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Beltane The Smith (Chapter9)

2006-08-28 16:27

  Chapter IX. Wherein is Some Account of the Philosophy of Folly and the Wisdom of a Fool

  As the day advanced the sun grew ever hotter; birds chirped drowsily from hedge and thicket, and the warm, still air was full of the slumberous drone of a myriad unseen wings. Therefore Beltane sought the deeper shade of the woods and, risking the chance of roving thief or lurking foot-pad, followed a devious course by reason of the underbrush.

  Now as he walked him thus, within the cool, green twilight, watchful of eye and with heavy quarter-staff poised upon his shoulder, he presently heard the music of a pipe now very mournful and sweet, anon breaking into a merry lilt full of rippling trills and soft, bubbling notes most pleasant to be heard. Wherefore he went aside and thus, led by the music, beheld a jester in his motley lying a-sprawl beneath a tree. A long-legged knave was he, pinched and something doleful of visage yet with quick bright eyes that laughed 'neath sombre brows, and a wide, up-curving mouth; upon his escalloped cape and flaunting cock's-comb were many little bells that rang a silvery chime as, up-starting to his elbow, he greeted my Beltane thus:

  "Hail, noble, youthful Sir, and of thy sweet and gracious courtesy I pray you mark me this——the sun is hot, my belly lacketh, and thou art a fool!"

  "And wherefore?" questioned Beltane, leaning him upon his quarter-staff.

  "For three rarely reasonable reasons, sweet sir, as thus:——item, for that the sun burneth, item, my belly is empty, and item, thou, lured by this my foolish pipe art hither come to folly. So I, a fool, do greet thee, fool, and welcome thee to this my palace of ease and pleasaunce where, an ye be minded to list to the folly of a rarely foolish fool, I will, with foolish jape and quip, befool thy mind to mirth and jollity, for thou art a sad fool, methinks, and something melancholic!"

  Quoth Beltane, sighing:

  "'Tis a sad world and very sorrowful!"

  "Nay——'tis a sweet world and very joyful——for such as have eyes to see withal!"

  "To see?" quoth Beltane, frowning, "this day have I seen a dead man a-swing on a tree, a babe dead beside its cradle, and a woman die upon a spear! All day have I breathed an air befouled by nameless evil; whithersoever I go needs must I walk 'twixt Murder and Shame!"

  "Then look ever before thee, so shalt see neither."

  "Yet will they be there!"

  "Yet doth the sun shine in high heaven, so must these things be till God and the saints shall mend them. But if thou must needs be doleful, go make thee troubles of thine own but leave the woes of this wide world to God!"

  "Nay," said Beltane, shaking his head, "how if God leave these things to thee and me?"

  "Why then methinks the world must wag as it will. Yet must we repine therefore? Out upon thee for a sober, long-legged, doleful wight. Now harkee! Here sit I——less fool! A fool who hath, this day, been driven forth of my lord's presence with blows and cruel stripes! And wherefore? 'Twas for setting a bird free of its cage, a small matter methinks——though there be birds——and birds, but mum for that! Yet do I grieve and sigh therefore, O doleful long-shanks? Not so——fie on't! I blow away my sorrows through the music of this my little pipe and, lying here, set my wits a-dancing and lo! I am a duke, a king, a very god! I create me a world wherein is neither hunger nor stripes, a world of joy and laughter, for, blessed within his dreams, even a fool may walk with gods and juggle with the stars!"

  "Aye," nodded Beltane, "but how when he awake?"

  "Why then, messire," laughed the fellow, leaping nimbly to his feet, "why then doth he ask alms of thee, as thus: Prithee most noble messire, of thy bounty show kindness to a fool that lacks everything but wit. So give, messire, give and spare not, so may thy lady prove kind, thy wooing prosper and love strengthen thee."

  Now when the jester spake of love, my Beltane must needs sigh amain and shake a doleful head.

  "Alas!" said he, "within my life shall be no place for love, methinks."

  "Heigho!" sighed the jester, "thy very look doth proclaim thee lover, and 'tis well, for love maketh the fool wise and the wise fool, it changeth saints into rogues and rogues into saints, it teacheth the strong man gentleness and maketh the gentle strong. 'Tis sweeter than honey yet bitter as gall——Love! ah, love can drag a man to hell or lift him high as heaven!"

  "Aye verily," sighed Beltane, "I once did dream of such a love, but now am I awake, nor will I dream of love again, nor rest whiles Lust and Cruelty rule this sorrowful Duchy——"

  "Ha, what would ye then, fond youth?"

  "I am come to smite them hence," said Beltane, clenching mighty fists.

  "How?" cried the jester, wide of eye. "Alone?"

  "Nay, methinks God goeth with me. Moreover, I have this sword!" and speaking, Beltane touched the hilt of the great blade at his side.

