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Beltane The Smith (Chapter5)

2006-08-28 16:26

  Chapter V. Which Tells of the Story of Ambrose the Hermit

  Deep, deep within the green twilight of the woods Ambrose the Hermit had builded him a hut; had built and framed it of rude stones and thatched it with grass and mosses. And from the door of the hut he had formed likewise a path strewn thick with jagged stones and sharp flints, a cruel track, the which, winding away through the green, led to where upon a gentle eminence stood a wooden cross most artfully wrought and carven by the hermit's skilled and loving fingers.

  Morning and evening, winter and summer it was his custom ever to tread this painful way, wetting the stones with the blood of his atonement.

  Now upon a certain rosy dawn, ere yet the sun was up, Beltane standing amid the leaves, saw the hermit issue forth of the hut and, with bowed head and folded hands, set out upon his appointed way. The cruel stones grew red beneath his feet yet he faltered not nor stayed until, being come to the cross, he kneeled there and, with gaunt arms upraised, prayed long and fervently so that the tears of his passion streamed down his furrowed cheeks and wetted the snow of his beard.

  In a while, having made an end, he arose and being come to his hut once more, he of a sudden espied Beltane standing amid the leaves; and because he was so fair and goodly to look upon in his youth and might, the pale cheek of the hermit flushed and a glow leapt within his sunken eyes, and lifting up his hand, he blessed him.

  "Welcome to this my solitude, my son," quoth he, "and wherefore hast thou tarried in thy coming? I have watched for thee these many days. Come, sit you here beside me in this blessed sun and tell me of thy latter doings."

  But the eyes of Beltane were sad and his tongue unready, so that he stammered in his speech, looking ever upon the ground; then, suddenly up-starting to his feet, he strode before the hut, while Ambrose the wise looked, and saw, yet spake not. So, presently, Beltane paused, and looking him within the eyes spake hurriedly on this wise:

  "Most holy father, thou knowest how I have lived within the greenwood all my days nor found it lonely, for I did love it so, that I had thought to die here likewise when my time should come. Yet now do I know that this shall never be——to-day I go hence."

  "Wherefore, my son?"

  "There is come a strange restlessness upon me, a riot and fever of the blood whereby I am filled with dreams and strange desires. I would go forth into the great world of men and cities, to take my rightful place therein, for until a man hath loved and joyed and sorrowed with his fellows, he knoweth nought of life."

  "Perchance, my son, this is but the tide of youthful blood that tingles in thy veins? Or is it that thou hast looked of late within a woman's eyes?"

  Then Beltane kneeled him at the feet of Ambrose and hid his face betwixt his knees, as he had been wont to do whiles yet a little child.

  "Father," he murmured, "thou hast said." Now looking down upon this golden head, Ambrose sighed and drew the long curls through his fingers with a wondrous gentleness.

  "Tell me of thy love, Beltane," said he.

  Forthwith, starting to his feet, Beltane answered:

  "'Tis many long and weary months, my father, and yet doth seem but yesterday. She came to me riding upon a milk-white steed. At first methought her of the fairy kind thither drawn by my poor singing, yet, when I looked on her again, I knew her to be woman. And she was fair—— O very fair, my father. I may not tell her beauty for 'twas compounded of all beauteous things, of the snow of lilies, the breath of flowers, the gleam of stars on moving waters, the music of streams, the murmur of wind in trees——I cannot tell thee more but that there is a flame doth hide within her hair, and for her eyes——O methinks 'tis for her eyes I do love her most——love her? Aye, my body doth burn and thrill with love——alas, poor fool, alas it should be so! But, for that she is proud and of an high estate, for that I am I, a poor worker of iron whom men call Beltane the Smith, fit but to sigh and sigh and forever sigh, to dream of her and nothing more——so must I go hence, leaving the sweet silence of the woods for the strife and noise of cities, learning to share the burdens of my fellows. See you not, my father, see you not the way of it?" So spake Beltane, hot and passionate, striding to and fro upon the sward, while Ambrose sat with bitterness in his heart but with eyes ineffably gentle.

