Uther and Igraine/Book 3/13

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Uther and Igraine by Warwick Deeping
Book III: Chapter XIII

XIII


DOWN through the woods that morning rode Gorlois on his great white horse, with helmet clanging at saddle-bow, shield hung at his left shoulder, spear trailing under the trees. He was hot, thirsty, and in a most evil temper. His bronzed face glistened with sweat, and the chequered webs of light flickering through the leaves flashed fitfully upon his golden harness. Since dawn he had ridden the hills in the glare of the sun till his armour blazed like an oven; it was June weather, and hot at that; his tongue felt like wood rubbing against leather; it was a damnable month for bearing harness.

Casting about over the hills he had come upon Garlotte's valley, and seeing it green and shadowy, had plunged down to profit by the shade. Since the Red Knight was lost to him, it was immaterial whether he rode by wood or hill. On this account, too, Gorlois's temper was as hot as his skin. He hated a baulking above all things; he was moved to be furious with trifles, and like the savage who gnashes at the stone that bruises his foot, he cursed creation and felt thoroughly at war with the world. A grim unreason had possession of him, such a mood as makes murder a mere impulse of the hand, and malice the prime instinct of the heart.

As he rode with loose rein the trees thinned suddenly, and the forest gloom rolled back over his head. Gorlois halted mechanically under the wooelshawe, and scanned the valley spread before him under the brown hollow of his hand. He had expected no such open land in this waste of wood--open land with water, a cottage, sheep feeding, and horses tethered under the trees. One of the horses tethered there was a black. The coincidence livened Gorlois's torpid, sunburnt face with a cool gleam of intelligence. He sat motionless in the saddle and took the length and breadth of the valley under the keen ken of his black eyes.

The man swore a little oath into his peaked black beard. His face grew suddenly rapacious as he stared out under the hollow of his hand. He had seen a streak of red strike through the green wall far up the eastern slope that fronted him, a scrap of colour metallic with the hint of armour. It went to and fro under the distant trees like a torch past the windows of a church. Gorlois's hand tightened on the bridle. He watched the thing as a hawk watches a young rabbit in the grass.

Betimes he gave a queer little chuckle, and turned his horse into the deeper shade of the trees. He began to make a circuit round the valley, holding northwards to compass the meadows. He cast long, wary glances into the wood as he went; tried his sword to see that it was loose in the scabbard; took his helmet from the saddle-bow, and let down the cheek-pieces from the crown. Before long he kicked his stirrups away, rolled out of the saddle, and tied his horse to an oak sapling in a little dell. Going silently on foot over the mossy grass, stopping often to stare into the sunny vistas of the forest, moving more or less from tree to tree, he worked his way southwards along the eastern slope. Streaks of meadowland and the glint of water showed below him, and he heard the bleat of sheep far away, and the tinkling of a bell.

Presently the murmur of voices came to him through the woods. He ventured on another fifty paces, then stopped behind a tree to listen. There were two voices, he was sure of that: one was a woman's, and the other had the sonorous vibration of a man's bass. Gorlois's eyes took a queer, far-away look, and his strong teeth showed between his lips.

He worked his way on through the trees with the cautious and deliberate instinct of a hunter. The two voices gained in timbre, character, and expression. Their talk was no jays' chatter; Gorlois could tell that from the emphasis of sound, and a certain dramatic melody that ran through the whole. Soon the voices were very near. Going on his belly, with his sword held in his left hand, he crawled like a gilt dragon through a forest of springing fern. He crawled on till he was quite near the two who stood and talked under the trees. Lying flat, never venturing to lift his head, he crouched, breathing hard through his nostrils and holding his scabbarded sword crosswise beneath his chin.

Gorlois's face, scarred and drawn as it was, seemed as he listened a clear mirror for the portrayal of human passion. His black moustachios twitched above his angular jaw; his eyes took a rapacious and glazed look, and a shadow seemed to cover his face. He turned and twisted as he lay, and dug the points of his iron-shod shoes into the soft ground as though in the crisis of some pain. It was the woman's voice that did all this for him. Every word seemed like the wrench of a hook in his flesh, as he cursed and twisted under the bracken.

