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Beltane The Smith (Chapter44)

2006-08-28 16:36

  Chapter XLIV. How a Madness Came Upon Beltane in the Wild-Wood

  The sun rose high, jet still Beltane sat there beside the stream, staring down into the gurgling waters, grieving amain for his unworthiness.

  Thus presently comes Sir Fidelis, and standing afar, spake in voice strange and bitter:

  "What do ye there, my lord? Dost dream ever upon thy woes and ills? Wilt dream thy life away here amid the wild, forsooth?"

  Quoth Beltane, very humbly:

  "And wherefore not, Sir Fidelis? Unfit am I for great achievements. But, as to thee, take now the horse and ride you ever north and west——"

  "Yea, but where is north, and where west——?"

  "The trees shall tell you this. Hearken now——"

  "Nay, my lord, no forester am I to find my way through trackless wild. So, an thou stay, so, perforce, must I: and if thou stay then art thou deeply forsworn."

  "How mean you, good sir?"

  "I mean Belsaye——I mean all those brave souls that do wait and watch, pale-cheeked, 'gainst Ivo's threatened vengeance——"

  "Ha——Belsaye!" quoth Beltane, lifting his head.

  "Thou must save Belsaye from flame and ravishment, my lord!"

  "Aye, forsooth," cried Beltane, clenching his hands, "though I be unworthy to stand in my noble father's place, yet Belsaye must be saved or I die in it. O Fidelis, friend art thou indeed and wise beyond thy years!" But as Beltane arose, Sir Fidelis incontinent turned away, and presently came back leading the great horse. So in a while they set out northwards; but now were no arms to clasp and cling, since Sir Fidelis found hold otherwhere. Thus, after some going, Beltane questioned him:

  "Art easy, Fidelis?"

  "Aye, lord!"

  "Wilt not take hold upon my belt, as yesterday?"

  "Methinks I am better thus."

  "Nay then, shalt have stirrups and saddle, for I am fain to walk."

  "And re-open thy wound, messire? Nay, let be——I ride easily thus."

  "Art angered with me, Fidelis?"

  "Nay, lord, I do but pity thee!"

  "And wherefore?"

  "For thy so great loneliness——in all thy world is none but Beltane, and he is very woeful and dreameth ever of his wrongs——"

  "Would'st call me selfish again, forsooth?"

  "Nay, lord——a martyr. O, a very martyr that huggeth his chains and kisseth his wounds and joyeth in the recollection of his pain."

  "Have I not suffered, Fidelis?"

  "Thou hast known the jangling gloom of a dungeon——'twas at Garthlaxton Keep, methinks?"

  "Fetters!" cried Beltane, "a dungeon! These be things to smile at——my grief is of the mind——the deeper woe of high and noble ideals shattered——a holy altar blackened and profaned——a woman worshipped as divine, and proved baser than the basest!"

  "And is this all, my lord?"

  "All!" quoth Beltane amazed. "All!" saith he, turning to stare.

  "So much of woe and tribulation for so little reason? Nay, hear me, for now will I make thee a prophecy, as thus: There shall dawn a day, lord Beltane, when thou shalt see at last and know Truth when she stands before thee. And, in that day thou shalt behold all things with new eyes: and in that day shalt thou sigh, and long, and yearn with all thy soul for these woeful hours wherein Self looms for thee so large thou art blind to aught else."

  "Good Fidelis, thy prophecy is beyond my understanding."

  "Aye, my lord, 'tis so I think, indeed!"

  "Pray thee therefore rede and expound it unto me!"

  "Nay, time mayhap shall teach it thee, and thou, methinks shalt passionately desire again the solitude of this wilderness."

  "Aye, but wherefore?"

  "For that it shall be beyond thy reach——and mine!" and Fidelis sighed in deep and troubled fashion and so fell to silence, what time Beltane, cunning in wood-lore, glancing hither and thither at knotted branch and writhen tree bole, viewing earth and heaven with a forester's quick eye, rode on into the trackless wilds of the forest-lands.

  Now here, thinketh the historian, it booteth not to tell of all those minor haps and chances that befell them; how, despite all Beltane's wood-craft, they went astray full oft by reason of fordless rivers and quaking swamps: of how they snared game to their sustenance, or how, for all the care and skill of Sir Fidelis, Beltane's wound healed not, by reason of continual riding, for that each day he grew more restless and eager for knowledge of Belsaye, so that, because of his wound he knew small rest by day and a fevered sleep by night——yet, despite all, his love for Fidelis daily waxed and grew, what time he pressed on through the wild country, north-westerly.

