The Water of the Wondrous Isles, by William Morris, , at sacred-texts.com
CHAPTER IX. HOW BIRDALONE CAME TO THE ISLE OF THE YOUNG AND THE OLD
All went well with Birdalone when she had left the Isle of Increase Unsought, much as it had on her first voyage, save that now she was both clad and victualled, and her heart, if yet it harboured fear, was also full of new and strange hope; and oft, even as she sat there amidst the waste of waters, she wondered what new longing this was which wrought so sweet a pain in her, that it made her cheeks burn, and her eyes dim, and her hands and her limbs restless. And then would she set her mind to her friends and their errand, and would hope and pray for them; but again would she fall to picture to herself what manner of men they were who were so sore longed for by those three beauteous women; and she deemed that since they were thus desired, they must be fairer even than her friends of the isle; and again the nameless longing overtook her, and held her till it wearied her into sleep.
When she awoke again the boat had stayed, and she was come aland; but the dawn was not yet come, and the night was moonless, yet was there light enough to see, from the water and the stars, that the bows of the boat were lying safe on a little sandy beach. So she stepped out and looked around, and deemed she could see great trees before her, and imagined also dark masses of she knew not what. So she walked warily up the said strand till she came on to soft grass, and smelled the scent of the clover as her foot-soles crushed it. There she sat down, and presently lay along and went to sleep.
After a while she awoke, and felt happy and well at ease, and had no will to move: the sun was shining brightly, but had not been up long: the song of birds was all about her, but amidst it she deemed she heard some speech of man, though it were not like to what she had heard in her life before. So she raised herself on her elbow, and looked up and saw a new thing, and sat up now, and beheld and wondered.
For there stood before her, gazing wide-eyed on her, two little children, some three winters of age, a man and a woman as it seemed. The man-child with light and fine white-golden hair, falling straight down and square over his brow, and blue-grey eyes which were both kind and merry, and shyly seeking as it were. Plump and rosy he was, sturdy and stout-limbed. No less fair was the woman; her hair golden-brown, as oft it is with children who grow up dark-haired, and curling in fair little rings all over her head; her eyes were big and dark grey; she was thinner than the lad, and somewhat taller.
These two babes had between them a milk-white she-goat, and had been playing with her, and now she turned her head to this and that one of them, bleating, as if to crave more of the game; but they had no eyes for her, but stood staring with might and main on the new-comer and her shining golden gown.
Birdalone laughed with joy when she saw the little ones, and a dim memory of the days of Utterhay passed before her: she stretched out a hand to them, and spake softly and caressingly, and the little lad came forward smiling, and took her hand, and made as if he would help her up for courtesy's sake. She laughed on him, and arose; and when she stood up, tall and golden, he seemed somewhat afeard of so big a creature, but stood his ground valiantly. Then she stooped down to him and kissed him, and he naysaid her not, but seemed rather glad when it was over; but when Birdalone went to the little maid, and kissed her, the child clung to her as if she were her mother, and babbled to her.
Then comes the lad to her, and takes her hand, and would draw her away, and speaks to her in his prattle, and she understood him to mean that she should come with him to see the father. So she went, wondering what should next betide; and the little maiden went on the other side of her, holding by a fold of her skirt. Forsooth the goat followed bleating, not well pleased to be forgotten.
Now had Birdalone time to look about her, though the two babes fell to prattling with her in their way, and she thought it sweet to look down on the two little faces that looked up to her so pleased and merry.
She was in a grassy plain, somewhat over rough and broken to be called a meadow, and not enough be-timbered to be called a wood; it rose up a little and slowly as they left the water, but scarce so much as one might call it a hill. Straight before her on the way that they were going went up into the air great masses of grey stone builded by man's hand, but looking, even from this way off, ragged and ruinous. It may well be thought that Birdalone wondered what things might lie betwixt the trees and the towers.
