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Beltane The Smith (Chapter53)

2006-08-28 16:39

  Chapter LIII. Of Jolette, that was a Witch

  "Lord," said Roger, shaking his head, as they halted upon the edge of the Hollow, "lord, 'twere better thou hadst let me strangle them; those dogs will bay of thee to Black Ivo ere this time to-morrow!"

  "'Tis so I hope, Roger."

  "Hope?"

  "Could I but lure Black Ivo into the wild, Roger, where swamp and thicket should fight for us! Could I but draw him hither after me, of what avail the might of his heavy chivalry upon this narrow forest-road, his close-ranked foot-men a sure mark for the arrows of our war-wise foresters? Thus, our pikes in front, a charge in flank, his line once pierced needs must follow confusion and disorder. Then press we where his banner flieth, and, hemmed in by our pikes and gisarms and Giles's bowmen, he once our prisoner or slain, his great army would crumble and melt away, since they do serve but for base hire, whiles we, though few, do smite amain for home and children. O Roger man, could I but lure him into the green!"

  "Yet methinks there is a surer way, master."

  "How——as how, Roger?"

  "Wed thou thy Duchess, and so bring down on him all the powers of Mortain!"

  "Roger, dost well know my mind on this matter; prate ye no more!"

  "Then will I pray, master——so I do warn thee! Forsooth, I will this night fall to work upon the good saint and plague him right prayerfully that thy Duchess may come and save thee and thy Duchy in despite of thee, and having made thee Duke of Pentavalon with her lances, thereafter make thee Duke of Mortain in her own sweet body, for as I do know——"

  But Beltane was already descending the steep path leading down into the great green hollow that lay all silent and deserted 'neath the ghostly moon, where nought stirred in the windless air, where bush and tree cast shadows monstrous and distorted, and where no sound brake the brooding quiet save the murmurous ripple of the brook that flowed to lose itself in the gloomy waters of that deep and sullen pool.

  Swift and sure-treading as only foresters might, they descended the steep, and lured by some elfin fancy, Beltane must needs come to stand beside the pool and to stare down into those silent waters, very dark by reason of that great tree 'neath whose writhen branches Tostig the outlaw had fought and died; so stood Beltane awhile lost in contemplation, what time Roger, drawing ever nearer his master's elbow, shivered and crossed himself full oft.

  "Come away, master," said he at last, low-voiced, "I love not this pool at any time, more especially at the full o' the moon. On such nights ghosts do walk! Tostig was an ill man in life, but Tostig's ghost should be a thing to fright the boldest——prithee, come away."

  "Go get thee to thy rest, Roger. As for me, I would fain think."

  "But wherefore here?"

  "For that I am so minded."

  "So be it, master. God send thy thoughts be fair." So saying, Roger turned where, on the further side of the Hollow, lay those caves 'neath the rocky bank wherein the outlaws had been wont to sleep. But, of a sudden, Beltane heard a hoarse scream, a gasp of terror, and Roger was back beside him, his naked broad-sword all a-shake in his trembling hand, his eyes wide and rolling.

  "Master——O master!" he whimpered, "ghosts! 'neath the tree——Tostig—— the Dead Hand!"

  "Nay, what folly is here, Roger?"

  "Lord, 'twas the Dead Hand——touched me——on the brow——in the shadow yonder! Aye——on the brow——'neath the tree! O master, dead men are we, 'tis Tostig come to drag us back to hell with him!" And crouching on his knees, Roger fell to desperate prayers.

  Then Beltane turned whither Roger's shaking finger had pointed, and strode beneath the great tree. And peering up through the dark, he presently espied a shadowy thing that moved amid a gloom of leaves and branches; and, beholding what it was, he drew sword and smote high above his head.

  Something thudded heavily upon the grass and lay there, mute and rigid, while Beltane, leaning upon his sword, stared down at that fell shape, and breathing the noxious reek of it, was seized of trembling horror; nevertheless he stooped, and reaching out a hand of loathing in the dimness, found the cord whereby it had swung and dragged the rigid, weighty thing out into the radiance of the moon until he could see a pallid face twisted and distorted by sharp and cruel death. Now in this moment Roger sware a fierce, great oath, and forthwith kicked those stiffened limbs.

  "Ha!" cried he, "methought 'twas Tostig his ghost come for to drag us down into yon accursed pool——and 'tis naught but the traitor-rogue Gurth!"

  "And dead, Roger!"

  "Forsooth, he's dead enough, master——faugh!"

  "And it availeth nothing to kick a dead man, Roger."

  "Yet was he an arrant knave, master."

