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Beltane The Smith (Chapter8)

2006-08-28 16:27

  Chapter VIII. How Beltane Held Discourse with a Black Friar

  The sun was high, and by his shadow Beltane judged it the noon hour; very hot and very still it was, for the wind had died and leaf and twig hung motionless as though asleep. And presently as he went, a sound stole upon the stillness, a sound soft and beyond all things pleasant to hear, the murmurous ripple of running water near by. Going aside into the green therefore, Beltane came unto a brook, and here, screened from the sun 'neath shady willows, he laid him down to drink, and to bathe face and hands in the cool water.

  Now as he lay thus, staring sad-eyed into the hurrying waters of the brook, there came to him the clicking of sandalled feet, and glancing up, he beheld one clad as a black friar. A fat man he was, jolly of figure and mightily round; his nose was bulbous and he had a drooping lip.

  "Peace be unto thee, my son!" quoth he, breathing short and loud, "an evil day for a fat man who hath been most basely bereft of a goodly ass ——holy Saint Dunstan, how I gasp!" and putting back the cowl from his tonsured crown, he puffed out his cheeks and mopped his face. "Hearkee now, good youth, hath there passed thee by ever a ribald in an escalloped hood——an unhallowed, long-legged, scurvy archer knave astride a fair white ass, my son?"

  "Truly," nodded Beltane, "we parted company scarce an hour since."

  The friar sat him down in the shade of the willows and sighing, mopped his face again; quoth he:

  "Now may the curse of Saint Augustine, Saint Benedict, Saint Cuthbert and Saint Dominic light upon him for a lewd fellow, a clapper-claw, a thieving dog who hath no regard for Holy Church——forsooth a most vicious rogue, monstrum nulla virtute redemptum a vitiis!"

  "Good friar, thy tongue is something harsh, methinks. Here be four saints with as many curses, and all for one small ass!"

  The friar puffed out his cheeks and sighed:

  "'Twas a goodly ass, my son, a fair and gentle beast and of an easy gait, and I am one that loveth not to trip it in the dust. Moreover 'twas the property of Holy Church! To take from thy fellow is evil, to steal from thy lord is worse, but to ravish from Holy Church——per de 'tis sacrilege, 'tis foul blasphemy thrice——aye thirty times damned and beyond all hope of redemption! So now do I consign yon archer-knave to the lowest pit of Acheron——damnatus est, amen! Yet, my son, here——by the mercy of heaven is a treasure the rogue hath overlooked, a pasty most rarely seasoned that I had this day from my lord's own table. 'Tis something small for two, alack and yet——stay——who comes?"

  Now, lifting his head, Beltane beheld a man, bent and ragged who crept towards them on a stick; his face, low-stooped, was hid 'neath long and matted hair, but his tatters plainly showed the hideous nakedness of limbs pinched and shrunken by famine, while about his neck was a heavy iron collar such as all serfs must needs wear. Being come near he paused, leaning upon his staff, and cried out in a strange, cracked voice:

  "O ye that are strong and may see the blessed sun, show pity on one that is feeble and walketh ever in the dark!" And now, beneath the tangled hair, Beltane beheld a livid face in whose pale oval, the eyeless sockets glowed fierce and red; moreover he saw that the man's right arm was but a mutilated stump, whereat Beltane shivered and, bowing his head upon his hands, closed his eyes.

  "Oho!" cried the friar, "and is it thou, Simon? Trouble ye the world yet, child of Satan?"

  Hereupon the blind man fell upon his knees. "Holy father," he groaned, clasping his withered arms upon his gaunt breast, "good Friar Gui I die of hunger; aid me lest I perish. 'Tis true I am outlaw and no man may minister unto me, yet be merciful, give me to eat——O gentle Christ, aid me——"

  "How!" cried the friar, "dare ye speak that name, ye that are breaker of laws human and divine, ye that are murderer, dare ye lift those bloody hands to heaven?"

  "Holy sir," quoth Beltane, "he hath but one; I pray you now give him to eat."

  "Feed an outlaw! Art mad, young sir? Feed a murderer, a rogue banned by Holy Church, a serf that hath raised hand 'gainst his lord? He should have hanged when the witch his daughter burned, but that Sir Pertolepe, with most rare mercy, gave to the rogue his life."

  "But," sighed Beltane, "left him to starve——'tis a death full as sure yet slower, methinks. Come, let us feed him."

  "I tell thee, fond youth, he is excommunicate. Wouldst have me contravene the order of Holy Church? Go to!"

  Then my Beltane put his hand within his pouch and taking thence a gold piece held it out upon his palm; said he:

  "Friar, I will buy the half of thy pasty of thee!" Hereupon Friar Gui stared from the gold to the pasty, and back again.