Now as they went they came on other goats, who seemed tame, and these joined them to their fellow, and suffered the younglings to play with them. Moreover there were rabbits great plenty scuttling in and out of the brakes and the rough ground upon the way, and the younglings beheld them, and the little lad said, after his fashion: Why do the rabbits run away from us, and the goats follow us? Now, sooth to say, Birdalone scarce knew why, and had no word ready for the child; but she said at last: Mayhappen they will come to me; so it was once when I dwelt away from here. Shall I go fetch thee one? The little ones yeasaid that, though somewhat shyly and doubtfully. Then said Birdalone: Do ye, sweetlings, abide me here, and go not away. They nodded their heads thereat, and Birdalone kilted her skirts and went her ways to some broken bushed ground, where was a many rabbits playing about; but she went not out of eye-shot of the babes. Before she was well-nigh to the little beasts, she fell to talking to them in a low sweet voice, as had been her wont when she was little; and when they heard it, those who had not scuttled away at first glance of her, fell to creeping little short creeps one to the other, as their manner is when they be alone together and merry; and they suffered her to come quite amongst them, and crept about her feet while she stood, still talking unto them. Then she stooped down and took up one in her arms and caressed it, and then laid him down and took up another, and so with three or four of them; and she fell to pushing them, and rolling them over with her foot; then she turned a little away from them toward the children, and then a little more, and the rabbits fell to following her, and she turned and took up one in her arms, and went straight on toward the children, but turning and talking to the rabbits now and again.
As to the babes, she saw the goats, of whom were now a dozen, or thereabouts, standing together in a kind of ring, and the little ones going from one to the other playing with them happily. But presently the lad turned and saw her coming with her tail of little beasts, and he cried out a great Oh and ran toward her straightway, and the maiden after him; and he held out his arms to have the rabbit she bore, and she gave it to him smiling, and said: Lo now! here be pretty playmates; but look to it that ye be soft and kind with them, for they are but feeble people. So the younglings fell to sporting with their new friends, and for a little forgat both goats and golden lady; but the goats drew nigh, and stood about them bleating, nor durst they run at the rabbits to butt them, because of Birdalone and the little ones.
There then stood the slim maiden, tall and gleaming above her little flock; and her heart was full of mirth and rest, and the fear was all forgotten. But as she looked up toward the grey walls, lo, new tidings to hand! For she saw an old man with a long white beard slowly coming toward them: she started not, but abode his coming quietly, and as he drew nigh she could see of him that he was big and stark, and, old as he was, not yet bowed with his many years. He stood looking on this Queen and her court silently a while, and then he spake: Such a sight I looked not to see on this Isle of the Young and the Old. She said: But meseemeth it is full meet that these younglings should sport with the creatures. He smiled and said: Such a voice I looked not to hear on the Isle of the Young and the Old.
Birdalone became somewhat troubled, and said: Am I welcome here? for if I be not, I will pray thy leave to depart. He said: Thou art as welcome as the very spring, my child; and if thou have a mind to abide here, who shall naysay thee? For surely thou art young; nay, in regard to me thou art scarce older than babes. All blessings be with thee. But though thou art true and kind, as is clear to be seen by thy playing with these children and the landward beasts in peace and love, yet it may be so that thou hast brought hither somewhat less than peace. And he smiled upon her strangely.
She looked somewhat scared at his last words, and said: But how so? If I might I would bear nought but peace and happiness to any place. The old carle laughed outright now, and said: How so, dear child? because ladies so sweet and lovesome as thou be sent by love, and love rendeth apart that which was joined together.
She wondered at his word, and was bewildered by it, but she held her peace; and he said: Now we may talk hereof later on; but the matter to hand now is the quenching of thine hunger; for I will not ask thee whereby thou camest, since by water thou needs must have come. Wherefore now I bid thee to our house, and these little ones shall go with us, and the three of these horned folk whom we are wont to tether amidst the wrack and ruin of what once was fair; the rest have our leave to depart, and these nibblers also; for we have a potherb garden by our house, and are fain to keep the increase of the same for ourselves. Birdalone laughed, and shook her skirts at the coneys, and they all scuttled away after the manner of their kind. Thereat the little lad looked downcast and well-nigh tearful, but the maid stamped her foot, and roared well-favouredly.
