But a little while had she sat there, before footsteps a many came to the door, which was thrown open, and straight it was as if the sun had shone on a flower-bed, for there was come Earl Geoffrey and his lords all arrayed most gloriously. Then came the Earl up the chamber to Goldilind, and bent the knee before her, and said: “Lady and Queen, is it thy pleasure that thy servant should kiss thine hand?”
She made him little cheer, but reached out to him her lily hand in its gold sleeve, and said: “Thou must do thy will.”
So he kissed the hand reverently, and said: “And these my lords, may they enter and do obeisance and kiss hands, my Lady?”
Said Goldilind: “I will not strive to gainsay their will, or thine, my Lord.”
So they entered and knelt before her, and kissed her hand; and, to say sooth, most of them had been fain to kiss both hands of her, yea, and her cheeks and her lips; though but little cheer she made them, but looked sternly on them.
Then the Earl spake to her, and told her of her realm, and how folk thrived, and of the deep peace that was upon the land, and of the merry days of Meadham, and the praise of the people. And she answered him nothing, but as he spake her bosom began to heave, and the tears came into her eyes and rolled down her cheeks. Then man looked on man, and the Earl said: “My masters, I deem that my Lady hath will to speak to me privily, as to one who is her chiefest friend and well-willer. Is it so, my Lady?”
She might not speak for the tears that welled out from her heart; but she bowed her head and strove to smile on him.
But the Earl waved his hand, and those lords, and the women also, voided the chamber, and left those two alone, the Earl standing before her. But ere he could speak, she arose from her throne and fell on her knees before him, and joined hands palm to palm, and cried in a broken voice: “Mercy! Mercy! Have pity on my young life, great Lord!”
But he lifted her up, and set her on her throne again, and said: “Nay, my Lady, this is unmeet; but if thou wouldst talk and tell with me I am ready to hearken.”
She strove with her passion a while, and then she said: “Great Lord, I pray thee to hearken, and to have patience with a woman’s weak heart. Prithee, sit down here beside me.
“It were unfitting,” he said; “I shall take a lowlier seat.” Then he drew a stool to him, and sat down before her, and said: “What aileth thee? What wouldest thou?”
Then she said: “Lord Earl, I am in prison; I would be free.”
Quoth he: “Yea, and is this a prison, then?”
“Yea,” she said, “since I may not so much as go out from it and come back again unthreatened; yet have I been, and that unseldom, in a worser prison than this: do thou go look on the Least Guard-chamber, and see if it be a meet dwelling for thy master’s daughter.”
He spake nought awhile; then he said: “And, yet if it grieveth thee, it marreth thee nought; for when I look on thee mine eyes behold the beauty of the world, and the body wherein is no lack.”
She reddened and said: “If it be so, it is God’s work, and I praise him therefor. But how long will it last? For grief slayeth beauty.”
He looked on her long, and said: “To thy friends I betook thee, and I looked that they should cherish thee; where then is the wrong that I have done thee?”
She said: “Maybe no wrong wittingly; since now, belike, thou art come to tell me that all this weary sojourn is at an end, and that thou wilt take me to Meadhamstead, and set me on the throne there, and show my father’s daughter to all the people.”
He held his peace, and his face grew dark before her while she watched it. At last he spake in a harsh voice: “Lady,” he said, “it may not be; here in Greenharbour must thou abide, or in some other castle apart from the folk.”
“Yea,” she said, “now I see it is true, that which I foreboded when first I came hither: thou wouldst slay me, that thou mayest sit safely in the seat of thy master’s daughter; thou durst not send me a man with a sword to thrust me through, therefore thou hast cast me into prison amongst cruel jailers, who have been bidden by thee to take my life slowly and with torments. Hitherto I have withstood their malice and thine; but now am I overcome, and since I know that I must die, I have now no fear, and this is why I am bold to tell thee this that I have spoken, though I wot now I shall be presently slain. And now I tell thee I repent it, that I have asked grace of a graceless face.”
