Child Christopher - Chapter 16
XVI. WHAT GOLDILIND FOUND IN THE WOOD
When she awoke it was broad day and bright sun, and she rose up to her feet and looked about, and saw the horse standing close by, and sharing the shade with her, whisking his tail about lazily. Then she turned, and saw the stream rippling out from the pool over the clean gravel, and here and there a fish darting through the ripple, or making clean rings on the pool as he quietly took a fly; the sky was blue and clear, there was scarce a breath of air, and the morning was already hot; no worse than yesterday sang the birds in the bushes; but as she looked across the river, where, forsooth, the alders grew thick about the pool's edge, a cock blackbird, and then another, flew out from the close boughs, where they had been singing to their mates, with the sharp cry that they use when they are frighted. Withal she saw the bush move, though, as aforesaid, the morning was without wind. She had just stooped to do off her foot-gear (for she was minded to bathe again), but now she stopped with one shoe in her hand, and looked on the bushes keenly with beating heart, and again she thought she saw the boughs shaken, and stood, not daring to move a while; but they moved no more now when she had looked steadily at them a space, and again a blackbird began singing loud just where they had been shaken. So she gathered heart again, and presently turned her hand once more to stripping her raiment off her, for she would not be baulked of her bath; but when the stripping was done, she loitered not naked on the bank as she had done the day before, but walked swiftly into the shallow, and thence down into the pool, till nothing but her head and the whiteness of her shoulders showed over the dark water. Even then she turned her head about twice to look into the over-side bushes, but when she saw nothing stir there she began to play in the water, but not for long, but came splashing through the shallow and hurried on her raiment.
When she was clad again she went up to the horse, and patted and caressed him, and did bridle and saddle on him, and was going to climb upon him, when, of a sudden, she thought she would lead him across, lest there should be a hole near the other bank and he might stumble into it unwarily; so she bared her feet once more and trussed up her gown skirts, and so took the ford, leading the beast; the water was nowhere up to mid-leg of her, and she stepped ashore on to short and fine grass, which spread like a meadow before her, with a big thorn or two scattered about it, and a little grassy hill beset with tall elms toward the top, coming down into the flat of the meadow and drawing round it nearly up to the river on the north side.
But now she stood staring in wonder and some deal of fear; for there were three milch kine feeding on the meadow, and, moreover, under a thorn, scarce a hundred yards from where she stood, was a tall man standing gazing on her. So stricken was she that she might neither cry out nor turn aside; neither did she think to pull her gown out of her girdle to cover the nakedness of her legs.
When they had thus stood a little while the man began to move toward her very slowly, nor did she dare to flee any the more. But when he was within half a dozen paces her face flushed red, and she did pull her gown out of its trusses and let it flow down. But he spake to her in a pleasant voice, and said: "May I speak to thee, maiden?"
Fear was yet in her soul, so that she might not speak for a little, and then she said: "O, I beseech thee, bring me not back to Greenharbour!" And she paled sorely as she spake the word.
But he said: "I wot not of Greenharbour, how to find the way thereto, though we have heard of it. But comfort thyself, I pray thee, there is nought to fear in me."
The sound of his voice was full pleasant to her, and when she hearkened him, how kind and frank it was, then she knew how much of terror was blent with her joy in her newly-won freedom and the delight of the kind and happy words. Yet still she spoke not, and was both shamefast and still not altogether unafraid. Yet, sooth to say, though his attire was but simple, he was nought wild or fierce to look on. From time to time she looked on him, and then dropped her eyes again. In those glances she saw that he was grey- eyed, and smooth-cheeked, and round-chinned, and his hair curly and golden; and she must needs think that she had never seen any face half so fair. He was clad but in a green coat that came not down to his knees, and brogues were tied to his feet, and no more raiment he had; and for hat he had made him a garland of white may blossom, and well it sat there: and again she looked on him, and thought him no worse than the running angel that goes before the throne of God in the picture of the choir of Meadhamstead; and she looked on him and marvelled.
Now she hung her head before him and wished he would speak, and even so did he, and said: "Maiden, when I first saw thee from amidst of the bush by the river yonder, I deemed thou wert a wood-wight, or some one of the she-Gods of the Gentiles come back hither. For this is a lonely place, and some might deem that the Devil hath might here more than in other places; and when I saw thee, that thou wouldst do off thy raiment to bathe thee, though soothly I longed to lie hidden there, I feared thee, lest thou shouldst be angry with me if I were to see thee unclad; so I came away; yet I went not far, for I was above all things yearning to see thee; and sooth it is, that hadst thou not crossed the water, I should presently have crossed it myself to seek thee, wert thou Goddess, or wood-wife, or whatever might have come of it. But now thou art come to us, and I have heard thy voice beseeching me not to bring thee to Greenharbour, I see that thou art a woman of the kindred of Adam. And yet so it is, that even now I fear thee somewhat. Yet I will pray thee not to be wroth if I ask thee whether I may do aught for thy need."
