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Beltane The Smith (Chapter26)

2006-08-28 16:31

  Chapter XXVI. Of the Horrors of Garthlaxton Keep, and How a Devil Entered Into Beltane

  Six days came and went, and during all this time Beltane spake word to no man. Every evening came Sir Pertolepe leaning on the arm of Raoul the esquire, to view his prisoner with greedy eyes and ply him with jovial talk whiles Beltane would lie frowning up at the mighty roof-beams, or sit, elbows on knee, his fingers clenched upon that lock of hair that gleamed so strangely white amid the yellow.

  Now upon the seventh evening as he sat thus, came Sir Pertolepe according to his wont, but to-night he leaned upon the shoulder of Beda the Jester, whose motley flared 'gainst rugged wall and dingy flagstone and whose bells rang loud and merry by contrast with the gloom.

  Quoth Sir Pertolepe, seated upon the bench and smiling upon Beltane's grim figure:

  "He groweth fat to the killing, seest thou, my Beda, a young man and hearty, very hale and strong——and therefore meet for death. So strong a man should be long time a-dying——an death be coaxed and managed well. And Tristan is more cunning and hath more love for his craft than ever had Black Roger. With care, Beda——I say with care, messire Beltane should die from dawn to sundown."

  "Alack!" sighed the jester, "death shall take him over soon, as thou dost say——and there's the pity on't!"

  "Soon, Fool——soon? Now out upon thee for a fool ingrain——"

  "Forsooth, sweet lord, fool am I——mark these bells! Yet thou art a greater!"

  "How, sirrah?"

  "In that thou art a greater man, fair, sweet lord; greater in might, greater in body, and greater in folly."

  "Ha, would'st mock me, knave?"

  "For perceive me, fair and gentle lord, as this base body of ours being altogether thing material is also thing corruptible, so is it also a thing finite, and as it is a thing finite so are its sensations, be they of pleasure or pain, finite also——therefore soon must end. Now upon the other hand——"

  "How now? What babbling folly is here?"

  "As I say, most potent lord, upon the other hand——as the mind, being altogether thing transcendental, is also thing incorruptible, so is it also a thing infinite, and being a thing infinite so are its sensations infinite also——therefore everlasting."

  "Ha, there's reason in thy folly, methinks. What more?"

  "Bethink thee, lord, there be divers rogues who, having provoked thy potent anger, do lie even now awaiting thy lordly pleasure. E'en now irons be heating for them, moreover they are, by thy will, to suffer the grievous torment of the pulleys and the wheel, and these, as I do know, be sharp punishments and apt to cause prodigious outcry. Now, to hear one cry out beneath the torture is an evil thing for youthful ears——and one not soon forgot."

  "Aye, aye, forsooth, I begin to see thy meaning, good Fool——yet say on."

  "Let this thy prisoner be set within the cell above the torture chamber, so, lying within the dark he must needs hear them cry below, and in his mind shall he suffer as they suffer, every pang of racking wheel and searing iron. And, because the mind is thing infinite——"

  "Enough——enough! O most excellent Beda, 'tis well bethought. O, rare Fool, so shall it be."

  Forthwith Sir Pertolepe summoned certain of his guard, and, incontinent, Beltane was dragged a-down the winding stair and thereafter fast shut within a place of gloom, a narrow cell breathing an air close and heavy, and void of all light. Therefore Beltane sat him down on the floor, his back to the wall, staring upon the dark, chin on fist. Long he sat thus, stirring not, and in his heart a black void, deeper and more awful than the fetid gloom of any dungeon——a void wherein a new Beltane came into being.

  Now presently, as he sat thus, upon the silence stole a sound, low and murmurous, that rose and fell yet never quite died away. And Beltane, knowing what sound this was, clenched his hands and bowed his face upon his knees. As he listened, this drone grew to a sudden squealing cry that rang and echoed from wall to wall, whiles Beltane, crouched in that place of horror, felt the sweat start out upon him, yet shivered as with deadly cold, and ever the cries thrilled within the dark or sank to whimpering moans and stifled supplications. And ever Beltane hearkened to these fell sounds, staring blindly into the gloom, and ever the new Beltane grew the stronger within him.

  Hour after hour he crouched thus, so very silent, so very quiet, so very still, but long after the groans and wailings had died to silence, Beltane stared grim-eyed into the gloom and gnawed upon his fingers. Of a sudden he espied a glowing spark in the angle of the wall to the right——very small, yet very bright.

