The Well at the World's End
Part 7 out of 11
So fell the talk betwixt them.
A Friend Gives Ralph Warning
On the morrow Ralph wandered about the Dale where he would, and none
meddled with him. And as he walked east along the stream where
the valley began to narrow, he saw a man sitting on the bank fishing
with an angle, and when he drew near, the man turned about, and saw him.
Then he lays down his angling rod and rises to his feet, and stands
facing Ralph, looking sheepish, with his hands hanging down by his sides;
and Ralph, who was thinking of other folk, wondered what he would.
So he said: "Hail, good fellow! What wouldst thou?" Said the man:
"I would thank thee." "What for?" said Ralph, but as he looked on him
he saw that it was Redhead, whose pardon he had won of the Lord yesterday;
so he held out his hand, and took Redhead's, and smiled friendly on him.
Redhead looked him full in the face, and though he was both big and very
rough-looking, he had not altogether the look of a rascal.
He said: "Fair lord, I would that I might do something for thine avail,
and perchance I may: but it is hard to do good deeds in Hell,
especially for one of its devils."
"Yea, is it so bad as that?" said Ralph. "For thee not yet," said Redhead,
"but it may come to it. Hearken, lord, there is none anigh us that I can see,
so I will say a word to thee at once. Later on it may be over late:
Go thou not to Utterbol whatever may betide."
"Yea," said Ralph, "but how if I be taken thither?" Quoth Redhead:
"I can see this, that thou art so favoured that thou mayst go
whither thou wilt about the camp with none to hinder thee.
Therefore it will be easy for thee to depart by night and cloud,
or in the grey of morning, when thou comest to a good pass,
whereof I will tell thee. And still I say, go thou not to Utterbol:
for thou art over good to be made a devil of, like to us,
and therefore thou shalt be tormented till thy life is spoilt,
and by that road shalt thou be sent to heaven."
"But thou saidst even now," said Ralph, "that I was high in the
Lord's grace." "Yea," said Redhead, "that may last till thou hast
command to do some dastard's deed and nay-sayest it, as thou wilt:
and then farewell to thee; for I know what my Lord meaneth for thee."
"Yea," said Ralph, "and what is that?" Said Redhead; "He hath
bought thee to give to his wife for a toy and a minion, and if she
like thee, it will be well for a while: but on the first occasion
that serveth him, and she wearieth of thee (for she is a woman
like a weather-cock), he will lay hand on thee and take the manhood
from thee, and let thee drift about Utterbol a mock for all men.
For already at heart he hateth thee."
Ralph stood pondering this word, for somehow it chimed in with
the thought already in his heart. Yet how should he not go
to Utterbol with the Damsel abiding deliverance of him there:
and yet again, if they met there and were espied on, would not
that ruin everything for her as well as for him?
At last he said: "Good fellow, this may be true, but how shall I know it for
true before I run the risk of fleeing away, instead of going on to Utterbol,
whereas folk deem honour awaiteth me."
Said Redhead: "There is no honour at Utterbol save for such as are
unworthy of honour. But thy risk is as I say, and I shall tell thee
whence I had my tale, since I love thee for thy kindness to me,
and thy manliness. It was told me yester-eve by a woman who is in the
very privity of the Lady of Utterbol, and is well with the Lord also:
and it jumpeth with mine own thought on the matter; so I bid thee beware:
for what is in me to grieve would be sore grieved wert thou cast away."
"Well," said Ralph, "let us sit down here on the bank and then tell me more;
but go on with thine angling the while, lest any should see us."
So they sat down, and Redhead did as Ralph bade; and he said:
"Lord, I have bidden thee to flee; but this is an ill land
to flee from, and indeed there is but one pass whereby ye
may well get away from this company betwixt this and Utterbol;
and we shall encamp hard by it on the second day of our faring hence.
Yet I must tell thee that it is no road for a dastard; for it leadeth
through the forest up into the mountains: yet such as it is,
for a man bold and strong like thee, I bid thee take it:
and I can see to it that leaving this company shall be easy to thee:
only thou must make up thy mind speedily, since the time draws
so nigh, and when thou art come to Utterbol with all this rout,
and the house full, and some one or other dogging each footstep
of thine, fleeing will be another matter. Now thus it is:
on that same second night, not only is the wood at hand to
cover thee, but I shall be chief warder of the side of the camp
where thou lodgest, so that I can put thee on the road:
and if I were better worth, I would say, take me with thee,
but as it is, I will not burden thee with that prayer."
