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Beltane The Smith (Chapter19)

2006-08-28 16:30

  Chapter XIX. Concerning the Eyes of a Nun

  Eyes long, thick-lashed and darkly blue that looked up awhile into his and anon were hid 'neath languorous-drooping lids; a nose tenderly aquiline; lips, red and full, that parted but to meet again in sweet and luscious curves; a chin white, and round, and dimpled.

  This Beltane saw 'twixt hood and wimple, by aid of the torch that flickered against the wall; and she, conscious of his look, stood with white hands demurely crossed upon her rounded bosom, with eyes abased and scarlet lips apart, as one who waits——expectant. Now hereupon my Beltane felt himself vaguely at loss, and finding he yet held the dagger, set it upon the table and spake, low-voiced.

  "Reverend Mother——" he began, and stopped——for at the word her dark lashes lifted and she stared upon him curiously, while slowly her red lips quivered to a smile. And surely, surely this nun so sweet and saintly in veiling hood and wimple was yet a very woman, young and passing fair; and the eyes of her——how deep and tender and yet how passionate! Now beholding her eyes, memory stirred within him and he sighed, whereat she sighed also and meekly bowed her head, speaking him with all humility.

  "Sweet son, speak on——thy reverend mother heareth."

  Now did Beltane, my Innocent, rub his innocent chin and stand mumchance awhile, finding nought to say——then:

  "Lady," he stammered, "lady——since I have found thee——let us go while yet we may."

  "Messire," says she, with eyes still a-droop, "came you in sooth——in quest of me?"

  "Yea, verily. I heard Sir Gilles had made captive of a nun, so came I to deliver her——an so it might be."

  "E'en though she were old, and wrinkled, and toothless, messire?"

  "Lady," says my Innocent, staring and rubbing his chin a little harder, "surely all nuns, young and old, be holy women, worthy a man's reverence and humble service. So would I now bear thee from this unhallowed place——we must be far hence ere dawn——come!"

  "Aye, but whither?" she sighed, "death is all about us, messire——how may we escape it? And I fear death no whit——now, messire!"

  "Aye, but I do so, lady, since I have other and greater works yet to achieve."

  "How, messire, is it so small a thing to have saved a nun——even though she be neither old, nor wrinkled, nor toothless?" And behold, the nun's meek head was high and proud, her humility forgotten quite.

  Then she frowned, and 'neath her sombre draperies her foot fell a-tapping; a small foot, dainty and slender in its gaily broidered shoe, so much at variance with her dolorous habit. But Beltane recked nought of this, for, espying a narrow window in the opposite wall, he came thither and thrusting his head without, looked down upon the sleeping camp. And thus he saw that Sir Gilles' men were few indeed, scarce three-score all told he counted as they lay huddled about the smouldering watch-fires, deep-slumbering as only men greatly wearied might. Even the sentinels nodded at their posts, and all was still save for the rush of a sudden wind-gust, or the snort and trampling of the horses. And leaning thus, Beltane marked well where the sentinels lolled upon their pikes, or marched drowsily to and fro betwixt the watch-fires, and long he gazed where the horses were tethered, two swaying, trampling lines dim-seen amid the further shadows. Now being busied measuring with his eye the distances 'twixt sentinel and sentinel, and noting where the shadows lay darkest, he was suddenly aware of the nun close beside him, of the feel of her, soft and warm against him, and starting at the contact, turned to find her hand, small and white, upon his mailed arm.

  "Sweet son," said she soft-voiced, from the shadow of her sombre hood, "thy reverend mother now would chide thee, for that having but short while to live, thou dost stand thus mumchance, staring upon vacancy—— for, with the dawn, we die."

  Quoth Beltane, deeply conscious of the slender hand:

  "To die, nay——nay——thou'rt too young and fair to die——"

  Sighed she, with rueful smile:

  "Thou too art neither old nor cold, nor bent with years, fair son. Come then, till death let us speak together and comfort each other. Lay by thy melancholy as I now lay by this hood and wimple, for the night is hot and close, methinks."

