CHAPTER VIII ~ ATRA AND BIRDALONE TALK TOGETHER WHILE THE LORDS SIT AT THE MURDER-COUNCIL
Meanwhile of their absence, Viridis sat sad and silent and downcast, though she wept not, for her gladness, which erst had been so great, seemed now reft from her; and no merrier was Aurea, as might have been looked for. But Atra came quietly unto Birdalone, and said softly: I have a word for thee if thou wilt come forth with me into the hall. Birdalone’s heart failed her somewhat, but she suffered Atra to take her hand, and they went into the hall together, and Atra brought her into a shot-window, and they sat down together side by side and were silent awhile. Spake Atra then, trembling and reddening: Birdalone, knowest thou what thought, what hope, was in my heart when I spake so proudly and rashly e’en now? Birdalone kept silence, and trembled as the other did. This it was, said Atra: he will go to this battle valiantly, he may fall there, and that were better; for then is life to begin anew: and what is there to do with these dregs of life? Said Birdalone, with flushed face: If he die he shall die goodly, and if he live he shall live goodly. Yea, yea, said Atra; forsooth thou art a happy woman! Dost thou hate me? said Birdalone. Said Atra: Proud is thy word, but I hate thee not. Nay, e’en now, when I spake thus boastfully, I thought: When he hath died as a doughty knight should, then, when life begins again, Birdalone and I shall be friends and sisters, and we two will talk together oft and call him to mind, and the kindness of him, and how he loved us. Woe’s me! that was when he was there sitting beside me and I could see him and his kindness; and then it was as if I could give him away; but now he is gone and I may not see him, it is clear to me that I have no part or lot in him, and I call back my thought and my word, and now it is: O that he may live! O thou happy woman, that shall be glad whether he liveth or dieth!
Said Birdalone: And now thou hatest me, dost thou not, and we are foes? Atra answered not, nor spake for a while; then she said: Hard and bitter is it, and I know not what to turn to. I have seen once and again, on the wall of the Minorites’ church at Greenford, a fair picture of the Blessed, and they walking in the meads of Paradise, clad in like raiment, men and women; their heads flower-crowned, their feet naked in the harmless blossomed grass; hand in hand they walk, with all wrath passed for ever, all desire changed into loving-kindness, all the anguish of forgiveness forgotten. And underneath the picture is it writ:
Bitter winter, burning summer, never more shall waste and wear; Blossom of the rose undying brings undying springtide there.
O for the hope of it, that I might hope it! O for the days to be and the assuaging of sorrow: I speak the word, and the hope springeth; the word is spoken, and there abideth desire barren of hope! And she bowed down her head and wept bitterly; and Birdalone called to mind her kindness of the past and wept for her, she also.
After a while Atra lifted up her head, and thus she spake: I hate thee not, Birdalone; nor doth one say such things to a foe. Yea, furthermore, I will crave somewhat of thee. If ever there come a time when thou mayst do something for me, thou wilt know it belike without my telling thee. In that day and in that hour I bid thee remember how we stood together erst at the stair-foot of the Wailing Tower in the Isle of Increase Unsought, and thou naked and fearful and quaking, and what I did to thee that tide to comfort thee and help and save thee. And then when thou hast called it to mind, do thou for me what thou canst do. Wilt thou promise this? Yea, yea, said Birdalone; and with all the better will, that oft and over again have I called it to mind. Wherefore I behight thee to let me serve thee if I may whenso the occasion cometh, even if it be to my own pain and grief; for this I know thou meanest.
See thou to this then, said Atra coldly; and thou shalt be the better for it in the long run belike: for thou art a happy woman.
She arose as she spake, and said: Hist! here come the lords from the murder-council; and lo, now that he cometh, my heart groweth evil toward thee again, and well-nigh biddeth me wish that thou wert naked and helpless before me again. Lo my unhap! that he should mark my face that it shows as if I were fain to do thee a mischief. And nought of that would I do; for how should it avail me, and thou my fellow and the faithful messenger of the Quest?
Now little of her last words did Birdalone meet, as into the hall came Hugh and Arthur; and though she strove to sober her mind and think of her she-friend and her unhappiness, yet she could not choose but to be full of joy in her inmost heart now she knew without doubt that she was so well-beloved of her beloved: and she deemed that Atra was in the right indeed to call her a happy woman.
So now they all went into the solar together, and sat them down with the two others; and Hugh did them to wit, how they had ordered all the matter of the messengers who were to summon the knights and chiefs of thereabouts, and the aldermen of Greenford, to meet at the Castle of the Quest, that they might set afoot the hosting to go against the Red Hold.