Now a strange, uncertain doubt fell over her, and forgetting the terrors of the dark cellar and the long vaults, she turned to the little door again.
"Open that," she said, "and I will try my luck at getting back. For I have come farther than I knew, it seems."
The friar crossed himself. "Back!" he cried, "back through those ancient tombs, Christ knows where? Never dream of it, my daughter! Besides," as she rushed to the door, "it would be impossible. The old key broke in the lock even as I laboured over it, and ten men could not stir it now."
"Tombs?" she murmured, fearfully, "what do you mean by tombs? I came through a cellar...."
"My daughter in Christ," said the friar, advancing firmly toward her and holding out with shaking hands an ivory crucifix so that it touched her breast, "if thou art a mad-woman only, God pity thee, but if thou art more—and worse—then know this sign, before Whom all devils tremble, and vanish! For thou art covered inches deep with the dust of tombs so old that they are forgotten utterly of us who tend the ashes of their descendants, and the cobweb that drapes thy body like a shawl so that I cannot tell for my life the fashion of thy garments, or if thou art young or old, maid or widow, has been a-thickening these hundred years and more!"
At this the moon struck sharply through the empty pane and she saw herself for what he had said and swooned with the cold and her deadly fear.
She came to herself in a soft whispering and rustling of skirts, and knew that women were moving around her.
"What will happen to her?" said one voice, "I had not thought such things possible, hadst thou, Alys?"
"I know that old Ursula who was here in the old Countess's day told of something like it, and that the old Countess ordered a bath made ready, such, she said, as her grandmother had ordered. It seems they are always prepared."
"Be still, girls, she is stirring at the eyelids! How is it with you, madam?"
She opened her eyes and saw three or four young women in fanciful dresses looped up with chains, with jewelled nets upon their heads, and seed pearls braided into their hair. Their gowns of brocaded silk clung closely to the body and left the neck and shoulders bare.
"This is evidently no monastery," she said, and then, "where am I? I am so cold!"
"Soon you will be warm, madam," said the tallest of the girls, with two long braids of dark hair over her shoulders and a wine-red gown trimmed with black fur; "could you find it possible to walk between two of us, think you? Come, Mawdlyn, your arm!"
But little Mawdlyn shrank back. "I am in great fear of all that cobweb, cousin Alys," she whimpered, and no scowls availed to move her.
"Let me help you, Mistress Alys," said, very gravely, a young boy, stepping forward with a plumed cap in his hand and a short hunting knife at his leather girdle.
The tired woman leaned heavily on his arm, and it was he that led her gently and carefully along the great hall between the moving tapestries. Before a curtained door he paused.
"I can go no farther, madam, but if I may ever serve you, which is my true hope, call for me. You will see me on the instant," he said softly, and Alys led her behind the curtain.
Upon a dais sat a very beautiful young woman with deep eyes like brown stars and two great braids of hair like the inner side of chestnuts when they fall apart. She was all in shot-gold silk and on her dark hair lay a twisted golden coronet with rubies studded in it. A big ruby hung on a golden chain around her warm white neck. Below her lay a great silver bath full to the brim of steaming water, and as the two entered, she rose, took a carved ivory box from an old serving woman beside her, and sprinkled a handful of what looked to be white sea sand from it into the bath, which bubbled and clouded and turned milky like an opal.
"Quickly, quickly, Alys!" she cried, "give her to me!"
And as the woman tottered and drew back from the steamy clouds, she of the coronet hastened toward her, took her in her young powerful arms as if she had been an infant, and lifted her over the silver edge. Now the warmth restored her a little and she resisted feebly and protested.
"But I am dressed—I am not ready for a bath—who are you that expect me here and masquerade so strangely? Let me see——"
For she perceived that she was being held so as to prevent her looking into the bath.