Now she began somewhat to smile, and she looked him full in the face, and said: "Forsooth, my need is simple, for I am hungry."
He smote himself on the breast, and said: "See now, what a great fool I am, not to have known it without telling, instead of making long-winded talk about myself. Come quickly, dear maiden, and leave thine horse to crop the grass."
So he hurried on to the thorn-bush aforesaid, and she went foot to foot with him, but he touched her not; and straightway she sat her down on the root of the thorn, and smiled frankly on him, and said:
"Nay, sir, and now thou hast made me go all this way I am out of breath and weary, so I pray thee of the victual at once."
But he had been busy with his scrip which he had left cast down there, and therewithal reached out to her a mighty hunch of bread and a piece of white cheese, and said:
"Now shall I fetch thee milk." Wherewith he took up a bowl of aspen tree that had lain by the scrip, and ran off to one of the kine and milked the bowl full, and came back with it heedfully, and set it down beside her and said: "This was the nighest thing to hand, but when thou hast eaten and rested then shall we go to our house, if thou wilt be so kind to me; for there have we better meat and wine to boot."
She looked up at him smiling, but her pleasure of the meat and the kindness was so exceeding, that she might not refrain from tears also, but she spake not.
As for him, he knelt beside her, looking on her wistfully; and at last he said: "I shall tell thee, that I am glad that thou wert hungry and that I have seen thee eating, else might I have deemed thee somewhat other than a woman of mankind even yet."
She said: "Yea, and why wouldst thou not believe my word thereto?"
He said, reddening: "I almost fear to tell thee, lest thou think me overbold and be angry with me."
"Nay," she said, "tell me, for I would know."
Said he: "The words are not easy in my rude mouth; but this is what I mean: that though I be young I have seen fair women not a few, but beside any of them thou art a wonder;....and loth I were if thou wert not really of mankind, if it were but for the glory of the world."
She hung her head and answered nought a while, and he also seemed ashamed: but presently she spake: "Thou hast been kind to us, wouldst thou tell us thy name? and then, if it like thee, what thou art?"
"Lady," he said, "my name is easy to tell, I hight Christopher; and whiles folk in merry mockery call me Christopher King; meseems because I am of the least account of all carles. As for what else I am, a woodman I am, an outlaw, and the friend of them: yet I tell thee I have never by my will done any harm to any child of man; and those friends of mine, who are outlaws also, are kind and loving with me, both man and woman, though needs must they dwell aloof from kings' courts and barons' halls."
She looked at him wondering, and as if she did not altogether understand him; and she said: "Where dost thou dwell?"
He said: "To-day I dwell hard by; though where I shall dwell to-morrow, who knows? And with me are dwelling three of my kind fellows; and the dearest is a young man of mine own age, who is my fellow in all matters, for us to live and die each for the other. Couldst thou have seen him, thou wouldst love him I deem."
"What name hath he?" said Goldilind.
"He hight David," said Christopher.
But therewith he fell silent and knit his brow, as though he were thinking of some knotty point: but in a while his face cleared, and he said: "If I durst, I would ask thee thy name, and what thou art?"
"As to my name," said she, "I will not tell it thee as now. As to what I am, I am a poor prisoner; and much have I been grieved and tormented, so that my body hath been but a thing whereby I might suffer anguish. Something else am I, but I may not tell thee what as yet."
He looked on her long, and then arose and went his way along the very track of their footsteps, and he took the horse and brought him back to the thorn, and stood by the lady and reddened, and said: "I must tell thee what I have been doing these last minutes."
"Yea," said she, looking at him wonderingly, "hast thou not been fetching my horse to me?"
"So it is," said he; "but something else also. Ask me, or I cannot tell thee."
She laughed, and said: "What else, fair sir?"
Said he: "Ask me what, or I cannot tell thee."
"Well, what, then?" said she.
He answered, stammering and blushing: "I have been looking at thy foot prints, whereby thou camest up from the water, to see what new and fairer blossoms have come up in the meadow where thy feet were set e'en now."
