I have seen the progresses of kings before this and since, and often it has been that after their passing there has been grumbling, and the hearty hope that the long and greedy train which ate men out of house and home, borrowed their best horses, and otherwise made a little famine in their wake, might never come that way again. But this Ethelbert left, as it were, a track of happiness across England, in hall and in village, in cot and in forest. He had ridden with so small a train that he might overburden none of those who had to entertain him on his way, and he stayed nowhere overlong. Everywhere he seemed to leave smiles and wishes that he would honour that house or that town again on his return, and not a man to whom he had spoken, if it were but a word of thanks, would ever forget how Ethelbert the Anglian looked on him with that kindly glance of his.
CHAPTER VIII. HOW ETHELBERT CAME TO THE PALACE OF SUTTON.
By Ely and Huntingdon and Northampton, and so through the very heart of England, across the sweet Avon at Stratford, our way took us, under trees that had their first leaves fresh and sweet on them, and past orchards pink and white, with the bees busy among the bloom. I had seen many a fair country beyond the sea in the wide realms of Carl, but none so sweet as this to my mind. The warm rain that came and stayed us now and then but made it all the sweeter; and I mind, with a joy that bides with me, the hours of waiting in old halls and quiet monasteries.
That black cloud of fears cleared away presently, for it was in all truth a very bridal procession in which we rode. Everywhere the news went before us that hither came the well-loved king to bear away the sweet daughter of Mercia, and from town and hamlet the bells greeted us, and the folk donned their holiday gear to come to meet us. I had not known that the name of Ethelbert, young as he was, could have been so held in love across the land. But Father Selred told me that never had been such a king as he, as there surely had never been such promise of the days when he was the heir to the throne.
First in all he was in the minds of every man who knew him, whether in war or peace, council or chamber, and maybe he was the only one who did not know it. I learned much of him in that ride, and always with a growing love of him and a deeper wonder. He thought for every one but himself.
Nor was there a church, however small, which he passed on that happy journey toward his bride which was not the richer and brighter for some gift of his, left on the altar after the morning mass, which always began our day, or given quietly after the evensong which ended it. One might know his road now by the words of the people, who will say with more than pride that once Ethelbert crossed the threshold of their church and gave this or that gift. I have seen richer gifts given, and heard more words said; but what he gave seemed always that which was wanted, and the word he spoke was always the best that could have been. And I have wondered at the mighty churches which Carl the Great had reared and was still rearing, but in some wise it seemed to me that the way of Ethelbert was of more worth.