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Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race

Page: 15

Thereupon room was made for the Geat warriors on the long benches, and Beowulf sat in the place of honour opposite to the king: great respect was shown to him, and all men looked with wonder on this mighty hero, whose courage led him to hazard this terrible combat. Great carved horns of ale were borne to Beowulf and his men, savoury meat was placed before them, and while they ate and drank the minstrels played and sang to the harp the deeds of men of old. The mirth of the feast was redoubled now men hoped that a deliverer had come indeed.

The Quarrel

Among all the Danes who were rejoicing over Beowulf’s coming there was one whose heart was sad and his brow gloomy—one thane whom jealousy urged to hate any man more distinguished than himself. Hunferth, King Hrothgar’s orator and speech-maker, from his official post at Hrothgar’s feet watched Beowulf with scornful and jealous eyes. He waited until a pause came in the clamour of the feast, and suddenly spoke, coldly and contemptuously: “Art thou that Beowulf who strove against Breca, the son of Beanstan, when ye two held a swimming contest in the ocean and risked your lives in the deep waters? In vain all your friends urged you to forbear—ye would go on the hazardous journey; ye plunged in, buffeting the [Pg 13] wintry waves through the rising storm. Seven days and nights ye toiled, but Breca overcame thee: he had greater strength and courage. Him the ocean bore to shore, and thence he sought his native land, and the fair city where he ruled as lord and chieftain. Fully he performed his boast against thee. So I now look for a worse issue for thee, for thou wilt find Grendel fiercer in battle than was Breca, if thou darest await him this night.”

Beowulf’s brow flushed with anger as he replied haughtily: “Much hast thou spoken, friend Hunferth, concerning Breca and our swimming contest; but belike thou art drunken, for wrongly hast thou told the tale. A youthful folly of ours it was, when we two boasted and challenged each other to risk our lives in the ocean; that indeed we did. Naked swords we bore in our hands as we swam, to defend ourselves against the sea-monsters, and we floated together, neither outdistancing the other, for five days, when a storm drove us apart. Cold were the surging waves, bitter the north wind, rough was the swelling flood, under the darkening shades of night. Yet this was not the worst: the sea-monsters, excited by the raging tempest, rushed at me with their deadly tusks and bore me to the abyss. Well was it then for me that I wore my well-woven ring-mail, and had my keen sword in hand; with point and edge I fought the deadly beasts, and killed them. Many a time the hosts of monsters bore me to the ocean-bottom, but I slew numbers among them, and thus we battled all the night, until in the morning came light from the east, and I could see the windy cliffs along the shore, and the bodies of the slain sea-beasts floating on the surge. Nine there were of them, for Wyrd is gracious to the man who is valiant and unafraid. Never have I heard of a [Pg 14] sterner conflict, nor a more unhappy warrior lost in the waters; yet I saved my life, and landed on the shores of Finland. Breca wrought not so mightily as I, nor have I heard of such warlike deeds on thy part, even though thou, O Hunferth, didst murder thy brothers and nearest kinsmen.


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