"Ah, madam, be guided, be guided! The Countess would not have you look!" cried Alys, but she turned in the strong arms that held her and peered into the milky waves, that smelt of roses, and her heart turned in her, for the bath had no bottom at all, and below the waves were the rocks of the sea itself, white and ribbed, stretching out endlessly! Great masts of ships were there and huge fishes oaring their way, and as the water touched her she did not feel it warm, but cold and salt. She struggled, but it reached her lips and she felt the Countess thrust her down, down.
"Push her, push her, Alys!" cried this cruel Countess, "press down her feet!" and she sank, gasping.
The water drew through her nostrils and the air was full of deep, tolling bells and at last a steady hum, as of bees. She knew nothing more.
At last, as one might waken after death, she breathed again, and felt herself being lifted from a warm, sweet bath and held, naked as a new child, on the knees of one who dried her softly with a towel of finest linen that smelt of roses.
"See how clean, my lady! Everything has gone!" She heard the voice of Alys, and peeped beneath her lids at where she had been plunged: it was but a great silver bath, clear, now, to the bottom, and quite empty.
"Where are my clothes?" she whispered, feeling strangely light and strong, "I am not cold any more; I can go on."
"Surely, if you will," said she whom they called the Countess, "but not till you have eaten and drunk and had of us new wear in the stead of that my bath has washed away."
And so, almost before she knew it, Alys and the old serving woman had put on her soft, fine linen and a shot-silver robe, looped up with a silver chain, and dressed her hair nobly. Over her neck and shoulders, no longer smoothly full like her own, this countess fastened a sort of cape of lace and silver, and on her feet the old woman fitted pointed velvet shoes. She watched them gravely, tingling still from that strange bath, trying to shape out in her mind what she would say to lead them to explain to her the place she had fallen upon, and why they played this pretty jest, and spoke and dressed so quaintly.
Now the Countess touched a silver bell and the old woman drew a heavy curtain before the bath and the dais and placed a carved chair, and when Alys had led her to it, the same youth appeared with a tray in his hand, holding fine wheat bread and a graceful flagon of rosy wine and a fragment of honeycomb. He knelt before her, seriously, with eyes never raised above his silken knees, but his very presence moved her strangely and she put her hand softly on his head when he said, "Will you eat, madam, and refresh yourself?" and hastened to taste of all on his tray before he could be offended.
"And now, Alys, where is your mistress?" she said, when her strength was stayed and her eyes and voice bright again with the comforting wine, "for I must talk with her."
"Presently, madam, presently," said the girl, "none may speak with her at the moment, for she is gone to Mass—'tis the Count's name-day and the night, too, when God and St. Michael took him, fighting, and we have been out all day for holly for the chapel. We are all to go—will you come with us?"
"No," she said, thinking to make her way out when they were all gone and find out where this wild tract could be, "no, I will wait here. I am not of your religion, Alys."
The girl sprang back from her with frightened eyes and crossed herself.
"Madam!" she cried, "never speak so! If they thought a Moslem here—and to-night—hush, there go the men!"
There was a great tramping, and along the tapestries, before the drawn curtain, came a company of men-at-arms, clanking in full armour, with set, hard faces under the helmets.
She grasped at the arms of her oak chair wildly; these harsh men sent a chill through her—was some horrid treachery thus hinted to her? Then as Alys sped along behind them she felt her hand kissed softly and the little page-boy was there.
"There is none to hurt you—if you stay quiet here," he said softly, and she knew she dared not move or spy about.
Now arose a low chanting and then murmured prayers, and soon a smell of incense reached them. Then at last the mystic bell struck mellow on the night air and she knew that God was made and that men, maids, and Countess-widow were bowed before this mystery. The page bent low and crossed himself and a strange jealousy rushed over her that he should be of this sort, when she was not, for she loved the boy unreasonably.
"Your mother is a good Catholic, I see," she said, when the chant grew louder and covered her voice.
"I do not know, madam," he said.
"You do not know?" she cried, "and why not?"
"Because I do not know my mother, dear madam," he answered, and flushed to where his slim neck was hidden by his long hair.