  Now as he watched, behold the spark changed to a line of golden light, so that his eyes ached and he was fain to shade them in his shackled arm; and thus he beheld a flagstone that seemed to lift itself with infinite caution, and, thereafter, a voice breathed his name.

  "Messire——messire Beltane!" And now through the hole in the floor behold a hand bearing a lanthorn——an arm——a shoulder——a shrouded head; thus slowly a tall, cloaked figure rose up through the floor, and, setting down the lanthorn, leaned toward Beltane, putting back the hood of his mantle, and Beltane beheld Beda the Jester.

  "Art awake, messire Beltane?"

  "Aye!" quoth Beltane, lifting his head. "And I have used mine ears! The wheel and the pulley are rare begetters of groans, as thou did'st foretell, Fool! 'Twas a good thought to drag me hither——it needed but this. Now am I steel, without and——within. O, 'tis a foul world!"

  "Nay, messire——'tis a fair world wherein be foul things: they call them 'men.' As to me, I am but a fool——mark this motley——yet hither I caused thee to be dragged that I might save those limbs o' thine from wheel and pulley, from flame and gibbet, and set thee free within a world which I do hold a fair world. Yet first——those fetters——behold hammer and chisel! Oswin, thy gaoler, sleepeth as sweet as a babe, and wherefore? For that I decocted Lethe in his cup. Likewise the guard below. My father, that lived here before me (and died of a jest out of season), was skilled in herbs——and I am his son! My father (that bled out his life 'neath my lord's supper table) knew divers secret ways within the thickness of these walls——so do I know more of Pertolepe's castle than doth Pertolepe himself. Come, reach hither thy shackles and I will cut them off, a chisel is swifter than a file——"

  "And why would'st give me life, Fool?"

  "For that 'tis a useful thing, messire, and perchance as sweet to thee this night within thy dungeon as to me upon a certain day within the green that you may wot of?" So speaking, Beda the Jester cut asunder the chain that bound the fetters, and Beltane arose and stretched himself and the manacles gleamed on each wide-sundered wrist.

  Quoth he:

  "What now?"

  Whereat the jester, sitting cross-legged upon the floor, looked up at him and spake on this wise:

  "Two days agone as I walked me in the green, dreaming such foolish dreams as a fool may, there came, very suddenly, a sorry wight——a wild man, very ragged——who set me his ragged arm about my neck and a sharp dagger to my throat; and thus, looking him within the eyes, I knew him for that same Roger from whose hand thou did'st save me aforetime. 'Beda,' says he, 'I am he that hanged and tortured men at my lord's bidding: I am Roger, and my sins be many.' 'Then prithee,' says I, 'prithee, Roger, add not another to thy sins by cutting the throat of a fool.' 'Needs must I,' says he, dolorous of voice, 'unless thou dost answer me two questions.' 'Nay, I will answer thee two hundred an thou leave my throat unslit,' says I. 'But two,' says Roger, sighing. 'First, doth Pertolepe hold him I seek?' 'Him?' says I. 'Him they call Beltane?' says Roger, 'doth he lie prisoned within Garthlaxton?' 'He doth,' quoth I. Now for thine other question. ''Tis this,' says Roger, 'Wilt aid us to win him free?' 'Why look ye, Roger,' says I, ''Tis only a fool that seeketh aid of a fool——and fool am I.' 'Aye,' says Roger, 'but thou art a live fool; promise, therefore, or wilt be naught but a dead fool.' 'Roger,' says I, 'thou did'st once try to slay me in the green ere now.' 'Aye,' says Roger, 'and my lord Beltane saved thy carcass and my soul.' 'Aye,' quoth I, 'and e'en a fool can repay. So was I but now dreaming here within this boskage how I might perchance win this same Beltane to life without thy scurvy aid, Black Roger. Moreover, methinks I know a way——and thou spare me life to do it.' 'Aye, forsooth,' says Roger, putting away his dagger, 'thou wert ever a fool of thy word, Beda——so now do I spare thy life, and sparing it, I save it, and thus do I cut another accursed notch from my belt.' 'Why, then,' says I, 'to-morrow night be at the riven oak by Brankton Thicket an hour before dawn.' 'So be it, Beda,' says he, and so I left him cutting at his belt. And lo, am I here, and within an hour it should be dawn. Follow, messire!" So saying, Beda rose, and taking the lanthorn, began to descend through the floor, having first shown how the flagstone must be lowered in place. Thereafter, Beltane followed the jester down a narrow stair built in the thickness of the wall, and along a passage that ended abruptly, nor could Beltane see any sign of door in the solid masonry that barred their way. Here Beda paused, finger on lip, and extinguished the lanthorn. Then, in the dark a hinge creaked faintly, a quivering hand seized Beltane's manacled wrist, drawing him on and through a narrow opening that yawned suddenly before them. Thereafter the hinge creaked again and they stood side by side within a small chamber where was a doorway hung across with heavy curtains beyond which a light burned. Now even as Beltane looked thitherward, he heard the rattle of dice and a sleepy voice that cursed drowsily, and shaking off the clutching, desperate fingers that strove to stay him, he came, soft-treading, and peered through the curtains. Thus he beheld two men that faced each other across a table whereon was wine, with dice and store of money, and as they played, these men yawned, leaning heavily upon the table. Back swept the curtains and striding into the room Beltane stared upon these men, who, yet leaning upon the table, stared back at him open-mouthed. But, beholding the look in his blue eyes and the smile that curled his mouth, they stumbled to their feet and sought to draw weapon——then Beltane sprang and caught them each about the neck, and, swinging them wide-armed, smote their heads together; and together these men sank in his grasp and lay in a twisted huddle across the table among the spilled wine. A coin rang upon the stone floor, rolled into a distant corner and came to rest, the jester gasped in the shadow of the curtains; and so came silence, broke only by the soft drip, drip of the spilled wine.

