CHAPTER XXIII ~ THE WOOD-WIFE BRINGETH BIRDALONE TO THE SIGHT OF ARTHUR IN THE WILDWOOD
Now they go on again, no less speedily than before, and rest but little, until it was hard on an hour before sunset. And now Habundia began to go warily, as if they were come anigh to their journey’s end and the thing that they sought. They were come by now to a long bent of the forest well grown with big-boled oak-trees, not very close together, so that short fine greensward was all underneath them; and Habundia went heedfully from bole to bole, as if she would be ready to cover herself if need were; and Birdalone went after her, and was now flushed of face, and her eyes glittered, and her heart beat fast, and her legs trembled under her, as she went running from tree to tree.
So came they nigh to the crown of the bent, and before them were the oak-trees sparser and smaller as they went down the further side, which seemed by their sudden shortening to be steeper than the hither side; and betwixt them showed the topmost of thorn and whitebeam and logwood, intertwined with eglantine and honeysuckle and the new shoots of the traveller’s joy. There the wood-wife put forth her hand to bid Birdalone stay, who came up to her friend and stood before her eager and quivering: and anon came the sound of a man’s voice singing, though they could hear no words in it as yet amidst the rustle of the trees and the tumult of song which the blackbirds and throstles raised in the dale below them.
Then spake the wood-wife softly: Hearken, we are right and the time is good, our beast is giving tongue: now below us is the bent-side steep, and goeth down into a very little dale with a clear stream running amidst; and therein is the very lair of the thing that we are hunting. Wherefore now let us slip warily down between the bushes till we get close to the bottom, and then belike we shall see the very creature quite close, and we shall then consider and think what we shall do with him.
Birdalone had no voice wherewith to answer her, but she stole quietly along by her side till they came to the bank of the dale and plunged into the thicket that flourished there, and fell to threading it, making them as small as might be. But ere they had gone but a little way the wordless song of what was below had ceased, and they heard the sweet tingle of the string-play, and the wood-wife stayed her to hearken, and the smiles went rippling over her face and she beat time with her fingers; but Birdalone, she stared wildly before her, and would have scrambled down the bank straightway at all hazards, for that string-play was a melody of the Castle of the Quest, but Habundia withheld her by the arm. And then suddenly the music died, and there came up a voice of wailing and lamenting, and Birdalone put her hands and held the palms tight against her ears, and was at point to cry out aloud herself; but Habundia drew a hand of her down and whispered into her ear: Child, child, make thyself strong and forbear, and then perchance joy may come to thee; hold thy peace and come softly along with me!
So Birdalone forbore, and strove with her passion, though the sobs rent her bosom for a while; and by then the loud lamenting waned and was done, and the sound of sobbing came up from below, as it had been an echo of Birdalone’s grief.
Then Habundia drew her on again till they saw the level of the dale and its stream piecemeal betwixt the leaves, and they had a glimpse of a man on the hither side of the stream; and again they went lower, till they were well-nigh on a level with the greensward of the dale; and as Birdalone knelt with head bent low, and her hands covering her eyes, the wood-wife put away from before her the thick leaves of a hazel-bush, and whispering said: Child, child! look forth now and see what is before thee, and see if thou knowest him, or if he be strange to thee, and thy mother hath done nought for thee when all is said.
Birdalone looked up, pale and wild-eyed, and into the dale, and saw a man sitting on the grass by the stream-side with his head bowed down on to his knees and his face covered with his hands; he was clad but in two or three deerskins hung about him, with a strip of skin for a girdle, wherein was thrust a short sword; his brown hair hung down long and shaggy over his face. Close by his side lay a little harp, and further off a short spear roughly hefted with an ash-staff. He was beating the earth with his feet and writhing him about over them. And Birdalone looked, and her breath well-nigh failed her. For presently he sat more quietly, and lifted up his head, and she saw his face that it was Arthur, her beloved; and now she durst not move lest he should spring up and flee away; and the mingled pain and longing within her was sweet indeed, but well-nigh deadly.
Now his hand sought round to his harp, and he took it in his arms and fondled it as it were, and his fingers went among the strings, and anon the voice of it came forth, and it was nought changed from the last time it spake, and Birdalone hearkened breathlessly, till the melody died again and Arthur looked about him and raised his face as a dog when it fares to howl.
Then Birdalone gave a great cry, and leapt forth out of the thicket and stood on the greensward with nought betwixt them two, and she stretched out her arms to her beloved and cried out: O! no, no, no! do it not, I beseech thee, lest I deem that thou art all changed, and that the man and the dear heart beloved of thee has gone out of thee and left thee but a beast in a man’s shape!
He leapt up as she spake, and thrust forward his head and looked fierce at her, and cried out: What! art thou come again? This is the second time I have seen thee, thou image of her that hath tormented me so long; of her that left me in my most need and hid herself away from me. Hah! a man, sayest thou? Did I not strive with it, and hold my manhood so long as I might; and at last it might no longer be, and I became a beast and a man-slayer? But what avails it to talk with thee, since thou art but the image of her that hath wasted my life. Yet perchance of the image I may make an end since I may not lay hand on the very destroyer herself; and, woe’s me, how I loved her! yea, and do still; but not thee, O false image!
And forthwith he drew the blade from his girdle and sprang forward at Birdalone; and she cowered and cringed, but moved not else. But therewithal the wood-wife came leaping through the bushes, and she nocked an arrow on her bended bow, and threatened him therewith, and cried out: Thou man-beast, I will slay thee if thou hurt my child and my dear; so forbear! Nay, I tell thee more, unless thou make her as glad at the sight of thee as I meant her to be, I will in the long run slay thee; so look to it.
