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Beltane The Smith (Chapter33)

2006-08-28 16:34

  Chapter XXXIII. How Beltane Had News of One that was a Notable Pardoner

  Beltane awoke to the shrill notes of a horn and starting to sleepy elbow, heard the call and challenge of sentinel and outpost from the bank above. Thereafter presently appeared Giles (that chanced to be captain of the watch) very joyously haling along a little man placid and rotund. A plump little man whose sober habit, smacking of things ecclesiastic, was at odds with his face that beamed forth jovial and rubicund from the shade of his wide-eaved hat: a pilgrim-like hat, adorned with many small pewter images of divers saints. About his waist was a girdle where hung a goodly wallet, plump like himself and eke as well filled. A right buxom wight was he, comfortable and round, who, though hurried along in the archer's lusty grip, smiled placidly, and spake him sweetly thus: "Hug me not so lovingly, good youth; abate—— abate thy hold upon my tender nape lest, sweet lad, the holy Saint Amphibalus strike thee deaf, dumb, blind, and latterly, dead. Trot me not so hastily, lest the good Saint Alban cast thy poor soul into a hell seventy times heated, and 'twould be a sad——O me! a very sad thing that thou should'st sniff brimstone on my account."

  "Why, Giles," quoth Beltane, blinking in the dawn, "what dost bring hither so early in the morning?"

  "Lord, 'tis what they call a Pardoner, that dealeth in relics, mouldy bones and the like, see you, whereby they do pretend to divers miracles and wonders——"

  "Verily, verily," nodded the little man placidly, "I have here in my wallet a twig from Moses' burning bush, with the great toe of Thomas a' Didymus, the thumb of the blessed Saint Alban——"

  "Ha, rogue!" quoth Giles, "when I was a monk we had four thumbs of the good Saint Alban——"

  "Why then, content you, fond youth," smiled the Pardoner, "my thumb is number one——"

  "Oh, tall brother," quoth Giles, "'tis an irreverent knave, that maketh the monk in me arise, my very toes do twitch for to kick his lewd and sacrilegious carcase——and, lord, he would kick wondrous soft——"

  "And therein, sweet and gentle lord," beamed the little buxom man, "therein lieth a recommendation of itself. Divers noble lords have kicked me very familiarly ere now, and finding me soft and tender have, forthwith, kicked again. I mind my lord Duke Ivo, did with his own Ducal foot kick me right heartily upon a time, and once did spit upon my cloak——I can show you the very place——and these things do breed and argue familiarity. Thus have I been familiar with divers noble lords—— and there were ladies also, ladies fair and proud——O me!"

  "Now, by the Rood!" says Beltane, sitting up and staring, "whence had you this, Giles?"

  "My lord, 'twas found by the man Jenkyn snoring within the green, together with a mule——a sorry beast! a capon partly devoured, a pasty—— well spiced! and a wine-skin——empty, alas! But for who it is, and whence it cometh——"

  "Sweet, courteous lord,——resplendent, youthful sir, I come from north and south, from east and west, o'er land, o'er sea, from village green and market-square, but lately from the holy shrine of the blessed Saint Amphibalus. As to who I am and what——the universal want am I, for I do stand for health, fleshly and spiritual. I can cure your diseases of the soul, mind and body. In very sooth the Pardoner of Pardoners am I, with pardons and indulgences but now hot from the holy fist of His Holiness of Rome: moreover I have a rare charm and notable cure for the worms, together with divers salves, electuaries, medicaments and nostrums from the farthest Orient. I have also store of songs and ballades, grave and gay. Are ye melancholic? Then I have a ditty merry and mirthful. Would ye weep? Here's a lamentable lay of love and languishment infinite sad to ease you of your tears. Are ye a sinner vile and damned? Within my wallet lie pardons galore with powerful indulgences whereby a man may enjoy all the cardinal sins yet shall his soul be accounted innocent as a babe unborn and his flesh go without penance. Here behold my special indulgence! The which, to him that buyeth it, shall remit the following sins damned and deadly——to wit: Lechery, perjury, adultery, wizardry. Murders, rapes, thievings and slanders. Then follow the lesser sins, as——"

  "Hold!" cried Beltane, "surely here be sins enough for any man."

