The Well at the World's End
Part 3 out of 11
Said the carline: "Thereof shall another tell thee, who can
tell of it better than I; but it is nought to hide that yonder
chamber is the chamber of estate of our Lady, and she sitteth
there to hear the cases of folk and to give dooms."
The old woman crossed herself as she spoke, and Ralph wondered thereat,
but asked no more questions, for he was scarce sorry that the carline
would not tell him thereof, lest she should spoil the tale.
So passed the evening, and he went to bed and slept as a young
man should, and the next day he was up betimes and went abroad
and mingled with the carles and queens afield; but this time he spake
not of the Lady, and heard nought to heed from any of that folk.
So he went back to the castle and gat him a bow and arrows, and entered
the thicket of the wood nigh where he and Roger first came out of it.
He had prayed a young man of the folk to go with him, but he was not over
willing to go, though he would not say wherefore. So Ralph went himself
by himself and wandered some way into the wood, and saw nought worse
than himself. As he came back, making a circuit toward the open meadows,
he happened on a herd of deer in a lonely place, half wood half meadow,
and there he slew a hart with one shaft, for he was a deft bowman.
Then he went and fetched a leash of carles, who went with him somewhat
less than half willingly, and between them they broke up the hart
and carried him home to the castle, where the carline met them.
She smiled on Ralph and praised the venison, and said withal that the hunting
was well done; "For, as fond and as fair as thou mayst be, it is not
good that young men should have their minds set on one thing only."
Therewith she led him in to his meat, and set him down and served him;
and all the while of his dinner he was longing to ask her if she
deemed that the Lady would come that day, since it was the last day
of those which Roger had bidden him wait; but the words would not out
of his mouth.
She looked at him and smiled, as though she had a guess of his thought, and at
last she said to him: "Thy tongue is tied to-day. Hast thou, after all,
seen something strange in the wood?" He shook his head for naysay.
Said she: "Why, then, dost thou not ask more concerning the Well at
the World's End?"
He laughed, and said: "Maybe because I think that thou
canst not tell me thereof." "Well," she said, "if I cannot,
yet the book may, and this evening, when the sun is down,
thou shalt have it."
"I thank thee, mother," said he; "but this is now the last day
that Roger bade me wait. Dost thou think that he will come
back to-night?" and he reddened therewith. "Nay," she said,
"I know not, and thou carest not whether he will come or not.
Yet I know that thou wilt abide here till some one else come,
whether that be early or late." Again he reddened, and said,
in a coaxing way: "And wilt thou give me guesting, mother, for a
few more summer days?"
"Yea," she said, "and till summer is over, if need be, and the corn is cut
and carried, and till the winter is come and the latter end of winter
is gone." He smiled faintly, though his heart fell, and he said:
"Nay, mother, and can it by any chance be so long a-coming?"
"O, fair boy," she said, "thou wilt make it long,
howsoever short it be. And now I will give thee a rede,
lest thou vex thyself sick and fret thy very heart.
To-morrow go see if thou canst meet thy fate instead of abiding it.
Do on thy war-gear and take thy sword and try the adventure
of the wildwood; but go not over deep into it." Said he:
"But how if the Lady come while I am away from this house?"
"Sooth to say," said the carline, "I deem not that she will,
for the way is long betwixt us and her."
"Dost thou mean," said Ralph, standing up from the board,
"that she will not come ever? I adjure thee not to
beguile me with soft words, but tell me the very sooth."
"There, there!" said she, "sit down, king's son; eat thy
meat and drink thy wine; for to-morrow is a new day.
She will come soon or late, if she be yet in the world.
And now I will say no more to thee concerning this matter."
Therewith she went her ways from the hall, and when she came back with
hand-basin and towel, she said no word to him, but only smiled kindly.
He went out presently into the meadow (for it was yet but early afternoon)
and came among the haymaking folk and spake with them, hoping that
perchance some of them might speak again of the Lady of Abundance;
but none of them did so, though the old carle he had spoken with was there,
and there also were the two maidens whom he had seen fishing; and as for him,
he was over faint-hearted to ask them any more questions concerning her.
Yet he abode with them long, and ate and drank amidst the hay with them
till the moon shone brightly. Then he went back to the castle and found
the carline in the hall, and she had the book with her and gave it to him,
and he sat down in the shot-window under the waxlights and fell to
reading of it.
Ralph Readeth in a Book Concerning the Well at the World's End
Fairly written was that book, with many pictures therein,
the meaning of which Ralph knew not; but amongst them was the image
of the fair woman whom he had holpen at the want-ways of the wood,
and but four days ago was that, yet it seemed long and long to him.
The book told not much about the Well at the World's End,
but much it told of a certain woman whom no man that saw her
could forbear to love: of her it told that erewhile she dwelt
lonely in the wildwood (though how she came there was not said)
and how a king's son found her there and brought her to his
father's kingdom and wedded her, whether others were lief or loth:
and in a little while, when the fame of her had spread,
he was put out of his kingdom and his father's house for the love
of her, because other kings and lords hankered after her;
whereof befel long and grievous war which she abode not to the end,
but sought to her old place in the wildwood; and how she found
there another woman a sorceress, who made her her thrall;
and tormented her grievously with toil and stripes.
And how again there came a knight to that place who was
seeking the Well at the World's End, and bore her away
with him; and how the said knight was slain on the way,
and she was taken by tyrants and robbers of the folk:
but these being entangled in her love fought amongst themselves
and she escaped, and went seeking that Well, and found it
at the long last, and drank thereof, and throve ever after:
and how she liveth yet, and is become the servant of the Well
to entangle the seekers in her love and keep them from
drinking thereof; because there was no man that beheld her,
but anon he was the thrall of her love, and might not pluck
his heart away from her to do any of the deeds whereby men
thrive and win the praise of the people.
Ralph read on and on till the short night waned, and the wax-lights
failed one after the other, and the windows of the hall grew grey
and daylight came, and the throstles burst out a-singing at once in
the castle pleasaunce, and the sun came up over the wood, and the sound
of men-folk bestirring themselves a-field came to his ears through
the open windows; and at last he was done with the tale, and the carline
came not near him though the sun had clomb high up the heavens.
As for Ralph, what he had read was sweet poison to him; for if before he was
somewhat tormented by love, now was his heart sick and sore with it.
Though he knew not for certain whether this tale had to do with the Lady
of the Forest, and though he knew not if the Lady who should come
to the castle were even she, yet he needs must deem that so it was,
and his heart was weary with love, and his manhood seemed changed.
Ralph Meeteth a Man in the Wood
But the morning began to wear as he sat deep in these thoughts
and still the Carline came not to him; and he thought:
"She leaveth me alone that I may do her bidding:
so will I without tarrying." And he arose and did on his hauberk
and basnet, and girt his sword to his side, and went forth,
a-foot as before. He crossed the river by a wide ford
and stepping stones somewhat below the pool wherein he had
bathed on that first day; and already by then he had got
so far, what with the fresh air of the beauteous morning,
what with the cheerful tinkling of his sword and hauberk,
he was somewhat amended of his trouble and heaviness of spirit.
A little way across the river, but nigher to the wood,
was a house or cot of that country-folk, and an old woman sat
spinning in the door. So Ralph went up thither, and greeted her,
and craved of her a draught of milk; so the goody turned
about and cried out to one within, and there came forth one
of the maidens whom Ralph had met fishing that other day,
and the old woman bade her bring forth milk and bread.
Then the carline looked hard at Ralph, and said: "Ah! I have
heard tell of thee: thou art abiding the turn of the days
up at the castle yonder, as others have done before thee.
Well, well, belike thou shalt have thy wish, though whether
it shall be to thy profit, who shall say?"
Thereat Ralph's heart fell again, and he said: "Sayest thou,
mother, that there have been others abiding like me in the tower?
I know not what thy words mean."
The carline laughed. "Well," said she, "here comes thy morning's
bait borne by shapely hands enough; eat and drink first;
and then will I tell thee my meaning."
Therewith came the maiden forth with the bowl and the loaf;
and indeed she was fair enough, and shy and kind; but Ralph
heeded her little, nor was his heart moved by her at all.
She set a stool for him beside the door and he sat down and ate
and drank, though his heart was troubled; and the maiden hung about,
and seemed to find it no easy matter to keep her eyes off him.
Presently the carline, who had been watching the two, said:
"Thou askest of the meaning of my words; well, deemest thou that I
have had more men than one to love me?" "I know not, mother,"
said Ralph, who could scarce hold himself patient. "There now!"
quoth the carline, "look at my damsel! (she is not my daughter,
but my brother's,) there is a man, and a brisk lad too, whom she
calleth her batchelor, and is as I verily deem well-pleased with him:
yet lo you how she eyeth thee, thou fair man, and doth so with
her raiment that thou mayst best see how shapely she is of limb
and foot, and toyeth her right hand with her left wrist,
and the like.--Well, as for me, I have had more lovers than
one or two. And why have I had just so many and no more?
Nay, thou needest not make any long answer to me.
I am old now, and even before I was old I was not young:
I am now foul of favour, and even before I became foul,
I was not so fair--well then?"
"Yea, what then?" said Ralph. "This then, fair young fool," said she:
"the one whom thou lovest, long hath she lived, but she is not old to look on,
nor foul; but fair--O how fair!"
Then Ralph forgot his fear, and his heart grew greedy
and his eyes glistened, and he said, yet he spoke faintly:
"Yea, is she fair?" "What! hast thou not seen her?" said the carline.
Ralph called to mind the guise in which he had seen her and
flushed bright red, as he answered: "Yea, I deem that I have:
surely it was she." The carline laughed: "Well," said she;
"however thou hast seen her, thou hast scarce seen her as I have."
Said Ralph, "How was that?" Said she: "It is her way here
in the summer-tide to bathe her in yonder pool up the water:"
(and it was the same pool wherein Ralph had bathed) "And she
hath me and my niece and two other women to hold up the silken
cloth betwixt her body and the world; so that I have seen her
as God made her; and I shall tell thee that when he was about
that work he was minded to be a craftsmaster; for there is no
blemish about her that she should hide her at all or anywhere.
Her sides are sleek, and her thighs no rougher than her face,
and her feet as dainty as her hands: yea, she is a pearl all over,
withal she is as strong as a knight, and I warrant her hardier
of heart than most knights. A happy man shalt thou be;
for surely I deem thou hast not come hither to abide her without
some token or warrant of her."
Ralph held down his head, and he could not meet the old
woman's eyes as she spake thus; and the maiden took herself
out of earshot at the first words of the carline hereof,
and was halfway down to the river by now.
Ralph spake after a while and said: "Tell me, is she good,
and a good woman?" The dame laughed scornfully and said:
"Surely, surely; she is the saint of the Forest Land,
and the guardian of all poor folk. Ask the carles else!"
Ralph held his peace, and rose to be gone and turning saw the damsel
wading the shallow ford, and looking over her shoulder at him.
He gave the dame good day, and departed light-foot but heavy hearted.
Yet as he went, he kept saying to himself: "Did she not send
that Roger to turn my ways hither? yet she cometh not. Surely she
hath changed in these last days, or it may be in these last hours:
yea, or this very hour."
Amidst such thoughts he came into the wood, and made his way
by the paths and open places, going south and east of the House:
Whereas the last day he had gone west and north. He went a soft pace,
but wandered on without any stay till it was noon, and he had
seen nought but the wild things of the wood, nor many of them.
