The Sundering Flood - Chapter 19
THE WINTER PASSES AND ELFHILD TELLS OF THE DEATH OF HER KINSWOMAN
Now Osberne and Stephen both give rede to the goodman, and bid him live somewhat less niggardly, since not only had they good store of victual and clothes and the like, which had been hoarded a long time, but also the gifts of Waywearer had stood them in good stead, and furthermore, the goodman was much bettered by the spoil of Hardcastle. For he had left much wealth behind him, and chiefly in silver and gold; and all that he had left, save his weapons, had Osberne given to his grandsire. So the goodman heeded their words and let himself be talked over, and while winter was yet young and before there was any snow to hinder, he rode with Osberne down the Dale, and looked into many of the steads, and amongst others, were dwelt the damsel who had been paired with Osberne on the day of the mid-winter Cloven Mote. And he thought her fair and sweet, and she received him joyfully and kissed him; but he was scarce so ready for that as he was aforetime, for he deemed she kissed him as a child and not a man.
So by hook or by crook the goodman got him six hired folk; three men, two of whom were young, and three women, all young and one comely, one ill-favoured, and the other betwixt and between. It must be said by the way, that if he had abided the spring for getting these new folk he would scarce have hired them, for the repute of Wethermel for scant housekeeping had gone wide about; but when folk heard that Master Nicholas was hiring folk from mid-winter onwards, they were willing enough to go, whereas they deemed he would be changing his mind and becoming open-handed. So Nicholas rides back with his catch (for he had brought nags to horse them), and henceforth is good house kept at Wethermel, as good as anywhere in the Dale.
Again fared Osberne to the mid-winter Cloven Mote, and again was he mated to the above-said damsel, who hight Gertrude; and forsooth this time he deemed that she kissed him and caressed him not so wholly as a mere boy, though of such things ye may well deem he knew little. For she seemed to find it hard when they kissed, as paired folk are bound to do, to let her lips leave his, and when their hands parted at the end of the Mote she gave a great sigh, and put her cheek toward him for a parting kiss, which forsooth he gave her somewhat unheedfully; for he was looking hard toward the other shore to see if he could make out the shape of Elfhild amongst the women there; as he had done whenever he gat a chance of it all day long, but had failed wholly therein.
Three days afterward he kept tryst with Elfhild, and asked her if she had been at the Mote, and she told him No; that her aunts went every time but always left her behind. Then she said smiling: "And this time they have come back full of thy praises, for the tale of thee, and the slaying of the robber, has come over to our side; and one of them, the youngest, had thee shown to her by one of the folk, and she saith that thou art the fairest lad that ever was seen: and therein she is not far wrong."
He laughed and reddened, and told for tidings how he had fared at the Mote, and Elfhild belike was not best pleased to hear of the fair damsel who was so fond of kissing; but in all honesty she rejoiced when Osberne told how hard he had looked for her on the other side of the water. So they made the most of their short day, as indeed they had need to do, for through the winter, when the snow was on the earth and the grass grew not, the sheep were all shut up in the folds and the cotes, and there was no shepherding toward; so that Elfhild was hard put to it for some pretence for getting away from the house, and their trysts had to be further between them than they had been; and not seldom, moreover, Elfhild failed at the trysting-place, and Osberne had to go sorrowfully away, though well he wotted it was by no fault of his playmate.
So wore the winter tidingless, and spring came again, and again the two met oftener; and great feast they made the first day, when Elfhild came to the ness with her head and her loins wreathed with the winter wolfsbane. It was a warm and very clear day of February, and Elfhild of her own will piped to her sheep and danced amongst them; and Osberne looked on her eagerly, and he deemed that she had grown bigger and sleeker and fairer; and her feet and legs (for still she went barefoot) since they had not the summer tan on them, looked so dainty-white to him that sore he longed to stroke them and kiss them. And this, belike was the beginning to him of the longing of a young mad, which afterwards was so sore on him, to be with his friend and embrace her and caress her.
So they met often that springtide, and oftener as the weather waxed warmer. And nought worth telling befel to Osberne that while save these meetings. But at last, when May was yet young, Osberne kept tryst thrice and Elfhild came not, and the fourth time she came and had tidings, to wit that one of her kinswomen had died of sickness. Said she: "And it was the one who was least kind to me, and made most occasion for chastising me. Well, she is gone; and often she was kind to me, and before I saw thee I loved her somewhat. But now things will go better, because the other aunt, who was kinder than the dead one, hath taken into the house that old woman whereof I told thee, who hath taught me lore and many ancient tales; and though she be old and wrinkled, she is kind and loves me: and she is on our side, and I have told her about thee; and she in turn told me strange things and unked, which I will not and dare not tell again to thee. Wherefore now let us be glad together."
Said Osberne: "Yea, we will try to be glad; but see thou, I want more than this now, I want to come across to thee, and tell thee things which I cannot shout across this accursed Flood; and I want to take thee by the hand and put my arms about thee and kiss thee. Dost thou not wish the like by me?"
"O yea," said the maiden reddening, "most soothly do I. But hearken, Osberne; the carline sayeth that all this thou shalt do to me, and that we shall meet body to body one day. Dost thou trow in this?"
"Nay, how can I tell," said he somewhat surlily, "when thou hast told me so little of the tale?"
"Well," she said, "but I may not tell more; so now, I pray, let us be glad with what we have got of meeting oftener, and a life better and merrier for me. Bethink thou, my dear, that if I live easier and have not to toil so much, and catch fewer stripes, and have better meat and more, I shall grow sleeker and daintier, yea and bigger, so that I shall look older and more womanlike sooner." And she wept a little therewith; so he repented his surliness and set to comfort her, till she laughed and he also, and they were merrier together.
So now time after time was their converse sweet and happy, and true it was that Elfhild grew fairer and sleeker week by week; and she was better clad now, and well shod, and wore her ouches and necklaces openly, though she said she had not shown all to the carline, "not all of thine I mean. But the Dwarf necklace, the glorious one, I have shown her, and she saith that it is such a wonder that it forebodeth my becoming a Queen; and that will be well, as thou shalt be a great man." Thuswise they prattled.