  "Nay, lady, indeed 'tis cool, for there is much wind abroad," says Beltane, my Innocent. "Moreover, while standing here, methinks I have seen a way whereby we may win free——"

  Now hereupon she turned and looked on him, quick-breathing and with eyes brim-full of fear.

  "Messire!" she panted, "O messire, bethink thee. For death am I prepared——to live each moment fully till the dawn, then when they came to drag me down to——to shame, then should thy dagger free me quite—— such death I'd smile to meet. But ah! should we strive to flee, and thou in the attempt be slain——and I alive——the sport of that vile rabblement below——O, Christ,——not that!" and cowering, she hid her face.

  "Noble lady," said Beltane, looking on her gentle-eyed, "indeed I too had thought on that!" and, coming to the table, he took thence the dagger of Sir Gilles and would have put it in her hand, but lo! she shrank away.

  "Not that, messire, not that," she sighed, "thy dagger let it be, since true knight art thou and honourable, I pray you give me thine. It is thy reverend mother asks," and smiling pale and wan, she reached out a white, imperious hand. So Beltane drew his dagger and gave it to her keeping; then, having set the other in his girdle, he crossed to the door and stood awhile to hearken.

  "Lady," said he, "there is no way for us but this stair, and meseemeth 'tis a dangerous way, yet must we tread it together. Reach me now thy hand and set it here in my girdle, and, whatsoe'er befall, loose not thy hold." So saying, Beltane drew his sword and set wide the door. "Look to thy feet," he whispered, "and tread soft!" Then, with her trailing habit caught up in her left hand and with her right upon his belt, the nun followed Beltane out upon the narrow stair. Step by step they stole downwards into the dark, pausing with breath in check each time the timbers creaked, and hearkening with straining ears. Down they went amid the gloom until they spied an open door below, beyond which a dim light shone, and whence rose the snoring of wearied sleepers. Ever and anon a wind-gust smote the ancient mill and a broken shutter rattled near by, what time they crept a pace down the creaking stair until at last they stood upon the threshold of a square chamber upon whose broken hearth a waning fire burned, by whose uncertain light they espied divers vague forms that stirred now and then and groaned in their sleep as they sprawled upon the floor: and Beltane counted three who lay 'twixt him and the open doorway, for door was there none. Awhile stood Beltane, viewing the sleepers 'neath frowning brows, then, sheathing his sword, he turned and reached out his arms to the nun in the darkness and, in the dark, she gave herself, warm and yielding, into his embrace, her arms clung soft about him, and he felt her breath upon his cheek, as clasping his left arm about her, he lifted her high against his breast. And now, even as she trembled against him, so trembled Beltane also yet knew not why; therefore of a sudden he turned and stepped into the chamber. A man started up beside the hearth, muttering evilly; and Beltane, standing rigid, gripped his dagger to smite, but even then the muttering ceased, and falling back, the man rolled over and fell a-snoring again. So, lightly, swiftly, Beltane strode over the sprawling sleepers——out through the open doorway——out into the sweet, cool night beyond——out into the merry riot of the wind. Swift and sure of foot he sped, going ever where the shadows lay deepest, skirting beyond reach of the paling watch-fires, until he was come nigh where the horses stamped and snorted. Here he set the nun upon her feet, and bidding her stir not, crept towards the horses, quick-eyed and watchful. And thus he presently espied a man who leaned him upon a long pike, his face set toward the nearest watch-fire: and the man's eyes were closed, and he snored gently. Then Beltane shifted his dagger to his left hand, and being come within reach, drew back his mailed fist and smote the sleeper betwixt his closed eyes, and catching him as he fell, laid him gently on the grass.

