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Beltane The Smith (Chapter49)

2006-08-28 16:38

  Chapter XLIX. How Beltane Found Peace and a Great Sorrow

  It had been an evening of cloud, but now the sky was clear and the moon shone bright and round as they reached that desolate, wind-swept heath that went by the name of Hangstone Waste, a solitary place at all times but more especially wild and awful 'neath the ghostly moon; wherefore Roger went wide-eyed and fearful, and kept fast hold of Beltane's stirrup.

  "Ha——master, master!" cried he 'twixt chattering teeth, "did'st not hear it, master?"

  "Nay," answered Beltane, checking his horse, "what was it? where away?"

  "'Twas a cry, master——beyond the marsh yonder. 'Tis there again!"

  "'Twas an owl, Roger."

  "'Twas a soul, master, a poor damned soul and desolate! We shall see dire and dreadful sights on Hangstone Waste this night, master——holy Saint Cuthbert! What was yon?"

  "Nought but a bat, Roger."

  "A bat, lord? Never think so. Here was, belike, a noble knight or a lusty fellow be-devilled into a bat. Good master, let us go no further ——if thou hast no thought for thyself, have a little heed for poor Roger."

  "Why look ye, good Roger, canst go where thou wilt, but, as for me, I ride for the White Morte-stone."

  "Nay then, an thou'rt blasted this night, master, needs must I be blasted with thee——yonder lieth the Morte-stone, across the waste. And now, may Saint Cuthbert and Saint Bede have us in their blessed care, Amen!"

  So they began to cross the rolling desolation of the heath and presently espied a great boulder, huge and solitary, gleaming white and ghostly 'neath the moon.

  Being come very nigh, Beltane checked his horse and was about to dismount, when Roger, uttering a sudden gasping cry, cowered to his knees, for in the air about them was a sound very sweet to hear——the whisper of lute-strings softly plucked by skilled and cunning fingers, and thereafter a man's voice, rich and melodious, brake forth into tender singing: and the words were these:——

  "O moon! O gentle moon, to-night Unveil thy softest, tend'rest light Where feet I love, so small and white,Do bear my love to me!"

  "Stand up, Roger, here is nought to harm us, methinks," quoth Beltane softly, "stand up, and hold my bridle."

  "But see now, master, there be devil-goblins a many that do pipe like very angels."

  "Nathless here's one that I must speak with," said Beltane, slipping to earth and looking about him with wondering eyes, for the voice had seemed to come from the grass at his feet. And while he yet sought to and fro in frowning perplexity the melodious voice brake forth anew:

  "O little feet, more white than snow,If through the thorny brake ye go,My loving heart I'll set below To take the hurt for thee."

  Now as the voice sank and the lute-strings quivered to silence, Beltane, coming behind the great rock, beheld a glow, very faint and feeble, that shone through thick-clustering leaves; and, putting aside a whin-bush that grew against the rock, perceived a low and narrow alley or passage-way leading downwards into the earth, lighted by a soft, mellow beam that brightened as he advanced and presently showed him a fair-sized chamber cunningly hollowed within the rock and adorned with rich furs and skins. And behold one who reclined upon a couch of skins, a slender, youthful figure with one foot wondrously be-wrapped and swathed, who, beholding Beltane's gleaming mail, sprang up very nimbly and fronted him with naked sword advanced.

  "Nay, hast forgot thy friend, Sir Jocelyn?"

  Incontinent the sword was tossed aside, and with a joyous cry Sir Jocelyn sprang and caught him in close embrace.

  "Now by sweet Venus her downy dove——'tis Beltane!" he cried. "Now welcome and thrice welcome, my lordly smith, thou mighty son of noble father. Ah, lord Duke, I loved thee that day thou didst outmatch Gefroi the wrestler in the green. Since then much have I learned of thee and thy valiant doings, more especially of Barham Broom——how thou didst slay the vile Sir Gilles 'neath the eyes of Ivo and all his powers and thereby didst snatch from shame and cruel death one that is become the very heart of me, so needs must I love and honour and cherish thee so long as I be Jocelyn and thou thy noble self. Come, sit ye——sit ye here, for fain am I to question thee——"

  "But," said Beltane, wrinkling puzzled brow, "how came you hither——and art wounded, Jocelyn?"

  "Aye, my lord, to desperation——O direly, Beltane. I do languish night and day, sleep doth bring me no surcease and music, alack, abatement none. Food——base food repelleth me and wine no savour hath. Verily, verily, wounded deep am I."

  "Forsooth," said Beltane, "thy foot doth wear bandages a many, but——"

  "Bandages?" cried Jocelyn, staring. "Foot? Nay, nay, my torment is not here," and he flourished his beswathed foot in an airy, dancing step. "Indeed, Beltane, herein do I confess me some small artifice, yet, mark me, to a sweet and worthy end. For my hurt lieth here,——sore smit am I within this heart o' mine."

