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Beltane The Smith (Chapter65)

2006-08-28 16:41

  Chapter LXV. Telleth of Roses

  A fair and strong city was Belsaye, for (as hath been said) to north and east of it the river flowed, a broad stream and deep, while south and west it was fortified by a goodly moat; wherefore it was to south and west that the besiegers mustered their chief force and set up their mightiest engines and towers. Day in, day out, mangonel, trebuchet and balista whirred and crashed from keep and tower and curtain-wall, while from every loophole and crenelle long-bows twanged and arrows flew; yet with each succeeding dawn the besiegers' fence-works crept nearer, closing in upon the city until, within close bowshot of the walls, they set up earthworks and stockades and from these strong barriers plied the defenders with cloth-yard shaft and cross-bow bolt what time their mighty engines advanced, perriers and rams wherewith to batter and breach the city's massy walls.

  So day in, day out, Eric's chosen men plied trebuchet and balista, and Beltane, beholding the dire havoc wrought by heavy stone and whizzing javelin among the dense ranks of the besiegers despite their mantlets and stout palisades, grew sick at times and was fain to look otherwhere. But the besiegers were many and Duke Ivo had sworn swift destruction on Belsaye; thus, heedless of all else, he pushed on the attack until, despite their heavy losses, his men were firmly established close beyond the moat; wherefore my Beltane waxed full anxious and was for sallying out to destroy their works: at the which, gloomy Sir Hacon, limping in his many bandages, grew suddenly jovial and fain was to call for horse and lance forthwith.

  Quoth Sir Benedict placidly:

  "Nay, let them come, messires; they are a sea, but Belsaye is a rock. Duke Ivo is cunning in war, but is, mark me! a passionate man, and he who fighteth in blind anger, fighteth ill. So let them come, I say the time for us to beware is when Ivo's hot temper shall have cooled. Ha, look yonder!" and Sir Benedict pointed where a great wooden tower, urged forward by rope and pulley and winch, was creeping near and nearer the walls, now stopping jerkily, now advancing, its massy timbers protected from fire by raw hides, its summit bristling with archers and cross-bow men, who from their lofty post began to sweep wall and turret with their whizzing shafts.

  "Now mark yon tower," said Sir Benedict, closing his vizor, "here shall be good sport for Eric's perriers——watch now!" and he nodded where on the battlement below, crouched Eric with Walkyn and Roger who laboured at the winches of a great trebuchet hard by. To left and right on wall and turret, Eric glanced, then blew a blast upon the horn he carried; and immediately, from wall and turret mangonels, trebuchets and balistae unknown of until now crashed and whirred, and the tall tower shook and quivered 'neath the shock of great stones and heavy bolts, its massy timbers were split and rent, insomuch that it was fain to be withdrawn.

  Thereafter the besiegers brought up a long pent-house or cat unto the edge of the moat, and sheltered within this cat were many men who fell to work filling up the moat with bags of earth and stone werewith to form a causeway across which they might assault the wall with bore and ram; and because this cat was builded very strong, Eric's engines battered it in vain, wherefore he presently desisted; thus, hour by hour the causeway grew and lengthened. So needs must Beltane seek Sir Benedict and point this out with anxious finger.

  "Let them come, Beltane!" quoth Sir Benedict, placid as was his wont, "once they are close against the wall with ram a-swing, I will make their labour of no avail; you shall see me burn them with a devil's brew I learned of in the foreign wars. So, let them come. Beltane!"

  Thus, day in, day out, was roar of conflict about the walls of Belsaye town, and ever Sir Benedict, with Beltane beside him, went to and fro, quick of eye and hand, swift to foresee and counteract the tactics of the besiegers, meeting cunning artifice with crafty strategem; wheresoever was panic or pressing need there was Sir Benedict, calm-voiced and serene. And Beltane, watching him thus, came to understand why this man had withstood the powers of Duke Ivo all these years, and why all men trusted to his judgment.

