or gull, or osprey. And here, from behind a tree, two days after his coming back, Hrolf stood watching her. Why from behind a tree, he could not for the world have said. The lake was flooded with the after-gluth of the set sun, and in the midst Gerda, all glorified, unreal, her head sunk, her chest now and then heaving the ghost of a sigh, in the sort of gentle trouble with which the ducks heaved on the soft swell of the lake. Presently, by a glance almost intuitive, she saw the red sleeve peep, and turned pale — starting so, that the paddle slipped into the red water.
Hrolf, as if something momentous had happened, said to his tree: “ Odin! she’s dropped her oar! ״
He ran out then, shouting, to the shore.
“ Wait a bit, I am coming."
“ No, no," she cried from far.
“ What do you say? ”
“ Do not trouble.”
“ But what will you do? ”
“ It is all right.”
“ You will wet yourself.”
“ I? Not a bit.”
“You will. Oh why - "
“ I am coming.”
He plunged into the reedy slime, frighting
routs of scarts and whimbrels to shrill synods in the air. Swimming, he reached the oar, then, like a water-dog, towed it to the shallop. With strange commotion, apprehension,she saw him come, and half stood, turning red and pale. “ There, I said you would! ”
“ Would what? ”
“ Wet yourself.”
“ Well, of course...”
“ You said you wouldn’t.”
“Ha! ha! but I am quite used to all that, now.”
“ You are such a very old — Viking.”
“ I have killed my man.”
“ And you have a beard.”
“ And you are not the same, either.”
“ Who, I? why not? "
“I can’t make out. You seem so different since I have come back.”
“ I am very sorry for that, Hrolf. We were always such friends. Why different? ”
“ You look to me so much taller, and your eyes — how wonderfully blue your eyes are, Gerda! ” She cast them down, muttering something, looking upon the ebb and flow of her own travailing bosom. For the keen pang at her heart she could have cried aloud with joy.
“ And, look here ” — he was close to her. his hand on the gunwale — “you did not — you know — kiss me — when I came back.”
“ Who didn’t? ״
“ You didn’t.”
“ Why, Hrolf, are you sure? I thought-”
“ No, you didn’t, really. Don't you suppose I would be certain to remember? ”
“ You never asked, Hrolf.”
“ Well — but can I come in? ״
“No — don’t! Hrolf, don’t! you will upset - ”
“ Let me! ”
“ But you couldn’t, don’t you see - ”
“If you sit heavily over yonder, perhaps I could. ’
She went. He made an effort, but his long-legged mass was ponderous. The skiff cranked steeply. He gave it up.
“ Stupid shell! ” he said; “ you will find yourself in the water in no time, if I bear upon her.”
Gerda leant more heavily upon the other side.
“ Now, once more — try,” she said.
He tried again, and the next moment Gerda was in his arm in the water, his other hand clinging to the shallop’s kedl/
“ Well, now... ” was all he could gasp.
Her hair, wrapped thick about her head in the very manner of Eve, was hardly wet. She could swim like a fish. But her eyes were closed. The woman in her was, or pretended to be, a-faint.
“ Darling! Gerda! ” — he was kissing her on her lifted lips — “ What a clumsy bear — you will be ill, Gerda...”
She tightened her arms about him. Her eyes opened and smiled, and closed shudderingly again at the renewed storm of his lips. It was the great moment of her life, for which she had unconsciously lived, backward to which she would not cease to look.
Gurth, at the burg-door, seeing them approach bedraggled, walked to meet them. He noticed their faces, the new meaning in their eyes, the sweet complicity, and joy.
“ How now? ” he cried.
“ Oh, nothing — go away,” said Hrolf; “ fell into the water.”
Gurth said to himself: “ To-night.”