  "And is this love of thine so hopeless, my Beltane?"

  "Beyond all thought; she is the Duchess Helen of Mortain!"

  Now for a while the hermit spake not, sitting chin in hand as one who halts betwixt two courses.

  "'Tis strange," he said at length, "and passing strange! Yet, since 'tis she, and she so much above thee, wherefore would ye leave the tender twilight of these forests?"

  Quoth Beltane, sighing:

  "My father, I tell thee these woods be full of love and her. She looketh at me from the flowers and stealeth to me in their fragrance; the very brooks do babble of her beauty; each leaf doth find a little voice to whisper of her, and everywhere is love and love and love——so needs must I away."

  "And think you so to escape this love, my Beltane, and the pain of it?"

  "Nay my father, that were thing impossible for it doth fill the universe, so must I needs remember it with every breath I draw, but in the griefs and sorrows of others I may, perchance, learn to bear mine own, silent and patiently, as a man should."

  Then Ambrose sighed, and beckoning Beltane to his knee, laid his hands upon his shoulders and looked deep within his eyes.

  "Beltane my son," said he, "I have known thee from thy youth up and well do I know thou canst not lie, for thy heart is pure as yet and uncorrupt. But now is the thing I feared come upon thee——ah, Beltane, hast thou forgot all I have told thee of women and the ways of women, how that their white bodies are filled with all manner of wantonness, their hands strong in lures and enticements? A woman in her beauty is a fair thing to the eyes of a man, yet I tell thee Beltane, they be snares of the devil, setting father 'gainst son and——brother 'gainst brother, whereby come unnatural murders and bloody wars."

  "And yet, needs must I love her still, my father!"

  "Aye, 'tis so," sighed Ambrose, "'tis ever so, and as for thee, well do I know the blood within thee for a hot, wild blood——and thou art young, and so it is I fear for thee."

  But, looking up, Beltane shook his head and answered:

  "Holy father, thou art wise and wondrous learned in the reading of books and in the ancient wisdoms and philosophies, yet methinks this love is a thing no book can teach thee, a truth a man must needs find out for himself." "And think you I know nought of love, Beltane, the pain and joy of it——and the shame? Thou seest me a poor old man and feeble, bent with years and suffering, one who but waiteth for the time when my grievous sin shall be atoned for and God, in His sweet clemency, shall ease me of this burden of life. Yet do I tell thee there was a time when this frail body was strong and tall, well-nigh, as thine own, when this white hair was thick and black, and these dim eyes bold and fearless even as thine."

  "Ah, Beltane, well do I know women and the ways of women! Come, sit you beside me and, because thou art fain to go into the world and play thy man's part, so now will I tell thee that the which I had thought to bear with me to the grave."

  Then Ambrose the Hermit, leaning his head upon his hand, began to speak on this wise:

  "Upon a time were two brothers, nobles of a great house and following, each alike lovers of peace yet each terrible in war; the name of the one was Johan and of the other Beltane. Now Beltane, being elder, was Duke of that country, and the country maintained peace within its borders and the people thereof waxed rich and happy. And because these twain loved each other passing well the way of the one was ever the way of the other so that they dwelt together in a wondrous amity, and as their hearts were pure and strong so waxed they in body so that there was none could cope with them at hand-strokes nor bear up against the might of their lances, and O, methinks in all this fair world nought was there fairer than the love of these two brethren!

