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Beltane The Smith (Chapter59)

2006-08-28 16:40

  Chapter LIX. Telleth How Sir Benedict Went A-Fishing

  Next day Sir Bertrand died of his hurts, so they buried him beside young Sir John of Griswold and sturdy old Hubert of Erdington and a hundred and twenty and five others of their company who had fallen in that desperate affray; therefore tarried they a while what time their sick and wounded grew towards health and strength by reason of the skill and tender care of the lady Abbess and her nuns.

  Now on the afternoon of this day. Sir Benedict being sick a-bed of his wound, Beltane sat in council among the oldest and wisest of the knights, and presently summoned Walkyn and Ulf, Roger and Jenkyn o' the Ford, speaking them on this wise:

  "Good comrades, list ye now! These noble knights and I have hither summoned ye for that ye are of good and approved courage and moreover foresters born and cunning in wood-lore. As ye do know, 'tis our intent to march for Belsaye so soon as our wounded be fit. But first must we be 'ware if our road be open or no. Therefore, Walkyn, do ye and Ulf take ten men and haste to Winisfarne and the forest-road that runneth north and south: be ye wary of surprise and heedful of all things. You, Roger and Jenkyn, with other ten, shall seek the road that runneth east and west; marching due south you shall come to the northern road where ye shall wait two hours (but no longer) for Walkyn. Ye are woodsmen! Heed ye the brush and lower branches of the trees if any be broken, mark well the track in dusty places and seek ye the print of feet in marshy places, learn all ye may from whomsoever ye may and haste ye hot-foot back with tidings good or ill. Is it understood?"

  "Aye, lord!" quoth the four.

  "And look'ee master," said Jenkyn, "there be my comrade Orson the Tall, look'ee. His hurt is nigh healed and to go wi' us shall be his cure——now, look'ee lord, shall he go wi' us?"

  "Nay, Roger shall answer thee this, Jenkyn. So now begone and God speed ye, good comrades all!" Hereupon the mighty four made their obeisance and hasted away, rejoicing.

  Now Sir Benedict's hurt had proved an evil one and deep, wherefore the Abbess, in accent soft and tender, had, incontinent, ordered him to bed, and there, within the silken tent that had been Sir Pertolepe's, Beltane oft sat by, the while she, with slim and dexterous fingers, washed and anointed and bound the ugly wound: many times came she, soft-treading, gentle and gracious ever; and at such times Beltane noticed that full often he would find her deep, sad gaze bent upon him; he noticed also that though her voice was low and gentle, yet she spake ever as one 'customed to obedience. Thus it was, that Sir Benedict being ordered to his couch, obeyed the soft-spoke command, but being kept there all day, grumbled (albeit to Beltane): being kept there the second day he fell to muttered oaths and cursing (albeit to Beltane): but at sunset he became unruly, in so much that he ventured to remonstrate with the lady Abbess (albeit humbly), whereon she smiled, and bidding Beltane reach her cup and spoon, forthwith mixed a decoction and dosed Sir Benedict that he fell asleep and slumbered amain.

  Thus, during this time, Beltane saw and talked much with the lady Abbess: oft went he to watch her among the sick and to aid her when he might; saw how fierce faces softened when she bent to touch fevered brow or speak them cheerily with smiling lip despite the deep and haunting sadness of her eyes; saw how eagerly rough hands were stretched forth to furtive touch her white habit as she passed; heard harsh voices grow sudden soft and all unfamiliar——voices that broke in murmurous gratitude. All this saw and heard he and failed not, morn and eve, to kneel him at her feet to hear her bless him and to feel that soft, shy touch among his hair.

  So passed two days, but neither Roger, nor Walkyn, nor Ulf, nor indeed any of the twenty chosen men had yet returned or sent word or sign, wherefore Beltane began to wax moody and anxious. Thus it was that upon a sunny afternoon he wandered beside a little rivulet, bowered in alder and willow: here, a merry brook that prattled over pebbly bed and laughed among stones and mossy boulders, there a drowsy stream that, widening to dreamy pool, stayed its haste to woo down-bending branches with soft, kissing noises.

  Now as Beltane walked beside the stream, head a-droop and very thoughtful, he paused of a sudden to behold one richly dight in gambeson of fair-wrought leather artificially quilted and pinked, who sat ensconced within this greeny bower, his back to a tree, one bandaged arm slung about his neck and in the other hand a long hazel-branch trimmed with infinite care, whereunto a line was tied.

  "Sir Benedict!" cried Beltane, "methought thee asleep: what do ye so far from camp and bed?"

  "I fish, lad, I fish——I ply a tentative angle. Nay——save thy breath, I have caught me nothing yet, save thoughts. Thoughts do flock a many, but as to fish——they do but sniff my bait and flirt it with their wanton tails, plague take 'em! But what o' fish? 'Tis not for fish alone that man fisheth, for fishing begetteth thought and thought, dreams——and to dream is oft-times sweet!"

  "But——Benedict, what of the Abbess?"

  "The Abbess? Ha, the Abbess, Beltane! Sweet soul, she sleepeth. At noon each day needs must she sleep since even she is mortal and mortals must sleep now and then. The Abbess? Come sit ye, lad, what time I tickle the noses of these pestilent fish. Sit ye here beside me and tell me, how think ye of this noble and most sweet lady?"