  Thus, all day was rage of battle, but with the night peace came, since in the dark men might not see to aim and slay each other. And by night the folk of Belsaye made good their battered walls what time the besiegers prepared fresh devices of attack. Every morning at sunrise it was Beltane's custom to steal to the great minster and, soft-treading despite his armour, come to his mother's grave to hold communion with her in his prayers. And lo! upon that hallowed stone there always he found fragrant flowers, roses and lilies, new-gathered, upon whose sweet petals the dew yet sparkled, and ever his wonder grew.

  More than once he had thought to hear again that indefinable stir and whisper the which had thrilled him on that first morning, and, starting up, he would peer into the vague shadows. Twice he had thought to see a draped figure bending above that long, white stone, a veiled figure slender and graceful, that upon his approach, soft though it was, flitted swiftly into the dark recesses of the choir. Once he had followed, and stood amazed to see it vanish through the carven panelling, though door could he find none. Therefore was he sore perplexed and oft would touch the dewy flowers as half expecting they should vanish also. Now upon a certain dawn he had hid himself within the shadows and waited with bated breath and heart strangely a-throb. And with the day-spring she came again, tall and gracious in her clinging draperies and long green veil. Then, even as she bent to lay the flowers upon the grave came Beltane, soft of foot, and spake ere she was 'ware of him.

  "Lady——!" now though his voice was very low and gentle she started, the flowers fell from her loosened clasp, and, after a moment, she turned and fronted him, proud head up-flung beneath her veil. So stood they within that place of silence, while high above, the great window grew luminous with coming day.

  "Lady," said he again, "for thy sweet flowers, for thy sweeter thought for one that is——gone, fain would I thank thee, for she who lieth here I found, and loved, and have lost again a while. She did love all fair things, so loved she the flowers, methinks; yet I, who have grieved for my noble mother, ne'er thought to bring her flowers——this did need a woman's gentle soul. So, for thy flowers, I do most truly thank thee."

  Very still she stood, nor spake nor moved, save for the sweet hurry of her breathing; and beholding her thus, of a sudden Beltane's heart leapt and he fell a-trembling though wherefore he knew not, only yearned he mightily to look beneath her veil. And now it seemed to him that, in the stillness, she must needs hear the passionate throbbing of his heart; twice would he have spoken yet could not; at last:

  "Beseech thee," he whispered, "O beseech thee unveil, that I may behold the face of one so tender to her that was my dear-loved mother——O beseech thee!"

  As he spake, he drew a swift pace nearer, hand outstretched in supplication, but, because this hand shook and quivered so, he clenched it, whereat the unknown shrank back and back and, turning swift and sudden, was gone.

  A while stood my Beltane, his head a-droop, and fell to wonderment because of the so painful throbbing of his heart. Then knelt he above his mother's grave with hands tight-clasped.

  "Dear mother in heaven," he sighed, "being an angel, thou dost know all my heart, its hopes and fears——thou hast seen me tremble——thou dost know wherefore this my heart doth yearn so bitterly. O sweet mother with God, plead thou on my behalf that I may be worthy her love——meet to her embracements——fit for so great happiness. Angel of God, thou dost know how great is my desire——how empty life without her——O mother——aid me!"

  In a while he arose and immediately beheld that which lay beyond his mother's grave full in the radiance of the great east window——a thing small and slender and daintily wrought; and stooping, he picked up a little shoe. Of soft leather it was fashioned, cunningly pinked, and sewn, here and there, with coloured silks; and as he stared down at it, so small-seeming in his mailed hand, his heart leapt again, and again his strong hand fell a-trembling. Of a sudden he raised his eyes to heaven, then, coming to his mother's grave, very reverently took thence a single great bloom and thrusting the shoe in the wallet at his girdle (that same wallet Sir Fidelis had borne) went out into the golden dawn.

  Like one in a dream went Beltane, heedless of his going; by silent street and lane where none stirred at this early hour, thus he wandered on until he was stayed by a high wall wherein was set a small, green door.

