BELTANE THE SMITH
AUTHOR OF "THE BROAD HIGHWAY," "THE AMATEUR GENTLEMAN," ETC.
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARTHUR E. BECHER
FREDERICK HUGHSON HAWLEY
TO WHOM BELTANE IS NO STRANGER I DEDICATE THIS ROMANCE
London, August, 1915.
I HOW BELTANE LIVED WITHIN THE GREENWOOD
II HOW BELTANE HAD WORD WITH THE DUKE, BLACK IVO
III HOW LOVE CAME TO BELTANE IN THE GREENWOOD
IV OF THE LOVE AND THE GRIEF OF HELEN THE PROUD
V WHICH TELLS OF THE STORY OF AMBROSE THE HERMIT
VI HOW BELTANE FARED FORTH OF THE GREEN
VII HOW BELTANE TALKED WITH ONE HIGHT GILES BRABBLECOMBE, WHO WAS A NOTABLE AND LEARNED ARCHER
VIII HOW BELTANE HELD DISCOURSE WITH A BLACK FRIAR
IX WHEREIN IS SOME ACCOUNT OF THE PHILOSOPHY OF FOLLY AND THE WISDOM OF A FOOL
X HOW BELTANE MADE COMRADE ONE BLACK ROGER THAT WAS A HANGMAN
XI WHICH TELLS HOW THREE MIGHTY MEN SWARE FEALTY TO BELTANE: AND HOW GOOD FRIAR MARTIN DIGGED A GRAVE IN THE WILD
XII WHICH TELLS HOW DUKE IVO'S GREAT GALLOWS CEASED TO BE
XIII HOW THEY BRAKE OPE THE DUNGEON OF BELSAYE
XIV HOW BELTANE CAME NIGH TO DEATH
XV HOW BELTANE HAD WORD WITH PERTOLEPE THE RED, AND HOW THEY LEFT HIM IN THE FOREST
XVI OF THE RUEFUL KNIGHT OF THE BURNING HEART
XVII OF THE AMBUSHMENT NEAR THORNABY MILL
XVIII HOW BELTANE MET SIR GILLES OF BRANDONMERE
XIX CONCERNING THE EYES OF A NUN
XX HOW BELTANE PLIGHTED HIS TROTH IN THE GREEN
XXI OF THE TALE OF GODRIC THE HUNTSMAN
XXII CONCERNING THE WILES OF WINFRIDA THE FAIR
XXIII OF THE HUMILITY OF HELEN THE PROUD
XXIV OF WHAT BEFELL AT BLAEN
XXV HOW BELTANE BECAME CAPTIVE TO SIR PERTOLEPE
XXVI OF THE HORRORS OF GARTHLAXTON KEEP, AND HOW A DEVIL ENTERED INTO BELTANE
XXVII HOW BELTANE TOOK TO THE WILD-WOOD
XXVIII OF THE PLACE OF REFUGE WITHIN THE GREEN
XXIX HOW BELTANE SLEW TOSTIG AND SPAKE WITH THE WILD MEN
XXX HOW THEY SMOTE GARTHLAXTON
XXXI HOW GILES MADE A MERRY SONG
XXXII HOW BELTANE MET WITH A YOUTHFUL KNIGHT
XXXIII HOW BELTANE HAD NEWS OF ONE THAT WAS A NOTABLE PARDONER
XXXIV HOW THEY CAME TO BELSAYE
XXXV HOW GUI OF ALLERDALE CEASED FROM EVIL
XXXVI HOW THE FOLK OF BELSAYE TOWN MADE THEM AN END OF TYRANNY
XXXVII HOW THEY LEFT BELSAYE
XXXVIII OF BELTANE'S BLACK AND EVIL MOOD, AND HOW HE FELL IN WITH THE WITCH OF HANGSTONE WASTE
XXXIX HOW BELTANE FOUGHT FOR ONE MELLENT THAT WAS A WITCH
XL FURTHER CONCERNING THE MAID MELLENT; AND OF THE HUE AND CRY
XLI HOW THEY RODE INTO THE WILDERNESS
XLII HOW BELTANE DREAMED IN THE WILD-WOOD
XLIII HOW BELTANE KNEW GREAT HUMILITY
XLIV HOW A MADNESS CAME UPON BELTANE IN THE WILD-WOOD
XLV HOW BLACK ROGER TAUGHT BELTANE GREAT WISDOM
XLVI HOW BLACK ROGER PRAYED IN THE DAWN: AND HOW HIS PRAYERS WERE ANSWERED
XLVII HOW BELTANE SWARE AN OATH
XLVIII HOW BELTANE SET OUT FOR HANGSTONE WASTE
XLIX HOW BELTANE FOUND PEACE AND A GREAT SORROW
L TELLETH HOW BELTANE WENT FORTH TO HIS DUTY
LI HOW BLACK ROGER WON TO FULLER MANHOOD
LII HOW THEY HAD NEWS OF WALKYN
LIII OF JOLETTE, THAT WAS A WITCH
LIV HOW BELTANE FOUGHT WITH A DOUGHTY STRANGER
LV HOW THEY MARCHED FOR WINISFARNE
LVI WHAT THEY FOUND AT WINISFARNE
LVII TELLETH OF THE ONFALL AT BRAND
LVIII HOW BELTANE HAD SPEECH WITH THE ABBESS
LIX TELLETH HOW SIR BENEDICT WENT A-FISHING
LX TELLETH HOW THEY MARCHED FROM THE VALLEY OF BRAND
LXI HOW THE FOREST FOUGHT FOR THEM
LXII HOW THEY CAME TO BELSAYE FOR THE THIRD TIME
LXIII TELLETH SOMEWHAT OF THE WOES OF GILES O' THE BOW
LXIV HOW GILES CURSED BELSAYE OUR OF HER FEAR
LXV TELLETH OF ROSES
LXVI CONCERNING A BLUE CAMLET CLOAK
LXVII TELLETH WHAT BEFELL IN THE REEVE'S GARDEN
LXVIII FRIAR MARTIN'S DYING PROPHECY
LXIX HOW AT LAST THEY CAME TO PENTAVALON CITY
LXX WHICH SPEAKETH FOR ITSELF
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
Thus Helen the Proud, the Beautiful, yielded her lips to his
Now did she look on him 'neath drooping lash, sweet-eyed and languorous
Beltane stood up armed in shining mail from head to foot
So came Winfrida, and falling on her knee gave the goblet into her lady's hand
She stared and stared beyond Sir Gui, to behold one clad as a dusty miller
Her eyes swept him with look calm and most dispassionate
BELTANE THE SMITH
HOW BELTANE LIVED WITHIN THE GREENWOOD
In a glade of the forest, yet not so far but that one might hear the chime of bells stealing across the valley from the great minster of Mortain on a still evening, dwelt Beltane the Smith.
Alone he lived in the shadow of the great trees, happy when the piping of the birds was in his ears, and joying to listen to the plash and murmur of the brook that ran merrily beside his hut; or pausing 'twixt the strokes of his ponderous hammer to catch its never failing music.
A mighty man was Beltane the Smith, despite his youth already great of stature and comely of feature. Much knew he of woodcraft, of the growth of herb and tree and flower, of beast and bird, and how to tell each by its cry or song or flight; he knew the ways of fish in the streams, and could tell the course of the stars in the heavens; versed was he likewise in the ancient wisdoms and philosophies, both Latin and Greek, having learned all these things from him whom men called Ambrose the Hermit. But of men and cities he knew little, and of women and the ways of women, less than nothing, for of these matters Ambrose spake not.
Thus, being grown from youth to manhood, for that a man must needs live, Beltane builded him a hut beside the brook, and set up an anvil thereby whereon he beat out bill-hooks and axe-heads and such implements as the charcoal-burners and they that lived within the green had need of.
Oft-times, of an evening, he would seek out the hermit Ambrose, and they would talk together of many things, but seldom of men and cities, and never of women and the ways of women. Once, therefore, wondering, Beltane had said:
"My father, amongst all these matters you speak never of women and the ways of women, though history is full of their doings, and all poets sing praise of their wondrous beauty, as this Helena of Troy, whom men called 'Desire of the World.'"
But Ambrose sighed and shook his head, saying:
"Art thou indeed a man, so soon, my Beltane?" and so sat watching him awhile. Anon he rose and striding to and fro spake sudden and passionate on this wise: "Beltane, I tell thee the beauty of women is an evil thing, a lure to wreck the souls of men. By woman came sin into the world, by her beauty she blinds the eyes of men to truth and honour, leading them into all manner of wantonness whereby their very manhood is destroyed. This Helen of Troy, of whom ye speak, was nought but a vile adulteress, with a heart false and foul, by whose sin many died and Troy town was utterly destroyed."
"Alas!" sighed Beltane, "that one so fair should be a thing so evil!"
Thereafter he went his way, very sad and thoughtful, and that night, lying upon his bed, he heard the voices of the trees sighing and murmuring one to another like souls that sorrowed for sin's sake, and broken dreams and ideals.
"Alas! that one so fair should be a thing so evil!" But, above the whispers of the trees, loud and insistent rose the merry chatter of the brook speaking to him of many things; of life, and the lust of life; the pomp and stir of cities; the sound of song and laughter; of women and the beauty of women, and of the sweet, mad wonder of love. Of all these things the brook sang in the darkness, and Beltane sighed, and sighing, fell asleep.
