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Beltane The Smith (Chapter16)

2006-08-28 16:29

  Chapter XVI. Of the Rueful Knight of the Burning Heart

  Southward marched Beltane hour after hour, tireless of stride, until the sun began to decline; on and on, thoughtful of brow and speaking not at all, wherefore the three were gloomy and silent also——even Giles had no mind to break in upon his solemn meditations. But at last came Roger and touched him on the shoulder.

  "Master," said he, "the day groweth to a close, and we famish."

  "Why, then——eat," said Beltane.

  Now while they set about building a fire, Beltane went aside and wandering slow and thoughtful, presently came to a broad glade or ride, and stretching himself out 'neath a tree, lay there staring up at the leafy canopy, pondering upon Sir Pertolepe his sins, and the marvellous ways of God. Lying thus, he was aware of the slow, plodding hoof-strokes of a horse drawing near, of the twang of a lute, with a voice sweet and melodious intoning a chant; and the tune was plaintive and the words likewise, being these:——

  "Alack and woe That love is so Akin to pain!

  That to my heart The bitter smart Returns again,Alack and woe!"

  Glancing up therefore, Beltane presently espied a knight who bestrode a great and goodly war-horse; a youthful knight and debonair, slender and shapely in his bright mail and surcoat of flame-coloured samite. His broad shield hung behind his shoulder, balanced by a long lance whose gay banderol fluttered wanton to the soft-breathing air; above his mail-coif he wore a small bright-polished bascinet, while, at his high-peaked saddle-bow his ponderous war-helm swung, together with broad-bladed battle-axe. Now as he paced along in this right gallant estate, his roving glance, by hap, lighted on Beltane, whereupon, checking his powerful horse, he plucked daintily at the strings of his lute, delicate-fingered, and brake into song anew:——

  "Ah, woe is me That I should be A lonely wight!

  That in mankind No joy I find By day or night,Ah, woe is me!"

  Thereafter he sighed amain and smote his bosom, and smiling upon Beltane sad-eyed, spake:

  "Most excellent, tall, and sweet young sir, I, who Love's lorn pilgrim am, do give thee woeful greeting and entreat now the courtesy of thy pity."

  "And wherefore pity, sir?" quoth Beltane, sitting up.

  "For reason of a lady's silver laughter. A notable reason this; for, mark me, ye lovers, an thy lady flout thee one hour, grieve not——she shall be kind the next; an she scorn thee to-day, despair nothing——she shall love thee to-morrow; but, an she laugh and laugh——ah, then poor lover, Venus pity thee! Then languish hope, and tender heart be rent, for love and laughter can ne'er be kin. Wherefore a woeful wight am I, foredone and all distraught for love. Behold here, the blazon on my shield——lo! a riven heart proper (direfully aflame) upon a field vert. The heart, methinks, is aptly wrought and popped, and the flame in sooth flame-like! Here beneath, behold my motto, 'Ardeo' which signifieth 'I burn.' Other device have I laid by for the nonce, what time my pilgrimage shall be accompt."

  But Beltane looked not so much upon the shield as on the face of him that bore it, and beholding its high and fearless look, the clear, bright eyes and humorous mouth (albeit schooled to melancholy) he smiled, and got him to his feet.

  "Now, well met, Sir Knight of the Burning Heart!" quoth he. "What would ye here, alone, within these solitudes?"

  "Sigh, messire. I sing and sigh, and sigh and sing."

  "'Tis a something empty life, methinks."

  "Not so, messire," sighed the rueful knight, "for when I chance to meet a gentle youth, young and well beseen——as thou, bedight in goodly mail ——as thou, with knightly sword on thigh, why then, messire, 'tis ever my wont to declare unto him that she I honour is fairer, nobler, and altogether more worthy and virtuous than any other she soever, and to maintain that same against him, on horse or afoot, with lance, battle-axe or sword. Thus, see you messire, even a love-lorn lover hath betimes his compensations, and the sward is soft underfoot, and level." Saying which, the knight cocked a delicate eyebrow in questioning fashion, and laid a slender finger to the pommel of his long sword.

  "How," cried Beltane, "would'st fight with me?"

  "Right gladly would I, messire——to break the monotony."

  "I had rather hear thy song again."

  "Ha, liked you it in sooth? 'Tis small thing of mine own."

  "And 'tis brief!" nodded Beltane.

  "Brief!" quoth the knight, "brief! not so, most notable youthful sir, for even as love is long enduring so is my song, it being of an hundred and seventy and eight cantos in all, dealing somewhat of the woes and ills of a heart sore smitten (which heart is mine own also)。 Within my song is much matter of hearts (in truth) and darts, of flames and shames, of yearnings and burnings, the which this poor heart must needs endure since it doth constant bleed and burn."

