CHAPTER XVII ~ BIRDALONE LAYETH TO EARTH THE ODY OF THE WITCH, AND FINDETH THE SENDING BOAT BROKEN UP
When morning was, Birdalone awoke, and felt a weight upon her heart, and called to mind the task which lay before her. So she arose and clad herself, and went straight to the grave begun, and toiled hard till she had digged it out deep, and sithence she dragged the witch thereinto and heaped the earth upon her. Then she bathed her in the nighest pool of the brook, and went back into the house and made her breakfast on the bread and milk, and it was then about mid-morning. Thereafter she went about the house, and saw to the baking of bread, and so out to the meadow to see to the kine and the goats, and then stored the milk for making butter and cheese, and did in all wise as if she were to dwell long in that stead; but thereafter she rested her body, whiles her thought went wide about. But she said to herself that she would not go up to the Oak of Tryst to meet the wood-mother that day, but would abide the night, in case aught befell that she should tell her.
But when the sun was getting low she roused herself and went out, and walked about the meadow, and hearkened to the birds’ song, and watched the kine and the goats as they fed down the pasture; and now a soft content came over her, that all this was free unto her to hold in peace, and to take her pleasure in, as much as one lone child of Adam might do.
At last she wandered down to the sandy bight of the lake and stood gazing on Green Eyot, where the osiers and willows were grown wild and long in all these years, and she said that she would swim over to it on the morrow. But now her feet took her eastward thence toward the haven of the Sending Boat amongst the alders; for in her heart she would fain know if there were any tidings for her.
So she went softly along the path by the water, where she had sped so swiftly that last time, and came at last to the creek-side, and looked down on to the water somewhat timorously. There then she saw what she deemed was the very boat itself lying as she had known it; but when she looked again she saw that it lay from stem to stern all loose staves with the water betwixt, and the thwarts and ribs all sundered and undone, so that never again might it float upon the waves. Then she said in a soft voice: Art thou dead then, as thy mistress is dead? was it not so that thou wert at the point of death, and she also, when thou failedst me at the Isle of Increase Unsought? No voice came to her as she spake; and she said again: Must I then bury thee as I have buried thy mistress? Nay, that will I not until thou compellest me; belike in a short while little of the staves of thee shall be left now that the life is out of thee. Let thy ghost and hers foregather if ye will.
As she spake the last word, she saw a stir about the stern which lay furthest in up the creek, and while she quaked with failing heart, lo! a big serpent, mouldy and hairy, grey and brown-flecked, came forth from under the stern and went into the water and up the bank and so into the dusk of the alder-wood. Birdalone stood awhile pale and heartsick for fear, and when her feet felt life in them, she turned and stole away back again into the merry green mead and the low beams of the sun, pondering whether this evil creature were the fetch of the wight who drave the ferry under the blood of the sender.
So she hastened back again to the house, and lit a fire on the hearth, and fell to cooking her somewhat of grout to her supper; and she watched the fire, thinking withal: Now if some poor soul be abroad, they may see the smoke and seek hither, and I may comfort them with food and shelter and converse; or when night darkens, they may see the litten windows and come to me; wherefore shall the fire burn yet and the candles be lighted, for as warm as is the evening, even as if it were Yule-tide and the snow deep without, and the wind howling in the woodland trees. And therewith she wept for longing of them that she loved.
But in a little she dried her tears, and reproached herself for her much softness; and she ate her supper when she had lighted a candle (for it was now dark), and again sat looking at the hearth, till she said: Now am I getting soft again, and who knows but my softness may tempt the ghosts to come in to me. I will give my hands somewhat to do.
Therewith her eye caught sight of the rents and rags of her old grey gown, and she smiled somewhat ruefully as she called to mind her gallant knight’s array, which lay now on the shore of the evil and ruined isle; and her goodly attire of the days of the Five Crafts; and the rich raiment wherein her friends of the Castle of the Quest had clad her. Then she arose and sought needle and thread and some remnants of green cloth, and did off the ragged coat and fell to patching and mending it, and so sat at her work in smock-sewing till the night was old and she was weary and sleep overcame her, and she lay down in her bed and slept dreamlessly till the sun was high next morning.