Then, close by Gerda, he whispered: — “To-night I want to speak to you — privately. You must come to the water-butt outside the burg, about nine — you hear?” The world swam in vague dream to her. She hardly heard, but answered —
At the burg she snatched her hand free, and ran to change. Then, in headlong haste, rushed into the sanctum of Gunhild, and fell prone at the vala's knees, burying away her burning face, trembling, trembling. Gunhild, rich-gifted in heart-insight understood, and stroked the gold, and bent her cheek to the hot ear, droning the rhythm: —
“ Marry me? ” said Gerda.
“ Ay, that,” said Gurth.
It was nine, near the water-butt.
She meant to laugh, and a sob burst from her lips. Oh, where was Hrolf? She longed to whisper it all to him, and watch the flush of his contempt.
Gurth held her wrist, his dark eyes alight.
“ No tremblings! no faintings and flutterings! You are mine. I have nurtured you for this. Not a word! If you rebel — if you tremble — I will cut off your hair, I will pinch and nip your pretty graces, and grind you to my will like corn beneath the quern — you hear? ”
“ But who are you that you dare...”
“ Silence! and him, too, remember — your young strutting cockerel — I’ll grind him if you resist me...”
“ Him! ” flushing up into noble scorn; “ why, he can protect himself and me from a thousand such as you, Gurth Hermodsson! ”
“ Go! ” he flung her from him; “ say a month from now, a whole month to ready yourself within. And, meanwhile, you will be watched, be sure. Now run and tell your vala, if you will, that it is I who swear it by the thunder of Thor! ”
And to the vala Gerda did run, and sobbed the tale into the sibyl’s ears. At midnight Gunhild stood alone, mumbling spells over a fire in a platter, and before morning a plan had matured in the world-wise old brain.
She had Hrolf into her room. At the news “ Tyrfing ” leapt out, and Hrolf was all for open war. But the vala, threatening and entreating, won him to a calmer mood.
“The will of Loki is set strongly against your ever having Gerda at all,” she said; “ everything is against you. Unless you have the manhood to curb that hot blood, you may give up hope and be done.”
He sat and listened. Her plan was flight. It seemed to her the only way of warding tragedy from the house of the Sigurdssons. The craft of Gurth she knew, his luck and knack of gaining an end; and she roused all her old dormant acuteness to a combat of wits with him. She was very feeble now — it would be her last fight, and she would fight it well.
So Hrolf and Gerda should be seen no more together, and on the third day Hrolf should pretend a journey to a neighbouring burg, and in the night the two should wait at appointed spots on the crags, Hrolf having secretly returned. She knew that Gurth’s spies watched them; but that night she would summon Gurth, and while they talked, Frid, one of her women, would bolt the door outside, so that Gurth would be her prisoner. Frid would then run and light a peat tire at the hack of the burg wall, a signal for the children to meet and ride away; for his spies not finding Gurth, would not dare or care to follow. Without danger the two could then fare away to Jarl Svegdir’s burg on the Ivan Fjord, who would not be slow to grant them asylum. Once wedded, their battle was more than half fought and won.
On that third night, then — a chilly wind blustering through the drizzly darkness — Gerda stood muffled, but wet, on the crags north of the fjord, while Hrolf watched from the southern cliffs. The hour appointed was about nine. But at ten no fire had shot up.
Gurth was walking up and down the hall, his hands behind his back. Every time he came to the door, he opened it slightly and looked out into the squall. Men lolled silent about the room. The long fires burned bright. The eye of Ditlew, the Berserk, with the sleepy fidelity of a watch-dog, followed every step of Gurth in his ceaseless, feline walk.
Toward eleven Hrolf said to himself: “ Beard of Thor! hut will it never come? " and Gerda, shivering, all haggard with fright, wept aloud: “Oh, some dreadful chance must surely have happened! ”
Gurth, stopping before Ditlew, said: “You are sure young Hrolf is back? ”
“ Yes,” answered Ditlew, “ I saw him.”
“ And the girl? "
“ Haeng, the house-churl, has had an eye upon her to-day.”
“ And where is Haeng? ”
“ I thought the lout was here.”
" No — you see; he is not," Gurth said, with a fiend’s smile. “ Get up now׳, and have the six horses I spoke of this morning ready at the door. And just take red brand from the fire, and kindle me a flame at the back of the burg-wall yonder.”
