They hesitated, but for one moment in speechless surprise, then rushed forward.
“Alfgar!” cried the Prince.
“My son!” cried Father Cuthbert, “whence hast thou come? dost thou yet live?”
“Father; Prince; I live to warn you—the Danes, the Danes!” and he sank fainting into the arms of Herstan.
“Surely he raves,” said they all.
The porter here ventured to speak.
“My lord, please go to the front of the house and look over the water.”
Father Cuthbert and Edmund at once left the hall, followed by several others.
The mansion was seated on a considerable elevation; below them rolled the Isis; across the river a couple of miles of flat meadow land lay between them and the Synodune hills, and beyond the lessening range of those hills, on the southeast, they looked, and behold the smoke of the country went up as the smoke of a furnace.
The inhabitants of Clifton stood on the terrace in front of the hall, gazing upon the fiery horizon, wrapped in emotions of surprise and alarm. Living as they did in an unsettled age, and far more prepared than we should be for such a contingency, yet the sense of the rapid approach of a cruel and remorseless foe struck terror into many hearts.
But they had one amongst them to whom warfare and strife were a second nature—one in whom the qualities which form the hero were very fully developed. He gazed with sadness, but without fear, at the coming storm, and to their late patient the inmates of the hall turned for advice and aid in their dread emergency.
“What shall we do?” asked Herstan, gazing with indescribable feelings at those who clung to him for support.
“The case is clear as the day,” said the prince. “The storm I foretold in vain has broken over the land, and the levies are not ready to meet it. Listen; you may hear the sounds of alarm from Dorchester even here. They see their danger.”
The tolling of the alarm bells, the sound of distant shouts, the blowing of trumpets rolled in a confused flood of noise across the intervening space—a distance of between two and three miles—and manifested the intense alarm of the city, so cruelly aroused from dreams of peace.
“But what shall we do?”
“Defend the place if attacked; it is well adapted for defence. You have the river on one side, and a cliff no Dane could scale in the face of our battle-axes; on the other side, your earthworks and palisades keep the foe at a distance from the main building. How many able-bodied men are present now?”
“Happily we have all our force; the feast has brought them all here. There would be from sixty to seventy men, besides a score of boys.”
“And how are you provided with weapons?”
“Each man has a battle-axe, and there are scores of spears in the armoury.”