Thus lived my Beltane in the woodland, ranging the forest with eye quick to see the beauty of earth and sky, and ear open to the thousand voices around him; or, busied at his anvil, hearkening to the wondrous tales of travel and strange adventure told by wandering knight and man-at-arms the while, with skilful hand, he mended broken mail or dented casque; and thereafter, upon the mossy sward, would make trial of their strength and valour, whereby he both took and gave right lusty knocks; or again, when work failed, he would lie upon the grass, chin on fist, poring over some ancient legend, or sit with brush and colours, illuminating on vellum, wherein right cunning was he. Now it chanced that as he sat thus, brush in hand, upon a certain fair afternoon, he suddenly espied one who stood watching him from the shade of a tree, near by. A very tall man he was, long and lean and grim of aspect, with a mouth wry-twisted by reason of an ancient sword-cut, and yet, withal, he had a jovial eye. But now, seeing himself observed, he shook his grizzled head and sighed. Whereat said Beltane, busied with his brush again:
"Good sir, pray what's amiss?"
"The world, youth, the world—'tis all amiss. Yet mark me! here sit you a-dabbing colour with a little brush!"
Answered Beltane: "An so ye seek to do your duty as regardfully as I now daub this colour, messire, in so much shall the world be bettered."
"My duty, youth," quoth the stranger, rasping a hand across his grizzled chin, "my duty? Ha, 'tis well said, so needs must I now fight with thee."
"Fight with me!" says Beltane, his keen gaze upon the speaker.
"Aye, verily!" nodded the stranger, and, forthwith, laying by his long cloak, he showed two swords whose broad blades glittered, red and evil, in the sunset.
"But," says Beltane, shaking his head, "I have no quarrel with thee, good fellow."
"Quarrel?" exclaimed the stranger, "no quarrel, quotha? What matter for that? Surely you would not forego a good bout for so small a matter? Doth a man eat only when famishing, or drink but to quench his thirst? Out upon thee, messire smith!"
"But sir," said Beltane, bending to his brush again, "an I should fight with thee, where would be the reason?"
"Nowhere, youth, since fighting is ever at odds with reason; yet for such unreasonable reasons do reasoning men fight."
"None the less, I will not fight thee," answered Beltane, deftly touching in the wing of an archangel, "so let there be an end on't."
"End forsooth, we have not yet begun! An you must have a quarrel, right fully will I provoke thee, since fight with thee I must, it being so my duty—"
"How thy duty?"
"I am so commanded."
"By one who, being dead, yet liveth. Nay, ask no names, yet mark me this—the world's amiss, boy. Pentavalon groans beneath a black usurper's heel, all the sins of hell are loose, murder and riot, lust and rapine. March you eastward but a day through the forest yonder and you shall see the trees bear strange fruit in our country. The world's amiss, messire, yet here sit you wasting your days, a foolish brush stuck in thy fist. So am I come, nor will I go hence until I have tried thy mettle."
Quoth Beltane, shaking his head, intent upon his work:
"You speak me riddles, sir."
"Yet can I speak thee to the point and so it be thy wish, as thus—now mark me, boy! Thou art a fool, a dog, a fatuous ass, a slave, a nincompoop, a cowardly boy, and as such—mark me again!—now do I spit at thee!"
Hereupon Beltane, having finished the archangel's wing, laid by his brush and, with thoughtful mien, arose, and being upon his feet, turned him, swift and sudden, and caught the stranger in a fierce and cunning wrestling grip, and forthwith threw him upon his back. Whereat this strange man, sitting cross-legged upon the sward, smiled his wry and twisted smile and looked upon Beltane with bright, approving eye.
"A pretty spirit!" he nodded. "'Tis a sweet and gentle youth all good beef and bone; a little green as yet, perchance, but 'tis no matter. A mighty arm, a noble thigh, and shoulders—body o' me! But 'tis in the breed. Young sir, by these same signs and portents my soul is uplifted and hope singeth a new song within me!" So saying, the stranger sprang nimbly to his feet and catching up one of the swords took it by the blade and gave its massy hilt to Beltane's hand. Said he:
"Look well upon this blade, young sir; in duchy, kingdom or county you shall not find its match, nor the like of the terrible hand that bore it. Time was when this good steel—mark how it glitters yet!—struck deep for liberty and justice and all fair things, before whose might oppression quailed and hung its head, and in whose shadow peace and mercy rested. 'Twas long ago, but this good steel is bright and undimmed as ever. Ha! mark it, boy—those eyes o' thine shall ne'er behold its equal!"
So Beltane took hold upon the great sword, felt the spring and balance of the blade and viewed it up from glittering point to plain and simple cross-guard. And thus, graven deep within the broad steel he read this word:
"Ha!" cried the stranger, "see you the legend, good youth? Speak me now what it doth signify."
And Beltane answered:
"'I shall arise!'"
"'Arise' good boy, aye, verily, mark me that. 'Tis a fair thought, look you, and the motto of a great and noble house, and, by the Rood, I think, likewise a prophecy!" Thus speaking the stranger stooped, and taking up the other sword faced Beltane therewith, saying in soft and wheedling tones: "Come now, let us fight together thou and I, and deny me not, lest,—mark me this well, youth,—lest I spit at thee again."
Then he raised his sword, and smote Beltane with the flat of it, and the blow stung, wherefore Beltane instinctively swung his weapon and thrilled with sudden unknown joy at the clash of steel on steel; and so they engaged.
And there, within the leafy solitude, Beltane and the stranger fought together. The long blades whirled and flashed and rang upon the stillness; and ever, as they fought, the stranger smiled his wry smile, mocking and gibing at him, whereat Beltane's mouth grew the grimmer and his blows the heavier, yet wherever he struck, there already was the stranger's blade to meet him, whereat the stranger laughed fierce and loud, taunting him on this wise:
"How now, thou dauber of colours, betake thee to thy little brush, belike it shall serve thee better! Aye me, betake thee to thy little brush, 'twere better fitted to thee than a noble sword, thou daubing boy!"
Now did my Beltane wax wroth indeed and smote amain until his breath grew short and thick, but ever steel rang on steel, and ever the stranger laughed and gibed until Beltane's strokes grew slower:—then, with a sudden fierce shout, did the stranger beset my Beltane with strokes so swift and strong, now to right of him, now to left, that the very air seemed full of flaming, whirling steel, and, in that moment, as Beltane gave back, the stranger smote thrice in as many moments with the flat of his blade, once upon the crown, once upon the shoulder, and once upon the thigh. Fierce eyed and scant of breath, Beltane redoubled his blows, striving to beat his mocker to the earth, whereat he but laughed again, saying:
"Look to thy long legs, dullard!" and forthwith smote Beltane upon the leg. "Now thine arm, slothful boy—thy left arm!" and he smote Beltane upon the arm. "Now thy sconce, boy, thy mazzard, thy sleepy, golden head!" and straightway he smote him on the head, and, thereafter, with sudden, cunning stroke, beat the great sword from Beltane's grip, and so, laughing yet, paused and stood leaning upon his own long weapon.
But Beltane stood with bent head, hurt in his pride, angry and beyond all thought amazed; yet, being humbled most of all he kept his gaze bent earthwards and spake no word.
Now hereupon the stranger grew solemn likewise and looked at Beltane with kindly, approving eyes.
"Nay, indeed," quoth he, "be not abashed, good youth; take it not amiss that I have worsted thee. 'Tis true, had I been so minded I might have cut thee into gobbets no larger than thy little brush, but then, body o' me! I have lived by stroke of sword from my youth up and have fought in divers wars and countries, so take it not to heart, good youth!" With the word he nodded and, stooping, took up the sword, and, thereafter, cast his cloak about him, whereat Beltane lifted his head and spake:
"Art going, sir? Wilt not try me once again? Methinks I might do a little better this time, an so God wills."
"Aye, so thou shalt, sweet youth," cried the stranger, clapping him upon the shoulder, "yet not now, for I must begone, yet shall I return."
"Then I pray you leave with me the sword till you be come again."
"The sword—ha! doth thy soul cleave unto it so soon, my good, sweet boy? Leave the sword, quotha? Aye, truly—some day. But for the nonce— no, no, thy hand is not fitted to bear it yet, nor worthy such a blade, but some day, belike—who knows? Fare thee well, sweet youth, I come again to-morrow."
And so the tall, grim stranger turned him about, smiling his wry smile, and strode away through the green. Then Beltane went back, minded to finish his painting, but the colours had lost their charm for him, moreover, the light was failing. Wherefore he put brushes and colours aside, and, stripping, plunged into the cool, sweet waters of a certain quiet pool, and so, much heartened and refreshed thereby, went betimes to bed. But now he thought no more of women and the ways of women, but rather of this stranger man, of his wry smile and of his wondrous sword-play; and bethinking him of the great sword, he yearned after it, as only youth may yearn, and so, sighing, fell asleep. And in his dreams all night was the rushing thunder of many fierce feet and the roaring din of bitter fight and conflict.
* * * * *
Up to an elbow sprang Beltane to find the sun new risen, filling his humble chamber with its golden glory, and, in this radiance, upon the open threshold, the tall, grim figure of the stranger.
"Messire," quoth Beltane, rubbing sleepy eyes, "you wake betimes, meseemeth."
"Aye, sluggard boy; there is work to do betwixt us." "How so, sir?"
"My time in the greenwood groweth short; within the week I must away, for there are wars and rumours of wars upon the borders."
Quoth Beltane, wondering:
"War and conflict have been within my dreams all night!"