  "What——a sword!" scoffed the jester, "think ye to mend the woes of thy fellows with a sword? Go to, thou grave-visaged, youthful fool! I tell thee, 'tis only humour and good fellowship can mend this wretched world, and there is nought so lacking in humour as a sword——unless it be your prating priest or mumbling monk. A pope in cap and bells, now—— aha, there would be a world indeed, a world of joy and laughter! No more gloom, no more bans and damnings of Holy Church, no more groaning and snivelling in damp cloister and mildewed chapel, no more burnings and hangings and rackings——"

  "Yet," said Beltane, shaking his head, "yet would kings and dukes remain, Christian knights and godly lords to burn and hang and rack the defenceless."

  "Aye, Sir Gravity," nodded the jester, "but the Church is paramount ever; set the pope a-blowing of tunes upon a reed and kings would lay by their sceptres and pipe too and, finding no time or lust for warring, so strife would end, swords rust and wit grow keen. And wit, look you, biteth sharper than sword, laughter is more enduring than blows, and he who smiteth, smiteth only for lack of wit. So, an you would have a happy world, lay by that great sword and betake thee to a little pipe, teach men to laugh and so forget their woes. Learn wisdom of a fool, as thus: 'Tis better to live and laugh and beget thy kind than to perish by the sword or to dangle from a tree. Here now is advice, and in this advice thy life, thus in giving thee advice so do I give thee thy life. And I am hungry. And in thy purse is money wherewith even a fool might come by food. And youth is generous! And thou art very young! Come, sweet youthful messire, how much for thy life——and a fool's advice?"

  Then Beltane smiled, and taking out one of his three remaining gold pieces, put it in the jester's hand.

  "Fare thee well, good fool," said he, "I leave thee to thy dreams; God send they be ever fair——"

  "Gold!" cried the jester, spinning the coin upon his thumb, "ha, now do I dream indeed; may thy waking be ever as joyous. Farewell to thee, thou kind, sweet, youthful fool, and if thou must hang some day on a tree, may every leaf voice small prayers for thy gentle soul!"

  So saying, the jester nodded, waved aloft his bauble, and skipped away among the trees. But as Beltane went, pondering the jester's saying, the drowsy stillness was shivered by a sudden, loud cry, followed thereafter by a clamour of fierce shouting; therefore Beltane paused and turning, beheld the jester himself who ran very fleetly, yet with three lusty fellows in close pursuit.

  "Messire," panted the jester, wild of eye and with a trickle of blood upon his pallid face, "O sweet sir——let them not slay me!"

  Now while he spake, and being yet some way off, he tripped and fell, and, as he lay thus the foremost of his pursuers, a powerful, red-faced man, leapt towards him, whirling up his quarter-staff to smite; but, in that moment, Beltane leapt also and took the blow upon his staff and swung it aloft, yet stayed the blow, and, bestriding the prostrate jester, spake soft and gentle, on this wise:

  "Greeting to thee, forest fellow! Thy red face liketh me well, let us talk together."

  But, hereupon, as the red-faced man fell back, staring in amaze, there came his two companions, albeit panting and short of breath.

  "What, Roger," cried one, "doth this fellow withstand thee?"

  But Roger only growled, whiles Beltane smiled upon the three, gentle-eyed, but with heavy quarter-staff poised lightly in practised hand; quoth he:

  "How now, would ye harm the fool? 'Tis a goodly fool forsooth, yet with legs scarce so nimble as his wit, and a tongue——ha, a golden tongue to win all men to humour and good fellowship——"

  "Enough!" growled red-faced Roger, "Sir Pertolepe's foresters we be, give us yon scurvy fool then, that we may hang him out of hand."

  "Nay," answered Beltane, "first let us reason together, let us hark to the wisdom of Folly and grow wise——"

  "Ha, Roger!" cried one of the men, "tap me this tall rogue on his golden mazzard!"

  "Or," said Beltane, "the fool shall charm thy souls to kindliness with his pipe——"

  "Ho, Roger!" cried the second forester, "split me this tall talker's yellow sconce, now!"

  "Come," growled Roger, threatening of mien, "yield us the fool, 'tis an arrant knave hath angered his lord!"

  "What matter for that," said Beltane, "so he hath not angered his God? Come now, ye be hearty fellows and have faces that might be honest, tell me, how long will ye serve the devil?"

  "Devil? Ha, what talk be this? We serve no devil!"

  "Aye," nodded Beltane, "though they call him Pertolepe the Red, hereabouts."

  "Devil!" cried Black Roger aghast. And, falling back a step he gaped in amaze from Beltane to his gaping fellows. "Devil, forsooth!" he gasped, "aha, I've seen many a man hang for less than this——"

  "True," sighed Beltane, "men hang for small matters here in Pentavalon, and to hang is an evil death, methinks!"

  "So, so!" nodded Black Roger, grim-smiling, "I've watched them kick a fair good while, betimes!"