But at last he heard the tinkle of a little bell coming towards him:
so he stood still and got the hilt of his sword ready to his hand;
and the tinkle drew nearer, and he heard withal the trample
of some riding-beast; so he went toward the sound, and presently
in a clearer place of the wood came upon a man of religion,
a clerk, riding on a hackney, to whose neck hung a horse-bell:
the priest had saddle bags beside him and carried in his right hand
a book in a bag. When he met Ralph he blessed him, and Ralph
gave him the sele of the day, and asked him whither he would.
Said the Priest: "I am for the Little Plain and the Land
of Abundance; whence art thou, my son, and whither wilt thou?"
"From that very land I come," said Ralph, "and as to whither,
I seek adventures; but unless I see more than I have this forenoon,
or thou canst tell me of them, back will I whence I came:
yet to say sooth, I shall not be sorry for a fellow to help me back,
for these woodland ways are some-what blind."
Said the Priest: "I will bear thee company with a good will;
and I know the road right well; for I am the Vicar appointed by
the fathers of the Thorn to serve the church of the Little Plain,
and the chapel of St. Anthony yonder in the wood, and to-day I
go to the church of the good folk there."
So Ralph turned, and went along with him, walking by his bridle-rein. And
as they went the priest said to him: "Art thou one of my lady's lords?"
Ralph reddened as he sighed, and said: "I am no captain of hers."
Then smiled the priest and said: "Then will I not ask thee of thine errand;
for belike thou wouldest not tell me thereof."
Ralph said nought, but waxed shamefaced as he deemed that
the priest eyed him curiously. At last he said: "I will ask
thee a question in turn, father." "Yea," said the priest.
Said Ralph: "This lady of the land, the Lady of Abundance,
is she a very woman?" "Holy Saints!" quoth the priest,
blessing himself, "what meanest thou?" Said Ralph:
"I mean, is she of those who outwardly have a woman's semblance,
but within are of the race of the ancient devils, the gods
of the Gentiles?"
Then the priest crossed himself again, and spake as solemnly
as a judge on the bench: "Son, I pray that if thou art not
in thy right mind, thou will come thereinto anon. Know this,
that whatever else she may be, she is a right holy woman.
Or hast thou perchance heard any evil tales concerning her?"
Now Ralph was confused at his word, and knew not what to say; for though
in his mind he had been piecing together all that he had heard of the lady
both for good and for evil, he had no clear tale to tell even to himself:
so he answered nothing.
But the priest went on: "Son, I shall tell thee that such tales
I have heard, but from whose mouth forsooth? I will tell thee;
from a sort of idle jades, young women who would be thought fairer
than they be, who are afraid of everything save a naked man,
and who can lie easier than they can say their paternoster:
from such as these come the stories; or from old crones who live
in sour anger with themselves and all else, because they have lived
no goodly life in their youth, and have not learned the loveliness
of holy church. Now, son, shall the tales of such women,
old and young, weigh in thy mind beside the word I tell thee of what I
have seen and know concerning this most excellent of ladies?
I trow not. And for my part I tell thee, that though she is verily
as fair as Venus (God save us) yet is she as chaste as Agnes,
as wise as Katherine, and as humble and meek as Dorothy.
She bestoweth her goods plentifully to the church, and is merciful
to poor men therewith; and so far as occasion may serve her she
is constant at the Holy Office; neither doth she spare to confess
her sins, and to do all penance which is bidden her, yea and more.
For though I cannot say to my knowledge that she weareth a hair;
yet once and again have I seen her wending this woodland toward
the chapel of her friend St. Anthony by night and cloud,
so that few might see her, obedient to the Scripture which sayeth,
'Let not thy right hand know what thy left hand doeth,' and she
barefoot in her smock amidst the rugged wood, and so arrayed fairer
than any queen in a golden gown. Yea, as fair as the woodwives
of the ancient heathen."
Therewith the priest stayed his words, and seemed as if
he were fallen into a dream; and he sighed heavily.
But Ralph walked on by his bridle-rein dreamy no less;
for the words that he had heard he heeded not, save as they
made pictures for him of the ways of that woman of the forest.
So they went on soberly till the priest lifted up his head and looked
about like one come out of slumber, and said in a firm voice:
"I tell thee, my son, that thou mayest set thy love upon
her without sin." And therewith suddenly he fell a-weeping;
and Ralph was ill at ease of his weeping, and went along
by him saying nought; till the priest plucked up heart again,
and said, turning to Ralph, but not meeting his eye:
"My son, I weep because men and women are so evil, and mis-say
each other so sorely, even as they do by this holy woman."
As he spake his tears brake out again, and Ralph strode on fast,
so as to outgo him, thinking it unmannerly to seem as if he noted
not his sorrow; yet withal unable to say aught to him thereof.
Moreover it irked him to hear a grown man weeping for grief,
even though it were but a priest.
Within a while the priest caught up with him, his tears
all staunched, and fell to talk with him cheerfully concerning
the wood, and the Little Land and the dwellers therein and the
conditions of them, and he praised them much, save the women.
Ralph answered him with good cheer in likewise; and thus they came
to the cot of the old woman, and both she and the maiden were without
the house, the old carline hithering and thithering on some errand,
the maiden leaning against a tree as if pondering some matter.
As they passed by, the priest blessed them in words,
but his eyes scowled on them, whereat the carline grinned,
but the damsel heeded him not, but looked wistfully on Ralph.
The priest muttered somewhat as he passed, which Ralph
caught not the meaning of, and fell moody again;
and when he was a little past the ford he drew rein and said:
"Now, son, I must to my cell hard by the church yonder:
but yet I will say one word to thee ere we sunder; to wit,
that to my mind the Holy Lady will love no one but the saints
of heaven, save it be some man with whom all women are in love."
Therewith he turned away suddenly, and rode smartly towards
his church; and Ralph deemed that he was weeping once more.
As for Ralph, he went quietly home toward the castle,
for the sun was setting now, and as he went he pondered all
these things in his heart.
Ralph Weareth Away Three Days Uneasily
He read again in the book that night, till he had gotten the whole tale
into his head, and he specially noted this of it, that it told not whence
that Lady came, nor what she was, nor aught else save that there she
was in the wood by herself, and was found therein by the king's son:
neither told the tale in what year of the world she was found there,
though it told concerning all the war and miseries which she had bred,
and which long endured. Again, he could not gather from that book
why she had gone back to the lone place in the woods, whereas she
might have wedded one of those warring barons who sorely desired her:
nor why she had yielded herself to the witch of that place and endured
with patience her thralldom, with stripes and torments of her body,
like the worst of the thralls of the ancient heathen men.
Lastly, he might not learn from the book where in the world was that
lone place, or aught of the road to the Well at the World's End.
But amidst all his thinking his heart came back to this:
"When I meet her, she will tell me of it all; I need be no wiser
than to learn how to meet her and to make her love me; then shall
she show me the way to the Well at the World's End, and I shall
drink thereof and never grow old, even as she endureth in youth,
and she shall love me for ever, and I her for ever."
So he thought; but yet amidst these happy thoughts came in this evil one,
that whereas all the men-folk spoke well of her and worshipped her,
the women-folk feared her or hated her; even to the lecherous old
woman who had praised the beauty of her body for his torment.
So he thought till his head grew heavy, and he went and lay
down in his bed and slept, and dreamed of the days of Upmead;
and things forgotten in his waking time came between him and any
memories of his present longing and the days thereof.
He awoke and arose betimes in the morning, and when he had breakfasted he bade
the carline bring him his weapons. "Wilt thou again to the wood?" said she.
"Didst thou not bid me fare thither yesterday?" said he. "Yea," she said;
"but to-day I fear lest thou depart and come not back." He laughed and said:
"Seest thou not, mother, that I go afoot, and I in hauberk and helm?
I cannot run far or fast from thee. Also" (and here he broke off his speech
a little) "where should I be but here?"
"Ah," she said, "but who knows what may happen?" Nevertheless she went
and fetched his war-gear and looked at him fondly as he did it on,
and went his ways from the hall.
Now he entered the wood more to the south than he had done yesterday,
and went softly as before, and still was he turning over in his mind
the thoughts of last night, and ever they came back. "Might I but see her!
Would she but love me! O for a draught of the Well at the World's End,
that the love might last long and long!"
So he went on a while betwixt the trees and the thickets, till it was
a little past noon. But all on a sudden a panic fear took him, lest she
should indeed come to the castle while he was away, and not finding him,
depart again, who knows whither; and when this thought came upon him,
he cried aloud, and hastened at his swiftest back again to the castle,
and came there breathless and wearied, and ran to the old woman,
and cried out to her; "Is she come? is she come?"
The carline laughed and said, "Nay, she is not, but thou art come:
praise be to the saints! But what aileth thee? Nay, fear not,
she shall come at last."
Then grew Ralph shamefaced and turned away from her, and miscalled
himself for a fool and a dastard that could not abide the pleasure
of his lady at the very place whereto she had let lead him.
So he wore through the remnant of the day howso he might,
without going out-adoors again; and the carline came and spake
with him; but whatever he asked her about the lady, she would
not tell aught of any import, so he refrained him from that talk,
and made a show of hearkening when she spake of other matters;
as tales concerning the folk of the land, and the Fathers of the Thorn,
and so forth.
On the next morning he arose and said to himself, that whatever betid,
he would bide in the castle and the Plain of Abundance till the lady came;
and he went amongst the haymaking folk in the morning and ate his dinner
with them, and strove to be of good cheer, and belike the carles and queens
thought him merry company; but he was now wearying his heart with longing,
and might not abide any great while in one place; so when, dinner over,
they turned to their work again, he went back to the Castle, and read in
that book, and looked at the pictures thereof, and kept turning his wonder
and hope and fear over and over again in his mind, and making to himself
stories of how he should meet the Lady and what she would say to him,
and how he should answer her, till at last the night came, and he went
to his bed, and slept for the very weariness of his longing.
When the new day came he arose and went into the hall, and found
the carline there, who said to him, "Fair sir, will thou to the wood
again to-day?" "Nay," said Ralph, "I must not, I dare not."
"Well," she said, "thou mayest if thou wilt; why shouldst thou not go?"
Said Ralph, reddening and stammering: "Because I fear to;
thrice have I been away long from the castle and all has gone well;
but the fourth time she will come and find me gone."
The carline laughed: "Well," she said, "I shall be here if thou goest;
for I promise thee not to stir out of the house whiles thou art away."
Said Ralph: "Nay, I will abide here." "Yea," she said, "I see:
thou trustest me not. Well, no matter; and to-day it will be handy
if thou abidest. For I have an errand to my brother in the flesh,
who is one of the brethren of the Thorn over yonder. If thou wilt
give me leave, it will be to my pleasure and gain."
Ralph was glad when he heard this, deeming that if she left him
alone there, he would be the less tempted to stray into the wood again.
Besides, he deemed that the Lady might come that day when he was alone
in the Castle, and that himseemed would make the meeting sweeter yet.
So he yea-said the carline's asking joyously, and in an hour's time
she went her ways and left him alone there.
Ralph said to himself, when he saw her depart, that he would
have the more joy in the castle of his Lady if he were alone,
and would wear away the day in better patience therefor.
But in sooth the hours of that day were worse to wear than
any day there had yet been. He went not without the house
at all that day, for he deemed that the folk abroad would note
of him that he was so changed and restless.
Whiles he read in that book, or turned the leaves over,
not reading it; whiles he went into the Chamber of Estate,
and pored over the woven pictures there wherein the Lady was figured.
Whiles he wandered from chamber to chamber, not knowing
what to do.
