Child Christopher - Chapter 22
XXII. OF THE WOODLAND BRIDE-CHAMBER
They rode in silence a good way, and it was some three hours after noon, and the day as fair and bright as might be. Christopher held his peace for sweet shame that he was alone with a most fair maid, and she his own, and without defence against him. But she amidst of her silence turned, now red, and now somewhat pale, and now and again she looked somewhat askance on him, and he deemed her looks were no kinder than they should be.
At last she spake, yet not looking on him, and said: "So, Forester, now is done what I must needs do: thy life is saved, and I am quit of Greenharbour, and its prison, and its torments: whither away then?"
Quoth he, all dismayed, for her voice was the voice of anger: "I wot not whither, save to the house thou hast blessed already with thy dear body."
At that word she turned quite pale, and trembled, and spake not for a while, and smote her horse and hastened on the way, and he after her; but when he was come up with her again, then she said, still not looking at him: "A house of woodmen and wolf-heads. Is that a meet dwelling-place for me? Didst thou hear men at Greenharbour say that I am a Queen?"
"Hear them I did," quoth he; "but meseemeth nought like a Queen had they done with thee."
She said: "And dost thou mock me with that? thou?" And she burst out weeping. He answered not, for sore grief smote him, remembering her hand in his but a little while ago. And again she hurried on, and he followed her.
When he came up with her she said: "And thou, didst thou woo me as a Queen?"
"Lady," he said, "I wooed thee not at all; I was given to thee, would I, would I not: great joy was that to me."
Then said she: "Thou sayest sooth, thou hast not wooed me, but taken me." She laughed therewith, as one in bitterness. But presently she turned to him, and he wondered, for in her face was longing and kindness nought like to her words. But he durst not speak to her lest he should anger her, and she turned her face from him again: and she said: "Wert thou given to me? meseems I was given to thee, would I, would I not; the Queen to the Churl, the Wood-man, the Wolf-head." And again she rode on, and he followed, sick at heart and wondering sorely.
When they were riding together again, they spake not to each other, though she stole glances at him to see how he fared; but he rode on with knit brows and a stern countenance. So in a while she began to speak to him again, but as if there were nought but courtesy between them, and neither love nor hatred. She fell to asking him of woodland matters, concerning bird and beast and things creeping; and at first he would scarce answer her at all, and then were his answers short; but at last, despite of all, he began to forget both grief and anger, so much the sweetness of her speech wound about his heart; and, withal, she fell to asking him of his fellows and their life in the woods, and of Jack of the Tofts and the like; and now he answered her questions fully, and whiles she laughed at his words, and he laughed also; and all pleasure had there been of this converse, if he had not beheld her from time to time and longed for the fairness of her body, and feared her wrath at his longing.
So wore the day, and the sun was getting low, and they were come to another woodland pool which was fed by a clear-running little brook, and up from it went a low bank of greensward exceeding sweet, and beyond that oak trees wide-branched and great, and still fair greensward beneath them and hazel-thicket beyond them. There, then, Goldilind reined up, and looked about her, but Christopher looked on her and nought else. But she said: "Let to-morrow bring counsel; but now am I weary to-night, and if we are not to ride night-long, we shall belike find no better place to rest in. Wilt thou keep watch while I sleep?"
"Yea," he said, bowing his head to her soberly; and therewith he got off his horse, and would have helped her down from hers, but she slipped lightly down and stood before him face to face, and they were very nigh to each other, she standing close to her horse. Her face was pale to his deeming and there was a piteous look in her eyes, so that he yearned towards her in his bowels, and reached his hand toward her; but she shrank aback, leaning against her horse, and said in a trembling voice, looking full at him, and growing yet paler: "Forester, dost thou think it seemly that thou shouldst ride with us, thou such as thou hast told thyself to be, in this lordly raiment, which they gave thee yonder as part of the price for thy leading us away into the wild-wood?"
"Lady," said he, "whether it be seemly or not, I see that it is thy will that I should go clad as a woodland churl; abide a little, and thy will shall be done."
Therewith he did off the burden from the sumpter horse, and set the chests on the earth; then he took her horse gently, and led him with the other two in under the oak trees, and there he tethered them so that they could bite the grass; and came back thereafter, and took his old raiment out of the chest, and said: "What thou wilt have me do, I will do now; and this all the more as to-morrow I should have done it unbidden, and should have prayed thee to do on garments less glorious than now thou bearest; so that we may look the less strange in the woodland if we chance to fall in with any man.
Nought she answered as he turned toward the hazel copse; she had been following him with her eyes while he was about that business, and when his back was turned, she stood a moment till her bosom fell a-heaving, and she wept; then she turned her about to the chest wherein was her raiment, and went hastily and did off her glorious array, and did on the green gown wherewith she had fled, and left her feet bare withal. Then she looked up and saw Christopher, how he was coming from out the hazel-thicket new clad in his old raiment, and she cried out aloud, and ran toward him. But he doubted that some evil had betid, and that she was chased; so he drew out his sword; but she ran up to him and cried out: "Put up thy sword, here is none save me."
But he stood still, gazing on her in wonderment, and now she was drawn near to him she stood still before him, panting. Then he said: "Nay, Lady, for this night there was no need of thy disguising thee, to-morrow it had been soon enough."
She said: "I were fain if thou wouldst take my hand, and lead me back to our resting-place."
Even so he did, and as their palms met he felt how her hand loved him, and a flood of sweetness swept over his heart, and made an end of all its soreness. But he led her quietly back again to their place. Then she turned to him and said: "Now art thou the woodland god again, and the courtier no more; so now will I worship thee." And she knelt down before him, and embraced his knees and kissed them; but he drew her up to him, and cast his arms about her, and kissed her face many times, and said: "Now art thou the poor captive again."
She said: "Now hast thou forgiven me; but I will tell thee that my wilfulness and folly was not all utterly feigned; though when I was about it I longed for thee to break it down with the fierceness of a man, and bid me look to it how helpless I was, and thou how strong and my only defence. Not utterly feigned it was: for I will say it, that I was grieved to the heart when I bethought me of Meadhamstead and the seat of my fathers. What sayest thou then? Shalt thou be ever a woodman in these thickets, and a follower of Jack of the Tofts? If so thou wilt, it is well."
He took her by the shoulders and bent her backwards to kiss her, and held her up above the earth in his arms, waving her this way and that, till she felt how little and light she was in his grasp, though she was no puny woman; then he set her on her feet again, and laughed in her face, and said: "Sweetling, let to-morrow bring counsel. But now let it all be: thou hast said it, thou art weary; so now will I dight thee a bed of our mantles, and thou shalt lie thee down, and I shall watch thee as thou badest me."
Therewith he went about, and plucked armfuls of the young bracken, and made a bed wide and soft, and spread the mantles thereover.
But she stood awhile looking on him; then she said: "Dost thou think to punish me for my wilful folly, and to shame me by making me speak to thee?"
"Nay," he said, "it is not so."
She said: "I am not shamed in that I say to thee: if thou watch this night, I will watch by thee; and if I lie down to rest this night, thou shalt lie by me. For my foemen have given me to thee, and now shalt thou give thyself to me."
So he drew near to her shyly, like unto one who hath been forgiven. And there was their bridal bed, and nought but the oak boughs betwixt them and the bare heavens.