Seated in a high-backed, cross-legged chair—his majestic form commanding honour and respect—he heard one after another causes that came before him, reserved for his judgment, questions of heirship, disputes about cattle, complaints of thievery, encroachments on land; and Bertram, listening with the interest that judgment never fails to excite, was deeply impressed with the clear-headedness, the ready thought, and the justice of the decision, even when the dispute lay between Saxon and Norman, always with reference to the laws of Alfred and Edward which he seemed to carry in his head.
Indeed, ere long, two Norman knights, hearing of the Atheling’s return, came to congratulate him, and lay before him a dispute of boundaries which they declared they would rather entrust to him than to any other. And they treated him far more as a prince than as a Saxon churl.
They willingly accepted his invitation to go in to the feast of welcome, and a noble one it was, with music and minstrelsy, hospitality to all around, plenty and joy, wassail bowls going round, and the Atheling presiding over it, and with a strange and quiet influence, breaking up the entertainment in all good will, by the memory of his sweet sister Margaret’s grace-cup, ere mirth had become madness, or the English could incur their reproach of coarse revelry.
“And,” as the Norman knight who had prevailed said to Bertram, “Sir Edgar the Atheling had thus shown himself truly an uncrowned King.”
IV. WHO SHALL BE KING?
The noble cloisters of Romsey, with the grand church rising in their midst, had a lodging-place, strictly cut off from the nunnery, for male visitors.
Into this Edgar Atheling rode with his armed train, and as they entered, some strange expression in the faces of the porters and guards met them.
“Had my lord heard the news?” demanded a priest, who hastened forward, bowing low.
“No, Holy Father. No ill of my sister?” anxiously inquired the Prince.
“The Mother Abbess is well, my Lord Atheling; but the King—William the Red—is gone to his account. He was found two eves ago pierced to the heart with an arrow beneath an oak in Malwood Chace.”
“God have mercy on his poor soul!” ejaculated Edgar, crossing himself. “No moment vouchsafed for penitence! Alas! Who did the deed, Father Dunstan?”
“That is not known,” returned the priest, “save that Walter Tyrrel is fled like a hunted felon beyond seas, and my Lord Henry to Winchester.”
Young David pressed up to his uncle’s side.
“Sir, sir,” he said, “what a time is this! Duke Robert absent, none know where; our men used to war, all ready to gather round you. This rule will be ended, the old race restored. Say but the word, and I will ride back and raise our franklins as one man. Thou wilt, too, Bertram!”
“With all mine heart!” cried Bertram. “Let me be the first to do mine homage.”