  As he stood, staring down at the rose he held and lost in pleasant dream, he was aroused by a scrambling sound near by, and, glancing up, beheld a mailed head and shoulders rise suddenly above the wall and so looked into the face of Giles o' the Bow. Now in his teeth Giles bare a great red rose——even as that which Beltane held.

  "Giles," quoth he, sharp and stern, "whence had ye that flower?"

  For answer, Giles, straddling the wall, laid finger to lip, then dropping cat-like to his feet, drew Beltane down an adjacent lane.

  "Lord," said he, "yonder is the Reeve's garden and in the Reeve's garden cometh the Reeve to taste the sweet dawn, wherefore Giles doth incontinent vanish him over the Reeve's wall because of the Reeve; nevertheless needs must I bless the Reeve because of the Reeve's daughter——though verily, both in my speech and in the Reeve's garden is too much Reeve, methinks. As to this rose, now——ha!"

  "How came you by the rose, Giles?"

  "Why, in the first place, tall brother, I stole it——"

  "Stole it!" repeated Beltane, and behold! his frown was gone completely.

  "But, in the second place, brother, 'twas given to me——"

  "Given to thee——by whom?" and immediately Beltane's frown was back again.

  "And therefore, in the third place, brother, Giles this day would not change skins with any lord, duke, archduke, pope or potentate that e'er went in skin——"

  "Who gave it thee?——speak, man!"

  "Faith, lord, I had it from one as pure, as fair, as——"

  "Aye, but what like is she?"

  "Like unto this flower for sweetness, lord, and——ha, saints and martyrs! whence had ye that bloom, tall brother——speak!" and Giles pointed to the rose in Beltane's fingers.

  "What like is she——answer me!"

  "Alack!" sighed Giles, shaking gloomy head, "she is very like a woman, after all, methinks——"

  "Mean ye the Reeve's daughter?"

  "Even so, lord!"

  "Doth she wear ever a——a green veil, Giles?"

  "Verily, lord, and with a most sweet grace——"

  "And her shoes——"

  "Her shoes, tall brother, O methinks her sweet shoe doth kiss the earth so sweet and light poor earth must needs love and languish as doth poor Giles! Her shoe——"

  "Is it aught like to this, Giles?" and forthwith Beltane took out the little shoe.

  "Aye, 'tis her very own, master!" groaned Giles. "Ah, woe is me, for if she hath given to thee rose and therewith her pretty shoe——thou hast, belike, her heart also, and with her heart——"

  "Nay, take it, Giles,——take it!" quoth Beltane, sighing. "I did but find it in my going, and this rose——I found also, but this will I keep. Methinks thy love is what thy heart telleth thee——a maid very gentle and sweet——so God prosper thy wooing, Giles!"

  So saying, Beltane thrust the shoe upon bewildered Giles and, turning swiftly about, hasted away. But even then, while the archer yet stared after him, Beltane turned and came striding back.

  "Giles," quoth he, "how tall is the Reeve's daughter?"

  "Lord, she is better than tall——"

  "Ha——is she short of stature, good Giles?"

  "Messire, God hath shaped her lovely body no higher and no lower than my heart. Small is she and slender, yet in her sweet and slender shapeliness is all the beauty of all the women that all men have ever loved——"

  "Small, say you, Giles——small? Then give me back yon lovely thing!"

  Saying the which, Beltane caught the shoe from Giles's hold and strode away blithe and debonair, leaving the garrulous archer dumb for once and beyond all words amazed.

  Now as Beltane went very deep in thought there met him Friar Martin, who bore upon his arm a great basket full of green vegetables and sweet herbs. Quoth Beltane:

  "Good friar, what do ye abroad so early?"

  "Sweet son, I praise the good God for His mercies and pant by reason of this my weighty basket."

  "Indeed 'tis a something well-laden basket," said Beltane, relieving the friar of his burden with gentle force.

