“See, they come to drag me thither; they all come—Edward; the victims whom I slew sixteen years agone in Cumbria; the slain on St. Brice’s day; Elfhelm of Shrewsbury and his sons, with their empty sockets, and their eyes hanging down; Sigeferth, Morcar, and a thousand others. See, Dunstan bids them all await me at the judgment seat. I will not come; nay, they drag me.
“Edric, wilt thou not answer for me now? Accursed be thy name, accursed!”
His frightful maledictions overpowered the supplications around his bed; but they died away in silence—silence so long continued, that suspicion soon became certainty.
Ethelred the Unready was dead.
“We must leave him to God’s mercy,” said the bishop, as he closed the eyes, while the wife and children of the unhappy king sobbed around. “He knoweth whereof we are made; He remembereth that we are but dust.”
Yet he trembled as he spoke, and, kneeling down, completed with faltering voice the office for the commendation of the departed soul.
CHAPTER XX. THE MIDNIGHT FLIGHT.
So soon as the news of the death of Ethelred travelled abroad, the bishops, abbots, ealdormen, and thanes of southern England, despairing of the cause of the house of Cerdic, met together at Southampton, and renouncing Ethelred and his descendants, elected Canute to be their king, while he swore that both in things spiritual and temporal he would maintain their liberties.
But the citizens of London were of nobler mould, and, disdaining submission, chose Edmund to be their king. A council was at once held, and it became apparent that the allegiance of the greater part of Wessex depended upon Edmund’s prompt appearance amongst them, while, on the other hand, the rapid approach of Canute made his presence in the city very essential to the safety of the inhabitants.
Up rose a noble thane, and spake his mind.
“Surely we can defend our own city until the valiant Edmund brings us aid. We have kept off Canute before, and his father before him, and we can do as much again. Meanwhile Edmund will soon have all Wessex at his back, and Canute will find his match for once.”
The words of the gallant speaker found their echo in many a breast, and it was decided that Edmund should be advised to hurry into Wessex, and leave London to defend itself.
A deputation from the council at once waited upon Edmund, and in the name of the city, and, as they took the liberty of adding, of every true man in England, they proferred him his father’s crown. Like the citizens of a certain modern capital, they constituted themselves the representatives of the nation.
Edmund, who certainly did not lack confidence, and who could not help knowing that he alone was able to cope with the Danes, took scant time to consider their proposal.
“I accept the crown,” he said; “a thorny one it is like to prove, but I thank you for your love and trust.”