"Dreams, boy! I tell thee the time groweth ripe for action—and, mark me this! wherein, perchance, thou too shalt share, yet much have I to teach thee first, so rise, slug-a-bed, rise!"
Now when Beltane was risen and clad he folded his arms across his broad chest and stared upon the stranger with grave, deep-searching eyes.
"Who art thou?" he questioned, "and what would you here again?"
"As to thy first question, sir smith, 'tis no matter for that, but as for thy second, to-day am I come to teach thee the use and manage of horse and lance, it being so my duty."
"And wherefore thy duty?"
"For that I am so commanded."
"By one who yet liveth, being dead."
Now Beltane frowned at this, and shook his head, saying:
"More riddles, messire? Yet now will I speak thee plain, as thus: I am a smith, and have no lust to strife or knightly deeds, nor will I e'er attempt them, for strife begetteth bitter strife and war is an evil thing. 'They that trust to the sword shall perish by the sword,' 'tis so written, and is, meseemeth, a faithful saying. This sorry world hath known over much of war and hate, of strife and bloodshed, so shall these my hands go innocent of more."
Then indeed did the stranger stare with jaws agape for wonder at my Beltane's saying, and, so staring, turned him to the door and back again, and fain would speak, yet could not for a while. Then:
"Besotted boy!" he cried. "O craven youth! O babe! O suckling! Was it for this thou wert begot? Hast thou no bowels, no blood, no manhood? Forsooth, and must I spit on thee indeed?"
"And so it be thy will, messire," said Beltane, steady-eyed.
But as they stood thus, Beltane with arms yet crossed, his lips up-curving at the other's fierce amaze, the stranger grim-faced and frowning, came a shadow athwart the level glory of the sun, and, turning, Beltane beheld the hermit Ambrose, tall and spare beneath his tattered gown, bareheaded and bare of foot, whose eyes were bright and quick, despite the snow of hair and beard, and in whose gentle face and humble mien was yet a high and noble look at odds with his lowly guise and tattered vesture; at sight of whom the grim-faced stranger, of a sudden, bowed his grizzled head and sank upon his knee.
"Lord!" he said, and kissed the hermit's long, coarse robe. Whereon the hermit bent and touched him with a gentle hand.
"Benedicite, my son!" said he. "Go you, and leave us together a while."
Forthwith the stranger rose from his knee and went out into the glory of the morning. Then the hermit came to Beltane and set his two hands upon his mighty shoulders and spake to him very gently, on this wise:
"Thou knowest, my Beltane, how all thy days I have taught thee to love all fair, and sweet, and noble things, for they are of God. 'Twere a fair thought, now, to live out thy life here, within these calm, leafy solitudes—but better death by the sword for some high, unselfish purpose, than to live out a life of ease, safe and cloistered all thy days. To live for thine own ends—'tis human; to die for some great cause, for liberty, or for another's good—that, my son, were God-like. And there was a Man of Sorrows Whose word was this, that He came 'not to bring peace on this earth, but a sword.' For good cannot outface evil but strife must needs follow. Behold now here another sword, my Beltane; keep it henceforth so long as thou keep honour." So saying, Ambrose the Hermit took from beneath his habit that for which Beltane had yearned, that same great blade whereon whose steel was graven the legend:
So Ambrose put the sword in Beltane's hand, saying:
"Be terrible, my son, that evil may flee before thee, learn to be strong that thou may'st be merciful." Then the hermit stretched forth his hands and blessed my Beltane, and turned about, and so was gone.
But Beltane stood awhile to swing the great blade lightly to and fro and to stare upon it with shining eyes. Then, having hid it within his bed, he went forth into the glade. And here he presently beheld a great grey horse tethered to a tree hard by, a mettled steed that tossed its noble head and snuffed the fragrant air of morning, pawing at the earth with impatient hoof. Now, as he stood gazing, came the stranger and touched him on the arm.
"Messire," said he, "try an thou canst back the steed yonder."
Beltane smiled, for he had loved horses all his days, and loosing the horse, led it out into the open and would have mounted, but the spirited beast, knowing him not, reared and plunged and strove to break the grip upon the bridle, but the grip was strong and compelling; then Beltane soothed him with gentle voice and hand, and, of a sudden, vaulted lightly into the saddle, and being there, felt the great beast rear under him, and, laughing joyously, struck him with open palm and set off at a thunderous gallop. Away, away they sped up the sunny glade, past oak and beech and elm, through light and shadow, until before them showed a tree of vast girth and mighty spread of branches. Now would Beltane have reined aside, but the great horse, ears flat and eyes rolling, held blindly on. Then Beltane frowned and leaning forward, seized the bridle close beside the bit, and gripping it so, put forth his strength. Slowly, slowly the great, fierce head was drawn low and lower, the foam-flecked jaws gaped wide, but Beltane's grip grew ever the fiercer until, snorting, panting, wild-eyed, the great grey horse faltered in his stride, checked his pace, slipped, stumbled, and so stood quivering in the shade of the tree. Thereafter Beltane turned him and, galloping back, drew rein where the stranger sat, cross-legged, watching him with his wry smile.
"Aye," he nodded, "we shall make of thee a horseman yet. But as to lance now, and armour—"
Quoth Beltane, smiling:
"Good sir, I am a smith, and in my time have mended many a suit of mail, aye, and made them too, though 'twas but to try my hand. As for a lance, I have oft tilted at the ring astride a forest pony, and betimes, have run a course with wandering men-at-arms."
"Say you so, boy?" said the stranger, and rising, took from behind a tree a long and heavy lance and thrust it into Beltane's grip; then, drawing his sword, he set it upright in the sward, and upon the hilt he put his cap, saying:
"Ride back up the glade, and try an thou canst pick up my cap on thy point, at a gallop." So Beltane rode up the glade and wheeling at a distance, came galloping down with levelled lance, and thundered by with the cap fluttering from his lance point.
"Art less of a dullard than I thought thee," said the stranger, taking back his cap, "though, mark me boy, 'tis another matter to ride against a man fully armed and equipped, lance to lance and shield to shield, than to charge a harmless, ancient leathern cap. Still, art less of a dullard than I thought thee. But there is the sword, now—with the sword thou art indeed but a sorry fool! Go fetch the sword and I will e'en belabor thee again."
So Beltane, lighting down from the horse that reared and plunged no more, went and fetched the great sword; and when they had laid their jerkins by (for the sun was hot) they faced each other, foot to foot and eye to eye. Then once again the long blades whirled and flew and rang together, and once again the stranger laughed and gibed and struck my Beltane how and where he would, nor gave him stay or respite till Beltane's mighty arm grew aweary and his shoulder ached and burned; then, when he recked not of it, the stranger, with the same cunning stroke, beat the sword from Beltane's hand, and laughed aloud and wagged his head, saying:
"Art faint, boy, and scant o' breath already? Methinks we ne'er shall make of thee a lusty sworder!" But beholding Beltane's flushing cheek and drooping eye, reached out and clapped him on the shoulder.
"Go to!" cried he, "art young and all unlearned as yet—heed not my gibes and quirks, 'tis ever so my custom when steel is ringing, and mark me, I do think it a good custom, as apt to put a man off his ward and flurry him in his stroke. Never despair, youth, for I tell thee, north and south, and east and west my name is known, nor shall you find in any duchy, kingdom or county, a sworder such as I. For, mark me now! your knight and man-at-arms, trusting to his armour, doth use his sword but to thrust and smite. But—and mark me again, boy! a man cannot go ever in his armour, nor yet be sure when foes are nigh, and, at all times, 'tis well to make thy weapon both sword and shield; 'tis a goodly art, indeed I think a pretty one. Come now, take up thy sword and I will teach thee all my strokes and show thee how 'tis done."
Thus then, this stranger dwelt the week with Beltane in the greenwood, teaching him, day by day, tricks of sword and much martial lore beside. And, day by day, a friendship waxed and grew betwixt them so that upon the seventh morning, as they broke their fast together, Beltane's heart was heavy and his look downcast; whereat the stranger spake him thus:
"Whence thy dole, good youth?"
"For that to-day needs must I part with thee."
"And thy friends are few, belike?"
"None, messire," answered Beltane, sighing.
"Aye me! And yet 'tis well enough, for—mark me, youth!—friends be ofttimes a mixed blessing. As for me, 'tis true I am thy friend and so shall ever be, so long as you shall bear yon goodly blade."
"And wherefore?" questioned Beltane.
"Moreover thou art my scholar, and like, perchance, to prove thyself, some day, a notable sworder and a sweet and doughty fighter, belike."
"Yet hast never spoken me thy name, messire."
"Why, hast questioned me but once, and then thou wert something of a blockhead dreamer, methought. But now, messire Beltane, since thou would'st know—Benedict of Bourne am I called."
Now hereupon Beltane rose and stood upon his feet, staring wide-eyed at this grim-faced stranger who, with milk-bowl at lip, paused to smile his wry smile. "Aha!" said he, "hast heard such a name ere now, even here in the greenwood?"
"Sir," answered Beltane, "betimes I have talked with soldiers and men-at-arms, so do I know thee for that same great knight who, of all the nobles of Pentavalon, doth yet withstand the great Duke Ivo—"
"Call you that black usurper 'great,' youth? Body o' me! I knew a greater, once, methinks!"
"Aye," nodded Beltane, "there was him men called 'Beltane the Strong.'"
"Ha!" quoth Sir Benedict, setting down his milk-bowl, "what know you of Duke Beltane?"
