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Beltane The Smith (Chapter23)

2006-08-28 16:30

  Chapter XXIII. Of the Humility of Helen the Proud

  Beltane, leaning forth of his lattice, stared upon the moon with doleful eyes, heavy with sense of wrong and big with self-pity.

  "I have dreamed a wondrous fair dream," said he within himself, "but all dreams must end, so is my dream vanished quite and I awake, and being awake, now will I arise and go upon my duty!" Then turned he to his bed that stood beside the window and forthwith began to arm himself; but with every lace he drew, with every strap he buckled, he sighed amain and his self-pity waxed the mightier. He bethought him of his father's sayings anent the love of women, and in his mind condemned them all as fickle and light-minded. And in a while, being armed from head to foot, in glistening coif and hauberk and with sword girt about his middle, he came back to the lattice and leaned him there to stare again upon the moon, to wait until the manor should be wrapped in sleep and to grieve for himself with every breath he drew.

  Being thus so profoundly occupied and, moreover, his head being thrust without the window, he heard nought of the tap upon his chamber door nor of the whispered sound of his name. Thus he started to feel a touch upon his arm, and turning, beheld the Duchess.

  She wore a simple robe that fell about her body's round loveliness in sweetly revealing folds; her hair, all unbraided, was caught up 'neath a jewelled fillet in careless fashion, but——O surely, surely, never had she looked so fair, so sweet and tender, so soft and desirable as now, the tear-drops yet agleam upon her drooping lashes and her bosom yet heaving with recent grief.

  "And——thou art armed, my lord?"

  "I ride for Thrasfordham-within-Bourne this night, my lady."

  "But I am come to thee——humbly——craving thy forgiveness, Beltane."

  "Nought have I to forgive thee, lady——save that thou art woman!"

  "Thou would'st not have me——a man, messire?"

  "'Twould be less hard to leave thee."

  "Thou art——leaving me then, Beltane?"

  "Yea, indeed, my lady. The woes of Pentavalon call to me with a thousand tongues: I must away——pray God I have not tarried too long!"

  "But art yet weak of thy wound, Beltane. I pray thee tarry——a little longer. Ah, my lord, let not two lives go empty because of the arts of a false friend, for well do I know that Winfrida, seeing me coming to thee in the garden, kissed thee of set purpose, that, beholding, I might grieve."

  "Is this indeed so, my lady?"

  "She did confess it but now."

  "Said she so indeed?"

  "Aye, my lord, after I had——pulled her hair——a little. But O, my Beltane, even when I thought thee base, I loved thee! Ah, go not from me, stay but until to-morrow, and then shalt thou wed me for thine own! Leave me not, Beltane, for indeed——I cannot live——without thee!"

  So saying, she sank down upon his couch, hiding her face in the pillow.

  Now came Beltane and leaned above her.

  "Helen!" he whispered; and falling upon his knees, he set his arms about her. Then lifted she her tearful face and looked upon him in the moonlight; and lying thus, of a sudden reached out white arms to him: and in her eyes was love, and on her quivering lips and in all the yearning beauty of her, love called to him.

  Close, close he caught her in his embrace, kissing her hard and fierce, and her long hair came down to veil them in its glory. Then, trembling, he lifted her in his arms and bore her forth of his chamber out into the hall beyond, where lights flickered against arras-hung wall. There, falling upon his knees before her, he hid his face within the folds of her habit.

  "O Helen!" he groaned, "thou art——so beautiful——so beautiful that I grow afraid of thee! Wed me this night or in mercy let me begone!"

  And now did the Duchess look down upon him with eyes of wonder changing to a great and tender joy, and stooping, put back his mail coif with reverent hand and laid her cheek upon that bowed and golden head.

  "Beltane," she whispered, "O Beltane of mine, now do I know thee indeed for a true man and noble knight! Such love as thine honoureth us both, so beloved, this night——within the hour, shalt thou wed with me, and I joy to hear thee call me——Wife!"

  Therewith she turned and left him there upon his knees.

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