CHAPTER III ~ THEY COME TO THE CITY OF THE FIVE CRAFTS, AND BIRDALONE MEETS WITH THE POOR-WIFE
They made not so much way that they came to the Five Crafts on the fourth day, but lay under the bare heavens in a dale below the big swell of the downland, whereof Gerard spake. But betimes in the morning Birdalone arose and stirred up her men, and they gat to horse, and rode the hill before them till they came on to the crest thereof. Then Birdalone cried aloud with joy to see the lovely land before her, and the white walls and the towers of the great city, whereas Greenford was but small beside it.
So they rode down into the frank, and entered the gates of the city a little after noon, and again was Birdalone in all amaze at the going to and fro in the streets and the thronging of the markets, and the divers folk, as chapmen and men-at-arms, and craftsmen and lords, who used the said city; and to say sooth, somewhat her heart sank within her, and it seemed to her that it would be hard and troublous to have to deal with so much folk, and that they must needs go past her on the right hand and the left without heeding her life.
Howsoever, Gerard, who knew the city, brought her to a fair hostel, where she was well lodged, she and her men. Straightway, then, before she went out into the streets again, she fell to getting together what she had of fine broidered work and of fair script, and to finishing what she had unfinished. And she sent forth Gerard and his sons to find out where was the market for such goods, and if she would have leave to sell the same therein, or anywhere in the town; and Gerard found the hall of the embroiderers, and therein the master of the craft, and he received the carle courteously when he heard that there was fine work come to town, and did him to wit that none in any such craft might have freedom of the market save by leave of the guild of the craft; but, said he, the guilds were open-handed and courteous, and were nowise wont to refuse the said leave, were the work good and true; and he bade Gerard withal tell his mistress that she were best to bring samplings of her work to the Guildhall so soon as she might. So the very next day went Birdalone thither, and found the master a well-looked tall man of some five-and-forty winters, who looked on her from the first as if he deemed it were no ill way of wearing the time. To this man she showed her work, and though he found it not easy to take his eyes off Birdalone herself, yet when he looked at her handiwork, he found it better than very good, and he said to her: Damsel, here is what will be sought for at a great price by the great lords and ladies of the land, and the rich burgesses, and especially by the high prelates; and so much of it as thou hast a mind to do is so much coined gold unto thee; and now I see thee what thou art, I were fain that thou gathered good to thee. But as diligent as thou mayst be, thou hast but one pair of hands, wonderful soothly, and yet but one pair. He broke off at that word, for he was verily staring at her hands, and longing to see more of her arms than the wrists only, so that he scarce knew what he was saying. Then he turned red and said: Soothly I wot that no other hands save thine may do such needlework, or make the draughts for them. But thou wilt need women-servants to help thee, both in dighting the house for thee (for this big old carle here will be scarce meet thereto) and as apprentices to help thee about the work itself; and if thou wilt, I shall seek the best ones out for thee. Moreover I must tell thee, that though I know for sure how that no woman in the world may work such needlework as thine, yet whiles there cometh hither a woman of middle age, a woman worn by troubles, pious, meek, and kind; and by St. Lucia! now I look on thee again, she might be somewhat like unto thee, were she young and fresh-looking and strong as thou art. Now this woman I say, and thereat I marvel, doeth needlework that is somewhat after the manner of thine, and which seemed to us excellent till I had seen thine. Good livelihood she earneth thereby, and is diligent therein; but she hath no heart to get apprentices, or be made one of our guild, both of which were lawful to her as to thee, lovely damsel. But now I shall counsel her to be made of our guild along with thee, if thou wilt have it so, and then may ye both have three apprentices each, and may make in our city a goodly school, so that our guild shall be glorified thereby, for there will be none such work in the world. How sayest thou?
She thanked him much, and yeasaid him, and thought in her heart that such work which would keep her hands and her head both busy, would solace the grief of her heart, and wear away the time, that she might live till hope might peradventure arise in her.
Then said the master: There is one thing else, that is, thy dwelling-place; and if thou wilt I shall hire thee a house in the street of the Broiderers, a goodly one: sooth to say, that same is mine own, so thou mayst deem that I tell thee hereof to mine own gain; and that may be (and he reddened therewith); but there is this in it, that if thou lackest money I shall let thee live therein without price till thou shalt have earned more than enough to pay me.