  Five weary days and nights wandered they, lost to sight and knowledge within the wild; days of heat and nights of pain and travail, until there came an evening when, racked with anguish and faint with thirst and weariness, Beltane drew rein within a place of rocks whereby was a shady pool deep-bowered in trees. Down sprang Fidelis to look anxiously on Beltane's face, pale and haggard in the light of a great moon.

  Says Beltane, looking round about with knitted brow:

  "Fidelis——O Fidelis, methinks I know this place——these rocks——the pool yonder——there should be a road hereabout, the great road that leadeth to Mortain. Climb now the steep and tell me an you can see a road, running north and south."

  Forthwith Sir Fidelis climbed the rocky eminence, and, being there, cried right joyously:

  "Aye, lord——'tis the road——the road!" and so came hastily down, glad-eyed. "'Tis the end of this wilderness at last, my lord!"

  "Aye!" sighed Beltane, "at last!" and groaning, he swayed in the saddle——for his pain was very sore——and would have fallen but for the ready arms of Sir Fidelis. Thereafter, with much labour, Beltane got him to earth, and Fidelis brought him where, beneath the steep, was a shallow cave carpeted with soft moss, very excellent suited to their need. Here Beltane laid him down, watching a little cataract that rippled o'er the rocky bank near by, where ferns and lichens grew; what time Sir Fidelis came and went, and, having set fire a-going whereby to cook their supper, brought an armful of fragrant heather to set 'neath Beltane's weary head. Then, having given him to drink of the cordial, fell to work bathing and bandaging his wound, sighing often to see it so swollen and angry.

  "Fidelis," quoth Beltane, "methinks there is some magic in thy touch, for now is my pain abated——hast a wondrous gentle hand——"

  "'Tis the cordial giveth thee respite, lord——"

  "Nay, 'tis thy hand, methinks. Sure no man e'er was blest with truer friend than thou, my Fidelis; brave art thou, yet tender as any woman, and rather would I have thy love than the love of any man or woman soever, henceforth, dear my friend. Nay, wherefore hang thy head? without thee I had died many times ere this; without thy voice to cheer me in these solitudes, thy strength and skill to aid me, I had fallen into madness and death. Wherefore I do love thee, Fidelis, and fain would have thee go beside me ever——so great is become my need of thee."

  "Ah, Beltane, thou dost know I will ne'er desert thee!"

  "So henceforth am I content——and yet——"

  "Well, my lord?"

  "To-morrow, perchance, shall see the end of this our solitude and close comradeship——to-morrow we should reach Hundleby Fen. So, Fidelis, promise me, if thou, at any time hereafter should see me harsh, or proud, or selfish——do thou mind me of these days of our love and companionship. Wilt promise me?"

  "Aye, lord!" spake Sir Fidelis, low-bending to his task; and thereafter sighed, and bowed him lower yet.

  "Wherefore dost thou sigh?"

  "For that I feel as if——ah, Beltane!——as if this night should be the end of our love and comradeship!"

  "Nought but death shall do this, methinks."

  "Why then," said Fidelis as he rose, "an it must be, fain would I have death."

  But when Beltane would have questioned him further he smiled sad and wistful and went forth to the fire. Up rose the moon, a thing of glory filling the warm, stilly night with a soft and radiant splendour——a tender light, fraught with a subtle magic, whereby all things, rock and tree and leaping brook, found a new and added beauty.

  And in some while comes Sir Fidelis to set out their viands, neat and orderly, as was ever his custom, and thereafter must needs chide Beltane, soft-voiced, for his lack of hunger, and cut dainty morsels, wooing him thereby to eat.

  "Fidelis," says Beltane, "on so fair a night as this, methinks, the old fables and romances might well be true that tell of elves that dance on moony nights, and of shapely nymphs and lovely dryads that are the spirits of the trees. Aye, in the magic of so fair a night as this aught might happen——miracles and wonders."

  "Save one thing, dear my lord."

  "As what, my Fidelis?"

  "That thou should'st dream Helen pure and faithful and worthy to thy love——that, doubting thine own senses, thou should'st yearn and sigh to hold her once again, heart on heart——"

  "Ah, Fidelis," quoth Beltane, sighing deep, "why wilt thou awake a sleeping sorrow? My love was dead long since, meseemeth, and buried in mine heart. O Fidelis, mine eyes, mine ears, my every sense do tell me she is false——so is an end of love for me henceforth."