  "And hath paid for his knavery, methinks!"

  "A very rogue! a traitor! a rogue of rogues, master!"

  "Then hath he the more need of our prayers, Roger."

  "Prayers! How, lord, would'st pray for——this?"

  "Nay, Roger, but thou shalt, since thou art potent in prayer these days." So saying, Beltane knelt upon the sward and folded reverent hands; whereupon Roger, somewhat abashed, having set his sword upright in the ling as was his custom, presently knelt likewise, and clearing his throat, spake aloud in this fashion:

  "Holy Saint Cuthbert, thou see'st here all that is left of one that in life was a filthy, lewd, and traitorous knave, insomuch that he hath, methinks, died of roguery. Now, most blessed saint, do thy best for the knavish soul of him, intercede on his behalf that he may suffer no more than he should. And this is the prayer of me, Black Roger, that has been a vile sinner as I have told thee, though traitor to no man, I praise God. But, most blessed and right potent saint, while I am at the ears of thee, fain would I crave thy aid on matter of vasty weight and import. To wit, good saint: let now Sir Fidelis, who, as ye well know, doth hide womanly beauties in ungentle steel——let now this brave and noble lady muster forthwith all the powers within her Duchy of Mortain ——every lusty fellow, good saint——and hither march them to my master's aid. Let her smite and utterly confound Black Ivo, who (as oft I've told thee——moreover thine eyes are sharp), is but a rogue high-born, fitter for gallows than ducal crown, even as this most unsavoury Gurth was a rogue low-born. So when she hath saved my master despite himself, sweet saint, then do thou join them heart and body, give them joy abounding and happiness enduring, nor forget them in the matter of comely children. So bring to woeful Pentavalon and to us all and every, peace at last and prosperity——and to sorrowful Roger a belt wherein be no accursed notches and a soul made clean. In nomen Dominum, Amen!"

  "Master," quoth he, yet upon his knees and viewing Beltane somewhat askance, "here is the best I can do for such as yon Gurth; will't suffice, think ye?"

  "Aye, 'twill serve, Roger. But, for the other matter——"

  "Why see you, master, a man may freely speak his dear desires within his prayers——more especially when his prayers are potent, as mine. Moreover I warned thee——I warned thee I would pray for thee——and pray for thee I have." Now hereupon Beltane rose somewhat hastily and turned his back, what time Roger sheathed his sword.

  Then spake Beltane, turning him to the pool again:

  "We had store of tools and mattocks, I mind me. Go and look within the caves if there be ever a one left, for now must we bury this poor clay."

  "Ha, must we pray for him——and bury him, master?"

  "And bury him, Roger."

  Then Roger sighed and shook his head and so left Beltane, who fell again to profound meditation; but of a sudden hearing a cry, he turned to behold Roger running very fleetly, who, coming near, caught him by the arm and sought to drag him away.

  "Run!" he panted, "run, master——I ha' just seen a goblin——run, master!"

  Now beholding the terror in Roger's eyes, Beltane unsheathed his sword. "Show me, Roger," said he.

  "Nay, lord——of what avail? Let's away, this place is rank o' deviltries and witchcraft——"

  "Show me, Roger——come!"

  Perforce, Roger led the way, very heedful to avoid each patch of shadow, until they were come opposite that cave where aforetime Beltane had been customed to sleep. Here Roger paused.

  "Master," he whispered, "there is a thing within that groaneth—— goblin-groans, master. A thing very like unto a goblin, for I ha' seen it ——a pale thing that creepeth——holy saints, 'tis here again——hark to it!"

  And in very truth Beltane heard a sound the which, soft though it was, checked his breath and chilled his flesh; and, as he peered into the gloomy recesses of the cavern, there moved something vague amid the shadows, something that rose up slow and painfully.

  Roger was down gasping on his knees, Beltane's hand was tight-clenched upon the hilt of his sword, as out into the moonlight crept one, very bent and feeble, shrouded in a long grey cloak; a pitiful figure, that, leaning a hand upon the rock, slowly raised a drooping head. Then Beltane saw that this was the witch Jolette.

  A while she stood thus, one hand supporting her against the rocky bank, the other hid within the folds of her long mantle.

  "O my lord!" said she, low-voiced, "all day long my heart hath been calling——calling to thee; so art come at last——thanks be to God——O my lord Beltane!"

  Now as she spake, she reached out a hand to him so that the shrouding mantle fell away; then, beholding what it had hid, Beltane let fall his sword, and leaping forward, caught her within his arm.

  "Ah!——thou'rt hurt!" he cried.