  Now swift and silent came Beltane to where the horses champed, and having made choice of a certain powerful beast, slipped off his chain mittens and rolled back sleeve of mail and, low-stooping in the shadow, sought and found the ropes whereto the halters were made fast, and straightway cut them in sunder. Then, having looked to girth and bridle, he vaulted to the saddle, and drawing sword, shouted his battle-cry fierce and loud: "Arise! Arise!" and, so shouting, smote the frighted horses to right and left with the flat of the long blade, so that they reared up whinnying, and set off a-galloping in all directions, filling the air with the thunder of their rushing hoofs.

  And now came shouts and cries with a prodigious confusion and running to and fro about the dying watch-fires. Trumpets blared shrill, hoarse voices roared commands that passed unheeded in the growing din and tumult that swelled to a wild clamour of frenzied shouting:

  "Fly! fly! Pertolepe is upon us! 'tis the Red Pertolepe!"

  But Beltane, riding warily amid the gloom, came to that place where he had left the nun, yet found her not, and immediately was seized of a great dread. But as he stared wildly about him, he presently heard a muffled cry, and spurring thitherwards, beheld two dim figures that swayed to and fro in a fierce grapple. Riding close, Beltane saw the glint of mail, raised his sword for the blow, felt a shock——a searing smart, and knew himself wounded; but now she was at his stirrup, and stooping, he swung her up to the withers of his horse, and wheeling short about, spurred to a gallop; yet, as he rode, above the rush of wind and thud of hoofs, he heard a cry, hoarse and dolorous. On galloped Beltane all unheeding, until he came 'neath the leafy arches of the friendly woods, within whose gloom needs must he ride at a hand's pace. Thus, as they went, they could hear the uproar behind——a confused din that waxed and waned upon the wind.

  But Beltane, riding slow and cautious within the green, heeded this not at all, nor the throb of his wounded arm, nor aught under heaven save the pressure of this slender body that lay so still, so warm and soft within his arm; and as he went, he began to wish for the moon that he might see her face.

  Blue eyes, long and heavy-lashed! Surely blue eyes were fairest in a woman? And then the voice of her, liquid and soft like the call of merle or mavis. And she was a nun! How white and slim her hands, yet strong and resolute, as when she grasped the dagger 'gainst Sir Gilles; aye——resolute hands, like the spirit within her soft and shapely body. And then again——her lips; red and full, up-curving to sweet, slow smile, yet withal tinged with subtle mockery. With such eyes and such lips she might——aye, but she was a nun——a nun, forsooth!

  "Messire!" Beltane started from his reverie. "Art cold, messire?"

  "Cold!" stammered Beltane, "cold? Indeed no, lady."

  "Yet dost thou tremble!"

  "Nathless, I am not cold, lady."

  "Then wherefore tremble?"

  "Nay, I——I know not. In sooth, do I so, lady?"

  "Verily, sir, and therewith sigh, frequent and O, most dolorous to hear!"

  Now at this, my Beltane finding naught to say, straightway sighed again; and thus they rode awhile, speaking nothing.

  "Think you we are safe, messire?" she questioned him at last.

  "Tis so I pray, lady."

  "Thou hast done right valiantly to-night on my behalf," says she. "How came you in at the window?"

  "By means of a tree, lady."

  "Art very strong, messire, and valiant beyond thought. Thou hast this night, with thy strong hand, lifted me up from shameful death: so, by right, should my life be thine henceforth." Herewith she sighed, leaning closer upon his breast, and Beltane's desire to see her face grew amain.

  "Messire," said she, "methinks art cold indeed, or is it that I weary thee?"

  "Nay, thou'rt wondrous easy to bear thus, lady."

  "And whither do ye bear me, sir——north or south? And yet it mattereth nothing," says she, soft-voiced, "since we are safe——together!" Now hereafter, as Beltane rode, he turned his eyes full oft to heaven—— yearning for the moon.

  "What woods be these, messire?" she questioned.