"Nought but that he was a great and lusty fighter who yet loved peace and mercy, but truth and justice most of all."
"And to-day," sighed Sir Benedict, "to-day we have Black Ivo! Aye me! these be sorry days for Pentavalon. 'Tis said he woos the young Duchess yonder. Hast ever seen Helen of Mortain, sir smith?"
"Nay, but I've heard tell that she is wondrous fair."
"Hum!" quoth Sir Benedict, "I love not your red-haired spit-fires. Methinks, an Ivo win her, she'll lead him how she will, or be broke in the adventure—a malison upon him, be it how it may!"
So, having presently made an end of eating, Sir Benedict arose and forthwith donned quilted gambeson, and thereafter his hauberk of bright mail and plain surcoat, and buckling his sword about him, strode into the glade where stood the great grey horse. Now, being mounted, Sir Benedict stayed awhile to look down at Beltane, whiles Beltane looked up at him.
"Messire Beltane," said he, pointing to his scarred cheek, "you look upon my scar, I think?"
Quoth Beltane, flushing hot:
"Nay, sir; in truth, not I."
"Why look now, sweet youth, 'tis a scar that likes me well, though 'twas in no battle I took it, yet none the less, I would not be without it. By this I may be known among a thousand. 'Benedict o' the Mark,' some call me, and 'tis, methinks, as fair a name as any. But look now, and mark me this well, Beltane,—should any come to thee within the green, by day or night, and say to thee, 'Benedict o' the Mark bids thee arise and follow,'—then follow, messire, and so, peradventure, thou shalt arise indeed. Dost mark me well, youth?"
"Aye, Sir Benedict."
"Heigho!" sighed Sir Benedict, "thou'rt a fair sized babe to bear within a cloak, and thou hast been baptized in blood ere now—and there be more riddles for thee, boy, and so, until we meet, fare thee well, messire Beltane!"
So saying, Sir Benedict of Bourne smiled his twisted smile and, wheeling his horse, rode away down the glade, his mail glistening in the early light and his lance point winking and twinkling amid the green.
HOW BELTANE HAD WORD WITH THE DUKE, BLACK IVO
Now it fell out upon a day, that as Beltane strode the forest ways, there met him a fine cavalcade, gay with the stir of broidered petticoat and ermined mantle; and, pausing beneath a tree, he stood to hearken to the soft, sweet voices of the ladies and to gaze enraptured upon their varied beauty. Foremost of all rode a man richly habited, a man of great strength and breadth of shoulder, and of a bearing high and arrogant. His face, framed in long black hair that curled to meet his shoulder, was of a dark and swarthy hue, fierce looking and masterful by reason of prominent chin and high-arched nose, and of his thin-lipped, relentless mouth. Black were his eyes and bold; now staring bright and wide, now glittering 'twixt heavy, narrowed lids; yet when he smiled they glittered brightest, and his lips showed moistly red. Beside him rode a lady of a wondrous dark beauty, sleepy eyed and languid; yet her glance was quick to meet the Duke's bold look, and, 'neath her mantle, her fingers met, once in a while, and clung with his, what time his red lips would smile; but, for the most part, his brow was gloomy and he fingered his chin as one in thought.
As he paced along upon his richly caparisoned steed, pinching at his long, blue-shaven chin with supple fingers, his heavy brows drawn low, of a sudden his narrowed lids widened and his eyes gleamed bright and black as they beheld my Beltane standing in the shade of the tree.
"Aha!" said he, drawing rein, "what insolent, long-legged rogue art thou, to stand gaping at thy betters?"
And Beltane answered:
"No rogue, messire, but an honest man, I pray God, whom folk call Beltane the Smith."
The staring eyes grew suddenly narrow, the scarlet mouth curled in a slow smile, and the tall man spake, yet with his gaze bent ever upon Beltane:
"Fair lords," he said, "and you, most sweet and gentle ladies, our sport hath been but poor, hitherto—methinks I can show you a better, 'tis a game we play full oft in my country. Would that our gracious lady of Mortain were here, nor had balked us of her wilful company. Ho! Gefroi!" he called, "come you and break me the back of this 'honest' rogue." And straightway came one from the rear, where rode the servants and men-at-arms, a great, bronzed fellow, bearded to the eyes of him, loosing his sword-belt as he came; who, having tossed aside cap and pourpoint, strode toward Beltane, his eyes quick and bright, his teeth agleam through the hair of his beard.
"Come, thou forest rogue," said he, "my lord Duke loveth not to wait for man or maid, so—have at thee!"
Great he looked and tall as Beltane's self, a hairy man of mighty girth with muscles that swelled on arm and breast and rippled upon his back. Thus, as he stood and laughed, grimly confident and determined, not a few were they who sighed for Beltane for his youth's sake, and because of his golden curls and gentle eyes, for this Gefroi was accounted a very strong man, and a matchless wrestler withal.
"'Tis a fair match, how think you, Sir Jocelyn?" said the Duke, and turned him to one who rode at his elbow; a youthful, slender figure with long curled hair and sleepy eyes, "a fair match, Sir Jocelyn?"
"In very sooth, sweet my lord, gramercy and by your gracious leave—not so," sighed Sir Jocelyn. "This Gefroi o' thine is a rare breaker of necks and hath o'er-thrown all the wrestlers in the three duchies; a man is he, set in his strength and experienced, but this forester, tall though he be, is but a beardless youth."
The Duke smiled his slow smile, his curving nostrils quivered and were still, and he glanced toward Sir Jocelyn through veiling lids. Quoth he:
"Art, rather, for a game of ball, messire, or a song upon a lute?" So saying he turned and signed to Gefroi with his finger; as for Sir Jocelyn, he only curled a lock of his long hair, and hummed beneath his breath.
Now Beltane, misliking the matter, would fain have gone upon his way, but wheresoever he turned, there Gefroi was also, barring his path, wherefore Beltane's eye kindled and he raised his staff threateningly.
"Fellow," quoth he, "stand from my way, lest I mischief thee."
But Gefroi only laughed and looked to his lord, who, beckoning an archer, bid him lay an arrow to his string.
"Shoot me the cowardly rogue so soon as he turn his back," said he, whereat Gefroi laughed again, wagging his head.
"Come, forest knave," quoth he, "I know a trick to snap thy neck so sweetly shalt never know, I warrant thee. Come, 'twill take but a moment, and my lord begins to lack of patience."
So Beltane laid by his staff, and tightening his girdle, faced the hairy Gefroi; and there befell that, the which, though you shall find no mention of it in any chronicle, came much to be talked of thereafter; so that a ballade was writ of it the which beginneth thus:
'Beltane wrestled in the green With a mighty man, A goodlier bout was never seen Since the world began,'
While Beltane was tightening his girdle, swift and sudden Gefroi closed, pinning his arms in a cunning hold, and thrice he swung my Beltane from his feet so that many clapped their hands the while the squires and men-at-arms shouted lustily. Only Sir Jocelyn curled the lock of hair upon his finger and was silent.
To him quoth my lord Duke, smiling:
"Messire, an you be in a mind to wager now, I will lay you this my roan stallion 'gainst that suit of triple mail you won at Dunismere joust, that Gefroi breaks thy forester's back within two falls—how say you?"
"Sweet my lord, it liketh me beyond telling, thy roan is a peerless beast!" sighed Sir Jocelyn, and so fell once more to humming his song beneath his breath.
Now Beltane had wrestled oft with strangers in the greenwood and had learned many cunning and desperate holds; moreover, he had learned to bide his time; thus, though Gefroi's iron muscles yet pinned his arms, he waited, calm-eyed but with every nerve a-quiver, for that moment when Gefroi's vicious grip should slacken.
To and fro the wrestlers swayed, knee to knee and breast to breast, fierce and silent and grim. As hath been said, this Gefroi was a very cunning fellow, and once and twice, he put forth all his strength seeking to use a certain cruel trick whereby many a goodly man had died ere now; but once, and twice, the hold was foiled, yet feebly and as though by chance, and Gefroi wondered; a third time he essayed it therefore, but, in that moment, sudden and fierce and strong, Beltane twisted in his loosened grasp, found at last the deadly hold he sought, and Gefroi wondered no more, for about him was a painful grip that grew ever tighter and more relentless. Now Gefroi's breath grew short and laboured, the muscles stood out on his writhing body in knotted cords, but ever that cruel grip grew more deadly, crushing his spirit and robbing him of his wonted strength. And those about them watched that mighty struggle, hushed for wonder of it; even Sir Jocelyn had forgot his lock of hair, and hummed no more.
For, desperately though he fought and struggled, they saw Gefroi's great body was bending slowly backward; his eyes stared up, wild and bloodshot, into the fierce, set face above him; swaying now, he saw the wide ring of faces, the quiver of leaves and the blue beyond, all a-swim through the mist of Beltane's yellow hair, and then, writhing in his anguish, he turned and buried his teeth in Beltane's naked arm, and with a cunning twist, broke from that deadly grip and staggered free.
Straightway the air was full of shouts and cries, some praising, some condemning, while Gefroi stood with hanging arms and panted. But Beltane looking upon his hurt, laughed, short and fierce, and as Gefroi came upon him, stooped and caught him below the loins. Then Beltane the strong, the mighty, put forth his strength and, whirling Gefroi aloft, hurled him backwards over his shoulder. So Gefroi the wrestler fell, and lay with hairy arms wide-tossed as one that is dead, and for a space no man spake for the wonder of it.
