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Beltane The Smith (Chapter67)

2006-08-28 16:42

  Chapter LXVII. Telleth What Befell in the Reeve's Garden

  The moon was already filling the night with her soft splendour when Beltane, coming to a certain wall, swung himself up, and, being there, paused to breathe the sweet perfume of the flowers whose languorous fragrance wrought in him a yearning deep and passionate, and ever as love-longing grew, bitterness and anger were forgot. Very still was it within this sheltered garden, where, fraught by the moon's soft magic, all things did seem to find them added beauties.

  But, even as he paused thus, he heard a step approaching, a man's tread, quick and light yet assured, and he beheld one shrouded in a long cloak of blue, a tall figure that hasted through the garden and vanished behind the tall yew hedge.

  Down sprang Beltane fierce-eyed, trampling the tender flowers under cruel feet, and as he in turn passed behind the hedge the moon glittered evilly on his dagger blade. Quick and soft of foot went he until, beholding a faint light amid the leaves, he paused, then hasted on and thus came to an arbour bowered in eglantine.

  She sat at a table where burned a rushlight that glowed among the splendour of her hair, for her head was bowed above the letter she was writing.

  Now as he stood regarding her 'neath frowning brows, she spake, yet lifted not her shapely head.

  "Well, my lord?"

  "Helen, where is he that came here but now?"

  Slowly she lifted her head, and setting white hands 'neath dimpled chin, met his frown with eyes of gentleness.

  "Nay, first put up thy dagger, my lord."

  "Helen," said he again, grim-lipped, "whom dost wait for?"

  "Nay, first put up thy dagger, messire."

  Frowning he obeyed, and came a pace nearer.

  "What do you here with pen and ink-horn?"

  "My lord, I write."

  "To whom?"

  "To such as it pleaseth me."

  "I pray you——show me."

  "Nay, for that doth not please me, messire."

  "I pray you, who was he that came hither but now——a tall man in a long blue cloak?"

  "I saw him not, my lord."

  "So needs must I see thy letter."

  "Nay, that thou shalt not, my lord," said she, and rose to her stately height.

  "Aye, but I shall!" quoth Beltane softly, and came a pace yet nearer.

  Now because of the grim and masterful look of him, her heart fell a-fluttering, yet she fronted him scornful-eyed, and curled her red lip at him.

  "Messire," said she, "methinks you do forget I am the——"

  "I remember thou art woman and thy name——Helen!"

  Now at this laughed she softly and thereafter falleth to singing very sweet and blithe and merry withal.

  "The letter!" said he, "give me thy letter!"

  Hereupon she took up the letter, and, yet singing, crumpled it up within white fingers.

  Then Beltane set by the table and reaching out sudden arms, caught her up 'neath waist and knee, and lifting her high, crushed her upon his breast.

  "Helen!" said he, low-voiced and fierce, "mine art thou as I am thine, forever, 'twas so we plighted our troth within the green. Now for thy beauty I do greatly love thee, but for thy sweet soul and purity of heart I do reverence and worship thee——but an thou slay my reverent worship then this night shalt thou die and I with thee——for mine art thou and shalt be mine forever. Give me thy letter!"

  But now her eyes quailed 'neath his, her white lids drooped, and sighing, she spake small-voiced:

  "O my lord, thine arms are so——so tyrannous that I do fear thee—— almost! And how may a poor maid, so crushed and helpless thus, gainsay thee? So prithee, O prithee take my poor letter an thou wilt ravish it from one so defenceless——O beseech thee, take it!"

  So she gave the crumpled parchment into his hand, yet while he read it, nestled closer in his arms and hid her face against him; for what he read was this:

  "Beloved, art thou angered, or sorrowful, or humble in thy foolish jealousy? If angered, then must I woo thee. If sorrowful, cherish thee. But being Beltane, needs must I love thee ever——so write I this, bidding thee come, my Beltane the Smith, for I——"

  The crumpled letter fell to the ground.

