The Well at the World's End
Part 4 out of 11
He was clad in bright shining armour with a gay surcoat of green,
embroidered with flowers over it; he had a light sallet on his head,
and the yellow locks of his hair flowed down from under, and fell
on his shoulders: his face was as beardless as thine, dear friend,
but not clear brown like to thine but white and red like a blossom."
Ralph spake and said: "Belike it was a woman;" and his voice
sounded loud in the quiet place. She smiled on him and kissed
his cheek, and said: "Nay, nay, dear Champion, it is not so.
God rest his soul! many a year he has been dead."
Said Ralph: "Many a year! what meanest thou?" "Ah!" she said,
"fear not! as I am now, so shall I be for thee many a year.
Was not thy fear that I should vanish away or change into something
unsightly and gruesome? Fear not, I say; am I not a woman, and thine own?"
And again she flushed bright red, and her grey eyes lightened,
and she looked at him all confused and shamefaced.
He took her face between his hands and kissed her over
and over; then he let her go, and said: "I have no fear:
go on with thy tale, for the words thereof are as thy kisses
to me, and the embracing of thine hands and thy body:
tell on, I pray thee." She took his hand in hers and spake,
telling her tale as before.
"Friend, well-beloved for ever! This fair young knight looked on me,
and as he looked, his face flushed as red as mine did even now.
And I tell thee that my heart danced with joy as I looked on him,
and he spake not for a little while, and then he said:
'Fair maiden, canst thou tell me of any who will tell me a word
of the way to the Well at the World's End?' I said to him,
'Nay, I have heard the word once and no more, I know not the way:
and I am sorry that I cannot do for thee that which thou wouldest.'
And then I spake again, and told him that he should by no means stop
at our house, and l told him what it was like, so that he might
give it the go by. I said, 'Even if thou hast to turn back again,
and fail to find the thing thou seekest, yet I beseech thee ride
not into that trap.'
"He sat still on his saddle a while, staring at me and I at him;
and then he thanked me, but with so bad a grace, that I wondered
of him if he were angry; and then he shook his rein, and rode
off briskly, and I looked after him a while, and then went on my way;
but I had gone but a short while, when I heard horse-hoofs behind me,
and I turned and looked, and lo! it was the knight coming back again.
So I stayed and abided him; and when he came up to me, he leapt
from his horse and stood before me and said: 'I must needs see
thee once again.'
"I stood and trembled before him, and longed to touch him.
And again he spake, breathlessly, as one who has been running:
'I must depart, for I have a thing to do that I must do;
but I long sorely to touch thee, and kiss thee; yet unless
thou freely willest it, I will refrain me.' Then I looked
at him and said, 'I will it freely.' Then he came close up
to me, and put his hand on my shoulder and kissed my cheek;
but I kissed his lips, and then he took me in his arms,
and kissed me and embraced me; and there in that place,
and in a little while, we loved each other sorely.
"But in a while he said to me: 'I must depart, for I am as one whom
the Avenger of Blood followeth; and now I will give thee this,
not so much as a gift, but as a token that we have met in the wilderness,
thou and I.' Therewith he put his hand to his neck, and took
from it this necklace which thou seest here, and I saw that it was
like that which my mistress took from the neck of the dead woman.
And no less is it like to the one that thou wearest, Ralph.
"I took it in my hand and wept that I might not help him.
And he said: 'It is little likely that we shall meet again;
but by the token of this collar thou mayest wot that I ever
long for thee till I die: for though I am a king's son,
this is the dearest of my possessions.' I said:
'Thou art young, and I am young; mayhappen we shall meet again:
but thou shalt know that I am but a thrall, a goatherd.'
For I knew by what the old woman told me of somewhat of
the mightiness of the kings of the world. 'Yea,' he said,
and smiled most sweetly, 'that is easy to be seen:
yet if I live, as I think not to do, thou shalt sit where
great men shall kneel to thee; not as I kneel now for love,
and that I may kiss thy knees and thy feet, but because they
needs must worship thee.'
"Therewith he arose to his feet and leapt on his horse, and rode
his ways speedily: and I went upon my way with my goats, and came
down into the Dale of Lore, and found the old woman abiding me;
and she came to me, and took me by the hands, and touched the collar
(for I had done it about my neck), and said:
"'Dear child, thou needest not to tell me thy tale, for I have seen him.
But if thou must needs wear this necklace, I must give thee a gift to go
with it. But first sit down by the old carline awhile and talk with her;
for meseemeth it will be but a few days ere thou shalt depart from this
uttermost wilderness, and the woods before the mountains.
"So I sat down by her, and in spite of her word I told her all that had
befallen betwixt me and the king's son: for my heart was too full that I
might refrain me. She nodded her head from time to time, but said naught,
till I had made an end: and then fell to telling me of many matters
for my avail; but yet arose earlier than her wont was; and when we were
about sundering on the path which I had trodden above the Dale, she said:
'Now must I give thee that gift to go along with the gift of the lover,
the King's son; and I think thou wilt find it of avail before many days
are gone by.' Therewith she took from her pouch a strong sharp knife,
and drew it from the sheath, and flashed it in the afternoon sun,
and gave it to me; and I took it and laid it in my bosom and thanked her;
for I thought that I understood her meaning, and how it would avail me.
Then I went driving my goats home speedily, so that the sun was barely
set when I came to the garth; and a great horror rather than a fear of my
mistress was on me; and lo! she stood in the door of the house gazing down
the garth and the woodland beyond, as though she were looking for my coming:
and when her eyes lighted on me, she scowled, and drew her lips back from
her teeth and clenched her hands with fury, though there was nought in them;
and she was a tall and strong woman, though now growing somewhat old:
but as for me, I had unsheathed the carline's gift before I came to the garth,
and now I held it behind my back in my left hand.
"I had stayed my feet some six paces from the threshold, and my
heart beat quick, but the sick fear and cowering had left me,
though the horror of her grew in my heart. My goats had all gone off
quietly to their house, and there was nothing betwixt me and her.
In clearing from my sleeve the arm of me which held the knife,
the rough clasp which fastened my raiment together at the shoulder
had given way, and the cloth had fallen and left my bosom bare,
so that I knew that the collar was clearly to be seen. So we stood
a moment, and I had no words, but she spake at last in a hard,
snarling voice, such as she oftenest used to me, but worse.
"'Now at last the time has come when thou art of no more use
to me; for I can see thee what thou hast got for thyself.
But know now that thou hast not yet drunk of the Well at
the World's End, and that it will not avail thee to flee
out of this wood; for as long as I live thou wilt not be able
to get out of reach of my hand; and I shall live long:
I shall live long. Come, then, and give thyself up to me,
that I may deal with thee as I threatened when I slew thy
friend the white goat; for, indeed, I knew then that it would
come to this.'
"She had but twice or thrice spoken to me so many words together as this;
but l answered never a word, but stood watching her warily.
And of a sudden she gave forth a dreadful screaming roar,
wherewith all the wood rang again, and rushed at me;
but my hand came from behind my back, and how it was I know not,
but she touched me not till the blade had sunk into her breast,
and she fell across my feet, her right hand clutching my raiment.
So I loosed her fingers from the cloth, shuddering with horror
the while, and drew myself away from her and stood a little aloof,
wondering what should happen next. And indeed I scarce believed
but she would presently rise up from the ground and clutch me
in her hands, and begin the tormenting of me. But she moved
no more, and the grass all about her was reddened with her blood;
and at last I gathered heart to kneel down beside her, and found
that she no more breathed than one of those conies or partridges
which I had been used to slay for her.
"Then I stood and considered what I should do, and indeed I
had been pondering this all the way from the Dale thereto,
in case I should escape my mistress. So I soon made up my
mind that I would not dwell in that house even for one night;
lest my mistress should come to me though dead, and torment me.
I went into the house while it was yet light, and looked about
the chamber, and saw three great books there laid on the lectern,
but durst not have taken them even had I been able to carry them;
nor durst I even to look into them, for fear that some spell
might get to work in them if they were opened; but I found
a rye loaf whereof I had eaten somewhat in the morning,
and another untouched, and hanging to a horn of the lectern I found
the necklace which my mistress had taken from the dead woman.
These I put into my scrip, and as to the necklace, l will tell
thee how I bestowed it later on. Then I stepped out into the
twilight which was fair and golden, and full fain I was of it.
Then I drove the goats out of their house and went my way towards
the Dale of Lore, and said to myself that the carline would
teach me what further to do, and I came there before the summer
dark had quite prevailed, and slept sweetly and softly amongst
my goats after I had tethered them in the best of the pasture.
Yet More of the Lady's Story
"Lo thou, beloved," she said, "thou hast seen me in the wildwood
with little good quickened in me: doth not thine heart
sink at the thought of thy love and thy life given over to
the keeping of such an one?" He smiled in her face, and said:
"Belike thou hast done worse than all thou hast told me:
and these days past I have wondered often what there was
in the stories which they of the Burg had against thee:
yet sooth to say, they told little of what thou hast done:
no more belike than being their foe." She sighed and said:
"Well, hearken; yet shall I not tell thee every deed that I
have been partaker in.
"I sat in the Dale that next day and was happy, though I longed
to see that fair man again: sooth to say, since my mistress
was dead, everything seemed fairer to me, yea even mine own face,
as I saw it in the pools of the stream, though whiles I wondered
when I should have another mistress, and how she would deal with me;
and ever I said I would ask the carline when she came again to me.
But all that day she came not: nor did I marvel thereat.
But when seven days passed and still she came not, I fell
to wondering what I should do: for my bread was all gone,
and I durst not go back to the house to fetch meal; though there
was store of it there. Howbeit, I drank of the milk of the goats,
and made curds thereof with the woodland roots, and ate
of the wood-berries like as thou hast done, friend, e'en now.
And it was easier for me to find a livelihood in the woods
than it had been for most folk, so well as I knew them.
So wore the days, and she came not, and I began to think that I
should see the wise carline no more, as indeed fell out at that time;
and the days began to hang heavy on my hands, and I fell
to thinking of that way to the west and the peopled parts,
whereof the carline had told me; and whiles I went out of
the Dale and went away hither and thither through the woods,
and so far, that thrice I slept away out of the Dale:
but I knew that the peopled parts would be strange to me and I
feared to face them all alone.
"Thus wore the days till July was on the wane, and on a morning
early I awoke with unwonted sounds in mine ears; and when my eyes
were fairly open I saw a man standing over me and a white horse
cropping the grass hard by. And my heart was full and fain,
and I sprang to my feet and showed him a smiling happy face,
for I saw at once that it was that fair man come back again.
But lo! his face was pale and worn, though he looked kindly
on me, and he said: 'O my beloved, I have found thee,
but I am faint with hunger and can speak but little.'
And even therewith he sank down on the grass. But I bestirred
myself, and gave him milk of my goats, and curds and berries,
and the life came into him again, and I sat down by him and laid
his head in my lap, and he slept a long while; and when he awoke
(and it was towards sunset) he kissed my hands and my arms,
and said to me: 'Fair child, perhaps thou wilt come with me now;
and even if thou art a thrall thou mayest flee with me;
for my horse is strong and fat, though I am weak, for he can
make his dinner on the grass.'
"Then he laughed and I no less; but I fed him with my poor victual again,
and as he ate I said: 'I am no mistress's thrall now; for the evening
of the day whereon I saw thee I slew her, else had she slain me.'
'The saints be praised,' said he: 'Thou wilt come with me, then?'