  "Thy heart again, Jocelyn?"

  "Again?" said the young knight, wrinkling slender brows.

  "Aye, thou did'st sing thy heart's woe to me not so long since——in an hundred and seventy and eight cantos, and I mind thy motto: 'Ardeo'."

  "Nay, Beltane, in faith——indeed, these were folly and youthful folly, the tide hath ebbed full oft since then and I, being older, am wiser. Love hath found me out at last——man's love. List now, I pray thee and mark me, friend. Wounded was I at the ford you wot of beside the mill, and, thereafter, lost within the forest, a woeful wight! Whereon my charger, curst beast, did run off and leave me. So was I in unholy plight, when, whereas I lay sighful and distressed, there dawned upon my sight one beyond all beauty beautiful. Y-clad in ragged garb was she, yet by her loveliness her very rags were glorified. To me, shy as startled doe, came she and, with saintly pity sweet, did tend my hurt, which done, with much ado she did hither bring me. Each day, at morn and eve, came she with cates rare and delicate, and her gentle hands did woo my wound to health, the which indeed so swift grew well that I did feign divers pains betimes lest she should vanish from me quite——so grew my love. At the first loved I her something basely, for the beauty of her body fair, whereat she grieved and sorrowed and fled from my regard, and for an eternity of days came not again until yestere'en. And, Beltane, though base her birth, though friendless, poor and lonely, yet did my heart know her far 'bove my base self for worthiness. So did I, yestere'en, upon my knightly word, pledge her my troth, so shall she be henceforth my lady of Alain and chatelaine of divers goodly castles, manors, and demesnes. To-night she cometh to me in her rags, and to-night we set forth, she and I, to Mortain, hand in hand——nor shall my lips touch hers, Beltane, until Holy Church hath made us one. How think ye of my doing, friend?"

  "I do think thee true and worthy knight, Sir Jocelyn, and moreover——"

  But of a sudden, Roger's voice reached them from without, hoarse with terror.

  "Master——O master, beware! 'Tis the witch, lord——O beware!"

  And with the cry, lo! a hurry of feet running swift and light, a rustle of flying garments, and there, flushed and panting, stood the witch—— the witch Mellent that was the lady Winfrida. Now, beholding Beltane, her eyes grew wide with swift and sudden fear——she quailed, and sank to her knees before him; and when Sir Jocelyn, smitten to mute wonder, would have raised her, she brake forth into bitter weeping and crouched away.

  "Nay, touch me not my lord, lest thou repent hereafter——for now do I see that happiness is not for me——now must I say such words as shall slay thy love for me, so touch me not."

  "Ha, never say so!" cried Sir Jocelyn, "not touch thee? art not mine own beloved Mellent?"

  "Nay, I am the lady Winfrida——"

  "Thou——Winfrida the rich and proud——in these rags? Thou, Winfrida the Fair?——thy raven hair——"

  "O, my hair, my lord? 'twas gold, 'tis black and shall be gold again, but I am that same Winfrida."

  "But——but I have seen Winfrida betimes in Mortain ere now."

  "Nay, then, didst but look at her, my lord, for thine eyes saw only the noble Helen's beauty. Alas! that ever I was born, for that I am that Winfrida who, for ambition's sake and wicked pride, did a most vile thing——O my lord Beltane, as thou art strong, be pitiful——as thou art deeply wronged, be greatly merciful."

  "How——how——mean you?" said Beltane, slow-speaking and breathing deep.

  "Lord——'twas I——O, how may I tell it? My lord Beltane, upon thy wedding night did I, with traitorous hand, infuse a potent drug within the loving-cup, whereby our lady Duchess fell into a swoon nigh unto death. And——while she lay thus, I took from her the marriage-robe——the gown of blue and silver. Thereafter came I, with my henchman Ulf the Strong and——found thee sleeping in the chapel. So Ulf——at my command——smote thee and——bound thee fast, and, ere the dawn, I brought thee——to Garthlaxton——O my lord!"

  "Thou——? It was——thou?"

  "I do confess it, my lord Beltane——traitor to thee, and base traitor to her——"

  "Why, verily——here was treachery——" quoth Beltane speaking slow and soft, "truly here——methinks——was treachery——and wherefore?"

  "O my lord, must I——tell this?"

  "I do ask thee."

  Then did Winfrida shrink within herself, and crouched yet further from Sir Jocelyn as though his eyes had hurt her.

  "Lord," she whispered, "I was——jealous! Duke Ivo wooed me long ere he loved the Duchess Helen, so was I jealous. Yet was I proud also, for I would suffer not his love until he had made me wife. And, upon a day, he, laughing, bade me bring him captive this mighty man that defied his power——that burned gibbets and wrought such deeds as no other man dared, swearing that, an I did so, he would wed with me forthright. And I was young, and mad with jealousy and——in those days——I knew love not at all. But O, upon a day, I found a new world wherein Love came to me ——a love so deep and high, so pure and noble, that fain would I have died amid the flame than thus speak forth my shame, slaying this wondrous love by my unworthiness. Yet have I told my shame, and love is dead, methinks, since I am known for false friend and traitor vile——a thing for scorn henceforth, that no honourable love may cleave to. So is love dead, and fain would I die also!"

