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Beltane The Smith (Chapter58)

2006-08-28 16:40

  Chapter LVIII. How Beltane Had Speech with the Abbess

  They found rich booty in Pertolepe's camp, with store of arms and armour and many goodly horses, and thither Sir Benedict's wearied followers betook them as night fell and knew blessed rest and sleep. But in the tower of Brand lights gleamed where the Abbess and her gentle nuns went to and fro among the wounded, ministering to their wants; and far beyond the camp, armour glinted ever and anon against the blackness of the surrounding woods, where outpost and sentinel kept vigilant watch and ward. Though late the hour Beltane sat wakeful, chin on fist, beside a glimmering watch-fire, oft turning his glance towards the massy, weather-beaten tower, bethinking him of the noble lady Abbess, of her strange looks and words, and so fell to brooding thought. High overhead the moon rode, obscured by flying clouds, a wild wrack up-whirling from the south: at fitful intervals was a wind that moaned drearily 'mid the gloom of distant woods, a desolate sound that sobbed upon the air, and dying to a wail, was gone. Now becoming aware of this, Beltane raised his head, and looked up at the ominous heavens and round about him. And thus he espied a light that hovered hither and thither above the distant battle-field, a small light whose red flame flashed back from cloven casque and riven shield, where eyes glared unseeing and mouths gaped mute and dumb from a dark confusion whence mailed arms stiffly rose with hands tight-clenched that seemed to menace heaven, and rigid feet whose spurred heels yet gored the flanks of rigid, fallen chargers; to and fro and up and down this small flame leaped merrily, dancing from dead face to dead face but staying never, a fiendish fire that seemed to mock the horror of wounds and gibe at solemn death.

  Now as he watched this devilish light, Beltane arose and reaching for his sword went soft-footed to meet it, then paused, for the light was moving towards him. Near and nearer it came, until, into the glow of the fire, his betousled head wild and bare, his link-mail yet befouled with battle, Walkyn strode, and hurling his torch upon the grass, crushed it out 'neath his heel. Then came he to the fire and stood there, arms crossed, frowning down at the flame.

  "Greeting to thee, Waldron of Brand!"

  Swift turned Walkyn, his gloomy scowl relaxed at Beltane's voice, and stooping, he took and kissed my Beltane's hand.

  "Whence come ye, Walkyn?"

  "From going to and fro among the dead, seeking Pertolepe, master. Ha! they do lie thick yonder, five hundred and twenty and three I counted of Bloody Pertolepe's following. And in the woods do lie certain others, that I, with divers of our company, pursued and cut off."

  "And what of their wounded?"

  "I saw none, master——nor have I seen Pertolepe. I have viewed all the slain, but Pertolepe is not there, yet have I smitten and slain three Pertolepes this day——hawks, see you, in eagle's feathers! So is my work yet to do, and I grieve still for Pertolepe's head."

  "Sit ye down, Walkyn, here with me beside the fire." Forthwith Walkyn obeyed and stretching himself on the grass fell to toying with the haft of his axe and scowling at the fire again.

  "This was, methinks, thy father's tower and demesne of Brand, Walkyn?"

  "Aye, lord, here was I born——yon ruined walls did hear my father's groans——the screams of my mother and sister amid the flame. And Red Pertolepe was there, and Gui of Allerdale and Roger and young Gilles of Brandonmere——all were there with six other noble knights; but these six we slew long since, my brother and I. All these were here that day——and Sir Pertolepe——laughed——full loud, 'twas told me. So 'twere just he should have died here to-day, methinks? 'Twas for this I lured him hither——and he liveth yet!"

  "But God is a just God, Walkyn! Now therefore leave him to God henceforth——!"

  "To God!" cried Walkyn, his eyes wild, his hands tight-clenched, "to God!——ha! master, ye left him to God on a time and because of thee, I—— I that had my dagger at his rogue's throat——I, yearning to slay him, did but mark him i' the brow——aye, forsooth, we left him to God and lo! to-day he burneth, he slayeth and hangeth as was ever his wont——"

  "God's time is not ours, Walkyn, but for the evil wrought by Sir Pertolepe, Sir Pertolepe needs must answer when God so wills. So leave him to the vengeance of God——lest the fire of thy vengeance consume thee quite. Thou art strong, and few may cope with thee in fight, yet hath vengeance fettered and made thee bond-slave. Forego thy vengeance then, and be free, good comrade."