Presently he lay still again, as though to listen the better. He could hear something of what was said to the man in the red harness, but the main drift of their talk was beyond him. Pelleas! Pelleas! He squirmed like a crushed snake at each sounding of the name. The bracken hardly swayed as he crawled on some twenty paces and again lay still, with his cheek resting upon the scabbard of his sword.

"Gorlois might die."

Gorlois heard the words as plainly as though they had been spoken into his ear. A vast silence hung like thunder over the forest. Gorlois lay as though stunned with a stone, his dry mouth pressed to the cold steel of the sword. His eyes took a stubborn stare under the sweep of his casque. With gradual labour be raised himself upon his elbows, drew his knees up under his body, and lifted his head slowly above the sweep of green.

The ground fell away slightly from where Gorlois knelt in the bracken, and he could look down on the two who stood under the trees, while the fern fronds hid his harness. He saw a woman in violet and gold, her hair falling straight on either side of her face, and her arms folded crosswise over her breast. He saw also the knight in red harness, with his locked hands twisting above his head as in an agony, while his face was hidden by his arm. A passionate whisper of words passed between the two. Even when Gorlois watched, the man in the red harness jerked round and fell on his knees at the woman's feet. Gorlois suddenly saw his face; it was the face of Uther the King.

Gorlois dropped back under the bracken as though smitten through with a sword. He lay there a long while with his head upon his arms. A sudden breeze came up the valley, sounding through the trees, swaying the green fronds above the man's harness, calling a gradual clamour from the woods. The overmastering image of the King seemed to frown down Gorlois for the moment, and he crouched like a dog--with the courage crushed out of his soul.

Betimes Gorlois's reason revived from the stroke that had stunned it for a season. Like Jonah's gourd a quick purpose sprang up and shadowed him from the too hasty heat of his own passions. He was a virile man, capable of great wrath and great resentment. Yet he was no mere firebrand. His malice, strangely enough, was one-handed and reached out only against the woman. For Uther he conceived a superhuman envy, a passion that rose above mere bloody expiation by the sword. Gorlois had the wit to remember the finer cruelties of a spiritual vengeance, the gain of wounding the soul rather than the flesh. His malice was a thing fanatical in itself, yet taken from the forge to be cooled and tempered like steel.

When he lifted his head again above the bracken, Uther had gone, and Igraine stood alone under the trees. She stood straight and motionless as some tall flower, her hair falling like quiet sunlight, unshaken by a wind. Her great beauty leapt out into Gorlois's blood and maddened him. As she looked out over the valley, Gorlois, straining his neck above the bracken, could see that she watched Uther as he went down from her towards the pool. Even to Gorlois there was something tragic about the solitary figure under the trees, a stiff, grievous look as though woe had transformed her into a pillar of stone. To him the affair seemed a mere assignation, a hazardous passage of romance. Measuring the souls of others by his own morality, he guessed nothing of the deeper throes that surged through the tale like the long moan of a night wind.

Gorlois saw Uther and his black horse disappear into the opposing bank of woodland. Viciously satisfied, he lay in the bracken and watched Igraine, coming by a queer pleasure in considering her beauty, and in the knowledge that her very life was poised on the point of his sword. How little she thought of the man-dragon lying in his gilded scales under the green of the feathery fronds. Gorlois felt a kind of arrogance of ownership boasting itself in his heart. Certainly he held a means more sinister than the sword wherewith to perfect his vengeance and to preserve his honour. A very purgatory, bolgia upon bolgia, stretched out in prospect for the souls of the two who had done him this great evil. Gorlois made much of it, with a joy that was hard and durable as iron.

Igraine stirred at last from her stupor of immobility. Walking unsteadily, as though faint in the heat, she passed out from the trees with their mingling of sun and shadow, and went down through the long grass towards the pool and the cottage. Gorlois knelt in the bracken, and watched her with a smile. There was little chance of her escaping, and he could be as deliberate as he pleased over the matter. He inferred with reason that the cottage served her as a lodging in this woodland solitude, where she lay hid from all the world save from Uther, whose courtezan she was. Gorlois laughed--a keen, biting laugh--at the thought of it all. At least he would go back for his horse and spear, and make a fitting entry before the woman who was his wife.

