CHAPTER XXV ~ THE WOOD-WIFE HEALETH AND TENDETH THE BLACK SQUIRE
She stood over Arthur for a minute or two, and then stooped down and whispered a word in his ear, and presently he stirred on the bed and half opened his eyes, but straightway turned on his side, as if to gather sleep to him, but she took him by the shoulder and said in a clear voice: Nay, knight, nay; hast thou not slept enough? is there nought for thee to do? He sat up in the bed and rubbed his eyes, and his face was come to its wholesome colour, and his eyes looked out quietly and calmly as he looked about the cave and saw the wood-wife standing by him; and he spake in a voice which was somewhat weak, but wherein was no passion of rage or woodness: Where am I then? and who art thou, dame? She said: Thou art in a cave of the woodland, and I am for one thing thy leech, and meseemeth thou desirest to eat and to drink. He smiled and nodded his head; and she fetched him the milk, and he drank a long draught, and sighed thereafter, as one who is pleased; and she smiled on him, and fetched him the bread and the honey, and he ate and drank again, and then lay down and fell fast asleep. And she suffered his slumber for two hours or so, and then awoke him again; and again he asked where he was and what was she, but she said as before. And said she: The next thing thou hast to do is to arise, as thou well mayest, and take this raiment, which is fair and clean, and go wash thee in the brook and come back to me; and then we will talk, and thou shalt tell me of how it was with thee, and peradventure I may tell thee somewhat of how it shall be with thee. As she spoke she went to a coffer which stood in a nook of the cave, and drew forth from it a shirt and hosen and shoon, and a surcoat and hood of fine black cloth, and a gilded girdle and a fair sword, red-sheathed, and said: These may serve thy turn for the present, so take them and don them, and thou shalt look like a squire at least, if not a knight.
So he arose as one in a dream and went out; but as he passed by her she saw something gleaming on his breast, and noted that it was Birdalone’s fair sapphire ring which hung about his neck; so she smiled, and said under her breath: Crafty is my dear daughter! But that shall save me some words at least. And she abided his return.
Anon he cometh back clad in the fair raiment, with the sword by his side; and the wood-wife smote her palms together and cried out: Now indeed thou art fair and well-liking, and a fair lady might well take pleasure in beholding thee.
But his brow was knit, and he looked sullen and angry, and he said: What is all this play? and where gattest thou this ring which I found e’en now about my neck? And who art thou, and why have I been brought hither?
His eyes looked fiercely on her as he spake, holding out his palm with the ring lying thereon. But the wood-wife answered: Many questions, fair youth! but I will tell thee: the play is for thine healing and pleasure, whereas both sick hast thou been and sorry. As to the ring, it is thou hast got it and not I. But I will tell thee this, that I have seen it on the finger of a fair damsel who haunteth the woodland not far hence. As to what I am, that were a long tale to tell if I told it all; but believe this meanwhile, that I am the lady and mistress of hereabouts, and am not without power over my folk and my land. And as to why thou wert brought hither, I brought thee because I had no better house handy for a sick man to lie in.
Then Arthur stood a long while considering the ring that lay on his palm, and at last he put his hand on the wood-wife’s shoulder, and looked into her face beseechingly, and said: O mother, if thou be mighty be merciful withal, and have pity on me! Thou callest me a youth, and so I may be in regard to thee; but I tell thee it is five long years and there hath been no other thought in my heart but what was loathsome to me, and it hath worn and wasted my youth, so that it waneth and withereth and is nought. O, if thou be mighty, bring me to her that I may see her at least one time before I die. And therewith he fell down on his knees before her, and kissed the hem of her gown, and wept. But she drew him up and looked on him with the merry countenance of a kind old woman, and said: Nay, nay, I am not so hard to be won to thy helping that thou needest pray so sore and weep: here need we tarry no longer, and if thou wilt come with me we shall go seek the damsel who bore this ring, though how it should come to thee why should I know? Neither do I know if the said ring-bearer be the one woman whom thou needest. But I will tell thee at once that she is a dear friend of mine.
Then Arthur threw his arms about her, and kissed her cheeks and blessed her, while she laughed on him and said: Nay, fair sir, if thou wilt do so much with the withered branch, what wilt thou with the blossom of the tree? And he was abashed before her, but hope made his heart to dance.
So the wood-wife took up her bow, slung her quiver at her back, and girt her short sword to her, and then led him forth, and so into the thicket out of the dale and forth into the oaken bent, and lightly she led him thereafter through the woodland.