Birdalone did her best to solace her, and plucked a bough from a hawthorn bush far above the little ones' reach whereon was yet some belated blossom, and gave it to her and stilled her. But the old man picked out his milch-goats from the flock (whereof was the white), and drave them before him, while the two babes went on still beside Birdalone, the little carle holding her hand and playing with the fingers thereof; the maiden sometimes hanging on to her gown, sometimes going loose and sporting about beside her.
So came they to where the ground became smoother, and there was a fair piece of greensward in a nook made by those great walls and towers, which sheltered it from the north. The said walls seemed to be the remnant of what had once been a great house and castle; and up aloft, where was now no stair to come at them, were chimneys and hearths here and there, and windows with fair seats in them, and arched doors and carven pillars, and many things beautiful, but now was all ruined and broken, and the house was roofless and floorless: withal it was overgrown with ash-trees and quicken-beam, and other berry-trees and key-trees, which had many years ago seeded in the rent walls, and now grew there great and flourishing. But in the innermost nook of this mighty remnant, and using for its lowly walls two sides of the ancient ashlar ones, stood a cot builded not over trimly of small wood, and now much overgrown with roses and woodbine. In front of it was a piece of garden ground, wherein waxed potherbs, and a little deal of wheat; and therein was a goodly row of bee- skeps; and all without it was the pleasant greensward aforesaid, wherein stood three great ancient oaks, and divers thorns, which also were ancient after their kind.
The elder led his guest into the cot, which had but simple plenishing of stools and benches, and a table unartful, and then went to tether his goats in the ruined hall of the house, and the children must needs with him, though Birdalone had been glad of one of them at least; but there was no nay, but that they must go see their dear white goat in her stall. Howsoever all three came back again presently, the old carle with a courteous word in his mouth, and he took Birdalone's hand, and kissed it and bade her welcome to his house, as though he had been a great lord at home in his own castle. Therewith must the little ones also kiss her hand and be courteous; and Birdalone suffered it, laughing, and then caught them up in her arms, and clipped and kissed them well-favouredly; wherewith belike they were not over-well pleased, though the boy endured it kindly. Thereafter the elder set forth his banquet, which was simple enough: upland cheer of cream and honey, and rough bread; but sweet it was to Birdalone to eat it with good welcome, and the courtesy of the old man.
When they were done, they went out-a-doors, and Birdalone and the old man laid them down under an oak-tree, and the children sported about anigh them. Then spake Birdalone: Old man, thou hast been kind unto me; but now wouldest thou tell me about thee, what thou art, and what are these walls about us here? Said he: I doubt if I may do so, this day at least. But belike thou shalt abide with us, and then some day the word may come into my mouth. She held her peace, and into her mind it came that it would be sweet to dwell there, and watch those fair children waxing, and the lad growing up and loving her; yea, even she fell to telling up the years which would make him a man, and tried to see herself, how she would look, when the years were worn thereto. Then she reddened at the untold thought, and looked down and was silent. But the elder looked on her anxiously, and said: It will be no such hard life for thee, for I have still some work in me, and thou mayst do something in spite of thy slender and delicate fashion. She laughed merrily, and said: Forsooth, good sire, I might do somewhat more than something; for I am deft in all such work as here ye need; so fear not but I should earn my livelihood, and that with joy. Merry days shall we have then, said he.
But therewith her eye caught the gleam of her golden sleeve, and she thought of Aurea, and her heart smote her for her errand; then she laid her hand on her girdle and called to mind little Viridis, and the glitter of the ring on her finger brought the image of Atra before her; then she rose up and said: Thou art kind, father, but I may not; I have an errand; this day must I depart from thee. He said: Thou hast broken my heart; if I were not so old, I would weep. And he hung adown his head.
She stood before him abashed, as if she had done him a wrong. At last he looked up and said: Must it be to-day? Wilt thou not abide with us night-long, and go thy ways in the early morning?
Now she scarce knew how to gainsay him, so wretched as the old carle looked; so it came to this, that she yeasaid the abiding till to- morrow. Then suddenly he became gay and merry, and he kissed her hand, and fell to much speaking, telling tales of little import concerning his earlier days. But when she asked him again of how he came there, and what meant the great ruined house, then he became foolish and wandering, and might scarce answer her; whereas otherwise he was a well-spoken old carle of many words, and those of the grandest.