Birdalone thanked him well, but she did him to wit that she was nowise penniless; and presently she departed well pleased, though she deemed that the said master was well-nigh more friendly than might be looked for. And the next day he came to her in the hostelry, and without more ado brought her to the house in the street of the Broiderers, and she found it fair and well plenished, and so she fell to work to get all things ready.
Now the next week was the day appointed when she should be received into the broiderers’ guild, and the day before came the master aforesaid to see Birdalone. Sooth to say, he had not failed to come to see her every day, on one pretence or another, since the first day they had met, but ever he did to her with all honour and simply. But on this day he brought with him the woman skilful of her hands, to show her unto Birdalone, who received her gladly, and thereafter Master Jacobus left them alone together.
The said woman looked worn and aged indeed, but was not of more than five-and-forty winters even by seeming, after the first look at her; she was somewhat tall and well-knit, her face well shapen, and her hair yet goodly. There was a kind look in the eyes of her, as if she might love anyone with whom she lived that would be kind to her. Meek, or rather over-meek, of mien she was, and it seemed of her that she had been sore scared and oppressed one while or another.
So when Master Jacobus was gone, Birdalone set her down on the settle beside her, and spake to her full sweetly and kindly, and the woman spake little in turn save answering simply to her questions. Birdalone asked where she was kinned, and she answered: In Utterhay. Then said Birdalone: Within these last few days I have heard that town named twice or thrice, and never before, as meseemeth; and yet, hearing the name from thy mouth, it seemeth to stir something in me, as if I had been there one time and longed to be there again. Is there aught in the place whereof folk tell wide about, so that I might have heard it told of and not noted it at the time? Nay, lady, said the dame, save perchance that it is on the verge of a very great and very evil wood, otherwise it was once a merry town and of much resort from the country-side.
Birdalone looked on her, and saw that the tears were coming from her eyes and running down her cheeks as she spake; so she said to her: Why dost thou weep, mother? Is there aught I may do to assuage thy grief? Said the dame: Thou art so kind to me, and thy voice is so dear and sweet, that I cannot choose but weep. Meseems it is because love of thee hath taken mine heart, and therewith is blended memory of past sorrow of mine. Thou askest me if thou mayest do aught to assuage my grief; dear lady, I am not grieved now, that has gone by; nay, now I am more than not grieved, I am made happy, because I am with thee. But since thou art so debonair with me, I will ask thee to do somewhat for me; and that is, to tell me of thy life gone by; I mean, sweet young damsel, of thy life when thou wert a little child.
Then Birdalone kissed her and said: It goes to my heart that thou lovest me; for soon as I set eyes on thee my heart went out to thee; and now belike we shall be dear friends; and that is a thing that shall avail me much, to have a friend who is so much older than I, so that nought can come between us, of the love of men and other griefs. Yea, now, said the dame, smiling somewhat sadly; now do I see the water standing in thine eyes, and thy voice quavers. Is it so, thou lovely kind damsel, that thou hast been grieved by love of a man? Who then may prevail in love if thou prevail not? And she fell to fondling Birdalone’s hand; but Birdalone said: It is over-long to tell of all my life, mother, though I be so young; but now I will do as thou badest me, and tell thee somewhat of my days when I was little.
And therewith she fell to telling her of her days in the House under the Wood, and the witch and her surliness and grimness, and of her love of the wild things, and how she waxed there. And she spake a long while, for the memory of those days seemed to lead her along, as though she verily were alive now in them; and the woman sat before her, gazing on her lovingly, till Birdalone stayed her tale at last and said: Now have I told thee more than enough of a simple matter, and a life that was as that of a wild creature of the woods. Now shalt thou, mother, tell me somewhat of thee, and what was thy grief of Utterhay: for thou shalt find that the telling thereof shall solace thee. Ah! so think young folk, said the woman sadly, because there are many days left for them to hope in. But though the telling of my sorrow be a fresh sorrow to me, yet shalt thou hear it. It is but of the loss of my babe; but she was of all babes the fairest and the sweetest.
