CHAPTER X ~ BIRDALONE COMES TO THE ISLE OF THE QUEENS
Birdalone awoke the next morning while the boat was yet speeding over the water, and the sun was up: but she was hard on the land, which sat low and green, like a meadow exceeding fair, on the bosom of the water, and many goodly trees were sprinkled about the greenland. But from amidst the trees, no great way from the water’s edge, rose a great house, white and fair, as if it were new-builded, and all glorious with pinnacles, and tabernacles set with imagery.
Presently the boat’s bows ran into the reed and rush at the brim of the water, and Birdalone stepped ashore without more ado, and the scent of the meadow-sweet amongst which she landed brought back unto her the image of Green Eyot that while agone.
But now when she was ashore the dread took hold of her again, and her knees trembled under her, so that she might scarce stand, so fearful was she of walking into some trap; especially when she beheld that goodly house, lest therein awaited her some proud and cruel lady, and no kind damsels to deliver her.
She looked about her, and saw in all the fair meadow neither man nor woman, nor draught-beast nor milch-beast, nought but the little creatures of the brake and the bent-grass, which were but as the blossoms thereof; and the birds running in the herbage or singing amidst the tree-boughs.
Then she thought that she must needs go forward, or belike her errand would not speed; that the Sending Boat might not obey her, unless she saw through the adventure to the end; so she went on toward the house quaking.
Soon was she at the porch of the white palace, and had seen no man nor heard any voice of men; much she marvelled, despite her dread, at the beauty of the said house, and the newness thereof; for it was as one flower arisen out of the earth, and every part of it made the beauty of the other parts more excellent; and so new it was, that it would have seemed as if the masons thereof had but struck their scaffold yesterday, save that under the very feet of the walls the sweet garden flowers grew all uncrushed.
Now comes Birdalone through the porch unto the screens of the great hall; and she stopped a little to recover her breath, that she might be the quieter and calmer amongst the great folk and mighty whom she looked to find therein. So she gathered heart; but one thing daunted her, to wit, that she heard no sound come from that great and goodly hall, so that she doubted if it were perchance left desert by them who had been its lords.
She raised her hand to the door of the screen, and it opened easily before her, and she entered, and there indeed she saw new tidings. For the boards end-long and over-thwart were set, and thereat were sitting a many folk, and their hands were reached out to knife and to dish, and to platter and cup; but such a hush there was within, that the song of the garden birds without sounded to her as loud as they were the voices of the children of Adam.
Next she saw that all that company, from the great folk on the dais down to those who stood about the hall to do the service, were women, one and all; not one carle might she see from where she stood: lovely were they many of them, and none less than comely; their cheeks were bright, and their eyes gleamed, and their hair flowed down fair of fashion. And she stood, and durst not move a long while, but expected when someone would speak a word, and all should turn their heads toward the new-comer. But none moved nor spake. And the fear increased in her amidst that hush, and weighed so heavy on her heart, that at last she might endure it no longer, but fell swooning to the floor.
When she came to herself; and the swoon-dreams had left her, she saw by the changing of the sun through the hall-windows, that she had lain there long, more nearly two hours than one; and at first she covered her face with her hands as she crouched there, that she might not see the sight of the silent hall, for yet was it as hushed as before. Then slowly she arose, and the sound of her raiment and her stirring feet was loud in her ears. But when she was upright on her feet, she hardened her heart, and went forth into the hall, and no less was her wonder than erst. For when she came close to those ladies as they sat at table, and her raiment brushed the raiment of the serving-women as she passed by, then saw she how no breath came from any of these, and that they neither spake nor moved, because they were dead.
At first, then, she thought to flee away at once, but again she had mind of her errand, and so went up the hall, and so forth on to the dais; and there again, close by the high table, she saw new tidings. For there was set a bier, covered with gold and pall, and on it was laid a tall man, a king, belted and crowned; and beside the said bier, by the head of the king, knelt a queen of exceeding goodly body, clad all in raiment of pearl and bawdekin; and her hands were clasped together, and her mouth was drawn, and her brow knit with the anguish of her grief. But athwart the king’s breast lay a naked sword all bloody; and this Birdalone noted, that whereas the lady was of skin and hue as if she were alive, the king was yellow as wax, and his cheeks were shrunken, and his eyes had been closed by the wakers of the dead.
Long Birdalone looked and wondered; and now if her fear were less, her sorrow was more for all that folk sitting there dead in their ancient state and pomp. And was not the thought clean out of her head, that yet they might awake and challenge her, and that she might be made one of that silent company. Withal she felt her head beginning to fail her, and she feared that she might swoon again and never waken more, but lie for ever beside that image of the dead king.
So then she refrained her both of fear and sorrow, and walked speedily down the hall, looking neither to the right nor left: and she came forth into the pleasance, but stayed there nought, so nigh it seemed to that hushed company. Thence came she forth into the open meadow, and sweet and dear seemed its hot sunshine and noisy birds and rustling leaves. Nevertheless, so great was the tumult of her spirits, that once more she grew faint, and felt that she might scarce go further. So she dragged herself into the shade of a thorn-tree, and let her body sink unto the ground, and lay there long unwitting.