  "Now it befell, upon a day, that they set out with a goodly company to attend a tourney in a certain town whither, likewise, were come many knights of renown, nobles and princes beyond count eager to prove their prowess, thither drawn by the fame of that fair lady who was to be Queen of Beauty. All lips spake of her and the wonder of her charms, how that a man could not look within her eyes but must needs fall into a passion of love for her. But the brethren smiled and paid small heed and so, together, journeyed to the city. The day of the joust being come, forth they rode into the lists, side by side, each in his triple mail and ponderous helm, alike at all points save for the golden circlet upon Duke Beltane's shining casque. And there befell, that day, a mighty shivering of lances and many a knightly deed was wrought. But, for these brethren there was none of all these knights and nobles who might abide their onset; all day long they together maintained the lists till there none remained to cope with them, wherefore the marshal would have had them run a course together for proof which was the mightier. But Beltane smiled and shook his head saying, 'Nay, it is not meet that brother strive with brother!' And Johan said: 'Since the day doth rest with us, we will share the glory together.' So, amid the acclaim of voice and trumpet, side by side they came to make obeisance to the Queen of Beauty, and gazing upon her, they saw that she was indeed of a wondrous beauty. Now in her hand she held the crown that should reward the victor, yet because they were two, she knew not whom to choose, wherefore she laughed, and brake the crown asunder and gave to each a half with many fair words and gentle sayings. But, alas, my son! from that hour her beauty came betwixt these brethren, veiling their hearts one from the other. So they tarried awhile in that fair city, yet companied together no more, for each was fain to walk apart, dreaming of this woman and the beauty of her, and each by stealth wooed her to wife. At last, upon an evening, came Johan to his brother and taking from his bosom the half of the crown he had won, kissed it and gave it to Beltane, saying: 'The half of a crown availeth no man, take therefore my half and join it with thine, for well do I know thy heart, my brother——and thou art the elder, and Duke; go therefore and woo this lady to wife, and God speed thee, my lord.' But Beltane said: 'Shame were it in me to take advantage of my years thus; doth age or rank make a man's love more worthy? So, get thee to thy wooing, my brother, and heaven's blessing on thee.' Then grew Johan full of joy, saying: 'So be it, dear my brother, but am I come not to thee within three days at sunset, then shalt know that my wooing hath not prospered.' Upon the third day, therefore, Beltane the Duke girded on his armour and made ready to ride unto his own demesne, yet tarried until sunset, according to his word. But his brother Johan came not. Therefore he, in turn, rode upon his wooing and came unto the lady's presence in hauberk of mail, and thus ungently clad wooed her as one in haste to be gone, telling her that this world was no place for a man to sigh out his days at a woman's feet, and bidding her answer him' Yea' or 'Nay' and let him be gone to his duty. And she, whom so many had wooed on bended knee, spake him' Yea'——for that a woman's ways be beyond all knowledge——and therewith gave her beauty to his keeping. So, forthwith were they wed, with much pomp and circumstance, and so he brought her to his Duchy with great joy and acclaim. Then would Johan have departed over seas, but Beltane ever dissuaded him, and fain these brethren would have loved each other as they had done aforetime, yet was the beauty of this woman ever betwixt them. Now, within that year, came news of fire and sword upon the border, of cruel rape and murder, so Beltane sent forth his brother Johan with an army to drive back the invaders, and himself abode in his great castle, happy in the love of his fair, young wife. But the war went ill, tidings came that Johan his brother was beaten back with much loss and he himself sore wounded. Therefore the Duke made ready to set forth at the head of a veteran company, but ere he rode a son was born to him, so needs must he come to his wife in his armour, and beholding the child, kissed him. Thereafter Duke Beltane rode to the war with a glad heart, and fell upon his enemies and scattered them, and pursued them far and smote them even to their own gates. But in the hour of his triumph he fell, by treachery, into the hands of his cruelest enemy, how it mattereth not, and for a space was lost to sight and memory. But as for Johan, the Duke's brother, he lay long sick of his wounds, so came the Duchess and ministered to him; and she was fair, and passing fair, and he was young. And when his strength was come again, each day was Johan minded to ride forth and seek the Duke his brother——but he was young, and she passing fair, wherefore he tarried still, bound by the lure of her beauty. And, upon a soft and stilly eve as they walked together in the garden, she wooed Johan with tender look and word, and wreathed her white arms about him and gave to his her mouth. And, in that moment came one, fierce and wild of aspect, in dinted casque and rusty mail who stood and watched——ah God!"

  Here, for a while, the hermit Ambrose stayed his tale, and Beltane saw his brow was moist and that his thin hands clenched and wrung each other.

