Chapter 4 | A Bee in His Cell | The King's Sons

Chapter Four.

It was in the afternoon of that same day that young Alfred loitered about the place feeling very lonely and miserable and, truth to tell, repentant because he had not joined his brothers in the glorious chase they must be having. Taken altogether, he felt very miserable.

But he was not alone in that, for, going to the window, he saw Father Swythe walking slowly down the garden amongst the Queen’s flower and herb beds, with his head bowed down and his hands behind him, looking unhappy in the extreme.

Alfred turned away, feeling guilty, and went into another room, when, to his surprise, he came suddenly upon Osburga, his mother, seated alone by her embroidery-frame, her needle and silk in her hands, but not at work.

She was sitting back thinking, with the tears slowly trickling down her cheeks.

Alfred felt that this was a most miserable day, and, with his heart feeling more sore than ever, he crept softly behind his mother’s chair and, quite unobserved, sank down upon his knees to lay his brown and ruddy cheek against her hand.

The Queen started slightly, and then, raising her hand, she laid it upon Alfred’s fair, curly locks and began to smoothe them.

“Why are you crying, mother?” whispered the boy at last, as he felt that he must say something, although he knew perfectly well the reason of his mother’s sorrow.

“I am crying, Fred,” she said, in a deep sad voice, “because the days go by and no messenger comes to tell me how the King your father fares; and more tears came, my boy, because now that I am in such pain and sorrow I find that my sons, instead of trying to be wise and thoughtful of their duties, grow more wild and wilful every day.”

Alfred drew a deep catching breath which was first cousin to a sob, and the Queen went on:

“I want them to grow up wise and good, and I find that not only do they think of nothing except their own selfish ends, but they behave ill to one of the gentlest, kindest, and best of men—one who is as wise and learned as he is modest and womanly at heart. It makes mine sore, my son, at such a time as this, for there is nothing better nor greater than wisdom, my boy, and he who possesses it leads a double life whose pleasures are without end. But I am in no mood to scold and reproach you, Fred. You are the youngest and least to blame. Still, I had looked for better things of you all than that I should hear that you openly defy Father Swythe, and have made him come to me to say that he can do no more, and to ask to be dismissed. There, Fred, leave me now. I will talk to your brothers when they return from the chase.”

Alfred’s lips were apart, ready to utter words of repentance; but they seemed to stick on the way, leaving him dumb.

Feeling more miserable than ever, he stole out, looking guilty and wretched, and went straight into the garden for a reason of his own.

But it was not to pick flowers or to gather fruit. He wanted to see the gentle old monk; for he felt as if he could say to him what he could not utter to the Queen. But there was another disappointment awaiting him. Swythe was not there, and the boy stamped his foot angrily.

“Oh,” he said, half aloud and angrily, “how unlucky I am!”

Just then there came as if out of one of the low windows looking upon the garden a deep-toned sound such as might have been made by a very big and musical bee, and the boy’s face brightened as he turned and made for the door, crossed the hall, and then went down a stone passage, to stop at a door, whose latch he lifted gently, and looked in, letting out at once the full deep tones he had heard in the garden floating out of the open window.

There was Swythe sitting at a low table beneath the window with his back to him, singing a portion of a chant whose sweet deep tones seemed to chain the boy to the spot, as he listened with a very pleasurable sensation, and watched the monk busily turning a big flattened pebble stone round and round as if grinding something black upon a square of smoothly-polished slab.

Alfred watched eagerly, and his eyes wandered about the cell-like room devoted to Swythe—a very plain and homely place, with a stool or two and a large table beneath the window, while one side was taken up by the simple pallet upon which the monk slept.

All at once the chanting ceased, the grinding came to an end, and, as if conscious of someone being in the room, the monk turned his head, saw Alfred watching him, and smiled sadly.

“Ah, my son,” he said; “back from the chase so soon?”

“No,” said Alfred huskily. “I did not go.”

“Not go?” said the monk, in surprise. “How was that? Ah! I see,” he continued, for the boy was silent, “you and Ethelbald have quarrelled.”

“No, indeed,” cried Alfred, and then he stopped. The monk went on without looking, passing the pebble slowly round and round upon the slab, grinding up what looked like thin glistening black paste.

“Then why did you stay behind?” said the monk gravely.

“Because—because—because—oh, don’t ask me!” cried the boy passionately.

Swythe fixed his eyes gently and kindly upon the boy, and left off grinding.

“Tell me why, Fred, my son,” he said softly.

“Because of what Bald said and what you said; and then I went in and saw my mother, and she is so unhappy; and—and—”

Then, with a wild and passionate outburst, the boy made a dash at the old man and caught him by the shoulder, as he cried:

“Oh, Father Swythe, I do want to learn to read and to write, and be what you said. Please forgive me and help me, and I will try so hard—so very, very hard!”

“My son!” cried the monk, in a choking voice, and, as the boy was drawn tightly to the old man’s breast and he hid his face so that his tears should not be seen, something fell pat upon the back of his head, making him look up quickly, to see that he need not feel ashamed of his own, for his tutor’s tears were falling slowly, though there was a contented look in the old man’s face.

“Yes,” he said, smiling, “you have made me cry, my boy; but it is because you have made me happy. You have taught me that I have touched your young heart and opened the bright well-spring of the true and good that is in your nature. Fred, my boy,” he continued, “you are too young to know it, so I will tell you: my son, you have just done something that is very brave and true.”

“I?” cried the boy passionately, as he turned away his head. “I have behaved ill to you who have always been so kind and good, and made my mother weep for me when she is in such dreadful trouble without.”

“And then, my boy, you have come straight to me, your teacher—the poor, weak, humble servant of his master, who has always striven to lead you in the right way—and thrown yourself upon my breast and owned your fault. That is what I mean by saying you have done a very brave thing, my boy. There, and so you will try now?”

The last words came with a bright and cheerful ring, as Swythe released the boy and sat back smiling at him and looking proudly into his eyes.

“And so you want to learn to read and write and grow into a wise man who may some day rule over this land?”

“Oh, I want to learn!” cried the boy, dashing away his last tears. “I want to be wise and great; but oh, no: I don’t want to rule and be King. I want father to live till I am quite an old man.”

“I hope he will!” said Swythe, smiling, and nodding his head pleasantly, as the boy hurriedly turned the conversation by asking:

“What are you doing there?”

“Making some fresh ink, my boy,” was the reply.

“Ink? How?”

“Hah!” cried the monk, chuckling pleasantly; “now the vessel is opened and eager for the knowledge to be poured in. Question away, Fred, my son, and mine shall be the task to pour the wisdom in—as far as I have it,” he added, with a sigh.

Alfred stood at the great entrance late that afternoon when the loud barking of the dogs told of the young hunters’ return, and as soon as they came in sight Red cried:

“There, I told you so; Fred’s along with old Swythe.”

For the monk was standing by the boy’s side, waiting to see what success the young hunters had achieved.

They looked to see their brother disappointed and ready to upbraid them with going and leaving him behind; but they were surprised, for the boy saluted them with:

“Well, where’s the fat buck?”

“Oh,” said Bald shortly, “we had a splendid run, but the dogs were so stupid that he managed to get away. But you ought to have been there: it was grand.”

“Was it?” said Alfred coolly. The news did not seem to trouble him in the least. He noticed, though, that the three boys were so tired out that not one of them seemed to care for his supper, and directly after they went off to bed.