The Sundering Flood - Chapter 9
THE BIGHT OF THE CLOVEN KNOLL
And now it was mid-April, and the goodman dight him to ride to a mote of the neighbours at a stead hight Bullmeads, where the Dalesmen were wont to gather in the spring, that they might ride thence all together to the town of Eastcheaping and sell the autumn clip of wool and do other chaffer. So the carle goes his ways alone, and will be one night at Bullmeads and two at Eastcheaping, and then another at Bullmeads, and be back on the fifth day. And when he was gone comes Stephen to Osberne, and says: "Young master, I am going presently to the hill with the sheep, and thou needest neither to go with me nor fare a-hunting today, since the house is full of meat; so thou art free, and were I in thy shoes I would go straight from this door down to the water-side, and see if thou mayst not happen on something fair or seldom seen. But hearken to my rede, if thou comest on aught such, thou hast no need to tell of it to any one, not even to me. [And it were not amiss to do on they coat of scarlet.]"
Osberne thanks him, and takes his bow of arrows and goes his way and comes to the riverside and turns his face south, and goes slowly along the very edge of the water; and the water itself drew his eyes down to gaze on the dark green deeps and fierce downlong swirl of the stream, with its sharp clean lines as if they were carven in steel, and the curling and upheaval and sudden changing of the talking eddies: so that he scarce might see the familiar greensward of the further shore.
At last, when he had gone thus more than two miles from where he first hit the water, a long straight reach lay before him, and as he looked down it, it seemed as if the river came presently to an end; but in sooth there was a sharp turn to the east by which the water ran, but narrowing much; and this narrowing was made by the thrusting forth of the western bank into a sharp ness, which, from where Osberne now stood, showed a wide flank facing, as it seemed, the whole hurrying stream of the Flood. But the stream turned ere it smote the cliff, and striving for the narrow outgate made a prodigious eddy or whirlpool ere it might clear itself of the under-water foot of the ness and make eastward so as to rush on toward the sea. But in the face of the wall, in the bight where the whirlpool turned from it, was a cave the height of a tall man, and some four feet athwart, and below it a ledge thrust out from the sheer rock and hanging over the terrible water, and it was but a yard wide or so. It was but ten feet above the water, and from it to the grass above must have been a matter of forty foot. But the ness as it thrust forth into the river rose also, so that its crest was a score of feet higher where it went down into the water than its base amidst the green grass. Then came the strait passage of the water, some thirty feet across, and then the bank of the eastern side, which, though it thrust out not, but rather was as it were driven back by the stream, yet it rose toward the water, though not so much as the ness over against it. It was as if some one had cast down a knoll across the Sundering Flood, and the stream had washed away the sloped side thereof, and then had sheared its way through by the east side where the ground was the softest. Forsooth so it seemed to the Dalesmen, for on either side they called it the Bight of the Cloven Knoll.
Osberne stood amazed right over against the cave in the cliff-side, and stared at the boiling waters beneath him, that seemed mighty enough to have made a hole in the ship of the world and sunk it in the deep. And he wondered at the cave, whether it was there by chance hap, or that some hands had wrought it for an habitation.
And as he stood gazing there, on a sudden there came out of the cave a shape as of man, and stood upon the ledge above the water, and the lad saw at once that it was a little maiden of about his own age, with ruddy golden hair streaming down from her head, and she was clad in a short coat of dark blue stuff and no more raiment, as far as he could see. Now as aforesaid Osberne was in his holiday raiment of red-scarlet by the bidding of Stephen. Now the maiden looks up and sees the lad standing on the eastern shore, and starts back astonished. Then she came forward again and looked under the sharp of her hand, for the sun shone from the south and was cast back dazzling from the water. There was but some thirty feet of water between them, but all gurgling and rushing and talking, so the child raised a shrill and clear voice as she clapped her hands together and cried: "O thou beauteous creature, what art thou?" Osberne laughed, and said in a loud voice: "I am a man but young of years, so that they call me a boy, and a bairn, and a lad. But what art thou?"
"Nay, nay," she said, "I must be nigher to thee; it is over-wide here amidst the waters' speech. Fare up to the top on thy side, and so will I." And therewith she turned about and fell to climbing up the side of the cliff by the broken black staves and the shaly slips. And though Osberne were a boy, yea and a tough one in some ways, he trembled and his heart beat quick to see the little creature wending that perilous upright road, and he might not take his eyes off her till she had landed safely on the greensward; then he turned and went swiftly up the eastern knoll, and reached the edge of the sheer rock just as the maiden came running up the ness on her side.
He spake not, for he was eyeing her closely, and she might not speak for a while for lack of breath. At last she said: "Now are we as near to each other as we may be today; yea for many days, or it may be for all our lives long: so now let us talk." She set her two feet together and held her hands in front of her, and so stood as if she looked for him to begin. But the words came not speedily to his mouth, and at last she said: "I wonder why thou wilt not speak again; for thy laugh was as the voice of a dear bird; and thy voice is beauteous, so loud and clear."