She answered him nothing, and he held his peace. But in a while she said: "If thou wouldst have us come to thine house, thou shalt lead us thither now." And therewith she took her foot-gear from out of her girdle, as if she would do it on, and he turned his face away, but sighed therewith. Then she reddened and put them back again, and rose up lightly, and said: "I will go afoot; and wilt thou lead the horse for me?"
So did he, and led her by all the softest and most flowery ways, turning about the end of a spur of the little hill that came close to the water, and going close to the lip of the river. And when they had thus turned about the hill there was a somewhat wider vale before them, grassy and fair, and on a knoll, not far from the water, a long frame-house thatched with reed.
Then said Christopher: "Lady, this is now Littledale, and yonder the house thereof."
She said quietly: "Lovely is the dale, and fair the house by seeming, and I would that they may be happy that dwell therein!"
Said Christopher: "Wilt thou not speak that blessing within the house as without?"
"Fain were I thereof," she said. And therewith they came into the garth, wherein the apple trees were blossoming, and Goldilind spread abroad her hands and lifted up her head for joy of the sight and the scent, and they stayed awhile before they went on to the door, which was half open, for they feared none in that place, and looked for none whom they might not deal with if he came as a foe.
Christopher would have taken a hand of her to lead her in, but both hands were in her gown to lift up the hem as she passed over the threshold; so he durst not.
Fair and bright now was the hall within, with its long and low windows goodly glazed, a green halling on the walls of Adam and Eve and the garden, and the good God walking therein; the sun shone bright through the southern windows, and about the porch it was hot, but further toward the dais cool and pleasant.
So Goldilind sat down in the coolest of the place at the standing table; but Christopher bestirred himself, and brought wine and white bread, and venison and honey, and said: "I pray thee to dine, maiden, for it is now hard on noon; and as for my fair fellows, I look not for them before sunset for they were going far into the wood."
She smiled on him, and ate and drank a little deal, and he with her. Sooth to say, her heart was full, and though she had forgotten her fear, she was troubled, because, for as glad as she was, she could not be as glad as her gladness would have her, for the sake of some lack, she knew not what.
Now spake Christopher: "I would tell thee something strange, to wit, though it is little more than three hours since I first saw thee beside the river, yet I seem to know thee as if thou wert a part of my life."
She looked on him shyly, and he went on: "This also is strange, and, withal, it likes me not, that when I speak of my fair fellows here, David, and Gilbert, and Joanna, they are half forgotten to my heart, though their names are on my tongue; and this house, doth it like thee, fair guest?"
"Yea, much," she said; "it seems joyous to me: and I shall tell thee that I have mostly dwelt in unmerry houses, though they were of greater cost than this."
Said Christopher: "To me it hath been merry and happy enough; but now it seems to me as if it had all been made for thee and this meeting."
"Is it therefore no longer merry to thee because of that?" she said, smiling, yet flushing much red therewith. Now it was his turn not to answer her, and she cast down her eyes before him, and there was silence between them.
Then she looked at him steadily, and said: "It is indeed grievous that thou shouldest forget thine old friends for me, and that it should have come into thy mind that this fair and merry house was not made for thy fair fellows and thy delight with them, but for me, the chance-comer. For, hearken, whereas thou saidst e'en now, that I was become a part of thy life, how can that be? For if I become the poor captive again, how canst thou get to me, thou who art thyself a castaway, as thou hast told me? Yea, but even so, I shall be too low for thee to come down to me. And if I become what I should be, then I must tell thee that I shall be too high for thee to climb up to me; so that in one way or other we shall be sundered, who have but met for an hour or two."
He hung his head a while as they stood there face to face, for both of them had arisen from the board; but presently he looked up to her with glittering eyes, and said: "Yea, for an hour or two; why then do we tarry and linger, and say what we have no will to say, and refrain from what our hearts bid us?"
Therewith he caught hold of her right wrist, and laid his hand on her left shoulder, and this first time that he had touched her, it was as if a fire ran through all his body and changed it into the essence of her: neither was there any naysay in her eyes, nor any defence against him in the yielding body of her. But even in that nick of time he drew back a little, and turned his head, as a man listening, toward the door, and said: "Hist! hist! Dost thou hear, maiden?" She turned deadly pale: "O what is it? What is it? Yea, I hear; it is horses drawing nigh, and the sound of hounds baying. But may it not be thy fellows coming back?"
"Nay, nay," he said; "they rode not in armour. Hark to it! and these hounds are deep-voiced sleuth-dogs! But come now, there may yet be time."
