How Little Duke Jarl Saved the Castle

by Laurence Housman

Duke Jarl had found a good roost for himself when his long work of expelling the invader was ended. Seawards and below the town, in the mouth of the river, stood a rock, thrusting out like a great tusk ready to rip up any armed vessel that sought passage that way. On the top of this he had built himself a castle, and its roots went deep, deep down into the solid stone. No man knew how deep the deepest of the foundations went; but wherever they were, just there was old Duke Jarl's sleeping-chamber. Thither he had gone to sleep when the world no longer needed him; and he had not yet returned.

That was three hundred years ago, and still the solid rock vaulted the old warrior's slumber; and over his head men talked of him, and told how he was reserving the strength of his old age till his country should again call for him.

The call seemed to come now; for his descendant, little Duke Jarl the Ninth, was but a child; and being in no fear of him, the old foe had returned, and the castle stood besieged. Also, farther than the eye could see from the topmost tower, the land lay all overrun, its richness laid waste by armed bands who gathered in its harvest by the sword, and the town itself lay under tribute; from the tower one could see the busy quays, and the enemy loading his ships with rich merchandise.

Sent up there to play in safety, little Duke Jarl could not keep his red head from peering over the parapet. He began making fierce faces at the enemy—he was still too young to fight: and quick a grey goose-shaft came and sang its shrill song at his ear. So close had it gone that a little of the ducal blood trickled out over his collar. His face worked with rage; leaning far out over the barrier, he began shouting, "I will tell Duke Jarl of you!" till an attendant ran up and snatched him away from danger.

Things were going badly: the castle was cut off from the land, and on the seaward side the foe had built themselves a great mole within which their war-ships could ride at anchor safe from the reach of storm. Thus there was no way left by which help or provender could come in.

Little Duke Jarl saw men round him growing more gaunt and thin day by day, but he did not understand why till he chanced once upon a soldier gnawing a foul bone for the stray bits of meat that clung to it; then he learned that all in the castle except himself had been put upon quarter-rations, though every day there was more and more fighting work to be done.

So that day when the usual white bread and savouries were brought to him, he flung them all downstairs, telling the cook that the day he really became Duke he would have his head off if he ever dared to send him anything again but the common fare.

Hearing of it, the old Chief Constable picked up little Master Ninth Duke between finger and thumb, and laughed, holding him in the air. "With you alive," said he, "we shall not have to wake Duke Jarl after all!" The little Duke asked when he would let him have a sword; and the Constable clapped his cheeks and ran back cheerfully at a call from the palisades.

But others carried heavy looks, thinking, "Long before his fair promise can come to anything our larders will be empty and our walls gone!"

It was no great time after this that the Duke's Constable was the only man who saw reason in holding out. That became known all through the castle, and the cook, honest fellow, brought up little Jarl's dinner one day with tears in his eyes. He set down his load of dainties. "It is no use!" said he, "you may as well eat to-day, since to-morrow we give up the castle."

"Who dares to say 'we'?" cried little Duke Jarl, springing to his feet.

"All but the Constable," said the cook; "even now they are in the council-hall, trying to make him see reason. Whether or no, they will not let him hold on."

Little Jarl found the doors of the great hall barred to the thunderings of his small fist: for, in truth, these men could not bear to look upon one who had in his veins the blood of old Duke Jarl, when they were about to give up his stronghold to the enemy.

So little Jarl made his way up to the bowery, where was a minstrel's window looking down into the hall. Sticking out his head so that he might see down to where the council was sitting, "If you give up the castle, I will tell Duke Jarl!" he cried. Hearing his young master's voice, the Constable raised his eyes; but not able to see him for tears in them, called out: "Tell him quick, for here it is all against one! Only for one day more have they promised to follow my bidding, and keep the carrion crows from coming to Jarl's nest."

And even as he spoke came the renewed cry of attack, and the answering shout of "Jarl, Jarl!" from the defenders upon the walls. Then all leapt up, over-turning the council-board, and ran out to the battlements to carry on with what courage was left to them a hopeless contest for one more day.

Little Duke Jarl remained like a beating heart in the great empty keep. He ran wildly from room to room, calling in rage and desperation on Old Jarl to return and fight. From roof to basement he ran, commanding the spirit of his ancestor to appear, till at last he found himself in the deepest cellars of all. Down there he could hear but faintly the sound of the fighting; yet it seemed to him that through the stone he could hear the slow booming of the sea, and as he went deeper into the castle's foundations the louder had grown its note. "Does the sea come in all the way under the castle?" he wondered. "Oh that it would sap the foundations and sink castle and all, rather than let them give up old Jarl's stronghold to his enemies!"