Then changed his mood again, and he fell to bewailing her departure, and how that henceforth he should have none to speak to him with understanding. Then she smiled on him and said: But yonder babes will grow up; month by month they will be better fellows unto thee. Fair child, he said, thou dost not know. My days to come are but few, so that I should see but little of their waxing in any case. But furthermore, wax they will not; such as they be now, such shall they be till I at least see the last of them and the earth.
Birdalone wondered at this word, and the place seemed changed to her, yea, was grown somewhat dreary; but she said to the carle: And thou, dost thou change in any wise, since these change not? He laughed somewhat grimly, and said: The old that be here change from old to dead; how could I change to better? Yea, the first thing I had to do here was to bury an old man. Quoth she: And were there any children here then? Yea, said he; these same, or I can see no difference in them. Said Birdalone: And how long ago is that? And how camest thou hither? His face became foolish, and he gibbered rather than spake: No, I wot not; no, no, no, not a whit, a whit. But presently after was he himself again, and telling her a tale of a great lady of the earl-folk, a baron's dame, and how dear he was unto her. He lay yet on the grass, and she stood before him, and presently he put forth a hand to her gown-hem and drew her to him thereby, and fell to caressing her feet; and Birdalone was ashamed thereat, and a little angry. He was nought abashed, but sat up and said: Well, since thou must needs depart to-morrow, be we merry to-day. And I pray thee talk much with me, fair child, for sweet and sweet is thy voice to hearken. Then he arose and said: Now will I fetch thee somewhat to eke the joy of us both. And he turned therewith and went into the house.
Birdalone stood there, and was now perplexed and downhearted; for now the look of the elder scarce liked her, and the children began to seem to her as images, or at the best not more to her than the rabbits or the goats; and she rued her word that she would abide there the night through. For she said to herself: I fear some trap or guile; is the witch behind this also? for the old man is yet stark, and though he be foolish at whiles, yet may wizardry have learned him some guile.
With that cometh out the carle again, bearing a little keg and a mazer roughly wrought; and he came to Birdalone, and sat down, and bade her sit by him, and said to her: Maybe I shall hear more of thy sweet voice when thy sweet lips have been in the cup. Therewith he poured forth into the mazer, and handed it to Birdalone, and lo! it was clear and good mead. She sipped thereof daintily, and, to say sooth, was well-pleased therewith, and it stirred the heart in her. But then she gave back the cup to the elder, and would no more of it. As for him, he drank what was left in the cup, looking over the rim thereof meanwhile; and then filled himself another, and another, and yet more. But whereas it might have been looked for that his tongue should be loosened by the good mead into foolishness and gibbering, he became rather few-spoken, and more courteous and stately even than he had been at the first. But in the end, forsooth, he was forgetting Birdalone, what she was, and he fell a-talking, always with much pomp and state, as if to barons and earls, and great ladies; till suddenly his head fell back, he turned over on his face, and all wit was gone from him.
At first, then, Birdalone was afraid that he was dead, or nigh unto death, and she knelt down and raised his head, and fetched water and cast it over his face. But when she saw that he was breathing not so ill, and that the colour was little changed in his lips and cheeks, she knew that it was but the might of the mead that had overcome him. Wherefore she laid him so that he was easy, and then stood up and looked about her, and saw the children playing together a little way off; and nought else anigh her, save the birds in the brake, or flying on their errands eagerly from place to place. Then, as it were, without her will being told them, her limbs and her feet turned her about to the shore where lay the Sending Boat, and she went speedily but quietly thitherward, her heart beating quick, for fear lest something should yet stay her, and her eyes glancing from brake to bush, as if she looked to see some enemy, old or new, come out thence.
So now her will was clear enough to her feet, and they brought her down to the water-side and the long strand, past which the wide water lay windless and gleaming in the hot afternoon. Then lightly she stepped aboard, and awoke the Sending Boat with blood-offering, and it obeyed her, and sped swiftly on the way to the southward.