The Water of the Wondrous Isles 1-11
CHAPTER XI ~ OF BIRDALONE'S GUILT AND CHASTISEMENT THEREOF
By this she was come back to the sandy bight, and the sun was westering; and she looked up toward the house and saw that it was the time of their evening meal, for the blue smoke of the cooking fire was going up into the air. So she went thither speedily, and entered gay of seeming. The witch looked on her doubtfully, but presently fell to speaking with her graciously as yesterday, and Birdalone was glad and easy of mind, and went about the serving of her; for always she ate after the dame; and the mistress asked her of many matters concerning the house, and the gathering of stuff.
So came the talk on the fishing of the brook that ran before their door, and how the trouts therein were but little, and not seldom none at all; and even therewith came these words into Birdalone’s mouth, she scarce knew how: My lady, why do we not fish the lake, whereas there be shoal places betwixt us and the eyots where lie many and great fish, as I have seen when I have been swimming thereover? And now in that same creek whereas the serpent used to lurk when I was little, we have a thing come, which is made to swim on the water; and I, could I have a long pole to shove withal.
But no time she had to make an end, ere the witch-wife sprang up and turned on her with a snarl as of an evil dog, and her face changed horribly: her teeth showed grinning, her eyes goggled in her head, her brow was all to-furrowed, and her hands clenched like iron springs.
Birdalone shuddered back from her and cringed in mere terror, but had no might to cry out. The witch hauled her up by the hair, and dragged her head back so that her throat lay bare before her all along. Then drew the witch a sharp knife from her girdle, and raised her hand over her, growling and snarling like a wolf. But suddenly she dropped the knife, her hand fell to her side, and she fell in a heap on the floor and lay there hushed.
Birdalone stood gazing on her, and trembling in every limb; too confused was she to think or do aught, though some image off light through the open door passed before her: but her feet seemed of lead, and, as in an evil dream, she had no might to move her limbs, and the minutes went by as she stood there half dead with fear.
At last, (and belike it was no long while) the witch-wife came to herself again, and sat up on the floor, and looked all about the chamber, and when her eyes fell upon Birdalone, she said in a weak voice, yet joyfully; Hah! thou art there still, my good servant! Then she said: A sickness fell upon me suddenly, as whiles it is wont; but now am I myself again; and presently I have a word for thee.
Therewith she rose up slowly, Birdalone helping her, and sat in her big chair silent awhile, and then she spake: My servant, thou hast for the more part served me well: but this time thou hast done ill, whereas thou hast been spying on my ways; whereof may come heavy trouble but if we look to it. Well is it for thee that thou hast none unto whom thou mightest babble; for then must I needs have slain thee here and now. But for this first time I pardon thee, and thou hast escaped the wrath.
Her voice was soft and wheedling; but for Birdalone the terror had entered into her soul, and yet abode with her.
The witch-wife sat a while, and then arose and went about the chamber, and came to a certain aumbry and opened it, and drew forth a little flasket of lead and a golden cup scored over with strange signs, and laid them on the board beside her chair, wherein she now sat down again, and spake once more, still in the same soft and wheedling voice: Yet, my servant, thy guilt would be required of me, if I let this pass as if today were the same as yesterday; yea, and of thee also would it be required; therefore it is a part of the pardon that thou be corrected: and the correction must be terrible to thee, that thou mayst remember never again to thrust thyself into the jaws of death. And what may I do to correct thee? It shall be in a strange way, such as thou hast never dreamed of. Yet the anguish thereof shall go to thine heart’s root; but this must thou needs bear, for my good and thine, so that both we may live and be merry hereafter. Go now, fill this cup with water from the spring and come back with it. Birdalone took the cup with a sinking heart, and filled it, and brought it back, and stood before the witch more dead than alive.
Then the witch-wife took up the flasket and pulled out the stopple and betook it to Birdalone, and said: Drink of this now, a little sip, no more. And the maiden did so, and the liquor was no sooner down her gullet than the witch-wife and the chamber, and all things about her, became somewhat dim to her; but yet not so much so as that she could not see them. But when she stretched out her arm she could see it not at all, nor her limbs nor any other part of her which her eyes might fall upon. Then would she have uttered a lamentable wail, but the voice was sealed up in her and no sound came from her voice. Then she heard the witch-wife how she said (and yet she heard it as if her voice came from afar), Nay, thou canst not speak, and thou canst not see thyself, nor may any other, save me, and I but dimly. But this is but part of what I must lay upon thee; for next I must give thee a new shape, and that both thyself and all other may see. But, before I do that, I must speak a word to thee, which thy new shape would not suffer the sense thereof to reach to thine heart. Hearken!