CHAPTER V ~ BIRDALONE HAS TRUE TOKENS FROM THE CHAMPIONS OF THE QUEST
Now they brought Birdalone into a very fair chamber, where was presently everything she might need, save a tiring woman, which, forsooth, was no lack unto her, since never had she had any to help her array her body. So she did what she might to make herself the trimmer; and in a while came two fair swains of service, who brought her in all honour into the great hall, where were the three lords abiding her. There were they served well and plenteously, and fair was the converse between them; and in especial was the talk of Arthur the Black Squire goodly and wise and cheery, and well-measured; and the Green Knight’s speech merry and kind, as of an happy child; and the Golden Knight spake ever free and kindly, though not of many words was he. And who was happy if Birdalone were not?
But when they had eaten and washed their hands, then spake the Golden Knight: Dear maiden, now are we ready to hear the innermost of thine errand, all we together, if thou wilt.
Birdalone smiled and reddened withal, as she said: Fair lords, I doubt not but ye are even they unto whom I was sent, but they who sent me, and who saved me from death and worse, bade me do mine errand in such a way, that I should speak with each one of you privily, and that for a token each should tell me a thing known but to him and his love, and to me unto whom she hath told it. Now am I all ready to do mine errand thus, and no other wise.
Laughed they now, and were merry, and the Green Knight blushed like a maiden; forsooth like to his very speech-friend Viridis. But the Black Squire said: Fair fellows, get we all into the pleasance this fair morn, and sit there on the grass, and our sweet lady shall take us one after other into the plashed alley, and have the tokens of us.
Even so they did, and went into the pleasance, which was a goodly little garth south of the castle, grassed, and set thick with roses and lilies and gillyflowers, and other fragrant flowers. There then they sat on the daisied greensward, the three lords together, and Birdalone over against them, and they three watched her beauty and loveliness and wondered thereat.
But she said: Now it comes to the very point of mine errand; wherefore I bid thee, Baudoin the Golden Knight, to come apart with me and answer to my questions, so that I may know surely that I am doing mine errand aright.
Therewith she arose to her feet, and he also, and he led her into the plashed alley, out of earshot of the other twain, who lay upon the grass biding their turn with but little patience.
But when those two were in the deep shade of the alley, Birdalone said: Thou must know, Sir Golden Knight, that the three lovers of you three were good to me in my need, and clad my nakedness from their very bodies, but this raiment they lent me, and gave it not; for they bade me give it up piece by piece each unto the one who had given it to his love, whom I should know by the token that he should tell truly the tale of its giving. Now, fair sir, I know well, for I have been told, what was the tale of thy giving this golden gown to Aurea, and that same tale shalt thou now tell me, and if thou tell it aright, then is the gown thine. Begin, then, without more tarrying.
Lady, said the knight, thus it was: Aurea, my sweetling, abode with an ancient dame, a kinswoman of hers, who was but scantly kind to her; and on a day when we had met privily, and were talking together, my love lamented the niggard ways of her said kinswoman, and told how she had no goodly gown to make her fair when feasts were toward; but I laughed at her, and told her that so clad as she was (and her attire was verily but simple) she was fairer than any other; and then, as ye may wot, there was kissing and clipping between us; but at last, as from the first I meant it, I promised her I would purvey her such a gown as no lady should go with a better in all the country-side; but I said that in return I must have the gown she went in then, which had so long embraced her body and been strained so close to her body and her sides, and was as it were a part of her. That she promised me with kisses, and I went away as merry as a bird. Straightway thereafter I did do make this very gown, which thou bearest, dear maiden, and on the appointed day she came out to me unto the same place clad as she was before; but the new gown I had with me. Hard by our trysting-place was a hazel-copse thick enow, for it was midsummer, and she said she would go thereinto and shift gowns, and bear me out thence the gift of the old clout (so she called it, laughing merrily). But I said: Nay, I would go into the copse with her to guard her from evil things, beasts or men; and withal to see her do off the old gown, that I might know before I wedded her whatlike stuffing and padding went to make the grace of her flanks and her hips. And again was she merry, and she said: Come, then, thou Thomas unbelieving, and see the side of me. So we went into that cover together, and she did off her gown before mine eyes, and stood there in her white coat with her arms bare, and her shoulders and bosom little covered, and she was as lovely as a woman of the faery. Then I made no prayer unto her for leave, but took my arms about her, and kissed her arms and shoulders and bosom all she would suffer me, for I was mad with love of her naked flesh. Then she did on this golden gown, and departed when she had given me the old clout aforesaid, and I went away with it, scarce feeling the ground beneath my feet; and I set the dear gown in a fair little coffer, and here in this castle I have it now, and many times I take it forth and kiss it and lay my head upon it. Now this is a simple tale, lady, and I am ashamed that I have made it so long for thee. And yet I know not; for thou seemest to me so kind and loving and true, that I am fain that thou shouldest know how sorely I love thy friend and mine.
Birdalone deemed Baudoin a good man indeed, and the tears came into her eyes as she answered and said: True is thy tale, dear friend, and I have deemed it rather short than long. I see well that thou art Aurea’s very lover; and it joys me to think that thou, O terrible champion, art yet so tender and true. Now is the golden gown thine, but I will pray thee to lend it me a little longer. But this jewel shalt thou have from my neck here and now; and thou knowest whence it came, thine Aurea’s neck forsooth.
