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Beltane The Smith (Chapter51)

2006-08-28 16:38

  Chapter LI. How Black Roger Won to Fuller Manhood

  Forthwith Beltane paused, and presently beheld one that sat by the wayside——a man who crouched 'neath a dusty cloak and kept his white head down-bent and who now reached out a hand to grope and grope for the staff that lay near; wherefore Beltane took hold upon this hand and raised the white-haired traveller, and thereafter put the cudgel in his grasp.

  "Messire," said the blind man, "though I have no eyes I do know thee young, for thy clasp is strong and quick with life, yet wondrous gentle. God bless thee, youthful sir, for 'tis well to meet with gentleness within a world so cruel. Tell me, I pray, doth this road lead unto Belsaye town?"

  "Verily," answered Beltane, "but 'tis a long day's march thither."

  "Yet needs must I reach there, since I do bear a message. But, O young messire, when cruel men put out mine eyes, the good God, in His sweet clemency, made sharp mine ears. So do I know thy voice, methinks, for voice of one who, long months since, did cherish me in my need and hunger, and sent me unto the saintly Ambrose."

  "Ha!" cried Beltane joyously, "and is it thou indeed? Tell me, how doth my father?——is he well?——what said he?——how looked he? O, I do yearn for word of him!"

  "Thy father? How, young sir, is he indeed thy father? Then is thy name Beltane, for I have heard him name thee oft——"

  "Forsooth, and did he so? But how came you here, and wherefore?"

  "To seek thee, lord Beltane, according to thy saintly father's word. And the manner of it, thus: As we sat together of a certain fair noon within Holy Cross Thicket, there came to us thither a woman, young, methinks, and fair, for her speech was soft and wondrous sweet in mine ears. And she did hail thy father 'Duke,' and thereafter spake thy name full oft, and so they fell to many words, walking together up and down before the hut. Anon, sudden and silent as she came, she was gone, and thy father walked full long, praying oft as one that rejoiceth greatly, and oft as one in deep perplexity. In a while cometh he to me and gave me scrip and therewith food and money, and bade me seek thee in Belsaye and speak thee thus: 'Tell Beltane, my well-beloved, that I, his father, have heard of his great and knightly deeds and that I do glory in them, praising God. Say that through him my youth and strength are renewed and my great sin made easier to bear. Tell him that the woes of Pentavalon draw to an end, and that ere long she shall arise above her sorrows. Bid him be of good courage yet a little longer, for the lion is waked at last, and the leopard also.' Behold now, messire, all's said." And the blind man stood with down-bent head, one hand grasping the staff, his other arm hid within his wide sleeve, what time Roger watched him furtive and askance, and moreover, his bow-stave shook and quivered in his grasp; as for Beltane, he stood as one lost in happy thought, upon his lips a smile ineffably tender. Smiling yet, he turned and touched the blind man's stooping shoulder. Quoth he:

  "Greatly welcome is thy news and greatly would I thank thee. Pray you now, how may I show my gratitude?"

  "Messire, fain would I shelter me in Belsaye, for there is fire and sword and battle on the marches. But the way is long, and on my road hither two rogues took from me purse and scrip. Give me, therefore, enough to bear me on my way."

  "Aye, verily! Roger, thou dost bear the purse. Give him store of money and some of our food——see that he lacketh for nothing, Roger." So saying, Beltane turned him away and fell again to pondering his father's words.

  Now at sound of Roger's name the blind man started round and fixed Roger with the horror of his eyeless sockets, and, therewith, flung up an arm as though fearing a blow; and behold! this arm was but a mutilated stump, for hand was there none.

  "Roger!" he whispered, "not Roger the Black? No, no! There be a many Rogers. But who art thou dost bear such a name, and wherefore cower and gasp ye?"

  Then stood the blind man with head out-thrust and awful arm upraised, before which Black Roger shrank and shrank to cower in the deeper shadow.

  Of a sudden the blind man turned and coming beside Beltane, grasped him by the mantle.

  "Lord," he questioned, "who is he that trembleth before the maimed and blind?——who is he that croucheth yonder?"

  "Nay, fear ye nothing," said Beltane, "'tis none but my trusty Roger, my good comrade in arms——comfort ye!" Then he beckoned Roger and took the purse and gave to the blind man bounteously, saying:

  "See now, when you shall come to Belsaye go you to Eric that hath command of the town and to Giles that is captain of the archers, and say that I, Beltane, will come to Belsaye within the week, and all our company with me, God willing. Bid them be vigilant and watch for our coming; let bows be strung and wall and turret manned night and day. So now fare thee well, and God's hand guide thy sightless going."

  Then the blind man blessed Beltane, and turning, forthwith set out upon his way, and his staff tapped loud upon the forest-road. Right joyfully Beltane strode on again, his mind ever busied with thought of his father; but Roger's step was listless and heavy, so that Beltane must needs turn to look on him, and straightway marvelled to see how he hung his head, and that his ruddy cheek was grown wondrous pale and haggard.

  "Roger?" quoth he, "art sick, Roger?"

  "Sick, lord? nay——not sick, 'tis but that I——I——" But when he would have said more his voice failed him, his lip fell a-quivering, and even as Beltane stared in wonder, Black Roger groaned and flung himself upon his knees, and hid his face within his hands.

  "Why Roger! What ails thee, Roger, man?" said Beltane and laid a hand upon his shoulder, whereat Roger groaned again and shrank away.

  "Ah, lord, touch me not!" he cried, "unfit am I for hand of thine, unfit and all unworthy——"

  "Nay, good friend——"

  "Master——master!" groaned Roger, and therewith a great cry brake from him and he cast himself face downwards in the dust. "Unworthy am I to be thy man, so must I leave thee this night——aye, leave thee! For O my lord! yon poor blind man——'twas I——at the Red Pertolepe's command—— 'twas I——did burn out his eyes and——cut off his hand——'twas I——I——Black Roger! O Saint Cuthbert! O sweet Jesu! So all unworthy am I to be thy man!"

  And now great sobs shook him, fierce sobs and bitter, and he writhed there in the dust, groaning in the agony of his remorse. Little by little his passion spent itself, but still he lay there, yearning mightily for sound of his master's voice or touch of his hand, yet dared he not look up because of his abasement.

  At last, whenas his sobs had ceased, he lifted his wretched head and stared in wide-eyed wonder to see Beltane upon his knees, his mailed hands clasped and his lips moving in silent prayer; when, his prayer ended, he raised his head and straightway Roger's wonder grew, for behold! the eyes of Beltane were wondrous gentle, his mouth sweet-curved and tender, the old harsh lines of grim-curled lip and lowering brow had vanished quite; and thus at last Black Roger saw again the face of my Beltane that had smiled on him long since amid the green across the prostrate form of poor Beda the Jester. So now, my Beltane smiled, and smiling, reached forth his hand.

  "Roger," said he, "by shame and agony some men do win to new life and fuller manhood, and such a man, methinks, thou art. So hath God need of thee, and from this the dust of thy abasement, mayhap, shall lift thee, one day, high as heaven. Stand up, Roger, good my friend, stand up, O man, for he only is unworthy that ne'er hath wept remorseful in the dust for evil past and done."

  Then Roger grasped that strong, uplifting hand, and stood upon his feet, yet spake he no word; and presently they went on along the road together.

  And Roger's habit was stained with dust, and on his cheek the mark of bitter tears——but his head was high and manfully uplifted.

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