And so the matter was settled.
CHAPTER XV. THE ROYAL GUEST.
It was the morning of the first of August, and the sun, dispersing the early mists, gave promise of a bright summer day.
The inhabitants of Aescendune, lord and vassals alike, were astir from the early daybreak; for that day the harvest was to be commenced, and the crops were heavier than had been known for many a year. A good harvest meant peace and prosperity in those times, a bad harvest famine, and perhaps rebellion; for if the home crop failed, commerce did not, as now, supply the deficiency.
So it was with joy and gladness that the people went forth that day to reap with their sharp sickles in their hands, while the freshness of the early morn filled each heart insensibly with energy and life. The corn fell on the upland before their sharp strokes, while behind each reaper the younger labourers gathered it into sheaves.
Old Ella stood in their midst looking on the familiar scene, while his pious heart returned many a fervent thanksgiving to the Giver of all good. Under the shade of some spreading beeches, which bordered the field, the domestics from the manor house were spreading the banquet for the reapers—mead and ale, corn puddings prepared in various modes with milk, huge joints of cold roast beef—for the hour when toil should have sharpened the appetite of the whole party.
By the side of his father stood young Alfred administering with filial affection to all his wants, as if he felt constrained to supply a double service in his own person now that Elfric was no more, or, at least, dead to home ties.
Thicker and thicker fell the wheat, and they thought surely such heavy sheaves had never fallen to their lot before.
At last the blowing of a horn summoned all the reapers to their dinner, and when Father Cuthbert had said grace, the whole party fell to—the thane at the head of them; and when the desire of eating and drinking was appeased, the labourers lay on the grass, in the cool shade, to pass away the hour of noontide heat, before resuming their toil.
“Father,” said Alfred, “a horseman is coming.”
“My old eyes are somewhat dim; I do not see any one approaching.”
“Nor I, as yet, but I hear him; listen, he is just crossing the brook; I can hear the splashing.”
“Some royal messenger, perhaps, from Edgar or from Edwy, my son. I fear such may be the case; yet I wish I could be left in peace, afar from the strife which must convulse the land, if the ill-advised brothers cannot agree to reign—the one over Mercia, the other over Wessex.”
“We have repeatedly said that we should be quite neutral, father.”
“And yet, my son, we offend both parties, and, I fear me, we shall be forced to defend ourselves in the end. But God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. And now that I am old I can lean more and more upon Him. He will be a father to you, my Alfred, when these hoary hairs are hidden in the grave.”