He laughed, and said: "Well then, I will speak. Tell me what thou art. Art thou of the Faery? for thou art too well shapen to be of the Dwarfkin." She clapped her hands together and laughed; then she said: "I laughed not as mocking thy question, but for joy to hear thy voice again. Nay, nay, I am no faery, but of the children of men. But thou, art thou not of the sons of the Land-wights?"
"No more than thou art," said he. "I am also a goodman's son, but my father is dead, and my mother also, and I live at home at Wethermel up the water, with my grandsire and grandam."
Said she: "Are they kind to thee?" The lad drew himself up: "I am kind to them," said he. "How goodly thou art!" she said; "that was why I dreamed thou must be of the Land-wights, because I have seen divers men, some old, some young like to thee, but none half so goodly." He smiled, and said: "Well, I thought thou wert of the Faery because thou art goodly and little. I have seen a pretty maid not long since, but she was older than thou, I deem, and far taller. But tell me, how old art thou?" She said: "When May is half worn I shall be of thirteen winters."
"Lo now," said he, "we be nigh of an age; I was thirteen in early April. But thou hast not told me where thou dwellest, and how." She said: "I dwell at Hartshaw Knolls hard by. I am the daughter of a goodman, as thou art, and my father and mother are dead, so that my father I never saw, and now I dwell with my two aunts and they be both older than was my mother."
"Are they kind to thee?" said the lad, laughing that he must cast back her question. "Whiles," said she, laughing also, "and whiles not: maybe that is because I am not always kind to them, as thou art to thy folk." He answered nought, and she was silent a while; then he said: "What is in thy mind, maiden?" "This," she said, "that I am thinking how fair a chance it was that I should have seen thee, for thou hast made me so glad." Said he: "We can see each other again belike and make it less of a chance." "O yea," she said, and was silent a while. Said he: "I wot not why it was that thou wert in the cave: and tell me, is it not exceeding perilous, the climbing up and down? Why wilt thou do that? Also, I must tell thee, that this was another cause why I thought thou wert of the Faery, that thou camest out of the cave."
Said she: "I will tell thee all about the cave; but first as to the peril of going thither and coming hence: wouldst thou be very sorry if I were lost on the way?" "Yea," said he, "exceeding sorry." "Well," said she, "then fear it not, for it is so much a wont of mine that to me there is no peril therein: yet I am glad that thou wert afraid for me." "I was sore afraid," said Osberne.
"Now as to the cave," said the maiden. "I found it out two years ago, when I was very little, and the women had been less than kind to me. And thither may I go whenas I would that they should seek me not; because folk say that it is a dwelling of the Dwarfs, and they fear to enter it. Besides, when I think of my kinswomen coming down the rock to find me therein, and they be tall, and one stiff, as if she were cut out of timber, and the other exceeding fat, that makes me merry!"
And therewith she sat down on the very edge of the cliff with her little legs hanging over the water, and laughed, rocking to and fro in her laughter, and Osberne laughed also. But he said: "But art thou not afraid of the Dwarfs?" She said: "Dear bairn or boy, I had been there many times before I heard tell of the Dwarfs, and I gat no harm, and after I had heard the tale I went still, and still gat no harm; nay I will tell thee somewhat: I gat gifts, or such they seemed unto me. First I had to herd the sheep and take them to the best grass, and whiles they strayed and were wearisome to me, and I came home with divers missing, and then would I be wyted or even whipped for what was no fault of mine. And one such time I betook me to the cave and sat therein and wept, and complained to myself of my harm, and when I went out of the cave I saw on the ledge close to my foot a thing lying, and I took it up, and saw that it was a pipe with seven holes therein, and when I blew into it, it made sweet and merry little music. So I thought it great prize, and went away home with it, with all my sorrows well healed. But the next day I drave my sheep to grass, as my business was, and as oft happened, they strayed, and I followed them and gat nothing done; so I was weary, and afraid of what would betide at home in the stead. So I sat down on a stone, and when I had wept a little I thought I would comfort myself with the music of the pipe. But lo a wonder, for no sooner had a note or two sounded than all the sheep came running up to me, bleating and mowing, and would rub against my sides as I sat piping, and home I brought every head in all glee. And even so has it befallen ever since; and that was hard on a year agone. Fair boy, what dost thou think I am doing now?" Osberne laughed. "Disporting thee in speech with a friend," said he. "Nay," said she, "but I am shepherding sheep."
And she drew forth the pipe from her bosom and fell to playing it, and a ravishing sweet melody came thence, and so merry that the lad himself began to shift his feet as one moving to measure, and straightway he heard a sound of bleating, and sheep came running toward the maiden from all about. Then she arose and ran to them, lest they should shove each other into the water; and she danced before them, lifting up her scanty blue skirts and twinkling her bare feet and legs, while her hair danced about her, and the sheep, they too capered and danced about as if she had bidden them. And the boy looked on and laughed without stint, and he deemed it the best of games to behold. But when she was weary she came back to the head of the ness and sat down again as before, and let the sheep go where they would.