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Beltane The Smith (Chapter4)

2006-08-28 16:26

  Chapter IV. Of the Love and the Grief of Helen the Proud

  Long stood Beltane where she had left him, the soft shadows of night deepening about him, dreaming ever of her beauty, of her wondrous hair, and of the little foot that had peeped forth at him 'neath her habit, and, full of these thoughts, for once he was deaf to the soft voices of the trees nor heard the merry chatter of the brook. But later, upon his bed he lay awake full long and must needs remember yet another Helen, with the same wondrous hair and eyes of mystery, for whose sake men had died and a noble city burned; and, hereupon, his heart grew strangely heavy and cold with an unknown dread.

  Days came and went, and labouring at the forge or lying out in the sunshine gazing wistfully beyond the swaying tree-tops, Beltane would oft start and turn his head, fancying the rustle of her garments in his ears, or her voice calling to him from some flowery thicket; and the wind in the trees whispered "Helen!" and the brook sang of Helen, and Helen was in his thoughts continually.

  Thus my Beltane forgot his loves the flowers, and sang no more the wonders of the forest-lands.

  And oft-times the Duchess, seated in state within her great hall of Mortain looking down upon her knights and nobles, would sigh, for none was there so noble of form nor so comely as Beltane the Smith. Hereupon her white brow would grow troubled and, turning from them all, she would gaze with deep, unfathomable eyes, away across the valley to where, amid the mystery of the trees, Beltane had his lonely dwelling.

  Wherefore it was, that, looking up one evening from where he sat busied with brush and colours upon a border of wondrous design, Beltane beheld her of whom he was dreaming; and she, standing tall and fair before him, saw that in his look the which set her heart a-fluttering at her white breast most strangely; yet, fearing she should betray aught of it, she laughed gaily and mocked him, as is the way of women, saying:

  "Well, thou despiser of Love, I hearkened vainly for thy new song as I rode hither through the green."

  Red grew my Beltane's cheek and he looked not to her as he answered:

  "Lady, I have no new song."

  "Why then, is thy lesson yet unlearned?" said she. "Have ye no love but for birds and flowers?" and her red lip curled scornfully.

  Quoth Beltane:

  "Is there aught more worthy?"

  "O Beltane!" she sighed, "art then so simple that such will aye content thee; doth not thy heart hunger and cry within thee for aught beside?"

  Then Beltane bowed his head, and fumbled with his brush and dropped it, and ere he could reach it she had set her foot upon it; thus it chanced that his hand came upon her foot, and feeling it beneath his fingers, he started and drew away, whereat she laughed low and sweet, saying:

  "Alack, and doth my foot affright thee? And yet 'tis none so fierce and none so large that thou shouldst fear it thus, messire——thou who art so tall and strong, and a mighty wrestler withal!"

  Now, looking up, he saw her lips curved and scarlet, and her eyes brimful of laughter, and fain would he have taken up the brush yet dared not. Therefore, very humbly, she stooped and lifting the brush put it in his hand. Then, trembling 'neath the touch of her soft fingers, Beltane rose up, and that which he had hidden deep within his heart brake from him.

  "Helen!" he whispered, "O Helen, thou art so wondrous fair and belike of high estate, but as for me, I am but what I am. Behold me" he cried, stretching wide his arms, "I am but Beltane the Smith; who is there to love such as I? See, my hands be hard and rough, and would but bruise where they should caress, these arms be unfitted for soft embracements. O lady, who is there to love Beltane the Smith?"

  Now the Duchess Helen laughed within herself for very triumph, yet her bosom thrilled and hurried with her breathing, her cheek grew red and her eyes bright and tender, wherefore she stooped low to cull a flower ere she answered.

  "Beltane," she sighed, "Beltane, women are not as thy flowers, that embraces, even such as thine, would crush them."

  But Beltane stooped his head that he might not behold the lure and beauty of her, and clenched his hands hard and fierce and thereafter spake:

  "Thou art so wondrous fair," said he again, "and belike of noble birth, but——as for me, I am a smith!"

  Awhile she stood, turning the flower in gentle fingers yet looking upon him in his might and goodly youth, beholding his averted face with its strong, sweet mouth and masterful chin, its curved nostrils and the dreaming passion of his eyes, and when she spake her voice was soft and very sweet.

  "Above all, thou art——a man, messire!"

  Then did my Beltane lift his head and saw how the colour was deepened in her cheek and how her tender eyes drooped before his.

  "Tell me," he said, "is there ever a woman to love such a man? Is there ever a woman who would leave the hum and glitter of cities to walk with such as I in the shadow of these forest-lands? Speak, Oh speak I do beseech thee!" Thus said he and stopped, waiting her answer.