'O yea,' said I. Then I felt shamefaced and I reddened; but I said:
'I have abided here many days for a wise woman who hath taught me many things;
but withal l hoped that thou wouldst come also.'
"Then he put his arms about my shoulders and loved me much;
but at last he said: "Yet is it now another thing than that
which I looked for, when I talked of setting thee by me on
the golden throne. For now am I a beaten man; I have failed
of that I sought, and suffered shame and hunger and many ills.
Yet ever I thought that I might find thee here or hereby.'
Then a thought came into my mind, and I said: 'Else maybe thou
hadst found what thou soughtest, and overcome the evil things.'
'Maybe,' he said; 'it is now but a little matter.'"
"As for me, I could have no guess at what were the better things
he had meant for me, and my heart was full of joy, and all seemed
better than well. And we talked together long till the day was gone.
Then we kissed and embraced each other in the Dale of Lore,
and the darkness of summer seemed but short for our delight."
The Lady Tells Somewhat of Her Doings After She Left the Wilderness
Ralph stayed her speech now, and said: "When I asked
of thee in the Land of Abundance, there were some who seemed
to say that thou hast let more men love thee than one:
and it was a torment to me to think that even so it might be.
But now when thine own mouth telleth me of one of them it irks
me little. Dost thou think it little-hearted in me?"
"O friend," she said, "I see that so it is with thee that thou wouldst
find due cause for loving me, whatever thou foundest true of me.
Or dost thou deem that I was another woman in those days? Nay, I was not:
I can see myself still myself all along the way I have gone."
She was silent a little, and then she said: "Fear not, I will give
thee much cause to love me. But now I know thy mind the better,
I shall tell thee less of what befell me after I left the wilderness;
for whatever I did and whatever I endured, still it was always I myself
that was there, and it is me that thou lovest. Moreover, my life
in the wilderness is a stranger thing to tell thee of than my
dealings with the folk, and with Kings and Barons and Knights.
But thereafter thou shalt hear of me what tales thou wilt of these matters,
as the days and the years pass over our heads.
"Now on the morrow we would not depart at once, because there we
had some victual, and the king's son was not yet so well fed as
he should be; so we abode in that fair place another day, and then
we went our ways westward, according to the rede of the carline;
and it was many days before we gat us out of the wilderness,
and we were often hard put to it for victual; whiles I sat behind
my knight a-horseback, whiles he led the beast while I rode alone,
and not seldom I went afoot, and that nowise slowly, while he rode
the white horse, for I was as light-foot then as now.
"And of the way we went I will tell thee nought as now,
because sure it is that if we both live, thou and I shall tread
that road together, but with our faces turned the other way;
for it is the road from the Well at the World's End, where I
myself have been, or else never had thine eyes fallen on me."
Ralph said, "Even so much I deemed by reading in the book;
yet it was not told clearly that thou hadst been there."
"Yea," she said, because the said book was made not by my
friends but my foes, and they would have men deem that my
length of days and the endurance of my beauty and never-dying
youth of my heart came from evil and devilish sources;
and if thou wilt trust my word it is not so, for in the Well
at the World's End is no evil, but only the Quenching
of Sorrow, and Clearing of the Eyes that they may behold.
And how good it is that they look on thee now. And moreover,
the history of that book is partly false of intention and
ill-will, and partly a confused medley of true and false,
which has come of mere chance-hap.
"Hearken now," she said, "till I tell thee in few word
what befell me before I came to drink the Water of the Well.
After we had passed long deserts of wood and heath, and gone
through lands exceeding evil and perilous, and despaired of life
for the horror of those places, and seen no men, we came at last
amongst a simple folk who dealt kindly with us, yea, and more.
These folk seemed to me happy and of good wealth,
though to my lord they seemed poor and lacking of the goods
of the world. Forsooth, by that time we lacked more than they,
for we were worn with cold and hunger, and hard life:
though for me, indeed, happy had been the days of my wayfaring,
but my lord remembered the days of his riches and the kingdom
of his father, and the worship of mighty men, and all that
he had promised me on the happy day when I first beheld him:
so belike he was scarce so happy as I was.
"It was springtime when we came to that folk; for we had worn
through the autumn and winter in getting clear of the wilderness.
Not that the way was long, as I found out afterwards, but that we went
astray in the woodland, and at last came out of it into a dreadful
stony waste which we strove to cross thrice, and thrice were driven
back into the greenwood by thirst and hunger; but the fourth time,
having gotten us store of victual by my woodcraft, we overpassed it
and reached the peopled country.
"Yea, spring was on the earth, as we, my lord and I, came down from
the desolate stony heaths, and went hand and hand across the plain,
where men and women of that folk were feasting round about the simple
roofs and woodland halls which they had raised there. Then they
left their games and sports and ran to us, and we walked on quietly,
though we knew not whether the meeting was to be for death or life.
But that kind folk gathered round us, and asked us no story till
they had fed us, and bathed us, and clad us after their fashion.
And then, despite the nakedness and poverty wherein they had first seen us,
they would have it that we were gods sent down to them from the world
beyond the mountains by their fathers of old time; for of Holy Church,
and the Blessed Trinity, and the Mother of God they knew no more than
did I at that time, but were heathen, as the Gentiles of yore agone.
And even when we put all that Godhood from us, and told them as we
might and could what we were (for we had no heart to lie to such simple
folk), their kindness abated nothing, and they bade us abide there,
and were our loving friends and brethren.
"There in sooth had I been content to abide till eld came upon me,
but my lord would not have it so, but longed for greater things
for me. Though in sooth to me it seemed as if his promise
of worship of me by the folk had been already fulfilled;
for when we had abided there some while, and our beauty,
which had been marred by the travail of our way-faring,
had come back to us in full, or it maybe increased somewhat,
they did indeed deal with us with more love than would most men
with the saints, were they to come back on the earth again;
and their children would gather round about me and make me
a partaker of their sports, and be loth to leave me; and the faces
of their old folk would quicken and gladden when I drew nigh:
and as for their young men, it seemed of them that they loved
the very ground that my feet trod on, though it grieved me that I
could not pleasure some of them in such wise as they desired.
And all this was soft and full of delight for my soul:
and I, whose body a little while ago had been driven to daily
toil with evil words and stripes, and who had known not what
words of thanks and praise might mean!
"But so it must be that we should depart, and the kind folk
showed us how sore their hearts were of our departure, but they
gainsaid us in nowise, but rather furthered us all they might,
and we went our ways from them riding on horned neat (for they knew
not of horses), and driving one for a sumpter beast before us;
and they had given us bows and arrows for our defence, and that we
might get us venison.
"It is not to be said that we did not encounter perils;
but thereof I will tell thee naught as now. We came to other peoples,
richer and mightier than these, and I saw castles, and abbies,
and churches, and walled towns, and wondered at them exceedingly.
And in these places folk knew of the kingdom of my lord and his father,
and whereas they were not of his foes (who lay for the more part
on the other side of his land), and my lord could give sure tokens
of what he was, we were treated with honour and worship, and my
lord began to be himself again, and to bear him as a mighty man.
And here to me was some gain in that poverty and nakedness wherewith
we came out of the mountains and the raiment of the simple folk;
for had I been clad in my poor cloth and goat-skins of the House
of the Sorcerer, and he in his brave attire and bright armour,
they would have said, it is a thrall that he is assotted of,
and would have made some story and pretence of taking me from him;
but they deemed me a great lady indeed, and a king's daughter,
according to the tale that he told them. Forsooth many men that saw
me desired me beyond measure, and assuredly some great proud man
or other would have taken me from my lord, but that they feared
the wrath of his father, who was a mighty man indeed.
"Yea, one while as we sojourned by a certain town but a little outside
the walls, a certain young man, a great champion and exceeding masterful,
came upon me with his squires as I was walking in the meadows,
and bore me off, and would have taken me to his castle, but that my lord
followed with a few of the burghers, and there was a battle fought,
wherein my lord was hurt; but the young champion he slew; and I cannot
say but l was sorry of his death, though glad of my deliverance.
"Again, on a time we guested in a great baron's house, who dealt so foully
by us that he gave my lord a sleeping potion in his good-night cup,
and came to me in the dead night and required me of my love;
and I would not, and he threatened me sorely, and called me
a thrall and a castaway that my lord had picked up off the road:
but I gat a knife in my hand and was for warding myself when I saw
that my lord might not wake: so the felon went away for that time.
But on the morrow came two evil men into the hall whom he had suborned,
and bore false witness that I was a thrall and a runaway.
So that the baron would have held me there (being a mighty man)
despite my lord and his wrath and his grief, had not a young
knight of his house been, who swore that he would slay him unless
he let us go; and whereas there were other knights and squires
there present who murmured, the baron was in a way compelled.
So we departed, and divers of the said knights and squires went
with us to see us safe on the way.
"But this was nigh to the kingdom of my lord's father,
and that felon baron I came across again, and he was ever
after one of my worst foes.
"Moreover, that young champion who had first stood up in the hall rode
with us still, when the others had turned back; and I soon saw of him
that he found it hard to keep his eyes off me; and that also saw my lord,
and it was a near thing that they did not draw sword thereover:
yet was that knight no evil man, but good and true, and I was exceedingly
sorry for him; but I could not help him in the only way he would take
help of me.
"Lo you, my friend, the beginnings of evil in those long past days,
and the seeds of ill-hap sown in the field of my new life even before
the furrow was turned.
"Well, we came soon into my lord's country, and fair and rich
and lovely was it in those days; free from trouble and unpeace,
a happy abode for the tillers of the soil, and the fashioners of wares.
The tidings had gone to the king that my lord was come back,
and he came to meet him with a great company of knights and barons,
arrayed in the noblest fashion that such folk use; so that I
was bewildered with their glory, and besought my lord to let me
fall back out of the way, and perchance he might find me again.
But he bade me ride on his right hand, for that I was the half
of his life and his soul, and that my friends were his friends
and my foes his foes.
"Then there came to me an inkling of the things that should befall,
and I saw that the sweet and clean happiness of my new days was marred,
and had grown into something else, and I began to know the pain of strife
and the grief of confusion: but whereas I had not been bred delicately,
but had endured woes and griefs from my youngest days, I was not abashed,
but hardened my heart to face all things, even as my lord strove to harden
his heart: for, indeed, I said to myself that if I was to him as the half
of his life, he was to me little less than the whole of my life.
"It is as if it had befallen yesterday, my friend, that I call to mind
how we stood beside our horses in the midst of the ring of great men
clad in gold and gleaming with steel, in the meadow without the gates,
the peace and lowly goodliness whereof with its flocks and herds feeding,
and husbandmen tending the earth and its increase, that great and noble
array had changed so utterly. There we stood, and I knew that the eyes
of all those lords and warriors were set upon me wondering. But the love
of my lord and the late-learned knowledge of my beauty sustained me.
Then the ring of men opened, and the king came forth towards us;
a tall man and big, of fifty-five winters, goodly of body and like to
my lord to look upon. He cast his arms about my lord, and kissed him
and embraced him, and then stood a little aloof from him and said:
'Well, son, hast thou found it, the Well at the World's End?'
"'Yea,' said my lord, and therewith lifted my hand to his lips and kissed it,
and I looked the king in his face, and his eyes were turned to me, but it
was as if he were looking through me at something behind me.
"Then he said: 'It is good, son: come home now to thy mother
and thy kindred.' Then my lord turned to me while the king took
no heed, and no man in the ring of knights moved from his place,
and he set me in the saddle, and turned about to mount,
and there came a lord from the ring of men gloriously bedight,
and he bowed lowly before my lord, and held his stirrup for him:
but lightly he leapt up into the saddle, and took my reins
and led me along with him, so that he and the king and I went
on together, and all the baronage and their folk shouted
and tossed sword and spear aloft and followed after us.
