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Beltane The Smith (Chapter12)

2006-08-28 16:28

  Chapter XII. Which Tells How Duke Ivo's Great Gallows Ceased to Be

  Scarce a mile without the walls of the fair city of Belsaye my lord Duke had builded him a great gallows, had set it high upon a hill for all the world to see; from whose lofty cross-beams five score rogues had hanged ere now, had writhed and kicked their lives away and rotted there in company, that all the world might know how potent was the anger of my lord Duke Ivo.

  Day in, day out, from rosy morn till dewy eve, it frowned upon Belsaye, a thing of doom whose grim sight should warn rebellious townsfolk to dutiful submission; by night it loomed, a dim-seen, brooding horror, whose loathsome reek should mind them how all rogues must end that dared lift hand or voice against my lord Duke, or those proud barons, lords, and knights who, by his pleasure, held their fiefs with rights of justice, the high, the middle and the low.

  Day in, day out, the men of Belsaye eyed it askance 'neath scowling brows and, by night, many a clenched hand was shaken and many a whispered malediction sped, toward that thing of doom that menaced them from the dark.

  To-night the moon was full, and thus, following Friar Martin's bony outstretched finger, Beltane of a sudden espied afar the Duke's great gallows, rising grisly and stark against the moon's round splendour. So for a space, standing yet within the shade of the woods, Beltane stared fierce-eyed, the while Giles, with Roger at his elbow, pointed out divers shapes that dangled high in air, at sight of which the friar knelt with bowed head and lips that moved in prayer: and Walkyn, scowling, muttered in his beard.

  "Messire," said the archer, "my lord Duke's gallows is great and very strong, and we but five all told!"

  "I have mine axe!" quoth Walkyn.

  "Had we fifty axes we scarce should bring it down ere dawn: moreover, the night is very still and sounds carry far——"

  "Nathless," quoth Roger, "to-night we surely shall destroy it——my lord hath said so."

  "Aye——but how?" questioned Giles. "In Belsaye is that pale fox Sir Gui of Allerdale with many trusty men-at-arms to hold the town for Black Ivo and teach Belsaye its duty: how may we destroy my lord Duke's gallows 'neath the very beards of my lord Duke's garrison, wilt tell me that, my good, Black Rogerkin?"

  "Aye," nodded Roger, "that will I——when I have asked my lord." So saying, he came and touched Beltane and humbly put the question.

  Then, with his gaze yet upon the gallows, Beltane sighed and answered:

  "There hath been no rain for weeks, look you: the underbrush is dry, methinks, and should burn well!"

  "Aye, for sure," said Roger, "we shall burn Black Ivo's gallows to ashes, bowman, and a good end 'twill be."

  "By fire!" cried the archer, aghast, "but lord, so soon as they shall see the flames, Sir Gui and his men will sally out upon us!"

  "Nay," said Beltane, "for we shall sally in."

  "Into Belsaye, mean you, lord?"

  "Certes," answered Beltane, "how else may we break open the dungeon? The night is young yet, but we have much to do——follow!" So saying, Beltane turned and keeping ever within the shadow of the trees, set off towards that distant hill where stood the gallows, black against the moon.

  Swiftly they went and for the most part in silence, for Beltane's mind was busied upon many matters.

  So betimes they climbed the hill and stood at last beneath the gallows, and, glancing up, Beltane beheld noisome shapes, black and shrivelled, that once had lived and laughed. Forthwith he drew his sword and fell to cutting down the brush, whereat friar Martin, girding up his frock, took Walkyn's sword and fell to likewise.

  Now, as Beltane laboured thus, he was suddenly aware of a wild and ragged figure, the which started up before him as if from the very ground. An old man he was, bent with years, yet with eyes that burned fierce and undimmed 'neath hoary brows, and shrivelled hands that gripped upon a rusty sword.

  "Who are ye," he cried, harsh-voiced, "who are ye that disturb this woeful place? 'Tis here that men are dragged to die——and, being dead, do hang i' the air to rot and rot——and thereby hangs a tale of wolves that howl and birds that shriek, aha!——carrion crows and hook-billed kites——they be well gorged since Ivo came. 'Caw!' they cry, 'caw!'—— soft child's flesh and the flesh of tender maids——aha!——I know——I've watched——I've seen! Ah! since my lord Duke Beltane died, what sights these eyes have seen!"

  "Old man," quoth Beltane, bending near, "who art thou?"

  "I am the ghost that haunts this place, but, ages since, I was Sir Robert Bellesme of Garthlaxton Keep. But my wife they slew, my daughter ravished from me——and my son——Ah! Christ——my son! They hanged him here ——yonder he hung, and I, his father, watched him die. But, by night, when all was still, I crept hither and found a hole to shelter me. And here I stayed to watch over him——my son who hung so quiet and so still. And the rough wind buffeted him, the cruel rain lashed him, and the hot sun scorched him, but still he hung there, so high!——so high! Yet I waited, for the strongest rope will break in time. And upon a moony night, he fell, and I gathered him in my arms, close here against my heart, and buried him——where none can know——save God. Many others have I buried also, for the strongest cords must break in time! And folk do say the devil bears them hence, since none are ever found——but I know where they lie——six hundred and seventy and nine——I know——these hands have buried them and I have kept a tally. Ah!——but you, gentle youth, what would ye here?"