  "Not so, potent sir: for 'tis a right sinful world and breedeth new sins every day, since man hath a rare invention that way. Here is a grievous thing, alas! yet something natural: for, since men are human, and human 'tis to sin, so must all men be sinners and, being sinners, are they therefore inevitably damned!"

  "Alas, for poor humanity!" sighed Beltane.

  "Forsooth, alas indeed, messire, and likewise woe!" nodded the Pardoner, "for thou, my lord, thou art but human, after all."

  "Indeed at times, 'twould almost seem so!" nodded Beltane gravely.

  "And therefore," quoth the Pardoner, "and therefore, most noble, gentle lord, art thou most assuredly and inevitably——" The Pardoner sighed.

  "Damned?" said Beltane.

  "Damned!" sighed the Pardoner.

  "Along with the rest of humanity!" nodded Beltane.

  "All men be more prone to sin when youth doth riot in their veins," quoth the Pardoner, "and alas, thou art very young, messire, so do I tremble for thee."

  "Yet with each hour do I grow older!"

  "And behold in this hour come I, declaring to thee there is no sin so vile but that through me, Holy Church shall grant thee remission——at a price!"

  "A price, good Pardoner?"

  "Why, there be sins great and sins little. But, youthful sir, for thine own damnable doings, grieve not, mope not nor repine, since I, Lubbo Fitz-Lubbin, Past Pardoner of the Holy See, will e'en now unloose, assoil and remit them unto thee——"

  "At a price!" nodded Beltane.

  "Good my lord," spake Giles, viewing the Pardoner's plump person with a yearning eye, "pray thee bid me kick him hence!"

  "Not so, Giles, since from all things may we learn——with patience. Here now is one that hath travelled and seen much and should be wise——"

  "Forsooth, messire, I have been so accounted ere now," nodded the Pardoner.

  "Dost hear, Giles? Thus, from his wisdom I may perchance grow wiser than I am. So get thee back to thy duty, Giles. Begone——thy presence doth distract us."

  "Aye, base archer, begone!" nodded the Pardoner, seating himself upon the sward. "Thy visage dour accordeth not with deep-seated thought—— take it hence!"

  "There spake wisdom, Giles, and he is a fool that disobeys. So, Giles ——begone!"

  Hereupon Giles frowned upon the Pardoner, who lolling at his ease, snapped his fingers at Giles, whereat Giles scowled amain and scowling, strode away.

  "Now, messire," quoth the Pardoner, opening his wallet, "now in the matter of sinning, messire, an thou hast some pet and peculiar vice—— some little, pretty vanity, some secret, sweet transgression——"

  "Nay, first," quoth Beltane, "'tis sure thou hast a tongue——"

  "O infallibly, messire; a sweet tongue——a tongue attuned to cunning phrases. God gave to women beauty, to flowers perfume, and to me——a tongue!"

  "Good Pardoner, a lonely wight am I, ignorant of the world and of its ways and doings. So for thy tongue will I barter base coin——what can'st tell me for this fair gold piece?"

  "That fain would I have the spending on't, noble, generous sir."

  "What more?"

  "Anything ye will, messire: for since I am the want universal and gold the universal need, needs must want need! And here is a rare-turned phrase, methinks?"

  "So thus do I wed need with want," nodded Beltane, tossing him the coin. "Come now, discourse to me of worldly things——how men do trim their beards these days, what sins be most i' the fashion, if Duke Ivo sleepeth a-nights, whether Pentavalon city standeth yet?"