And we left the meadow quiet and simple again, and rode through
the gate of the king's chief city, wherein was his high house
and his castle, the dwelling-place of his kindred from of old.
The Lady Tells of the Strife and Trouble That Befell After Her
Coming to the Country of the King's Son
"When we came to the King's House, my lord followed his father
into the hall, where sat his mother amongst her damsels:
she was a fair woman, and looked rather meek than high-hearted;
my lord led me up to her, and she embraced and kissed him and caressed
him long; then she turned about to me and would have spoken to me,
but the king, who stood behind us, scowled on her, and she forebore;
but she looked me on somewhat kindly, and yet as one who is afeard.
"Thus it went for the rest of the day, and my lord had me to sit
beside him in the great hall when the banquet was holden, and I
ate and drank with him and beheld all the pageants by his side,
and none meddled with me either to help or to hinder, because they
feared the king. Yet many eyes I saw that desired my beauty.
And so when night came, he took me to his chamber and his bed,
as if I were his bride new wedded, even as it had been with us
on the grass of the wilderness and the bracken of the wildwood.
And then, at last, he spake to me of our case, and bade me fear not,
for that a band of his friends, all-armed, was keeping watch
and ward in the cloister without. And when I left the chamber
on the morrow's morn, there were they yet, all in bright armour,
and amongst them the young knight who had delivered me from
the felon baron, and he looked mournfully at me, so that I was
sorry for his sorrow.
"And I knew now that the king was minded to slay me, else had he bidden
thrust me from my lord's side.
"So wore certain days; and on the seventh night, when we were come
into our chamber, which was a fair as any house outside of heaven,
my lord spake to me in a soft voice, and bade me not do off my raiment.
'For,' said he, 'this night we must flee the town, or we shall be taken
and cast into prison to-morrow; for thus hath my father determined.'
I kissed him and clung to him, and he no less was good to me.
And when it was the dead of night we escaped out of our window by a
knotted rope which he had made ready, and beneath was the city wall;
and that company of knights, amongst whom was the young knight abovesaid,
had taken a postern thereby, and were abiding us armed and with
good horses. So we came into the open country, and rode our ways
with the mind to reach a hill-castle of one of those young barons,
and to hold ourselves there in despite of the king. But the king
had been as wary as we were privy, and no less speedy than we;
and he was a mighty and deft warrior, and he himself followed us
on the spur with certain of his best men-at-arms. And they came upon
us as we rested in a woodside not far from our house of refuge:
and the king stood by to see the battle with his sword in his sheath,
but soon was it at an end, for though our friends fought valiantly,
they were everyone slain or hurt, and but few escaped with bare life;
but that young man who loved me so sorely crept up to me grievously hurt,
and I did not forbear to kiss him once on the face, for I deemed I
should soon die also, and his blood stained my sleeve and my wrist,
but he died not as then, but lived to be a dear friend to me for long.
"So we, my lord and I, were led back to the city, and he was held
in ward and I was cast into prison with chains and hunger and stripes.
And the king would have had me lie there till I perished,
that I might be forgotten utterly; but there were many of the
king's knights who murmured at this, and would not forget me;
so the king being constrained, had me brought forth to be judged
by his bishops of sorcery for the beguiling of my lord.
Long was the tale to me then, but I will not make it long for thee;
as was like to be, I was brought in guilty of sorcery, and doomed
to be burned in the Great Square in three days time.
"Nay, my friend, thou hast no need to look so troubled;
for thou seest that I was not burned. This is the selfsame body
that was tied to the stake in the market place of the king's
city many a year ago.
"For the friends of my lord, young men for the most part, and many
who had been fain to be my friends also, put on their armour,
and took my lord out of the courteous prison wherein he was,
and came to the Great Square whenas I stood naked in my smock
bound amid the faggots; and I saw the sheriffs' men give back,
and great noise and rumour rise up around me: and then all about me
was a clear space for a moment and I heard the tramp of the many
horse-hoofs, and the space was full of weaponed men shouting,
and crying out, 'Life for our Lord's Lady!' Then a minute,
and I was loose and in my lord's arms, and they brought me a horse
and I mounted, lest the worst should come and we might have to flee.
So I could see much of what went on; and I saw that all the unarmed
folk and lookers-on were gone, but at our backs was a great crowd
of folk with staves and bows who cried out, 'Life for the Lady!'
But before us was naught but the sheriffs' sergeants and a company
of knights and men-at-arms, about as many as we were, and the king
in front of them, fully armed, his face hidden by his helm,
and a royal surcoat over his hauberk beaten with his bearing,
to wit, a silver tower on a blue sky bestarred with gold.
"And now I could see that despite the bills and bows behind us the king was
going to fall on with his folk; and to say sooth I feared but little and my
heart rose high within me, and I wished I had a sword in my hand to strike
once for life and love. But lo! just as the king was raising his sword,
and his trumpet was lifting the brass to his lips, came a sound of singing,
and there was come the Bishop and the Abbot of St. Peter's and his monks
with him, and cross bearers and readers and others of the religious:
and the Bishop bore in his hand the Blessed Host (as now I know it was)
under a golden canopy, and he stood between the two companies and faced
the king, while his folk sang loud and sweet about him.
"Then the spears went up and from the rest, and swords
were sheathed, and there went forth three ancient knights from
out of the king's host and came up to him and spake with him.
Then he gat him away unto his High House; and the three old
knights came to our folk, and spake with the chiefs;
but not with my lord, and I heard not what they said.
But my lord came to me in all loving-kindness and brought
me into the house of one of the Lineage, and into a fair
chamber there, and kissed me, and made much of me;
and brought me fair raiment and did it on me with his own hands,
even as his wont was to be for my tire-maiden.
"Then in a little while came those chiefs of ours and said that truce had been
hanselled them for this time, but on these terms, that my lord and I and all
those who had been in arms, and whosoever would, that feared the king's wrath,
should have leave to depart from his city so that they went and abode no
nearer than fifty miles thereof till they should know his further pleasure.
Albeit that whosoever would go home peaceably might abide in the city
still and need not fear the king's wrath if he stirred no further:
but that in any case the Sorceress should get her gone from those walls.
"So we rode out of the gates that very day before sunset; for it was now
midsummer again, and it was three hours before noon that I was to have
been burned; and we were a gallant company of men-at-arms and knights;
yet did I be-think me of those who were slain on that other day when we
were taken, and fain had I been that they were riding with us; but at least
that fair young man was in our company, though still weak with his hurts:
for the prison and the process had worn away wellnigh two months.
True it is that I rejoiced to see him, for I had deemed him dead.
"Dear friend, I pray thy pardon if I weary thee with making
so long a tale of my friends of the past days; but needs must I
tell thee somewhat of them, lest thou love that which is not.
Since truly it is myself that I would have thee to love,
and none other.
"Many folk gathered to us as we rode our ways to a town
which was my lord's own, and where all men were his friends,
so that we came there with a great host and sat down
there in no fear of what the king might do against us.
There was I duly wedded to my lord by a Bishop of Holy Church,
and made his Lady and Queen; for even so he would have it.
"And now began the sore troubles of that land, which had been once
so peaceful and happy; the tale whereof I may one day tell thee;
or rather many tales of what befell me therein; but not now;
for the day weareth; and I still have certain things that I must
needs tell thee.
"We waged war against each other, my lord and the king,
and whiles one, and whiles the other overcame. Either side
belike deemed that one battle or two would end the strife;
but so it was not, but it endured year after year, till fighting
became the chief business of all in the land.
"As for me, I had many tribulations. Thrice I fled from the stricken
field with my lord to hide in some stronghold of the mountains.
Once was I taken of the foemen in the town where I abode when my
lord was away from me, and a huge slaughter of innocent folk
was made, and I was cast into prison and chains, after I had seen
my son that I had borne to my lord slain before mine eyes.
At last we were driven clean out of the Kingdom of the Tower,
and abode a long while, some two years, in the wilderness,
living like outlaws and wolves' heads, and lifting the spoil
for our livelihood. Forsooth of all the years that I
abode about the Land of Tower those were the happiest.
For we robbed no poor folk and needy, but rewarded them rather,
and drave the spoil from rich men and lords, and hard-hearted
chapmen-folk: we ravished no maid of the tillers, we burned no cot,
and taxed no husbandman's croft or acre, but defended them
from their tyrants. Nevertheless we gat an ill name wide about
through the kingdoms and cities; and were devils and witches
to the boot of thieves and robbers in the mouths of these men;
for when the rich man is hurt his wail goeth heavens high,
and none may say he heareth not.
"Now it was at this time that I first fell in with the Champions of the
Dry Tree; for they became our fellows and brothers in arms in the wildwood:
for they had not as yet builded their stronghold of the Scaur,
whereas thou and I shall be in two days time. Many a wild deed did
our folk in their company, and many that had been better undone.
Whiles indeed they went on journeys wherein we were not partakers,
as when they went to the North and harried the lands of the Abbot
of Higham, and rode as far even as over the Downs to Bear
Castle and fought a battle there with the Captain of Higham:
whereas we went never out of the Wood Perilous to the northward;
and lifted little save in the lands of our own proper foemen,
the friends of the king.
"Now I say not of the men of the Dry Tree that they were good
and peaceable men, nor would mercy hold their hands every
while that they were hard bestead and thrust into a corner.
Yet I say now and once for all that their fierceness was and is
but kindness and pity when set against the cruelty of the Burg
of the Four Friths; men who have no friend to love, no broken
foe to forgive, and can scarce be kind even to themselves:
though forsooth they be wise men and cautelous and well living
before the world, and wealthy and holy."
She stayed her speech a while, and her eyes glittered in her flushed face
and she set her teeth; and she was as one beside herself till Ralph kissed
her feet, and caressed her, and she went on again.
"Dear friend, when thou knowest what these men are and have been thou
wilt bless thy friend Roger for leading thee forth from the Burg by night
and cloud, whatever else may happen to thee.
"Well, we abode in the wildwood, friends and good fellows from the first;
and that young man, though he loved me ever, was somewhat healed
of the fever of love, and was my faithful friend, in such wise
that neither I nor my lord had aught to find fault with in him.
Meanwhile we began to grow strong, for many joined us therein
who had fled from their tyrants of the good towns and the manors
of the baronage, and at last in the third year naught would
please my lord but we must enter into the Kingdom of the Tower,
and raise his banner in the wealthy land, and the fair cities.
"Moreover, his father, the King of the Tower, died in his bed in these days,
and no word of love or peace had passed between them since that morning when I
was led out to be burned in the Great Square.
"So we came forth from the forest, we, and the Champions
of the Dry Tree; and made the tale a short one.
For the king, the mighty warrior and wise man, was dead:
and his captains of war, some of them were dead, and some
weary of strife; and those who had been eager in debate
were falling to ask themselves wherefore they had fought
and what was to do that they should still be fighting;
and lo! when it came to be looked into, it was all a matter
of the life and death of one woman, to wit me myself, and why
should she not live, why should she not sit upon the throne
with the man who loved her?
"Therefore when at last we came out from the twilight of the woods
into the sunny fields of the Land of the Tower, there was no
man to naysay us; nay, the gates of the strong places flew
open before the wind of our banners, and the glittering of our
spears drew the folk together toward the places of rejoicing.