  "'Tis the wilderness that lieth betwixt Pentavalon and Mortain, lady."

  "Know ye Mortain, sir?"

  "Yea, verily," he answered, and sighed full deep. And as he sighed, lo, in that moment the moon peeped forth of a cloud-rift and he beheld the nun looking up at him with eyes deep and wistful, and, as she gazed, her lips curved in slow and tender smile ere her lashes drooped, and sighing, she hid her face against him in the folds of her mantle, while Beltane must needs bethink him of other eyes so very like, and yet so false, and straightway——sighed.

  "Messire," she murmured, "pray now, wherefore do ye sigh so oft?"

  "For that thine eyes do waken memory, lady."

  "Of a woman?"

  "Aye——of a woman."

  "And thou dost——love her, messire?"

  "Unto my dole, lady."

  "Ah, can it be she doth not love thee, messire?"

  "Indeed, 'tis most certain!"

  "Hath she then told thee so——of herself?"

  "Nay," sighed Beltane, "not in so many words, lady, and yet——"

  "And yet," quoth the nun, suddenly erect, "thou must needs run away and leave her——poor sweet wretch——to mourn for thee, belike, and grieve—— aye, and scorn thee too for a faint-heart!"

  "Nay, lady, verily I——"

  "O, indeed me thinks she must contemn thee in her heart, poor, gentle soul——aye, scorn and despise thee woefully for running away; indeed, 'tis beyond all doubt, messire!"

  "Lady," quoth Beltane, flushing in the dark, "you know naught of the matter——"

  "Why then shalt thou tell me of it, messire——lo, I am listening." So saying, she settled herself more aptly within his encircling arm.

  "First, then," said Beltane, when they had ridden awhile in silence, "she is a duchess, and very proud."

  "Yet is she a woman, messire, and thou a man whose arms be very strong!"

  "Of what avail strong arms, lady, 'gainst such as she?"

  "Why, to carry her withal, messire."

  "To——to carry her!" quoth Beltane in amaze.

  "In very truth, messire. To lift her up and bear her away with thee——"

  "Nay——nay, to——bear her away? O, 'twere thing impossible!"

  "Is this duchess so heavy, messire?" sighed the nun, "is she a burden beyond even thy strength, sir knight?"

  "Lady, she is the proud Helen, Duchess of Mortain!" quoth Beltane, frowning at the encompassing shadows. Now was the nun hushed awhile, and when at last she spake her voice was low and wondrous gentle.

  "And is it indeed the wilful Helen that ye love, messire?"

  "Even she, unto my sorrow."

  "Thy sorrow? Why then, messire——forget her."

  "Ah!" sighed Beltane, "would I might indeed, yet needs must I love her ever."

  "Alack, and is it so forsooth," quoth the nun, sighing likewise. "Ah me, my poor, fond son, now doth thy reverend mother pity thee indeed, for thou'rt in direful case to be her lover, methinks."

  Now did my Beltane frown the blacker by reason of bitter memory and the pain of his wound. "Her lover, aye!" quoth he, bitterly, "and she hath a many lovers——"

  "Lovers!" sighed the nun, "that hath she, the sad, sweet soul! Lovers! ——O forsooth, she is sick of a very surfeit of lovers,——so hath she fled from them all!"

  "Fled from them?" cried Beltane, his wound forgot, "fled from them—— from Mortain? Nay, how mean you——how——fled?"

  "She hath walked, see you, run——ridden——is riding——away from Mortain, from her lords, her counsellors, her varlets, her lovers and what not—— in a word, messire, she is——gone!"

  "Gone!" quoth Beltane, breathless and aghast, "gone——aye——but whither?"

  "What matter for that so long as her grave counsellors be sufficiently vexed, and her lovers left a-sighing? O me, her counsellors! Bald-pates, see you, and grey-beards, who for their own ends would have her wed Duke Ivo——meek, unfortunate maid!"