"By all the Saints, but 'twas a mighty throw!" sighed Sir Jocelyn, "though alack! sweet my lord, 'twould almost seem my forester hath something spoiled thy wrestler!"
"And is the roan stallion thine" frowned the Duke, "and to none would I lose him with a fairer grace, for 'twas a good bout as I foretold: yet, by the head of St. Martin! meseemeth yon carrion might have done me better!" So saying, my lord Duke gave his horse the spur and, as he passed the prostrate form of Gefroi, leaned him down and smote the wrestler thrice with the whip he held and so rode on, bidding his followers let him lie.
But Sir Jocelyn paused to look down at Beltane, who was setting his dress in order.
"Sir forester, thou hast a mighty arm," quoth he, "and thy face liketh me well. Here's for thee," and tossing a purse to Beltane's feet, he rode upon his way.
So the gay cavalcade passed 'neath the leafy arches, with the jingle of bridle and stirrup and the sound of jest and laughter, and was presently lost amid the green; only Gefroi the wrestler lay there upon his back and groaned. Then came Beltane and knelt and took his heavy head upon his knee, whereat Gefroi opened his eyes and groaned again.
"Good fellow," said Beltane, "I had not meant to throw thee so heavily—"
"Nay, forester, would it had been a little harder, for a ruined man am I this day."
"How so—have you not life?"
"I would 'twere death. And I bit you—in the arm, I mind me?"
"Aye, 'twas in the arm."
"For that am I heartily sorry, forester. But when a man seeth fame and fortune slipping from him—aye, and his honour, I had nigh forgot that— fame and fortune and honour, so small a thing as a bite may be forgiven?"
"I forgive thee—full and freely."
"Spoke like an honest forester," said Gefroi, and groaned again. "The favour of a lord is a slippery thing—much like an eel—quick to wriggle away. An hour agone my lord Duke held me in much esteem, while now? And he struck me! On the face, here!" Slowly Gefroi got him upon his feet, and having donned cap and pourpoint, shook his head and sighed; quoth he:
"Alack! 'tis a ruined man am I this day! Would I had broken thy neck, or thou, mine—and so, God den to ye, forester!" Then Gefroi the wrestler turned and plodded on his way, walking slow and with drooping head as one who knoweth not whither he goes, or careth. Now, as he watched, Beltane bethought him of the purse and taking it up, ran after Gefroi and thrust it into his hand.
"'Twill help thee to find a new service, mayhap." So saying my Beltane turned upon his heel and strode away, while Gefroi stood staring wide-eyed long after Beltane was vanished amid the trees.
So thus it was that Beltane looked his first upon Duke Ivo of Pentavalon, and thus did he overthrow Gefroi the famous wrestler. And because of this, many were they, knights and nobles and esquires, who sought out Beltane's lonely hut beside the brook, with offers of service, or to try a fall with him. But at their offers Beltane laughed and shook his head, and all who came to wrestle he threw upon their backs. And thus my Beltane dwelt within the greenwood, waxing mightier day by day.
HOW LOVE CAME TO BELTANE IN THE GREENWOOD
Upon a day Beltane stood at his forge fashioning an axe-head. And, having tempered it thereafter in the brook, he laid it by, and straightening his back, strode forth into the glade all ignorant of the eyes that watched him curiously through the leaves. And presently as he stood, his broad back set to the bole of a tree, his blue eyes lifted heavenwards brimful of dreams, he brake forth into a song he had made, lying sleepless upon his bed to do it.
Tall and stately were the trees, towering aloft, nodding slumberously in the gentle wind; fair were the flowers lifting glad faces to their sun-father and filling the air with their languorous perfume; yet naught was there so comely to look upon as Beltane the Smith, standing bare-armed in his might, his golden hair crisp-curled and his lifted eyes a-dream. Merrily the brook laughed and sang among the willows, leaping in rainbow-hues over its pebbly bed; sweet piped the birds in brake and thicket, yet of all their music none was there so good to hear as the rich tones of Beltane the Smith.
So thought the Duchess Helen of Mortain where she sat upon her white palfrey screened by the thick-budded foliage, seeing nought but this golden-locked singer whose voice thrilled strangely in her ears. And who so good a judge as Helen the Beautiful, whose lovers were beyond count, knights and nobles and princelings, ever kneeling at her haughty feet, ever sighing forth vows of service and adoration, in whose honour many a stout lance had shivered, and many a knightly act been wrought? Wherefore I say, who so good a judge as the Duchess Helen of Mortain? Thus Beltane the maker of verses, all ignorant that any heard save the birds in the brake, sang of the glories of the forest-lands. Sang how the flowers, feeling the first sweet promise of spring stirring within them, awoke; and lo! the frost was gone, the warm sun they had dreamed of through the long winter was come back, the time of their waiting passed away. So, timidly, slowly, they stole forth from the dark, unveiling their beauties to their lord the sun and filling the world with the fragrance of their worship.
Somewhat of all this sang Beltane, whiles the Duchess Helen gazed upon him wide-eyed and wondering.
Could this be Beltane the Smith, this tall, gentle-eyed youth, this soft-voiced singer of dreams? Could this indeed be the mighty wrestler of whom she had heard so many tales of late, how that he lived an anchorite, deep hidden in the green, hating the pomp and turmoil of cities, and contemning women and all their ways?
Now, bethinking her of all this, the Duchess frowned for that he was such a goodly man and so comely to look on, and frowning, mused, white chin on white fist. Then she smiled, as one that hath a bright thought, and straightway loosed the golden fillet that bound her glowing tresses so that they fell about her in all their glory, rippling far down her broidered habit. Then, the song being ended, forth from her cover rode the lady of Mortain, and coming close where Beltane leaned him in the shade of the tree, paused of a sudden, and started as one that is surprised, and Beltane turning, found her beside him, yet spake not nor moved.
Breathless and as one entranced he gazed upon her; saw how her long hair glowed a wondrous red 'neath the kisses of the dying sun; saw how her purpled gown, belted at the slender waist, clung about the beauties of her shapely body; saw how the little shoe peeped forth from the perfumed mystery of its folds, and so stood speechless, bound by the spell of her beauty. Wherefore, at length, she spake to him, low and sweet and humble, on this wise:
"Art thou he whom men call Beltane the Smith?"
He answered, gazing at her lowered lashes:
"I am Beltane the Smith."
For a space she sat grave and silent, then looked at him with eyes that laughed 'neath level brows to see the wonder in his gaze. But anon she falls a-sighing, and braided a tress of hair 'twixt white fingers ere she spoke:
"'Tis said of thee that thou art a hermit and live alone within these solitudes. And yet—meseemeth—thine eyes are not a hermit's eyes, messire!"
Quoth Beltane, with flushing cheek and eyes abased:
"Yet do I live alone, lady."
"Nor are thy ways and speech the ways of common smith, messire."
"Yet smith am I in sooth, lady, and therewithal content."
Now did she look on him 'neath drooping lash, sweet-eyed and languorous, and shook her head, and sighed.
"Alas, messire, methinks then perchance it may be true that thou, for all thy youth, and despite thine eyes, art a mocker of love, a despiser of women? And yet—nay—sure 'tis not so?"
Then did Beltane the strong come nigh to fear, by reason of her fair womanhood, and looked from her to earth, from earth to sky, and, when he would have answered, fell a-stammering, abashed by her wondrous beauty.
"Nay lady, indeed—indeed I know of women nought—nought of myself, but I have heard tell that they be—light-minded, using their beauty but to lure the souls of men from high and noble things—making of love a jest—a sport and pastime—" But now the Duchess laughed, very soft and sweeter, far, to Beltane's thinking than the rippling music of any brook, soever.
"Aye me, messire anchorite," said she smiling yet, "whence had you this poor folly?"
Quoth Beltane gravely:
"Lady, 'twas from one beyond all thought wise and learned. A most holy hermit—"
"A hermit!" says she, merry-eyed, "then, an he told thee this, needs must he be old, and cold, and withered, and beyond the age of love, knowing nought of women save what memory doth haunt his evil past. But young art thou and strong, and should love come to thee—as come, methinks, it may, hearken to no voice but the pleading of thine own true heart. Messire," she sighed, "art very blind, methinks, for you sing the wonders of these forest-lands, yet in thy song is never a word of love! O blind! O blind! for I tell thee nought exists in this great world but by love. Behold now, these sighing trees love their lord the sun, and, through the drear winter, wait his coming with wide-stretched, yearning arms, crying aloud to him in every shuddering blast the tale of their great longing. And, after some while, he comes, and at his advent they clothe themselves anew in all their beauty, and with his warm breath thrilling through each fibre, put forth their buds, singing through all their myriad leaves the song of their rejoicing. Something the like of this, messire, is the love a woman beareth to a man, the which, until he hath felt it trembling in his heart, he hath not known the joy of living."
But Beltane answered, smiling a little as one that gloried in his freedom:
"No woman hath ever touched my heart, yet have I lived nor found it lonely, hitherto."
But hereupon, resting her white fingers on his arm, she leaned nearer to him so that he felt her breath warm upon his cheek, and there stole to him the faint, sweet perfume of her hair.
"Beware, O scorner of women! for I tell thee that ere much time hath passed thou shalt know love—aye, in such fashion as few men know— wherefore I say—beware, Beltane!"
But Beltane the strong, the mighty, shook his head and smiled.
"Nay," quoth he, "a man's heart may be set on other things, flowers may seem to him fairer than the fairest women, and the wind in trees sweeter to him than their voices."