We entered the master City in triumph, with the houses hung
with green boughs and the maidens casting flowers before our feet,
and I sat a crowned Queen upon the throne high raised on the very
place where erst I stood awaiting the coming of the torch
to the faggots which were to consume me.
"There then began the reign of the Woman of the Waste; for so it was,
that my lord left to my hands the real ruling of the kingdom,
though he wore the crown and set the seal to parchments.
As to them of the Dry Tree, though some few of them abode
in the kingdom, and became great there, the more part of them
went back to the wildwood and lived the old life of the Wood,
as we had found them living it aforetime. But or ever they went,
the leaders of them came before me, and kissed my feet,
and with tears and prayers besought me, and bade me that if aught
fell amiss to me there, I should come back to them and be their
Lady and Queen; and whereas these wild men loved me well,
and I deemed that I owed much to their love and their helping,
I promised them and swore to them by the Water of the Well at
the World's End that I would do no less than they prayed me:
albeit I set no term or year for the day that I would come to them.
"And now my lord and I, we set ourselves to heal the wounds which war
had made in the land: and hard was the work, and late the harvest;
so used had men become to turmoil and trouble. Moreover, there were many,
and chiefly the women who had lost husband, lover, son or brother,
who laid all their griefs on my back; though forsooth how was I guilty
of the old king's wrath against me, which was the cause of all?
About this time my lord had the Castle of Abundance built up very fairly
for me and him to dwell in at whiles; and indeed we had before that
dwelt at a little manor house that was there, when we durst withdraw
a little from the strife; but now he had it done as fair as ye saw it,
and had those arras cloths made with the story of my sojourn in
the wilderness, even as ye saw them. But the days and the years wore,
and wealth came back to the mighty of the land, and fields flourished
and the acres bore increase, and fair houses were builded in the towns;
and the land was called happy again.
"But for me I was not so happy: and l looked back fondly
to the days of the greenwood and the fellowship of the Dry Tree,
and the days before that, of my flight with my lord.
And moreover with the wearing of the years those murmurs against me
and the blind causeless hatred began to grow again, and chiefly
methinks because I was the king, and my lord the king's cloak:
but therewith tales concerning me began to spring up,
how that I was not only a sorceress, but even one foredoomed
from of old and sent by the lords of hell to wreck that fair
Land of the Tower and make it unhappy and desolate.
And the tale grew and gathered form, till now, when the bloom
of my beauty was gone, I heard hard and fierce words cried after
me in the streets when I fared abroad, and that still chiefly
by the women: for yet most men looked on me with pleasure.
Also my counsellors and lords warned me often that I must be
wary and of great forbearance if trouble were to be kept back.
"Now amidst these things as I was walking pensively in my garden
one summer day, it was told me that a woman desired to see me,
so I bade them bring her. And when she came I looked on her,
and deemed that I had seen her aforetime: she was not old,
but of middle age, of dark red hair, and brown eyes somewhat small:
not a big woman, but well fashioned of body, and looking as if she
had once been exceeding dainty and trim. She spake, and again I
seemed to have heard her voice before: 'Hail, Queen,' she said,
'it does my heart good to see thee thus in thy glorious estate.'
So I took her greeting; but those tales of my being but a sending
of the Devil for the ruin of that land came into my mind, and I
sent away the folk who were thereby before I said more to her.
Then she spake again: 'Even so I guessed it would be that thou
wouldst grow great amongst women.'
"But I said, 'What is this? and when have I known thee before-time?'
She smiled and said naught; and my mind went back to those old days,
and I trembled, and the flesh crept upon my bones, lest this should
be the coming back in a new shape of my mistress whom I had slain.
But the woman laughed, and said, as if she knew my thoughts:
'Nay, it is not so: the dead are dead; fear not: but hast thou
forgotten the Dale of Lore?'
"'Nay,' said I, 'never; and art thou then the carline that learned me lore?
But if the dead come not back, how do the old grow young again? for 'tis
a score of years since we two sat in the Dale, and I longed for many things.'
"Said the woman: 'The dead may not drink of the Well at the World's End;
yet the living may, even if they be old; and that blessed water
giveth them new might and changeth their blood, and they are
as young folk for a long while again after they have drunken.'
'And hast thou drunken?' said I.
"'Yea,' she said; 'but I am minded for another draught.' I said:
'And wherefore hast thou come to me, and what shall I give to thee?'
She said, 'I will take no gift of thee as now, for I need it not,
though hereafter I may ask a gift of thee. But I am to ask this
of thee, if thou wilt be my fellow-farer on the road thither?'
'Yea?' said I, 'and leave my love and my lord, and my kingship which
he hath given me? for this I will tell thee, that all that here is done,
is done by me.'
"'Great is thy Kingship, Lady,' said the woman, and smiled withal.
Then she sat silent a little, and said: 'When six months are worn,
it will be springtide; I will come to thee in the spring days,
and know what thy mind is then. But now I must depart.'
Quoth I: 'Glad shall I be to talk with thee again;
for though thou hast learned me much of wisdom, yet much more
I need; yea, as much as the folk here deem I have already.'
'Thou shalt have no less,' said the woman. Then she kissed my
hands and went her ways, and I sat musing still for a long while:
because for all my gains, and my love that I had been loved withal,
and the greatness that I had gotten, there was as it were a veil
of unhappiness wrapped round about my heart.
"So wore the months, and ere the winter had come befell an evil thing,
for my lord, who had loved me so, and taken me out of the wilderness,
died, and was gathered to the fathers, and there was I left alone;
for there was no fruit of my womb by him alive. My first-born had
been slain by those wretches, and a second son that I bore had died
of a pestilence that war and famine had brought upon the land.
I will not wear thy soul with words about my grief and sorrow:
but it is to be told that I sat now in a perilous place, and yet I
might not step down from it and abide in that land, for then it was a
sure thing, that some of my foes would have laid hand on me and brought
me to judgment for being but myself, and I should have ended miserably.
So I gat to me all the strength that I might, and whereas there were many
who loved me still, some for my own sake, and some for the sake of my
lord that was, I endured in good hope that all my days were not done.
Yet I longed for the coming of the Teacher of Lore; for now I made up
my mind that I would go with her, and seek to the Well at the World's
End for weal and woe.
"She came while April was yet young: and I need make no long tale
of how we gat us away: for whereas she was wise in hidden lore,
it was no hard matter for her to give me another semblance
than mine own, so that I might have walked about the streets
of our city from end to end, and none had known me.
So I vanished away from my throne and my kingdom, and that
name and fame of a witch-wife clove to me once and for all,
and spread wide about the cities of folk and the kingdoms,
and many are the tales that have arisen concerning me,
and belike some of these thou hast heard told."
Ralph reddened and said: "My soul has been vexed by some inkling of them;
but now it is at rest from them for ever."
"May it be so!" she said: "and now my tale is wearing thin
for the present time.
"Back again went my feet over the ways they had trodden before,
though the Teacher shortened the road much for us by her wisdom.
Once again what need to tell thee of these ways when thine
own eyes shall behold them as thou wendest them beside me?
Be it enough to say that once again I came to that little house
in the uttermost wilderness, and there once more was the garth
and the goat-house, and the trees of the forest beyond it,
and the wood-lawns and the streams and all the places and things
that erst I deemed I must dwell amongst for ever."
Said Ralph: "And did the carline keep troth with thee?
Was she not but luring thee thither to be her thrall?
Or did the book that I read in the Castle of Abundance but
lie concerning thee?"
"She held her troth to me in all wise," said the Lady, "and I was no
thrall of hers, but as a sister, or it may be even as a daughter;
for ever to my eyes was she the old carline who learned me lore
in the Dale of the wildwood.
"But now a long while, years long, we abode in that House of the
Sorceress ere we durst seek further to the Well at the World's End.
And yet meseems though the years wore, they wore me no older;
nay, in the first days at least I waxed stronger of body and fairer than I
had been in the King's Palace in the Land of the Tower, as though some
foretaste of the Well was there for us in the loneliness of the desert;
although forsooth the abiding there amidst the scantiness of livelihood,
and the nakedness, and the toil, and the torment of wind and weather
were as a penance for the days and deeds of our past lives.
What more is to say concerning our lives here, saving this,
that in those days I learned yet more wisdom of the Teacher of Lore,
and amidst that wisdom was much of that which ye call sorcery:
as the foreseeing of things to come, and the sending of dreams or visions,
and certain other matters. And I may tell thee that the holy man who
came to us last even, I sent him the dream which came to him drowsing,
and bade him come to the helping of Walter the Black: for I knew that I
should take thy hand and flee with thee this morning e'en as I have done:
and I would fain have a good leech to Walter lest he should die,
although I owe him hatred rather than love. Now, my friend, tell me,
is this an evil deed, and dost thou shrink from the Sorceress?"
He strained her to his bosom and kissed her mouth,
and then he said: "Yet thou hast never sent a dream to me."
She laughed and said: "What! hast thou never dreamed
of me since we met at the want-way of the Wood Perilous?"
"Never," said he. She stroked his cheek fondly, and said:
"Young art thou, sweet friend, and sleepest well a-nights. It
was enough that thou thoughtest of me in thy waking hours."
Then she went on with her tale.
The Lady Maketh an End of Her Tale
"Well, my friend, after we had lived thus a long time,
we set out one day to seek to the Well at the World's End,
each of us signed and marked out for the quest by bearing
such-like beads as thou and I both bear upon our necks today.
Once again of all that befell us on that quest I will tell thee
naught as now: because to that Well have I to bring thee:
though myself, belike, I need not its waters again."
Quoth Ralph: "And must thou lead me thy very self, mayest thou
not abide in some safe place my going and returning?
So many and sore as the toils and perils of the way may be."
"What!" she said, "and how shall I be sundered from thee now I
have found thee? Yea, and who shall lead thee, thou lovely boy?
Shall it be a man to bewray thee, or a woman to bewray me?
Yet need we not go tomorrow, my beloved, nor for many days:
so sweet as we are to each other.
"But in those past days it was needs must we begin our
quest before the burden of years was over heavy upon us.
Shortly to say it, we found the Well, and drank of its waters
after abundant toil and peril, as thou mayst well deem.
Then the life and the soul came back to us, and the past
years were as naught to us, and my youth was renewed in me,
and I became as thou seest me to-day. But my fellow was as a
woman of forty summers again, strong and fair as I had seen
her when she came into the garden in the days of my Queenhood,
and thus we returned to the House of the Sorceress, and rested
there for a little from our travel and our joy.
"At last, and that was but some five years ago, the Teacher said to me:
'Sister, I have learned thee all that thine heart can take of me,
and thou art strong in wisdom, and moreover again shall it be with thee,
as I told of thee long ago, that no man shall look on thee that shall
not love thee. Now I will not seek to see thy life that is coming,
nor what thine end shall be, for that should belike be grievous
to both of us; but this I see of thee, that thou wilt now guide thy
life not as I will, but as thou wilt; and since my way is not thy way,
and that I see thou shalt not long abide alone, now shall we sunder;
for I am minded to go to the most ancient parts of the world,
and seek all the innermost of wisdom whiles I yet live; but with kings
and champions and the cities of folk will I have no more to do:
while thou shalt not be able to refrain from these. So now I
bid thee farewell.'
"I wept at her words, but gainsaid them naught, for I wotted
that she spake but the truth; so I kissed her, and we parted;
she went her ways through the wildwood, and I abode at the House
of the Sorceress, and waited on the wearing of the days.