  "O, mercy of God!" whispered the jester hoarsely at last, "what need was there for this——they would have slept——"

  "Aye," smiled Beltane, "but not so soundly as now, methinks. Come, let us go."

  Silently the jester went on before, by narrow passage-ways that writhed and twisted in the thickness of the walls, up sudden flights of steps until at length they came out upon a parapet whose grim battlements scowled high in air. But as they hasted on, flitting soft-footed 'neath pallid moon, the jester of a sudden stopped, and turning, dragged Beltane into the shadows, for upon the silence came the sound of mailed feet pacing near. Now once again Beltane brake from the jester's clutching fingers and striding forward, came face to face with one that bare a pike on mailed shoulder, and who, beholding Beltane, halted to peer at him with head out-thrust; quoth he:

  "Ha! stand! Stand, I say and speak me who thou art?"

  Then Beltane laughed softly; said he:

  "O fool, not to know——I am death!" and with the word, he leapt. Came a cry, muffled in a mighty hand, a grappling, fierce yet silent, and Beda, cowering back, beheld Beltane swing a writhing body high in air and hurl it far out over the battlements. Thereafter, above the soft rustle of the night-wind, a sound far below——a faint splash, and Beda the Jester, shivering in the soft-stirring night wind, shrank deeper into the gloom and made a swift motion as though, for all his folly, he had crossed himself.

  Then came Beltane, the smile still twisting his mouth; quoth he:

  "Forsooth, my strength is come back again; be there any more that I may deal withal, good Fool?"

  "Lord," whispered the shivering jester, "methinks I smell the dawn—— Come!"

  So Beltane followed him from the battlements, down winding stairs, through halls that whispered in the dark; down more stairs, down and ever down 'twixt walls slimy to the touch, through a gloom heavy with mildew and decay. On sped the jester, staying not to light the lanthorn, nor once touching, nor once turning with helping hand to guide Beltane stumbling after in the dark. Then at last, deep in the clammy earth they reached a door, a small door whose rusted iron was handed with mighty clamps of rusted iron. Here the jester paused to fit key to lock, to strain and pant awhile ere bolts shrieked and turned, and the door yawned open. Then, stooping, he struck flint and steel and in a while had lit the lanthorn, and, looking upon Beltane with eyes that stared in the pallor of his face, he pointed toward the yawning tunnel.

  "Messire," said he, "yonder lieth thy way to life and the world. As thou did'st give me life so do I give thee thine. Thou wert, as I remember thee, a very gentle, tender youth——to-night are three dead without reason——"

  "Reason, good Fool," said Beltane, "thou did'st see me borne in a prisoner to Garthlaxton; now, tell me I pray, who was she that rode with us?"

  "'Twas the Duchess Helen of Mortain, messire; I saw her hair, moreover——"

  But lo, even as the jester spake, Beltane turned, and striding down the tunnel, was swallowed in the dark.

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