The Wood Beyond the World - Chapter 14
THE HUNTING OF THE HART
As they went, they found a change in the land, which grew emptier of big and wide-spreading trees, and more beset with thickets. From one of these they roused a hart, and Walter let slip his hounds thereafter and he and the Lady followed running. Exceeding swift was she, and well-breathed withal, so that Walter wondered at her; and eager she was in the chase as the very hounds, heeding nothing the scratching of briars or the whipping of stiff twigs as she sped on. But for all their eager hunting, the quarry outran both dogs and folk, and gat him into a great thicket, amidmost whereof was a wide plash of water. Into the thicket they followed him, but he took to the water under their eyes and made land on the other side; and because of the tangle of underwood, he swam across much faster than they might have any hope to come round on him; and so were the hunters left undone for that time.
So the Lady cast herself down on the green grass anigh the water, while Walter blew the hounds in and coupled them up; then he turned round to her, and lo! she was weeping for despite that they had lost the quarry; and again did Walter wonder that so little a matter should raise a passion of tears in her. He durst not ask what ailed her, or proffer her solace, but was not ill apaid by beholding her loveliness as she lay.
Presently she raised up her head and turned to Walter, and spake to him angrily and said: “Squire, why dost thou stand staring at me like a fool?”
“Yea, Lady,” he said; “but the sight of thee maketh me foolish to do aught else but to look on thee.”
She said, in a peevish voice: “Tush, Squire, the day is too far spent for soft and courtly speeches; what was good there is nought so good here. Withal, I know more of thine heart than thou deemest.”
Walter hung down his head and reddened, and she looked on him, and her face changed, and she smiled and said, kindly this time: “Look ye, Squire, I am hot and weary, and ill-content; but presently it will be better with me; for my knees have been telling my shoulders that the cold water of this little lake will be sweet and pleasant this summer noonday, and that I shall forget my foil when I have taken my pleasure therein. Wherefore, go thou with thine hounds without the thicket and there abide my coming. And I bid thee look not aback as thou goest, for therein were peril to thee: I shall not keep thee tarrying long alone.”
He bowed his head to her, and turned and went his ways. And now, when he was a little space away from her, he deemed her indeed a marvel of women, and wellnigh forgat all his doubts and fears concerning her, whether she were a fair image fashioned out of lies and guile, or it might be but an evil thing in the shape of a goodly woman. Forsooth, when he saw her caressing the dear and friendly Maid, his heart all turned against her, despite what his eyes and his ears told his mind, and she seemed like as it were a serpent enfolding the simplicity of the body which he loved.
But now it was all changed, and he lay on the grass and longed for her coming; which was delayed for somewhat more than an hour. Then she came back to him, smiling and fresh and cheerful, her green gown let down to her heels.
He sprang up to meet her, and she came close to him, and spake from a laughing face: “Squire, hast thou no meat in thy wallet? For, meseemeth, I fed thee when thou wert hungry the other day; do thou now the same by me.”
He smiled, and louted to her, and took his wallet and brought out thence bread and flesh and wine, and spread them all out before her on the green grass, and then stood by humbly before her. But she said: “Nay, my Squire, sit down by me and eat with me, for to-day are we both hunters together.”
So he sat down by her trembling, but neither for awe of her greatness, nor for fear and horror of her guile and sorcery.
A while they sat there together after they had done their meat, and the Lady fell a-talking with Walter concerning the parts of the earth, and the manners of men, and of his journeyings to and fro.
At last she said: “Thou hast told me much and answered all my questions wisely, and as my good Squire should, and that pleaseth me. But now tell me of the city wherein thou wert born and bred; a city whereof thou hast hitherto told me nought.”
“Lady,” he said, “it is a fair and a great city, and to many it seemeth lovely. But I have left it, and now it is nothing to me.”
“Hast thou not kindred there?” said she.
“Yea,” said he, “and foemen withal; and a false woman waylayeth my life there.”
“And what was she?” said the Lady.
Said Walter: “She was but my wife.”
“Was she fair?” said the Lady.
Walter looked on her a while, and then said: “I was going to say that she was wellnigh as fair as thou; but that may scarce be. Yet was she very fair. But now, kind and gracious Lady, I will say this word to thee: I marvel that thou askest so many things concerning the city of Langton on Holm, where I was born, and where are my kindred yet; for meseemeth that thou knowest it thyself.”
“I know it, I?” said the Lady.
“What, then! thou knowest it not?” said Walter.
Spake the Lady, and some of her old disdain was in her words: “Dost thou deem that I wander about the world and its cheaping-steads like one of the chap-men? Nay, I dwell in the Wood beyond the World, and nowhere else. What hath put this word into thy mouth?”
He said: “Pardon me, Lady, if I have misdone; but thus it was: Mine own eyes beheld thee going down the quays of our city, and thence a ship-board, and the ship sailed out of the haven. And first of all went a strange dwarf, whom I have seen here, and then thy Maid; and then went thy gracious and lovely body.”
The Lady’s face changed as he spoke, and she turned red and then pale, and set her teeth; but she refrained her, and said: “Squire, I see of thee that thou art no liar, nor light of wit, therefore I suppose that thou hast verily seen some appearance of me; but never have I been in Langton, nor thought thereof, nor known that such a stead there was until thou namedst it e’en now. Wherefore, I deem that an enemy hath cast the shadow of me on the air of that land.”
“Yea, my Lady,” said Walter; “and what enemy mightest thou have to have done this?”
She was slow of answer, but spake at last from a quivering mouth of anger: “Knowest thou not the saw, that a man’s foes are they of his own house? If I find out for a truth who hath done this, the said enemy shall have an evil hour with me.”
Again she was silent, and she clenched her hands and strained her limbs in the heat of her anger; so that Walter was afraid of her, and all his misgivings came back to his heart again, and he repented that he had told her so much. But in a little while all that trouble and wrath seemed to flow off her, and again was she of good cheer, and kind and sweet to him and she said: “But in sooth, however it may be, I thank thee, my Squire and friend, for telling me hereof. And surely no wyte do I lay on thee. And, moreover, is it not this vision which hath brought thee hither?”
“So it is, Lady,” said he.
“Then have we to thank it,” said the Lady, “and thou art welcome to our land.”
And therewith she held out her hand to him, and he took it on his knees and kissed it: and then it was as if a red-hot iron had run through his heart, and he felt faint, and bowed down his head. But he held her hand yet, and kissed it many times, and the wrist and the arm, and knew not where he was.
But she drew a little away from him, and arose and said: “Now is the day wearing, and if we are to bear back any venison we must buckle to the work. So arise, Squire, and take the hounds and come with me; for not far off is a little thicket which mostly harbours foison of deer, great and small. Let us come our ways.”