  "My lord, I——strove to bind it up——I am cunning in herbs and simples—— but my hurt is too deep for any leechcraft. To-night——soon——I must die. Lay me down, I pray thee. Thine arms are strong, lord Beltane, and—— very gentle. How, dost grieve for a witch, lord——for poor Jolette? Nay, comfort ye——my life has been none so sweet I should dread to lose it."

  "How cometh this?" he questioned gently, on his knees beside her.

  "'Twas the Red Pertolepe's men——nay, messire, they have but killed me. But O, my dear lord——heed me well. A week agone lord Pertolepe marched hither seeking thee with a great company led by yon Gurth. And when he found thee not he hanged Gurth, yet tarried here awhile. Then I, knowing a secret path hither that none else do know, came and hearkened to their councils. So do I know that he is marched for Winisfarne——"

  "Ha, is this so!" cried Beltane, clenching his fist, "then will he hang and burn!"

  "Aye, 'tis like enough, messire. But——O heed me! He goeth for a deeper purpose——list, Beltane——O list——he goeth to seize upon the noble and saintly Abbess Veronica——to bear her captive unto Pentavalon city, there to hold her hostage for——for thee, Beltane——for thee!"

  "How mean you?"

  "When he hath her safe, Duke Ivo, because he hath learned to fear thee at last, will send envoys to thee demanding thou shalt yield up to him the town of Belsaye and thy body to his mercy, or this fair and noble lady Abbess shall be shamed and dishonoured, and know a death most dire. And——ah! because thou art the man thou art, thou must needs yield thyself to Ivo's cruel hands, and Belsaye to flame and ravishment."

  "Not so," answered Beltane, frowning, "within Belsaye are many women and children also, nor should these die that one might live, saintly abbess though she be."

  Now hereupon the witch Jolette raised herself, and set her two hands passionately on Beltane's shoulders, and looked upon him great-eyed and fearful.

  "Ah, Beltane——Beltane, my lord!" she panted, "but that I am under a vow, now could I tell thee a thing would fire thy soul to madness——but, O believe, believe, and know ye this——when Duke Ivo's embassy shall tell thee all, thou——shalt suffer them to take thee——thou shalt endure bonds and shame and death itself. So now thou shalt swear to a dying woman that thou wilt not rest nor stay until thou shalt free this lady Abbess, for on her safety doth hang thy life and the freedom of Pentavalon. Swear, O swear me this, my lord Beltane, so shall I die in peace. Swear——O swear!"

  Now, looking within her glowing eyes, feeling the tremble of her passionate-pleading hands, Beltane bowed his head.

  "I swear!" said he.

  "So now may God hear——this thy oath, and I——die in peace——"

  And saying this, Jolette sank in his arms and lay a while as one that swoons; but presently her heavy eyes unclosed and on her lips there dawned a smile right wondrous to behold, so marvellous tender was it.

  "I pray thee, lord, unhelm——that I may see thee——once again——thy golden hair——"

  Wondering, but nothing speaking, Beltane laid by his bascinet, threw back his mail-coif, and bent above her low and lower, until she might reach up and touch those golden curls with failing hand.

  "Lord Beltane!——boy!" she whispered, "stoop lower, mine eyes fail. Hearken, O my heart! Even as thy strong arms do cradle me, so——have these arms——held thee, O little Beltane, I——have borne thee oft upon my heart——ere now. Oft have hushed thee to rosy sleep——upon this bosom. 'Twas from——these arms Sir Benedict caught thee on——that woeful day. For I that die here——against thy heart, Beltane——am Jolette, thy foster-mother——wilt thou——kiss me——once?"

  So Beltane stooped and kissed her, and, when he laid her down, Jolette the witch was dead.

  Full long Beltane knelt, absorbed in prayer, and as he prayed, he wept. So long knelt he thus, that at last cometh Roger, treading soft and reverently, and touched him.

  "Master!" he whispered.

  Then Beltane arose as one that dreams and stood a while looking down upon that pale and placid face, on whose silent lips the wondrous smile still lingered. But of a sudden, Roger's fingers grasped his arm.

  "Master!" he whispered again. Thereon Beltane turned and thus he saw that Roger looked neither on him nor on the dead and that he pointed with shaking finger. Now, glancing whither he pointed, Beltane beheld, high on the bank above them, a mounted knight armed cap-a-pie, who stared down at them through closed visor——a fierce and war-like figure looming gigantic athwart the splendour of the sinking moon. And even as they stared in wonder, a broad shield flashed, and knight and horse were gone.

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