“Do it,” said Gurth, and continued his walk.
The hand-woman, Frid, knew nothing of the scheme by which she was to imprison Gurth, and now sat weaving in the woman's-quarter, amid a crowd of chat.
Hrolf was saying: “ Has Gunhild, then, played us false — ah, no — and yet...” when he saw the flare at the appointed spot, and crying, “good! — at last,” galloped through the forest to the other side. Near the cliff-edge, he leapt off, and found Gerda.
“ Quick now," he panted — “ ah, but how cold, my love! — the way through the forest...”
“ Dear Hrolf," she whispered, “ I have such a strange fear — why was the signal so late? — if harm should come to you..."
She began to weep. He took her in his arms to the horse, lifted her to the pillion, sprang up, and cantered down the hill-side.
A man, meanwhile, had crept from a cleft behind them and run to the burg. It was the house-churl Haeng. He rushed in, and whispered to Gurth: “ They are off — through the forest! ”
"To horse! to horse, you six!” cried Gurth, stamping, his eye flashing — “ young Hrolf and my ward, Gerda — the way through the forest! ”
Six fellows ran to the waiting horses, a couple snatching flambeaux from the sconces. As they entered the wood, they heard the tramp of Hrolfs horse before them. But it was doubly-weighted, and not the fleetest of the burg; nor was the chase long. Presently Hrolf was lying on his back in the foot-way, bound. But “Tyrfing ” had passed through Hieng, the house-churl, and had chasmed deep the shoulder of Ditlew, the Berserk.
The thought that rankled bitter as the gangrene of a knife-wound in the heart of Hrolf was this: “The vala has betrayed us — us, her own — her children! ” Gerda stood near, guarded, numb as marble.
Gurth, as soon as the men had galloped from the door, sped across the courtyard. His manner of going was singular; he ran, then for a moment stopped, hesitating, full of doubts; and ran, and stopped, and ran again. At last, when near the vala's chamber, he drew off his soft rivlins from his feet, and crept, on tip-toe, to her door. The door was fastened on the outside. With utter stealthiness Gurth undid the bolts. Fright and the triumph of his cunning fought for mastery in his working face. But fright was uppermost ,־ he had dared to do an awful thing! The vala had thought to imprison him, and he had imprisoned her. But she was the holy of the gods, and the weight of the act he had taken upon himself was tremendous. Having noiselessly undone the bolt, he crept backward, took his slippers, and pelted across the courtyard.
At the door, listening, he had heard the vala detail her whole scheme to Hrolf. Several plans had then passed through his brain; he might arrest the children at once; he might have men posted at the appointed spots to seize them separately. But the lust to emphasise his triumph, and make it striking, overmastered him. The lad, moreover, must be caught in the act of snatching his ward from his control, in order that the subsequent cruelties which he intended might find full justification in the eyes of the burg-men.
His delay of hours in kindling the fire for their meeting had been prompted by the mere wantonness of the tiger toying with its prey.
In the morning a woman, entering the vala's chamber, found her sitting, both hands stiffly clenched, a look of awful surprise and pride in her staring eyes. She, the long-honoured, the venerable, in her extreme old age, had been slain by an indignity. And Gurth had walked on tip-toe lest ears already dead should mark him — as the wicked flee when no man pursueth.
Success made of Gurth Hermodsson something very like a fiend — success and the death of the vala Gunhild. He had never dreamed of such a thing, and the incident upset and perverted him. A man believing himself under the curse of heaven, as Gurth now, tends to become deeply wicked, no longer sticking at trifles.
For three weeks Gerda and Hrolf, each wondering where the other was, were prisoners near each other in rooms of the burg. Ditlew, nursing his cleft arm, watched the ceaseless pacings and grinding teeth of Hrolf. Gerda, dishevelled, woe-begone, sat staring before her, refusing food. Twice, since the vain's burial, Gurth had visited her. She had sprung to a corner, a young roe at bay, hopeless, but ready to tear, if touched. To his talk of marriage, threats of force, the slight downward curve of her upper lip gave silent answer.