  "Nay master, an I so do, what is left me?"

  "The love of thy fellows, Walkyn. Thou art, forsooth, a man, so do I love thee, and perchance within a new Pentavalon thou may'st come to new fortune and honour. Thou shalt hold again thy father's lands——"

  "To what end, lord? As ye do know, my wife and child do lie in nameless grave, done to cruel death by dogs of Pertolepe: my brother rotted in a noose——set there by Pertolepe. So am I a lonely man henceforth; one thing only seek I of life, master."

  "And that, Walkyn?"

  "The head of Bloody Pertolepe!" So saying, Walkyn rose, and stood scowling down at the fire again, whose glow shone ominous and red upon the broad blade of the mighty axe that lay on the grass at his feet.

  Now of a sudden forth from the shadows, swift and silent on his long legs came crooked Ulf, and stooping, would have lifted the weapon, but in that moment Walkyn snarled, and set his foot upon it.

  "Off!" he growled, "touch not mine axe, thou vile mannikin——lest I tread on thee!"

  But scarce were the words spoken, than, with great back low-crouched, Ulf sprang, and whirling mighty Walkyn aloft, mailed feet on high, held him writhing above the fire: then, swinging about, hurled him, rolling over and over, upon the ling; so lay Walkyn awhile propped on an elbow, staring on Ulf with wide eyes and mouth agape what time, strung for sudden action, Beltane sat cross-legged upon the green, looking from one to the other.

  "Mannikin?" roared Ulf, great hands opening and shutting, "unworthy to touch axe of thine, thou pestilent beast! Dare ye so say to one gently born, base fellow? Now will I break thee thine accursed axe——and thee thereafter, an ye will!"

  So saying, Ulf the Mighty caught up the axe and wheeling it full-armed, smote and buried it in a young tree close by——wrenched it free and smote again. And lo! with prodigious crack and rending of fibres the tall tree swayed, crashing to earth. Now while Ulf yet stood to stare amazed upon this wondrous axe, upon its sharp-glittering, flawless edge, Walkyn had risen, dagger in hand; but even as he crouched to spring, a voice spake——a gentle voice but commanding; and in the fire-glow stood the white Abbess, tall and gracious, the silver crucifix agleam upon her bosom.

  "Children!" she sighed; and looking from scowling Walkyn to frowning Ulf she reached a slim hand to each. "O children," said she, "lay by your steel and give to me your hands!"

  Fumbling and awkward, Walkyn sheathed his dagger while Ulf laid the mighty axe upon the grass very tenderly, as it had been a sleeping child; so came they both, shame-faced, unto the lady Abbess and gave her each a hand. Holding them thus she looked with sad, sweet eyes from one grim face to the other, and drew them nearer the fire.

  "Walkyn, son of God," said she, "behold here Ulf whose valiant heart and mighty strength have been our salvation! Ulf, child of Heaven, whom God hath made so mighty, behold here brave Walkyn who did protect the weak and helpless and fighteth for the right! Come then, as ye are children of God, go ye in brotherly love together henceforth, and may heaven bless ye, valiant sons!"

  Thus saying, she set their hands one in another, and these hands gripped and held.

  Quoth Ulf, sighing:

  "Forsooth, I did but mean to try the balance of thine axe, Walkyn. And truly it is a mighty weapon and a peerless——one that even my strength cannot break!"

  Quoth Walkyn, grim-smiling:

  "There is in this world no axe like unto it save one that was my brother's——and shall be thine henceforth, Ulf the Strong. Come now, and I will give it unto thee." Then bent they reverently before the Abbess, saluted Beltane and, side by side, strode away together.

  "Would all feuds might so end, sweet son," sighed the Abbess, her wistful eyes down-bent upon the fire.

  "Would there were more sweet souls abroad to teach men reason!" quoth Beltane.

  "Why sit you here, my son, wakeful and alone and the hour so late?"

  "For that sleep doth fly my wooing, holy mother."

  "Then fain would I share thy vigil awhile."