He laughed and said: What! there is another image of the love that wasted me, is there! Nay, but by the Hallows, this new-comer is the first one, and the one who chattered at me is the second. Or is it this, that all women now have the semblance of the evil one that has undone me, and there is nought else left?
And he stood staring at Birdalone and moved not a while; and she stood with her hands before her face cringing before him. Then he raised his arm and cast the weapon far into the bushes of the bank-side, and then came forward and stood before Birdalone, and drew down her hands from her face and stared in the eyes of her, holding her by the two arms; and he said: Thou hast forgotten now, belike, how fair a life we two might have lived if thou hadst not fled from me and spoiled me.
And thou! by the looks of thee, for thou art sleek and fair, though this moment thou art pale for fear of me, thou hast lived a happy life through all these years, with many a merry thing to think of: and dost thou deem that my life was happy, or that I thought of any merry thing, or of anything save my sorrow? Dost thou doubt it? go ask the good spears of Greenford, or the Riders of the Red Hold, and the field of the slaughter! If there was little joy there, less was there elsewhere.
He left go of her therewith and stood trembling before her, and she bowed down and put palm to palm and held them out to him as one who prays; and she knew not what she did.
Then he cried out with a lamentable cry and said: O woe’s me! for I have frighted her and scared the wit out of her, so that she knows not who I am nor what I would; and I would pray to her and beseech her to pity me, and not depart from me again or mock me with images of herself.
Then he went down on his knees to her, and he also joined his hands to pray to her; but it seemed as if she was stricken to stone, so wholly she moved not. But for him, he sank his forehead to earth, and then he rolled over and his limbs stretched out, and his head turned aside and blood gushed out from his mouth. But Birdalone shrieked out and cast herself on his body, and cried: I have found him, and he is dead! he is dead, and I have slain him, because I was a timorous fool and feared him; and he was coming to his right mind and knew me for what I was!
But Habundia came and stood over them, and drew up Birdalone, and said: Nay, nay, be comforted! for now he is thus, and the strength is gone out of him for a while, we may deal with him. Abide, and I will fetch the blood-staunching herb and the sleepy herb, and then we will heal him, and he will come to his right mind and be a man again.
Therewith she hastened away and was gone but a little; and meanwhile Birdalone knelt down by her love and wiped the blood from him, and caressed his sword-hardened hands and moaned over him. But when the wood-wife came back she put Birdalone aside once more, and knelt down by the squire and raised his head, and laid the blood-stauncher to his mouth and his heart, and muttered words over him, while Birdalone looked over her shoulder with her pale face; then the she-leech fetched water from the stream in a cup which she drew from her wallet, and she washed his face, and he came somewhat to himself, so that she might give him drink of the water; and yet more he came to himself. So then she took the sleepy herb and bruised it in her hands and put in his mouth and again said words over him, and presently his head fell back and his eyes closed and he slept peacefully.
She stood up then and turned to Birdalone and said: Now, my child, have we done all that we may do, save that we shall bring him to a place where the dew and the sun shall not torment him and sicken him; for he shall lie thus till the sun comes up tomorrow, or longer; and fear nor, for when he awaketh he shall be in his right mind, and shall know thee and love thee. This I swear to thee by the earth and the sun and the woodland.
Said Birdalone, trembling yet: O mother, but may I kiss him and caress him? Yea, surely, said the wood-mother, smiling in her face, but be not too long over it, for lo! the last of the sun, and it were better that he be under cover ere the twilight falls.
Birdalone knelt down by her love quietly at that word, and fell to kissing him softly, and laid her cheek to his, and called him gentle names such as none can tell again without shame, till the wood-wife laid her hand on her shoulder and said kindly and sweetly: Rise up now, for thou must make it enough for this present; thou shalt have time enough hereafter for more and much more.
So Birdalone arose and said: How shall we bear him to his place? Shall I not take him by the shoulders and thou by the legs? For I am stronger than thou after all these years.
Laughed the wood-wife: Nay, little one, said she; thou knowest me not utterly as yet. Thou shalt not bear him at all, nor any part of him; I am strong enough for more than that; see thou! And she stooped down and took him up in her arms as if he were a little child, and stepped off lightly with him; but looked back over her shoulder and said to Birdalone: But thou mayest walk by me and hold a hand of him as we go, though it will hinder me somewhat; but I know thine heart and would pleasure thee, my child.
Birdalone ran up to her and thanked her and kissed her, and took Arthur’s left hand, while Habundia bore him on down the dale and out of it, and still along the stream till they came to a place where it was narrow on either side thereof, and a sheer rock came down so near to the water that there was but a strip of greensward three yards wide betwixt water and rock; and in the face of the rock was a cave wide enough for a man to enter by stooping somewhat. Therein the wood-wife lightly bore Arthur, and Birdalone followed; and they found the cave dry and roomy within; there was a bed therein of dry heather and bracken, and thereon Habundia laid her burden, and said: Now, my child, there is nought to do but abide till he comes to himself again, which may be some time tomorrow; and be of good cheer, for he will come to his right self, but he will be weak and humble; but I shall have meat and drink ready for him. Now if thou wilt be ruled by me, thou wilt keep out of the way when he awakens; moreover, be thou not scared if I meet his awakening with another shape than that which thou hast known of me; for sure it is that it will trouble his wits over-much if again he seeth the two of us alike. But fear not; for thy sake, my child, I will take no ugly shape, though it may well be less beauteous than thine.
I will do what thou wilt, mother, said Birdalone, for I see that thou art helping me all thou mayest; yet I beseech thee let me sit by him till the time of his awakening draweth nigh.
The wood-wife smiled and nodded yeasay on her, and they sat down, both of them, beside the sleeping man, and the day died into the night as they sat hearkening to the ripple of the brook and the song of the nightingales.