  "So thus, my son, came Duke Beltane home again, he and his esquire Sir Benedict of Bourne alone of all his company, each alike worn with hardship and spent with wounds. But now was the Duke stricken of a greater pain and leaned him upon the shoulder of his esquire, faint and sick of soul, and knew an anguish deeper than any flesh may know. Then, of a sudden, madness came upon him and, breaking from the mailed arms that held him, he came hot-foot to the courtyard and to the hall beyond, hurling aside all such as sought to stay him and so reached at last my lady's bower, his mailed feet ringing upon the Atones. And, looking up, the Duchess saw and cried aloud and stood, thereafter, pale and speechless and wide of eye, while Johan's cheek grew red and in his look was shame. Then the Duke put up his vizor and, when he spake, his voice was harsh and strange: 'Greeting, good brother!' said he, 'go now, I pray you, get you horse and armour and wait me in the courtyard, yet first must I greet this my lady wife.' So Johan turned, with hanging head, and went slow-footed from the chamber. Then said the Duke, laughing in his madness, 'Behold, lady, the power of a woman's beauty, for I loved a noble brother once, a spotless knight whose honour reached high as heaven, but thou hast made of him a something foul and base, traitor to me and to his own sweet name, and 'tis for this I will requite thee!' But the Duchess spake not, nor blenched even when the dagger gleamed to strike——O sweet God of mercy, to strike! But, in that moment, came Benedict of Bourne and leapt betwixt and took the blow upon his cheek, and, stanching the blood within his tattered war-cloak, cried: 'Lord Duke, because I love thee, ne'er shalt thou do this thing until thou first slay me!' A while the Duke stood in amaze, then turned and strode away down the great stair, and coming to the courtyard, beheld his brother Johan armed at all points and mounted, and with another horse equipped near by. So the Duke laughed and closed his vizor and his laughter boomed hollow within his rusty casque, and, leaping to the saddle, rode to the end of the great tilt-yard, and, wheeling, couched his lance. So these brethren, who had loved each other so well, spurred upon each other with levelled lances but, or ever the shock came——O my son, my son!——Johan rose high in his stirrups and cried aloud the battle-cry of his house 'Arise! Arise! I shall arise!' and with the cry, tossed aside his lance lest he might harm the Duke his brother——O sweet clemency of Christ!——and crashed to earth—— and lay there——very still and silent. Then the Duke dismounted and, watched by pale-faced esquires and men-at-arms, came and knelt beside his brother, and laid aside his brother's riven helm and, beholding his comely features torn and marred and his golden hair all hatefully bedabbled, felt his heart burst in sunder, and he groaned, and rising to stumbling feet came to his horse and mounted and rode away 'neath grim portcullis and over echoing drawbridge, yet, whithersoever he looked, he saw only his brother's dead face, pale and bloody. And fain he would have prayed but could not, and so he came into the forest. All day long he rode beneath the trees careless of his going, conscious only that Benedict of Bourne rode behind with his bloody war-cloak wrapped about him. But on rode the Duke with hanging head and listless hands for before his haggard eyes was ever the pale, dead face of Johan his brother. Now, as the moon rose, they came to a brook that whispered soft-voiced amid the shadows and here his war-horse stayed to drink. Then came Sir Benedict of Bourne beside him, 'Lord Duke,' said he, 'what hast thou in thy mind to do?' 'I know not,' said the Duke, 'though methinks 'twere sweet to die.' 'Then what of the babe, lord Duke?' and, speaking, Sir Benedict drew aside his cloak and showed the babe asleep beneath. But, looking upon its innocence, the Duke cried out and hid his face, for the babe's golden curls were dabbled with the blood from Sir Benedict's wound and looked even as had the face of the dead Johan. Yet, in a while, the Duke reached out and took the child and setting it against his breast, turned his horse. Said Sir Benedict: 'Whither do we ride, lord Duke?' Then spake the Duke on this wise: 'Sir Benedict, Duke Beltane is no more, the stroke that slew my brother Johan killed Duke Beltane also. But as for you, get you to Pentavalon and say the Duke is dead, in proof whereof take you this my ring and so, farewell.' Then, my Beltane, God guiding me, I brought thee to these solitudes, for I am he that was the Duke Beltane, and thou art my son indeed."

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