  "Helen!" he whispered, "Beloved, I am all of this, so do I need thy comfort, thy cherishing, and all thy dear love——turn thy head——O Helen, how red is thy sweet mouth!" Then stooped he, and so they kissed each other, such kisses as they ne'er had known, until she sighed and trembled and lay all breathless in his arms.

  "O my lord," she whispered, "have mercy, I pray! Dear Beltane, loose me for I——I have much to tell thee."

  And because of her pleading eyes he loosed her, and she, sinking upon the bench, leaned there all flushed and tremulous, and looking on him, sighed, and sighing, put up her hands and hid her face from his regard.

  "Beltane," she whispered, "how wondrous a thing is this our love, so great and fierce it frighteth me——see how I tremble!" and she held out to him her hands.

  Then came he and knelt before her, and kissed those slender fingers amain.

  "Dear hands of Fidelis," said he, "but for their tender skill and gentle care I had not lived to know this night——O brave, small hands of Fidelis!"

  "Poor Fidelis!" she sighed, "but indeed it wrung my heart to see thy woeful face when I did tell thee Fidelis was lost to thee——Nay, Beltane, stay——O prithee let me speak——"

  Quoth Beltane 'twixt his kisses:

  "Wherefore wert so cold and strange to me but yesterday?"

  "Dear my heart," she murmured, "I needs must make thee suffer a little—— just a very little, for that I had known so much of pain and heartache because of thee. But I was glad to see thee bear the wallet of poor Fidelis——and O, 'twas foolish in thee to grieve for him, for he being gone, thy Helen doth remain——unless, forsooth, thou had rather I came to thee bedight again in steel——that did so chafe me, Beltane——indeed, my tender skin did suffer much on thy account——"

  "Then soon with my kisses will I seek——" But a cool, soft hand schooled his hot lips to silence and the while he kissed those sweet arresting fingers, she spake 'twixt smiling lips: "Prithee where is my shoe that was Genevra's? Indeed, 'twas hard matter to slip it off for thee, Beltane, for Genevra's foot is something smaller than mine——a very little! Nay, crush me not, messire, but tell me, what of him ye came hither seeking——the man in the long cloak——what of him?"

  "Nought!" answered Beltane, "the world to-night doth hold but thee and me——"

  "Aye, my Beltane, as when sick of thy wound within the little cave I nursed thee, all unknown. O love, in all thy sickness I was with thee, to care for thee. Teaching good Roger to tend thee and——to drug thee to gentle sleep that I might hold thee to me in the dark and——kiss thy sleeping lips——"

  "Ah!" he sighed, "and methought 'twas but a dream! O Helen, sure none ever loved as we?"

  "Nay, 'twere thing impossible, Beltane."

  "And thou art truly mine?"

  "Beltane——thou dost know this! Ah, love——what would you?" For of a sudden his mighty arms were close about her, and rising, he lifted her upon his breast. "What would'st do with me, Beltane?"

  "Do?" quoth he, "do? This night, this very hour thou shalt wed me——"

  "Nay, dear my lord——bethink thee——"

  "It hath been my thought——my dearest dream since first I saw thee within the woods at Mortain——so now shalt wed me——"

  "But, Beltane——"

  "Shalt wed me!"

  "Nay, love, I——I——thou art so sudden!"

  "Aye, within this hour shalt call me 'husband'!"

  "Wilt force me, my lord?"

  "Aye, verily," said Beltane, "as God sees me, I will!"

  "Why then," she sighed, "how may I gainsay thee!" and she hid her face against him once more. But, as he turned to leave the arbour, she stayed him:

  "I prithee, now, whither dost take me, Beltane?"

  "To the minster——anywhere, so that I find good Friar Martin."

  "Nay, prithee, Beltane, prithee set me down!"

  "What would'st, my Helen?"

  "Loose me and shalt see."

  So Beltane, sighing, let her go, whereupon she took a small silver whistle that hung at her girdle and sounded it.

