CHAPTER I. “THIS IS THE FOREST PRIMEVAL.”
It was a lovely eventide of the sunny month of May, and the declining rays of the sun penetrated the thick foliage of an old English forest, lighting up in chequered pattern the velvet sward thick with moss, and casting uncertain rays as the wind shook the boughs. Every bush seemed instinct with life, for April showers and May sun had united to force each leaf and spray into its fairest development, and the drowsy hum of countless insects told, as it saluted the ears, the tale of approaching summer.
Two boys reclined upon the mossy bank beneath an aged oak; their dress, no less than their general demeanour, denoted them to be the sons of some substantial thane. They were clad in hunting costume: leggings of skin over boots of untanned leather protected their limbs from thorn or brier, and over their under garments they wore tunics of a dull green hue, edged at the collar and cuffs with brown fur, and fastened by richly ornamented belts: their bows lay by their sides, while quivers of arrows were suspended to their girdles, and two spears, such as were used in the chase of the wild boar, lay by them on the grass. They had the same fair hair, which, untouched by the shears, hung negligently around neck and shoulder; the same blue eyes added an indescribable softness to the features; they had the same well-knit frames and agile movements, but yet there was a difference. The elder seemed possessed of greater vivacity of expression; but although each well-strung muscle indicated physical prowess, there was an uncertain expression in his glance and in the play of his features, which suggested a yielding and somewhat vacillating character; while the younger, lacking the full physical development, and somewhat of the engaging expression of his brother, had that calm and steady bearing which indicated present and future government of the passions.
“By Thor and Woden, Alfred, we shall be here all night. At what hour did that stupid churl Oscar say that the deer trooped down to drink?”
“Not till sunset, Elfric; and it wants half an hour yet; see, the sun is still high.”
“I do think it is never going to set; here we have been hunting, hunting all the day, and got nothing for our pains.”
“You forget the hare and the rabbit here.”
“Toss them to the dogs. Here, Bran, you brute, take this hare your masters have been hunting all day, for your dinner;” and as he spoke he tossed the solitary victim of his own prowess in the chase to the huge wolfhound, which made a speedy meal upon the hare, while Alfred threw the rabbit to the other of their two canine companions.
“I would almost as soon have lost this holiday, and spent the time with Father Cuthbert, to be bored by his everlasting talk about our duties, and forced to repeat ‘hic, haec, hoc,’ till my head ached. What a long homily [ii] he preached us this morning—and then that long story about the saint.”