  "Aha!" cried the Pardoner (coin safely pouched), "I can tell ye tales a-plenty: sly, merry tales of lovely ladies fair and gay. I can paint ye a tongue picture of one beyond all fair ladies fair——her soft, white body panting-warm for kisses, the lure of her mouth, the languorous passion of her eyes, the glorious mantle of her flame-like hair. I'll tell of how she, full of witching, wanton wiles, love-alluring, furtive fled fleet-footed from the day and——there amid the soft and slumberous silence of the tender trees did yield her love to one beyond all beings blest. Thus, sighing and a-swoon, did Helen fair, a Duchess proud——"

  "Ah!" cried Beltane, clenching sudden fist, "what base and lying babble do ye speak? Helen, forsooth——dare ye name her, O Thing?"

  Now before Beltane's swift and blazing anger the Pardoner's assurance wilted on the instant, and he cowered behind a lifted elbow.

  "Nay, nay, most potent lord," he stammered, "spit on me an ye will—— spit, I do implore thee, but strike me not. Beseech thee sir, in what do I offend? The story runs that the proud and wilful lady is fled away, none know wherefore, why, nor where. I do but read the riddle thus: wherefore should she flee but for love, and if for love, then with a man, and if with a man——"

  "Enough of her!" quoth Beltane scowling, "woman and her wiles is of none account to me!"

  "How——how?" gasped the Pardoner, "of no account——! Woman——! But thou'rt youthful——of no account——! Thou'rt a man very strong and lusty——! Of no account, forsooth? O, Venus, hear him! Woman, forsooth! She is man's aim, his beginning and oft-times his end. She is the everlasting cause. She is man's sweetest curse and eke salvation, his slave, his very tyrant. Without woman strife would cease, ambition languish, Venus pine to skin and bone (sweet soul!) and I never sell another pardon and starve for lack of custom; for while women are, so will be pardoners. But this very week I did good trade in fair Belsaye with divers women—— three were but ordinary indulgences for certain small marital transgressions; but one, a tender maid and youthful, being put to the torment, had denounced her father and lover——"

  "The torment?" quoth Beltane, starting. "The torment, say you?"

  "Aye, messire! Belsaye setteth a rare new fashion in torments of late. Howbeit, the father and lover being denounced before Sir Gui's tribunal, they were forthwith hanged upon my lord Gui's new gibbets——"

  "O——hanged?" quoth Beltane "hanged?"

  "Aye, forsooth, by the neck as is the fashion. Now cometh this woeful wench to me vowing she heard their voices i' the night, and, to quiet these voices besought of me a pardon. But she had but two sorry silver pieces and pardons be costly things, and when she could get no pardon, she went home and that night killed herself——silly wench! Ha! my lord—— good messire——my arm——holy saints! 'twill break!"

  "Killed herself——and for lack of thy pitiful, accursed pardon! Heard you aught else in Belsaye——speak!" and Beltane's cruel grip tightened.

  "Indeed——indeed that will I, good news, sweet news——O my lord, loose my arm!"

  "Thine arm, good Pardoner——thine arm? Aye, take it back, it availeth me nothing——take it and cherish it. To part with a pardon for but two silver pieces were a grave folly! So pray you forgive now my ungentleness and speak my thy good, sweet tidings." But hereupon, the Pardoner feeling his arm solicitously, held his peace and glowered sullenly at Beltane, who had turned and was staring away into the distance. So the Pardoner sulked awhile and spake not, until, seeing Beltane's hand creep out towards him, he forthwith fell to volubility.

  "'Tis told in Belsaye on right good authority that a certain vile knave, a lewd, seditious rogue hight Beltane that was aforetime a charcoal-burner and thereafter a burner of gibbets——as witness my lord Duke's tall, great and goodly gallows——that was beside a prison breaker and known traitor, hath been taken by the doughty Sir Pertolepe, lord Warden of the Marches, and by him very properly roasted and burned to death within his great Keep of Garthlaxton."

  "Roasted, forsooth?" said Beltane, his gaze yet afar off; "and, forsooth, burned to ashes; then forsooth is he surely dead?"

  "Aye, that is he; and his ashes scattered on a dung-hill."

  "A dung-hill——ha?"

