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The Water of the Wondrous Isles, by William Morris, [1897], at


On a day she went to the wood, and sat down under her oak-tree, and it was far and far out of sight of anyone standing in the meadow by the lake; and in the wood Birdalone looked to see nought at all save the rabbits and squirrels, who were, forsooth, familiar enough with her, and fearless, so that they would come to her hand and sport with her when she hailed them.  Wherefore, as the day was exceeding hot, she put off from her her simple raiment, that she might feel all the pleasure of the cool shadow and what air was stirring, and the kindness of the greensward upon her very body.  So she sat sewing, covered but by a lap of the green gown which her needle was painting.

But as she sat there intent on her work, and her head bent over it, and it was now at the point of high noon, she heard as if some creature were going anigh to her; she heeded it not, deeming that it would be but some wandering hind.  But even therewith she heard one say her name in a soft voice, and she leapt up trembling, deeming at first that it would be the witch come to fetch her:  but yet more scared she was, when she saw standing before her the shape of a young woman as naked as herself, save that she had an oak wreath round about her loins.

The new-comer, who was now close to her, smiled on her, and said in a kind and sweet voice:  Fear nought, Birdalone, for I deem thou wilt find me a friend, and it is not unlike that thou wilt need one ere long.  And furthermore, I will say it, said she smiling, that since I am not afraid of thee, thou needest not be afraid of me.  Said Birdalone, she also smiling:  True it is that thou art nought fearsome to look on.  The new-comer laughed outright, and said:  Are we not well met then in the wildwood? and we both as two children whom the earth loveth.  So play we at a game.  At what game? said Birdalone.  Spake she of the oak-wreath:  This; thou shalt tell me what I am like in thine eyes first, because thou wert afraid of me; and then when thou art done, I will tell thee what thou seemest to me.

Quoth Birdalone:  For me that will be hard; for I have nought to liken thee to, whereas save this sight of thee I have seen nought save her that dwelleth in the House by the Water, and whom I serve. Nay, said the other, then will I begin, and tell thee first whatlike thou art, so that thou wilt know the better how to frame thy word concerning me.  But tell me, hast thou ever seen thyself in a mirror? What thing is that? said Birdalone.  It is a polished round of steel or some other white metal, said the wood-maiden, which giveth back in all truth the image of whatso cometh before it.  Said Birdalone and reddened therewith:  We have at home a broad latten dish, which it is my work, amongst other things, to brighten and keep bright; yet may I not make it so bright that I may see much of mine image therein; and yet.  What wouldst thou? said the wood-woman.  Said Birdalone:  I shall tell thee presently when thy part of the play is done.

Laughed the new-comer, and said:  It is well; now am I to be thy mirror.  Thus it is with thee:  thou standest before me a tall and slim maiden, somewhat thin, as befitteth thy seventeen summers; where thy flesh is bare of wont, as thy throat and thine arms and thy legs from the middle down, it is tanned a beauteous colour, but otherwhere it is even as fair a white, wholesome and clean, and as if the golden sunlight, which fulfilleth the promise of the earth, were playing therein.  Fairer and rounder shall be thine arms and thy shoulders when thou hast seen five more summers, yet scarce more lovesome, so strong and fine as now they are.  Low are thy breasts, as is meet for so young a maiden, yet is there no lack in them; nor ever shall they be fairer than now they are.  In goodly fashion sits thine head upon thy shoulders, upheld by a long and most well-wrought neck, that the sun hath tanned as aforesaid.  The hair of thee is simple brown, yet somewhat more golden than dark; and ah! now thou lettest it loose it waveth softly past thy fair smooth forehead and on to thy shoulders, and is not stayed by thy girdlestead, but hideth nought of thy knees, and thy legs shapely thin, and thy strong and clean-wrought ankles and feet, which are with thee as full of thine heart and thy soul and as wise and deft as be thy wrists and thine hands, and their very fellows.  Now as to thy face:  under that smooth forehead is thy nose, which is of measure, neither small nor great, straight, and lovely carven at the nostrils:  thine eyen are as grey as a hawk's, but kind and serious, and nothing fierce nor shifting.  Nay, now thou lettest thine eyelids fall, it is as fair with thy face as if they were open, so smooth and simple are they and with their long full lashes.  But well are thine eyen set in thine head, wide apart, well opened, and so as none shall say thou mayst not look in the face of them.  Thy cheeks shall one day be a snare for the unwary, yet are they not fully rounded, as some would have them; but not I, for most pitiful kind are they forsooth.  Delicate and clear-made is the little trench that goeth from thy nose to thy lips, and sweet it is, and there is more might in it than in sweet words spoken.  Thy lips, they are of the finest fashion, yet rather thin than full; and some would not have it so; but I would, whereas I see therein a sign of thy valiancy and friendliness.  Surely he who did thy carven chin had a mind to a master-work and did no less.  Great was the deftness of thine imaginer, and he would have all folk that see thee wonder at thy deep thinking and thy carefulness and thy kindness.  Ah maiden! is it so that thy thoughts are ever deep and solemn?  Yet at least I know it of thee that they be hale and true and sweet.