At last, a little after dark, back comes the carline again, and he met
her at the door of the hall, for he was weary of his own company,
and the ceaseless turning over and over of the same thoughts.
As for her, she was so joyous of him that she fairly threw her arms about
him and kissed and clipped him, as though she had been his very mother.
Whereof he had some shame, but not much, for he deemed that her goodwill
to him was abundant, which indeed it was.
Now she looks on him and says: "Truly it does my heart good to see thee:
but thou poor boy, thou art wearing thyself with thy longing,
and thy doubting, and if thou wilt do after my rede, thou wilt
certainly go into the wood to-morrow and see what may befall;
and indeed and in sooth thou wilt leave behind thee a trusty friend."
He looked on her kindly, and smiled, and said, "In sooth,
mother, I deem thou art but right; though it be hard for me
to leave this house, to which in a way my Lady hath bidden me.
Yet I will do thy bidding herein." She thanked him, and he went
to his bed and slept; for now that he had made up his mind to go,
he was somewhat more at rest.
An Adventure in the Wood
Ralph arrayed himself for departure next morning without more words;
and when he was ready the carline said to him: "When thou wentest
forth before, I was troubled at thy going and feared for thy returning:
but now I fear not; for I know that thou wilt return; though it may be
leading a fair woman by the hand. So go, and all luck go with thee."
Ralph smiled at her words and went his ways, and came into the wood
that lay due south from the Castle, and he went on and on and had
no thought of turning back. He rested twice and still went on,
till the fashion of the thickets and the woods changed about him;
and at last when the sun was getting low, he saw light gleaming
through a great wood of pines, which had long been dark before him
against the tall boles, and soon he came to the very edge of the wood,
and going heedfully, saw between the great stems of the outermost trees,
a green strand, and beyond it a long smooth water, a little lake between
green banks on either side. He came out of the pinewood on to the grass;
but there were thornbushes a few about, so that moving warily
from one to the other, he might perchance see without being seen.
Warily he went forsooth, going along the green strand to the east
and the head of that water, and saw how the bank sloped up gently from
its ending toward the pine-wood, in front of whose close-set trees stood
three great-boled tall oak-trees on a smooth piece of green sward.
And now he saw that there were folk come before him on this green place,
and keen-sighted as he was, could make out that three men were on
the hither side of the oak-trees, and on the further side of them was
a white horse. Thitherward then he made, stealing from bush to bush,
since he deemed that he needed not be seen of men who might be foes,
for at the first sight he had noted the gleam of weapons there.
And now he had gone no long way before he saw the westering sun shine
brightly from a naked sword, and then another sprang up to meet it,
and he heard faintly the clash of steel, and saw withal that the third
of the folk had long and light raiment and was a woman belike.
Then he bettered his pace, and in a minute or two came so near that he could
see the men clearly, that they were clad in knightly war-gear, and were
laying on great strokes so that the still place rang with the clatter.
As for the woman, he could see but little of her, because of the fighting
men before her; and the shadow of the oak boughs fell on her withal.
Now as he went, hidden by the bushes, they hid the men also from him,
and when he was come to the last bush, some fifty paces from them,
and peered out from it, in that very nick of time the two knights
were breathing them somewhat, and Ralph saw that one of them,
the furthest from him, was a very big man with a blue surcoat
whereon was beaten a great golden sun, and the other,
whose back was towards Ralph, was clad in black over his armour.
Even as he looked and doubted whether to show himself or not,
he of the sun raised his sword aloft, and giving forth a great
roar as of wrath and grief mingled together, rushed on his foe
and smote so fiercely that he fell to the earth before him,
and the big man fell upon him as he fell, and let knee and
sword-pommel and fist follow the stroke, and there they wallowed
on the earth together.
Straightway Ralph came forth from the bushes with his drawn sword
in his hand, and even therewith what with the two knights being
both low upon the earth, what with the woman herself coming from
out the shadow of the oak boughs, and turning her toward Ralph,
he saw her clearly, and stood staring and amazed--for lo! it
was the Lady whom he had delivered at the want-ways. His heart
well nigh stood still with joy, yet was he shamefaced also:
for though now she was no longer clad in that scanty raiment,
yet did he seem to see her body through that which covered it.
But now her attire was but simple; a green gown, thin and short,
and thereover a cote-hardy of black cloth with orphreys
of gold and colours: but on her neck was a collar that seemed
to him like to that which Dame Katherine had given him;
and the long tresses of her hair, which he had erst seen floating
loose about her, were wound as a garland around her head.
She looked with a flushed and joyous face on Ralph, and seemed
as if she heeded nought the battle of the knights, but saw him only:
but he feared her, and his love for her and stood still,
and durst not move forward to go to her.
Thus they abode for about the space of one minute: and meanwhile
the big man rose up on one knee and steadied him with his sword for a
moment of time, and the blade was bloody from the point half way up
to the hilt; but the black knight lay still and made no sign of life.
Then the Knight of the Sun rose up slowly and stood on his feet and faced
the Lady and seemed not to see Ralph, for his back was towards him.
He came slowly toward the Lady, scowling, and his face white as chalk;
then he spake to her coldly and sternly, stretching out his bloody
sword before her.
"I have done thy bidding, and slain my very earthly friend of friends
for thy sake. Wherewith wilt thou reward me?"
Then once more Ralph heard the voice, which he remembered so
sweet amidst peril and battle aforetime, as she said as coldly
as the Knight: "I bade thee not: thine own heart bade thee
to strive with him because thou deemedst that he loved me.
Be content! thou hast slain him who stood in thy way,
as thou deemedst. Thinkest thou that I rejoice at his slaying?
O no! I grieve at it, for all that I had such good cause
to hate him."
He said: "My own heart! my own heart! Half of my heart biddeth me
slay thee, who hast made me slay him. What wilt thou give me?"
She knit her brow and spake angrily: "Leave to depart," she said.
Then after a while, and in a kinder voice: "And thus much
of my love, that I pray thee not to sorrow for me, but to have
a good heart, and live as a true knight should." He frowned:
"Wilt thou not go with me?" said he. "Not uncompelled," she said:
"if thou biddest me go with threats of hewing and mangling
the body which thou sayest thou lovest, needs must I go then.
Yet scarce wilt thou do this."
"I have a mind to try it," said he; "If I set thee on thine
horse and bound thine hands for thee, and linked thy feet
together under the beast's belly; belike thou wouldest come.
Shall I have slain my brother-in-arms for nought?"
"Thou hast the mind," said she, "hast thou the might?"
"So I deem," said he, smiling grimly.
She looked at him proudly and said: "Yea, but I misdoubt me thereof."
He still had his back to Ralph and was staring at the lady; she turned her
head a little and made a sign to Ralph, just as the Knight of the Sun said:
"Thou misdoubtest thee? Who shall help thee in the desert?"
"Look over thy left shoulder," she said. He turned, and saw
Ralph drawing near, sword in hand, smiling, but somewhat pale.
He drew aback from the Lady and, spinning round on his heel, faced Ralph,
and cried out: "Hah! Hast thou raised up a devil against me,
thou sorceress, to take from me my grief and my lust, and my life?
Fair will the game be to fight with thy devil as I have fought with
my friend! Yet now I know not whether I shall slay him or thee."
She spake not, but stood quietly looking on him, not unkindly,
while a wind came up from the water and played with a few light
locks of hair that hung down from that ruddy crown, and blew
her raiment from her feet and wrapped it close round her limbs;
and Ralph beheld her, and close as was the very death to him
(for huge and most warrior-like was his foeman) yet longing
for her melted the heart within him, and he felt the sweetness
of life in his inmost soul as he had never felt it before.
Suddenly the Knight of the Sun turned about to the Lady again,
and fell down on his knees before her, and clasped his hands as
one praying, and said: "Now pardon me all my words, I pray thee;
and let this young man depart unhurt, whether thou madest him,
or hast but led him away from country and friends and all.
Then do thou come with me, and make some semblance of loving me,
and suffer me to love thee. And then shall all be well, for in a
few days we will go back to thy people, and there will I be their
lord or thy servant, or my brother's man, or what thou wilt.
O wilt thou not let the summer days be sweet?"
But she spake, holding up her head proudly and speaking in a clear
ringing voice: "I have said it, that uncompelled I will not go with thee
at all." And therewithal she turned her face toward Ralph, as she might
do on any chance-met courteous man, and he saw her smiling, but she said
nought to him, and gave no token of knowing him. Then the Knight of the Sun
sprang to his feet, and shook his sword above his head and ran furiously
on Ralph, who leapt nimbly on one side (else had he been slain at once)
and fetched a blow at the Sun-Knight, and smote him, and brake the mails
on his left shoulder, so that the blood sprang, and fell on fiercely enough,
smiting to right and left as the other gave back at his first onset.
But all was for nought, for the Knight of the Sun, after his giving aback
under that first stroke drew himself up stark and stiff, and pressing
on through all Ralph's strokes, though they rent his mail here and there,
ran within his sword, and smote him furiously with the sword-pommel on
the side of the head, so that the young man of Upmeads could not stand up
under the weight of the blow, but fell to the earth swooning, and the Knight
of the Sun knelt on him, and drew out an anlace, short, thick and sharp,
and cried out: "Now, Devil, let see whether thou wilt bleed black."
Therewith he raised up his hand: but the weapon was stayed or ever it fell,
for the Lady had glided up to them when she saw that Ralph was overcome,
and now she stretched out her arm and caught hold of the Knight's hand
and the anlace withal, and he groaned and cried out: "What now! thou
art strong-armed as well as white-armed; (for she had rent the sleeve
back from her right arm) and he laughed in the extremity of his wrath.
But she was pale and her lips quivered as she said softly and sweetly:
"Wilt thou verily slay this young man?"
"And why not?" said he, "since I have just slain the best
friend that I ever had, though he was nought willing to fight
with me, and only for this, that I saw thee toying with him;
though forsooth thou hast said truly that thou hadst more reason
to hate him than love him. Well, since thou wilt not have
this youngling slain, I may deem at least that he is no devil
of thy making, else wouldst thou be glad of his slaying,
so that he might be out of the path of thee; so a man he is,
and a well-favoured one, and young; and valiant, as it seemeth:
so I suppose that he is thy lover, or will be one day--well then--"
And he lifted his hand again, but again she stayed him, and said:
"Look thou, I will buy him of thee: and, indeed, I owe him a life."
"How is that?" said he. "Why wouldst thou know?" she said; "thou who,
if thou hadst me in thine hands again, wouldst keep me away from all men.
Yea, I know what thou wouldst say, thou wouldst keep me from sinning again."
And she smiled, but bitterly. "Well, the tale is no long one:
"five days ago I was taken by them of the Burg: and thou wottest what they
would do with me; yea, even if they deemed me less than they do deem me:
well, as two of their men-at-arms were leading me along by a halter,
as a calf is led to the butcher, we fell in with this goodly lad,
who slew them both in manly fashion, and I escaped for that time:
though, forsooth, I must needs put my neck in the noose again
in delivering four of our people, who would else have been tormented
to death by the Burgers."
"Well," said the knight, "perchance thou hast more mercy than I
looked for of thee; though I misdoubt thee that thou mayst yet pray
me or some other to slay him for thee. Thou art merciful, my Queen,
though not to me, and a churl were I if I were less merciful than thou.
Therefore will I give his life to him, yet not to thee will I give
him if I may help it--Lo you, Sweet! he is just opening his eyes."