All was quite dark here, where the castle stood embedded; but now and then little Duke Jarl could feel a puff of wind on his face, and presently he was noticing how it came, as if timed to the booming of the sea underneath: whenever came the sound of a breaking wave, with it came a draught of air. He wondered if, so low down, there might not be some secret opening to the shore.

Groping in the direction of the gusts, his feet came upon stairs. So low and narrow was the entrance, he had to turn sideways and stoop; but when he had burrowed through a thickness of wall he was able to stand upright; and again he found stairs leading somewhere.

Down, these led down. He had never been so low before. And what a storm there must be outside! Against these walls the thunders of: the sea grew so loud he could no longer hear the tramp of his own feet descending.

And now the wind came at him in great gusts; first came the great boom of the sea, and then a blast of air. The way twisted and circled, making his head giddy for a fall; his feet slipped on the steepness and slime of the descent, and at each turn the sound grew more appalling, and the driving force of the wind more and more like the stroke of a man's fist.

Presently the shock of it threw him from his standing, so that he had to lie down and slide feet foremost, clinging with his eyelids and nails to break the violence of his descent. And now the air was so full of thunder that his teeth shook in their sockets, and his bones jarred in his flesh. The darkness growled and roared; the wind kept lifting him backwards—the force of it seemed almost to flay the skin off: his face; and still he went on, throwing his full weight against the air ahead.

Then for a moment he felt himself letting go altogether: solid walls slipping harshly past him in the darkness, he fell; and came headlong, crashed and bruised, to a standstill.

At first his brain was all in a mist; then, raising himself, he saw a dim blue light falling through a low vaulted chamber. At the end of it sat old Jarl, like adamant in slumber. His head was down on his breast, buried in a great burning bush of hair and beard; his hands, gripping the arms of his iron throne, had twisted them like wire; and the weight of his feet where they rested had hollowed a socket in the stone floor for them to sink into.

All his hair and his armour shone with a red-and-blue flame; and the light of him struck the vaulting and the floor like the rays of a torch as it burns. Over his head a dark tunnel, bored in the solid rock, reached up a hollow throat seawards. But not by that way came the wind and the sound of the sea; it was old Jarl himself, breathing peacefully in his sleep, waiting for the hour which should call his strength to life.

Young Duke Jarl ran swiftly across the chamber, and struck old Jarl's knees, crying, "Wake, Jarl! or the castle will be taken!" But the sleeper did not stir. Then he climbed the iron bars of the Duke's chair, and reaching high, caught hold of the red beard. "Forefather!" he cried, "wake, or the castle will be betrayed!"

But still old Duke Jarl snored a drowsy hurricane. Then little Jarl sprang upon his knee, and seizing him by the head, pulled to move its dead weight, and finding he could not, struck him full on the mouth, crying, "Jarl, Jarl, old thunderbolt! wake, or you will betray the castle!"

At that old Jarl hitched himself in his seat, and "Humph!" cried he, drawing in a deep breath.

In rushed the wind whistling from the sea, and down it rushed whistling from the way by which little Jarl had come; like the wings of cranes flying homewards in spring, so it whistled when old Jarl drew in his breath.

Off his knee dropped little Ninth Jarl, buffeted speechless to earth. And old Jarl, letting go one breath, settled himself back to slumber.

Far up overhead, at the darkening-in of night, the besiegers saw the eyes of the castle flash red for an instant, and shut again; then they heard the castle-rock bray out like a great trumpet, and they trembled, crying, "That is old Jarl's warhorn; he is awake out of slumber!"

They had reason enough to fear; for suddenly upon their ships-of-war there crashed, as though out of the bowels of the earth, a black wind and sandblast; and coming, it took the reefed sails and rigging, and snapped the masts and broke every vessel from its moorings, and drove all to wreck and ruin against the great mole that had been built to shelter them.

And away inland, beyond the palisades and under the entrenched camp of the besiegers, the ground pitched and rocked, so that every tent fell grovelling; and whenever the ground gaped, captains and men-at-arms were swallowed down in detachments.

Hardly had the call of old Jarl's war-horn ceased, before the Constable commanded the castle gates to be thrown open, and out he came leading a gaunt and hungry band of Jarl-folk warriors; for over in the enemy's camp they had scent of a hot supper which must be cooked and eaten before dawn. And in a little while, when the cooking was at its height, young Duke Jarl stuck his red head out over the battlements, and laughed.

So this has told how old Duke Jarl once turned and talked in his sleep; but to tell of the real awakening of old Jarl would be quite another story.