My friend, when thou hast a mirror, some of all this shalt thou see, but not all; and when thou hast a lover some deal wilt thou hear, but not all.  But now thy she-friend may tell it thee all, if she have eyes to see it, as have I; whereas no man could say so much of thee before the mere love should overtake him, and turn his speech into the folly of love and the madness of desire.  So now I have played the play, and told thee of thee; tell me now of me, and play thy play.

For a while stood Birdalone silent, blushing and confused, but whiles casting shy glances at her own body, what she might see of it.  At last she spake:  Fair friend, I would do thy will, but I am not deft of speech; for I speak but little, save with the fowl and wild things, and they may not learn me the speech of man.  Yet I will say that I wonder to hear thee call me fair and beauteous; for my dame tells me that never, nor sayeth aught of my aspect save in her anger, and then it is:  Rag! and bag-of-bones! and when wilt thou be a woman, thou lank elf thou?  The new-comer laughed well-favouredly hereat, and put forth a hand, and stroked her friend's cheek. Birdalone looked piteous kind on her and said:  But now I must needs believe thy words, thou who art so kind to me, and withal thyself so beauteous.  And I will tell thee that it fills my heart with joy to know that I am fair like to thee.  For this moreover I will tell thee, that I have seen nought in field or woodland that is as lovely to me as thou art; nay, not the fritillary nodding at our brook's mouth, nor the willow-boughs waving on Green Eyot; nor the wild-cat sporting on the little woodlawn, when she saw me not; nor the white doe rising up from the grass to look to her fawn; nor aught that moves and grows.  Yet there is another thing which I must tell thee, to wit, that what thou hast said about the fashion of any part of me, that same, setting aside thy lovely words, which make the tears come into the eyes of me, would I say of thee.  Look thou!  I take thine hair and lay the tress amongst mine, and thou mayst not tell which is which; and amidst the soft waves of it thy forehead is nestling smooth as thou saidst of mine:  hawk-grey and wide apart are thine eyen, and deep thought and all tenderness is in them, as of me thou sayest:  fine is thy nose and of due measure; and thy cheeks a little hollow, and somewhat thin thy lovely lips; and thy round chin so goodly carven, as it might not be better done.  And of thy body else I will say as thou sayst of mine, though I deem these hands have done more work than thine.  But see thou! thy leg and mine as they stand together; and thine arm, as if it were of my body.  Slim and slender thou art, or it may be lank; and I deem our dame would call thee also bag-of-bones.  Now is this strange.  Who art thou?  Art thou my very own sister?  I would thou wert.

Spake then to Birdalone that image of her, and said, smiling kindly on her:  As to our likeness, thou hast it now; so alike are we, as if we were cast in one mould.  But thy sister of blood I am not; nay, I will tell thee at once that I am not of the children of Adam.  As to what I am, that is a long story, and I may not tell it as now; but thou mayst call me Habundia, as I call thee Birdalone.  Now it is true that to everyone I show not myself in this fair shape of thee; but be not aghast thereat, or deem me like unto thy mistress herein, for as now I am, so ever shall I be unto thee.

Quoth Birdalone, looking on her anxiously:  Yea, and I shall see thee again, shall I not? else should I grieve, and wish that I had never seen thee at all.  Yea, forsooth, said Habundia, for I myself were most fain to see thee oft.  But now must thou presently get thee back home, for evil as now is the mood of thy mistress, and she is rueing the gift of the green gown, and hath in her mind to seek occasion to chastise thee.

Now was Birdalone half weeping, as she did on her raiment while her friend looked on her kindly.  She said presently:  Habundia, thou seest I am hard bestead; give me some good rede thereto.

That will I, said the wood-wife.  When thou goest home to the house, be glad of countenance, and joyous that thy gown is nigh done; and therewith be exceeding wary.  For I deem it most like that she will ask thee what thou hast seen in the wood, and then if thou falter, or thy face change, then she will have an inkling of what hath befallen, to wit, that thou hast seen someone; and then will she be minded to question thy skin.  But if thou keep countenance valiantly, then presently will her doubt run off her, and she will cease grudging, and will grow mild with thee and meddle not.  This is the first rede, and is for to-day; and now for the second, which is for days yet unborn.  Thou hast in thy mind to flee away from her; and even so shalt thou do one day, though it may be by way of Weeping Cross; for she is sly and wise and grim, though sooth it is that she hateth thee not utterly.  Now thou must note that nowise she hindereth thee from faring in this wood, and that is because she wotteth, as I do, that by this way there is no outgoing for thee.  Wherefore look thou to it that it is by the way of the water that thou shalt fare to the land of men-folk.  Belike this may seem marvellous to thee; but so it is; and belike I may tell thee more hereof when time serveth.  Now cometh the last word of my rede.  Maybe if thou come often to the wood, we shall whiles happen on each other; but if thou have occasion for me, and wouldst see me at once, come hither, and make fire, and burn a hair of my head therein, and I will be with thee:  here is for thee a tress of mine hair; now thou art clad, thou mayst take a knife from thy pouch and shear it from off me.

Even so did Birdalone, and set the tress in her pouch; and therewith they kissed and embraced each other, and Birdalone went her ways home to the house, but Habundia went back into the wood as she had come.


Next: Chapter VIII. Of Birdalone and the Witch-Wife