  Forthwith Beltane brought her a stool, rough and rudely fashioned, and while she sat, he lay beside her in the firelight; and thus, despite her hood and wimple, he saw her face was of a calm and noble beauty, smooth and unwrinkled despite the silver hair that peeped forth of her loosened hood. A while they sat thus, nothing speaking, he viewing her, she gazing ever on the fire; at last:

  "Thou'rt young, messire," she said wistfully, "yet in thy life hath been much of strife, I've heard. Thou hast known much of hardship, my son, and sorrow methinks?"

  "So do I live for that fair day when Peace shall come again, noble lady."

  "Full oft have I heard tell of thee, my son, strange tales and marvellous. Some do liken thee to a demon joying in slaughter, and some to an archangel bearing the sword of God."

  "And how think you, reverend mother?"

  "I think of thee as a man, my son. I have heard thee named 'outlaw' and 'lawless ravener,' and some do call thee 'Beltane the Smith.' Now wherefore smith?"

  "For that smith was I bred, lady."

  "But thou'rt of noble blood, lord Beltane."

  "Yet knew I nought of it until I was man grown."

  "Thy youth——they tell me——hath been very lonely, my son——and desolate."

  "Not desolate, for in my loneliness was the hermit Ambrose who taught me many things and most of all, how to love him. So lived I in the greenwood, happy and content, until on a day this saintly Ambrose told me a woeful tale——so did I know this humble hermit for the noble Duke, my father."

  "Thy father! The Duke! A hermit! Told he of——all his sorrows, my son?"

  "All, reverend mother, and thereafter bade me beware the falsity of women."

  The pale cheek of the Abbess grew suddenly suffused, the slim hand clenched rigid upon the crucifix at her bosom, but she stirred not nor lifted her sad gaze from the fire.

  "Liveth thy father yet, my son?"

  "'Tis so I pray God, lady."

  "And——thy mother?"

  "'Tis so I've heard."

  "Pray you not for——for her also?"

  "I never knew my mother, lady."

  "Alas! poor lonely mother! So doth she need thy prayers the more. Ah, think you she hath not perchance yearned with breaking heart for her babe? To have kissed him into rosy slumber! To have cherished his boyish hurts and sorrows! To have gloried in his youthful might and manhood! O sure there is no sorrow like the loneliness of desolate motherhood. Would'st seek this unknown mother, lord Beltane?"

  "Truly there be times when I do yearn to find her——and there be times when I do fear——"

  "Fear, my lord?"

  "Holy mother, I learned of her first as one false to her vows, light-minded and fickle from her youth——"

  "O hath there been none to speak thee good of her——in all these years?"

  "There was Jolette, that folk did call a witch, and there is Sir Benedict that doth paint her pure and noble as I would have her. Yet would I know for myself, fain would I be sure ere we do meet, if she is but the woman who bore me, or the proud and noble mother I fain would love."

  "Could'st not love her first and judge her after, my son? Could not her very motherhood plead her cause with thee? Must she be weighed in the balance ere thou yield her a son's respect and love? So many weary years——'tis something hard, methinks! Nay, heed me not, my lord——seek out thy mother, unbeknown——prove for thyself her worthiness or falsity, prove for thyself her honour or her shame——'tis but just, aye, 'tis but just in very truth. But I, beholding things with woman's eyes, know only that a mother's love shrinketh not for any sin, but reacheth down through shame and evil with sheltering arms outstretched——a holy thing, fearless of sin, more lasting than shame and stronger than death itself."

  So saying, the lady Abbess rose and turned to look up at the lights that burned within the tower.

  "'Tis late, my lord," she sighed, "get thee now to thy rest, for I must begone to my duty till the dawn. There be many sick, and good Sir Bertrand lieth very nigh to death——he ne'er will see another dawn, methinks, so needs must I away. Good night, sweet son, and in thy prayers forget not thy——thy most unhappy mother!"

  Then she lifted her hand and blessed him, and, ere he rose up from his knees she set that white hand upon his bowed head and touched his yellow hair——a light touch, furtive and shy, but a touch that was like to a caress.

  Thereafter, Beltane, coming into his hut of woven wattle, rolled himself in his weather-worn mantle and presently fell to slumber.

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