Therewith she betook it him, and he held it in his hand doubtfully a while, and then he said: Dear maiden, I thank thee, but I will take this collar, and lay it in my casket, and be glad thereof; and that the more, as, now I look on thee, I see nought missing from the loveliness of thine own neck.
Go to thy fellows now, said Birdalone, and send me the Green Knight, the goodly lad. So went he, and presently came Hugh thither merry and smiling, and said: Thou hast been long about the first token, sweet mistress; I fear me I shall make no such goodly story as hath Baudoin. And yet, said she, Viridis’ tale was the longest of all. I doubt thou mayst fail in the token. And she laughed; and he no less, and took her by the shoulders, and kissed her cheek frankly, and in such wise that she feared him nought, and said: Now that is to pay thee for thy gibe; what wouldst thou have of me? Said Birdalone: I would have thee tell me how it was that Viridis came by the smock with the green boughs aflame, which now I bear upon me.
Hearken, darling lady, said he: On a day Viridis and I were alone in the meadow, and so happy, that we might find nought to do save to fall into strife together; and I said it to her, that she loved me not as well as I loved her; which, by the way, was no less than a lie, for of all things living she is the most loving, and when we be together she knoweth not how to make enough of me. Well, we fell to wrangling after the manner of lovers, till I, having nothing else to say, bade her remember that since we had first come to love each other, I had given her many things, and she had given me nothing. Lo, then! my dear, what an ill-conditioned lad was I. But, little as I meant it, she took it all amiss, and leapt up, and fell to running back home over the meadow; thou mayst think how easily I caught up with her, and how little loth she was to be dragged back by the shoulders. So when we were sitting again under the thorn-bush, we had well-nigh done our wrangle; but she unlaced her gown and drew down a corner thereof, to show me her shoulder, how I had hurt it e’en now; and forsooth some little mark there was on the rose-leaf skin; and that made good time for kissing again, as ye may well wot. Then she said unto me: And how may I, a poor damsel, give thee gifts, and my kindred all greedy about me? Yet would I give thee a gift, such as I may, if I but knew what thou wouldst take. Now my heart was afire with that kissing of her shoulder, and I said that I would have that very same smock from her body, which then she bore, and that thereof I should deem that I had a rich gift indeed. What! said she, and wouldst thou have it here and now? And indeed I think she would have done it off her that minute had I pressed her, but I lacked the boldness thereto; and I said: Nay, but would she bring it unto me the next time we met; and forsooth she brought it folded in a piece of green silk, and dearly have I loved it and kissed it sithence. But as for thy smock, I had it fairly wrought and embroidered with the flaming green branches, as thou seest it, and I gave it to her; but not on the day when she gave me the gift; for the new one was long about doing. Now this is all the tale, and how Viridis might eke it into a long one, I wot not. But let it be, and tell me, have I won thy smock, or lost it?
Birdalone laughed on him and said: Well, at least thou shalt have it as a gift; and thou mayst call it given either by Viridis or me, which thou wilt. But with it goes another gift; which thou mayst have at once since thou must lend me the smock a little longer. And therewith she betook him her girdle, and he kissed it, but said: Nay, fair lady, this befitteth well the loveliness of thy body that thou shouldst wear it; and well it befitteth the truth and love of thy soul toward it for me; I pray thee to keep it. Nevertheless, she said, I will not have it, for it goeth with mine errand that thou take it of me. Now I bid thee depart, and send hither thy fellow, the Black Squire.
Went he then, and anon comes the Black Squire, and now that he was alone with Birdalone this first time, he seemed moody and downcast, all unlike the two others. He stood a little aloof from Birdalone, and said: What wouldst thou ask of me? Her heart was somewhat chilled by his moodiness, for erst had she deemed him the kindest of the three; but she said: It is of mine errand to ask of thee concerning this foot-gear which Atra lent me until I give it unto thee, if thou be verily her lover. Said he: I was verily her lover. Birdalone said: Then canst thou tell me the manner of thy giving these fair shoon unto Atra?
He said: Even so; we were walking together in this country-side and came to a ford of the river, and it was somewhat deep and took me to over the knee, so I bore her over in my arms; then we went on a little further till we must cross the river back again in another place, and there the ford was shallower, and, the day being hot, Atra must needs wade it on her own feet. So she did off hosen and shoon, and I led her by the hand, and it took her but up to mid-leg. But when we came up out of the water and were on the grass again, I craved the gift of her foot-gear for the love of her, and she gave it straightway, and fared home barefoot, for it was over the meads we were wending in early summer, and the grass was thick and soft. But thereafter I did do make the fair shoon which thou hast on thy feet, and gave them to her. And, for a further token that my tale is true, I shall tell thee that the name of the first ford we waded that day is the Grey-nag’s Wade, and the second is called Goat Ford. This is all my tale, lady; is the token true?
True it is, squire, said Birdalone, and was silent awhile, and he also. Then she looked on him friendly, and said: Thou art out of heart as now, my friend. Fear not, for thou shalt without doubt see thy speech-friend again. Moreover here is a ring which she set upon my finger, bidding me give it thee. And she held it out unto him.
He took the ring, and said: Yea, it is best that I have it of thee, lest unluck come thereof. She saw trouble in his face, but knew not what to say to cheer him, and they stood silently facing one another for awhile. Then he said: Let us back to our fellows, and talk it over, what is now to be done.
So they went their ways to where lay the other two upon the green grass, and the Black Squire lay down beside them; but Birdalone stood before them and spake unto the three.