CHAPTER XXIV ~ THE WOOD-MOTHER CHANGETH HER FORM TO THAT OF A WOMAN STRICKEN IN YEARS
When the morrow came, there yet lay Arthur sleeping peacefully, and Birdalone awoke from the slumber which had at last fallen on her, and looked about her and saw not Habundia in the cave; so she arose and bent over Arthur and kissed him, and so went forth and stood in the door and looked about her. And she was still dim-eyed with her just departed slumber and the brightness of the morning sunlight, and she scarce knew whether it were a part of a dream, or a sight that was verily before her, that she seemed to see one coming across the brook toward her, stepping heedfully from stone to stone thereof: a woman stricken in years, but slim and trim and upright, clad in a gown of green cloth, with a tippet of some white fur. When she was come on to the greensward she spake to Birdalone in a sweet voice, but thin with eld, and gave her the sele of the day; and Birdalone was somewhat afraid to see a newcomer, but she greeted her, drawing back a little from her shyly. But the old woman said: What maketh thee here, my daughter? Dost thou not know that this is my land and my house, and that I am said not to be unmighty in these woods?
I pray thee pardon me if I have done amiss, said Birdalone; but here have I a sick friend, a young man, and I would pray thee suffer him to abide here in this cave a little longer; for there hath been also another friend, a woman, but she hath gone out while I slept, belike to gather simples, for she is wise in leechcraft, and is tending the sick man. I pray thee humbly to suffer us lest we lose our friend.
As she spake, she heard the carline chuckle softly, and at last she said: Why, Birdalone, my dear, dost thou not know me after all these years? Look on me again, look! and thou shalt see that I am not so much changed from what thou sawest me last night. I am still thine image, my dear, only I was the image of what thou wert, and now I the image of what thou shalt be when two score years and ten of happy life have worn for thee. Tell me, am I now aught like to thy mother in the flesh?
How hast thou frighted me, mother, said Birdalone; I thought that my friend had forsaken me, and that perchance the new-comer was another witch like unto the old one, and that I was never to be at rest and happy. But as to my mother in the flesh, nay, thou art not now wholly like unto her; and sooth to say I shall be fainer when thou hast thine own shape of me young back again, for I love thee not so much as now thou art.
The wood-wife laughed: Well, she said, thou shalt not see over-much of me in this shape; and that the less because of something I shall now tell thee, to wit, that I have been thinking the matter over, and I would have thee leave us twain together alone before the young man awaketh. I would have thee get thee home and abide him there; it shall not be long I promise thee; and this also, that he shall come home to thee sound in body and whole in limb.
Birdalone’s countenance fell, and she said: Why this second mind, mother? why, I pray thee? Said Habundia: I fear for thy love lest he be not strong enough to open his eyes upon thy face; but after he hath been a day in the woods, and I have spoken to him diversely and cheered him with the hope of meeting thee, he may well be strong enough to seek thee for a mile’s length, and find thine house first and then thee. So now wilt thou obey me? Nay, if thou must needs weep, I will be gone into the thicket till thou hast done, thou wilful! Birdalone smiled through her tears, and said: I pray thee pardon my wilfulness, mother, and I will depart without turning back into the cave. Nay, said Habundia, there is no need for so much haste as that: I will in now, and do my leechdoms with the sick man. But do thou go across the stream, thou barefoot, and thou wilt find on the other side, by the foot of the quicken-tree yonder, honeycombs and white bread and a bicker of wild goats’ milk. Bathe thee then if thou wilt, and bring those matters over hither; and then shalt thou go in and kiss thy mate’s sick face with thy fresh one, and thereafter shall we sit here by the ripple of the water and break our fast; and lastly, thou shalt go in and kiss again and then take to the road. But tell me, deemest thou surely that thou canst find it again? Yea, surely, mother, said Birdalone; I am wood-woman enough for that; and now I will do all thy will. And therewith she stepped out lightly on to the greensward and sought up the stream till she found a smooth-grounded pool meet for her bath, and when that was done, she fetched the victual and came back to the wood-wife; then they two sat down together, and ate and drank while the water rippled at their feet. But when they were done, Birdalone gat her into the cave again, and kissed the sleeping man fondly, and came forth lightly and stood a moment before the wood-wife, and said: Tell me this at least, mother, when shall he be there? To-morrow quoth the wood-wife; and, for my part, I would keep thee within doors and abide him there, lest there be trouble; for he may not yet be as strong as the strongest. Birdalone hung down her head and answered not, but said presently: Farewell, wood-mother, and be thou blessed. Then she took up her bow and betook her lightly to the woodland way, and the wood-wife stood looking at her till the thicket had hidden her, and then turned back and went into the cave.