Then she fell to telling Birdalone all that concerning the witch at Utterhay and the poor-wife that ye have heard in the beginning of this book, until the time when she left the house to buy meat for the witch; for she herself was the said poor-wife. And then she told how she came back again and found her guest gone and the child withal; and though she had wept for love of Birdalone, she wept not at telling of this grief, but told it as a tale which had befallen some other one. And she said: And so when I had done running up and down like a wild thing, and asking of the neighbours with lack of breath and fierceness of speech who had taken my child away from me; and when I had gone up to the wood and even some way into it, and when I had wandered up and down again, and night was falling, I came back at last again to my poor house so weary with my woe, that I scarce knew what had befallen me. And there upon the board lay the victual and drink which I had brought, and the money which the witch had given unto me; and despite of grief, hunger flamed up in me at the sight, and I threw myself on to it and ate and drank, and so came to myself, that is, to my grief. But the next day I ran about hither and thither, and wearied folk with my asking and my woe; but it was all of none avail. The child was gone away from me. There is little more to tell of me, sweet lady. If I were to live, needs must I take the poor price of my little one, to wit, the witch’s money, and deal with folk for my livelihood; wherefore I bought me cloth and silks, having now the wherewithal, and set to work on broidery, for even then was I a cunning needle-woman. So were God and the saints good to me, and inclined the folk to me, that they were good and piteous, and I lacked not work nor due livelihood; but after a while I wearied of Utterhay, where my dear child should have been running about before my feet; and having by this time gotten a little money together, and being exceeding deft in my craft, I came on hither to live, and, praise be to St. Ursula! I have found it easy to live: and praise be to All-hallows withal that I have found thee, who art so kind and lovely; and thou by seeming of the very age my child should be if she be living: or how old art thou, dear lady?
Birdalone laid her hand on her breast, and she was turned pale, but she said in a low voice: I deem that I am of twenty summers.
Then they both sat silent, till Birdalone might master the fluttering of her heart, and she said: Now meseems I have a memory even earlier than those I told thee erst. A woman took me out of a basket and set me on the back of an ass, and I looked about, and I was in a grassy lawn of the woods; and I saw a squirrel run up a tree-trunk before me, and wind round the tree and hide him; and then I stretched out my hands and cried out to him; and then came the woman unto me, and gave me wood-strawberries to eat out of her hand.
Brake out the poor-wife thereat, pale and trembling: Tell me now, my child, hast thou any memory of what the woman was who set thee on the ass and gave thee the strawberries? Birdalone looked on her, and scanned her face closely, and then shook her head, and said: Nay, it was not thou, mother. Nay, surely; nay, surely, said the woman; but think again. Said Birdalone, speaking slowly: Was it my mistress then? She was a tall woman, somewhat thin and bony, with goodly red hair and white-skinned, but thin-lipped. Quoth the poor-wife: No, no; it is of no use; nought such was she. Then Birdalone looked up and said eagerly: Yea, but it was her other shape belike: therein was she a tall woman, dark-haired, hook-nosed, and hawk-eyed, as if of thirty summers; a stark woman. Hast thou seen such? dost thou remember her?
The woman sprang up and cried out, and was like to have fallen, but Birdalone arose and held her in her arms and comforted her, and set her in her seat again and knelt before her; and presently the poor-wife came to herself and said: My child, thou sayest do I remember her; how shall I ever forget her? she was the thief who stole my child.
Therewith she slid from off her seat, and knelt by Birdalone, and stooped low down on the floor as if the tall maiden were but a little one, and she fell to kissing her and patting her, her face and her hands, and all about; and said, sobbing and yet smiling: Suffer me a little, my child, mine own lovely child! For in good sooth I am thy mother, and it is long since I have seen thee: but hearken, when I come quite to myself I shall pray thee not to leave me yet awhile, and I shall pray thee to love me.
Birdalone clipped and kissed her, and said: I love thee dearly, and never, never shall I leave thee.
Then they stood up, and the mother took Birdalone by the shoulders, and held her a little aloof, and devoured her with her eyes; and she said: Yea, thou hast grown tall, and belike wilt grow no taller: and how fair and lovely thou hast grown; and thou that wert born in a poor man’s house! no wonder that any should covet thee. And I, I wonder if ever I was as fair as thou art; forsooth many called me fair for a little while; and now behold me! Nay, child and darling, let not thy face grow downcast, for now shall I know nought more of fear and grief; and is it not like that I shall grow fairer of flesh, and shapelier, in the happy days we shall dwell together? And therewith she took her to her arms, and it seemed as if she might never have enough of clipping and embracing her; and she would look at Birdalone’s hands and her feet and her arms, and stroke them and caress them; and she wondered at her body, as if she had been a young mother eaten up with the love of her firstborn. And as for Birdalone, she was as glad of her mother as might be; and yet in her heart she wondered if perchance one of the fellowship might stray that way, and be partaker in her joy of this newfound dear friend; and she said, might it be Viridis; but in her inmost heart, though she told it not to herself, she longed that the Black Squire might find her out at last.