  "Nay, Beltane," she whispered, "let thine own heart speak me this."

  All blithe and glorious grew the world about him as he stooped and caught her in his arms, lifting her high against his heart. And, in this moment, he forgot the teaching of Ambrose the Hermit, forgot all things under heaven, save the glory of her beauty, the drooping languor of her eyes and the sweet, moist tremor of her mouth. And so he kissed her, murmuring 'twixt his kisses:

  "Fairer art thou than all the flowers, O my love, and sweeter thy breath than the breath of flowers!"

  Thus Helen the Proud, the Beautiful, yielded her lips to his, and in all the world for her was nought save the deep, soft voice of Beltane, and his eyes, and the new, sweet ecstasy that thrilled within her. Surely nowhere in all the world was there such another man as this, so strong and gentle, so meet for love and yet so virginal. Surely life might be very fair here in the green solitudes, aye, surely, surely——

  Soft with distance came the peal of bells, stealing across the valley from the great minster in Mortain, and, with the sound, memory waked, and she bethought her of all those knights and nobles who lived but to do her will and pleasure, of Mortain and the glory of it; and so she sighed and stirred, and, looking at Beltane, sighed again. Quoth she:

  "Is this great love I foretold come upon thee, Beltane?"

  And Beltane answered:

  "Truly a man hath not lived until he hath felt a woman's kisses upon his lips!"

  "And thou wilt flout poor Love no more?"

  "Nay," he answered, smiling, "'tis part of me, and must be so henceforth——forever!"

  But now she sighed again, and trembled in his arms and clasped him close, as one beset by sudden fear, while ever soft with distance came the silvery voices of the bells, low yet insistent, sweet yet commanding; wherefore she, sighing, put him from her.

  "Why then," said she, with drooping head, "fare thee well, messire. Nay, see you not? Methinks my task is done. And it hath been a—— pleasing task, this——of teaching thee to love——O, would you had not learned so soon! Fare thee well. Beltane!"

  But Beltane looked upon her as one in deep amaze, his arms fell from her and he stepped back and so stood very still and, as he gazed, a growing horror dawned within his eyes.

  "What art thou?" he whispered.

  "Nay, Beltane," she murmured, "ah——look not so!"

  "Who art thou——and what?" he said.

  "Nay, did I not tell thee at the first? I am Helen——hast thou not known? I am Helen——Helen of Mortain."

  "Thou——thou art the Duchess Helen?" said Beltane with stiffening lips, "thou the Duchess and I——a smith!" and he laughed, short and fierce, and would have turned from her but she stayed him with quivering hands.

  "And——did'st not know?" she questioned hurriedly, "methought it was no secret——I would have told thee ere this had I known. Nay——look not so, Beltane——thou dost love me yet——nay, I do know it!" and she strove to smile, but with lips that quivered strangely.

  "Aye, I love thee, Helen of Mortain——though there be many fair lords to do that! But, as for me——I am only a smith, and as a smith greatly would I despise thee. Yet may this not be, for as my body is great, so is my love. Go, therefore, thy work here is done, go——get thee to thy knightly lovers, wed this Duke who seeks thee——do aught you will but go, leave me to my hammers and these green solitudes."

  So spake he, and turning, strode away, looking not back to where she stood leaning one white hand against a tree. Once she called to him but he heeded not, walking ever with bowed head and hearing only the tumult within him and the throbbing of his wounded heart. And now, in his pain needs must he think of yet another Helen and of the blood and agony of blazing Troy town, and lifting up his hands to heaven he cried aloud:

  "Alas! that one so fair should be a thing so evil!"

  All in haste Beltane came to his lonely hut and taking thence his cloak and great sword, he seized upon his mightiest hammer and beat down the roof of the hut and drave in the walls of it; thereafter he hove the hammer into the pool, together with his anvil and rack of tools and so, setting the sword in his girdle and the cloak about him, turned away and plunged into the deeper shadows of the forest.

  But, ever soft and faint with distance, the silvery voices of the bells stole upon the warm, stilly air, speaking of pomp and state, of pride and circumstance, but now these seemed but empty things, and the Duchess Helen stood long with bent head and hands that strove to shut the sounds away. But in the end she turned, slow-footed amid the gathering shadows and followed whither they called.