Therewith he rose up from Ralph, who raised himself a little, and sat
up dazed and feeble. The Knight of the Sun stood up over him beside
the lady with his hands clasped on his sword-hilt, and said to Ralph:
"Young man, canst thou hear my words?" Ralph smiled feebly and
nodded a yea-say. "Dost thou love thy life then?" said the Knight.
Ralph found speech and said faintly, "Yea." Said the Knight:
"Where dost thou come from, where is thine home?" Said Ralph, "Upmeads."
"Well then," quoth the big knight, "go back to Upmeads, and live."
Ralph shook his head and knit his brows and said, "I will not."
"Yea," said the Knight, "thou wilt not live? Then must I shape me
to thy humour. Stand on thy feet and fight it out; for now I am cool
I will not slay a swordless man."
Ralph staggered up to his feet, but was so feeble still, that he sank
down again, and muttered: "I may not; I am sick and faint;"
and therewith swooned away again. But the Knight stood a while
leaning on his sword, and looking down on him not unkindly.
Then he turned about to the Lady, but lo! she had left his side.
She had glided away, and got to her horse, which was tethered on
the other side of the oak-tree, and had loosed him and mounted him,
and so sat in the saddle there, the reins gathered in her hands.
She smiled on the knight as he stood astonished, and cried to him;
"Now, lord, I warn thee, draw not a single foot nigher to me;
for thou seest that I have Silverfax between my knees, and thou knowest
how swift he is, and if I see thee move, he shall spring away with me.
Thou wottest how well I know all the ways of the woodland,
and I tell thee that the ways behind me to the Dry Tree be all
safe and open, and that beyond the Gliding River I shall come on
Roger of the Ropewalk and his men. And if thou thinkest to ride
after me, and overtake me, cast the thought out of thy mind.
For thy horse is strong but heavy, as is meet for so big a knight,
and morever he is many yards away from me and Silverfax:
so before thou art in the saddle, where shall I be? Yea," (for the
Knight was handling his anlace) "thou mayst cast it, and peradventure
mayst hit Silverfax and not me, and peradventure not; and I deem
that it is my body alive that thou wouldest have back with thee.
So now, wilt thou hearken?"
"Yea," quoth the knight, though for wrath he could scarce bring
the word from his mouth.
"Hearken," she said, "this is the bargain to be struck between us:
even now thou wouldst not refrain from slaying this young man,
unless perchance he should swear to depart from us; and as for me,
I would not go back with thee to Sunhome, where erst thou shamedst me.
Now will I buy thy nay-say with mine, and if thou give the youngling his life,
and suffer him to come his ways with us, then will I go home with thee
and will ride with thee in all the love and duty that I owe thee; or if thou
like this fashion of words better, I will give thee my body for his life.
But if thou likest not the bargain, there is not another piece of goods
for thee in the market, for then I will ride my ways to the Dry Tree,
and thou shalt slay the poor youth, or make of him thy sworn friend,
like as was Walter--which thou wilt."
So she spake, and Ralph yet lay on the grass and heard nought.
But the Knight's face was dark and swollen with anger as he answered:
"My sworn friend! yea, I understand thy gibe. I need not thy words
to bring to my mind how I have slain one sworn friend for thy sake."
"Nay," she said, "not for my sake, for thine own folly's sake."
He heeded her not, but went on: "And as for this one, I say again
of him, if he be not thy devil, then thou meanest him for thy lover.
And now I deem that I will verily slay him, ere he wake again;
belike it were his better luck."
She said: "I wot not why thou hagglest over the price of that thou
wouldest have. If thou have him along with thee, shall he not
be in thy power--as I shall be? and thou mayst slay him--or me--
when thou wilt."
"Yea," he said, grimly, "when thou art weary of him.
O art thou not shameless amongst women! Yet must I needs pay
thy price, though my honour and the welfare of my life go with it.
Yet how if he have no will to fare with us?" She laughed and said:
"Then shalt thou have him with thee as thy captive and thrall.
Hast thou not conquered him in battle?" He stood silent a moment
and then he said: "Thou sayest it; he shall come with me, will he,
nill he, unarmed, and as a prisoner, and the spoil of my valiancy."
And he laughed, not altogether in bitterness, but as if some joy
were rising in his heart. "Now, my Queen," said he, "the bargain
is struck betwixt us, and thou mayest light down off Silverfax;
as for me, I will go fetch water from the lake, that we may wake
up this valiant and mighty youth, this newfound jewel, and bring
him to his wits again."
She answered nought, but rode her horse close to him and lighted
down nimbly, while his greedy eyes devoured her beauty.
Then he took her hand and drew her to him, and kissed
her cheek, and she suffered it, but kissed him not again.
Then he took off his helm, and went down to the lake to fetch
up water therein.
The Leechcraft of the Lady
Meanwhile she went to Ralph and stood by him, who now began to stir again;
and she knelt down by him and kissed his face gently, and rose up hastily
and stood a little aloof again.
Now Ralph sat up and looked about him, and when he saw
the Lady he first blushed red, and then turned very pale;
for the full life was in him again, and he knew her,
and love drew strongly at his heart-strings. But she looked
on him kindly and said to him: "How fares it with thee?
I am sorry of thy hurt which thou hast had for me." He said:
"Forsooth, Lady, a chance knock or two is no great matter
for a lad of Upmeads. But oh! I have seen thee before."
"Yea," she said, "twice before, fair knight." "How is that?"
he said; "once I saw thee, the fairest thing in the world,
and evil men would have led thee to slaughter; but not twice."
She smiled on him still more kindly, as if he were a
dear friend, and said simply: "I was that lad in the cloak
that ye saw in the Flower de Luce; and afterwards when ye,
thou and Roger, fled away from the Burg of the Four Friths.
I had come into the Burg with my captain of war at the peril
of our lives to deliver four faithful friends of mine who were
else doomed to an evil death."
He said nought, but gazed at her face, wondering at her valiancy
and goodness. She took him by the hand now, and held it without
speaking for a little while, and he sat there still looking up
into her face, wondering at her sweetness and his happiness.
Then she said, as she drew her hand away and spake in such a voice,
and so looking at him, that every word was as a caress to him:
"Thy soul is coming back to thee, my friend, and thou art well at ease:
is it not so?"
"O yea," he said, "and I woke up happily e'en now;
for me-dreamed that my gossip came to me and kissed me kindly;
and she is a fair woman, but not a young woman."
As he spoke the knight, who had come nearly noiselessly over
the grass, stood by them, holding his helm full of water,
and looking grimly upon them; but the Lady looked up at him
with wide eyes wonderingly, and Ralph, beholding her, deemed that
all he had heard of her goodness was but the very sooth.
But the knight spake: "Young man, thou hast fought with me,
thou knowest not wherefore, and grim was my mood when thou
madest thine onset, and still is, so that never but once wilt
thou be nigher thy death than thou hast been this hour.
But now I have given thee life because of the asking of this lady;
and therewith I give thee leave to come thy ways with us:
nay, rather I command thee to come, for thou art my prisoner,
to be kept or ransomed, or set free as I will. But my will is
that thou shalt not have thine armour and weapons; and there
is a cause for this, which mayhappen I will tell thee hereafter.
But now I bid thee drink of this water, and then do off
thine helm and hauberk and give me thy sword and dagger,
and go with us peaceably; and be not overmuch ashamed, for I
have overcome men who boasted themselves to be great warriors.
So Ralph drank of the water, and did off his helm, and cast water on his face,
and arose, and said smiling: "Nay, my master, I am nought ashamed
of my mishaps: and as to my going with thee and the Lady, thou hast
heard me say under thy dagger that I would not forbear to follow her;
so I scarce need thy command thereto." The knight scowled on him and said:
"Hold thy peace, fool! Thou wert best not stir my wrath again."
"Nay," said Ralph, "thou hast my sword, and mayst slay me if thou wilt;
therefore be not word-valiant with me."
Said the Knight of the Sun: "Well, well, thou hast the right of it there.
Only beware lest thou try me overmuch. But now must we set forth on our road;
and here is work for thee to do: a hundred yards within the thick
wood in a straight line from the oak-tree thou shalt find two horses,
mine and the knight's who fell before me; go thou and bring them hither;
for I will not leave thee with my lady, lest I have to slay thee in the end,
and maybe her also."
Ralph nodded cheerfully, and set off on his task, and was the readier therein
because the Lady looked on him kindly and compassionately as he went by her.
He found the horses speedily, a black horse that was of the Black Knight,
and a bay of the Knight of the Sun, and he came back with them lightly.
But when he came to the oak-tree again, lo, the knight and the Lady both
kneeling over the body of the Black Knight, and Ralph saw that the Knight
of the Sun was sobbing and weeping sorely, so that he deemed that he was
taking leave of his friend that lay dead there: but when Ralph had tied
up those other two steeds by Silverfax and drawn rear to those twain,
the Knight of the Sun looked up at him, and spake in a cheerful voice:
"Thou seemest to be no ill man, though thou hast come across my lady;
so now I bid thee rejoice that there is a good knight more in the world than
we deemed e'en now; for this my friend Walter the Black is alive still."
"Yea," said the Lady, "and belike he shall live a long while yet."
So Ralph looked, and saw that they had stripped the knight of his hauberk
and helm, and bared his body, and that the Lady was dressing a great and sore
wound in his side; neither was he come to himself again: he was a young man,
and very goodly to look on, dark haired and straight of feature, fair of face;
and Ralph felt a grief at his heart as he beheld the Lady's hands dealing
with his bare flesh, though nought the man knew of it belike.
As for the Knight of the Sun, he was no more grim and moody,
but smiling and joyous, and he spake and said: "Young man,
this shall stand thee in good stead that I have not slain my
friend this bout. Sooth to say, it might else have gone hard
with thee on the way to my house, or still more in my house.
But now be of good heart, for unless of thine own folly thou
run on the sword's point, thou mayst yet live and do well."
Then he turned to the Lady and said: "Dame, for as good
a leech as ye be, ye may not heal this man so that he may sit
in his saddle within these ten days; and now what is to do
in this matter?"
She looked on him with smiling lips and a strange light
in her eyes, and said: "Yea, forsooth, what wilt thou do?
Wilt thou abide here by Walter thyself alone, and let me bring
the imp of Upmeads home to our house? Or wilt thou ride home
and send folk with a litter to us? Or shall this youngling ride
at all adventure, and seek to Sunway through the blind woodland?
Which shall it be?"
The knight laughed outright, and said: "Yea, fair one, this is much
like to the tale of the carle at the ferry with the fox, and the goat,
and the cabbage."
There was scarce a smile on her face as she said gently:
"One thing is to be thought of, that Walter's soul is not yet
so fast in his body that either thou or some rough-handed leech
may be sure of healing him; it must be this hand, and the learning
which it hath learned which must deal with him for a while.
And she stretched out her arm over the wounded man,
with the fingers pointing down the water, and reddened withal,
as if she felt the hearts' greediness of the two men who were
looking on her beauty.
The big knight sighed, and said: "Well, unless I am to kill him
over again, there is nothing for it but our abiding with him
for the next few hours at least. To-morrow is a new day, and fair
is the woodland-hall of summer-tide; neither shall water fail us.
But as to victual, I wot not save that we have none."
The Lady laughed, and said to Ralph; "Who knoweth what thou mayst
find if thou go to the black horse and look into the saddle-bags
which I saw upon him awhile agone? For indeed we need somewhat,
if it were but to keep the life in the body of this wounded man."
