The Water of the Wondrous Isles, by William Morris, , at sacred-texts.com
CHAPTER XVI. YET A DAY AND A NIGHT THEY TARRY IN THE DALE
Birdalone awoke when the sun came into the bower to her, and stood up at once, and went down to the river and washed the night off her; and then, when she was clad, called on the knight to come to her; and he came, looking downcast and troubled; so that Birdalone thought within herself: It is well, he will do my will.
She stood before him, and gave him the sele of the day, and he looked on her sorrowfully. Then she said: Now is come the time when I am to ask thee to take me back to the Castle of the Quest and my own people. He was not hasty to answer her, and she spake again: This must thou do, or else take me to the Red Hold and deliver me to the tyrant there; and I have heard it from thine own mouth that will be nought else than casting me into shame and torment and death. And I deem thou canst not do it. Nay, she said, staying the words that were coming from his mouth, I wot that thou canst do it if thine heart can suffer it; for thou art stronger than I, and thou mayst break my bow, and wrest this knife out of mine hand; and thou canst bind me and make me fast to the saddle, and so lead my helpless body into thraldom and death. But thou hast said that thou lovest me, and I believe thee herein. Therefore I know that thou canst not will to do this.
He answered in his surly voice: Thou art right, lady, I cannot. Nay, hearken thou this time. I have been turning over night-long what thou didst say about leaving my lord, that is, betraying him, for it comes to that; and now I have made up my mind to do it, and I will betray him for thy sake. Wherefore there is a third way to take which thou hast not seen; we will ride out of this dale in an hour's time, and I will bring thee to them who are only less the mortal foes of the Red Knight than are thy fellows of the Quest, to wit, to the captain and burgesses of the good town of Greenford by the Water; and I will do them to wit that I have rescued thee from the hands of the Red Knight, and am become his foe; and will show them all his incomings and outgoings, and every whit of rede, and entrap him, so that he fall into their hands. Now, though were I to be taken in battle by them, I should be speedily brought to the halter, or may be to the bale-fire (for we be wizards all in the Red Hold); yet with this word in my mouth, if they trow in it, I shall be made their captain, and presently their master. Trow in my tale they will, if thou bear me out therein, and they will honour thee, and suffer thee to give thyself to me in marriage; and then I know thee, and myself also, and that ere long we shall be both mighty and wealthy and beloved, and fair will be the days before us.
His voice had grown softer as he spake, and toward the end of his words he faltered, and at last brake out a-weeping, and cast himself wordless on the grass before her.
She was pale, and her brow was knitted, and her face quivered; but she spake coldly to him and said: This way I cannot take; and I wonder at thee that thou hast shown it unto me, for thyself thou knowest that I cannot go with thee. I will go nowhere hence save to the Castle of the Quest. If thou wilt not lead me thereto, or put me on the road, I ask thee straight, Wilt thou stay me if I go seek the way thither myself?
He rose up from the ground with a pale face full of anger as well as grief, and caught her by the wrists and said, scowling the while: Tell me now which of them it is; is it the stupid oaf Baudoin, or the light fool Hugh, or the dull pedant Arthur? But it matters not; for I know, and all the country-side knows, that they be vowed, each man of them, to his own woman; and if they find not the women themselves, such dolts they are, that they will ever be worshipping the mere shadows of them, and turn away from flesh and blood, were it the fairest in the world, as thou art, as thou art.
She shrank away from him what she might, but he still held her wrists; then she spake in a quivering voice, her very lips pale with fear and wrath: It is well seen that thou art a man of the Red Knight; and belike thou wouldst do with me as he would. But one thing I crave of thee, if there is any grain of mercy in thee, that thou wilt draw thy sword and thrust me through; thou mayst leave thine hold of me to get at the blade, I will not stir from where I stand. O! to think that I deemed thee well-nigh a true man.
He dropped her hands now and stood aloof from her, staring at her, and presently cast himself on the ground, rolling about and tearing at the grass. She looked on him a moment or two, and then stepped forward and stooped to him, and touched his shoulder and said: Rise up, I bid thee, and be a man and not a wild beast.
So in a while he arose, and stood before her hang-dog-like; then she looked on him pitifully, and said: Fair sir and valiant knight, thou hast gone out of thy mind for a while, and thus hast thou shamed both me and thyself; and now thou wert best forget it, and therewithal my last words to thee.
Therewith she held out her hand to him, and he went on his knees and took it, sobbing, and kissed it. But she said, and smiled on him: Now I see that thou wilt do what I prayed of thee, and lead me hence and put me on the road to the Castle of the Quest. He said: I will lead thee to the Castle of the Quest.
Said Birdalone: Then shall it be as I promised, that I will be thy dear friend while both we live. And now, if thou canst, be a little merrier, and come and sit with me, and let us eat our meat, for I hunger.