  "So much!" quoth he, round-eyed. "Forsooth 'tis a noble pasty and yet—— nay, nay, tempt me not——retro Sathanas!" and closing his eyes he crossed himself. Then Beltane took out other two gold pieces and set them in the blind man's bony hand, saying:

  "Take these three gold pieces and buy you food, and thereafter——"

  "Gold!" cried the blind man, "gold! Now the Saints keep and bless thee, young sir, sweet Jesu love thee ever!" and fain would he have knelt to kiss my Beltane's feet. But Beltane raised him up with gentle hand, speaking him kindly, as thus:

  "Tell now, I pray you, how came ye to slay?"

  "Stay! stay!" cried Friar Gui, "bethink thee, good youth——so much gold, 'tis a very fortune! With so much, masses might be sung for his wretched soul; give it therefore to Holy Church, so shall he, peradventure, attain Paradise."

  "Not so," answered Beltane, "I had rather he, of a surety, attain a full belly, Sir Friar." Then, turning his back upon the friar, Beltane questioned the blind man again, as thus:

  "Tell me, an ye will, how ye came to shed blood?" and the outlaw, kneeling at Beltane's feet answered with bowed head:

  "Noble sir, I had a daughter and she was young and fair, therefore came my lord Pertolepe's chief verderer to bear her to my lord. But she cried to me and I, forgetting my duty to my lord, took my quarter-staff and, serf though I was, smote the chief verderer that he died thereafter, but, ere he died, he named my daughter witch. And, when they had burned her, they put out mine eyes, and cut off my hand, and made of me an outlaw. So is my sin very heavy upon me."

  Now when the man had made an end, Beltane stood silent awhile, then, reaching down, he aided the blind man to his feet.

  "Go you to Mortain," said he, "seek out the hermit Ambrose that liveth in Holy Cross Thicket; with him shall you find refuge, and he, methinks, will surely win thy soul to heaven."

  So the blind man blessed my Beltane and turning, crept upon his solitary way.

  "Youth," said the friar, frowning up into Beltane's gentle eyes, "thou hast this day put thy soul in jeopardy——the Church doth frown upon this thy deed!"

  "And yet, most reverend sir, God's sun doth shine upon this my body!"

  FRIAR. "He who aideth an evil-doer is enemy to the good!"

  BELTANE. "Yet he who seeketh to do good to evil that good may follow, doeth no evil to good."

  FRIAR. "Ha! thou art a menace to the state——"

  BELTANE. "So shall I be, I pray God, the whiles this state continue!"

  FRIAR. "Thou art either rogue or fool!"

  BELTANE. "Well, thou hast thy choice."

  FRIAR. "Alack! this sorry world is full of rogues and fools and——"

  BELTANE. "And friars!"

  FRIAR. "Who seek the salvation of this wretched world."

  BELTANE. "As how?"

  FRIAR. "Forsooth we meditate and pray——"

  BELTANE. "And eat!"

  FRIAR. "Aye verily, we do a little in that way as the custom is, for your reverent eater begetteth a devout pray-er. The which mindeth me I grow an hungered, yet will I forego appetite and yield thee this fair pasty for but two of thy gold pieces. And, look ye, 'tis a noble pasty I had this day from my lord Pertolepe's own table."

  BELTANE. "That same lord that showed mercy on yonder poor maimed wretch? Know you him?"

  FRIAR. "In very sooth, and 'tis a potent lord that holdeth me in some esteem, a most Christian knight——"

  BELTANE. "That ravisheth the defenceless! Whose hands be foul with the blood of innocence——"

  FRIAR. "How——how? 'Tis a godly lord who giveth bounteously to Holy Church——"

  BELTANE. "Who stealeth from the poor——"

  FRIAR. "Stealeth! Holy Saint Dunstan, dare ye speak thus of so great a lord——a son of the Church, a companion of our noble Duke? Steal, forsooth! The poor have nought to steal!"

  BELTANE. "They have their lives."

  FRIAR. "Not so, they and their lives are their lord's, 'tis so the law and——"

  BELTANE. "Whence came this law?"

  FRIAR. "It came, youth——it came——aye, of God!"

  BELTANE. "Say rather of the devil!"

  FRIAR. "Holy Saint Michael——'tis a blasphemous youth! Never heard ears the like o' this——"

  BELTANE. "Whence cometh poverty and famine?"

  FRIAR. "'Tis a necessary evil! Doth it not say in Holy Writ, 'the poor ye have always with you'?"

  BELTANE. "Aye, so shall ye ever——until the laws be amended. So needs must men starve and starve——"

  FRIAR. "There be worse things! And these serfs be born to starve, bred up to it, and 'tis better to starve here than to perish hereafter, better to purge the soul by lack of meat than to make of it a fetter of the soul!"

  "Excellently said, holy sir!" quoth Beltane, stooping of a sudden. "But for this pasty now, 'tis a somewhat solid fetter, meseemeth, so now do I free thee of it——thus!" So saying, my Beltane dropped the pasty into the deeper waters of the brook and, thereafter, took up his staff. "Sir Friar," said he, "behold to-day is thy soul purged of a pasty against the day of judgment!"

  Then Beltane went on beside the rippling waters of the brook, but above its plash and murmur rose the deeptoned maledictions of Friar Gui.

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