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Beltane The Smith (Chapter24)

2006-08-28 16:31

  Chapter XXIV. Of What Befell at Blaen

  Late though the hour, full soon the manor was astir; lights glimmered in the great hall where were gathered all the household of the Duchess, her ladies, her tire-women, the porters and serving men, even to the scullions——all were there, staring in wonderment upon the Duchess, who stood before them upon the dais in a rich habit of blue and silver and with her golden fillet on her brow.

  "Good friends," said she, looking round upon them happy-eyed, "hither have I summoned ye, for that this night, here before you all, 'tis my intent to wed this noble knight Beltane, son of Beltane Duke of Pentavalon aforetime, who shall henceforth be lord of me and of Mortain."

  Now did Winfrida the Fair start and therewith clench pink palms and look quick-eyed upon my Beltane, noting in turn his golden hair, his belt of silver and the great sword he bore: and, biting her red lip, she stooped her beauteous head, frowning as one in sudden perplexity.

  "So now," spake on the Duchess, "let us to the chapel where good Father Angelo shall give us heaven's blessing upon this our union."

  "Lady," said Godric, "Friar Angelo was summoned to the village this night, nor is he come again yet."

  "Then go fetch him," sighed the Duchess, "and O, Godric, hasten!"

  Thereafter turned she to the assemblage, gentle-eyed.

  "Friends," said she, "since I am greatly happy this night, so would I have ye happy likewise. Therefore I decree that such as are serfs among ye shall go free henceforth, and to such as are free will I give grants of land that ye may come to bless this night and remember it ever."

  But now, even as they fell on their knees, 'mid cries of gratitude and joyful acclaim, she, smiling and gracious, passed out of the hall: yet, as she went, beckoned the lady Winfrida to follow.

  Being come into her chamber, all three, the Duchess sank down beside the open lattice and looked out upon the garden all bathed in the tender radiance of the moon. Anon she sighed and spake:

  "My lady Winfrida, on this my wedding night a new life dawns for Mortain and for me, wherein old harms shall be forgiven and forgot, so come——kiss me, Winfrida."

  Then swiftly came the beauteous Winfrida to kneel at her lady's feet, to clasp her lady's slender hand, to kiss it oft and bathe it in her tears.

  "O sweet my lady, am I indeed forgiven?"

  "Aye, most truly."

  "Am I again thy loved companion and thy friend?"

  "So shall it be, Winfrida."

  "Then, O dear Helen, as sign all is forgot and we lovers again, let us pledge each other, here and now——to thy future happiness and glory."

  "Aye, be it so," sighed the Duchess, "bring wine, for I am athirst."

  Then turned she to the lattice again and Winfrida went lightly on her errand. Now, yet gazing upon the moon, the Duchess reached out and drew Beltane beside her.

  "Dear my love," she whispered, "in but a little hour I shall be thine: art happy in the thought? Nay," she sighed, white hands against his mailed breast, "beloved, wait——kiss me not again until the hour be passed. Lean here thy golden head and look with me upon the splendour of the night. See the pale moon, how placid and serene, how fair and stately she doth ride——"

  "So may thy life be in coming years!" said Beltane.

  "And wilt love me ever, Beltane, no matter what betide?"

  "Ever and always, so long as thou art Helen. Nay, why dost tremble?"

  "O my lord——see yonder——that cloud, how black——see how it doth furtive creep upon the gentle moon——"

  "'Tis a long way hence, my Helen!"

  "Yet will it come. Ah, think you 'tis a portent? O would the gentle Angelo were here——and yet, an he were come——methinks I might wish him hence——for that, loving thee so, yet am I a maid, and foolish——ah, who is here——not Angelo so soon? What, 'tis thou, Winfrida? Welcome——bring hither the goblet."

  So came Winfrida, and falling on her knee gave the goblet into her lady's hand, who, rising, turned to Beltane looking on him soft-eyed across the brimming chalice.

  "Lord and husband," she breathed——"now do I drink to thy glory in arms, to our future, and to our abiding love!" So the Duchess raised the goblet to her lips. But lo! even as she drank, the thick, black cloud began to engulf the moon, quenching her radiant light in its murky gloom. So the Duchess drank, and handed the goblet to Beltane.

  "To thee, my Helen, whom only shall I love until death and beyond!"

  Then Beltane drank also, and gave the cup to Winfrida: but, even as he did so, the Duchess uttered a cry and pointed with hand a-tremble:

  "O Beltane, the moon——the moon that was so bright and glorious——'tis gone, the cloud hath blotted it out! Ah, Beltane, what doth this portend? Why do I tremble thus because the moon is gone?"

  "Nay, my beloved," quoth Beltane, kissing those slender fingers that trembled upon his lip and were so cold——so deadly cold, "dear Helen, it will shine forth again bright and radiant as ever."

  "Yet why is my heart so cold, Beltane, and wherefore do I tremble?"

  "The night grows chill, mayhap."

  "Nay, this cold is from within. O, I would the moon would shine!"