Now as she hearkened, the Duchess Helen grew angry, yet straightway, she dissembled, looking upon him 'neath drooping lashes. Soft and tender-eyed and sighing, she answered:
"Ah, Beltane! how unworthy are such things of a man's love! For if he pluck them, that he may lay these flowers upon his heart, lo! they fade and wither, and their beauty and fragrance is but a memory. Ah, Beltane, when next ye sing, choose you a worthier theme."
"Of what shall I sing?" said Beltane.
Very soft she answered, and with eyes abased:
"Think on what I have told thee, and sing—of love."
And so she sighed, and looked on him once, then wheeled her palfrey, and was gone up the glade; but Beltane, as he watched her go, was seized of a sudden impulse and over-took her, running.
"Beseech thee," cried he, barring her path, "tell me thy name!"
Then Helen the Beautiful, the wilful, laughed and swerved her palfrey, minded to leave him so; but Beltane sprang and caught the bridle.
"Tell me thy name," said he again.
"Let me go!"
"Thy name, tell me thy name."
But the Duchess laughed again, and thinking to escape him, smote her horse so that it started and reared; once it plunged, and twice, and so stood trembling with Beltane's hand upon the bridle; wherefore a sudden anger came upon her, and, bending her black brows, she raised her jewelled riding-rod threateningly. But Beltane only smiled and shook his head, saying:
"Unless I know thy name thou shalt not fare forth of the greenwood."
So the proud lady of Mortain looked down upon Beltane in amaze, for there was none in all the Duchy, knight, noble or princeling, who dared gainsay her lightest word; wherefore, I say, she stared upon this bold forest knave with his golden hair and gentle eyes, his curved lips and square chin; and in eyes and mouth and chin was a look of masterfulness, challenging, commanding. And, meeting that look, her heart leapt most strangely with sudden, sweet thrill, so that she lowered her gaze lest he should see, and when she spake her voice was low and very sweet:
"Tell me I pray, why seek you my name, and wherefore?"
Quoth Beltane, soft and slow as one that dreams:
"I have seen thine eyes look at me from the flowers, ere now, have heard thy laughter in the brook, and found thy beauty in all fair things: methinks thy name should be a most sweet name."
Now was it upon her lips to tell him what he asked, but, being a woman, she held her peace for very contrariness, and blushing beneath his gaze, looked down and cried aloud, and pointed to a grub that crawled upon her habit. So Beltane loosed the bridle, and in that moment, she laughed for very triumph and was off, galloping 'neath the trees. Yet, as she went, she turned and called to him, and the word she called was:—
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.
"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!"
WHICH TELLS OF THE STORY OF AMBROSE THE HERMIT
Deep, deep within the green twilight of the woods Ambrose the Hermit had builded him a hut; had built and framed it of rude stones and thatched it with grass and mosses. And from the door of the hut he had formed likewise a path strewn thick with jagged stones and sharp flints, a cruel track, the which, winding away through the green, led to where upon a gentle eminence stood a wooden cross most artfully wrought and carven by the hermit's skilled and loving fingers.
Morning and evening, winter and summer it was his custom ever to tread this painful way, wetting the stones with the blood of his atonement.
Now upon a certain rosy dawn, ere yet the sun was up, Beltane standing amid the leaves, saw the hermit issue forth of the hut and, with bowed head and folded hands, set out upon his appointed way. The cruel stones grew red beneath his feet yet he faltered not nor stayed until, being come to the cross, he kneeled there and, with gaunt arms upraised, prayed long and fervently so that the tears of his passion streamed down his furrowed cheeks and wetted the snow of his beard.
In a while, having made an end, he arose and being come to his hut once more, he of a sudden espied Beltane standing amid the leaves; and because he was so fair and goodly to look upon in his youth and might, the pale cheek of the hermit flushed and a glow leapt within his sunken eyes, and lifting up his hand, he blessed him.
"Welcome to this my solitude, my son," quoth he, "and wherefore hast thou tarried in thy coming? I have watched for thee these many days. Come, sit you here beside me in this blessed sun and tell me of thy latter doings."
But the eyes of Beltane were sad and his tongue unready, so that he stammered in his speech, looking ever upon the ground; then, suddenly up-starting to his feet, he strode before the hut, while Ambrose the wise looked, and saw, yet spake not. So, presently, Beltane paused, and looking him within the eyes spake hurriedly on this wise:
"Most holy father, thou knowest how I have lived within the greenwood all my days nor found it lonely, for I did love it so, that I had thought to die here likewise when my time should come. Yet now do I know that this shall never be—to-day I go hence."
"Wherefore, my son?"
"There is come a strange restlessness upon me, a riot and fever of the blood whereby I am filled with dreams and strange desires. I would go forth into the great world of men and cities, to take my rightful place therein, for until a man hath loved and joyed and sorrowed with his fellows, he knoweth nought of life."
"Perchance, my son, this is but the tide of youthful blood that tingles in thy veins? Or is it that thou hast looked of late within a woman's eyes?"
Then Beltane kneeled him at the feet of Ambrose and hid his face betwixt his knees, as he had been wont to do whiles yet a little child.
"Father," he murmured, "thou hast said." Now looking down upon this golden head, Ambrose sighed and drew the long curls through his fingers with a wondrous gentleness.
"Tell me of thy love, Beltane," said he.
Forthwith, starting to his feet, Beltane answered:
"'Tis many long and weary months, my father, and yet doth seem but yesterday. She came to me riding upon a milk-white steed. At first methought her of the fairy kind thither drawn by my poor singing, yet, when I looked on her again, I knew her to be woman. And she was fair— O very fair, my father. I may not tell her beauty for 'twas compounded of all beauteous things, of the snow of lilies, the breath of flowers, the gleam of stars on moving waters, the music of streams, the murmur of wind in trees—I cannot tell thee more but that there is a flame doth hide within her hair, and for her eyes—O methinks 'tis for her eyes I do love her most—love her? Aye, my body doth burn and thrill with love—alas, poor fool, alas it should be so! But, for that she is proud and of an high estate, for that I am I, a poor worker of iron whom men call Beltane the Smith, fit but to sigh and sigh and forever sigh, to dream of her and nothing more—so must I go hence, leaving the sweet silence of the woods for the strife and noise of cities, learning to share the burdens of my fellows. See you not, my father, see you not the way of it?" So spake Beltane, hot and passionate, striding to and fro upon the sward, while Ambrose sat with bitterness in his heart but with eyes ineffably gentle.
"And is this love of thine so hopeless, my Beltane?"
"Beyond all thought; she is the Duchess Helen of Mortain!"
Now for a while the hermit spake not, sitting chin in hand as one who halts betwixt two courses.
"'Tis strange," he said at length, "and passing strange! Yet, since 'tis she, and she so much above thee, wherefore would ye leave the tender twilight of these forests?"
Quoth Beltane, sighing:
"My father, I tell thee these woods be full of love and her. She looketh at me from the flowers and stealeth to me in their fragrance; the very brooks do babble of her beauty; each leaf doth find a little voice to whisper of her, and everywhere is love and love and love—so needs must I away."
"And think you so to escape this love, my Beltane, and the pain of it?"
"Nay my father, that were thing impossible for it doth fill the universe, so must I needs remember it with every breath I draw, but in the griefs and sorrows of others I may, perchance, learn to bear mine own, silent and patiently, as a man should."
Then Ambrose sighed, and beckoning Beltane to his knee, laid his hands upon his shoulders and looked deep within his eyes.
"Beltane my son," said he, "I have known thee from thy youth up and well do I know thou canst not lie, for thy heart is pure as yet and uncorrupt. But now is the thing I feared come upon thee—ah, Beltane, hast thou forgot all I have told thee of women and the ways of women, how that their white bodies are filled with all manner of wantonness, their hands strong in lures and enticements? A woman in her beauty is a fair thing to the eyes of a man, yet I tell thee Beltane, they be snares of the devil, setting father 'gainst son and—brother 'gainst brother, whereby come unnatural murders and bloody wars."
"And yet, needs must I love her still, my father!"
"Aye, 'tis so," sighed Ambrose, "'tis ever so, and as for thee, well do I know the blood within thee for a hot, wild blood—and thou art young, and so it is I fear for thee."
But, looking up, Beltane shook his head and answered:
"Holy father, thou art wise and wondrous learned in the reading of books and in the ancient wisdoms and philosophies, yet methinks this love is a thing no book can teach thee, a truth a man must needs find out for himself." "And think you I know nought of love, Beltane, the pain and joy of it—and the shame? Thou seest me a poor old man and feeble, bent with years and suffering, one who but waiteth for the time when my grievous sin shall be atoned for and God, in His sweet clemency, shall ease me of this burden of life. Yet do I tell thee there was a time when this frail body was strong and tall, well-nigh, as thine own, when this white hair was thick and black, and these dim eyes bold and fearless even as thine."
"Ah, Beltane, well do I know women and the ways of women! Come, sit you beside me and, because thou art fain to go into the world and play thy man's part, so now will I tell thee that the which I had thought to bear with me to the grave."
Then Ambrose the Hermit, leaning his head upon his hand, began to speak on this wise:
"Upon a time were two brothers, nobles of a great house and following, each alike lovers of peace yet each terrible in war; the name of the one was Johan and of the other Beltane. Now Beltane, being elder, was Duke of that country, and the country maintained peace within its borders and the people thereof waxed rich and happy. And because these twain loved each other passing well the way of the one was ever the way of the other so that they dwelt together in a wondrous amity, and as their hearts were pure and strong so waxed they in body so that there was none could cope with them at hand-strokes nor bear up against the might of their lances, and O, methinks in all this fair world nought was there fairer than the love of these two brethren!