Then a keen trouble rose in her and grew ever stronger, and the boy's eyes frightened her and yet she must watch him. Steadily she looked at him and sat as one in a dream and thought no more of going away, but when the Countess and her train came back and the men had vanished and the maids-in-waiting were whispering around the great fireplace, she put out her hand and caught the young widow's silken gown.
"Who—who is his mother?" she asked eagerly.
"Who should be?" the Countess answered strangely, "whom hath he a look of, guest of mine?"
The boy lifted his face as she put a shaking finger under his round chin and turned his eyes up to her, and a shiver ran through her—for they were her own eyes.
"This—this is no boy of mine!" she gasped, shaking with more than terror.
"He might have been," said the young Countess with grave gentleness, "but you would not have him. So that he must come to us."
"But that—all that was long ago," she whispered, thinking that she spoke aloud, her eyes lost in the boy's.
"Here they grow slowly, being nearly soulless when they come," said the Countess. "He would have been your oldest son, had he stayed with you."
"'Here!' In God's name, where am I?" she cried. "Am I dead, then, at last? But I had not thought—I had hoped for peace. I had counted on rest."
"Rest?" the Countess echoed her, "and why should you look for that, my guest? What, in all the worlds of God, rests? You are a strange people, beyond the Dunes.... But you are not dead. No dead come here."
She took her by the hand, the boy clinging to the other, and walked with her to the great fire. Here they sat down to tapestry work, green and blue and russet weavings, and the woman folded her hands in her lap and watched them moodily. At last she spoke.
"You will never make a huntsman at that rate, Alys—one would think him standing on his horse."
"Help her, then," said the Countess, and her guest took a piece of charcoal and drew out a fair pattern for the girl.
"And mine, madam?" "And mine?" cried the others, and she leaned over the shoulder of each and made her a true picture for her work. But her eye was often on the boy and when the girls were all busy at last, she spoke softly to him.
"What is your name?" she asked.
"Madam, they call me Gildres," said he.
"And what do you do, Gildres, in this strange castle?"
"Is it strange?" said the boy. "I do not know. I am to be squire to the lord, my lady's brother, soon, and now I learn falconry and the care of his armour and sometimes I serve the Mass. I wait on my lady herself, too, for I must learn that. But I like best to colour the missals with Father Petrus—you should see the phoenix I did, madam, and the leopard, last week! He said it was brave work—all blue and stars with red pierced hearts in the border, madam—and that the church needed me."
She put her hand on his dark head and sighed.
"If I had kept you with me, you should have made your leopards, dear," she said gently, "but now I have no right in you."
"Nay, but you may help him," said the Countess briskly, "run and get thy phoenix, boy, and she will show thee where even that wondrous bird is at fault."
And when they had worked over the great volume, lettered every letter by a patient hand and clasped with silver, it was the hour for bed.
"The Countess is tired," whispered Alys to their guest, "for she has been twice on the Dunes; once to tend a poor woodcutter of a broken leg and again when one of the shepherd's wives was found to be a-dying."
"In the city—which I have just left, we do these things differently now," said the woman. "There is so much pain and sickness that one woman's hands—or one hundred—would avail little enough to stem the tide. So it is organized and attended to by a few who do nothing else, and thus the others are left free."
"Free for what?" said the Countess, suddenly; "to seek rest?"
The woman looked coldly at her. "I do not know who you are," she said, "nor what you do here, but it is plain to see, at least, that you are a young woman. I am not. At your age, believe me, I did not rest. I have done better work of its kind than your tapestries. I have done other work, too—I have borne and reared children and they have children of their own. I have tended to his death a good man and laid him in his grave. My work is done. Now I look for some quiet room with a window to face the autumn sunsets, that I may sit by it, and think, and find out what life may be, perhaps, before I leave it. Why do you goad me on and seem to seek to prevent me?"
The Countess ran to her and kneeled by her and seized her hand.
