CHAPTER XVI ~ BIRDALONE FINDETH HER WITCH-MITRESS DEAD
It was some while after noon when she wakened, and the sun was shining bright and hot. Somewhat she felt the burden of fear upon her, even before she was fully come to herself, and knew not what it was that she feared; but when she called to mind that it was even the meeting with her old mistress, her flesh quaked indeed with the memory of bygone anguish, but valiantly she arose and faced the dwelling of the witch despite her naked helplessness. As she went she looked up unto it, and saw no smoke coming from the chimney, but marvelled little thereat since it was not yet cooking-time and the weather hot. She drew nigher, and saw someone sitting on the bench without the door whereas the witch was wonted; and her heart beat quick, for she saw presently that it was none other than her mistress. Moreover, near to her stood three of the milch-kine lowing uneasily and as in reproach, even as such beasts use when their udders be full and they desire to be milked.
Birdalone stayed a minute, and her legs nigh failed her for fear, and then because of the very fear she hastened on till she came within ten paces of the said witch; and sore she missed her bow and arrows, and the cutting blade of her feigned squirehood, lest the carline should arise and come raging and shrieking at her.
Then spake Birdalone in no feeble voice, and said: Dame, I am come back unto thee, as thou seest, in even such plight as I fled from thee; and I have a mind to dwell in this land: what sayest thou? The witch neither moved nor spake at her word; and the kine, who had held silence when she first came up, and had turned from her, fell to their peevish lowing again.
Birdalone drew a step nigher, and said: Dost thou hear me, dame, or art thou exceeding wroth with me, and art pondering what vengeance thou wilt take on me? Still no answer came from the carline, and the kine kept on lowing now and again. Once more Birdalone drew nigher, and spake loudly and said: Tell me at least, is it peace between us or unpeace?
But now when she looked she saw that the eyes of the witch were open and staring, and her lips white, and her hands hard writhen; and she cried out and said: Is she dead? or will she waken presently and beat me? surely she is dead. And she put forth her hand and touched her face, and it was stone-cold; and she found that she was dead beyond any question.
Then was a great weight lifted off her heart, and she turned about and looked on the meadows and up to the trees of the wood and down to the rippling stream before her, and fair and sweet and joyous were they gotten unto her; and she looked at the kine who were drawing up towards her, and she laughed merrily, and went to the out-house hard by and took forth a milking-pail and a stool and fell to milking them one after the other, and the beasts went off down the meadow lowing in a changed voice, for joy to wit, this time. But Birdalone knelt down and drank a long draught of the sweet warm milk, and then arose and went swiftly into the house, and saw nought changed or worsened so far as she could see. There was her own bed in the corner, and the mistress’s, greater and much fairer, over against it; and the hutch by the door wherein the victual was kept: she opened it now, and found three loaves there on the shelf, and a meal-tub down below, and she took a loaf and broke it and fell to eating it as she walked about the chamber. There was her bow standing in a nook beside the hutch, and the quiver of arrows hanging on the wall above it. There was the settle lying athwart from the hearth; and she smiled, and fitted her wrists to the back of the carven bear which made its elbow, whereto the witch was wont to tie them when she chastised her.
Then she went to the coffers that stood against the wall behind it, and threw up the lid of one of them, and found therein a smock or two of her own, yellowed by the lapse of time, and her old grey coat, ragged as it was when last she wore it, and now somewhat moth-eaten withal; and she drew forth both smocks and coat and laid them on the settle. Then she opened another coffer, and therein were gay and gaudy gowns and gear of the witch’s wear; but lying amongst them, as if the witch had worn them also, her green gown and shoon which her own hands had broidered. But she said: Nay, ye have been in ill company, I will wear you not, though ye be goodly, at least not till ye have been fumigated and hallowed for me.
Therewith she turned back to the settle and did on her her old smock and her ragged grey coat, and said: To-day at least will these be good enough for today’s work. And she knit her brow withal, and walked with a firm step out-a-doors and stood a while gazing on the dead corpse of her enemy; and she thought how that here was that which once was so great a thing unto her for the shaping of her life-days, and which so oft came to her waking thoughts after she had escaped from her hands, (though, as aforesaid, she seldom dreamed of her a-night-time), and moreover an hour ago she yet feared it so sore that she scarce might stand for the fear of it; and now it was nought but a carven log unto her.
But she told herself that the work was to be done; so she dragged the body away thence, and across the brook, and a little way into the meadow, and then she went back and fetched mattock and spade from the outhouse, where she knew they lay, and so fell to digging a grave for the corpse of her dead terror. But howso hard she might toil, she was not through with the work ere night began to fall on her, and she had no mind to go on with her digging by night. Wherefore she went back into the house, and lighted candles, whereof was no lack, and made her supper of the bread and the milk; and then sat pondering on her life that had been till the passion arose in her bosom, and the tears burst out, and long she wept for desire of others and pity for herself. Then she went to the bed she had been erst wont to, and laid her down and fell asleep.
And her mistress walked not, nor meddled with her peace; nor did Birdalone so much as dream of her, but of her mother and Master Jacobus in the fair city of the Five Crafts; and in her sleep she wept for thinking of them.