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Beltane The Smith (Chapter3)

2006-08-28 16:26

  Chapter III. How Love Came to Beltane in the Greenwood

  Upon a day Beltane stood at his forge fashioning an axe-head. And, having tempered it thereafter in the brook, he laid it by, and straightening his back, strode forth into the glade all ignorant of the eyes that watched him curiously through the leaves. And presently as he stood, his broad back set to the bole of a tree, his blue eyes lifted heavenwards brimful of dreams, he brake forth into a song he had made, lying sleepless upon his bed to do it.

  Tall and stately were the trees, towering aloft, nodding slumberously in the gentle wind; fair were the flowers lifting glad faces to their sun-father and filling the air with their languorous perfume; yet naught was there so comely to look upon as Beltane the Smith, standing bare-armed in his might, his golden hair crisp-curled and his lifted eyes a-dream. Merrily the brook laughed and sang among the willows, leaping in rainbow-hues over its pebbly bed; sweet piped the birds in brake and thicket, yet of all their music none was there so good to hear as the rich tones of Beltane the Smith.

  So thought the Duchess Helen of Mortain where she sat upon her white palfrey screened by the thick-budded foliage, seeing nought but this golden-locked singer whose voice thrilled strangely in her ears. And who so good a judge as Helen the Beautiful, whose lovers were beyond count, knights and nobles and princelings, ever kneeling at her haughty feet, ever sighing forth vows of service and adoration, in whose honour many a stout lance had shivered, and many a knightly act been wrought? Wherefore I say, who so good a judge as the Duchess Helen of Mortain? Thus Beltane the maker of verses, all ignorant that any heard save the birds in the brake, sang of the glories of the forest-lands. Sang how the flowers, feeling the first sweet promise of spring stirring within them, awoke; and lo! the frost was gone, the warm sun they had dreamed of through the long winter was come back, the time of their waiting passed away. So, timidly, slowly, they stole forth from the dark, unveiling their beauties to their lord the sun and filling the world with the fragrance of their worship.

  Somewhat of all this sang Beltane, whiles the Duchess Helen gazed upon him wide-eyed and wondering.

  Could this be Beltane the Smith, this tall, gentle-eyed youth, this soft-voiced singer of dreams? Could this indeed be the mighty wrestler of whom she had heard so many tales of late, how that he lived an anchorite, deep hidden in the green, hating the pomp and turmoil of cities, and contemning women and all their ways?

  Now, bethinking her of all this, the Duchess frowned for that he was such a goodly man and so comely to look on, and frowning, mused, white chin on white fist. Then she smiled, as one that hath a bright thought, and straightway loosed the golden fillet that bound her glowing tresses so that they fell about her in all their glory, rippling far down her broidered habit. Then, the song being ended, forth from her cover rode the lady of Mortain, and coming close where Beltane leaned him in the shade of the tree, paused of a sudden, and started as one that is surprised, and Beltane turning, found her beside him, yet spake not nor moved.

  Breathless and as one entranced he gazed upon her; saw how her long hair glowed a wondrous red 'neath the kisses of the dying sun; saw how her purpled gown, belted at the slender waist, clung about the beauties of her shapely body; saw how the little shoe peeped forth from the perfumed mystery of its folds, and so stood speechless, bound by the spell of her beauty. Wherefore, at length, she spake to him, low and sweet and humble, on this wise:

  "Art thou he whom men call Beltane the Smith?"

  He answered, gazing at her lowered lashes:

  "I am Beltane the Smith."

  For a space she sat grave and silent, then looked at him with eyes that laughed 'neath level brows to see the wonder in his gaze. But anon she falls a-sighing, and braided a tress of hair 'twixt white fingers ere she spoke:

  "'Tis said of thee that thou art a hermit and live alone within these solitudes. And yet——meseemeth——thine eyes are not a hermit's eyes, messire!"

  Quoth Beltane, with flushing cheek and eyes abased:

  "Yet do I live alone, lady."

  "Nor are thy ways and speech the ways of common smith, messire."

  "Yet smith am I in sooth, lady, and therewithal content."

  Now did she look on him 'neath drooping lash, sweet-eyed and languorous, and shook her head, and sighed.

  "Alas, messire, methinks then perchance it may be true that thou, for all thy youth, and despite thine eyes, art a mocker of love, a despiser of women? And yet——nay——sure 'tis not so?"

  Then did Beltane the strong come nigh to fear, by reason of her fair womanhood, and looked from her to earth, from earth to sky, and, when he would have answered, fell a-stammering, abashed by her wondrous beauty.