  "Indeed, messire, I marvel that you be yet alive," said Beltane gravely, whereat the young knight did pause to view him, dubious-eyed. Quoth he:

  "In sooth, most youthful and excellent sir, I have myself marvelled thereat betimes, but, since alive am I, now do I declare unto you that she for whom I sigh is the fairest, gentlest, noblest, most glorious and most womanly of all women in the world alive——"

  "Save one!" said Beltane.

  "Save none, messire!" said the young knight, eager-eyed.

  "One!" said Beltane.

  "None!" quoth the knight, as, casting aside ponderous lance he vaulted lightly from his saddle and drew his sword; but, seeing that Beltane bore no shield, paused to lay his own tenderly aside, and so faced him serene of brow and smiling of lip. "Sweet sir," said he gaily, "here methinks is fair cause for argument; let us then discuss the matter together for the comfort of our souls and to the glory of our ladies. As to my name——" "'Tis Jocelyn," quoth Beltane.

  "Ha!" exclaimed the knight, staring.

  "That won a suit of triple mail at Dunismere joust, and wagered it 'gainst Black Ivo's roan stallion within Deepwold forest upon a time."

  "Now, by Venus!" cried the knight, starting back, "here be manifest sorcery! Ha! by the sweet blind boy, 'tis black magic!" and he crossed himself devoutly. But Beltane, laughing, put back his hood of mail, that his long, fair hair fell a-down rippling to his shoulders.

  "Know you me not, messire?" quoth he.

  "Why," said Sir Jocelyn, knitting delicate brows, "surely thou art the forester that o'ercame Duke Ivo's wrestler; aye, by the silver feet of lovely Thetis, thou'rt Beltane the Smith!"

  "Verily, messire," nodded Beltane, "and 'tis not meet that knight cross blade with lowly smith."

  "Ha!" quoth Sir Jocelyn, rubbing at his smooth white chin, "yet art a goodly man withal——and lover to boot——methinks?"

  "Aye," sighed Beltane, "ever and always."

  "Why then, all's well," quoth Sir Jocelyn with eyes a-dance, "for since true love knoweth nought of distinctions, therefore being lovers are we peers, and, being peers, so may we fight together. So come, Sir Smith, here stand I sword in hand to maintain 'gainst thee and all men the fame and honour of her I worship, of all women alive, maid or wife or widow, the fairest, noblest, truest, and most love-worthy is——"

  "Helen of Mortain!" quoth Beltane, sighing.

  "Helen?——Helen?——thou too!" exclaimed Sir Jocelyn, and forthwith dropped his sword, staring in stark amaze. "How——dost thou love her also?"

  "Aye," sighed Beltane, "to my sorrow!"

  Then stooped Sir Jocelyn and, taking up his sword, slowly sheathed it. Quoth he, sad-eyed:

  "Life, methinks, is full of disappointments; farewell to thee, Sir Smith," and sighing, he turned away; yet ere he had taken lance and shield, Beltane spake:

  "Whither away, Sir Jocelyn?"

  "To sigh, and sing, and seek adventure. 'Twas for this I left my goodly castle of Alain and journeyed, a lorn pilgrim, hither to Pentavalon, since when strange stories have I heard that whisper in the air, speeding from lip to lip, of a certain doughty knight-at-arms, valiant beyond thought, that beareth a sword whose mighty sweep none may abide, who, alone and unaided slew an hundred and twenty and four within the greenwood, and thereafter, did, 'neath the walls of Belsaye town burn down Duke Ivo's gibbet, who hath sworn to cut Duke Ivo into gobbets, look you, and feed him to the dogs; which is well, for I love not Duke Ivo. All this have I heard and much beside, idle tales mayhap, yet would I seek out this errant Mars and prove him, for mine own behoof, with stroke of sword."

  "And how an he prove worthy?" questioned Beltane.

  "Then will I ride with him, to share his deeds and glory mayhap, Sir Smith——I and all the ten-score lusty fellows that muster to my pennon, since in the air is whispered talk of war, and Sir Benedict lieth ready in Thrasfordham Keep."

  "Two hundred men," quoth Beltane, his blue eyes agleam, "two hundred, say you?" and, speaking, he stepped forward, unsheathing his sword.

  "How now," quoth Sir Jocelyn, "what would ye, sweet smith?"

  "I would have thee prove me for thy behoof, Sir Jocelyn; for I am he that with aid of five good men burned down the gibbet without Belsaye."

  "Thou!" cried Sir Jocelyn, "and thou art a smith! And yet needs must I credit thee, for thine eyes be truthful eyes. And did'st indeed slay so many in the green, forsooth?"

  "Nay," answered Beltane, "there were but twenty; moreover I——"

  "Enough!" cried Sir Jocelyn, gaily, "be thou smith or be thou demi-god, now will I make proof of thy might and valiance." And he drew sword.