"But scarce a month after her departure, as I stood by the threshold one
morning amidst of the goats, I saw men come riding from out the wood; so I
abode them, and they came to the gate of the garth and there lighted down from
their horses, and they were three in company; and no one of them was young,
and one was old, with white locks flowing down from under his helm:
for they were all armed in knightly fashion, but they had naught but white
gaberdines over their hauberks, with no coat-armour or token upon them.
So they came through the garth-gate and I greeted them and asked them what
they would; then the old man knelt down on the grass before me and said:
'If I were as young as I am old my heart would fail me in beholding
thy beauty: but now I will ask thee somewhat: far away beyond
the forest we heard rumours of a woman dwelling in the uttermost desert,
who had drunk of the Well at the World's End, and was wise beyond measure.
Now we have set ourselves to seek that woman, and if thou be she,
we would ask a question of thy wisdom.'
"I answered that I was even such as they had heard of,
and bade them ask.
"Said the old man:
"'Fifty years ago, when I was yet but a young man, there was
a fair woman who was Queen of the Land of the Tower and whom
we loved sorely because we had dwelt together with her amidst
tribulation in the desert and the wildwood: and we are not
of her people, but a fellowship of free men and champions
hight the Men of the Dry Tree: and we hoped that she would
one day come back and dwell with us and be our Lady and Queen:
and indeed trouble seemed drawing anigh her, so that we might
help her and she might become our fellow again, when lo! she
vanished away from the folk and none knew where she was gone.
Therefore a band of us of the Dry Tree swore an oath together
to seek her till we found her, that we might live and die together:
but of that band of one score and one, am I the last one left
that seeketh; for the rest are dead, or sick, or departed:
and indeed I was the youngest of them. But for these two men,
they are my sons whom I have bred in the knowledge of these things
and in the hope of finding tidings of our Lady and Queen,
if it were but the place where her body lieth. Thou art wise:
knowest thou the resting place of her bones?"
"When I had heard the tale of the old man I was moved to my
inmost heart, and I scarce knew what to say. But now this long
while fear was dead in me, so I thought I would tell the very sooth:
but I said first: 'Sir, what I will tell, I will tell without
beseeching, so I pray thee stand up.' So did he, and I said:
'Geoffrey, what became of the white hind after the banners
had left the wildwood"? He stared wild at me, and I deemed
that tears began to come into his eyes; but I said again:
'What betid to dame Joyce's youngest born, the fair little
maiden that we left sick of a fever when we rode to Up-castle?'
Still he said naught but looked at me wondering: and said:
'Hast thou ever again seen that great old oak nigh the clearing
by the water, the half of which fell away in the summer-storm
of that last July?'
"Then verily the tears gushed out of his eyes, and he wept, for as old
as he was; and when he could master himself he said: 'Who art thou?
Who art thou? Art thou the daughter of my Lady, even as these are my sons?'
But I said: 'Now will I answer thy first question, and tell thee that
the Lady thou seekest is verily alive; and she has thriven, for she has drunk
of the Well at the World's End, and has put from her the burden of the years.
O Geoffrey, and dost thou not know me?' And I held out my hand to him,
and I also was weeping, because of my thought of the years gone by;
for this old man had been that swain who had nigh died for me when I fled
with my husband from the old king; and he became one of the Dry Tree,
and had followed me with kind service about the woods in the days when I
was at my happiest.
"But now he fell on his knees before me not like a vassal but like
a lover, and kissed my feet, and was beside himself for joy.
And his sons, who were men of some forty summers, tall and warrior-like,
kissed my hands and made obeisance before me.
"Now when we had come to ourselves again, old Geoffrey,
who was now naught but glad, spake and said: 'It is told amongst
us that when our host departed from the Land of the Tower,
after thou hadst taken thy due seat upon the throne, that thou
didst promise our chieftains how thou wouldst one day come
back to the fellowship of the Dry Tree and dwell amongst us.
Wilt thou now hold to thy promise?' I said: 'O Geoffrey,
if thou art the last of those seekers, and thou wert but a boy
when I dwelt with you of old, who of the Dry Tree is left
to remember me?' He hung his head awhile then, and spake:
'Old are we grown, yet art thou fittest to be amongst young folk:
unless mine eyes are beguiled by some semblance which will
pass away presently.' 'Nay,' quoth I, 'it is not so;
as I am now, so shall I be for many and many a day.'
'Well,' said Geoffrey, 'wherever thou mayst be, thou shalt
be Queen of men.'
"'I list not to be Queen again,' said I. He laughed and said:
'I wot not how thou mayst help it.'
"I said: 'Tell me of the Dry Tree, how the champions
have sped, and have they grown greater or less.' Said he:
'They are warriors and champions from father to son;
therefore have they thriven not over well; yet they have left
the thick of the wood, and built them a great castle above the little
town hight Hampton; so that is now called Hampton under Scaur,
for upon the height of the said Scaur is our castle builded:
and there we hold us against the Burg of the Four Friths
which hath thriven greatly; there is none so great as the Burg
in all the lands about.'
"I said: 'And the Land of the Tower, thriveth the folk thereof at all?'
'Nay,' he said, 'they have been rent to pieces by folly and war
and greediness: in the Great City are but few people, grass grows
in its streets; the merchants wend not the ways that lead thither.
Naught thriveth there since thou stolest thyself away from them.'
"'Nay,' I said, 'I fled from their malice, lest I should have been brought
out to be burned once more; and there would have been none to rescue then.'
'Was it so?' said old Geoffrey; 'well it is all one now; their day is done.'
"'Well,' I said, 'come into my house, and eat and drink therein and sleep
here to-night, and to-morrow I shall tell thee what I will do.'
"Even so they did; and on the morrow early I spake to Geoffrey and said:
'What hath befallen the Land of Abundance, and the castle my lord built
for me there; which we held as our refuge all through the War of the Tower,
both before we joined us to you in the wildwood, and afterwards?' He said:
'It is at peace still; no one hath laid hand on it; there is a simple folk
dwelling there in the clearing of the wood, which forgetteth thee not;
though forsooth strange tales are told of thee there; and the old men
deem that it is but a little since thou hast ceased to come and go there;
and they are ready to worship thee as somewhat more than the Blessed Saints,
were it not for the Fathers of the Thorn who are their masters.'
"I pondered this a while, and then said: 'Geoffrey, ye shall bring me
hence away to the peopled parts, and on the way, or when we are come
amongst the cities and the kingdoms, we will settle it whither I shall go.
See thou! I were fain to be of the brotherhood of the Dry Tree;
yet I deem it will scarce be that I shall go and dwell there straightway.'
"Therewith the old man seemed content; and indeed now that the first joy
of our meeting, when his youth sprang up in him once more, was over,
he found it hard to talk freely with me, and was downcast and shy before me,
as if something had come betwixt us, which had made our lives cold
to each other.
"So that day we left the House of the Sorceress, which I shall
not see again, till I come there hand in hand with thee, beloved.
When we came to the peopled parts, Geoffrey and his sons brought me
to the Land of Abundance, and I found it all as he had said to me:
and I took up my dwelling in the castle, and despised not those few folk
of the land, but was kind to them: but though they praised my gifts,
and honoured me as the saints are honoured, and though they loved me,
yet it was with fear, so that I had little part with them.
There I dwelt then; and the book which thou didst read there,
part true and part false, and altogether of malice against me,
I bought of a monk who came our way, and who at first was sore afeared
when he found that he had come to my castle. As to the halling
of the Chamber of Dais, I have told thee before how my lord,
the King's Son, did do make it in memory of the wilderness wherein
he found me, and the life of thralldom from which he brought me.
There I dwelt till nigh upon these days in peace and quiet:
not did I go to the Dry Tree for a long while, though many of them
sought to me there at the Castle of Abundance; and, woe worth the while!
there was oftenest but one end to their guesting, that of all gifts,
they besought me but of one, which, alack! I might not give them:
and that is the love that I have given to thee, beloved.--And, oh! my fear,
that it will weigh too light with thee, to win me pardon of thee for all
that thou must needs pardon me, ere thou canst give me all thy love,
that I long for so sorely."
They Go On Their Way Once More
"Look now," she said, "I have held thee so long in talk, that the
afternoon is waning; now is it time for us to be on the way again;
not because I misdoubt me of thy foeman, but because I would take thee
to a fairer dwelling of the desert, and one where I have erst abided;
and moreover, there thou shalt not altogether die of hunger.
See, is it not as if I had thought to meet thee here?"
"Yea, in good sooth," said he, "I wot that thou canst see the story
of things before they fall."
She laughed and said: "But all this that hath befallen since I
set out to meet thee at the Castle of Abundance I foresaw not,
any more than I can foresee to-morrow. Only I knew that we
must needs pass by the place whereto I shall now lead thee,
and I made provision there. Lo! now the marvel slain:
and in such wise shall perish other marvels which have been
told of me; yet not all. Come now, let us to the way."
So they joined hands and left the pleasant place, and were
again going speedily amidst the close pine woods awhile,
where it was smooth underfoot and silent of noises withal.
Now Ralph said: "Beloved, thou hast told me of many things,
but naught concerning how thou camest to be wedded to the Knight
of the Sun, and of thy dealings with him."
Said she, reddening withal: "I will tell thee no more than this,
unless thou compel me: that he would have me wed him, as it
were against my will, till I ceased striving against him, and I
went with him to Sunway, which is no great way from the Castle
of Abundance, and there befell that treason of Walter the Black,
who loved me and prayed for my love, and when I gainsaid him,
swore by all that was holy, before my lord, that it was I who sought
his love, and how I had told and taught him ways of witchcraft,
whereby we might fulfill our love, so that the Baron should keep
a wife for another man. And the Knight of the Sun, whose heart
had been filled with many tales of my wisdom, true and false,
believed his friend whom he loved, and still believeth him,
though he burneth for the love of me now; whereas in those first
days of the treason, he burned with love turned to hatred.
So of this came that shaming and casting-forth of me.
Whereof I will tell thee but this, that the brother of my lord,
even the tall champion whom thou hast seen, came upon me presently,
when I was cast forth; because he was coming to see the Knight
of the Sun at his home; and he loved me, but not after
the fashion of his brother, but was kind and mild with me.
So then I went with him to Hampton and the Dry Tree, and great
joy made the folk thereof of my coming, whereas they remembered
their asking of aforetime that I would come to be a Queen
over them, and there have I dwelt ever since betwixt Hampton
and the Castle of Abundance; and that tall champion has been
ever as a brother unto me."
Said Ralph, "And thou art their Queen there?" "Yea," she said, "in a fashion;
yet have they another who is mightier than I, and might, if she durst,
hang me over the battlements of the Scaur, for she is a fierce and hard woman,
and now no longer young in years."
"Is it not so then," said Ralph, "that some of the ill deeds
that are told of thee are of her doing?"
"It is even so," she said, "and whiles when she has spoken the word
I may not be against her openly, therefore I use my wisdom which I
have learned, to set free luckless wights from her anger and malice.
More by token the last time I did thus was the very night of the day
we parted, after thou hadst escaped from the Burg."
"In what wise was that?" said Ralph. She said: "When I rode
away from thee on that happy day of my deliverance by thee,
my heart laughed for joy of the life thou hadst given me,
and of thee the giver, and I swore to myself that I would
set free the first captive or death-doomed creature that I
came across, in honour of my pleasure and delight:
now speedily I came to Hampton and the Scaur;
for it is not very far from the want-ways of the wood:
and there I heard how four of our folk had been led away by
the men of the Burg, therefore it was clear to me that I must
set these men free if I could; besides, it pleased me to think
that I could walk about the streets of the foemen safely,
who had been but just led thitherward to the slaughter.