"I goad you because I must, dear guest," she said; "believe me, I know—none better—what you have done. The tapestry which you drew to-day shall meet eyes you do not dream on now; the phoenix that made pattern for our Gildres here shall teach more than him. And it is in such that you must rest. For women were not made to sit and think what life may be—trust me for it. We are running streams, that muddy if we settle. We have to live, and find life out in living. Did it not seem clearer to you, what time you leaned so wisely over my heedless little Mawdlyn?"
Now the woman breathed hard, as one who runs a race, and stared at her who spoke.
"Yes, it did—I knew it did!" she cried, "but who are you that tell me this so young? And if you have learned so much, you are far too wise and necessary to those you teach to risk your life in this terrible cold, visiting wood-cutters!"
"If I am young, dear guest, I am yet not so young that I have not known this," said she of the coronet, "that I learned what I know on just such visitings! Mothers of Sorrow are we all, dear friend, and if we hold ourselves too far from sorrow, we are no true mothers of the world we make. If all did a little, there would be no need of a few who should do all—or so it seems to us on the Dunes."
"But we think—in my city—that these unhappy ones, the poor, the sick, the ignorant, gain more from the few who should do all," she argued.
"Maybe. But you gain the less who fail to do them," said the Countess.
"Child," said the woman, sternly, "the poor were not created for our discipline."
"I do not know how you know that," said the Countess.
At this the woman's eyes grew wide, and she stared at the embroidery frames and the stags' heads and the arras, and all the quiet maidens in their looped skirts, with eyes that saw them not. At last she sighed and rose from her carved chair humbly.
"Thank God, I am not too old to learn!" she said; "I see I have not earned my rest, while so many of the world lack theirs. Perhaps in heaven, if I win there, I may take it. But it is hard. Once in my life, yes, and twice, I was all for urging on and doing, and two women, in strange places, one very old and one of middle age, taught me sharply that it might not be, and bridled and haltered my young strength. Now that I am content to be nothing, you, a young woman, urge me on. Are you the third, then? How many more must there be?"
Then the Countess rose and threw herself on her knees before her and kissed her trembling hand.
"No more, no more, O mother of six!" she cried, sobbing, "and be sure that only the fine gold must needs be so harried by the great Smithy! But it could not be that such as thou shouldst end at a sunset window. Rather die fighting as did my good lord, and leave the quiet for them that mourn!"
"I will do so," said the woman, "but how have you learned such wisdom, being so young?"
"When my lord died," said the Countess, "I was as one mad, and set myself toward the convent, to end there, praying for him. But a very holy hermit that lives beneath Merlin Oak, in the very midst and heart of the Dunes, to whom I brought a relic from Jerusalem as a pious offering, set me right and told me I was not made for a religious. 'It may be, my daughter, that in too much thought on your religion you will lose it,' he said, 'and end in tears and kissings of the Feet, for which not many of the saints have power, for long. Make of thy deep heart a crystal spring, with continual bubbling, which is despised of the wise fools of this world, but ordained forever from the Throne.'"
"And yet he learned his wisdom from meditating in solitude, and freedom from the cares of every day?" said the woman softly.
"He was a man," said the Countess, "and it is permitted to them to go into the desert and think. Ah, consider only, dear friend, for how little time had that good man of yours to do, or your father, with that seed of life which you and your mother must bear for days and months of days, till it should be born indeed! One hour with him—and he hath given you work for years. And hath he sleepless nights and breathless days, then? Nay, indeed! He is off to new dreams by morning, and there is only you to watch that they shall be no dreams, but realities. And when that watch is over, then look for the dawn indeed—but not this side the Dunes!"
"Then let me go back," said the woman quietly, "and do for the sake of the doing what once I longed to do for the sake of the world. Though now my powers are less and I doubt I shall accomplish very much."
"Have no fear," said the Countess gladly, "have no fear, my sister. Alys, bring what you know for my sister," and Alys went out and returned with a silver coronet on a cushion, studded with sapphires. The young Gildres knelt low to offer it, and as the Countess bade her, she herself put it upon her own head, and they walked stately together, lighted by the page and attended by the maidens, to a great beamed bedchamber with a crucifix on the wall and a high carved bed of state raised upon a dais, and with pillows of silk and curtains of rich tapestry.