  "Burn down the gallows," said Beltane, "'tis an accursed thing, so shall it shame earth and heaven no longer."

  "How!——how!" cried the ancient man, letting fall his rusty sword, "Destroy Black Ivo's gibbet? Dare ye——dare ye such a thing indeed? Are there men with souls unconquered yet? Methought all such were old, or dead, or fled away——dare ye this, youth?"

  "Aye," nodded Beltane. "Watch now!" and hereupon he, together with the others, fell to hewing down the dry brush with might and main, and piling it about the gibbet's massy beams, while the ancient man, perched upon a rock hard by, watched them 'neath his shaggy brows and laughed soft and shrill.

  "Aha!" he cried, "the fire ye kindle here shall set the Duchy in a flame mayhap, to burn Black Ivo with Gui of Allerdale and Red Pertolepe——mayhap! For them, fire on earth and flame in hell——aha! To burn the gibbet! 'tis well bethought: so shall carrion kite and jay go light-bellied hereabouts, mayhap, oho! 'Caw,' they shall cry, 'Caw—— give us to eat——fair white flesh!' Yet how may they eat when the gallows is no more?"

  Thus spake he with shrill laughter while Beltane laboured until the sweat ran from him, while Walkyn's great axe flashed and fell near by and steel glittered among the underbrush that clothed the slopes of the hill.

  Very soon they had stacked great piles of kindling about the gallows' weather-beaten timbers——twigs below, faggots above——cunningly ordered and higher than Beltane's head. Now as Beltane leaned upon his sword to wipe the sweat from his eyes, came Roger and Walkyn yet panting from their labour.

  "Master," said Roger, "they should burn well, I trow, and yet——"

  "And yet," quoth Walkyn, "these beams be thick: methinks, when the others go, one man should stay to tend the fires until the flame gets fair hold——"

  "And that man I!" said Roger.

  "No, no," frowned Walkyn, "an one of us must die, it shall be me——"

  But now came the ancient man, leaning upon his ancient weapon.

  "No, children," said he, "'tis for age to die——death is sweet to the old and weary: so will I tend the fire. Yet, beseech thee, grant me this: that these my hands shall fire the gallows whereon they hanged my son, long ago: young was he, and tall——scarce yet a man——they hanged him yonder, so high——so high——so far beyond my care: and the carrion birds——kites, see you, and crows——and the wind and rain and dark——Ah, God! my son! I am but an old man and feeble, yet, beseech thee, let this be the hand to fire Black Ivo's gibbet!"

  Then Beltane took from his pouch flint and steel and tinder and gave them to the old man's trembling fingers as Giles o' the Bow came running with the stalwart friar behind him.

  So, while the five stood hushed and wide of eye, the old man knelt before them in his rags and struck flint to steel. Once he struck, and twice——and behold a spark that leapt to a small flame that died to a glow; but now, flat upon his belly lay Giles and, pursing his lips, puffed and blew until the glow brightened, spread, and burst into a crackling flame that leapt from twig to twig. And when the fire waxed hot, Beltane took thence a glowing brand, and, coming to the other great pile, fired it therewith. Up rose the flames high and higher until they began to lick, pale-tongued, about the gibbet's two great supporting timbers, and ever as they rose, Walkyn and Roger, Giles and the friar, laboured amain, stacking logs near by wherewith to feed the fires.

  "Enough," said Beltane at last, "it shall suffice, methinks."

  "Suffice?" cried the old man, his eyes bright in the ruddy glow, "aye, it shall suffice, sweet boy. See——see, the timbers catch e'en now. Ha! burn, good fire——eat, hungry flame! O, happy sight——would my dear son were here——they hanged his fair young body, but his soul——Ha, his soul! O souls of hanged men——O spirits of the dead, come about me, ye ghosts of murdered youth, come and behold the gibbet burn whereon ye died. What——are ye there, amid the smoke, so soon? Come then, let us dance together and trip it lightly to and fro——merrily, merrily! Hey boy, so ho then——so ho, and away we go!" Hereupon, tossing up gaunt arms, the old man fell to dancing and capering amid the sparks and rolling smoke, filling the air with wild talk and gabbling high-pitched laughter that rose above the roar of the fires. And so in a while Beltane, sighing, turned and led the way down the hill towards the glooming shadow of the woods; but ever as they went the flames waxed fiercer behind them and the madman's laughter shrilled upon the air.

  Swift-footed they plunged into the underbrush and thus hidden began to close in upon Belsaye town. And of a sudden they heard a cry, and thereafter the shattering blare of a trumpet upon the walls. And now from within the waking city rose a confused sound, a hum that grew louder and ever more loud, pierced by shout and trumpet-blast while high above this growing clamour the tocsin pealed alarm.

  Thus, in a while the trembling citizens of Belsaye, starting from their slumber, stared in pallid amaze beholding afar a great and fiery gibbet whose flames, leaping heavenward, seemed to quench the moon.

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