« PreviousContinue »
and Grettir broke through it, escaped to the shore, plunged into the waves, and reached the other side in safety.
He found his companions waiting for him behind a rock, with a pile of dry wood which they had collected during his absence. The cinders were blown upon and twigs applied, till a blaze was produced, and before long the whole party sat rubbing their almost frozen hands over a cheerful fire.
On the following morning the merchants recognized the fjord, and, remembering that on its bank stood the house of refuge which King Olaf had built for weather-bound travellers, they supposed that the light Grettir had procured must have come from it; so they determined on running the boat across and seeing who were then quartered in the hostel.
When they reached the spot, they found nothing but an immense heap of smoking ashes. From under some of the charred timber projected scorched human limbs. The chapmen, in alarm and horror, turned upon Grettir and charged him with having maliciously burned the house with all its inmates.
"There now!" exclaimed Grettir; "I had a presentiment that misfortune would attend my undertaking last night. I wish that I had not taken so much trouble for a set of thankless churls like you."
The ship's crew raked the embers out, and pulled aside the smoking beams in their search for the bodies, that they might give them decent burial. In so doing they came upon some whose features were not completely obliterated, and among these was one of the sons of Thorir. It was at once concluded that the party brought by Grettir to such an untimely end, was that of Thorir's sons, which had sailed shortly before the chapmen. The indignation of the merchants became so vehement, that they drove Grettir with imprecations from their company, and refused to receive him into their vessel for the remainder of the voyage.
Grettir, in sullen wrath, would say no word in self-defence; but, turning on his heel, he stalked proudly into the woods, with his sword by his side, and his battle-axe over his shoulder, determined on exculpating himself before King Olaf, and him alone. The vessel reached Drontheim before him, and the news of the hostel-burning caused universal indignation.
One day as the king sat at audience in his hall, Grettir strode in, and going before Olaf, greeted him. The king eyed him all over, and said—
"Are you Grettir the Strong ?"
He answered: " Such is my name, and I have come hither, sire, to get a fair hearing, and rid myself of the charge of having burned men maliciously. Of that I am guiltless."
Olaf replied: "I sincerely hope that what you say is true, and that you will have the good fortune to clear yourself of the imputation laid against you."
Grettir said that he was willing to do anything the king wished, in order to prove his innocence.
"Tell me first," quoth the king, "what is the true version of the story, that I may know what steps are to be taken."
Grettir answered by relating all the circumstances; and he asserted that the men were alive when he left the hostel, carrying the fire.
The king remained silent for some moments. "If I might fight some one!" suggested Grettir; "I should rather like it."
"I have no doubt that you would," replied Olaf. "But remember you have not a single accuser, but a whole ship's crew, and you cannot fight them all."
"Why not?" asked the Icelander; "the more the merrier. Let them come!"
"No, no, Grettir," answered the king. "I cannot allow such a proceeding to take place. But I will tell you what you shall do. Go through the fire ordeal." "What is that?" asked the young man. "You must lift bars of iron heated till the furnace can make them no hotter, and walk with bare feet on red-hot ploughshares."
"I'll do it at once," said Grettir. "Where are the ploughshares?"
"Stop," said the king. "You would be burned to a certainty if you ventured without preparation."
"What preparation?" asked Grettir.
"A week of prayer and fasting," was the reply.
"I do not like fasting," said the young man.
"But you cannot help yourself," answered Olaf.
"I cannot pray," said Grettir; "I never could."
"Then the bishop shall teach you," answered the king, with a smile at the bluntness of the Icelander.
Grettir was removed, and kept in custody by the clergy, who did their best to prepare him for the solemn moment of the ordeal, but they found him a troublesome fellow to manage.