  Now, of a sudden, while yet Beltane frowned down upon her, came Sir Jocelyn, and kneeling beside Winfrida, spake with bent head:

  "Messire Beltane, thou seest before thee two that are one, henceforth. So do I beseech thee, forgive us our trespass against thee, an it may be so. But, if thy wrongs are beyond forgiveness, then will we die together."

  "O Jocelyn!" cried Winfrida breathlessly, "O dear my lord——surely never man loved like thee! Lord Beltane, forgive——for this noble knight's sake——forgive the sinful Winfrida!"

  "Forgive?" said Beltane, hoarsely, "forgive?——nay, rather would I humbly thank thee on my knees, for thou hast given back the noblest part of me. She that was lost is found again, the dead doth live. Helen is her noble self, and only I am vile that could have doubted her. The happiest man, the proudest, and the most woeful, I, in all the world, methinks. O kneel not to me——and pray you——speak on this matter no more. Rise, rise up and get ye to your joy. Lady, hast won a true and leal knight, and thou, Sir Jocelyn, a noble lady, who hath spoken truth at hazard of losing her love. And I do tell ye, love is a very blessed thing, greater than power, or honour, or riches, or aught in the world but love. Aye, surely Love is the greatest thing of all!" So saying, Beltane turned very suddenly, and strode out, where, beside the great horse Mars, stood Roger, very pale in the moonlight, and starting and staring at every rustling leaf and patch of shadow.

  "Roger," said he, "thou art afraid of bats and owls, yet, forsooth, art a wiser man than I. Bring hither the horse."

  In a while cometh Sir Jocelyn and the lady Winfrida, hand in hand, aglow with happiness, yet with eyes moistly bright under the moon.

  "Good comrade-in-arms," quoth Beltane, "Mortain lieth far hence; now here is a goodly horse——"

  "O!" cried Winfrida shrinking, "surely 'tis the horse that bore Sir Gilles of Brandonmere in the lists at Barham Broom——"

  "So now, my lady Winfrida, shall it bear thee and thy love to Mortain and happiness——O loved Mortain! So mount, Jocelyn, mount! Haste to thy happiness, man, and in thy joy, forget not Pentavalon, for her need is great. And thou hast goodly men-at-arms! How think ye, messire?"

  "Beltane," cried Sir Jocelyn gleefully, "Beltane, O dear my friend, doubt me not——I do tell thee we shall ride together yet, when the battle joins!" So saying, be sprang to saddle. Now turned Beltane to aid the lady Winfrida to Sir Jocelyn's hold; but, even then, she fell upon her knees, and catching his hand to her bosom, kissed it.

  "Lord Beltane," said she, looking up 'neath glistening lashes——"as thou hast dealt with me, so may heaven deal with thee. May thy sore heart find solace until love find thee——and——dear my lord, I pray you where is——he——the young knight that rode with thee——for where he is, there also is——Helen——"

  "And thou dost know, too?"

  "I knew her that day in the forest when I fled away, for though I would have confessed my sin to thee, yet her cold scorn I could not have borne. Where is she now, my lord?"

  "Safe within Mortain, I pray."

  "Then come you to Mortain. Come with us this night——ah! come you to Mortain and——Helen!"

  Now hereupon Beltane turned to look with yearning eyes towards the gloom of the forest beyond which lay the soft and peaceful valleys of fair Mortain, and she that called herself Fidelis, who had indeed been so faithful in all things, so patient and enduring; and, as his eyes yearned, so yearned the great passionate soul of him, insomuch that he must needs fall a-trembling, whereat Roger the watchful drew a soft pace nearer. So stood Beltane awhile, hands clenched, head bent, staring ever northwards, his blood aglow with eager love, his heart a-throb with passionate remorse.

  "Come, my lord," breathed Winfrida, "O come——in Mortain is rest and solace——and love!"

  "Rest?" said Beltane softly, "solace and love——O sweet thought! Yet I may not go hence, for here is sorrow and shame and suffering——sword and fire and battle. So must I bide here in Pentavalon——with my duty." So saying, he lifted Winfrida to Sir Jocelyn's ready clasp and thereafter spake with head downbent: "An thou chance to see——her—— within Mortain, I pray you say that the blind doth see at last and is gone to his duty, that, peradventure, he may be, some day, more worthy her great love. And now fare ye well, good friends, God have ye ever in His tender care. Come, Roger!"

  Then Beltane turned him suddenly away, and with broad back set towards Mortain, strode off across the desolate moor.

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