Ralph sprang up and turned to the horse, and found the saddle-bags
on him, and took from them bread and flesh, and a flask of good wine,
and brought them to the Lady, who laughed and said: "Thou art a good seeker
and no ill finder." Then she gave the wounded man to drink of the wine,
so that he stirred somewhat, and the colour came into his face a little.
Then she bade gather store of bracken for a bed for the Black Knight,
and Ralph bestirred himself therein, but the Knight of the Sun sat
looking at the Lady as she busied herself with his friend, and gloom
seemed gathering on him again.
But when the bracken was enough, the Lady made a bed deftly and speedily;
and between the three they laid the wounded man thereon, who seemed coming
to himself somewhat, and spake a few words, but those nothing to the point.
Then the Lady took her gay embroidered cloak, which lay at the foot of
the oak tree, and cast it over him and, as Ralph deemed, eyed him lovingly,
and belike the Knight of the Sun thought in likewise, for he scowled upon her;
and for awhile but little was the joyance by the ancient oak, unless it
were with the Lady.
Supper and Slumber in the Woodland Hall
But when all was done to make the wounded knight as easy as
might be, the Lady turned to the other twain, and said kindly:
"Now, lords, it were good to get to table, since here is wherewithal."
And she looked on them both full kindly as she spake the words,
but nowise wantonly; even as the lady of a fair house might
do by honoured guests. So the hearts of both were cheered,
and nothing loth they sat down by her on the grass and fell to meat.
Yet was the Knight of the Sun a little moody for a while,
but when he had eaten and drunken somewhat, he said:
"It were well if someone might come hereby, some hermit
or holy man, to whom we might give the care of Walter:
then might we home to Sunway, and send folk with a litter
to fetch him home softly when the due time were."
"Yea," said the Lady, "that might happen forsooth, and perchance it will;
and if it were before nightfall it were better."
Ralph saw that as she spake she took hold of the two fingers of her
left hand with her right forefinger, and let the thumb meet it,
so that it made a circle about them, and she spake something therewith
in a low voice, but he heeded it little, save as he did all ways
that her body moved. As for the Knight of the Sun, he was looking
down on the grass as one pondering matters, and noted this not.
But he said presently: "What hast thou to say of Walter now?
Shall he live?" "Yea," she said, "maybe as long as either of you twain."
The knight looked hard at Ralph, but said nothing, and Ralph heeded
not his looks, for his eyes were busy devouring the Lady.
So they abode a little, and the more part of what talk there was came
from the Lady, and she was chiefly asking Ralph of his home in Upmeads,
and his brethren and kindred, and he told her all openly, and hid naught,
while her voice ravished his very soul from him, and it seemed strange
to him, that such an one should hold him in talk concerning these simple
matters and familiar haps, and look on him so kindly and simply.
Ever and anon would she go and look to the welfare of the wounded man,
and come back from him (for they sat a little way aloof), and tell
them how he did. And still the Knight of the Sun took little heed,
and once again gloom settled down on him.
Amidst all this the sun was set, and the long water lay beneath the heavens
like a sheet of bright, fairhued metal, and naught stirred it: till at
last the Lady leaned forward to Ralph, and touched his shoulder (for he was
sitting over against her, with his back to the water), and she said:
"Sir Knight, Sir Knight, his wish is coming about, I believe verily."
He turned his head to look over his shoulder, and, as if by chance-hap,
his cheek met the outstretched hand she was pointing with:
she drew it not away very speedily, and as sweet to him was the touch
of it as if his face had been brushed past by a summer lily.
"Nay, look! something cometh," she cried; and he looked and saw
a little boat making down the water toward the end anigh them.
Then the Knight of the Sun seemed to awake at her word,
and he leapt to his feet, and stood looking at the new comer.
It was but a little while ere the boat touched the shore, and a man
stepped out of it on to the grass and made it fast to the bank,
and then stood and looked about him as if seeking something; and lo,
it was a holy man, a hermit in the habit of the Blackfriars.
Then the Knight of the Sun hastened down to the strand to
meet him, and when Ralph was thus left alone with the Lady,
though it were but for a little, his heart beat and he longed
sore to touch her with his hand, but durst not, and did but
hope that her hand would stray his way as it had e'en now.
But she arose and stood a little way from him, and spake to him
sweetly of the fairness of the evening, and the wounded man,
and the good hap of the friar's coming before nightfall;
and his heart was wrung sore with the love of her.
So came the knight up from the strand, and the holy man with him,
who greeted Ralph and the Lady and blessed them, and said:
"Now, daughter, show me thy sick man; for I am somewhat of a leech,
and this thy baron would have me heal him, and I have a right
good will thereto."
So he went to the Black Knight, and when he had looked to his hurts,
he turned to them and said: "Have ye perchance any meat in the wilderness?"
"Yea," quoth the Knight of the Sun; "there is enough for a day or more,
and if we must needs abide here longer, I or this young man may well make
shift to slay some deer, great or little, for our sustenance and the healing
of my friend."
"It is well," said the Friar; "my hermitage is no great way hence,
in the thicket at the end of this water. But now is the fever
on this knight, and we may not move him ere morning at soonest;
but to-morrow we may make a shift to bear him hence by boat:
or, if not, then may I go and fetch from my cell bread and other meat,
and milk of my goats; and thus shall we do well till we may bring
him to my cell, and then shall ye leave him there; and afterwards I
will lead him home to Sunway where thou dwellest, baron, when he is
well enough healed; or, if he will not go thither, let him go his ways,
and I myself will come to Sunway and let thee wot of his welfare."
The knight yeasaid all this, and thereafter the Friar and the Lady together
tended the wounded knight, and gave him water to drink, and wine.
And meanwhile Ralph and the Knight of the Sun lay down on the grass
and watched the eve darkening, and Ralph marvelled at his happiness,
and wondered what the morrow would bring forth.
But amidst his happy thoughts the Knight of the Sun spake to him and said:
"Young knight, I have struck a bargain with her that thou shalt follow
us home, if thou wilt: but to say sooth, I think when the bargain was
struck I was minded when I had thee at Sunway to cast thee into my prison.
But now I will do otherwise, and if thou must needs follow after thine
own perdition, as I have, thou shalt do so freely; therefore take
again thine armour and weapons, and do what thou wilt with them.
But if thou wilt do after my rede, get thee away to-morrow, or better,
to-night, and desire our fellowship no more."
Ralph heard him, and the heart within him was divided.
It was in his mind to speak debonairely to the knight;
but again he felt as if he hated him, and the blythe
words would not come, and he answered doggedly:
"I will not leave my Lady since she biddeth me go with her.
If thou wilt then, make the most of it that thou art stronger
than I, and a warrior more proven; set me before thy sword,
and fight with me and slay me."
Then rose the wrath to the knight's lips, and he brake forth: "Then is
there one other thing for thee to do, and that is that thou take thy sword,
which I have just given back to thee, and thrust her through therewith.
That were better for thee and for me, and for him who lieth yonder."
Therewith he arose and strode up and down in the dusk, and Ralph
wondered at him, yet hated him now not so much, since he deemed
that the Lady would not love him, and that he was angered thereby.
Yet about Ralph's heart there hung a certain fear of what should be.
But presently the knight came and sat down by him again, and again
fell to speech with him, and said: "Thou knowest that I may not
slay thee, and yet thou sayest, fight with me; is this well done?"
"Is it ill done?" said Ralph, "I wot not why."
The knight was silent awhile, and then he said: "With what
words shall I beseech thee to depart while it is yet time?
It may well be that in days to come I shall be good to thee,
and help thee."
But Ralph said never a word. Then said the knight, and sighed withal:
"I now see this of thee, that thou mayst not depart; well, so let it be!"
and he sighed heavily again. Then Ralph strove with himself,
and said courteously: "Sir, I am sorry that I am a burden irksome
to thee; and that, why I know not, thou mayst not rid thyself of me
by the strong hand, and that otherwise thou mayst not be rid of me.
What then is this woman to thee, that thou wouldst have me slay her,
and yet art so fierce in thy love for her?" The Knight of the Sun
laughed wrathfully thereat, and was on the point of answering him,
when up came those two from the wounded man, and the Friar said:
"The knight shall do well; but well it is for him that the Lady
of Abundance was here for his helping; for from her hands
goeth all healing, as it was with the holy men of old time.
May the saints keep her from all harm; for meek and holy indeed she is,
as oft we have heard it."
The Lady put her hand on his shoulder, as if to bid him silence,
and then set herself down on the grass beside the Knight of the Sun,
and fell to talking sweetly and blithely to the three men.
The Friar answered her with many words, and told her of the deer
and fowl of the wood and the water that he was wont to see nigh to
his hermitage; for of such things she asked him, and at last he said:
"Good sooth, I should be shy to say in all places and before all men
of all my dealings with God's creatures which live about me there.
Wot ye what? E'en now I had no thought of coming hitherward;
but I was sitting amongst the trees pondering many things, when I
began to drowse, and drowsing I heard the thornbushes speaking to me
like men, and they bade me take my boat and go up the water to help
a man who was in need; and that is how I came hither; benedicite."
So he spake; but the Knight of the Sun did but put in a word
here and there, and that most often a sour and snappish word.
As for Ralph, he also spake but little, and strayed somewhat
in his answers; for he could not but deem that she spake softlier
and kinder to him than to the others; and he was dreamy with love
and desire, and scarce knew what he was saying.
Thus they wore away some two hours, the Friar or the Lady turning
away at whiles to heed the wounded man, who was now talking wildly
in his fever.
But at last the night was grown as dark as it would be,
since cloud and storm came not, for the moon had sunk down:
so the Lady said: "Now, lords, our candle hath gone out,
and I for my part will to bed; so let us each find a meet chamber
in the woodland hall; and I will lie near to thee, father, and the
wounded friend, lest I be needed to help thee in the night;
and thou, Baron of Sunway, lie thou betwixt me and the wood,
to ward me from the wild deer and the wood-wights. But thou,
Swain of Upmeads, wilt thou deem it hard to lie anear the horses,
to watch them if they be scared by aught?"
"Yea," said the Knight of the Sun, "thou art Lady here forsooth;
even as men say of thee, that thou swayest man and beast in the wildwood.
But this time at least it is not so ill-marshalled of thee:
I myself would have shown folk to chamber here in likewise."
Therewith he rose up, and walked to and fro for a little,
and then went, and sat down on a root of the oak-tree,
clasping his knees with his hands, but lay not down awhile.
But the Lady made herself a bed of the bracken which was over from
those that Ralph had gathered for the bed of the wounded Knight;
and the Friar lay down on the grass nigh to her, and both
were presently asleep.
Then Ralph got up quietly; and, shamefacedly for very love,
passed close beside the sleeping woman as he went to his place
by the horses, taking his weapons and wargear with him:
and he said to himself as he laid him down, that it was good
for him to be quite alone, that he might lie awake and think
at his ease of all the loveliness and kindness of his Lady.
Howbeit, he was a young man, and a sturdy, used to lying abroad
in the fields or the woods, and it was his custom to sleep
at once and sweetly when he lay down after the day's work
had wearied him, and even so he did now, and was troubled
by no dreams of what was past or to come.
The Road Unto Trouble
Ralph Meets With Love in the Wilderness
He woke up while it was yet night, and knew that he had been
awakened by a touch; but, like a good hunter and warrior,
he forebore to start up or cry out till sleep had so much
run off him that he could tell somewhat of what was toward.
So now he saw the Lady bending over him, and she said in a kind
and very low voice: "Rise up, young man, rise up, Ralph, and say
no word, but come with me a little way into the wood ere dawn come,
for I have a word for thee."