"Now rest, dear sister, and say good-bye to me," said this Countess, and when they had laid her, robed and crowned, upon the bed, she kissed her on the mouth.
"Shall I never see you again?" said the woman.
"Ask rather if you never saw me before," said she, and then, "look at me!"
The cold moon shone through the leaded pane and struck her face full, and as the woman looked it seemed that wrinkles grew about her eyes and that the moonlight turned her hair as white as snow.
"You are the Bee-woman!" she cried.
"Look again," said the Countess.
And now her cheeks were like warm russet apples and her shoulders were broad.
"You are the Dame at the Farm!" said the woman, "and I thought you young!"
"It may be, dear sister, that when we meet again I shall be younger still," she said, and her voice was like the tolling of sweet bells across the autumn fields, "for then age will be neither here nor there!"
Now she was again the young Countess among her maidens, and what had passed might have been a dream.
Yet as she of the silver coronet passed slowly into a sweet sleep, where bees hummed and soft chanting from the chapel mourned the dead, she caught the hand of her who stood by the bed and questioned her.
"Tell me, mother and sister," she whispered, "why in my lessons, I must ever find the truth under such strange forms? Why do you who must teach me wear the garments of another age, another country?"
Now a trouble came over the face of the Countess and she shivered in the moonlight.
"Ask me not, sister and daughter—and yet I must answer if thou ask me, who wearest a crown. I cannot tell why this is laid upon me—although it is well known to be so. Nor have any but a wonderful and holy few learned in any other wise. I cannot tell ... sometimes I think that though the lessons were set in each dish and coat and friendly hand of everyday—as Our Lady knows they are, for the matter of that!—you cannot read them, out there. They are too plain, perhaps. So all must be put before the eyes too full for sight in a manner (as one should call it) quaint. Though truly one thing has never been more quaint than another! But I do not speak clearly.... Good night, my sister."
Now she heard a sob and knew it was from young Gildres.
"Shall I never see her again, then, my lady?" he whispered.
"Why, that is as may be, Gildres," said the Countess, "but I do think so. It comes to me that when this my sister sets forth she shall pass through here, and thou shalt accompany her farther on. Do then thy service here the more diligently, as in the hope of it."
"Madam, I will," said he joyfully, and she,
"Now soothe her hand, Alys, with me, for she should be sleeping now."
Then they took each a hand and stroked it, and she lost herself in sleep, dreamless, save for the winter moonlight and the chanting and the hum of bees.
When she woke her hand was still held, but very firmly, and the humming was seen to be the revolving of light discs under their dome of glass.
"Ah! Now we have a steady pulse," said the doctor, "and you—too dear a friend to lose by your own folly!—I shall not scold you yet. But what a fright to give me! A little more and you would have found your Lethe oversoon, old friend."
She shook her head and smiled. "No longer, no longer!" she said. "So long as the current bears me, I am for that River of Life that you and I must keep at flood."
* * * * *
Now that she has dropped these strange tales, and gone too far for me to hear her voice, I find that in picking them up they have lost much of the force and clearness her telling gave them. Yet I cannot see that I have left anything out. It may be that my dull pen has clouded them. Blame me, then, and not the tales, for they were made most wonderfully plain to me.
That things very real occurred to her, no one could doubt who could hear her relate them. And if they have grown unreal and feeble in the telling, the fault must be wholly mine—the imperfect and unsuccessful scribe.
* * * * *
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
The Madness of Philip Her Fiance Memoirs of a Baby Middle-Aged Love Stories Whom the Gods Destroyed Domestic Adventures The Imp and the Angel Poems An Idyll of All Fools' Day Fables for the Fair Ten to Seventeen (a Boarding School Diary) Smith College Stories Sister's Vocation