“ If the boy were dead! ” thought Gurth. But he did not see his way, as yet, to cold murder. The exigency was not pressing enough for that; and the burg-men, though subdued, were yet men, brave, some of them generous, and might find murder intolerable. But the thought put into his head a triumphant idea, and the next day Ditlew, by instruction, slipped into Gerda’s room.
He spoke kindly; told of Hrolf; that he was close to her, confined like her. She drew near to him, drinking in his words. He was close to her, then!
“ But I come as a friend to warn you,” said Ditlew; “ I come secretly — no one knows. There’s near danger a-hanging over the youth’s head.”
“ Danger! ”
“ Well, you know Gurth Hermodsson. He is a man must have his way. He does not say anything, but I know well enough what he will do, if you hold out against him.”
“Do? — to Hrolf, you mean? "
“ Ay. If the lad’s in the way, he will be removed, I tell you. Every moment the danger is near him. Perhaps this very night — in his sleep ”
“Oh!” she leapt to him, caught him by his two sleeves, fell to her knees — “ Ditlew! you are a man! save him for me! Have you a tiger’s heart, good Ditlew? Have I ever done you harm? He is all I have, Ditlew — my life — save him, Ditlew...”
“ Ah, now you rave,” he said, “ what can I do? ”
He undid her grasp and went away, leaving her faint on the floor.
In an hour she sent a message to Gurth, saying that she was prepared to marry him on the morrow.
And on the morrow an altar on the greensward ran red with oxen blood, and the new vala chanted before it, and Gurth at last was master, beyond the tricks of chance, of the old Jarl’s lands.
As if half-ashamed of the mummery, he had performed his part stammeringly, shyly awkward, but afterwards walked blithely to the burg, shrilling high a summoning horn. For Gerda he had taken a silken robe from the storehouse, which she wore. To everything she had acquiesced with spiritless abandonment, stipulating only that Hrolf should not be released that day, and on the next that she should be conveyed away to her father's burg, and be set free, unharmed.
And beside Gurth, at the table-head, she sat through the afternoon. And freer and freer flowed the mead, and higher swelled the tumult of good cheer and forgetfulness of sorrow, till Gurth, mollified by his cup, turned for the first time to his marble bride, and said —
“ Take heart, fair face! No mischief is meant you. There breathes no more harmless a rascal than thy old Gurth to them who let him go his way in quietness."
And, as if in answer, a faint cheer came wafted from the bay. In a momentary lull of the festal noise it came, and everyone seemed to hear. A silence fell. Gurth looked, questioning, round.
At the moment a churl came running to him, and whispered —
“ Sigurd Sigurdsson is come back, and half his champions with him. He is but now landed on the bay.”
The drinking-horn dropped, and Gurth fell, collapsed, head-prone upon the table, shot in the breast by fate. It might be said that he swooned — the solid world rushed from him. But only for a minute. Then his subtle nature regained itself. This wound was not mortal.
He sprang, straight, sober. He beckoned to Ditlew. He whispered to Gerda, his eyes rolling round the room: “ Go now with Ditlew; later I will come to you." He whispered to Ditlew: “ Lock her fast in the same place, and look well to the lad, too, and keep the keys. Sigurd is come. Later, keep close to me. I may want you.” Then, the Berserk and his charge having passed out, he lifted his voice: “ Men! good news for you. Sigurd Sigurdsson is here. Let us bid him hearty welcome, say I. But as to this marriage of mine, I would myself first tell of it to Sigurd. See, then, that ye say nothing. Remember! ”
He turned, followed by the men. Half way on the sward he met Sigurd. The Viking in ten years had grown old. His beard was white, his hair was. white. But that heroic frame stood still erect. His eye was calm, and the majesty of the world-warrior victorious over chance, and life, and death, crowned the man, and ennobled the glance of his brow to something akin with godlikeness.