  "He was but a charcoal-burning knave, 'tis said——a rogue base-born and a traitor. Now hereupon my lord, the good lord Sir Gui, my lord Duke's lord Seneschal of Belsaye——"

  "Forsooth," sighed Beltane, "here be lords a-plenty in Pentavalon!"

  "Hereupon the noble Sir Gui set a close watch upon the townsfolk whereby he apprehended divers suspected rogues, and putting them to the torture, found thereby proofs of their vile sedition, insomuch that though the women held their peace for the most part, certain men enduring not, did confess knowledge of a subterraneous passage 'neath the wall. Then did Sir Gui cause this passage to be stopped, and four gibbets to be set up within the market-place, and thereon at sunset every day did hang four men, whereto the towns folk were summoned by sound of tucket and drum: until upon a certain evening some six days since (myself standing by) came a white friar hight Friar Martin——well known in Belsaye, and bursting through the throng he did loud-voiced proclaim himself the traitor that had oped and shown the secret way into the dungeons unto that charcoal-rogue for whose misdeeds so many folk had suffered. So they took this rascal friar and scourged him and set him in the water-dungeons where rats do frolic, and to-night at sunset he dieth by slow fire as a warning to——Ah! sweet, noble, good my lord, what——what would ye——" for Beltane had risen and was looking down at the crouching Pardoner, suddenly haggard, pallid-lipped, and with eyes a-glare with awful menace; but now the Pardoner saw that those eyes looked through him and beyond——living eyes in a face of death.

  "Messire——messire!" quavered the Pardoner on trembling knees; but Beltane, as one that is deaf and blind, strode forward and over him, and as he went set his bugle to his lips and sounded a rallying note. Forthwith came men that ran towards him at speed, but now was there no outcry or confusion and their mail gleamed in the early sun as they fell into their appointed rank and company.

  Then Beltane set his hands unto his eyes and thereafter stared up to the heavens and round about upon the fair earth as one that wakes from a dream evil and hateful, and spake, sudden and harsh-voiced:

  "Now hither to me Walkyn, Giles and Roger. Ye do remember how upon a time we met a white friar in the green that was a son of God——they call him Brother Martin? Ye do remember brave Friar Martin?"

  "Aye, lord, we mind him!" quoth the three.

  "Ye will remember how that we did, within the green, aid him to bury a dead maid, young and fair and tender——yet done to shameful death?"

  "Verily master——a noble lady!" growled Walkyn.

  "And very young!" said Roger.

  "And very comely, alas!" added Giles.

  "So now do I tell thee that, as she died——snatched out of life by brutal hands——so, at this hour, even as we stand idle here, other maids do suffer and die within Belsaye town. To-day, as we stand here, good Friar Martin lieth within the noisome water-dungeons where rats do frolic——"

  "Ha! the pale fox!" growled Walkyn. "Bloody Gui of Allerdale that I do live but to slay one day with Pertolepe the Red——"

  "Thou dost remember, Roger, how, within the Keep at Belsaye I sware an oath unto Sir Gui? So now——this very hour——must we march on Belsaye that this my oath may be kept." But here a murmur arose that hummed from rank to rank; heads were shaken and gruff voices spake on this wise:

  "Belsaye? 'Tis a long day's march to Belsaye——"

  "'Tis a very strong city——very strongly guarded——"

  "And we muster scarce two hundred——"

  "The walls be high and we have no ladders, or engines for battery and storm——"

  "Forsooth, and we have here much booty already——"

  "Ha——booty!" cried Beltane, "there spake tall Orson, methinks!"

  "Aye," cried another voice, loud and defiant, "and we be no soldiers, master, to march 'gainst walled cities; look'ee. Foresters are we, to live secure and free within the merry greenwood. Is't not so, good fellows?"

  "And there spake Jenkyn o' the Ford!" quoth Beltane. "Stand forth Orson, and Jenkyn with thee——so. Now hearken again. Within Belsaye men ——aye, and women too! have endured the torment, Orson. To-day, at sundown, a noble man doth burn, Jenkyn."