Igraine, walking as though in her sleep, came into the cottage, and almost fell into Garlotte's arms. The girl looked frightened, and very white about the lips. She could find nothing in her heart to say to Igraine; she helped her to the bed, and ran to the cupboard to get wine.

"Drink it," she said, the cup rocking to and fro in her hand.

Igraine did her best, but spilt much of the stuff upon her bosom, where it made a stain like blood. She sat on the edge of the bed, and looked into the distance with expressionless eyes. Her hands were very cold. Garlotte chafed them between her own, murmured a word or two, but could not bring herself to look into Igraine's face. From the valley the bleating of sheep came up with a sudden wind, and the red roses flung their faces across the latticed casement.

Igraine was looking through the window into the deep green of the woods. She could see the place where Pelleas had left her, even the tree under which she had stood when she had pleaded with him without avail. How utterly quiet everything seemed. Surely June was an evil month for her; had it not brought double misery--and well-nigh broken her heart? And the end of it all was that she was to go back to a convent, to grey walls, vigils, and the sounding of a bell. Even that was better than being Gorlois's wife.

Suddenly, as she sat and stared out of the casement, her body grew tense and eager as a bent bow. Her eyes hardened, lost their dreamy look; the hands that had rested in Garlotte's gripped the girl's wrists with a force that made her wince.

"Saddle the horse."

The words came in a hard whisper. Garlotte stared at her, and did not stir.

"Child, never question me; be quick, on your life."

Igraine, a different woman in a moment, had started up and taken her shield and helmet from the wall. Her sword was girded to her. Quick as thought, she gathered up her trailing hair, thrust on the casque, strapped it to the neck-plate under her surcoat. Garlotte, vastly puzzled, but inspired by Igraine's earnestness, had hurried out with saddle and bridle over her shoulder. As she ran through the garden, she looked up to the woods and saw the reason of Igraine's flurry. A knight had come out from the forest on a white horse, his armour flashing and blazing in the noonday sun. He had halted motionless at the edge of the woodland, as though to mark what was passing beneath him in the valley.

Garlotte found Igraine armed beside her, as she stood by the grey horse under the cedar, and tugged with trembling fingers at the saddle straps. Bit and bridle were quickly in place. Igraine, moved by a hurried tenderness, gripped Garlotte to her with both arms.

"God guard you, little sister."

"Where are you going, Igraine?"

"God knows!"

"Who is yonder knight?"

"Gorlois, my husband."

Igraine climbed into the saddle from the girl's knee. She dashed in the spurs and went at a gallop over the meadows towards the south. Gorlois's white horse was coming at full stride through the feathery grass. The man was riding crosswise over the valley, bent on cutting off Igraine from the southern stretch of meadows, and driving her back upon the woods. It was Igraine's hope to overtake Pelleas, and to put herself behind the barrier of his shield. Gorlois, guessing her desire, drove home the spurs, and hunted her in earnest.

Igraine headed the man and won a lead in the first half mile. Her grey horse plunged like a galley in a rough sea, and she held to the pommel of her saddle to keep her seat. Gorlois thundered at full gallop in her wake, the long grass flying before his horse's hoofs like foam. He had thrown away his spear, and his eyes were set in a long stare on the galloping horse ahead. The zest of the chase had hold of him, and he used the spurs with heavy heel.

The green woods rolled down on them as the valley narrowed to its southern end. Igraine had never wandered so far from Garlotte's cottage, and the ground was strange to her, nor did she know how the country promised. Riding at full gallop, she saw with a shudder of fear a barrier of rock running serrate across her path and closing the narrow valley like a wall. Gorlois saw it too, and sent up a shout that made Igraine's hate flame up into a kind of rapture. To have turned right or left up the steep grass slope towards the woods, would have given back to Gorlois the little start she had of him. With a numb chill at her heart she abandoned all hope of Pelleas, and turned to face the inevitable, and Gorlois her lord.

The man came up like a wind through the grass, and drew rein roughly some ten paces away. He laughed as he stared at Igraine, an uncouth, angering laugh like the yapping of a dog, He looked big and burly in the saddle, and the muscles stood out in his neck as he tilted his square jaw and stared down at his wife. Igraine had not looked upon his face since he had been smitten in battle. Its ugliness seemed to match his soul.

