“Not so indeed. But she is so young—so fair—”
“Aye, she is very fair, my lord—there be—others think the same.”
“Helen?” said he, “O Helen!”
“And thou dost plead for her—and to me, my lord! And with her kisses yet burning thee!”
“She did but kiss my hand—”
“Thy hand, my lord! O aye, thy hand forsooth!”
“Aye, my hand, lady, and therewith named me ’Duke’!” quoth Beltane, beginning to frown. Whereat needs must the Duchess laugh, very soft and sweet yet with eyes aglow beneath her lashes.
“‘Duke,’ messire? She names thee so betimes, meseemeth. Thou art not Duke yet, nor can’st thou ever be but of my favour!”
“And the time flieth apace,” sighed Beltane, “and I have mighty things to do. O, methinks I have tarried here overlong!”
“Ah—and would’st be going, messire?”
“’Tis so methinks my duty.”
“Go you alone, messire—or goeth she with thee?”
“Ah, God! How dare ye so think?” cried Beltane, in anger so fierce and sudden that though she fronted him yet smiling, she drew back a pace. Whereat his anger fell from him and he reached out his hands.
“Helen!” said he, “O my Helen, what madness is this? Thou art she I love—doth not thine heart tell thee so?” and fain would he have caught her to him.
“Ah—touch me not!” she cried, and steel flickered in her hand.
“This—to me?” quoth he, and laughed short and bitter, and catching her wrist, shook the dagger from her grasp and set his foot upon it.
“And hath it come to this—’twixt thee and me?” he sighed.
“O,” she panted, “I have loved thee nor shamed to show thee my love. Yet because my love is so great, so, methinks, an need be I might hate thee more than any man!” Then, quick-breathing, flushed and trembling, she turned and sped away, leaving Beltane heavy-hearted, and with the dagger gleaming beneath his foot.
OF THE HUMILITY OF HELEN THE PROUD
Beltane, leaning forth of his lattice, stared upon the moon with doleful eyes, heavy with sense of wrong and big with self-pity.
“I have dreamed a wondrous fair dream,” said he within himself, “but all dreams must end, so is my dream vanished quite and I awake, and being awake, now will I arise and go upon my duty!” Then turned he to his bed that stood beside the window and forthwith began to arm himself; but with every lace he drew, with every strap he buckled, he sighed amain and his self-pity waxed the mightier. He bethought him of his father’s sayings anent the love of women, and in his mind condemned them all as fickle and light-minded. And in a while, being armed from head to foot, in glistening coif and hauberk and with sword girt about his middle, he came back to the lattice and leaned him there to stare again upon the moon, to wait until the manor should be wrapped in sleep and to grieve for himself with every breath he drew.