  "Why, look'ee, master," spake Jenkyn, bold-voiced yet blenching from Beltane's unswerving gaze, "look'ee, good master, here is no matter for honest woodsmen, look'ee——"

  "Aye," nodded tall Orson, "'tis no matter of ours, so wherefore should us meddle?"

  "And ye have swords, I see," quoth Beltane, "and thereto hands wherewith to fight, yet do ye speak, forsooth, of booty, and fain would lie hid secure within the green? So be it! Bring forth the record, Giles, and strike me out the names of Orson and Jenkyn, the which, being shaped like men, are yet no men. Give therefore unto each his share of booty and let him go hence." So saying, Beltane turned and looked upon the close-drawn ranks that murmured and muttered no more. Quoth he:

  "Now, and there be any here among us so faint-hearted——so unworthy as this Orson and Jenkyn, that do hold treasure and safety above flesh and blood——if there be any here, who, regarding his own base body, will strike no blow for these distressed——why, let him now go forth of this our company. O men! O men of Pentavalon, do ye not hear them, these woeful ones——do ye not hear them crying to us from searing flame, from dungeon and gibbet——do ye not hear? Is there one, that, remembering the torments endured of groaning bodies, the dire wrongs of innocence shamed and trampled in the mire——lives there a man that will not adventure life and limb and all he doth possess that such things may be smitten hence and made an end of for all time? But if such there be, let him now stand forth with Orson here, and Jenkyn o' the Ford!"

  Thus spake Beltane quick and passionate and thereafter paused, waiting their answer; but no man spake or moved, only from their grim ranks a growl went up ominous and deep, and eyes grown bright and fierce glared upon tall Orson and Jenkyn o' the Ford, who shuffled with their feet and fumbled with their hands and knew not where to look.

  "'Tis well, 'tis well, good comrades all!" spake Beltane in a while, "this night, mayhap, shall we, each one, achieve great things. Go now, dig ye a pit and therein hide such treasure as ye will and thereafter arm ye at points, for in the hour we march. Eric, see each doth bear with him food, and Giles, look that their quivers be full."

  So saying, Beltane turned and coming to his sleeping-place, forthwith began to don his armour. And presently he was aware of Orson and Jenkyn standing without the cave and each with look downcast; and eke they fumbled with their hands and shuffled with their feet and fain were to speak yet found no word. But at last spake Jenkyn humbly and on this wise:

  "Master, here come I, look'ee, with Orson that is my comrade, look'ee——"

  "Nay, go get thee to thy 'booty'!" says Beltane, busied with his armour.

  "Nay, but look'ee master, we be——"

  "No men!" quoth Beltane, "thus would I be free of ye both——so get you hence."

  "But good master," spake Orson, "we do ha' changed our minds——it do be a direful thing to burn, and if they do ha' tormented maids——"

  "'Tis no matter of thine," quoth Beltane. "So go thy ways and meddle not."

  "But master, look'ee now, we be stout men, and look'ee, we be full of lust to fight——O master, let us go! Kneel, Orson, bend——bend thy long shanks, look'ee——" and forthwith on their knees fell Jenkyn and tall Orson with pleading eyes and eager hands outstretched.

  "O master, look'ee, let us go!"

  "Aye, we do ha' changed our minds, master!"

  "Then be it so!" said Beltane, "and I pray ye be ever faithful to your minds!" Then took they Beltane's hand to kiss and thereafter up they sprang and went rejoicing to their company.

  And, within the hour, mail and bascinet agleam, the two hundred and twenty and four marched forth of the hollow with step blithe and free, and swung away through the green till the sound of voice and laughter, the ring and clash of their going was died away and none remained, save where, cross-legged upon the sward, his open wallet on his knee, the round and buxom Pardoner sat to cherish a bruised arm and to stare from earth to heaven and from heaven to earth with eyes wider and rounder even than was their wont and custom.

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