CHAPTER II ~ NOW SHALL BE TOLD OF THE HOUSE BY THE WATER SIDE
On a fair smooth road went they amidst of a goodly meadow-land, wherein were little copses here and there. When they were fairly out of the gate, the priest reached for Birdalone’s hand, and she let him take it and lead her along thereby, thinking no evil; but he might scarce speak for a while, so great was the stir in his heart at the touch of her bare flesh. But Birdalone spake and said: Thou art kind, father, to lead me on my way thus.
He answered in a husky voice with his eyes cast down, and forsooth set on the feet of her: It is not far that I am leading thee; there is a broken cot by the copse at the turn of the road yonder, where thou mayst abide to-night; it is better lodging than none, evil as it is for such an one as thou. Birdalone laughed: Worse have I had, said she, than would be the copse without the cot. And she thought withal of the prison in the Isle of Increase Unsought.
Her voice seemed so cheery and friendly to the priest, that he shook off somewhat the moodiness of his desire, and looked up and said: I shall tell thee, lady, that I suppose thou hast more errand with my lords than to crave lodging of them despite the custom of the castle. Nay, I have an inkling of what thine errand may be, whereof more anon; but now shall I tell thee what is best for thee to do so as to have speech of them the soonest. They have gone forth with some of our lads to gather venison, or it may be beeves and muttons for our victualling, and somewhat of battle may they have had on the way, for ill neighbours have we. But if they come back unfoughten they will be wending this road, and must needs pass by thy copse-side; and if thou be sleeping the noise of them will full surely awaken thee. Then all thou hast to do is to come forth and stand in the way before them, that they may see thee; and when once they have seen thee, how may they pass thee by unspoken with?
I thank thee heartily for thy rede, said Birdalone; but I would ask thee two things: first, what is the name of the castle behind us? and second, why have ye the custom of shutting the door upon women? Said the priest: The castle is called in this country-side, the White Ward by the Water; but within there we call it the Castle of the Quest; and thus is it called because my lords are seeking their loves whom they have lost; and they have sworn an oath that no woman shall enter therein till their own loves have trodden its floors.
Rose the heart of Birdalone at that word, and she deemed indeed that she was come thither whereas her she-friends would have had her. The priest beheld her and saw how her beauty was eked by that gladness, and he scarce knew how to contain himself; and might speak no word awhile; then he said: Hearken further concerning thy matter; if my lords be tarried, and come not by matin-song, then I doubt not but the castellan will send folk to see to thee. He looked down therewith and said: I will come to thee myself; and will bring thee men-at-arms, if need be. But sometime tomorrow morning my lords will come, save mischief hath betid, which God forbid. And he crossed himself; then he looked up and full in her face, and said: But keep thine heart up; for whatsoever may betide, thou shalt not be left uncared for.
Said Birdalone: I see of thee that thou art become my good friend, and it rejoiceth my heart; I shall be well at ease to-night in thy cot, and tomorrow morn I shall be valiant to do thy bidding.
The sweetness of her speech so overcame him, that he but looked confusedly on her, as if he scarce heard her; and they went on together without more words, till he said: Here are we at the cot, and I will show thee thy chamber. So he led her to a little thatched bower, built with walls of wattle-work daubed with clay, which stood without the remnant of the cot: it was clean and dry, for the roof was weather-tight; but there was nought in it at all save a heap of bracken in a corner.
There stood the priest, still holding Birdalone’s hand, and spake not, but looked about, yet always covertly on Birdalone; but in a while he let go her hand, and seemed to wake up, and said: This it is; a sorry place enough, were it even for a gangrel body. Even so am I, quoth she laughing; and thou mayest look to it, that herein I shall rest full happily. Then he gave her a horn, drawing it from out of the basket of victual, which he now set down on the ground; and he said: If thou shouldst deem thee hard bestead, then wind this horn, and we shall know its voice up there and come to help thee. Now I give thee good-night.
She thanked him sweetly, and he went slowly out of the bower, but was scarce gone ere he came back again, and said: One thing I may perchance tell thee without drawing thine anger on my head; to wit, that I it was who said to the castellan that he should take thee in. Wilt thou say aught to this? She said: I will thank thee again and again; for it was the saving of my life and mine errand. And clearer is it now than ever that thou art a good friend unto me.
As she looked on him and caressed him with kind eyes, she saw that his brow was knit, and his face troubled, and she said to him: What ails thee? art thou wroth with me in any wise? O no, said he; how should I be wroth with thee! But there is a thing I would ask of thee. Yea, and what? said she. He said: Nay, I may not, I may not. It shall be for tomorrow, or another day. He spake it looking down, and in a broken voice; and she wondered somewhat at him, but not much, deeming that he was troubled by something which had nought to do with her, and which he might refrain from thinking of, even before a stranger.
But presently he caught her hand and kissed it, and bade her good-night again, and then went hastily out of the bower; and when he was well without, he muttered, but not so as she might hear him: Durst I have asked her, she would have suffered me to kiss her cheek. Alas! fool that I was! Birdalone turned then to her bracken bed, and found it sweet and clean; and she was at rest and peace in her mind, albeit her body was exceeding weary. She felt happy in the little lonely cot, and her heart had gone out to the sweet meadow-land, and she loved it after all the trouble of the water; and herseemed that even now, in the dusk a-growing into dark, it loved and caressed her. So she laid her down, nor unclad herself at all, lest she should have to arise on a sudden, and show those tokens of the three damsels on her body.
A little while she lay there happily, hearkening the voices of the nightingales in the brake, and then she fell into a dreamless sleep, unbroken till the short night passed into day.