"Yea," said Ralph, "I have had one guide in this country-side
and he bewrayed me. This is a matter of life and death,
so I will speak out and say how am I to know but that thou
also art going about to bewray me?"
Redhead lept up to his feet, and roared out: "What shall I say?
what shall I say? By the soul of my father I am not bewraying thee.
May all the curses of Utterbol be sevenfold heavier on me if I am
thy traitor and dastard."
"Softly lad, softly," said Ralph, "lest some one should hear thee.
Content thee, I must needs believe thee if thou makest so much
noise about it."
Then Redhead sat him down again, and for all that he was so rough
and sturdy a carle he fell a-weeping.
"Nay, nay," said Ralph, "this is worse in all wise than
the other noise. I believe thee as well as a man can who is
dealing with one who is not his close friend, and who therefore
spareth truth to his friend because of many years use and wont.
Come to thyself again and let us look at this matter square in the face,
and speedily too, lest some unfriend or busybody come on us.
There now! Now, in the first place dost thou know why I am come
into this perilous and tyrannous land?"
Said Redhead: "I have heard it said that thou art on the quest
of the Well at the World's End."
"And that is but the sooth," said Ralph. "Well then," quoth Redhead,
"there is the greater cause for thy fleeing at the time and in the manner I
have bidden thee. For there is a certain sage who dwelleth in the wildwood
betwixt that place and the Great Mountains, and he hath so much lore
concerning the Mountains, yea, and the Well itself, that if he will tell
thee what he can tell, thou art in a fair way to end thy quest happily.
What sayest thou then?"
Said Ralph, "I say that the Sage is good if I may find him.
But there is another cause why I have come hither from Goldburg.
"What is that?" said Redhead. "This," said Ralph, "to come to Utterbol."
"Heaven help us!" quoth Redhead, "and wherefore?"
Ralph said: "Belike it is neither prudent nor wise to tell thee,
but I do verily trust thee; so hearken! I go to Utterbol to deliver
a friend from Utterbol; and this friend is a woman--hold a minute--
and this woman, as I believe, hath been of late brought to Utterbol,
having been taken out of the hands of one of the men of the mountains
that lie beyond Cheaping Knowe."
Redhead stared astonished, and kept silence awhile;
then he said: "Now all the more I say, flee! flee! flee!
Doubtless the woman is there, whom thou seekest; for it would
take none less fair and noble than that new-come thrall to draw
to her one so fair and noble as thou art. But what availeth it?
If thou go to Utterbol thou wilt destroy both her and thee.
For know, that we can all see that the Lord hath set his love on
this damsel; and what better can betide, if thou come to Utterbol,
but that the Lord shall at once see that there is love betwixt
you two, and then there will be an end of the story."
"How so?" quoth Ralph. Said Redhead: "At Utterbol all do
the will of the Lord of Utterbol, and he is so lustful and cruel,
and so false withal, that his will shall be to torment the damsel
to death, and to geld and maim thee; so that none hereafter shall
know how goodly and gallant thou hast been."
"Redhead," quoth Ralph much moved, "though thou art in no knightly service,
thou mayst understand that it is good for a friend to die with a friend."
"Yea, forsooth," said Redhead, "If he may do no more to help than that!
Wouldst thou not help the damsel? Now when thou comest back from the quest
of the Well at the World's End, thou wilt be too mighty and glorious
for the Lord of Utterbol to thrust thee aside like to an over eager dog;
and thou mayst help her then. But now I say to thee, and swear to thee,
that three days after thou hast met thy beloved in Utterbol she will be dead.
I would that thou couldst ask someone else nearer to the Lord than I
have been. The tale would be the same as mine."
Now soothly to say it, this was even what Ralph had feared
would be, and he could scarce doubt Redhead's word. So he sat
there pondering the matter a good while, and at last he said:
"My friend, I will trust thee with another thing; I have a mind to flee
to the wildwood, and yet come to Utterbol for the damsel's deliverance."
