February had died into March, and March was now twelve days old, on a fair and sunny day an hour before noon; and Face-of-god was in a meadow a scant mile down the Dale from Burgstead. He had been driving a bull into a goodman’s byre nearby, and had had to spend toil and patience both in getting him out of the fields and into the byre; for the beast was hot with the spring days and the new grass. So now he was resting himself in happy mood in an exceeding pleasant place, a little meadow to wit, on one side whereof was a great orchard or grove of sweet chestnuts, which went right up to the feet of the Southern Cliffs: across the meadow ran a clear brook towards the Weltering Water, free from big stones, in some places dammed up for the flooding of the deep pasture-meadow, and with the grass growing on its lips down to the very water. There was a low bank just outside the chestnut trees, as if someone had raised a dyke about them when they were young, which had been trodden low and spreading through the lapse of years by the faring of many men and beasts. The primroses bloomed thick upon it now, and here and there along it was a low blackthorn bush in full blossom; from the mid-meadow and right down to the lip of the brook was the grass well nigh hidden by the blossoms of the meadow-saffron, with daffodils sprinkled about amongst them, and in the trees and bushes the birds, and chiefly the blackbirds, were singing their loudest.
There sat Face-of-god on the bank resting after his toil, and happy was his mood; since in two days’ wearing he should be pacing the Maiden Ward awaiting the token that was to lead him to Shadowy Vale; so he sat calling to mind the Friend as he had last seen her, and striving as it were to set her image standing on the flowery grass before him, till all the beauty of the meadow seemed bare and empty to him without her. Then it fell into his mind that this had been a beloved trysting-place betwixt him and the Bride, and that often when they were little would they come to gather chestnuts in the grove, and thereafter sit and prattle on the old dyke; or in spring when the season was warm would they go barefoot into the brook, seeking its treasures of troutlets and flowers and clean-washed agate pebbles. Yea, and time not long ago had they met here to talk as lovers, and sat on that very bank in all the kindness of good days without a blemish, and both he and she had loved the place well for its wealth of blossoms and deep grass and goodly trees and clear running stream.
As he thought of all this, and how often there he had praised to himself her beauty, which he scarce dared praise to her, he frowned and slowly rose to his feet, and turned toward the chestnut-grove, as though he would go thence that way; but or ever he stepped down from the dyke he turned about again, and even therewith, like the very image and ghost of his thought, lo! the Bride herself coming up from out the brook and wending toward him, her wet naked feet gleaming in the sun as they trod down the tender meadow-saffron and brushed past the tufts of daffodils. He stood staring at her discomforted, for on that day he had much to think of that seemed happy to him, and he deemed that she would now question him, and his mind pondered divers ways of answering her, and none seemed good to him. She drew near and let her skirts fall over her feet, and came to him, her gown hem dragging over the flowers: then she stood straight up before him and greeted him, but reached not forth her hand to him nor touched him. Her face was paler that its wont, and her voice trembled as she spake to him and said:
‘Face-of-god, I would ask thee a gift.’
‘All gifts,’ he said, ‘that thou mayest ask, and I may give, lie open to thee.’
She said: ‘If I be alive when the time comes this gift thou mayst well give me.’
‘Sweet kinswoman,’ said he, ‘tell me what it is that thou wouldest have of me.’ And he was ill-at-ease as he waited for her answer.
She said: ‘Ah, kinsman, kinsman! Woe on the day that maketh kinship accursed to me because thou desirest it!’
He held his peace and was exceeding sorry; and she said:
‘This is the gift that I ask of thee, that in the days to come when thou art wedded, thou wilt give me the second man-child whom thou begettest.’
He said: ‘This shalt thou have, and would that I might give thee much more. Would that we were little children together other again, as when we played here in other days.’
She said: ‘I would have a token of thee that thou shalt show to the God, and swear on it to give me the gift. For the times change.’
‘What token wilt thou have?’ said he.
She said: ‘When next thou farest to the Wood, thou shalt bring me back, it maybe a flower from the bank ye sit upon, or a splinter from the dais of the hall wherein ye feast, or maybe a ring or some matter that the strangers are wont to wear. That shall be the token.’
She spoke slowly, hanging her head adown, but she lifted it presently and looked into his face and said:
‘Woe’s me, woe’s me, Gold-mane! How evil is this day, when bewailing me I may not bewail thee also! For I know that thine heart is glad. All through the winter have I kept this hidden in my heart, and durst not speak to thee. But now the spring-tide hath driven me to it. Let summer come, and who shall say?’
Great was his grief, and his shame kept him silent, and he had no word to say; and again she said:
‘Tell me, Gold-mane, when goest thou thither?’
He said: ‘I know not surely, may happen in two days, may happen in ten. Why askest thou?’
‘O friend!’ she said, ‘is it a new thing that I should ask thee whither thou goest and whence thou comest, and the times of thy coming and going. Farewell to-day! Forget not the token. Woe’s me, that I may not kiss thy fair face!’
She spread her arms abroad and lifted up her face as one who waileth, but no sound came from her lips; then she turned about and went away as she had come.
But as for him he stood there after she was gone in all confusion, as if he were undone: for he felt his manhood lessened that he should thus and so sorely have hurt a friend, and in a manner against his will. And yet he was somewhat wroth with her, that she had come upon him so suddenly, and spoken to him with such mastery, and in so few words, and he with none to make answer to her, and that she had so marred his pleasure and his hope of that fair day. Then he sat him down again on the flowery bank, and little by little his heart softened, and he once more called to mind many a time when they had been there before, and the plays and the games they had had together there when they were little. And he bethought him of the days that were long to him then, and now seemed short to him, and as if they were all grown together into one story, and that a sweet one. Then his breast heaved with a sob, and the tears rose to his eyes and burned and stung him, and he fell a-weeping for that sweet tale, and wept as he had wept once before on that old dyke when there had been some child’s quarrel between them, and she had gone away and left him.
Then after a while he ceased his weeping, and looked about him lest anyone might be coming, and then he arose and went to and fro in the chestnut-grove for a good while, and afterwards went his ways from that meadow, saying to himself: ‘Yet remaineth to me the morrow of to-morrow, and that is the first of the days of the watching for the token.’
But all that day he was slow to meet the eyes of men; and in the hall that eve he was silent and moody; for from time to time it came over him that some of his manhood had departed from him.