So he stood up and was ready to go with her, his heart beating
hard for joy and wonder. "Nay," she whispered, "take thy sword
and war-gear lest ill befall: do on thine hauberk; I will be
thy squire." And she held his war-coat out for him to do on.
"Now," she said, still softly, "hide thy curly hair with the helm,
gird thy sword to thee, and come without a word."
Even so he did, and therewithal felt her hand take his
(for it was dark as they stepped amidst the trees), and she
led him into the Seventh Heaven, for he heard her voice,
though it were but a whisper, as it were a caress and a laugh
of joy in each word.
She led him along swiftly, fumbling nought with the paths betwixt
the pine-tree boles, where it was as dark as dark might be.
Every minute he looked to hear her say a word of why she had brought
him thither, and that then she would depart from him; so he prayed
that the silence and the holding of his hand might last a long while--
for he might think of naught save her--and long it lasted forsooth,
and still she spake no word, though whiles a little sweet chuckle,
as of the garden warbler at his softest, came from her lips,
and the ripple of her raiment as her swift feet drave it,
sounded loud to his eager ears in the dark, windless wood.
At last, and it was more than half-an-hour of their walking thus,
it grew lighter, and he could see the shape of her alongside of him;
and still she held his hand and glided on swifter and swifter, as he thought;
and soon he knew that outside the wood dawn was giving place to day,
and even there, in the wood, it was scarce darker than twilight.
Yet a little further, and it grew lighter still, and he heard
the throstles singing a little way off, and knew that they
were on the edge of the pine-wood, and still her swift feet sped
on till they came to a little grassy wood-lawn, with nought anear
it on the side away from the wood save maples and thorn-bushes:
it was broad daylight there, though the sun had not yet arisen.
There she let fall his hand and turned about to him and faced him
flushed and eager, with her eyes exceeding bright and her lips
half open and quivering. He stood beholding her, trembling,
what for eagerness, what for fear of her words when he had told
her of his desire. For he had now made up his mind to do no less.
He put his helm from off his head and laid it down on the grass,
and he noted therewith that she had come in her green gown only,
and had left mantle and cote hardie behind.
Now he stood up again and was just going to speak, when lo!
she put both her palms to her face, and her bosom heaved,
and her shoulders were shaken with sobs, and she burst
out a weeping, so that the tears ran through her fingers.
Then he cast himself on the ground before her, and kissed
her feet, and clasped her about the knees, and laid his cheek
to her raiment, and fawned upon her, and cried out many an idle
word of love, and still she wept a while and spake not.
At last she reached her hand down to his face and fondled it,
and he let his lips lie on the hand, and she suffered it a while,
and then took him by the arm and raised him up and led him
on swiftly as before; and he knew not what to do or say,
and durst by no means stay her, and could frame no word
to ask her wherefore.
So they sped across a waste not much beset with trees, he silent,
she never wearying or slacking her pace or faltering as to the way,
till they came into the thick wood again, and ever when he would
have spoken she hushed him, with "Not yet! Not yet!"
Until at last when the sun had been up for some three hours,
she led him through a hazel copse, like a deep hedge, into a
cleared grassy place where were great grey stones lying about,
as if it had been the broken doom-ring of a forgotten folk.
There she threw herself down on the grass and buried her face amidst
the flowers, and was weeping and sobbing again and he bending over her,
till she turned to him and drew him down to her and put her hands
to his face, and laid her cheeks all wet with tears to his,
and fell to kissing him long and sweetly, so that in his turn
he was like to weep for the very sweetness of love.
Then at last she spake: "This is the first word, that now I
have brought thee away from death; and so sweet it is to me
that I can scarce bear it."
"Oh, sweet to me," he said, "for I have waited for thee many days."
And he fell to kissing and clipping her, as one who might not be satisfied.
At last she drew herself from him a little, and, turning on him a face
smiling with love, she said: "Forbear it a little, till we talk together."
"Yea," quoth he, "but may I hold thine hand awhile?" "No harm in that,"
she said, laughing, and she gave him her hand and spake:
"I spake it that I have brought thee from death,
and thou hast asked me no word concerning what and how."
"I will ask it now, then," said he, "since thou wilt have it so."
She said: "Dost thou think that he would have let thee live?"
"Who," said he, "since thou lettest me live?"
"He, thy foeman, the Knight of the Sun," she said.
"Why didst thou not flee from him before? For he did not so much
desire to slay thee, but that he would have had thee depart;
but if thou wert once at his house, he would thrust a sword
through thee, or at the least cast thee into his prison and let
thee lie there till thy youth be gone--or so it seemed to me,"
she said, faltering as she looked on him.
Said Ralph: "How could I depart when thou wert with him?
Didst thou not see me there? I was deeming that thou wouldst
have me abide."
She looked upon him with such tender love that he made as if he would
cast himself upon her; but she refrained him, and smiled and said:
"Ah, yes, I saw thee, and thought not that thou wouldst sunder thyself
from me; therefore had I care of thee." And she touched his cheek with
her other hand; and he sighed and knit his brows somewhat, and said:
"But who is this man that he should slay me? And why is he thy tyrant,
that thou must flee from him?"
She laughed and said: "Fair creature, he is my husband."
Then Ralph flushed red, and his visage clouded, and he
opened his mouth to speak; but she stayed him and said:
"Yet is he not so much my husband but that or ever we were bedded
he must needs curse me and drive me away from his house."
And she smiled, but her face reddened so deeply that her grey
eyes looked strange and light therein.
But Ralph leapt up, and half drew his sword, and cried out loud:
"Would God I had slain him! Wherefore could I not slay him?"
And he strode up and down the sward before her in his wrath.
But she leaned forward to him and laughed and said:
"Yet, O Champion, we will not go back to him,
for he is stronger than thou, and hath vanquished thee.
This is a desert place, but thou art loud, and maybe over loud.
Come rest by me."
So he came and sat down by her, and took her hand again
and kissed the wrist therof and fondled it and said:
"Yea, but he desireth thee sorely; that was easy to see.
It was my ill-luck that I slew him not."
She stroked his face again and said: "Long were the tale if I told
thee all. After he had driven me out, and I had fled from him,
he fell in with me again divers times, as was like to be;
for his brother is the Captain of the Dry Tree; the tall man
whom thou hast seen with me: and every time this baron hath
come on me he has prayed my love, as one who would die despaired
if I granted it not, but O my love with the bright sword"
(and she kissed his cheek therewith, and fondled his hand with
both her hands), "each time I said him nay, I said him nay."
And again her face burned with blushes.
"And his brother," said Ralph, "the big captain that I have
come across these four times, doth he desire thee also?"
She laughed and said: "But as others have, no more:
he will not slay any man for my sake."
Said Ralph: "Didst thou wot that I was abiding thy coming at
the Castle of Abundance?" "Yea," she said, "have I not told thee
that I bade Roger lead thee thither?" Then she said softly:
"That was after that first time we met; after I had ridden away
on the horse of that butcher whom thou slayedst."
"But why camest thou so late?" said he; "Wouldst thou have come
if I had abided there yet?" She said: "What else did I desire
but to be with thee? But I set out alone looking not for any peril,
since our riders had gone to the north against them of the Burg:
but as I drew near to the Water of the Oak, I fell in with my husband
and that other man; and this time all my naysays were of no avail,
and whatsoever I might say he constrained me to go with them;
but straightway they fell out together, and fought, even as thou sawest."
And she looked at him sweetly, and as frankly as if he had been
naught but her dearest brother.
But he said: "It was concerning thee that they fought:
hast thou known the Black Knight for long?"
"Yea," she said, "I may not hide that he hath loved me:
but he hath also betrayed me. It was through him that the Knight
of the Sun drave me from him. Hearken, for this concerneth thee:
he made a tale of me of true and false mingled, that I was
a wise-wife and an enchantress, and my lord trowed in him,
so that I was put to shame before all the house, and driven
forth wrung with anguish, barefoot and bleeding."
He looked and saw pain and grief in her face, as it had been
the shadow of that past time, and the fierceness of love in him
so changed his face, that she arose and drew a little way from him,
and stood there gazing at him. But he also rose and knelt before her,
and reached up for her hands and took them in his and said:
"Tell me truly, and beguile me not; for I am a young man,
and without guile, and I love thee, and would have thee
for my speech-friend, what woman soever may be in the world.
Whatever thou hast been, what art thou now? Art thou good or evil?
Wilt thou bless me or ban me? For it is the truth that I
have heard tales and tales of thee: many were good, though it
maybe strange; but some, they seemed to warn me of evil in thee.
O look at me, and see if I love thee or not! and I may not help it.
Say once for all, shall that be for my ruin or my bliss?
If thou hast been evil, then be good this one time and tell me."
She neither reddened now, nor paled at his words, but her eyes
filled with tears, and ran over, and she looked down on him
as a woman looks on a man that she loves from the heart's root,
and she said: "O my lord and love, may it be that thou shalt
find me no worse to thee than the best of all those tales.
Forsooth how shall I tell thee of myself, when, whatever I say,
thou shalt believe every word I tell thee? But O my heart,
how shouldest thou, so sweet and fair and good, be taken
with the love of an evil thing? At the least I will say this,
that whatsoever I have been, I am good to thee--I am good to thee,
and will be true to thee."
He drew her down to him as he knelt there, and took his arms about her,
and though she yet shrank from him a little and the eager flame of his love,
he might not be gainsayed, and she gave herself to him and let her
body glide into his arms, and loved him no less than he loved her.
And there between them in the wilderness was all the joy of love
that might be.
They Break Their Fast in the Wildwood
Now when it was hard on noon, and they had lain long in
that grassy place, Ralph rose up and stood upon his feet,
and made as one listening. But the Lady looked on him and said:
"It is naught save a hart and his hind running in the wood;
yet mayhappen we were best on the road, for it is yet long."
"Yea," said Ralph, "and it may be that my master will
gather folk and pursue us." "Nay, nay," she said,
"that were to wrong him, to deem that he would gather folk
to follow one man; if he come, he will be by himself alone.
When he found us gone he doubtless cast himself on Silverfax,
my horse, in trust of the beast following after my feet."
"Well," said Ralph, "and if he come alone, there is yet a sword
betwixt him and thee."
She was standing up by him now with her hand on his shoulder,
"Hear now the darling, the champion! how he trusteth well in his
heart and his right hand. But nay, I have cared for thee well.
Hearken, if thou wilt not take it amiss that I tell thee all I do,
good or evil. I said a word in the ear of Silverfax or ever
I departed, and now the good beast knows my mind, and will lead
the fierce lord a little astray, but not too much, lest he follow
us with his eager heart and be led by his own keen woodcraft.
Indeed, I left the horse behind to that end, else hadst thou
ridden the woodland ways with me, instead of my wearying thee
by our going afoot; and thou with thy weapons and wargear."
He looked upon her tenderly, and said smiling: "And thou, my dear,
art thou not a little wearied by what should weary a knight
and one bred afield?" "Nay," she said, "seest thou not how I walk
lightly clad, whereas I have left behind my mantle and cote-hardie?"
Thereat she gathered up her gown into her girdle ready for the way,
and smiled as she saw his eyes embrace the loveliness of her feet;
and she spake as she moved them daintily on the flowery grass:
"Sooth to say, Knight, I am no weakling dame, who cannot move her limbs
save in the dance, or to back the white palfrey and ride the meadows,
goshawk on wrist; I am both well-knit and light-foot as the Wood-wife
and Goddess of yore agone. Many a toil hath gone to that,
whereof I may tell thee presently; but now we were best on our way.