  "Ah——what do you?" he questioned.

  "Wait!" said she, roguish-eyed.

  And in a while came the sound of steps from the outer garden, and looking thither, Beltane beheld a tall man in cloak of blue camlet, and when this man drew near, behold! it was Giles.

  "Giles!" quoth he, "thou wily rogue——"

  "Giles," spake the Duchess softly, "I pray you let them come!"

  Then Giles bowed him low, and smiling, hasted joyously away.

  "Beltane, dear my lord," said the Duchess a little breathlessly, "because thou art true man and thy love is a noble love, I did lure thee hither to-night that I might give myself to thee in God's holy sight——an so it be thy will, my lord. O Beltane, yonder Giles and Roger do bring——Friar Martin to make me——thy wife——wherefore I do grow something fearful. 'Tis foolish in me to fear thee and yet——I do——a little, Beltane!" So saying, she looked on him with eyes full sweet and troubled, wherefore he would have kissed her, but steps drew nigh and lo! without the arbour stood the white friar with Giles and Roger in the shadows behind.

  Now came Beltane and took the friar's hand.

  "Holy father," said he, "O good Friar Martin, though I am but what I am, yet hath this sweet and noble lady raised me up to be what I have dreamed to be. To-night, into my care she giveth her sweet body and fair fame, of which God make me worthy."

  "Sweet children," spake the friar, "this world is oft-times a hard and cruel world, but God is a gentle God and merciful, wherefore as he hath given to man the blessed sun and the sweet and tender flowers, so hath he given him love. And when two there be who love with soul as well as body, with mind as well as heart, then methinks for them this world may be a paradise. And, my children, because I do love thee for thy sweet lives and noble works, so do I joy now to bind ye one to another."

  Then hand in hand, the Duchess and my Beltane knelt together, and because he had no ring, needs must she give to him one of hers; so were they wed.

  As one that dreamed, Beltane knelt there murmuring the responses, and thus knelt he so long that he started to feel a soft touch upon his cheek, and looking up, behold! they were alone.

  "Dost dream, my lord?" she questioned, tender-voiced.

  "Aye, verily," he answered, "of the wonder of our love and thee, beloved, as I did see thee first within the thicket at Mortain, beautiful as now, though then was thy glorious hair unbound. I dream of thine eyes beneath thy nun's veil when I did bear thee in my arms from Thornaby——but most do I dream of thee as Fidelis, and the clasp of thy dear arms within the dark."

  "But thou didst leave me in Mortain thicket despite my hair, Beltane! And thou didst tell me mine eyes were not——a nun's eyes, Beltane——"

  "Wherefore this night do I thank God!" said he, drawing her close beside him on the bench.

  "And for my arms, Beltane, thou didst think them man's arms——because they went bedight in mail, forsooth!"

  "So this night shall they go bedight in kisses of my mouth! loose me this sleeve, I pray——"

  "Nay, Beltane,——I do beseech thee——"

  "Art not my wife?"

  "Aye, my lord."

  "Then loose me thy sleeve, Helen."

  So blushing, trembling, needs must she obey and yield her soft arms to his caresses and hide her face because of their round, white nakedness.

  But in a while she spake, low and very humble.

  "Dear my lord, the moon doth set already, methinks!"

  "Aye, but there is no cloud to dim her glory to-night, Helen!"

  "But the hour waxeth——very late, my lord and I——must away."

  "Aye, beloved, let us go."

  "Nay my lord, I——O dear Beltane——"

  "Wife!" said he, "dear my love and wife, have I not waited long enough?"

  Hand in hand they walked amid the flowers with eyes only for each other until came they to a stair and up the stair to a chamber, rich with silk and arras and sweet with spicy odours, a chamber dim-lighted by a silver lamp pendent from carven roof-beam, whose soft glow filled the place with shadow. Yet even in this tender dimness, or because of it, her colour ebbed and flowed, her breath came apace and she stood before him voiceless and very still save for the sweet tumult of her bosom.