  So did these two youths face each other, smiling above their gleaming steel, and so the long blades rang together, and, thereafter, the air was full of a clashing din, in so much that Roger came running sword in hand, with Walkyn and Giles at his heels; but, seeing how matters stood, they sat them down on the sward, watching round-eyed and eager.

  And now Sir Jocelyn (happy-eyed), his doleful heart forgot, did show himself a doughty knight, skipping lightly to and fro despite his heavy armour, and laying on right lustily while the three a-sprawl upon the grass shouted gleefully at each shrewd stroke or skilful parry; but, once Sir Jocelyn's blade clashed upon Beltane's mailed thigh, and straightway they fell silent; and once his point touched the links on Beltane's wide breast, and straightway their brows grew anxious and gloomy——yet none so gloomy as Roger. But now, on a sudden, was the flash and ring of hard smitten steel, and behold, Sir Jocelyn's sword sprang from his grasp and thudded to earth a good three yards away; whereupon the three roared amain——yet none so loud as Roger.

  "Now by sweet Cupid his tender bow!" panted Sir Jocelyn——"by the cestus of lovely Venus——aye, by the ox-eyed Juno, I swear 'twas featly done, Sir Smith!"

  Quoth Beltane, taking up the fallen sword:

  "'Tis a trick I learned of that great and glorious knight, Sir Benedict of Bourne."

  "Messire," said Sir Jocelyn, his cheek flushing, "an earl am I of thirty and two quarterings and divers goodly manors: yet thou art the better man, meseemeth, and as such do I salute thee, and swear myself thy brother-in-arms henceforth——an ye will."

  Now hereupon Beltane turned, and looking upon the mighty three with kindling eye, beckoned them near.

  "Lord Jocelyn," said he, "behold here my trusty comrades, valiant men all:——this, my faithful Roger, surnamed the Black: This, Giles Brabblecombe, who shooteth as ne'er did archer yet: and here, Walkyn—— who hath known overmuch of sorrow and bitter wrong. Fain would we take thee for our comrade, Lord Jocelyn, for God knoweth Pentavalon hath need of true men these days, yet first, know this——that I, and these my three good comrades do stand pledged to the cause of the weak and woefully oppressed within this sorrowful Duchy; to smite evil, nor stay till we be dead, or Black Ivo driven hence."

  "Ivo?——Ivo?" stammered Sir Jocelyn, in blank amaze, "'tis madness!"

  "Thus," said Beltane, "is our cause, perchance, a little desperate, and he who companies with us must company with Death betimes." "To defy Black Ivo——ha, here is madness so mad as pleaseth me right well! A rebellion, forsooth! How many do ye muster?"

  Answered Beltane:

  "Thou seest——we be four——"

  "Four!" cried Sir Jocelyn, "Four!"

  "But Sir Benedict lieth within Thrasfordham Keep, and God is in heaven, messire."

  "Aye, but heaven is far, methinks, and Duke Ivo is near, and hath an arm long and merciless. Art so weary of life, Sir Smith?"

  "Nay," answered Beltane, "but to what end hath man life, save to spend it for the good of his fellows?"

  "Art mad!" sighed Sir Jocelyn, "art surely mad! Heigho!——some day, mayhap, it shall be written how one Jocelyn Alain, a gentle, love-lorn knight, singing his woes within the greenwood, did meet four lovely madmen and straight fell mad likewise. So here, upon my sword, do I swear to take thee for my brother-in-arms, and these thy comrades for my comrades, and to spend my life, henceforth, to the good of my fellows!"

  So saying, Sir Jocelyn smiled his quick bright smile and reached out his hand to my Beltane, and there, leaning upon their swords, their mailed fingers clasped and wrung each other. Thereafter he turned upon the three, but even as he did so, Walkyn uttered a fierce cry, and whirling about with axe aloft, sprang into the green, whence of a sudden rose a babel of voices, and the sound of fierce blows and, thereafter, the noise of pursuit. A flicker of steel amid the green——a score of fierce faces all about him, and Beltane was seized from behind, borne struggling to his knees, to his face, battered by unseen weapons, dragged at by unseen hands, choked, half-stunned, his arms twisted and bound by galling thongs. Now, as he lay thus, helpless, a mailed foot spurned him fiercely and looking up, half-swooning, he beheld Sir Pertolepe smiling down at him.

  "Ha——thou fool!" he laughed jovially, "did'st think to escape me, then ——thou fool, I have followed on thy tracks all day. By the eyes of God, I would have followed thee to hell! I want thee in Garthlaxton——there be gibbets for thee above the keep——also, there are my hounds——aye, I want thee, Messire Beltane who art Duke of Pentavalon! Ho! Arnulf——a halter for his ducal throat!" So, when they had cast a noose about his neck, they dragged Beltane, choking, to his feet, and led him away gasping and staggering through the green; and having eyes, he saw not, and having ears, he heard not, being very spent and sick.

  Now, as they went, evening began to fall.

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