Although she spake strong words, it was with a mild and steady voice. But the Earl was sore troubled, and he rose up and walked to and fro of the chamber, half drawing his sword and thrusting it back into the scabbard from time to time. At last he came back to her, and sat down before her and spake:
“Maiden, thou art somewhat in error. True it is that I would sit firm in my seat and rule the land of Meadham, as belike none other could. True it is also that I would have thee, the rightful heir, dwell apart from the turmoil for a while at least; for I would not have thy white hands thrust me untimely from my place, or thy fair face held up as a banner by my foemen. Yet nowise have I willed thy death or thine anguish; and if all be true as thou sayest it, and thou art so lovely that I know not how to doubt it, tell me then what these have done with thee.”
She said: “Sir, those friends to whom thou hast delivered me are my foes, whether they were thy friends or not. Wilt thou compel me to tell thee all my shame? They have treated me as a thrall who had whiles to play a queen’s part in a show. To wit, thy chaplain whom thou hast given me has looked on me with lustful eyes, and has bidden me buy of him ease and surcease of pain with my very body, and hath threatened me more evil else, and kept his behest.”
Then leapt up the Earl and cried out: “Hah! did he so? Then I tell thee his monk’s hood shall not be stout enough to save his neck. Now, my child, thou speakest; tell me more, since my hair is whitening.”
She said: “The sleek, smooth-spoken woman to whom thou gavest me, didst thou bid her to torment me with stripes, and the dungeon, and the dark, and solitude, and hunger?”
“Nay, by Allhallows!” he said, “nor thought of it; trust me she shall pay therefor if so she hath done.”
She said: “I crave no vengeance, but mercy I crave, and thou mayst give it me.”
Then were they both silent, till he said: “Now I, for my part, will pray thee bear what thou must bear, which shall be nought save this, that thy queenship lie quiet for a while; nought else of evil shall betide thee henceforth; but as much of pleasure and joy as may go with it. But tell me, there is a story of thy snatching a holiday these two days, and of a young man whom thou didst happen on. Tell me now, not as a maiden to her father or warder, but as a great lady might tell a great lord, what betid betwixt you two: for thou art not one on whom a young and doughty man may look unmoved. By Allhallows! but thou art a firebrand, my Lady!” And he laughed therewith.
Goldilind flushed red exceeding; but she answered steadily: “Lord Earl, this is the very sooth, that I might not fail to see it, how he thought me worth looking on, but he treated me with all honour, as a brother might a sister.”
“Tell me,” said the Earl, “what like was this man?”
Said she: “He was young, but strong beyond measure; and full doughty: true it is that I saw him with mine eyes take and heave up one of our men in his hands and cast him away as a man would a clod of earth.”
The Earl knit his brow: “Yea,” said he, “and that story I have heard from the men-at-arms also. But what was the man like of aspect?”
She reddened: “He was of a most goodly body,” she said, “fair-eyed, and of a face well carven; his speech kind and gentle.” And yet more she reddened.
Said the Earl: “Didst thou hear what he was, this man?”
She said: “I deem from his own words that he was but a simple forester.”
“Yea,” quoth the Earl, “a simple forester? Nay, but a woodman, an outlaw, a waylayer; so say our men, that he fell on them with the cry: A-Tofts! A-Tofts! Hast thou never heard of Jack of the Tofts?”
“Nay, never,” said she.
Said the Earl: “He is the king of these good fellows; and a perilous host they be. Now I fear me, if he be proven to be one of these, there will be a gallows reared for him to- morrow, for as fair and as doughty as he may be.”
She turned all pale, and her lips quivered: then she rose up, and fell on her knees before the Earl, and cried out: “O sir, a grace, a grace, I pray thee! Pardon this poor man who was so kind to me!”
The Earl raised her up and smiled, and said: “Nay, my Lady Queen, wouldst thou kneel to me? It is unmeet. And as for this woodman, it is for thee to pardon him, and not for me; and since, by good luck, he is not hanged yet, thy word hath saved his neck.” She sat down in her chair again, but still looked white and scared. But the Earl spake again, and kindly:
“Now to all these matters I shall give heed, my Lady; wherefore I will ask leave of thee, and be gone; and to-morrow I will see thee again, and lay some rede before thee. Meantime, be of good cheer, for thou shalt be made as much of as may be, and live in mickle joy if thou wilt. And if any so much as give thee a hard word, it shall be the worse for them.”
Therewith he arose, and made obeisance to her, and departed. And she abode quiet, and looking straight before her, till the door shut, and then she put her hands to her face and fell a-weeping, and scarce knew what ailed her betwixt hope, and rest of body, and love, though that she called not by its right name.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58