“ Ah, Gurth Hermodsson! " he said, blithely calm; “good sight to see.’’
His hand rested on Gurth’s shoulder.
“ And good sight, you, to see,’’ said Gurth — “ and strange.’’
“ Well, Gurth, the world is the field of battle for us poor godsons, and a man must even fight his best in it, and die. I have been away in Britland, joined to a host of Saxon men, fighting with Scot, fighting with Piet, fighting here, fighting there. I saw the work was worth doing, and in the gods’ name I went and did it. But, man, the children! ’’
“ The children? ” said Gurth.
“ Ay, man."
For thirty long seconds Gurth hesitated. When his lips next moved, he was a lost soul.
“ The children? They are but lately married. Are gone away together to the old Jarl’s burg."
He knew that in a day, at most, that lie must be detected — if Sigurd lived a day.
“ Well said! ’’ cried Sigurd, and patted the shoulder beneath his hand. They entered the burg. The other men, interchanging greetings, trooped in. Sigurd and Gurth sat!part, deep in colloquy.
“ But this is a merry day with you," said Sigurd, nodding at the table.
“ Yes; a holiday for the cullions here. But is to treasure, now. Have you come back full? "
“ Full, Gurth, and over-full. And a cargo, over and above, is in keeping for me at Lerwick in Hjaltland, where I last year left it."
Gurth’s eyes kindled.
“ Who keeps it? ”
“ Old Ragnar, who Jarls it now at Lerwick."
“ But it should be sent for."
“Let it lie, man. I am weary, Gurth. of;poil and treasure, of sea-flash and sword-flash. Let it lie."
“ I will go and get it.”
“ As you will.”
“ This very day."
“ As you will, man."
Sigurd’s eyes were looking far away, as men, after a long night of storm, watch for morning. The goad which was urging Gurth was the necessity to be far — at once — far from the burg! and to be known by all men to be far.
Before nightfall he had forty of the men on board the Skidblednir, a swift dragon. Below decks, alone with Ditlew, he smuggled a phial containing a green liquid in the Berserk’s hand.
‘‘There is enough for two,” he said; “if you fail, you had better drink the rest."
Ditlew and others rowed to shore, and the Skidblednir moved down the fjord.
Sigurd, at supper that night, felt a stomach-gripe, and broke into the sweat of death. He was supported to his old chamber. Through the hours, from those lips which never uttered groan, burst groan on groan. Toward morning a shriek went piercing through· the burg, like the strong hinny of a horse in pain. But the dawn brought mercy.
Men knew not what to think. It was so sudden. None dreamed of foul play. Gurth, who might have had motive, was away. His chosen champions lingered round the bed, full of low-spoken anecdotes of his worth, his kingly rage, and social heart. He was the greatest of the Vikings, they said; the type of a good man.
On the third morning, Hrolf and Gerda stood with the rest over him, for the new-returned champions had insisted upon their release. On a bier they bore him, and laid him out on a pyre of wood raised high on the poop of his long old dragon-ship, placing beside him his gold helmet, shield, and sword. His great bulk, thus lifted up, lay conspicuous in its tunic of purple silk. The grey morning dribbled a cold rain, which trickled steadily from the closed eyes and long beard, and flowed in streams from the vast lug-sail.
Down the length of the fjord they towed her, and moored her to a pile on the beach of an open bay near by. Here, all day, the long, shallow surfs came crowding it, roaring monotonous dirges; and with every heave of the bow to meet their frothy swarming, the dragon with her stern-end struck the sand, and gently shook her freight. Toward nightfall the shore was thronged with rovers; and just as the sun’s vanishing rim burst, in a final glory, through the dun day and set the whole sea-breadth ablaze, some applied torches to the under-curve of the stern; others undid the moorings; others, pushing, launched her forth. Her red sail bellied to the wind, and she went flaming down the sunset track. From the shore, with spiritless hand-wave, they called him, in chorus, a last farewell.
Such, as we know, was the manner in which the Norsemen were accustomed to commit to the sea the bodies of their kings.
