William Morris Archive


Now were the days wearing toward wheat-harvest, and nought befel to tell of, save that on a morn the witch-wife called Birdalone to her, and said: Now is little to be done till the wheat is ready for the hook, and thy days are idle; or what is that word that fell from thee that other day, that there be good swims for fish about the eyots? Canst thou swim across bearing thine angle, and back again therewith, and thy catch withal? Yea, certes, said Birdalone gaily; with one hand I may swim gallantly, or with my legs alone, if I stir mine arms ever so little. I will go straightway if thou wilt, lady; but give me a length of twine so that I may tie my catch about my middle when I swim back again.

Therewith she went forth lightly to fetch her angle, which was in a shed without; but just as she took it in her hand, a sudden thought came to her, so wary as she was grown. She undid the bosom of her gown, and took forth her serpent-ring; for she bore it next to her skin, made fast to the bosom of her smock; but now she hid it carefully in the thickest of her brow-hair, which was very thick and soft. Withal the tress of Habundia’s hair she bore ever mingled with her own.

No sooner had she done it, but she was glad; for she heard the dame calling her, who, when she came to the house-door, spake and said: Now shall I fare with thee down to the water, and look to thy garments lest they be fouled by some straying beast. And therewith she looked curiously on Birdalone, and knit her brows when she saw that the maiden changed countenance in nowise.

Down to the water went they, and the witch sat down close to where Birdalone should take the water, and watched her do off her raiment, and eyed her keenly when she was bare, but said nought. Birdalone turned her head as she stood knee-deep, and said: How long shall I abide, lady, if I have luck? As long as thou wilt, said the dame: most like I shall be gone by then thou comest back, even if thou be away no long while.

Fell Birdalone to swimming then, and when she was more than half over, the witch, stirring no more than need was, got hold of her raiment, which was but the old grey coat over a smock, and ransacked it, but found nought, as well ye may wot. And when she had done, she sat down again in heavy mood as it seemed, and watched Birdalone swimming, and when she beheld her body come forth out of the water, and pass out of sight amongst the flowers of the eyot, she arose and went her ways home.

Birdalone looked through the willow-boughs, and saw her turn away; then she fared to her fishing with a smile, and soon had plenteous catch from under the willow-boughs. Then, whereas the day was very calm and fair, and the dame had given her holiday, she wandered about the eyot, and most in a little wood of berry-trees, as quicken and whitebeam and dog-wood, and sported with the birds, who feared her not, but came and sat on her shoulders, and crept about her feet. She went also and stood a while on the southern shore, and looked on the wide water dim in the offing under the hot-weather haze, and longed to be gone beyond it. Then she turned away, and to the other shore, and gat her fish and strung them on the string, and made them fast to her middle, and so took the water back again to the yellow strand, where now was no one awaiting her. But before she did on her garments, she looked on them, and saw that they lay not as she had left them, whereby she knew well that the witch-wife had handled them.

Amidst all this the day was wearing to an end, and again she saw the smoke of the cooking-fire going up into the air from the chimney of the house; and she smiled ruefully, thinking that the witch might yet find an occasion for ransacking her raiment. But she plucked up heart, and came home with her catch, and the dame met her with a glum face, and neither praised her nor blamed her, but took the fish silently. Such ending had that day.

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