  "Know you then the Duchess, lady?"

  "Aye, forsooth, and my heart doth grieve for her, poor, sweet wretch, for O, 'tis a sad thing to be a duchess with a multitude of suitors a-wooing in season and out, vaunting graces she hath not, and blind to the virtues she doth possess. Ah, messire, I give thee joy that, whatsoever ills may be thine, thou can ne'er be——a duchess!"

  "And think you she will not wed with Ivo, lady——think you so in truth?"

  "Never, while she is Helen."

  "And——loveth——none of her lovers?"

  "Why——indeed, messire——I think she doth——"

  "Art sure? How know you this?"

  "I was her bedfellow betimes, and oft within the night have heard her speak a name unto her pillow, as love-sick maids will."

  Now once again was Beltane aware of the throb and sting of his wounded arm, yet 'twas not because of this he sighed so deep and oft.

  "Spake she this name——often?" he questioned.

  "Very oft, messire. Aye me, how chill the wind blows!"

  "Some lord's name, belike?"

  "Nay, 'twas no lord's name, messire. 'Tis very dark amid these trees!"

  "Some knight, mayhap——or lowly squire?"

  "Neither, messire. Heigho! methinks I now could sleep awhile." So she sighed deep yet happily, and nestled closer within his shielding arm.

  But Beltane, my Innocent, rode stiff in the saddle, staring sad-eyed into the gloom, nor felt, nor heeded the yielding tenderness of the shapely young body he held, but plodded on through the dark, frowning blacker than the night. Now as he rode thus, little by little the pain of his wound grew less, a drowsiness crept upon him, and therewith, a growing faintness. Little by little his head drooped low and lower, and once the arm about the nun slipped its hold, whereat she sighed and stirred sleepily upon his breast. But on he rode, striving grimly against the growing faintness, his feet thrust far within the stirrups, his mailed hand tight clenched upon the reins. So, as dawn broke, he heard the pleasant sound of running water near by, and as the light grew, saw they were come to a grassy glade where ran a small brook——a goodly place, well-hidden and remote. So turned he thitherward, and lifting up heavy eyes, beheld the stars paling to the dawn, for the clouds were all passed away and the wind was gone long since. And, in a while, being come within the boskage of this green dell, feebly and as one a-dream, he checked the great horse that snuffed eagerly toward the murmuring brook, and as one a-dream saw that she who had slumbered on his breast was awake——fresh and sweet as the dawn.

  "Lady," he stammered, "I——I fear——I can ride——no farther!"

  And now, as one a-dream, he beheld her start and look at him with eyes wide and darkly blue——within whose depths was that which stirred within him a memory of other days——in so much he would have spoken, yet found the words unready and hard to come by.

  "Lady,——thine eyes, methinks——are not——nun's eyes!"

  But now behold of a sudden she cried out, soft and pitiful, for blood was upon him, upon his brow, upon his golden hair. And still as one a-dream he felt her slip from his failing clasp, felt her arms close about him, aiding him to earth.

  "Thou'rt hurt!" she cried. "O, thou'rt wounded! And I never guessed!"

  "'Tis but my arm——in sooth——and——"

  But she hushed him with soft mother-cries and tender-spoke commands, and aiding him to the brook, laid him thereby to lave his hurt within the cool, sweet water; and, waking with the smart, Beltane sighed and turned to look up at her. Now did she, meeting his eyes, put up one white hand, setting back sombre hood and snowy wimple, and stooping tenderly above him, behold, in that moment down came the shining glory of her lustrous hair to fall about the glowing beauty of her face, touching his brow like a caress.

  Then, at last, memory awoke within him, and lifting himself upon a feeble elbow, he stared upon her glowing loveliness with wide, glad eyes.

  "Helen!" he sighed, "O——Helen!" And, so sighing, fell back, and lay there pale and wan within the dawn, but with a smile upon his pallid lips.

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