But, in the flurry of the moment, the dragon had somehow been pushed off before the hold of the flames was complete. She had hardly burst into the region of rough green swell, when the wash of the billows began to tell upon the fire. It burned low, smoulderingly. Farther out she butted into a surging wave, and came out of it scorched, but seaworthy, and without a spark. The body was unsinged. The rovers, hardly now observing, could not perceive from the distance that the sunset Haines which wrapped her were not the flames which destroy.
Old Gunhild, by some lucky stroke of divination, had said to Gurth: “ You will conquer the living — but beware of the dead."
From that part of the Norway coast to the Hjaltland Isles, there and back, was a run of six or seven days. On the morning of the fifth day out Gurth was returning loaded, the centre of a horizon of sea. The morning came darkly, convulsed with squalls, the wind blowing somewhat from the W. of S.; the Skidblednir, close-hauled, was steering E., and labouring heavily. At seven a man rushed below and woke Gurth, with the news that a ship, larger than the Skidblednir, perhaps some hostile pirate keel, bearing upon them straight before the wind, had been sighted. Gurth was a poltroon, and, had his ship been empty, he would have shunned any possibility in the nature of blows; loaded as she was, he sprang from the couch, apprehension widening his eyes, crying —
“ Quick! Tell them to put out every oar, and run before the wind."
In three minutes the Skidblednir was flying N.E. from the foam of her own wide wake. In an hour the other ship, from which no oars were put out, had disappeared, and Gurth consented to resume his course. They breathed from the oars, and drew her again to the wind. But they had somewhat lost count of their position.
At noon, through the murk of the sunless day, they sighted that ship again, hearing down upon them.
Away, then! northward, northward. Once more let the oars march regimental over the broad sea-room, and the blast load the loosened lug! With every swoop of the thirty blades, Gurth poised his body forward, as if to help her flight. His heart whispered to the knave strange fears. His hands were as cold as the hands of Sigurd.
At three they breathed afresh. But a terrific storm was then raging. No one on the Skidblednir had now any notion where they were, whither they went. A half-darkness, bleak as doom, encompassed them. But at about the time when the sun, had it been visible, would have been seen to set, the gloom lifted a little just south of them, and beneath the raised curtain they dimly beheld — the ship!
Away, then! They needed not now the exhortings of Gurth to row for life. In ever, bosom thrilled a fear never felt before, nameless, vague. And now, down rushed suddenly upon them the raven draperies of blade:! night. The last sight that met their gaz: was the spectre-ship.
They were near the Norway sea-board, and did not know it. They drove straight upt׳n one of the huge whirlpools which swirl in frothy frenzy along that coast. A deafening roar grew upon them, and a few minutes later the Skidblednir twisted suddenly from the control of her oars, and shot like an arrow into a vastly-wide circular flight. Some were at once tossed like feathers into the reeling water; most, hurled to the deck, clung to whatever they could grasp. Racing, two cable lengths behind them, was the ship which had hunted them to their doom, invisible in the perfect darkness, till a lamp, shattered in the fore-hold of the Skidblednir by her mad flight, sent forth a vomit of red reek and flame. The light revealed high above them a twisting and reeling horizon: below a monstrous pit, toward which, in ever-narrowing whorls, they were flying round and round a vast inclined plane of boiling surge. And now, masses of flying flame streaming at! from the Skidblednir having settled upon the other ship, she, too, bloomed up into red blossom; and to Gurth Hermodsson, looking abroad half-raised on his poop, was revealed the form of Sigurd lying grand and calm on his pyre. At this sight, Hermodsson sent up to heaven a shriek distinct above the roaring of the gulf — and dropped. When the Skidblednir rushed bow downward in the abyss lie was already a corpse.
“ But,” said Hrolf, a year afterwards, ‘,what if Gurth Hermodsson some day turn up. He may be alive all the time, you know. Then I should no longer be your husband.”
“That is true,” answered Gerda demurely: “ we must talk the matter over together — when he comes.”