The day came, and Drontheim was thronged with people, who streamed in from all the country round, to see the Icelander, of whom such stories were told. A procession was formed. The king's body-guard marched at the head, followed by the king himself, the bishop, the choir, and the clergy, amongst whom walked Grettir, a head taller than any of the throng, upright, his wild brown hair flying loose in the breeze, his arms folded, and his honest blue eyes wandering over the sea of heads which filled the square before the cathedral doors. The crowd pressed in closer and closer, but without in the slightest degree disconcerting him. Opinions seemed to be divided as to whether he were guilty or not; his dauntless bearing and open, sunny countenance were not those of a truculent Berserkir. Among the mob was a young man of dark complexion, who made a great noise, wrangling and shouldering his way till he reached the procession.
"Look at him !" exclaimed he. "This is the man, who, in cold blood, could burn a house down over helpless victims, and exult at their shrieks of despair; yet now is about to be given a chance of escape, when every one knows that he is a deep-dyed villain 1"
"But he says that he is guiltless," quoth a man in the crowd.
"Innocent!" exclaimed the youth. "A plea of innocence has been set up as an excuse because the king wishes to have him in his body-guard."
"He should have a chance of clearing his character," spoke a person standing near.
"Ay! but who knows how the irons may be tampered with by the king and clergy, so that this ruthless murderer may escape the punishment he deserves?"
"Young man!" spoke Grettir, with a voice like thunder, whilst flame leaped up in his eyes, and his strong limbs quivered with rage. "Young man, beware!"
"Beware of what, pray?" laughed the youth. "Though you may escape the punishment you have so richly deserved, yet you shall not escape me."
And, springing up, he thrust his nails into Grettir's face, so that he brought blood, calling him at the same time, son of a sea-devil, Troll, and other insulting names. This was more than the Icelander could bear; he caught the young man up, shook him, as a cat shakes a mouse, and flung him to the ground with such violence that he lay senseless, and was carried away as if dead.
This act gave rise to a general uproar; the mob wanted to lay hands on Grettir; some threw stones, others assaulted him with sticks; but he, planting his back against the church wall, rolled up his sleeves, and guarded off the blows, shouting joyously to his assailants to come on.
A flush of honest joy at the prospect of a fight mantled in his cheeks, and his eyes sparkled with delight. Not a man came within his reach but was sent reeling back or felled to the ground.
Grettir caught a stick aimed at him, while it was in the air, and dealt such blows with it, that he cleared a ring about him, whilst still, with a voice clear as a bell, he called to the mob to come on manfully, and not shrink back like cowards.
In the meantime the king and bishop had been waiting in church; the -processional psalm was ended, the red-hot ploughshares were laid in the choir and were gradually cooling, yet no Grettir came.
At the same tune sounds of uproar entered the church, and the king sent out to know what was the matter. His messenger returned a moment after with a report that, without the cathedral, the Icelander was fighting the whole town.
The king thereupon sprang from his throne, hastened down the nave, and came out of the great western door whilst the conflict was at its height.
"Oh, sire!" exclaimed Grettir; "see how I can fight the rascals!" and at the word, he knocked a man over at the king's feet.
"Hold, hold!" exclaimed Olaf. "What have you done, throwing away the chance of exculpating yourself from the charge laid against you?"
"I am ready now, sire!" answered Grettir, wiping the perspiration and blood from his face, and smoothing down his hair, which was standing on end; "let us go into the church at once; I am longing for the red-hot ploughshares."
He would have pushed past the king had not Olaf prevented him, saying that his opportunity was past, as he was guilty of mortal sin in having killed the young man who had assaulted him, and maimed so many other persons.
"What is to be done?" exclaimed Grettir. "I have undergone all that week of fasting for nothing. Sire! might not I become your hench-man? you will find me stronger than most men."
"True enough," answered the king; "few men have the strength and courage which you possess, but ill luck attends on you. Besides, I dare not keep you by me, as you would continually be getting into hot water. Now, this I decree: you shall be in peace during the winter, but with the return of summer you shall be outlawed, and go to Iceland, where I forewarn you, you shall lay your bones."
Grettir answered, " I should like first to get rid of the charge of the hostel burning, for, honour bright! I never intended to do the mischief."