It was seldom that the old thane expressed his devotion in this strain; it seemed to Alfred as if there were a foreboding of coming trial in it, and he felt as when a cloud veils the face of the sun in early spring.
The messenger now came in sight—a tall, resolute looking man, well armed and well mounted, and evidently bound for the hall. But when he saw the party beneath the trees he bent his course aside, and saluting the thane with all deference, inquired if he spoke to Ella of Aescendune.
“I am he,” replied Ella. “I trust you are not the bearer of other than good tidings; but will you first refresh yourself, since it is ill talking between the full and the fasting?”
“With gladness do I accept your bounty; for I have ridden since early dawn, and rider and horse are both exhausted.”
“There is corn for your horse, and food and wine for his master.
“Uhred, take charge of the steed.
“Alfred, my son, place that best joint of beef before the stranger, and those wheaten cakes.
“I drink to you, fair sir.”
The messenger seemed in no hurry to open his tale until he had eaten and drunk, and it was with the greatest patience that the thane, who was one of nature’s gentlemen, awaited his leisure.
At length the messenger looked up, and pushed his wooden platter aside.
“I have come to be the bearer of good tidings to you, noble thane. Edwy, your king, with a small troop of horse, his royal retinue, proposes honouring your roof with his presence, and asks bed and board of his loyal subject, Ella of Aescendune.”
“The king’s will is my law; and since it pleases the son of my late beloved master, King Edmund, to visit me, he shall find no lack of hospitality. But may I ask what sudden event has brought him into the heart of our country?”
“He comes to chastise rebellion. A large force of several thousand men crosses the river a few miles higher this evening, and, not to incommode you with numbers, King Edwy comes apart from his followers.”
Although he foresaw grave inconvenience, and even danger, in the proposal, yet Ella could not appear churlish and inhospitable; therefore, learning from the messenger that the king might be expected before sunset, he returned home to make such preparations as should suggest themselves for the entertainment of his royal master, for so he still would have styled Edwy, deeply as he felt he had been wronged by him.
“Father,” said Alfred, as he walked homeward by his side, “think you Elfric will be in his train? I wish he may be.”
“Alas, my son! I fear I shall never see poor Elfric again. My mind always seems to misgive me when I think of him; and I have so strong a foreboding that he has received my last blessing, that I cannot overcome it. No, Alfred, I fear we shall not see Elfric tonight.”
No more was said upon the subject; they reached the hall in good time, and startled the lady Edith by their tidings.