William Morris Archive


Lank and long is Birdalone the sweet, with legs that come forth bare and browned from under her scant grey coat and scantier smock beneath, which was all her raiment save when the time was bitter, and then, forsooth, it was a cloak of goat-skin that eked her attire: for the dame heeded little the clothing of her; nor did Birdalone give so much heed thereto that she cared to risk the anger of her mistress by asking her for aught.

But on a day of this same spring, when the witch-wife was of sweeter temper than her wont was, and the day was very warm and kindly, though it was but one of the last of February days, Birdalone, blushing and shamefaced, craved timidly some more womanly attire. But the dame turned gruffly on her and said: Tush, child! what needeth it? here be no men to behold thee. I shall see to it, that when due time comes thou shalt be whitened and sleeked to the very utmost. But look thou! thou art a handy wench; take the deer-skin that hangs up yonder and make thee brogues for thy feet, if so thou wilt.

Even so did Birdalone, and shaped the skin to her feet; but as she was sewing them a fancy came into her head; for she had just come across some threads of silk of divers colours; so she took them and her shoon and her needle up into the wood, and there sat down happily under a great spreading oak which much she haunted, and fell to broidering the kindly deer-skin. And she got to be long about it, and came back to it the next day and the next, and many days, whenso her servitude would suffer it, and yet the shoon were scarce done.

So on a morning the dame looked on her feet as she moved about the chamber, and cried out at her: What! art thou barefoot as an hen yet? Hast thou spoilt the good deer-skin and art yet but shoeless? Nay, our lady, said Birdalone, but the shoon are not altogether done. Show them to me, said the dame.

Birdalone went to her little coffer to fetch them, and brought them somewhat timorously, for she knew not how her mistress would take her working on them so long, if perchance she would blame her, or it might be chastise her, for even in those days the witch-wife’s hand was whiles raised against her. But now when the dame took the shoes and looked on them, and saw how there were oak-leaves done into them, and flowers, and coneys, and squirrels, she but smiled somewhat grimly on Birdalone, and said: Well, belike thou art a fool to waste thy time and mine in such toys; and to give thee thy due would be to give thee stripes. But thou doest herein after the nature of earthly women, to adorn thy body, whatsoever else is toward. And well is that, since I would have thee a woman so soon as may be; and I will help thy mind for finery, since thou art so deft with thy needle.

Therewith she went to the big coffer and drew forth thence a piece of fine green cloth, and another of fine linen, and said to Birdalone: This mayest thou take, and make thee a gown thereof and a new smock, and make them if thou wilt as gay as thy new shoon are gotten to be; and here is wherewithal. And therewith she gave her two handfuls of silken threads and gold, and said: Now I suppose that I must do the more part of thy work, while thou art making thee these gaudy garments. But maybe someone may be coming this way ere long, who will deem the bird the finer for her fine feathers. Now depart from me; for I would both work for thee and me, and ponder weighty matters.

Who was glad now but Birdalone; she grew red with new pleasure, and knelt down and kissed the witch’s hand, and then went her ways to the wood with her precious lading, and wrought there under her oak-tree day after day, and all days, either there, or in the house when the weather was foul. That was in the middle of March, when all birds were singing, and the young leaves showing on the hawthorns, so that there were pale green clouds, as it were, betwixt the great grey boles of oak and sweet-chestnut; and by the lake the meadow-saffron new-thrust-up was opening its blossom; and March wore and April, and still she was at work happily when now it was later May, and the hare-bells were in full bloom down the bent before her.

All this while the witch had meddled little with Birdalone, and had bidden her to no work afield or in the stead which was anywise grievous, but had done all herself; yet was she few-spoken with her, and would oft behold her gloomily. And one evening when Birdalone came in from the wood, the witch came close up to her and stared her in the face, and said suddenly: Is it in thine heart to flee away from me and leave me?

A sharp pang of fear shot through Birdalone’s heart at that word, and she turned very red, and then pale to the lips, but stammered out: No, lady, it is not in mine heart. The dame looked grimly on her and said: If thou try it and fail, thou shalt rue it once only, to wit, lifelong; and thou canst but fail. She was silent a while, and then spake in a milder voice: Be content here a while with me, and thereafter thou shalt be more content, and that before long.

She said no more at that time; but her word clave to Birdalone’s heart, and for some time thereafter she was sorely oppressed with a burden of fear, and knew not how to hold herself before the witch-wife. But the days wore, and nought betid, and the maiden’s heart grew lighter, and still she wrought on at her gown and her smock, and it was well-nigh done. She had broidered the said gown with roses and lilies, and a tall tree springing up from amidmost the hem of the skirt, and a hart on either side thereof, face to face of each other. And the smock she had sewn daintily at the hems and the bosom with fair knots and buds. It was now past the middle of June, hot and bright weather.

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