  "Dear my lord," spake Fidelis, and his voice thrilled strangely in Beltane's ears——"O, Beltane, my lord, could'st thou but doubt thyself a little——could'st thou, doubting thine own senses for love's sake, believe her now true——true as thou would'st have her, then Love indeed might work for thee a miracle this night and thou be loved as man of god-like faith."

  "Nay, sweet Fidelis, I am but a man, apt to evil betimes and betimes seeking good. Howbeit, now am I a weary man that fain would sleep. Come then, lay you down here beside me where I may touch thee an I awake i' the night." And, lying down, Beltane beckoned Fidelis beside him.

  So in a while the young knight came and did as Beltane bade, and side by side they lay within the shelter of the little cave; and in the dark, Beltane set his mighty arm about him and thereafter spake, wondering:

  "Art not cold, Fidelis?"

  "Nay, lord."

  "Then why dost tremble?"

  "Indeed I know not——mayhap I grieved that——the age of miracles——is passed away."

  Now at this Beltane wondered the more and would fain have questioned him, but in that moment sighed, and fell to slumber. But in his sleep he dreamed that Fidelis was beset by foes and cried to him for aid, whereon he would have hasted to his deliverance yet could not for that unseen hands held him fast; then strove he amain against these griping hands, and so awaked in sudden terror and lay there trembling in the dark; and in the dark he reached out cautious hand further and further and so found himself alone——for the young knight was gone.

  Now being very sick with the fever of his wound, dread came upon him, fear seized and shook him, and, trembling in the dark he called aloud "Fidelis! Fidelis!" But no sound heard he save the ripple of the brook near by. Groaning, he arose and, limping forth of the cave stood in the glory of the moon, voiceless now by reason of his ever-growing terror; conscious only of his passionate desire to find again the youth whose gentle voice had cheered him often in the dark, whose high courage and tender care had never failed. So, leaning upon his great sword, Beltane limped through light and shadow, heedless of direction, until he was stayed by the waters of the pool.

  A faint splash, a rippling of the sleepy waters, and, out into the moonlight came one that swam the pool with long, easy strokes; one that presently leapt lightly ashore and stood there to shake down the unwetted glory of her hair. At first he thought this some enchanted pool and she the goddess of the place, but even then she turned, and thus at last——he knew. And in that moment also, she beheld him amid the leaves; tall and fair she stood, proud and maidenly, nor moved she, nor spake: only she shook about her loveliness the shining mantle of her hair. And beholding the reproachful sadness of those clear, virgin eyes, Beltane, abashed by her very beauty, bowed his head, and turning, stumbled away and thus presently finding himself within the cave, threw himself down and clasped his head within fierce hands. Yet, even so, needs must he behold the slim, white beauty of her, the rippling splendour of her hair, and the deep, shy sadness of her eyes, and, because of her beauty he trembled, and because of her falsity he groaned aloud.

  Now as he lay thus, after some while he heard a swift, light footfall, the whisper of mail, and knew that she stood above him; yet he heeded not, wherefore at last she spake, sweet-voiced and gentle.

  "Beltane——dear my lord, now dost thou know who is Fidelis, and thou didst——love Fidelis!" But Beltane stirred not, and finding him silent, she spake on, yet faltering a little:

  "When I waked from my swoon within the chapel at——at Blaen, and found thee gone, I, distraught with woeful fear and a most strange sickness, took thy sword and therewith horse and armour and in that same hour fled from Blaen, none knowing. Many days I rode seeking thee, until Love brought me to thee in the green. But, O Beltane, for those dire chances of our——wedding night, by what spells and witchcraft our happiness was changed to sorrow and dire amaze, I know no more than thou. Ah, Beltane——dear my lord——speak——speak to me!" And falling on her knees she would have lifted his head. But of a sudden he shrank away, and rose to his feet.

  "Touch me not, I am but a man and thou——art woman, and there is evil in thee, so touch me not with thy false, alluring hands. O, thou hast deceived me now as ever——As Fidelis did I love thee above all men, but for what thou art, I do despise thee——"

  But, with sudden gesture passionate and yearning, she reached out her white hands, and, kneeling thus, looked up at him with eyes a-swoon with love and supplication.