Thou knowest how I sped therein. But when I came back again
to our people, after thou hadst ridden away from us with Roger,
I heard these tidings, that there was one new-come into
our prison, a woman to wit, who had been haled before our old
Queen for a spy and doomed by her, and should be taken forth
and slain, belike, in a day or two. So I said to myself that I
was not free of my vow as yet, because those friends of mine,
I should in any case have done my best to deliver them:
therefore I deemed my oath bound me to set that woman free.
So in the night-tide when all was quiet I went to the prison
and brought her forth, and led her past all the gates and wards,
which was an easy thing to me, so much as I had learned,
and came with her into the fields betwixt the thorp of
Hampton and the wood, when it was more daylight than dawn,
so that I could see her clearly, and no word as yet
had we spoken to each other. But then she said to me:
'Am I to be slain here or led to a crueller prison?' And I said:
'Neither one thing nor the other: for lo! I have set thee free,
and I shall look to it that there shall be no pursuit of thee
till thou hast had time to get clear away.' But she said:
'What thanks wilt thou have for this? Wherefore hast thou done it?'
And I said, 'It is because of the gladness I have gotten.'
Said she, 'And would that I might get gladness!'
So I asked her what was amiss now that she was free. She said:
'I have lost one thing that I loved, and found another and lost
it also.' So I said: 'Mightest thou not seek for the lost?'
She said, 'It is in this wood, but when I shall find it I
shall not have it.' 'It is love that thou art seeking,'
said I. 'In what semblance is he?'
"What wilt thou, my friend? Straightway she fell to making
a picture of thee in words; so that I knew that she had met thee,
and belike after I had departed from thee, and my heart
was sore thereat; for now I will tell thee the very truth,
that she was a young woman and exceeding fair, as if she were
of pearl all over, and as sweet as eglantine; and I feared
her lest she should meet thee again in these wildwoods.
And so I asked her what would she, and she said that she had a mind
to seek to the Well at the World's End, which quencheth all sorrow;
and I rejoiced thereat, thinking that she would be far away from thee,
not thinking that thou and I must even meet to seek to it also.
So I gave her the chaplet which my witch-mistress took from
the dead woman's neck; and went with her into the wildwood,
and taught her wisdom of the way and what she was to do.
And again I say to thee that she was so sweet and yet with a kind
of pity in her both of soul and body, and wise withal and quiet,
that I feared her, though I loved her; yea and still do:
for I deem her better than me, and meeter for thee and thy love
than I be.--Dost thou know her?"
"Yea," said Ralph, "and fair and lovely she is in sooth.
Yet hast thou naught to do to fear her. And true it is that I
saw her and spake with her after thou hadst ridden away.
For she came by the want-ways of the Wood Perilous in the dawn
of the day after I had delivered thee; and in sooth she told
me that she looked either for Death, or the Water of the Well
to end her sorrow."
Then he smiled and said; "As for that which thou sayest,
that she had been meeter for me than thou, I know not this word.
For look you, beloved, she came, and passed, and is gone,
but thou art there and shalt endure."
She stayed, and turned and faced him at that word;
and love so consumed her, that all sportive words failed her;
yea and it was as if mirth and light-heartedness were swallowed up
in the fire of her love; and all thought of other folk departed
from him as he felt her tears of love and joy upon his face,
and she kissed and embraced him there in the wilderness.
Of the Desert-House and the Chamber of Love in the Wilderness
Then in a while they grew sober and went on their ways,
and the sun was westering behind them, and casting long shadows.
And in a little while they were come out of the thick woods and were
in a country of steep little valleys, grassy, besprinkled with
trees and bushes, with hills of sandstone going up from them,
which were often broken into cliffs rising sheer from the
tree-beset bottoms: and they saw plenteous deer both great
and small, and the wild things seemed to fear them but little.
To Ralph it seemed an exceeding fair land, and he was as joyous
as it was fair; but the Lady was pensive, and at last she said:
"Thou deemest it fair, and so it is; yet is it the lonesomest
of deserts. I deem indeed that it was once one of the fairest
of lands, with castles and cots and homesteads all about,
and fair people no few, busy with many matters amongst them.
But now it is all passed away, and there is no token of a dwelling
of man, save it might be that those mounds we see, as yonder,
and yonder again, are tofts of house-walls long ago sunken
into the earth of the valley. And now few even are the hunters
or way-farers that wend through it."
Quoth Ralph: "Thou speakest as if there had been once histories
and tales of this pleasant wilderness: tell me, has it anything
to do with that land about the wide river which we went through,
Roger and I, as we rode to the Castle of Abundance the other day?
For he spoke of tales of deeds and mishaps concerning it."
"Yea," she said, "so it is, and the little stream that runs
yonder beneath those cliffs, is making its way towards that
big river aforesaid, which is called the Swelling Flood.
Now true it is also that there are many tales about of the wars
and miseries that turned this land into a desert, and these may
be true enough, and belike are true. But these said tales have
become blended with the story of those aforesaid wars of the Land
of the Tower; of which indeed this desert is verily a part,
but was desert still in the days when I was Queen of the Land;
so thou mayst well think that they who hold me to be the cause
of all this loneliness (and belike Roger thought it was so)
have scarce got hold of the very sooth of the matter."
"Even so I deemed," said Ralph: "and to-morrow we shall cross the big river,
thou and I. Is there a ferry or a ford there whereas we shall come,
or how shall we win over it?"
She was growing merrier again now, and laughed at this and said:
"O fair boy! the crossing will be to-morrow and not to-day;
let to-morrow cross its own rivers; for surely to-day is
fair enough, and fairer shall it be when thou hast been fed
and art sitting by me in rest and peace till to-morrow morning.
So now hasten yet a little more; and we will keep the said
little stream in sight as well as we may for the bushes."
So they sped on, till Ralph said: "Will thy feet never tire, beloved?"
"O child," she said, "thou hast heard my story, and mayst well
deem that they have wrought many a harder day's work than this
day's. And moreover they shall soon rest; for look! yonder
is our house for this even, and till to-morrow's sun is high:
the house for me and thee and none else with us." And therewith
she pointed to a place where the stream ran in a chain of pools
and stickles, and a sheer cliff rose up some fifty paces beyond it,
but betwixt the stream and the cliff was a smooth table of greensward,
with three fair thorn bushes thereon, and it went down at each end
to the level of the river's lip by a green slope, but amidmost,
the little green plain was some ten feet above the stream, and was
broken by a little undercliff, which went down sheer into the water.
And Ralph saw in the face of the high cliff the mouth of a cave,
however deep it might be.
"Come," said the Lady, "tarry not, for I know that hunger
hath hold of thee, and look, how low the sun is growing!"
Then she caught him by the hand, and fell to running with him
to the edge of the stream, where at the end of the further
slope it ran wide and shallow before it entered into a deep
pool overhung with boughs of alder and thorn. She stepped
daintily over a row of big stones laid in the rippling shallow;
and staying herself in mid-stream on the biggest of them,
and gathering up her gown, looked up stream with a happy face,
and then looked over her shoulder to Ralph and said:
"The year has been good to me these seasons, so that when I
stayed here on my way to the Castle of Abundance, I found
but few stones washed away, and crossed wellnigh dry-shod,
but this stone my feet are standing on now, I brought
down from under the cliff, and set it amid-most, and I said
that when I brought thee hither I would stay thereon and talk
with thee while I stood above the freshness of the water,
as I am doing now."
Ralph looked on her and strove to answer her, but no words would come
to his lips, because of the greatness of his longing; she looked
on him fondly, and then stooped to look at the ripples that bubbled
up about her shoes, and touched them at whiles; then she said:
"See how they long for the water, these feet that have worn the waste
so long, and know how kind it will run over them and lap about them:
but ye must abide a little, waste-wearers, till we have done a thing
or two. Come, love!" And she reached her hand out behind her to Ralph,
not looking back, but when she felt his hand touch it, she stepped
lightly over the other stones, and on to the grass with him, and led
him quietly up the slope that went up to the table of greensward
before the cave. But when they came on to the level grass she
kissed him, and then turned toward the valley and spake solemnly:
"May all blessings light on this House of the wilderness and this
Hall of the Summer-tide, and the Chamber of Love that here is!"
Then was she silent a while, and Ralph brake not the silence.
Then she turned to him with a face grown merry and smiling, and said:
"Lo! how the poor lad yearneth for meat, as well he may, so long
as the day hath been. Ah, beloved, thou must be patient a little.
For belike our servants have not yet heard of the wedding of us.
So we twain must feed each the other. Is that so much amiss?"
He laughed in her face for love, and took her by the wrist,
but she drew her hand away and went into the cave, and came forth
anon holding a copper kettle with an iron bow, and a bag of meal,
which she laid at his feet; then she went into the cave again,
and brought forth a flask of wine and a beaker; then she caught up
the little cauldron, which was well-beaten, and thin and light,
and ran down to the stream therewith, and came up thence presently,
bearing it full of water on her head, going as straight and
stately as the spear is seen on a day of tourney, moving over
the barriers that hide the knight, before he lays it in the rest.
She came up to him and set the water-kettle before him, and put
her hands on his shoulders, and kissed his cheek, and then
stepped back from him and smote her palms together, and said:
"Yea, it is well! But there are yet more things to do before we rest.
There is the dighting of the chamber, and the gathering of wood
for the fire, and the mixing of the meal, and the kneading
and the baking of cakes; and all that is my work, and there is
the bringing of the quarry for the roast, and that is thine."
Then she ran into the cave and brought forth a bow and a quiver
of arrows, and said: "Art thou somewhat of an archer?"
Quoth he: "I shoot not ill." "And I," she said, "shoot well,
all woodcraft comes handy to me. But this eve I must trust
to thy skill for my supper. Go swiftly and come back speedily.
Do off thine hauberk, and beat the bushes down in the valley,
and bring me some small deer, as roe or hare or coney.
And wash thee in the pool below the stepping-stones, as I
shall do whiles thou art away, and by then thou comest back,
all shall be ready, save the roasting of the venison."
So he did off his wargear, but thereafter tarried a little, looking at her,
and she said: "What aileth thee not to go? the hunt's up." He said:
"I would first go see the rock-hall that is for our chamber to-night;
wilt thou not bring me in thither?" "Nay," she said, "for I must be busy
about many matters; but thou mayst go by thyself, if thou wilt."
So he went and stooped down and entered the cave, and found it
high and wide within, and clean and fresh and well-smelling,
and the floor of fine white sand without a stain.
So he knelt down and kissed the floor, and said aloud:
"God bless this floor of the rock-hall whereon my love shall
lie to-night!" Then he arose and went out of the cave,
and found the Lady at the entry stooping down to see what
he would do; and she looked on him fondly and anxiously;
but he turned a merry face to her, and caught her round
the middle and strained her to his bosom, and then took
the bow and arrows and ran down the slope and over the stream,
into the thicket of the valley.
He went further than he had looked for, ere he found a prey
to his mind, and then he smote a roe with a shaft and slew her,
and broke up the carcase and dight it duly, and so went his ways back.
When he came to the stream he looked up and saw a little fire
glittering not far from the cave, but had no clear sight of the Lady,
though he thought he saw her gown fluttering nigh one of the thorn-bushes.
Then he did off his raiment and entered that pool of the stream,
and was glad to bathe him in the same place where her body had been
but of late; for he had noted that the stones of the little shore
were still wet with her feet where she had gone up from the water.