He smiled, but woefully, and presently they sat down to their meat; and he strove to be somewhat merry of mood, and to eat as one at a feast; but whiles his heart failed him, and he set his teeth and tore at the grass, and his face was fierce and terrible to look on; but Birdalone made as if she heeded it nought, and was blithe and debonair with him. And when they had done their meat he sat looking at her a while, and at last he said: Lady, dost thou deem that, when all is said, I have done somewhat for thee since first we met the day before yesterday at the lower end of the Black Valley? Yea, she said, as erst I spake, all things considered I deem that thou hast done much. And now, said he, I am to do more yet; for I am to lead thee to where henceforth I shall have no more part or lot in thee than if thou wert in heaven and I in hell. I pray thee say not so, said Birdalone; have I not said that I will be thy friend? Lady, said the knight, I wot well that according to the sweetness of thine heart wilt thou do what thou canst do. And therewith he was silent a while and she also.
Then he said: I would ask thee a grace if I durst. Ask it, said she, and I will grant it if I may; I have gainsaid thee enough meseemeth.
Lady, he said, I will ask this as a reward of the way-leader, to wit, that thou abide with me here in this dale, in all honour holden, till to-morrow morning; and let this place, which has helped me aforetime, be hallowed by thy dwelling here; and I, I shall have had one happy day at least, if never another. Canst thou grant me this? If thou canst not, we will depart in an hour.
Her countenance fell at his word, and she was silent a while; for sore she longed to be speedily whereas her friends should find her if they came back to the castle. But she thought within herself how wild and fierce the man was, and doubted if he might not go stark mad on her hands and destroy her if she thwarted overmuch; and, moreover, frankly she pitied him, and would do what she might to ease his pain and solace his grief of heart. Wherefore she cleared her face of its trouble and let it be vexed no longer, but smiled upon the knight and said: Fair sir, this meseemeth but a little thing for me to do, and I grant it thee with a good will, and this shall now be the first day of the friendship if so thou wilt take it; and may it solace thee. Who then was gleeful but the knight, and strange it was to see all his sorrow run off him; and he became glad and gamesome as a youth, and yet withal exceeding courteous and kind with her, as though he were serving a mighty queen.
So then they wore the day together in all good fellowship; and first they went up the dale together and right to the foot of that great force, where the stream came thundering down from the sheer rocks; and long Birdalone stood to look thereon, and much she marvelled at it, for no such thing had she seen before.
Thereafter they went afoot into the wood behind the green bower, and when they had gone some way therein for their pleasure, they fell to seeking venison for their dinner; and the knight took Birdalone's bow and shafts to strike the quarry withal, but he would have her gird his sword to her, that she might not be weaponless. So they gat them a roe and came back therewith to the bower, and the knight dight it and cooked it, and again they ate in fellowship and kindness; and Birdalone had been to the river and fetched thence store of blue- flowered mouse-ear, and of meadow-sweet, whereof was still some left from the early days of summer, and had made her garlands for her head and her loins; and the knight sat and worshipped her, yet he would not so much as touch her hand, sorely as he hungered for the beauty of her body.
Next, when dinner was done, and they lay in the shadow of the trees, and hearkened the moor-hen crying from the water, and the moaning of the wood-doves in the high trees, she turned to him and bade him tell her somewhat of the tale of his life and deeds; but he said: Nay, lady, I pray thee pardon me, for little have I to tell thee that is good, and I would not have thee know of me aught worse than thou knowest of me already. Rather be thou kind to me, and tell me of thy days that have been, wherein I know full surely shall be nought but good.
She smiled and blushed, but without more ado fell to telling him of her life in the House under the Wood, and spared not even to tell him somewhat of the wood-mother. And he said no word to her thereover, save thanks and praises for the kindness of her story.
At last the day wore to its ending, and then the knight's grief strode over him again, and he was moody and few-spoken; and Birdalone was blithe with him still, and would have solaced his grief; but he said: Let it be; as for thee, thou shalt be happy to-morrow, but this happy day of mine is well-nigh worn, and it is as the wearing of my life. And the dark night came, and he bade her good-night sorrowfully, and departed to his lair in the wood. Birdalone lay in the bower, and might not sleep a long while for her joy of the morrow, which should bring her back to the Castle of the Quest.
But when morning was, and the sun was but just risen, Birdalone awoke, and stood up and did on her raiment, and called her servant the knight, and he came at once leading the two horses, and said: Now go we to the Castle of the Quest. And he was sober and sorrowful, but nought fierce or wild.
So Birdalone thanked him kindly and praised him, and he changed countenance no whit therefor.
Then they mounted and set forth, and the knight led straight into the wood, and by roads that he wotted of, so that they went nowise slowly for wenders through the thick woodland. Thus went they on their way together, he sorry and she glad.
But now leaves the tale to tell of Birdalone and the knight on whom she happened in the Black Valley of the Greywethers, and turns to the Castle of the Quest and the folk thereof, and what they did in this while and thereafter.
Here ends the Fourth Part of the Water of the Wondrous Isles, which is called Of the Days of Abiding, and the Fifth Part now begins, which is called The Tale of the Quest's Ending.