Gorlois lifted up his voice and mocked her.

"Ha, my brave, you are trapped, are you? Mother of God, but you make a good figure of a man. These many months I have missed you, wife in arms. And you have served in the pay of my lord the King. Good service and good pay, I warrant, and plenty of plunder. I will have that harness of yours hung over my bed."

Igraine suffered him not so much as a word. She was furious, and in no mood to be scoffed down and cowed by mere insolent strength. She looked into Gorlois's libidinous face from behind the vizor of her helmet, and thought her thoughts. Gorlois ran on in his mocking fashion. His bronzed face gleamed with sweat, and a rough lascivious smile showed up his strong white teeth to her.

"Ha, now, madame! deliver, and let us have sight of you. The King loves your lips, eh! They are red, and your arms are soft. I warrant he found your bosom a good pillow. Uther was ever such a solemn soul, such a monk, such a father. It is good for the heart to hear of him knotted up in a woman's hair."

Igraine shook with the immensity of her hate.

"You were ever a foul-tongued hound," she said.

"Am I your echo?"

"I wish you were dead."

"So said the King."

"So you spied on us?"

Gorlois set up a scoffing laugh, showing his red throat like a hungry bird.

"And saw my wife the King's courtezan; ha, what a jest! Come, madame, let us be going; your honest home waits for you. I will chatter to you of moralities by the way."

He had hardly delivered himself of the saying, when Igraine's hand clutched at the handle of her sword. She jerked the spurs in with her heels. Her grey horse started forward like a bolt; blundered into Gorlois; caught him cross-counter, and rolled his white stallion down into the grass. Igraine had lashed out at the shock. Her sword caught Gorlois's arm, and cut through sleeve and arm-guard to the bone. As he rolled with his horse in the grass, she wheeled round, and clapping in the spurs, rode hard uphill for the forest.

Gorlois, hot as a furnace, scrambled to his feet, and dragged his horse up by the bridle. Half off the saddle, with empty stirrups dangling, he went at a canter for the yawn of the wood. His slashed arm burnt as though it had been touched with a branding-iron; blood dripped down upon his horse's white shoulder. He was soon steady in the saddle and galloping full pelt after Igraine, the ground slipping under his horse's hoofs like water, the long grass flying like spray.

Igraine's horse lost ground up the slope; he had less heart than Gorlois's beast, and was weaker in the haunches. By the time they reached the trees, Igraine had twenty yards to her credit and no more. She saw her chance gone, and heard Gorlois close in her wake, caught sideways a glimpse of plunging hoofs and angry harness. Drawing aside suddenly with all her strength, she let Gorlois sweep up on her flank and pass her by some yards. Before he could turn, she rode into him as fast as she could gather; her sword clattered on his helmet,---sparks flew.

Gorlois wrenched round and put his shield above his head.

"By God,--hold off,--would you have me fight a woman?"

A swinging cut rattled on his shoulder-plate for answer.

Gorlois rapped out an oath and drew his sword.

"Hold off!"

His roar seemed to shake the trees. To Igraine it was the mere meaningless threatening of a sea. She struck home again and again while Gorlois foined with her; more than once she reached his flesh.

Gorlois's grim patience gave way at last; a clean cut drew spurting blood from his shoulder.

"God curse you!--take it then."

He swung his sword with a great downward sweep, a streak of steel that struck crackling fire from the burnished casque. Igraine's arm dropped like a broken bough; for half a breath she sat straight in the saddle, swayed, sank slantwise, and slid down into the long grass. Her horse stood still at her side, looking at her with mild blue eyes.

Gorlois gave a queer short laugh. He looked frightened for the moment; the flush of anger had passed and left him pale. He dismounted, bent over Igraine, unstrapped her helmet. She was only dazed by the blow; blood trickled red amid her hair, and her blue eyes stared him in the face.

She lifted up a hand with a bitter cry of defiance.

"Strike, strike, and make an end."

Gorlois's grimness came back, and his eyes hardened.

"That were too good for you."

"Devil!"

"By God, I shall tame you--never fear!"