  Then Beltane loosed off his sword and laid it upon the silken couch, but perceiving how she trembled, he set his arm about her and drew her to the open lattice where the moon made a pool of glory at their feet.

  "Dost fear me, Helen?"

  "Nay, my lord, I——think not."

  "Then wherefore dost tremble?"

  "Ah, Beltane, thou methinks dost——tremble also?"

  Then Beltane knelt him at her feet and looked upon her loveliness with yearning eyes, yet touched her not:

  "O beloved maid!" said he, "this is, methinks, because of thy sweet virgin eyes! For I do so love thee, Helen, that, an it be thy will, e'en now will I leave thee until thy heart doth call me!"

  Now stooped she and set her white arms about him and her soft cheek to his hot brow.

  "Dear my lord and——husband," she whispered, "'tis for this so sweet tenderness in thee that I do love thee best, methinks!"

  "And fear me no more?"

  "Aye, my lord, I do fear thee when——when thou dost look on me so, but—— when thou dost look on me so——'tis then I do love thee most, my Beltane!"

  Up to his feet sprang Beltane and caught her to him, breast to breast and lip to lip.

  The great sword clattered to the floor; but now, even as she sank in his embrace, she held him off to stare with eyes of sudden terror as, upon the stilly night broke a thunderous rumble, a shock, and thereafter sudden roar and outcry from afar, that swelled to a wild hubbub of distant voices and cries, lost, all at once, in the raving clamour of the tocsin.

  Locked thus within each other's arms, eye questioned eye, while ever the bell beat out its fierce alarm. And presently, within the garden below, was the sound of running feet and, coming to the casement, Beltane beheld a light that hovered to and fro, growing ever nearer and brighter, until he saw that he who bore it was Black Roger; and Roger's face shone with sweat and his breath laboured with his running.

  "Master!" he panted, "O master——a mine! a mine! They have breached the wall beside the gate——hark, where they storm the city! Come, master, O come ere it be too late!"

  Now Beltane clenched his fists and scowled on pale-faced Roger and from him to the radiant sky, yet when he spake his voice was low and even:

  "I thank thee, faithful Roger! Go you and summon such of our foresters as ye may, muster them in the market-square, there will I come to thee."

  Now when Roger's flickering light had vanished he turned, and found Helen close beside him; her cheeks were pale, but in her hand she held his sword.

  "'Tis well thou wert not all unarmed, my lord!" she sighed, and forthwith belted the weapon about him. "Kneel down, I prithee, that I may lace for thee thy hood of mail." And when it was done she knelt also, and taking his hand pressed it to her throbbing heart, and holding him thus fell to prayer:

  "O God of mercy, have in care those that fight in our defence this night, in especial guard and shield this man of mine that I do love beyond all men——O God of mercy, hear us!"

  So they arose, and as he looked on her so looked she on him, and of a sudden clasped him in close and passionate embrace:

  "Beltane——Beltane!" she sobbed, "God knoweth I do so love thee that thy dear flesh is mine, methinks, and the steel that woundeth thee shall hurt me also. And——O love——an thou should'st die to-night, then surely will this heart of mine die with thee——no man shall have my love other than thou——so to my grave will I go thy virgin wife for thy dear sake. Fare thee well Beltane, O dear my husband, fare thee well. Tarry no longer, lest I pray thee on my knees to go not to the battle."

  So Beltane kissed her once and went forth of the chamber, looking not back. She heard the ring of his armour a-down the stair, the quick tread of his feet, and leaning from the casement watched him go; and he, knowing her there, looked not up, but with teeth hard shut and iron hands clenched, strode fast upon his way.

  And now, since he looked not up, it seemed to her she was out of his thoughts already, for his face was stern and set, and in his eyes was the fierce light of battle.

  And she, kneeling alone in the failing glory of the moon, hid her face within yearning, desolate arms and wept long and bitterly.

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