THIS is an old old story, in a land where I have scarcely told you one before; the wild moors and lakes of Central Norway. And it is a good example, how in those ancient times, one righteous action, especially if it were the closing one of life, gave the title of Saint.
I remember well, in the Danish island, Langeland, passing a night by one of those solitary and stagnant lakes. A waste of sand all round a margin of salt when the sun had dried up the water at the brink of the lake; the croaking of innumerable frogs; and the long blue line of sea, seen over a barren waste of shingle and morass, just the place, you would say, to be haunted by typhus, and the most gloomy and miserable habitation that man could choose for himself.
It was by the side of a lake like this that one fine morning in spring, (the old calendar tells us that it was the fourteenth of May,) a young man was unfastening a light boat that lay among the tall rushes on the hither side and preparing to step in and to ferry himself across. It is difficult for us to imagine those old Norwegian times with their warrior saints, who went about spreading the faith at the head of their armies, and at the same time increased their earthly and endeavoured to win a heavenly kingdom. Strange as their deeds read to us now, they are not more strange than those of Samson or Jephthah, who yet, as we know from Him that cannot lie, wrought theirs "through faith;" and terrible as they were to their enemies, they were the nursing fathers whom GOD appointed for that Church. The young man of whom I have just told you, Halward by name, was cousin to the most famous of these warrior-saints, S. Olave; and now he was about to join that prince in some new expedition against the heathen, and was on fire to share in the danger and in the glory of the exploit. He was unarmed, except for the battle-axe, which he always carried at his girdle; and leaping lightly into the boat, he had just pushed it off from the shore when from a kind of hiding-place among the tall bulrushes, a poor woman rose up and begged him, for CHRIST'S sake, to give her a passage. Worn out she seemed with fatigue and agitation; and the terrified manner in which she spoke showed that she was seeking to escape some fresh danger. Moreover, it was plain that she was about shortly to become a mother, and the kind-hearted young prince held his boat-head close to the shore, called to her to come forward, helped her in, and then, with a good courage, began to ply his oars across the lake. But scarcely had he performed a quarter of the distance, when on the side which he had just left, two men appeared, hurrying forward, and shouting to him to stop.
"Have those men anything to do with you?" he inquired of the poor woman, whom he had taken into his little boat.
"Yes, my lord; they are seeking my life," she replied.
"Why should they?" demanded the prince.
"Because they accuse me of having broken into their house and stolen some of their goods."
"But are you innocent?" said Halward.
"I am innocent," said the poor woman; "I had nothing to do with the crime they impute to me, either in deed or thought."
"Are you ready to swear it on the reliques of the first saint to whose church we shall come?" inquired Halward.
"I will swear it cheerfully," she answered.
"Are you ready to undergo the ordeal of the hot iron," said the Prince, "to make good your innocence?"
"And that, too, I will cheerfully do," she answered.
"Then, GOD forsake me, if I forsake you," said Halward. "But look! your two enemies have found a boat, and are putting off from the bank."
They had indeed found one, had thrust it from among the sedge, and were now in their turn, busily plying their oars in the chase.
"What is it that you want?" shouted Halward to the pursuers.
"We want that woman," they answered. "Give her up to us, and we will do you no harm."
"What harm has she done you?" inquired the other.
"She has broken into our dwelling, and stolen our goods," was their reply.
"Listen," said the Prince. "She is willing to make oath on the reliques of the saints, or to undergo any ordeal to prove her innocence. What more would you have? Let her do so in peace; and then if GOD declares her to be guilty, I will, myself, pay any ransom you may name, rather than that you should destroy the unborn child as well as the mother."
"We want no ransom, and we want no further proof," cried one of the men; "we only want revenge."
"Then, by GOD'S grace, you shall not have it," said the young Prince; and he laboured so diligently at his oars, that though they were two to one, they hardly gained any sensible distance.
"Listen, Halward," cried one of the men, standing up in his boat, and stringing his bow; "I know you well enough, and I do not want to take your life. But if I cannot get at her without, your blood be on your own head."
"We must put our trust in GOD," said Halward; "for except this axe, I have nothing to defend you with."
He had scarcely spoken when there was the twang of a bow and the shrill whistle of the arrow. It missed the Prince by an inch or two, and quivered in the inside of the little boat.
"A near escape," said Halward, stretching to his oars more vigorously than before, and thereby exposing his breast as a better mark for the pursuers. Another moment, and the second arrow, better aimed, pierced it. The oars dropped from the hands of the young Prince; he fell backward over the bench on which he was sitting; and the blood that poured from his mouth and nostrils told that the arrow had done its work only too well.
It needed but a few moments to accomplish the tragedy. The boat floated about masterless on the lake; the pursuers came up and grappled with it; they killed the woman; and tying a weight both to her and to the Prince, let them sink into the sullen water.
But not long after, it was reported by those who passed by the shores of that lake after sunset, that two fiery crosses, but one larger and brighter than the other, rested over a particular spot near the middle of the water. Inquiry was made; a search was instituted; the bodies were discovered; and the truth of the whole story was learnt.
They built a little church by the side of the lake; and the Bishop who consecrated it, when the bodies of the young Prince and of the murdered woman had been interred within it, named it after CHRIST'S constant martyr, S. Halward.