  "That, for thy truancy, she will incontinent mix thee another sleeping draught, Benedict."

  "Ha——then I'll never drink it!" quoth Sir Benedict, settling his shoulder against Beltane and frowning at his line. "Am I a babe, forsooth, to be dosed to slumber? Ha, by the foul fiend his black dam, ne'er will I drink it, lad!"

  "Then will she smile on thee, sad-eyed, and set it to thy lip, and woo thee soft-voiced, so shalt thou swallow it every drop——"

  "Not so——dear blood of all the saints! Must I be mewed up within an accursed bed on such a day and all by reason of a small axe-stroke? Malediction, no!"

  "She is wondrous gentle with the sick, Benedict——"

  "She is a very woman, Beltane, and therefore gentle, a noble lady sweet of soul and body! To die for such were joyful privilege, methinks, aye, verily!" and Sir Benedict, forgetful of his line, drooped his head and sighed.

  "And thou didst know her well——long years agone, Benedict?"

  "Aye, long——years——agone!"

  "Very well, Benedict?"

  "Very well."

  "She was 'Yolande' then, Benedict?"

  "Aye," quoth Sir Benedict, lifting his head with a start and looking at Beltane askance, "and to-day she is the lady Abbess Veronica!"

  "That shall surely dose thee again and——"

  "Ha! bones and body o' me, not so! For here sit I, and here angle I, fish or no fish, thunder o' God, yes! Aye, verily, here will I sit till I have caught me a fish, or weary and go o' my own free will——by Beelzebub I vow, by Bel and the Dragon I swear it! And furthermore——"

  Sir Benedict paused, tilted his head and glancing up, beheld the lady Abbess within a yard of them. Gracious she stood in her long white habit and shook her stately head in grave rebuke, but beholding his abashed look and how the rod sagged in his loosened hold, her lips parted of a sudden and her teeth gleamed in a smile wondrous young and pleasant to see.

  "O Benedict!" said she, "O child most disobedient! O sir knight! Is this thy chivalry, noble lord——to steal away for that a poor soul must needs sleep, being, alas! so very mortal?"

  "Forsooth and indeed, dear my lady," quoth Sir Benedict, fumbling with his angle, "the sun did woo me forth——and the wind, see you——the wind——"

  "Nay, I see it not, my lord, but I did hear something of thy fearsome, great oaths as I came hither."

  "Oaths, lady?" said Sir Benedict, fingering his chin, "Forsooth and did I so? Mayhap 'twas by reason that the fish, see you, the pestilent fish——Ha! Saint Benedict! I have a bite!" Up sprang Sir Benedict, quite forgetting his wounded arm, capering lightly to and fro, now in the water, now out, with prodigious stir and splash and swearing oaths galore, until, his pallid cheek flushed and bright eyes a-dance, he had won the fish into the shallows and thence landed it right skilfully, where it thrashed and leapt, flashing in the sun.

  "Ha, Yolande!" he cried, "in the golden days thou wert ever fond of a goodly trout fresh caught and broiled upon a fire of——"

  "Benedict!" cried the Abbess, and, all forgetful of his hurt, caught him by his wounded arm, "O Sir Benedict!" Now, man of iron though he seemed, Sir Benedict must needs start and flinch beneath her hold and grow livid by reason of the sharp pain of it; whereat she loosed him of a sudden and fell away, white hands tight clasped together.

  "Ah Benedict!——I have hurt thee——again!" she panted.

  "Not so, 'twas when I landed the fish——my lady Abbess!" Now at this she turned away and standing thus awhile very silent, presently raised her hand, whereat came two of her gentle nuns.

  "Dear my daughters," said she, "take now Sir Benedict unto the camp and look to his hurt, anoint it as ye have seen me do. Go!"

  Nothing speaking, Sir Benedict bowed him humbly to the stately Abbess and went away between the two white-robed sisters and so was gone.

  Slowly the Abbess turned to Beltane who had risen and was regarding her with a new and strange intensity, and meeting that look, her own glance wavered, sank, and she stood awhile gazing down into the murmurous waters; and as she stood thus, aware of his deep-searching eyes, into her pale cheek crept a flush that deepened and ever deepened.

  "My lord," said she, very low and placid-seeming, "why dost thou look on me so?"

  And for all her stately calm, her hand, which had clenched itself upon the silver crucifix, was woefully a-tremble. "What——is it——my lord Beltane?"

  "A thought, noble lady."

  "What is thy thought?"

  "Lady, 'tis this——that, an I might find a mother such as thee, then would I pay her homage on my knees, and love her and honour her for what I do know her, praying God to make me worthy——!" So saying, he came a step towards her, faltered, stopped, and reached out appealing hands to her.

  From red to white and from white to red again the colour flushed in cheek and brow while the Abbess hearkened to his words; then she looked on him with proud head uplifted and in her eyes a great and wondrous light, quick and passionate her slim hands came out to meet his——

  A sudden clamour in the air! A clash of arms! A running of swift feet and Walkyn sprang betwixt them, his face grimed with dust and sweat, his armour gone, his great axe all bloody in his hand: "Master!" he cried, "in Winisfarne lieth Pertolepe with over a thousand of his company, I judge——and in the woods 'twixt here and Winisfarne is Hollo of Revelsthorne marching on us through the woods with full five thousand of Ivo's picked levies, new come from Barham Broom!"

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