  *       *       *       *       *

  But that night, sitting in state within her great hall of Mortain, the Duchess Helen sighed deep and oft, scarce heeding the courtesies addressed to her and little the whispered homage of her guest Duke Ivo, he, the proudest and most potent of all her many wooers; yet to-night her cheek burned beneath his close regard and her woman's flesh rebelled at his contact as had never been aforetime. Thus, of a sudden, though the meal was scarce begun, she arose and stepped down from the dais, and when her wondering ladies would have followed forbade them with a gesture. And so, walking proud and tall, she passed out before them, whereat Duke Ivo's black brow grew the blacker, and he stared before him with narrowed eyes, beholding which, the faces of my lady's counsellors waxed anxious and long; only Winfrida, chiefest of the ladies, watched the Duke 'neath drooping lids and with a smile upon her full, red lips.

  Now the Duchess, being come to her chamber, lifted her hands and tore the ducal circlet from her brow and cast it from her, and, thereafter, laid by her rings and jewels, and coming to the open casement fell there upon her knees and reached forth her pale hands to where, across the valley, the dark forest stretched away, ghostly and unreal, 'neath the moon.

  "My beloved!" she whispered, "O my beloved!" And the gentle night-wind bore her secret in its embrace away across the valley to the dim solitudes of the woods. "Beltane!" she sighed, "love hath come into mine heart even as it came to thee, when I recked not of it. My beloved——O my beloved!" Anon she rose and stood awhile with head bowed as one that dreams, and of a sudden her cheek glowed warmly red, her breath caught and she gazed upon the moon with eyes of yearning tenderness; thereafter she laughed, soft and happily and, snatching up a cloak, set it about her and fled from the chamber. So, swift and light of foot, she sped by hidden ways until she came where old Godric, her chief huntsman, busied himself trimming the shaft of a boar-spear, who, beholding his lady, rose up in amaze.

  "Godric," said she, white hands upon his arm, "thou didst love me or ever I could walk?"

  "Aye, verily thou hast said, dear my lady."

  "Love you me yet?"

  "Truly thou knowest that I love thee."

  "Thou hast heard, Godric, how that my counsellors have long desired me to wed with Duke Ivo, and do yet await my answer to his suit——nay hearken! So to-night shall my mind be known in the matter once and for all! Come, my Godric, arm you and saddle two horses——come!"

  "Nay, sweet my lady, what would ye?"

  "Fly hence with thee, my Godric! Come——the horses!"

  "Fly from Mortain, and thou the Duchess? Nay, dear lady, 'tis madness, bethink thee! O dear my Mistress——O little Helen that I have cherished all thy days, bethink thee——do not this thing——"

  "Godric, did not the Duke, my father, strictly charge thee to follow ever my call?"

  "Aye, my lady."

  "Then follow now!" And so she turned and beckoned, and Godric perforce followed after.

  Hand in hand they went a-down the winding stair, down, to the great, dim courtyard that whispered to their tread. And, thereafter, mounting in haste, the Duchess galloped from Mortain, unheeding stern old Godric by her side and with never a look behind, dreaming ever of Beltane with cheeks that crimsoned 'neath her hood.

  Fast and faster she rode 'neath the pale moon, her eyes ever gazing towards the gloom of the forest, her heart throbbing quick as the hoof-beats of her horse. So at last, being come to that glade whereby Beltane had his dwelling, she lighted down, and bidding Godric wait, stole forward alone.

  Autumn was at hand, and here and there the fallen leaves rustled sadly under foot while the trees sighed and mourned together for that the flowers so soon must wither and die. But in the heart of the Duchess Helen, Spring was come, and all things spake to her of coming joys undreamed till now as she hasted on, flitting through the pallid moonbeams that, falling athwart rugged hole and far-flung branch, splashed the gloom with radiant light. Once she paused to listen, but heard nought save the murmur of the brook and the faint stirring of leaves. And now, clear and strong the tender radiance fell athwart the lonely habitation and her heart leapt at the sight, her eyes grew moist and tender and she hurried forward with flying steps, then——beholding the ruin of thatch and wall, she stopped and stood aghast, gazing wide-eyed and with her heart numb in her bosom. Then she shivered, her proud head drooped and a great sob brake from her, for that she knew she was come too late, her dreams of wandering with Beltane through sunny glades were nought but dreams after all. Beltane the Smith was gone!

  Then a great loneliness and desolation came upon her and, sinking down at the foot of that tree whereby he had been wont to lean so often, her yearning arms crept about its rugged hole and she lay there in the passion of her grief weeping long and bitterly.

  But the gentle trees ceased mourning over their own coming sorrow in wonder at the sight, and bending their heads together, seemed to whisper one to the other saying:

  "He is gone, Beltane the Smith is gone!"

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