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Beltane The Smith (Chapter20)

2006-08-28 16:30

  Chapter XX. How Beltane Plighted His Troth in the Green

  Beltane yawned prodigiously, stretched mightily, and opening sleepy eyes looked about him. He lay 'neath shady willows within a leafy bower; before him a brook ran leaping to the sunshine and filling the warm, stilly air with its merry chatter and soft, laughing noises, while beyond the rippling water the bank sloped steeply upward to the green silence of the woods.

  Now as Beltane lay thus 'twixt sleeping and waking, it seemed to him that in the night he had dreamed a wondrous dream, and fain he would have slept again. But now from an adjacent thicket a horse whinnied and Beltane, starting at the sound, felt his wound throb with sudden pain, and looking down, beheld his arm most aptly swathed in bandages of fair, soft linen. Now would he have sat up, but marvelled to find it so great a matter, and propping himself instead upon a weak elbow glanced about him expectantly. And lo, in that moment, one spake near by in voice rich and soft like the call of merle or mavis:

  "Beltane," said the voice, "Beltane the Smith!"

  With heart quick-beating, Beltane turned and beheld the Duchess Helen standing beside him, her glorious hair wrought into two long braids wherein flowers were cunningly entwined. Straightway he would have risen, but she forbade him with a gesture and, coming closer, sank beside him on her knees, and being there blushed and sighed, yet touched him not.

  "Thou'rt hurt," said she, "so must we bide here awhile, thou to win thy strength again, and I to——minister unto thee."

  Mutely awhile my Beltane gazed upon her shy, sweet loveliness, what time her bosom rose and fell tempestuous, and she bowed her head full low.

  "Helen!" he whispered at last, "O, art thou indeed the Duchess Helen?"

  "Not so," she murmured, "Helen was duchess whiles she was in Mortain, but I that speak with thee am a lonely maid——indeed a very lonely maid ——who hath sighed for thee, and wept for thee, and for thee hath left her duchy of Mortain, Beltane."

  "For me?" quoth Beltane, leaning near, "was it for me——ah, was it so in very sooth?"

  "Beltane," said she, looking not toward him, "last night did'st thou bear a nun within thine arms, and, looking on her with love aflame within thine eyes, did yet vow to her you loved this duchess. Tell me, who am but a lonely maid, is this so?"

  "Thou knowest I love her ever and always," he answered.

  "And yet," quoth she, shaking her head and looking up with eyes of witchery, "thou did'st love this nun also? Though 'tis true thou did'st name her 'reverend mother'! O, wert very blind, Beltane! And yet thou did'st love her also, methinks?"

  "Needs must I——ever and always!" he answered.

  "Ah, Beltane, but I would have thee love this lonely maid dearest of all henceforth an it may be so, for that she is so very lonely and hath sought thee so long——"

  "Sought me?" he murmured, gazing on her wide-eyed, "nay, how may this be, for with my kisses warm upon thy lips thou did'st bid me farewell long time since at Mortain, within the green."

  "And thou," she sighed, "and thou did'st leave me, Beltane! O, would thou had kissed me once again and held me in thine arms, so might we have known less of sorrow. Indeed methinks 'twas cruel to leave me so. Beltane."

  "Cruel!" says my Beltane, and thereafter fell silent from sheer amaze the while she sighed again, and bowed her shapely head and plucked a daisy from the grass to turn it about and about in gentle fingers.

  "So, Beltane," quoth she at last, "being young and cruel thou did'st leave the Duchess a lonely maid. Yet that same night did she, this tender maid, seek out thy lowly dwelling 'mid the green to yield herself joyfully unto thee thenceforth. But ah, Beltane! she found the place a ruin and thou wert gone, and O, methinks her heart came nigh to breaking. Then did she vow that no man might ever have her to his love ——save only——thou. So, an thou love her not, Beltane, needs must she—— die a maid!"

  Now Beltane forgot his weakness and rose to his knees and lifted her bowed head until he might look deep within the yearning tenderness of her eyes. A while she met his look, then blushing, trembling, all in a moment she swayed toward him, hiding her face against him; and, trembling also, Beltane caught her close within his arms and held her to his heart.

  "Dost thou love me so, indeed, my lady? Art thou mine own henceforth, Helen the Beautiful?"

  "Ah, love," she murmured, "in all my days ne'er have I loved other man than thou, my Beltane. So now do I give myself to thee; in life and death, in joy and sorrow, thine will I be, beloved!"

  Quoth Beltane:

  "As thou art mine, so am I thine, henceforth and forever."

  And thus, kneeling together within the wilderness did they plight their troth, low-voiced and tremulous, with arms that clasped and clung and eager lips that parted but to meet again.

  "Beltane," she sighed, "ah, Beltane, hold me close! I've wearied for thee so long——so long; hold me close, beloved. See now, as thou dost hate the pomp and stir of cities, so, for thy sake have I fled hither to the wilderness, to live with thee amid these solitudes, to be thy love, thy stay and comfort. Here will we live for each other, and, hid within the green, forget the world and all things else——save only our great love!"

  But now it chanced that, raising his head, Beltane beheld his long sword leaning against a tree hard by, and beholding it thus, he bethought him straightway of the Duke his father, of Pentavalon and of her grievous wrongs; and his clasping hands grew lax and fell away and, groaning, he bowed his head; whereat she started anxious-eyed, and questioned him, soft and piteous:

  "Is it thy wound? I had forgot——ah, love, forgive me! See here a pillow for thy dear head——" But now again he caught her to him close and fierce, and kissed her oft; and holding her thus, spake:

  "Thou knowest I do love thee, my Helen? Yet because I love thee greatly, love, alas, must wait awhile——"

  "Wait?" she cried, "ah, no——am I not thine own?"

  "'Tis so I would be worthy of thee, beloved," he sighed, "for know that I am pledged to rest not nor stay until my task be accomplished or I slain——"

  "Slain! Thou?"

  "O, Helen, 'tis a mighty task and desperate, and many perchance must die ere this my vow be accomplished——"

  "Thy vow? But thou art a smith, my Beltane,——what hath humble smith to do with vows? Thou art my love——my Beltane the Smith!"

  "Indeed," sighed Beltane, "smith was I aforetime, and therewithal content: yet am I also son of my father, and he——"

  "Hark!" she whispered, white hand upon his lips, "some one comes—— through the leaves yonder!" So saying she sprang lightly to her feet and stood above him straight and tall: and though she trembled, yet he saw her eyes were fearless and his dagger gleamed steady in her hands.

  "Beltane, my love!" she said, "thou'rt so weak, yet am I strong to defend thee against them all."

  But Beltane rose also and, swaying on unsteady feet, kissed her once and so took his sword, marvelling to find it so heavy, and drew it from the scabbard. And ever upon the stilly air the rustle of leaves grew louder.

  "Beltane!" she sighed, "they be very near! Hearken! Beltane——thine am I, in life, in death. An this be death——what matter, since we die together?"

  But, leaning on his sword, Beltane watched her with eyes of love yet spake no word, hearkening to the growing stir amid the leaves, until, of a sudden, upon the bank above, the underbrush was parted and a man stood looking down at them; a tall man, whose linked mail glinted evilly and whose face was hid 'neath a vizored casque. Now of a sudden he put up his vizor and stepped toward them down the sloping bank.

  Then the Duchess let fall the dagger and reached out her hands.

  "Godric!" she sighed, "O Godric!"

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