  "Why, verily, my children are hungry children and clamour to be filled. And see you, my son, I have a secret of a certain broth whereof these lentils and these sweet herbs do so tickle their palates that to satisfy them is a hard matter——more especially Orson and Jenkyn——who being nigh cured of their hurts do eat like four men and vaunt my cooking full-mouthed, insomuch that I must needs grow heedful of vain pride."

  "Fain would I see these children of thine an I may, good friar, so will I bear thy burden for thee."

  "Verily they shall rejoice to see thee," quoth the friar, "but for my basket, methinks 'tis better suited to my habit than thy knightly mail——"

  For answer Beltane slipped the basket on his arm and they went on together talking whole-heartedly of many things. Thus the gentle friar brought him at last to a low-arched portal within a narrow lane, and pushing open the door, ushered him into the great refectory of the abbey, where Beltane set down the basket, and Friar Martin, rolling up his sleeves, brought pot and pannikin but paused to smile and shake his head, as from a stone-flagged passage hard by came the sound of voices raised in altercation.

  "My children do grow a little fractious at times," quoth he, "as is but natural, methinks. Yonder you shall hear Orson and Jenkyn, who having saved each other's life in battle and loving like brothers, do oft contend together with tongues most ungentle; go you, my son, and quiet me the naughty rogues."

  So saying, Friar Martin fell to washing and preparing his herbs and vegetables whiles Beltane, hasting down the passage, opened a certain door and entered a cool and airy dormitory, where upon pallets neat and orderly lay divers fellows whose hurts were swathed in fair white linen, and who, despite their bandages, started up on hand or elbow to greet Beltane right gladly. And behold! beside each man's couch was a bowl wherein roses bloomed.

  "Master," quoth Tall Orson, "us do be glad to see thee——in especial me—— and Jenkyn that I did save the carcase of and as do be a liar as do say my roses do be a-fading, master, and as his roses do bloom fairer than my roses and——"

  "And look'ee master, so they be, for I ha' watered mine wi' Orson's drinking-water, while he snored, look'ee——" "So Jenkyn do be thief as well, master——"

  "Nay," said Beltane smiling, and seating himself on Orson's bed, "stint now your angers and tell me who gave ye flowers so fair?"

  "Master, she do be an angel!"

  "Heed him not, lord, for look'ee, she is a fair and lovely woman, and look'ee, a good woman is better than an angel, look'ee!"

  "And what like is she?" questioned Beltane.

  "She do be like to a stag for grace o' body, and wi' the eyes of a stag——"

  "Nay, master, her eyes do be maid's eyes, look'ee, very soft and sweet, and her hair, look'ee——"

  "Her hair do be like a forest-pool brim-full o' sunset——"

  "Not so, master, her hair is red, look'ee——"

  "And each day she do bring us flowers, master——"

  "And suckets, look'ee, very sweet and delicate, master."

  In a while Beltane arose and going from bed to bed spake with each and every, and went his way, leaving Orson and Jenkyn to their recriminations.

  Being come back into the refectory, he found Friar Martin yet busied with the preparations of his cooking, and seating himself upon the great table hard by, fell to a profound meditation, watched ever and anon by the friar's kindly eyes: so very silent and thoughtful was he that the friar presently looked up from slicing and cutting his vegetables and spake with smile wondrous tender:

  "Wherefore so pensive, my son?"

  "Good father, I think and dream of——red roses!"

  Friar Martin cut and trimmed a leek with great care, yet surely here was no reason for his eyes to twinkle within the shadow of his white cowl.

  "A sweet and fragrant thought, my son!" quoth he.

  "As sweet, methinks, holy father, as pure and fragrant as she herself!"

  "'She,' my son?"

  "As Helen, good friar, as Helen the Beautiful, Duchess of Mortain!"

  "Ah!" sighed the friar, and forthwith popped the leek into the pot. "I prithee, noble son, reach me the salt-box yonder!"

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