Yet before we go, I will at least tell thee this, that in my knowing
of these woods, there is no sorcery at all; for in the woods,
though not in these woods, was I bred; and here also I am at home,
as I may say."
Hand in hand then they went lightly through the hazel copse,
and soon was the wood thick about them, but, as before, the Lady led
unfalteringly through the thicket paths. Now Ralph spake and said:
"It is good that thou lead me whither thou wilt; but this I may say, that it
is clear to me that we are not on the way to the Castle of Abundance."
"Even so," said she; "indeed had I come to thee there, as I was minded,
I should presently have brought thee on the way which we are wending now,
or one nigh to it; and that is that which leadeth to Hampton under Scaur,
and the Fellowship of Champions who dwell on the rock."
Said Ralph: "It is well; yet will I tell thee the truth,
that a little sojourn in that fair house had liked me better.
Fain had I been to see thee sitting in thine ivory chair
in thy chamber of dais with the walls hung round with thee
woven in pictures--wilt thou not tell me in words the story
of those pictures? and also concerning the book which I read,
which was also of thee?"
"Ah," she said, "thou hast read in the book--well, I will tell
thee the story very soon, and that the more since there are
matters written wrong in the book." Therewith she hurried him on,
and her feet seemed never tired, though now, to say sooth,
he began to go somewhat heavily.
Then she stayed him, and laughed sweetly in his face, and said:
"It is a long while now since the beginning of the June day,
and meseems I know thy lack, and the slaking of it lieth somewhat
nearer than Hampton under Scaur, which we shall not reach these two
days if we go afoot all the way."
"My lack?" said he; "I lack nought now, that I may not have when I will."
And he put his arms about her shoulders and strained her to his bosom.
But she strove with him, and freed herself and laughed outright,
and said: "Thou art a bold man, and rash, my knight, even unto me.
Yet must I see to it that thou die not of hunger." He said merrily:
"Yea, by St. Nicholas, true it is: a while ago I felt no hunger,
and had forgotten that men eat; for I was troubled with much longing,
and in doubt concerning my life; but now am I free and happy,
and hungry therewithal."
"Look," she said, pointing up to the heavens, "it is now
past two hours after noon; that is nigh two hours since we
left the lawn amidst the hazels, and thou longest to eat,
as is but right, so lovely as thou art and young; and I withal
long to tell thee something of that whereof thou hast asked me;
and lastly, it is the hottest of the day, yea, so hot,
that even Diana, the Wood-wife of yore agone, might have
fainted somewhat, if she had been going afoot as we twain
have been, and little is the risk of our resting awhile.
And hereby is a place where rest is good as regards the place,
whatever the resters may be; it is a little aside the straightest way,
but meseems we may borrow an hour or so of our journey,
and hope to pay it back ere nightfall. Come, champion!"
Therewith she led north through a thicket of mingled trees
till Ralph heard water running, and anon they came to a little
space about a brook, grassy and clear of trees save a few big
thorn-bushes, with a green ridge or bank on the other side.
There she stayed him and said: "Do off thy war-gear, knight.
There is naught to fear here, less than there was amidst the hazels."
So did he, and she kneeled down and drank of the clear water,
and washed her face and hands therein, and then came and kissed
him and said: "Lovely imp of Upmeads, I have some bread
of last night's meal in my scrip here, and under the bank
I shall find some woodland meat withal; abide a little
and the tale and the food shall come back to thee together."
Therewith she stepped lightly into the stream, and stood
therein a minute to let her naked feet feel the cold ripple
(for she had stripped off her foot-gear as she first came
to the water), and then went hither and thither gathering
strawberries about the bank, while he watched her, blessing her,
till he well nigh wept at the thought of his happiness.
Back she came in a little while with good store of strawberries in
the lap of her gown, and they sat down on the green lip of the brook,
and she drew the bread from her scrip and they ate together,
and she made him drink from the hollow of her hands, and kissed
him and wept over him for joy, and the eagerness of her love.
So at last she sat down quietly beside him, and fell to speaking to him,
as a tale is told in the ingle nook on an even of Yule-tide.
The Lady Telleth Ralph of the Past Days of Her Life
"Now shalt thou hear of me somewhat more than the arras and the book
could tell thee; and yet not all, for time would fail us therefor--
and moreover my heart would fail me. I cannot tell where I was
born nor of what lineage, nor of who were my father and mother;
for this I have known not of myself, nor has any told me.
But when I first remember anything, I was playing about a garden,
wherein was a little house built of timber and thatched with reed,
and the great trees of the forest were all about the garden save
for a little croft which was grown over with high grass and another
somewhat bigger, wherein were goats. There was a woman at the door
of the house and she spinning, yet clad in glittering raiment,
and with jewels on her neck and fingers; this was the first thing
that I remember, but all as it were a matter of every day,
and use and wont, as it goes with the memories of children.
Of such matters I will not tell thee at large, for thou
knowest how it will be. Now the woman, who as l came to know
was neither old nor young in those days, but of middle age,
I called mother; but now I know that she was not my mother.
She was hard and stern with me, but never beat me in those days,
save to make me do what I would not have done unbeaten; and as to
meat I ate and drank what I could get, as she did, and indeed was
well-fed with simple meats as thou mayest suppose from the aspect
of me to-day. But as she was not fierce but rather sour to me
in her daily wont in my youngest days so also she was never tender,
or ever kissed me or caressed me, for as little as I was.
And I loved her naught, nor did it ever come into my mind that I
should love her, though I loved a white goat of ours and deemed
it dear and lovely; and afterwards other things also that came
to me from time to time, as a squirrel that I saved from a weasel,
and a jackdaw that fell from a tall ash-tree nigh our house
before he had learned how to fly, and a house-mouse that would
run up and down my hand and arm, and other such-like things;
and shortly I may say that the wild things, even to the conies
and fawns loved me, and had but little fear of me, and made me happy,
and I loved them.
"Further, as I grew up, the woman set me to do such work as I
had strength for as needs was; for there was no man dwelt anigh
us and seldom did I ever see man or woman there, and held
no converse with any, save as I shall tell thee presently:
though now and again a man or a woman passed by; what they were I
knew not, nor their whence and whither, but by seeing them I came
to know that there were other folk in the world besides us two.
Nought else I knew save how to spin, and to tend our goats
and milk them, and to set snares for birds and small deer:
though when I had caught them, it irked me sore to kill them,
and I had let them go again had I not feared the carline.
Every day early I was put forth from the house and garth,
and forbidden to go back thither till dusk. While the days were
long and the grass was growing, I had to lead our goats to pasture
in the wood-lawns, and must take with me rock and spindle,
and spin so much of flax or hair as the woman gave me, or be beaten.
But when the winter came and the snow was on the ground,
then that watching and snaring of wild things was my business.
"At last one day of late summer when I, now of some fifteen summers,
was pasturing the goats not far from the house, the sky darkened,
and there came up so great a storm of thunder and lightning, and huge
drift of rain, that I was afraid, and being so near to the house,
I hastened thither, driving the goats, and when I had tethered them
in the shed of the croft, I crept trembling up to the house, and when I
was at the door, heard the clack of the loom in the weaving-chamber,
and deemed that the woman was weaving there, but when I looked,
behold there was no one on the bench, though the shuttle was flying
from side to side, and the shed opening and changing, and the sley
coming home in due order. Therewithal I heard a sound as of one
singing a song in a low voice, but the words I could not understand:
then terror seized on my heart, but I stepped over the threshold,
and as the door of the chamber was open, I looked aside and saw
therein the woman sitting stark naked on the floor with a great open
book before her, and it was from her mouth that the song was coming:
grim she looked, and awful, for she was a big woman, black-haired and stern
of aspect in her daily wont, speaking to me as few words as might be,
and those harsh enough, yea harsher than when I was but little.
I stood for one moment afraid beyond measure, though the woman did not look
at me, and I hoped she had not seen me; then I ran back into the storm,
though it was now wilder than ever, and ran and hid myself in the thicket
of the wood, half-dead with fear, and wondering what would become of me.
But finding that no one followed after me, I grew calmer, and the storm
also drew off, and the sun shone out a little before his setting:
so I sat and spun, with fear in my heart, till I had finished my
tale of thread, and when dusk came, stole back again to the house,
though my legs would scarce bear me over the threshold into the chamber.
"There sat the woman in her rich attire no otherwise than her wont,
nor did she say aught to me; but looked at the yarn that I had spun,
to see that I had done my task, and nodded sternly to me as her wont was,
and l went to bed amongst my goats as I was used to do, but slept not till
towards morning, and then images of dreadful things, and of miseries
that I may not tell thee of, mingled with my sleep for long.
"So I awoke and ate my meat and drank of the goats' milk with a heavy heart,
and then went into the house; and when I came into the chamber
the woman looked at me, and contrary to her wont spoke to me, and I
shook with terror at her voice; though she said naught but this:
'Go fetch thy white goat and come back to me therewith.'
I did so, and followed after her, sick with fear; and she led me
through the wood into a lawn which I knew well, round which was a wall,
as it were, of great yew trees, and amidst, a table of stone,
made of four uprights and a great stone plank on the top of them;
and this was the only thing in all the wood wherein I was used
to wander which was of man's handiwork, save and except our house,
and the sheds and fences about it.
"The woman stayed and leaned against this stonework and said to me:
'Go about now and gather dry sticks for a fire.' I durst do
naught else, and said to myself that I should be whipped if I
were tardy, though, forsooth, I thought she was going to kill me;
and I brought her a bundle, and she said, 'Fetch more.'
And when I had brought her seven bundles, she said: 'It is enough:
stand over against me and hearken.' So I stood there quaking;
for my fear, which had somewhat abated while I went to and fro
after the wood, now came back upon me tenfold.
"She said: 'It were thy due that I should slay thee here and now,
as thou slayest the partridges which thou takest in thy springes:
but for certain causes I will not slay thee. Again, it were
no more than thy earnings were I to torment thee till thou
shouldst cry out for death to deliver thee from the anguish;
and if thou wert a woman grown, even so would I deal with thee.
But thou art yet but a child, therefore I will keep thee to see
what shall befall betwixt us. Yet must I do somewhat to grieve thee,
and moreover something must be slain and offered up here on this altar,
lest all come to naught, both thou and I, and that which we have to do.
Hold thy white goat now, which thou lovest more than aught else,
that I may redden thee and me and this altar with the blood thereof.'
"I durst do naught but obey her, and I held the poor beast,
that licked my hands and bleated for love of me:
and now since my terror and the fear of death was lessened
at her words, I wept sore for my dear friend.
"But the woman drew a strong sharp knife from her girdle
and cut the beast's throat, and dipped her fingers in the blood
and reddened both herself and me on the breast, and the hands,
and the feet; and then she turned to the altar and smote
blood upon the uprights, and the face of the stone plank.
Then she bade me help her, and we laid the seven faggots
on the alter, and laid the carcase of the goat upon them:
and she made fire, but I saw not how, and set it to the wood,
and when it began to blaze she stood before it with her
arms outspread, and sang loud and hoarse to a strange tune;
and though I knew not the words of her song, it filled me
with dread, so that I cast myself down on the ground and hid
my face in the grass.
"So she went on till the beast was all burned up and the fire
became naught but red embers, and then she ceased her song and sank
down upon the grass, and laid her head back and so fell asleep;
but I durst not move from the place, but cowered in the grass there,
I know not how long, till she arose and came to me, and smote me
with her foot and cried: 'Rise up, fool! what harm hast thou?