"Now it befell, upon a day, that they set out with a goodly company to attend a tourney in a certain town whither, likewise, were come many knights of renown, nobles and princes beyond count eager to prove their prowess, thither drawn by the fame of that fair lady who was to be Queen of Beauty. All lips spake of her and the wonder of her charms, how that a man could not look within her eyes but must needs fall into a passion of love for her. But the brethren smiled and paid small heed and so, together, journeyed to the city. The day of the joust being come, forth they rode into the lists, side by side, each in his triple mail and ponderous helm, alike at all points save for the golden circlet upon Duke Beltane's shining casque. And there befell, that day, a mighty shivering of lances and many a knightly deed was wrought. But, for these brethren there was none of all these knights and nobles who might abide their onset; all day long they together maintained the lists till there none remained to cope with them, wherefore the marshal would have had them run a course together for proof which was the mightier. But Beltane smiled and shook his head saying, 'Nay, it is not meet that brother strive with brother!' And Johan said: 'Since the day doth rest with us, we will share the glory together.' So, amid the acclaim of voice and trumpet, side by side they came to make obeisance to the Queen of Beauty, and gazing upon her, they saw that she was indeed of a wondrous beauty. Now in her hand she held the crown that should reward the victor, yet because they were two, she knew not whom to choose, wherefore she laughed, and brake the crown asunder and gave to each a half with many fair words and gentle sayings. But, alas, my son! from that hour her beauty came betwixt these brethren, veiling their hearts one from the other. So they tarried awhile in that fair city, yet companied together no more, for each was fain to walk apart, dreaming of this woman and the beauty of her, and each by stealth wooed her to wife. At last, upon an evening, came Johan to his brother and taking from his bosom the half of the crown he had won, kissed it and gave it to Beltane, saying: 'The half of a crown availeth no man, take therefore my half and join it with thine, for well do I know thy heart, my brother—and thou art the elder, and Duke; go therefore and woo this lady to wife, and God speed thee, my lord.' But Beltane said: 'Shame were it in me to take advantage of my years thus; doth age or rank make a man's love more worthy? So, get thee to thy wooing, my brother, and heaven's blessing on thee.' Then grew Johan full of joy, saying: 'So be it, dear my brother, but am I come not to thee within three days at sunset, then shalt know that my wooing hath not prospered.' Upon the third day, therefore, Beltane the Duke girded on his armour and made ready to ride unto his own demesne, yet tarried until sunset, according to his word. But his brother Johan came not. Therefore he, in turn, rode upon his wooing and came unto the lady's presence in hauberk of mail, and thus ungently clad wooed her as one in haste to be gone, telling her that this world was no place for a man to sigh out his days at a woman's feet, and bidding her answer him' Yea' or 'Nay' and let him be gone to his duty. And she, whom so many had wooed on bended knee, spake him' Yea'—for that a woman's ways be beyond all knowledge—and therewith gave her beauty to his keeping. So, forthwith were they wed, with much pomp and circumstance, and so he brought her to his Duchy with great joy and acclaim. Then would Johan have departed over seas, but Beltane ever dissuaded him, and fain these brethren would have loved each other as they had done aforetime, yet was the beauty of this woman ever betwixt them. Now, within that year, came news of fire and sword upon the border, of cruel rape and murder, so Beltane sent forth his brother Johan with an army to drive back the invaders, and himself abode in his great castle, happy in the love of his fair, young wife. But the war went ill, tidings came that Johan his brother was beaten back with much loss and he himself sore wounded. Therefore the Duke made ready to set forth at the head of a veteran company, but ere he rode a son was born to him, so needs must he come to his wife in his armour, and beholding the child, kissed him. Thereafter Duke Beltane rode to the war with a glad heart, and fell upon his enemies and scattered them, and pursued them far and smote them even to their own gates. But in the hour of his triumph he fell, by treachery, into the hands of his cruelest enemy, how it mattereth not, and for a space was lost to sight and memory. But as for Johan, the Duke's brother, he lay long sick of his wounds, so came the Duchess and ministered to him; and she was fair, and passing fair, and he was young. And when his strength was come again, each day was Johan minded to ride forth and seek the Duke his brother—but he was young, and she passing fair, wherefore he tarried still, bound by the lure of her beauty. And, upon a soft and stilly eve as they walked together in the garden, she wooed Johan with tender look and word, and wreathed her white arms about him and gave to his her mouth. And, in that moment came one, fierce and wild of aspect, in dinted casque and rusty mail who stood and watched—ah God!"
Here, for a while, the hermit Ambrose stayed his tale, and Beltane saw his brow was moist and that his thin hands clenched and wrung each other.
"So thus, my son, came Duke Beltane home again, he and his esquire Sir Benedict of Bourne alone of all his company, each alike worn with hardship and spent with wounds. But now was the Duke stricken of a greater pain and leaned him upon the shoulder of his esquire, faint and sick of soul, and knew an anguish deeper than any flesh may know. Then, of a sudden, madness came upon him and, breaking from the mailed arms that held him, he came hot-foot to the courtyard and to the hall beyond, hurling aside all such as sought to stay him and so reached at last my lady's bower, his mailed feet ringing upon the Atones. And, looking up, the Duchess saw and cried aloud and stood, thereafter, pale and speechless and wide of eye, while Johan's cheek grew red and in his look was shame. Then the Duke put up his vizor and, when he spake, his voice was harsh and strange: 'Greeting, good brother!' said he, 'go now, I pray you, get you horse and armour and wait me in the courtyard, yet first must I greet this my lady wife.' So Johan turned, with hanging head, and went slow-footed from the chamber. Then said the Duke, laughing in his madness, 'Behold, lady, the power of a woman's beauty, for I loved a noble brother once, a spotless knight whose honour reached high as heaven, but thou hast made of him a something foul and base, traitor to me and to his own sweet name, and 'tis for this I will requite thee!' But the Duchess spake not, nor blenched even when the dagger gleamed to strike—O sweet God of mercy, to strike! But, in that moment, came Benedict of Bourne and leapt betwixt and took the blow upon his cheek, and, stanching the blood within his tattered war-cloak, cried: 'Lord Duke, because I love thee, ne'er shalt thou do this thing until thou first slay me!' A while the Duke stood in amaze, then turned and strode away down the great stair, and coming to the courtyard, beheld his brother Johan armed at all points and mounted, and with another horse equipped near by. So the Duke laughed and closed his vizor and his laughter boomed hollow within his rusty casque, and, leaping to the saddle, rode to the end of the great tilt-yard, and, wheeling, couched his lance. So these brethren, who had loved each other so well, spurred upon each other with levelled lances but, or ever the shock came—O my son, my son!—Johan rose high in his stirrups and cried aloud the battle-cry of his house 'Arise! Arise! I shall arise!' and with the cry, tossed aside his lance lest he might harm the Duke his brother—O sweet clemency of Christ!—and crashed to earth— and lay there—very still and silent. Then the Duke dismounted and, watched by pale-faced esquires and men-at-arms, came and knelt beside his brother, and laid aside his brother's riven helm and, beholding his comely features torn and marred and his golden hair all hatefully bedabbled, felt his heart burst in sunder, and he groaned, and rising to stumbling feet came to his horse and mounted and rode away 'neath grim portcullis and over echoing drawbridge, yet, whithersoever he looked, he saw only his brother's dead face, pale and bloody. And fain he would have prayed but could not, and so he came into the forest. All day long he rode beneath the trees careless of his going, conscious only that Benedict of Bourne rode behind with his bloody war-cloak wrapped about him. But on rode the Duke with hanging head and listless hands for before his haggard eyes was ever the pale, dead face of Johan his brother. Now, as the moon rose, they came to a brook that whispered soft-voiced amid the shadows and here his war-horse stayed to drink. Then came Sir Benedict of Bourne beside him, 'Lord Duke,' said he, 'what hast thou in thy mind to do?' 'I know not,' said the Duke, 'though methinks 'twere sweet to die.' 'Then what of the babe, lord Duke?' and, speaking, Sir Benedict drew aside his cloak and showed the babe asleep beneath. But, looking upon its innocence, the Duke cried out and hid his face, for the babe's golden curls were dabbled with the blood from Sir Benedict's wound and looked even as had the face of the dead Johan. Yet, in a while, the Duke reached out and took the child and setting it against his breast, turned his horse. Said Sir Benedict: 'Whither do we ride, lord Duke?' Then spake the Duke on this wise: 'Sir Benedict, Duke Beltane is no more, the stroke that slew my brother Johan killed Duke Beltane also. But as for you, get you to Pentavalon and say the Duke is dead, in proof whereof take you this my ring and so, farewell.' Then, my Beltane, God guiding me, I brought thee to these solitudes, for I am he that was the Duke Beltane, and thou art my son indeed."
HOW BELTANE FARED FORTH OF THE GREEN
Thus spake the hermit Ambrose and, having made an end, sat thereafter with his head bowed upon his hands, while Beltane stood wide-eyed yet seeing not, and with lips apart yet dumb by reason of the wonder of it; therefore, in a while, the hermit spake again:
"Thus did we live together, thou and I, dear son, and I loved thee well, my Beltane: with each succeeding day I loved thee better, for as thine understanding grew, so grew my love for thee. Therefore, so soon as thou wert of an age, set in thy strength and able to thine own support, I tore myself from thy sweet fellowship and lived alone lest, having thee, I might come nigh to happiness."