  "Nay, let us speak of our future, my Helen——"

  "The future?" she sighed, "what doth it hold? Strife and bitter war for thee and a weary waiting for me, and should'st thou be slain——Ah, Beltane, forgive these fears and vain imaginings. Indeed, 'tis most unlike me to fear and tremble thus. I was ever accounted brave until now——is't love, think you, doth make me coward? 'Tis not death I fear—— save for thy dear sake. Death? Nay, what have we to do with such, thou and I——this is our wedding night, and yet——I feel as if this night——I were leading thee——to thy——death——。 O, am I mad, forsooth? Hold me close, beloved, comfort me, Beltane, I——I am afraid." Then Beltane lifted her in his arms and brought her to the hearth, and, setting her in the fireglow, kneeled there, seeking to comfort her.

  And now he saw her very pale, sighing deep and oft and with eyes dilated and heavy.

  "Beltane," said she slowly, "I grow a-weary, 'tis——the fire, methinks." And smiling faintly she closed her eyes, yet sighed and gazed upon him as one new waked. "Did I sleep?" she questioned drowsily, "Beltane," she sighed, speaking low and thick——"I charge thee, whatsoe'er the future doth bring——yet love me alway——or I, methinks——shall——die!"

  Awhile she lay against him breathing deep and slow, then started of a sudden, looking upon him vague-eyed.

  "Beltane," she murmured, "art there, beloved? 'Tis dark, and my eyes—— heavy. Methinks I——must sleep awhile. Take me——to my women. I must sleep——yet will I come to thee soon——soon, beloved." So Beltane brought her to the door, but as he came thither the broidered curtain was lifted and he beheld Winfrida, who ran to her mistress, kissing her oft and sighing over her.

  "Winfrida," sighed the Duchess, slumberous of voice, "I grow a-weary——I must sleep awhile——"

  "Aye, thou'rt overwrought, dear lady. Come, rest you until the holy Angelo be come, so shalt be thine own sweet self anon."

  And when the Duchess was gone, Beltane sat and stared upon the fire and felt himself vaguely troubled, yet even so, as he watched the leaping flame, his head nodded and he slept, yet sleeping, dreamed he heard the Duchess calling him, and opening his eyes, found the fair Winfrida beside him:

  "My lord Beltane," said she softly, "thy Duchess biddeth thee wait her in the chapel——follow me, messire!" Now being yet heavy with sleep, Beltane arose and followed her through an opening in the arras near by, and down a narrow stair, stumbling often as he went and walking as one in a dream. So by devious ways Winfrida brought him into a little chapel, where, upon the altar, was a crucifix with candles dim-burning in the gloom.

  "Wait here, my lord," said Winfrida, "so will I go prepare my lady, Friar Angelo doth stay to do his holy office." So speaking, Winfrida turned and was gone. Then Beltane came unto the altar and, kneeling there, leaned his heavy head upon the fair white altar cloth, and kneeling thus, fell asleep——The altar beneath him seemed of a sudden riven and split asunder and, while he gazed, behold the fair white altar cloth grew fouled and stained with blood——new blood, that splashed down red upon the white even as he watched. Then did Beltane seek to rise up from his knees, but a heavy weight bore him ever down, and hands huge and hairy gripped him fierce and strong. But beholding these merciless hands, a sudden mighty rage came upon Beltane, and struggling up, he stood upon his feet and drew sword; but the fierce hands had crept up to his naked throat, cutting off his breath, the sword was dashed from his loosening grasp, the weight about him grew too much for his strength, it bore him down and down into a pitchy gloom where all was very still. A wind, sweet and cool, breathed upon his cheek, grass was below and trees above him, shadowy trees beyond which a pallid moon rose high, very placid and serene. Now as Beltane stared heavenward the moon was blotted out, a huge and hairy face looked down in his, and hairy hands lifted him with mighty strength. Then Beltane thought to see the Duchess Helen standing by in her gown of blue and silver——

  "Helen!" he whispered.

  But she paid no heed, busied in fastening about her the nun's long cloak that veiled her down from head to foot. So the mighty arms that held Beltane bore him to a horse near by and across this horse he was flung; thereafter the monster mounted also, and they moved off amid the trees. Thus was Beltane borne from Blaen upon his wedding night——dazed, bleeding and helpless in his bonds. Yet even so, ever as they went he watched her who rode near by, now in moonlight, now in shadow, so youthful and shapely, but with hood drawn low as she had worn it when he bore her through the forest in his arms.

  And ever as they went he watched the pale gleam of her hand upon the bridle, or her little foot in its embroidered shoe, or the fold of her blue gown with its silver needle-work. And ever the trouble in his dazed brain grew the deeper; once, as they crossed a broad glade she rode up close beside him, and beneath her hood he saw a strand of her glorious hair, bright under the moon.

  Then did he writhe and struggle in his bonds.

  "Helen!" he cried, "O Helen!" ……

  But a great hand, coarse and hairy, came upon his mouth, stopping the cry and choking him to silence.

  So they bore my Beltane southwards through the misty woods, on and ever on, till with the dawn they were come to a castle great and very strong, where battlement and tower frowned upon the paling stars.

  But with the dawn, 'mid the gloom of the little chapel of Blaen, came one who stood, haggard and pallid as the dawn, to stare wild-eyed upon a great sword and upon a torn and blood-stained altar-cloth; and so gazing, she shrank away back and back, crouching down amid the gloom. When at last the sun arose, it glittered on a long broad blade, across which, upon the rough pavement, lay one very silent and very still, amid the tumbled glory of her hair.

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