  "Nay lady, indeed——indeed I know of women nought——nought of myself, but I have heard tell that they be——light-minded, using their beauty but to lure the souls of men from high and noble things——making of love a jest——a sport and pastime——" But now the Duchess laughed, very soft and sweeter, far, to Beltane's thinking than the rippling music of any brook, soever.

  "Aye me, messire anchorite," said she smiling yet, "whence had you this poor folly?"

  Quoth Beltane gravely:

  "Lady, 'twas from one beyond all thought wise and learned. A most holy hermit——"

  "A hermit!" says she, merry-eyed, "then, an he told thee this, needs must he be old, and cold, and withered, and beyond the age of love, knowing nought of women save what memory doth haunt his evil past. But young art thou and strong, and should love come to thee——as come, methinks, it may, hearken to no voice but the pleading of thine own true heart. Messire," she sighed, "art very blind, methinks, for you sing the wonders of these forest-lands, yet in thy song is never a word of love! O blind! O blind! for I tell thee nought exists in this great world but by love. Behold now, these sighing trees love their lord the sun, and, through the drear winter, wait his coming with wide-stretched, yearning arms, crying aloud to him in every shuddering blast the tale of their great longing. And, after some while, he comes, and at his advent they clothe themselves anew in all their beauty, and with his warm breath thrilling through each fibre, put forth their buds, singing through all their myriad leaves the song of their rejoicing. Something the like of this, messire, is the love a woman beareth to a man, the which, until he hath felt it trembling in his heart, he hath not known the joy of living."

  But Beltane answered, smiling a little as one that gloried in his freedom:

  "No woman hath ever touched my heart, yet have I lived nor found it lonely, hitherto."

  But hereupon, resting her white fingers on his arm, she leaned nearer to him so that he felt her breath warm upon his cheek, and there stole to him the faint, sweet perfume of her hair.

  "Beware, O scorner of women! for I tell thee that ere much time hath passed thou shalt know love——aye, in such fashion as few men know—— wherefore I say——beware, Beltane!"

  But Beltane the strong, the mighty, shook his head and smiled.

  "Nay," quoth he, "a man's heart may be set on other things, flowers may seem to him fairer than the fairest women, and the wind in trees sweeter to him than their voices."

  Now as she hearkened, the Duchess Helen grew angry, yet straightway, she dissembled, looking upon him 'neath drooping lashes. Soft and tender-eyed and sighing, she answered:

  "Ah, Beltane! how unworthy are such things of a man's love! For if he pluck them, that he may lay these flowers upon his heart, lo! they fade and wither, and their beauty and fragrance is but a memory. Ah, Beltane, when next ye sing, choose you a worthier theme."

  "Of what shall I sing?" said Beltane.

  Very soft she answered, and with eyes abased:

  "Think on what I have told thee, and sing——of love."

  And so she sighed, and looked on him once, then wheeled her palfrey, and was gone up the glade; but Beltane, as he watched her go, was seized of a sudden impulse and over-took her, running.

  "Beseech thee," cried he, barring her path, "tell me thy name!"

  Then Helen the Beautiful, the wilful, laughed and swerved her palfrey, minded to leave him so; but Beltane sprang and caught the bridle.

  "Tell me thy name," said he again.

  "Let me go!"

  "Thy name, tell me thy name."

  But the Duchess laughed again, and thinking to escape him, smote her horse so that it started and reared; once it plunged, and twice, and so stood trembling with Beltane's hand upon the bridle; wherefore a sudden anger came upon her, and, bending her black brows, she raised her jewelled riding-rod threateningly. But Beltane only smiled and shook his head, saying:

  "Unless I know thy name thou shalt not fare forth of the greenwood."

  So the proud lady of Mortain looked down upon Beltane in amaze, for there was none in all the Duchy, knight, noble or princeling, who dared gainsay her lightest word; wherefore, I say, she stared upon this bold forest knave with his golden hair and gentle eyes, his curved lips and square chin; and in eyes and mouth and chin was a look of masterfulness, challenging, commanding. And, meeting that look, her heart leapt most strangely with sudden, sweet thrill, so that she lowered her gaze lest he should see, and when she spake her voice was low and very sweet:

  "Tell me I pray, why seek you my name, and wherefore?"

  Quoth Beltane, soft and slow as one that dreams:

  "I have seen thine eyes look at me from the flowers, ere now, have heard thy laughter in the brook, and found thy beauty in all fair things: methinks thy name should be a most sweet name."

  Now was it upon her lips to tell him what he asked, but, being a woman, she held her peace for very contrariness, and blushing beneath his gaze, looked down and cried aloud, and pointed to a grub that crawled upon her habit. So Beltane loosed the bridle, and in that moment, she laughed for very triumph and was off, galloping 'neath the trees. Yet, as she went, she turned and called to him, and the word she called was:——

  "Helen!"

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