Up to this period we have availed ourselves of extracts from the Diary of Father Cuthbert; but the events of the following four years, as recorded in that record, although full of interest for the antiquarian or the lover of monastic lore, would possess scant interest for the general reader, and have also little connection with the course of our tale; therefore we will convey the information they contain, which properly pertains to our subject, in few words, and those our own, returning occasionally to the Diary.
The melancholy history of the times may be compressed, from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and other sources, in a few paragraphs.
Burning with revenge—for his own sister had fallen in the massacre on St. Brice’s night—Sweyn returned to England the following year (1003). He landed in Devonshire, took Exeter by storm, and returned to his ships laden with the spoil. Then he sailed eastward, landed again and ravaged Dorset and Wiltshire. Here the ealdorman Elfric met him with a large English army; but when he saw the foe he fell sick, or feigned to be so; and then the old proverb came true, “When the general fails, the army quails.” So the English looked on with fear and trembling, while Sweyn burnt Wilton and Salisbury, whence he returned to the sea laden with wealth and stained with blood; yet was not his revenge satisfied.
The following year East Anglia suffered as Wessex had suffered the year before. Ulfketyl, the ealdorman, gave them much money, hoping to buy peace from the merciless pagans. The result was as he might have expected. They took the money, laughing at his simplicity, and three weeks afterwards pillaged Thetford, and burnt it. Then Ulfketyl, who was a brave man, got an East Anglian army together, and fought the Danes, giving them the uncommon chastisement of a defeat, so that they escaped with difficulty to their ships.
The following year a famine so severe visited England, that even the Danes forebore to ravage so poor a land; but in 1006, the next year, they overspread Wessex like locusts. Here the action of our tale is resumed.
During this interval of four years in Aescendune there had been peace. Alfgar had been domesticated as one of the family, and was reported well of in all the neighbourhood. Diligent in the discharge of his religious duties, he was equally conspicuous in all warlike sports and exercises and in the chase, while he afforded much help to Elfwyn the thane in the management of the estate. In short, he had won his way to the hearts of all the family; and perhaps the report that he was the accepted suitor of the fair daughter of Aescendune, Ethelgiva, was not without foundation.
Ethelgiva was nearly his own age, and was a perfect type of that beauty which has ever distinguished the women of the Anglo-Saxon race. Her fair hair, untouched by artificial adornment, hung like a shower of gold around her shoulders, while her eyes were of that delicate blue which seemed to reflect the deep summer sky; but the sweet pensive expression of her face was that which attracted nearly all who knew her, and made her the object of general regard.