Go milk thy goats and lead them to pasture.' And therewith she
strode away home, not heeding me.
"As for me, I arose and dealt with my goats as she bade me;
and presently I was glad that I had not been slain, yet thenceforth
was the joy of my life that I had had amongst my goats marred
with fear, and the sounds of the woodland came to me mingled
with terror; and I was sore afraid when I entered the house
in the morning and the evening, and when I looked on the face
of the woman; though she was no harder to me than heretofore,
but maybe somewhat softer.
"So wore the autumn, and winter came, and I fared as I
was wont, setting springes for fowl and small-deer. And
for all the roughness of the season, at that time it pleased
me better than the leafy days, because I had less memory
then of the sharpness of my fear on that day of the altar.
Now one day as I went under the snow-laden trees, I saw something
bright and big lying on the ground, and drawing nearer I saw
that it was some child of man: so I stopped and cried out,
'Awake and arise, lest death come on thee in this bitter cold,'
But it stirred not; so I plucked up heart and came up to it,
and lo! a woman clad in fair raiment of scarlet and fur,
and I knelt down by her to see if I might help her;
but when I touched her I found her cold and stiff, and dead,
though she had not been dead long, for no snow had fallen on her.
It still wanted more than an hour of twilight, and I by no
means durst go home till nightfall; so I sat on there and
watched her, and put the hood from her face and the gloves
from her hands, and I deemed her a goodly and lovely thing,
and was sorry that she was not alive, and I wept for her,
and for myself also, that I had lost her fellowship.
So when I came back to the house at dark with the venison,
I knew not whether to tell my mistress and tyrant concerning
this matter; but she looked on me and said at once:
'Wert thou going to tell me of something that thou hast seen?'
So I told her all, even as it was, and she said to me:
'Hast thou taken aught from the corpse?' 'Nay,' said I. 'Then
must I hasten,' she said, 'and be before the wolves.'
Therewith she took a brand from the fire, and bade me bear one
also and lead her: so did I easily enough, for the moon was up,
and what with moon and snow, it was well nigh as bright as the day.
So when we came to the dead woman, my mistress kneeled down by
her and undid the collar of her cloak, which I had not touched,
and took something from her neck swiftly, and yet I,
who was holding the torch, saw that it was a necklace of blue
stones and green, with gold between--Yea, dear Champion,
like unto thine as one peascod is to another," quoth she.
And therewith the distressfulness of her face which had worn Ralph's
heart while she had been telling her tale changed, and she came,
as it were, into her new life and the love of him again, and she
kissed him and laid her cheek to his and he kissed her mouth.
And then she fetched a sigh, and began with her story again.
"My mistress took the necklace and put it in her pouch,
and said as to herself: 'Here, then, is another seeker
who hath not found, unless one should dig a pit for her here
when the thaw comes, and call it the Well at the World's End:
belike it will be for her as helpful as the real one.'
Then she turned to me and said: 'Do thou with the rest what
thou wilt,' and therewith she went back hastily to the house.
But as for me, I went back also, and found a pick and a mattock
in the goat-house, and came back in the moonlight and scraped
the snow away, and dug a pit, and buried the poor damsel there
with all her gear.
"Wore the winter thence with naught that I need tell of,
only I thought much of the words that my mistress had spoken.
Spring came and went, and summer also, well nigh tidingless.
But one day as I drave the goats from our house there came
from the wood four men, a-horseback and weaponed, but so covered
with their armour that I might see little of their faces.
They rode past me to our house, and spake not to me, though they
looked hard at me; but as they went past I heard one say:
'If she might but be our guide to the Well at the World's End!'
I durst not tarry to speak with them, but as I looked over
my shoulder I saw them talking to my mistress in the door;
but meseemed she was clad but in poor homespun cloth instead of her
rich apparel, and I am far-sighted and clear-sighted. After this
the autumn and winter that followed it passed away tidingless.
The Lady Tells of Her Deliverance
"Now I had outgrown my old fear, and not much befell to quicken it:
and ever I was as much out of the house as I could be.
But about this time my mistress, from being kinder to me than before,
began to grow harder, and ofttimes used me cruelly: but of her deeds
to me, my friend, thou shalt ask me no more than I tell thee.
On a day of May-tide I fared abroad with my goats, and went
far with them, further from the house than I had been as yet.
The day was the fairest of the year, and I rejoiced in it,
and felt as if some exceeding great good were about to befall me;
and the burden of fears seemed to have fallen from me.
So I went till I came to a little flowery dell, beset with
blossoming whitethorns and with a fair stream running through it;
a place somewhat like to this, save that the stream there was bigger.
And the sun was hot about noontide, so I did off my raiment,
which was rough and poor, and more meet for winter than May-tide,
and I entered a pool of the clear water, and bathed me and
sported therein, smelling the sweet scent of the whitethorns
and hearkening to the song of the many birds; and when I came
forth from the water, the air was so soft and sweet to me,
and the flowery grass so kind to my feet, and the May-blooms fell
upon my shoulders, that I was loth to do on my rough raiment hastily,
and withal I looked to see no child of man in that wilderness:
so I sported myself there a long while, and milked a goat and drank
of the milk, and crowned myself with white-thorn and hare-bells;
and held the blossoms in my hand, and felt that I also had some might
in me, and that I should not be a thrall of that sorceress for ever.
And that day, my friend, belike was the spring-tide of the life
and the love that thou holdest in thy kind arms.
"But as I abode thus in that fair place, and had just taken my
rock and spindle in hand that I might go on with my task and give
as little occasion as I might for my mistress to chastise me,
I looked up and saw a child of man coming down the side of the little
dale towards me, so I sprang up, and ran to my raiment and cast them
on me hastily, for I was ashamed; and when I saw that it was a woman,
I thought at first that it was my mistress coming to seek me;
and I thought within myself that if she smote me I would bear it
no more, but let it be seen which of the twain was the mightier.
But I looked again and saw that it was not she but a woman
smaller and older. So I stood where I was and abode her coming,
smiling and unafraid, and half-clad.
"She drew near and I saw that it was an old woman grey haired,
uncomely of raiment, but with shining bright eyes in her wrinkled face.
And she made an obeisance to me and said: 'I was passing through this
lonely wilderness and I looked down into the little valley and saw
these goats there and the lovely lady lying naked amongst them,
and I said I am too old to be afraid of aught; for if she be a goddess
come back again from yore agone, she can but make an end of a poor
old carline, a gangrel body, who hath no joy of her life now.
And if she be of the daughters of men, she will belike methink her
of her mother, and be kind to me for her sake, and give me a piece
of bread and a draught of her goats' milk.'
"I spake hastily, for I was ashamed of her words, though I only half
understood them: 'I hear thee and deem that thou mockest me:
I have never known a mother; I am but a poor thrall,
a goatherd dwelling with a mistress in a nook of this wildwood:
I have never a piece of bread; but as to the goats' milk, that thou
shalt have at once.' So I called one of my goats to me,
for I knew them all, and milked her into a wooden bowl that I
carried slung about me, and gave the old woman to drink:
and she kissed my hand and drank and spake again, but no longer
in a whining voice, like a beggar bidding alms in the street,
but frank and free.
"'Damsel,' she said, 'now I see that thy soul goes with thy body,
and that thou art kind and proud at once. And whatever thou art,
it is no mock to say of thee, that thou art as fair as the fairest;
and I think that this will follow thee, that henceforth no man who
seeth thee once will forget thee ever, or cease to long for thee:
of a surety this is they weird. Now I see that thou knowest no more
of the world and its ways than one of the hinds that run in these woods.
So if thou wilt, I will sit down by thee and tell thee much that shall
avail thee; and thou in thy turn shalt tell me all the tale concerning
thy dwelling and thy service, and the like.'
"I said, I may not, I durst not; I serve a mighty mistress,
and she would slay me if she knew that I had spoken to thee;
and woe's me! I fear that even now she will not fail to know it.
Depart in peace."
"'Nay,' she said, 'thou needest not tell me, for I have an inkling of her
and her ways: but I will give thee wisdom, and not sell it thee at a price.
Sit down then, fair child, on this flowery grass, and I will sit
beside thee and tell thee of many things worth thine heeding.'
So there we sat awhile, and in good sooth she told me much of the
world which I had not yet seen, of its fairness and its foulness;
of life and death, and desire and disappointment, and despair;
so that when she had done, if I were wiser than erst, I was perchance
little more joyous; and yet I said to myself that come what would I
would be a part of all that.
"But at last she said: 'Lo the day is waning, and thou hast two
things to do; either to go home to thy mistress at once, or flee
away from her by the way that I shall show thee; and if thou wilt
be ruled by me, and canst bear thy thralldom yet a little while thou
wilt not flee at once, but abide till thou hast seen me again.
And since it is here that thou hast met me, here mayst thou meet me again;
for the days are long now, and thou mayst easily win thy way hither
before noon on any day.'
"So I tied my goatskin shoes to my feet, and drave my
goats together, and we went up together out of the dale, and were
in the wide-spreading plain of the waste; and the carline said:
'Dost thou know the quarters of the heaven by the sun?'
'Yea,' said I. 'Then,' quoth she, 'whenso thou desirest to depart
and come into the world of folk that I have told thee of,
set thy face a little north of west, and thou shalt fall
in with something or somebody before long; but be speedy
on that day as thou art light-footed, and make all the way
thou canst before thy mistress comes to know of thy departure;
for not lightly will any one let loose such a thrall as thou.'
"I thanked her, and she went her ways over the waste, I wotted not whither,
and I drave my goats home as speedily as I might; the mistress meddled
not with me by word or deed, though I was short of my due tale of yarn.
The next day I longed sore to go to the dale and meet the carline but
durst not, and the next day I fared in likeways; but the third day I longed
so to go, that my feet must needs take me there, whatsoever might befall.
And when I had been in the dale a little, thither came the carline, and sat
down by me and fell to teaching me wisdom, and showed me letters and told me
what they were, and I learned like a little lad in the chorister's school.
"Thereafter I mastered my fear of my mistress and went
to that dale day by day, and learned of the carline;
though at whiles I wondered when my mistress would let loose
her fury upon me; for I called to mind the threat she had
made to me on the day when she offered up my white goat.
And I made up my mind to this, that if she fell upon me with deadly
intent I would do my best to slay her before she should slay me.
But so it was, that now again she held her hand from my body,
and scarce cast a word at me ever, but gloomed at me,
and fared as if hatred of me had grown great in her heart.
"So the days went by, and my feet had worn a path through
the wilderness to the Dale of Lore, and May had melted into June,
and the latter days of June were come. And on Midsummer Day I went
my ways to the dale according to my wont, when, as I as driving
on my goats hastily I saw a bright thing coming over the heath
toward me, and I went on my way to meet it, for I had no fear now,
except what fear of my mistress lingered in my heart; nay, I looked
that everything I saw of new should add some joy to my heart.
So presently I saw that it was a weaponed man riding a white horse,
and anon he had come up to me and drawn rein before me.
I wondered exceedingly at beholding him and the heart leaped within me
at his beauty; for though the carline had told me of the loveliness
of the sons of men, that was but words and I knew not what they meant;
and the others that I had seen were not young men or goodly,
and those last, as I told thee, I could scarce see their faces.
"And this one was even fairer than the dead woman that I had buried,
whose face was worn with toil and trouble, as now I called to mind.
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