  "Ah!" cried Beltane, his eyes widening, "those hands of thine, belike, have hanged a man ere this?"

  "Aye, many a score. Oho! folk know Black Roger's name hereabouts. I carry ever a noose at my girdle here——behold it!" and he showed a coil of rope that swung at his belt.

  Now looking from the man's grim features to this murderous cord, Beltane blenched and shivered, whereat Black Roger laughed aloud, and pointed a scornful finger.

  "Look'ee, 'tis fair, good rope this, and well-tried, and shall bear even thy great carcase sweetly——aye, sweetly——"

  "How——would'st hang me also?" said Beltane faintly, and the heavy quarter-staff sagged in his loosened grip.

  "Hang thee——aye. Thou didst withstand us with this fool, thou hast dared miscall our lord——we be all witnesses to it. So now will we——"

  But swift as lightning-flash, Beltane's long quarter-staff whirled and fell, and, for all his hood of mail, Black Roger threw wide his arms and, staggering, fell upon his face and so lay; then, fierce and grim, he had leapt upon the other two, and the air was full of the rattle and thud of vicious blows. But these foresters were right lusty fellows and they, together, beset my Beltane so furiously, right and left, that he perforce gave back 'neath their swift and grievous blows and, being overmatched, turned and betook him to his heels, whereat they, incontinent, pursued with loud gibes and fierce laughter. But on ran Beltane up the glade very fleetly yet watchful of eye, until, seeing one had outstripped his fellow, he checked his going somewhat, stumbling as one that is spent, whereat the forester shouted the louder and came on amain. Then did my cunning Beltane leap aside and, leaping, turned and smote the fellow clean and true upon the crown, and, laughing to see him fall, ran in upon the other forester with whirling quarter-staff. Now this fellow seeing himself stand alone, stayed not to abide the onset, but turning about, made off into the green. Then Beltane leaned him, panting, upon his staff, what time the fallen man got him unsteadily to his legs and limped after his comrade; as for the jester, he was gone long since; only Black Roger lay upon his face and groaned faintly, ever and anon. Wherefore came Beltane and stood above him as one in thought and, seeing him begin to stir, took from him his sword and coil of rope and loosing off his swordbelt, therewith bound his hands fast together and so, dragged him 'neath a tree that stood hard by. Thus when at last Black Roger opened his eyes, he beheld Beltane standing above him and in his hand the deadly rope. Now, looking from this to the desolation about him, Black Roger shivered, and gazing up into' the stern face above, his florid cheek grew pale.

  "Master," said he hoarsely, "what would ye?"

  "I would do to thee as thou hast done to others."

  "Hang me?"

  "Aye!" quoth Beltane, and setting the noose about his neck, cast the rope across a branch.

  "Master, how shall my death profit thee?"

  "The world shall be the better, and thy soul know less of sin, mayhap."

  "Master," said Black Roger, stooping to wipe sweat from his face with fettered hands, "I have store of money set by——"

  But Beltane laughed with pallid lips, and, pulling upon the rope, dragged Black Roger, choking, to his feet.

  "Master," he gasped, "show a little mercy——"

  "Hast ever shown mercy to any man——speak me true!"

  "Alack!——no, master! And yet——"

  "How then shall ye expect mercy? Thou hast burnt and hanged and ravished the defenceless, so now shall be an end of it for thee, yet——O mark me this, thy name shall live on accursed in memory long after thou'rt but poor dust."

  "Aye, there be many alive to curse Black Roger living, and many dead to curse me when I'm dead; poor Roger's soul shall find small mercy hereafter, methinks——ha, I never thought on this!"

  "Thou had'st a mother——"

  "Aye, but they burned her for a witch when I was but a lad. As for me, 'tis true I've hanged men, yet I was my lord's chief verderer and did but as my lord commanded."

  "A man hath choice of good or evil."

  "Aye. So now, an I must die——I must, but O master, say a prayer for me—— my sins lie very heavy——"

  But Beltane, trembling, pulled upon the rope and swung Black Roger writhing in mid-air; then, of a sudden, loosing the rope, the forester fell and, while he lay gasping, Beltane stooped and loosed the rope from his neck.

  "What now?" groaned the forester, wild-eyed, "Sweet Jesu——ah, torture me not!"

  "Take back thy life," said Beltane, "and I pray God that henceforth thou shalt make of it better use, and live to aid thy fellows, so shall they, mayhap, some day come to bless thy memory."

  Then Black Roger, coming feebly to his knees, looked about him as one that wakes upon a new world, and lifted wide eyes from green earth to cloudless sky.

  "To live!" quoth he, "to live!" And so, with sudden gesture, stooped his head to hide his face 'neath twitching fingers.

  Hereupon Beltane smiled, gentle-eyed, yet spake not, and, turning, caught up his staff and went softly upon his way, leaving Black Roger the forester yet upon his knees.

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