But now, as he swam and sported in the sun-warmed pool
he deemed he heard the whinnying of a horse, but was not sure,
so he held himself still to listen, and heard no more.
Then he laughed and bethought him of Falcon his own steed,
and dived down under the water; but as he came up, laughing still
and gasping, he heard a noise of the clatter of horse hoofs,
as if some one were riding swiftly up the further side
of the grassy table, where it was stony, as he had noted
when they passed by.
A deadly fear fell upon his heart as he thought of his love left all alone;
so he gat him at once out of the water and cast his shirt over his head;
but while his arms were yet entangled in the sleeves thereof, came to his
ears a great and awful sound of a man's voice roaring out, though there were
no shapen words in the roar. Then were his arms free through the sleeves,
and he took up the bow and fell to bending it, and even therewith he heard
a great wailing of a woman's voice, and she cried out, piteously: "Help me,
O help, lovely creature of God!"
Yet must he needs finish bending the bow howsoever his heart died
within him; or what help would there be of a naked and unarmed man?
At last it was bent and an arrow nocked on the string, as he leapt
over the river and up the slope.
But even as he came up to that pleasant place he saw all in a moment of time;
that there stood Silverfax anigh the Cave's mouth, and the Lady lying on
the earth anigh the horse; and betwixt her and him the Knight of the Sun
stood up stark, his shining helm on his head, the last rays of the setting
sun flashing in the broidered image of his armouries.
He turned at once upon Ralph, shaking his sword in the air
(and there was blood upon the blade) and he cried out in
terrible voice: "The witch is dead, the whore is dead!
And thou, thief, who hast stolen her from me, and lain by her
in the wilderness, now shalt thou die, thou!"
Scarce had he spoken than Ralph drew his bow to the arrow-head and loosed;
there was but some twenty paces betwixt them, and the shaft, sped by
that fell archer, smote the huge man through the eye into the brain,
and he fell down along clattering, dead without a word more.
But Ralph gave forth a great wail of woe, and ran forward
and knelt by the Lady, who lay all huddled up face down upon
the grass, and he lifted her up and laid her gently on her back.
The blood was flowing fast from a great wound in her breast,
and he tore off a piece of his shirt to staunch it, but she
without knowledge of him breathed forth her last breath
ere he could touch the hurt, and he still knelt by her,
staring on her as if he knew not what was toward.
She had dight her what she could to welcome his return from the hunting,
and had set a wreath of meadow-sweet on her red hair, and a garland
of eglantine about her girdlestead, and left her feet naked after the pool
of the stream, and had turned the bezels of her finger-rings outward,
for joy of that meeting.
After a while he rose up with a most bitter cry, and ran down
the green slope and over the water, and hither and thither amongst
the bushes like one mad, till he became so weary that he might
scarce go or stand for weariness. Then he crept back again
to that Chamber of Love, and sat down beside his new-won mate,
calling to mind all the wasted words of the day gone by;
for the summer night was come now, most fair and fragrant.
But he withheld the sobbing passion of his heart and put
forth his hand, and touched her, and she was still,
and his hand felt her flesh that it was cold as marble.
And he cried out aloud in the night and the wilderness,
where there was none to hear him, and arose and went away
from her, passing by Silverfax who was standing nearby,
stretching out his head, and whinnying at whiles.
And he sat on the edge of the green table, and there came
into his mind despite himself thoughts of the pleasant fields
of Upmeads, and his sports and pleasures there, and the even-song
of the High House, and the folk of his fellowship and his love.
And therewith his breast arose and his face was wryed, and he wept
loud and long, and as if he should never make an end of it.
But so weary was he, that at last he lay back and fell asleep,
and woke not till the sun was high in the heavens.
And so it was, that his slumber had been so heavy, that he knew
not at first what had befallen; and one moment he felt glad,
and the next as if he should never be glad again, though why
he wotted not. Then he turned about and saw Silverfax cropping
the grass nearby, and the Lady lying there like an image
that could move no whit, though the world awoke about her.
Then he remembered, yet scarce all, so that wild hopes swelled
his heart, and he rose to his knees and turned to her,
and called to mind that he should never see her alive again,
and sobbing and wailing broke out from him, for he was young
and strong, and sorrow dealt hardly with him.
But presently he arose to his feet and went hither and thither,
and came upon the quenched coals of the cooking-fire: she
had baked cakes for his eating, and he saw them lying thereby,
and hunger constrained him, so he took and ate of them while
the tears ran down his face and mingled with the bread he ate.
And when he had eaten, he felt stronger and therefore was life
more grievous to him, and when he thought what he should do,
still one thing seemed more irksome than the other.
He went down to the water to drink, and passed by the body
of the Knight of the Sun, and wrath was fierce in his
heart against him who had overthrown his happiness.
But when he had drunk and washed hands and face he came
back again, and hardened his heart to do what he must needs do.
He took up the body of the Lady and with grief that may not
be told of, he drew it into the cave, and cut boughs of trees
and laid them over her face and all her body, and then took
great stones from the scree at that other end of the little plain,
and heaped them upon her till she was utterly hidden by them.
Then he came out on to the green place and looked on the body
of his foe, and said to himself that all must be decent
and in order about the place whereas lay his love.
And he came and stood over the body and said:
"I have naught to do to hate him now: if he hated me,
it was but for a little while, and he knew naught of me.
So let his bones be covered up from the wolf and the kite.
Yet shall they not lie alongside of her. I will raise a cairn above
him here on this fair little plain which he spoilt of all joy."
Therewith he fell to, and straightened his body, and laid
his huge limbs together and closed his eyes and folded his
arms over his breast; and then he piled the stones above him,
and went on casting them on the heap a long while after there
was need thereof.
Ralph had taken his raiment from the stream-side and done them on before this,
and now he did on helm and hauberk, and girt his sword to his side.
Then as he was about leaving the sorrowful place, he looked on Silverfax,
who had not strayed from the little plain, and came up to him and did
off saddle and bridle, and laid them within the cave, and bade the beast
go whither he would. He yet lingered about the place, and looked all
around him and found naught to help him, and could frame in his mind no
intent of a deed then, nor any tale of a deed he should do thereafter.
Yet belike in his mind were two thoughts, and though neither softened his
grief save a little, he did not shrink from them as he did from all others;
and these two were of his home at Upmeads, which was so familiar to him,
and of the Well at the World's End, which was but a word.
Ralph Cometh Out of the Wilderness
Long he stood letting these thoughts run through his mind, but at last when it
was now midmorning, he stirred and gat him slowly down the green slope,
and for very pity of himself the tears brake out from him as he crossed
the stream and came into the bushy valley. There he stayed his feet
a little, and said to himself: "And whither then am I going?"
He thought of the Castle of Abundance and the Champions of the Dry Tree,
of Higham, and the noble warriors who sat at the Lord Abbot's board,
and of Upmeads and his own folk: but all seemed naught to him,
and he thought: "And how can I go back and bear folk asking me curiously
of my wayfarings, and whether I will do this, that, or the other thing."
Withal he thought of that fair damsel and her sweet mouth in the hostelry
at Bourton Abbas, and groaned when he thought of love and its ending,
and he said within himself: "and now she is a wanderer about the earth
as I am;" and he thought of her quest, and the chaplet of dame Katherine,
his gossip, which he yet bore on his neck, and he deemed that he had
naught to choose but to go forward and seek that he was doomed to;
and now it seemed to him that there was that one thing to do and no other.
And though this also seemed to him but weariness and grief, yet whereas
he had ever lightly turned him to doing what work lay ready to hand;
so now he knew that he must first of all get him out of that wilderness,
that he might hear the talk of folk concerning the Well at the World's End,
which he doubted not to hear again when he came into the parts inhabited.
So now, with his will or without it, his feet bore him on,
and he followed up the stream which the Lady had said ran into
the broad river called the Swelling Flood; "for," thought he,
"when I come thereabout I shall presently find some castle or
good town, and it is like that either I shall have some tidings
of the folk thereof, or else they will compel me to do something,
and that will irk me less than doing deeds of mine own will."
He went his ways till he came to where the wood and the trees ended,
and the hills were lower and longer, well grassed with short grass,
a down country fit for the feeding of sheep; and indeed some sheep he saw,
and a shepherd or two, but far off. At last, after he had left the
stream awhile, because it seemed to him to turn and wind round over much
to the northward, he came upon a road running athwart the down country,
so that he deemed that it must lead one way down to the Swelling Flood;
so he followed it up, and after a while began to fall in with folk;
and first two Companions armed and bearing long swords over their shoulders:
he stopped as they met, and stared at them in the face, but answered
not their greeting; and they had no will to meddle with him,
seeing his inches and that he was well armed, and looked no craven:
so they went on.
Next he came on two women who had with them an ass between two panniers,
laden with country stuff; and they were sitting by the wayside, one old
and the other young. He made no stay for them, and though he turned
his face their way, took no heed of them more than if they were trees;
though the damsel, who was well-liking and somewhat gaily clad,
stood up when she saw his face anigh, and drew her gown skirt about
her and moved daintily, and sighed and looked after him as he went on,
for she longed for him.
Yet again came two men a-horseback, merchants clad goodly,
with three carles, their servants, riding behind them; and all
these had weapons and gave little more heed to him than he to them.
But a little after they were gone, he stopped and said within himself:
"Maybe I had better have gone their way, and this road doubtless
leadeth to some place of resort."
But even therewith he heard horsehoofs behind him, and anon came up a man
a-horseback, armed with jack and sallet, a long spear in his hand, and budgets
at his saddle-bow, who looked like some lord's man going a message.
He nodded to Ralph, who gave him good-day; for seeing these folk and
their ways had by now somewhat amended his mind; and now he turned not,
but went on as before.
At last the way clomb a hill longer and higher than any he had
yet crossed, and when he had come to the brow and looked down,
he saw the big river close below running through the wide
valley which he had crossed with Roger on that other day.
Then he sat down on the green bank above the way, so heavy
of heart that not one of the things he saw gave him any joy,
and the world was naught to him. But within a while he came
somewhat to himself, and, looking down toward the river, he saw
that where the road met it, it was very wide, and shallow withal,
for the waves rippled merrily and glittered in the afternoon sun,
though there was no wind; moreover the road went up white
from the water on the other side, so he saw clearly that this
was the ford of a highway. The valley was peopled withal:
on the other side of the river was a little thorp, and there
were carts and sheds scattered about the hither side,
and sheep and neat feeding in the meadows, and in short it
was another world from the desert.
Ralph Falleth in With Friends and Rideth to Whitwall
Ralph looks on to the ford and sees folk riding through the thorp
aforesaid and down to the river, and they take the water and are
many in company, some two score by his deeming, and he sees the sun
glittering on their weapons.
Now he thought that he would abide their coming and see if he might join
their company, since if he crossed the water he would be on the backward way:
and it was but a little while ere the head of them came up over the hill,
and were presently going past Ralph, who rose up to look on them,
and be seen of them, but they took little heed of him. So he sees
that though they all bore weapons, they were not all men-at-arms, nay,
not more than a half score, but those proper men enough. Of the others,
some half-dozen seemed by their attire to be merchants, and the rest
their lads; and withal they had many sumpter horses and mules with them.
They greeted him not, nor he them, nor did he heed them much till they
were all gone by save three, and then he leapt into the road with a cry,
for who should be riding there but Blaise, his eldest brother,
and Richard the Red with him, both in good case by seeming; for Blaise
was clad in a black coat welted with gold, and rode a good grey palfrey,
and Richard was armed well and knightly.