He turned, and caught up axe and shield from off the wall, and drew her toward a window that looked to the north, and peered out of it warily; but turned back straightway, and said: "Nay, it is too late that way, they are all round about the house. Maiden, get thou up into the solar by this stair, and thou wilt find hiding-place behind the traverse of the bed; and if they go away, and my fellows come in due time, then art thou safe. But if not, surely they shall do thee no hurt; for I think, indeed, that thou art some great one."
And he fell to striding down the hall toward the door; but she ran after him, and caught his arm, and said: "Nay, nay, I will not hide, to be dragged out of my refuge like a thief: thou sayest well that I am of the great; I will stand by thee and command and forbid as a Queen. O go not to the door! Stay by me, stay!"
"Nay, nay," he said, "there is nought for it but the deed of arms. Look! seest thou not steel by the porch?"
And therewith he broke from her and ran to the door, and was met upon the very threshold by all-armed men, upon whom he fell without more ado, crying out: "For the Tofts! For the Tofts! The woodman to the rescue!" And he hewed right and left on whatsoever was before him, so that what fell not, gave back, and for a moment of time he cleared the porch; but in that nick of time his axe brake on the basnet of a huge man-at-arms, and they all thrust them on him together and drave him back into the hall, and came bundling after him in a heap. But he drave his shield at one, and then with his right hand smote another on the bare face, so that he rolled over and stirred no more till the day of doom. Then was there a weapon before him, might he have stooped to pick it up; but he might not; so he caught hold of a sturdy but somewhat short man by the collar and the lap of his leather surcoat, and drew aback, and with a mighty heave cast him on the rout of them, who for their parts had drawn back a little also, as if he had been a huge stone, and down went two before that artillery; and they set up a great roar of wonder and fear. But he followed them, and this time got an axe in his hand, so mazed they were by his onset, and he hewed at them again and drave them aback to the threshold of the door: but could get them no further, and they began to handle long spears to thrust at him.
But then came forward a knight, no mickle man, but clad in very goodly armour, with a lion beaten in gold on his green surcoat; this man smote up the spears, and made the men go back a little, while he stood on the threshold; so Christopher saw that he would parley with him, and forbore him, and the knight spake: "Thou youngling, art thou mad? What doest thou falling on my folk?"
"And what do ye," said Christopher fiercely, "besetting the houses of folk with weapons? Now wilt thou take my life. But I shall yet slay one or two before I die. Get thee back, lord, or thou shalt be the first."
But the knight, who had no weapon in his hand, said: "We come but to seek our own, and that is our Lady of Meadham, who dwelleth at Greenharbour by her own will. And if thou wilt stand aside thou mayst go free to the devil for us."
Now would Christopher have shouted and fallen on, and gone to his death there and then; but even therewith a voice, clear and sweet, spake at the back of him, and said: "Thou kind host, do thou stand aside and let us speak that which is needful." And therewith stepped forth Goldilind and stood beside Christopher, and said: "Sir Burgreve, we rode forth to drink the air yesterday, and went astray amidst the wild-wood, and were belated, so that we must needs lie down under the bare heaven; but this morning we happened on this kind forester, who gave us to eat, and took us to his house and gave us meat and drink; for which it were seemlier to reward him than threaten him. Now it is our pleasure that ye lead us back to Greenharbour; but as for this youth, that ye do him no hurt, but let him go free, according to thy word spoken e'en now, Sir Burgreve."
She spake slowly and heavily, as one who hath a lesson to say, and it was to be seen of her that all grief was in her heart, though her words were queenly. Some of them that heard laughed; but the Burgreve spake, and said: "Lady, we will do thy will in part, for we will lead thee to Greenharbour in all honour; but as to this young man, if he will not be slain here and now, needs must he with us. For he hath slain two of our men outright, and hath hurt many, and, methinks, the devil of the woods is in his body. So do thou bid him be quiet, if thou wouldst not see his blood flow."
She turned a pale unhappy face on Christopher, and said: "My friend, we bid thee withstand them no more, but let them do with thee as they will."
Christopher stood aside therewith, and sat down on a bench and laughed, and said in a high voice: "Stout men-at-arms, forsooth, to take a maid's kirtle to their shield."
But therewith the armed men poured into the hall, and a half dozen of the stoutest came up unto Christopher where he sat, and bound his hands with their girdles, and he withstood them no whit, but sat laughing in their faces, and made as if it were all a Yule-tide game. But inwardly his heart burned with anger, and with love of that sweet Lady.
Then they made him stand up, and led him without the house, and set him on a horse, and linked his feet together under the belly thereof. And when that was done he saw them lead out the Lady, and they set her in a horse litter, and then the whole troop rode off together, with two men riding on either side of the said litter. In this wise they left Littledale.