At midday they returned to the customary dinner, which was not of such inferior quality as one would now expect to find in such a place, contrasting strongly with the fare on the tables of the rich: then there was far more equality in the food of rich and poor, and Alfred had no cause to complain of the cowherd’s table.
Then he sauntered forth again with Oswy, and strove to amuse himself with the book of nature; till just at eventide, as he was longing earnestly that he could know the fate of his fugitive friends, they heard the sound of a horse at full trot, and soon the guide appeared in sight.
Alfred rose up eagerly.
“Are they safe?” he cried.
“Yes, quite safe; they had got a mile out to sea when their pursuers got to the beach; I saw it all, hidden in a woody hill above.”
“Did they try to follow?”
“They could not, there was no boat: I never saw men in such a rage.”
Alfred felt as if a weight were removed from his heart, then he looked up in the face of the guide.
“Will you guide us home?” he said.
“Yes,” was the reply; “the holy abbot particularly desired me to return to his son Alfred, and to take care of him on his journey home; and if you will have me as your guide, I will warrant you a safe journey to Aescendune, for we are not worth following.”
“Then let us start tomorrow morning,” said Alfred, longing to be once more in his old father’s presence, and to cheer his mother’s heart.
They returned together to the cowherd’s cottage, and slept peacefully that night. Early in the morning they retook the path to the Foss Way, crossing the stream at a ford higher up. Their horses being well rested and full of spirit for the journey, they passed Glastonbury, still empty and desolate, in the middle of the day, and retraced by easy stages the whole of Alfred’s previous route from home.
After a week’s easy travelling, by the blessing of Providence, they reached the neighbourhood of Aescendune: it had never looked so lovely, so home-like to Alfred as then. He felt as if every spot were full of joy, and as he was recognised by person after person, by his favourite dogs as they bounded forth, and finally fell into his mother’s arms at the gate of the hall, he experienced feelings which in these days, when we are all so familiar with the thought of travel, can seldom be realised.
Then he had to recount his adventures that night, after supper, to an admiring audience, who listened enraptured to his account of the holiness of Dunstan and the cruelty of his foes. But it will easily be imagined that he made no allusion to his rencontre with Elfric; and Oswy, instructed by his young master, was equally silent.
He had quite made up his mind to persevere in this course: it could do no good to tell father or mother how grievously Elfric had fallen, and how nearly he had been the involuntary instrument of his brother’s death.