  "Beltane!" she sighed, "Beltane! Is thy great love dead in very truth? nay, indeed I know it liveth yet even as mine, and shall live on forever. I know——I have seen it leap within thine eyes, heard it in thy voice——and wherefore did'st thou love Fidelis? Look at me, Beltane! I can be as brave, as faithful and tender as Fidelis! Look at me!"

  But Beltane dared not look, and trembled because of her so great beauty, and fain would speak yet could not.

  Whereat she, yet upon her knees, drew nearer.

  "Beltane," she murmured, "trust me. Despite thyself, O, trust me——so shalt thou find happiness at last and Pentavalon an end to all her sorrows. Be thou my lord, my master——my dear love and husband——ride with me this night to my fair Mortain——"

  "To Mortain?" cried Beltane wildly, "aye, to Blaen, belike——to silken wantonings and to——death! Tempt me not, O witch——aye, witch that weaveth spells of her beauty——tempt me not I say, lest I slay thee to mine own defence, for I know thee beyond all women fair, yet would I slay thee first——" But, groaning, Beltane cast aside his sword and covered burning eyes with burning palms, yet shook as with an ague fit.

  The pleading hands fell, to clasp and wring each other; her proud head sank, and a great sob brake from her, what time Beltane watched her with eyes bright with fever and swayed upon his feet. Stumbling, he turned, and left her, yet presently came back leading the war-horse Mars.

  "To Mortain shalt thou ride to-night——I pray thee mount!" cried he, "Come——mount, I say!"

  Standing tall and proud before him she sighed and spake deep-sorrowing:

  "Then will I leave thee——an it must be so. But, in days to come, mayhap, thou shalt grieve for this hour, Beltane, nor shall all thy sighs nor all thy tears avail to bring it back again. Thou hast shamed me oft, yet for all thy bitter scorns I do forgive thee, aye, even the anguish of my breaking heart, for that my love doth rise beyond my pain; and so, dear my lord——fare thee well!"

  So she mounted, whereat the mettled charger must needs rear, and Beltane, staggering aside, catch at a tree and lean there.

  "Art sick, Beltane?" she cried in sudden fear——"how may I leave thee thus——art sick!"

  "Aye, Helen, for thy beauty. The devil is here, and I am here, so here is no place for thee——so get thee gone, spur——spur! for despising thee in my heart yet would I have thee stay: yet, an thou stay needs must I slay thee ere the dawn and myself thereafter!"

  Thus spake he, his voice loud, his speech quick and fevered.

  "Indeed, thou'rt sick, my lord——nor do I fear thee, thou noble son of noble father!"

  "My father! Forsooth he liveth in Holy Cross Thicket within Mortain; he bade me beware of women and the ways of women. So do I know thee witch, thou golden Helen. Ha! must Troy burn again——I loved thee once, but love is dead long since and turned corrupt——so get thee hence, Helen the Wilful!"

  "O, God pity thee, my Beltane, for thou dost love me yet, even as I love thee——thou lonely man-child! God pity thee, and me also!" and, crying thus, forlorn and desolate, the Duchess Helen rode upon her solitary way.

  Then turned Beltane and stumbled on he knew not whither, and betimes he laughed loud and high and betimes he was shaken by great and fierce sobs, yet found he never a tear. Thus, limping painfully, and stumbling anon as one smitten blind, he wandered awhile, and so at length found himself beside the little cave; and throwing himself down within its shadows, tore away the bandages her gentle hands had wrought.

  And lying there, it seemed that Fidelis yet lay beneath his arm, the Fidelis who was no Fidelis; and in the shadows he laughed amain——wild laughter that died of a sudden, choked by awful sobs, what time he clenched his hands upon his throbbing ears; yet still, above the sounds of his own anguish, needs must he hear again that forlorn and desolate cry:

  "O, God pity thee, Beltane!"

  And now followed long hours when demons vile racked him with anguish and mocked him with bitter gibes; a haunted darkness where was fear and doubt and terror of things unknown: yet, in the blackness, a light that grew to a glory wherein no evil thing might be, and in this glory SHE did stand, tall and fair and virginal. And from the depths of blackness, he cried to her in agony of remorse, and from the light she looked down on him with eyes brimful of yearning love and tenderness, for that a gulf divided them. But, across this hateful void she called to him——"O, God pity thee, my Beltane!"

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