They knew him at once, and drew rein, and Blaise lighted
down from his horse and cast his arms about Ralph, and said:
"O happy day! when two of the Upmeads kindred meet thus
in an alien land! But what maketh thee here, Ralph?
I thought of thee as merry and safe in Upmeads?"
Ralph said smiling, for his heart leapt up at the sight of his kindred:
"Nay, must I not seek adventures like the rest? So I stole myself
away from father and mother." "Ill done, little lord!" said Blaise,
stroking Ralph's cheek.
Then up came Richard, and if Blaise were glad, Richard was twice glad,
and quoth he: "Said I not, Lord Blaise, that this chick would be the hardest
of all to keep under the coop? Welcome to the Highways, Lord Ralph!
But where is thine horse? and whence and whither is it now?
Hast thou met with some foil and been held to ransom?"
Ralph found it hard and grievous and dull work to answer;
for now again his sorrow had taken hold of him: so he said:
"Yea, Richard, I have had adventures, and have lost rather than won;
but at least I am a free man, and have spent but little gold
on my loss."
"That is well," said Richard, "but whence gat ye any gold for spending?"
Ralph smiled, but sadly, for he called to mind the glad setting
forth and the kind face of dame Katherine his gossip, and he said:
"Clement Chapman deemed it not unmeet to stake somewhat on my luck,
therefore I am no pauper."
"Well," said Blaise, "if thou hast no great errand elsewhere,
thou mightest ride with us, brother. I have had good
hap in these days, though scarce kingly or knightly,
for I have been buying and selling: what matter? few know
Upmeads and its kings to wite me with fouling a fair name.
Richard, go fetch a horse hither for Lord Ralph's riding,
and we will tarry no longer." So Richard trotted on,
and while they abode him, Ralph asked after his brethren,
and Blaise told him that he had seen or heard naught of them.
Then Ralph asked of whither away, and Blaise told him to Whitwall,
where was much recourse of merchants from many lands,
and a noble market.
Back then cometh Richard leading a good horse while Ralph was pondering
his matter, and thinking that at such a town he might well hear tidings
concerning the Well at the World's End.
Now Ralph mounts, and they all ride away together. On the way,
partly for brotherhood's sake, partly that he might not be questioned
overmuch himself, Ralph asked Blaise to tell him more of his farings;
and Blaise said, that when he had left Upmeads he had ridden with Richard
up and down and round about, till he came to a rich town which had
just been taken in war, and that the Companions who had conquered
it were looking for chapmen to cheapen their booty, and that he was
the first or nearly the first to come who had will and money to buy,
and the Companions, who were eager to depart, had sold him thieves'
penny-worths, so that his share of the Upmeads' treasure had gone far;
and thence he had gone to another good town where he had the best
of markets for his newly cheapened wares, and had brought more there,
such as he deemed handy to sell, and so had gone on from town to town,
and had ever thriven, and had got much wealth: and so at last having
heard tell of Whitwall as better for chaffer than all he had yet seen,
he and other chapmen had armed them, and waged men-at-arms to defend them,
and so tried the adventure of the wildwoods, and come safe through.
Then at last came the question to Ralph concerning his adventures,
and he enforced himself to speak, and told all as truly as he might,
without telling of the Lady and her woeful ending.
Thus they gave and took in talk, and Ralph did what he might to seem
like other folk, that he might nurse his grief in his own heart as far
asunder from other men as might be.
So they rode on till it was even, and came to Whitwall before
the shutting of the gates and rode into the street, and found it
a fair and great town, well defensible, with high and new walls,
and men-at-arms good store to garnish them.
Ralph rode with his brother to the hostel of the chapmen,
and there they were well lodged.
Richard Talketh With Ralph Concerning the Well at the World's End.
On the morrow Blaise went to his chaffer and to visit the men of the Port
at the Guildhall: he bade Ralph come with him, but he would not,
but abode in the hall of the hostel and sat pondering sadly while men came
and went; but he heard no word spoken of the Well at the World's End.
In like wise passed the next day and the next, save that Richard was among
those who came into the hall, and he talked long with Ralph at whiles;
that is to say that he spake, and Ralph made semblance of listening.
Now as is aforesaid Richard was old and wise, and he loved
Ralph much, more belike than Lord Blaise his proper master,
whereas he had no mind for chaffer, or aught pertaining to it:
so he took heed of Ralph and saw that he was sad and weary-hearted;
so on the sixth day of their abiding at Whitwall, in the morning
when all the chapmen were gone about their business, and he and
Ralph were left alone in the Hall, he spake to Ralph and said:
"This is no prison, lord." "Even so," quoth Ralph.
"Nay, if thou doubtest it," said Richard, "let us go
to the door and try if they have turned the key and shot
the bolt on us." Ralph smiled faintly and stood up, and said:
"I will go with thee if thou willest it, but sooth to say I
shall be but a dull fellow of thine to-day." Said Richard:
"Wouldst thou have been better yesterday, lord, or the day before?"
"Nay," said Ralph. "Wilt thou be better to-morrow?" said Richard.
Ralph shook his head. Said Richard: "Yea, but thou wilt be,
or thou mayst call me a fool else." "Thou art kind, Richard,"
said Ralph; "and I will come with thee, and do what thou
biddest me; but I must needs tell thee that my heart is sick."
"Yea," quoth Richard, "and thou needest not tell me so much,
dear youngling; he who runs might read that in thee.
But come forth."
So into the street they went, and Richard brought Ralph into
the market-place, and showed him where was Blaise's booth
(for he was thriving greatly) but Ralph would not go anigh it
lest his brother should entangle him in talk; and they went
into the Guildhall which was both great and fair, and the smell
of the new-shaven oak (for the roof was not yet painted) brought back
to Ralph's mind the days of his childhood when he was hanging
about the building of the water-reeve's new house at Upmeads.
Then they went into the Great Church and heard a Mass at the altar
of St. Nicholas, Ralph's very friend; and the said church was
great to the letter, and very goodly, and somewhat new also,
since the blossom-tide of Whitwall was not many years old:
and the altars of its chapels were beyond any thing for fairness
that Ralph had seen save at Higham on the Way.
But when they came forth from the church, Ralph looked on Richard with a face
that was both blank and weary, as who should say: "What is to do now?"
And forsooth so woe-begone he looked, that Richard, despite his sorrow
and trouble for him, could scarce withhold his laughter. But he said:
"Well, foster son (for thou art pretty much that to me), since the good town
pleasureth thee little, go we further afield."
So he led him out of the market-place, and brought him
to the east gate of the town which hight Petergate Bar,
and forth they went and out into the meadows under the walls,
and stayed him at a little bridge over one of the streams,
for it was a land of many waters; there they sat down in a nook,
and spake Richard to Ralph, saying:
"Lord Ralph, ill it were if the Upmeads kindred came to naught,
or even to little. Now as for my own master Blaise, he hath,
so please you, the makings of a noble chapman, but not of a
noble knight; though he sayeth that when he is right rich
he will cast aside all chaffer; naught of which he will do.
As for the others, my lord Gregory is no better, or indeed worse,
save that he shall not be rich ever, having no mastery ver himself;
while lord Hugh is like to be slain in some empty brawl,
unless he come back speedily to Upmeads."
"Yea, yea," said Ralph, "what then? I came not hither
to hear thee missay my mother's sons." But Richard went on:
"As for thee, lord Ralph, of thee I looked for something;
but now I cannot tell; for the heart in thee seemeth to be dead;
and thou must look to it lest the body die also."
"So be it!" said Ralph.
Said Richard: "I am old now, but I have been young, and many
things have I seen and suffered, ere I came to Upmeads.
Old am I, and I cannot feel certain hopes and griefs as a young
man can; yet have I bought the knowledge of them dear enough,
and have not forgotten. Whereby I wot well that my drearihead
is concerning a woman. Is it not so?" "Yea," quoth Ralph.
Said Richard: "Now shalt thou tell me thereof, and so
lighten thine heart a little." "I will not tell thee,"
said Ralph; "or, rather, to speak more truly, I cannot."
"Yea," said Richard, "and though it were now an easier thing
for me to tell thee of the griefs of my life than for thee
to hearken to the tale, yet I believe thee. But mayhappen thou
mayst tell me of one thing that thou desirest more than another."
Said Ralph: "I desire to die." And the tears started in his
eyes therewith. But Richard spake, smiling on him kindly:
"That way is open for thee on any day of the week.
Why hast thou not taken it already?" But Ralph answered naught.
Richard said: "Is it not because thou hopest to desire something;
if not to-day, then to-morrow, or the next day or the next?"
Still Ralph spake no word; but he wept. Quoth Richard: "Maybe I
may help thee to a hope, though thou mayest think my words wild.
In the land and the thorp where I was born and bred there was talk
now and again of a thing to be sought, which should cure sorrow,
and make life blossom in the old, and uphold life in the young."
"Yea," said Ralph, looking up from his tears, "and what was
that? and why hast thou never told me thereof before?"
"Nay," said Richard, "and why should I tell it to the merry
lad I knew in Upmeads? but now thou art a man, and hast seen
the face of sorrow, it is meet that thou shouldest hear of THE
WELL AT THE WORLD'S END."
Ralph sprang to his feet as he said the word, and cried out eagerly:
"Old friend, and where then wert thou bred and born?" Richard laughed
and said: "See, then, there is yet a deed and a day betwixt thee and death!
But turn about and look straight over the meadows in a line with
yonder willow-tree, and tell me what thou seest." Said Ralph:
"The fair plain spreading wide, and a river running through it,
and little hills beyond the water, and blue mountains beyond them,
and snow yet lying on the tops of them, though the year is in young July."
"Yea," quoth Richard; "and seest thou on the first of the little hills
beyond the river, a great grey tower rising up and houses anigh it?"
"Yea," said Ralph, "the tower I see, and the houses, for I am far-sighted;
but the houses are small." "So it is," said Richard; "now yonder tower
is of the Church of Swevenham, which is under the invocation of the Seven
Sleepers of Ephesus; and the houses are the houses of the little town.
And what has that to do with me? sayest thou: why this, that I was born
and bred at Swevenham. And indeed I it was who brought my lord Blaise
here to Whitwall, with tales of how good a place it was for chaffer,
that I might see the little town and the great grey tower once more.
Forsooth I lied not, for thy brother is happy here, whereas he is piling up
the coins one upon the other. Forsooth thou shouldest go into his booth,
fair lord; it is a goodly sight."
But Ralph was walking to and fro hastily, and he turned to Richard and said:
"Well, well! but why dost thou not tell me more of the Well at
the World's End?"
Said Richard: "I was going to tell thee somewhat which might be
worth thy noting; or might not be worth it: hearken! When I
dwelt at Swevenham over yonder, and was but of eighteen winters,
who am now of three score and eight, three folk of our township,
two young men and one young woman, set out thence to seek the said Well:
and much lore they had concerning it, which they had learned of an old man,
a nigh kinsman of one of them. This ancient carle I had never seen,
for he dwelt in the mountains a way off, and these men were some five
years older than I, so that I was a boy when they were men grown;
and such things I heeded not, but rather sport and play; and above all,
I longed for the play of war and battle. God wot I have had my bellyful
of it since those days! Howbeit I mind me the setting forth of these three.
They had a sumpter-ass with them for their livelihood on the waste;
but they went afoot crowned with flowers, and the pipe and tabour
playing before them, and much people brought them on the way.
By St. Christopher! I can see it all as if it were yesterday.
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