Then Beltane sank upon his knees and caught the hermit's wasted hands and kissed them oft, saying:
"Much hast thou suffered, O my father, but now am I come to thee again and, knowing all things, here will I bide and leave thee nevermore." Now in the hermit's pale cheek came a faint and sudden glow, and in his eyes a light not of the sun.
"Bethink thee, boy," said he, "the blood within thy veins is noble. For, since thou art my son, so, an thou dost leave me and seek thy destiny thou shalt, perchance, be Duke of Pentavalon—an God will it so."
But Beltane shook his head. Quoth he:
"My father, I am a smith, and smith am I content to be since thou, lord Duke, art my father. So now will I abide with thee and love and honour thee, and be thy son indeed."
Then rose the hermit Ambrose to his feet and spake with eyes uplifted:
"Now glory be to God, Who, in His mercy, hath made of thee a man, my Beltane, clean of soul and innocent, yet strong of arm to lift and succour the distressed, and therefore it is that you to-day must leave me, my well-beloved, for there be those whose need of thee is greater even than mine."
"Nay, dear my father, how may this be?"
Now hereupon Ambrose the Hermit stood awhile with bent head, and spake not, only he sighed full oft and wrung his hands.
"I thought but of myself!" he groaned, "great sorrow is oft-times greatly selfish. Alas, my son—twenty weary years have I lived here suing God's forgiveness, and for twenty bitter years Pentavalon hath groaned 'neath shameful wrong—and death in many hateful shapes. O God have mercy on a sinner who thought but on himself! List, my son, O list! On a day, as I kneeled before yon cross, came one in knightly armour and upon his face, 'neath the links of his camail, I saw a great scar—the scar this hand had wrought. And, even as I knew Sir Benedict, in that same moment he knew me, and gave a joyous cry and came and fell upon his knee and kissed my hand, as of old. Thereafter we talked, and he told me many a woeful tale of Pentavalon and of its misery. How, when I was gone, rose bitter fight and faction, barons and knights striving together which should be Duke. In the midst of the which disorders came one, from beyond seas, whom men called Ivo, who by might of sword and cunning tongue made himself Duke in my place. Sir Benedict told of a fierce and iron rule, of the pillage and ravishment of town and city, of outrage and injustice, of rack and flame and gibbet—of a people groaning 'neath a thousand cruel wrongs. Then, indeed, did I see that my one great sin a thousand other sins had bred, and was I full of bitter sorrow and anguish. And, in my anguish, I thought on thee, and sent to thee Sir Benedict, and watched thee wrestle, and at stroke of sword, and praised God for thy goodly might and strength. For O, dear my son, meseemeth that God hath raised thee up to succour these afflicted, to shield the weak and helpless—hath made thee great and mightier than most to smite Evil that it may flee before thee. So in thee shall my youth be renewed, and my sins, peradventure, purged away."
"Father!" said Beltane rising, his blue eyes wide, his strong hands a-tremble, "O my father!" Then Ambrose clasped those quivering hands and kissed those wide and troubled eyes and spake thereafter, slow and soft:
"Now shall I live henceforth in thee, my son, glorying in thy deeds hereafter. And if thou must needs—bleed, then shall my heart bleed with thee, or if thou meet with death, my Beltane, then shall this heart of mine die with thee."
Thus speaking, the hermit drew the sword from Beltane's girdle and held the great blade towards heaven.
"Behold, my son," said he, "the motto of our house, 'I will arise!' So now shalt thou arise indeed that thy destiny may be fulfilled. Take hold upon thy manhood, my well-beloved, get thee to woeful Pentavalon and, beholding its sorrows, seek how they may be assuaged. Now my Beltane, all is said—when wilt thou leave thy father?"
Quoth Beltane, gathering his cloak about him:
"An so it be thy wish, my father, then will I go this hour."
Then Ambrose brought Beltane into his humble dwelling where was a coffer wrought by his own skilful fingers; and from this coffer he drew forth a suit of triple mail, wondrously fashioned, beholding the which, Beltane's eyes glistened because of the excellence of its craftsmanship.
"Behold!" quoth the hermit, "'tis an armour worthy of a king, light is it, yet marvellous strong, and hath been well tried in many a desperate affray. 'Tis twenty years since these limbs bore it, yet see—I have kept it bright from rust lest, peradventure, Pentavalon should need thee to raise again the battle cry of thy house and lead her men to war. And, alas dear son, that day is now! Pentavalon calls to thee from out the gloom of dungeon, from the anguish of flame, and rack, and gibbet—from blood-soaked hearth and shameful grave she calls thee— so, my Beltane, come and let me arm thee."
And there, within his little hut, the hermit Ambrose, Duke of Pentavalon that was, girt the armour upon Beltane the mighty, Duke of Pentavalon to be, if so God willed; first the gambeson of stuffed and quilted leather, and, thereafter, coifed hauberk and chausses, with wide sword-belt clamped with broad plates of silver and studs of gold, until my Beltane stood up armed in shining mail from head to foot. Then brought Ambrose a wallet, wherein were six gold pieces, and put it in his hand, saying:
"These have I kept against this day, my Beltane. Take them to aid thee on thy journey, for the county of Bourne lieth far to the south."
"Do I then journey to Bourne, my father?"
"Aye, to Sir Benedict, who yet doth hold the great keep of Thrasfordham. Many sieges hath he withstood, and daily men flee to him —stricken men, runaway serfs, and outlaws from the green, all such masterless men as lie in fear of their lives."
Said Beltane, slow and thoughtful:
"There be many outlaws within the green, wild men and sturdy fighters as I've heard. Hath Sir Benedict many men, my father?"
"Alas! a pitiful few, and Black Ivo can muster bows and lances by the ten thousand—"
"Yet doth Sir Benedict withstand them all, my father!"
"Yet must he keep ever within Bourne, Beltane. All Pentavalon, save Bourne, lieth 'neath Ivo's iron foot, ruled by his fierce nobles, and they be strong and many, 'gainst whom Sir Benedict is helpless in the field. 'Tis but five years agone since Ivo gave up fair Belsaye town to ravishment and pillage, and thereafter, builded him a mighty gallows over against it and hanged many men thereon."
Now hereupon, of a sudden, Beltane clenched his hands and fell upon his knees.
"Father," said he, "Pentavalon indeed doth cry, so must I now arise and go unto her. Give me thy blessing that I may go."
Then the hermit laid his hands upon Beltane's golden head and blessed him, and whispered awhile in passionate prayer. Thereafter Beltane arose and, together, they came out into the sunshine.
"South and by west must you march, dear son, and God, methinks, shall go beside thee, for thy feet shall tread a path where Death shall lie in wait for thee. Let thine eyes be watchful therefore, and thine ears quick to hear. Hearken you to all men, yet speak you few words and soft. But, when you act, let your deeds shout unto heaven, that all Pentavalon may know a man is come to lead them who fears only God. And so, my Beltane, fare-thee-well! Come, kiss me, boy; our next kiss, perchance—shall be in heaven."
And thus they kissed, and looked within each other's eyes; then Beltane turned him, swift and sudden, and strode upon his way. But, in a little, looking back, he saw his father, kneeling before the cross, with long, gaunt arms upraised to heaven.
HOW BELTANE TALKED WITH ONE HIGHT GILES BRABBLECOMBE, WHO WAS A NOTABLE AND LEARNED ARCHER
The morning was yet young when my Beltane fared forth into the world, a joyous, golden morning trilling with the glad song of birds and rich with a thousand dewy scents; a fair, sweet, joyous world it was indeed, whose glories, stealing in at eye and ear, filled him with their gladness. On strode my Beltane by rippling brook and sleepy pool, with step swift and light and eyes wide and shining, threading an unerring course as only a forester might; now crossing some broad and sunny glade where dawn yet lingered in rosy mist, anon plunging into the green twilight of dell and dingle, through tangled brush and scented bracken gemmed yet with dewy fire, by marsh and swamp and lichened rock, until he came out upon the forest road, that great road laid by the iron men of Rome, but now little better than a grassy track, yet here and there, with mossy stone set up to the glory of proud emperor and hardy centurion long since dust and ashes; a rutted track, indeed, but leading ever on, 'neath mighty trees, over hill and dale towards the blue mystery beyond.
Now, in a while, being come to the brow of a hill, needs must my Beltane pause to look back upon the woodlands he had loved so well and, sighing, he stretched his arms thitherward; and lo! out of the soft twilight of the green, stole a gentle wind full of the scent of root and herb and the fresh, sweet smell of earth, a cool, soft wind that stirred the golden hair at his temples, like a caress, and so—was gone. For a while he stood thus, gazing towards where he knew his father yet knelt in prayer for him, then turned he slowly, and went his appointed way.
Thus did Beltane bid farewell to the greenwood and to woodland things, and thus did the green spirit of the woods send forth a gentle wind to kiss him on the brow ere he went out into the world of men and cities.
Now, after some while, as he walked, Beltane was aware of the silvery tinkle of bells and, therewith, a full, sweet voice upraised in song, and the song was right merry and the words likewise:
"O ne'er shall my lust for the bowl decline, Nor my love for my good long bow; For as bow to the shaft and as bowl to the wine, Is a maid to a man, I trow."