"Yea," said Redhead, "and how wilt thou work in the matter?"
Said Ralph; "How would it be if I came hither in other guise
than mine own, so that I should not be known either by the damsel
or her tyrants?"
Said Redhead: "There were peril in that; yet hope also.
Yea, and in one way thou mightest do it; to wit, if thou wert to find
that Sage, and tell him thy tale: if he be of good will to thee,
he might then change not thy gear only, but thy skin also;
for he hath exceeding great lore."
"Well," said Ralph, "Thou mayst look upon it as certain that on that aforesaid
night, I will do my best to shake off this company of tyrant and thralls,
unless I hear fresh tidings, so that I must needs change my purpose.
But I will ask thee to give me some token that all holds together
some little time beforehand." Quoth Redhead: "Even so shall it be;
thou shalt see me at latest on the eve of the night of thy departure;
but on the night before that if it be anywise possible."
"Now will I go away from thee," said Ralph, "and I thank thee
heartily for thine help, and deem thee my friend. And if thou
think better of fleeing with me, thou wilt gladden me the more."
Redhead shook his head but spake not, and Ralph went his ways
down the dale.
The Lord of Utterbol Makes Ralph a Free Man
He went to and fro that day and the next, and none meddled with him;
with Redhead he spake not again those days, but had talk with Otter
and David, who were blithe enough with him. Agatha he saw not at all;
nor the Lady, and still deemed that the white-skinned woman whom
he had seen sitting by the Lord after the tilting was the Queen.
As for the Lady she abode in her pavilion, and whiles lay
in a heap on the floor weeping, or dull and blind with grief;
whiles she walked up and down mad wroth with whomsoever came
in her way, even to the dealing out of stripes and blows
to her women.
But on the eve before the day of departure Agatha came into her,
and chid her, and bade her be merry: "I have seen the Lord and told
him what I would, and found it no hard matter to get him to yeasay
our plot, which were hard to carry out without his goodwill.
Withal the seed that I have sowed two days or more ago is bearing fruit;
so that thou mayst look to it that whatsoever plight we may be in,
we shall find a deliverer."
"I wot not thy meaning," quoth the Lady, "but I deem thou wilt
now tell me what thou art planning, and give me some hope,
lest I lay hands on myself."
Then Agatha told her without tarrying what she was about doing for her,
the tale of which will be seen hereafter; and when she had done,
the Lady mended her cheer, and bade bring meat and drink, and was once
more like a great and proud Lady.
On the morn of departure, when Ralph arose, David came to him and said:
"My Lord is astir already, and would see thee for thy good."
So Ralph went with David, who brought him to the Tower, and there
they found the Lord sitting in a window, and Otter stood before him,
and some others of his highest folk. But beside him sat Joyce,
and it seemed that he thought it naught but good to hold her hand
and play with the fingers thereof, though all those great men were by;
and Ralph had no thought of her but that she was the Queen.
So Ralph made obeisance to the Lord and stood awaiting his word;
and the Lord said: "We have been thinking of thee, young man,
and have deemed thy lot to be somewhat of the hardest,
if thou must needs be a thrall, since thou art both young
and well-born, and so good a man of thine hands. Now, wilt thou
be our man at Utterbol?"
Ralph delayed his answer a space and looked at Otter, who seemed to him
to frame a Yea with his lips, as who should say, take it. So he said:
"Lord, thou art good to me, yet mayst thou be better if thou wilt."
"Yea, man!" said the Lord knitting his brows; "What shall it be? say thy say,
and be done with it."
"Lord," said Ralph, "I pray thee to give me my choice,
whether I shall go with thee to Utterbol or forbear going?"
"Why, lo you!" said the Lord testily, and somewhat sourly;
"thou hast the choice. Have I not told thee that thou art free?"
Then Ralph knelt before him, and said: "Lord, I thank thee from
a full heart, in that thou wilt suffer me to depart on mine errand,
for it is a great one." The scowl deepened on the Lord's face,
and he turned away from Ralph, and said presently:
"Otter take the Knight away and let him have all his armour and
weapons and a right good horse; and then let him do as he will,
either ride with us, or depart if he will, and whither he will.
And if he must needs ride into the desert, and cast himself away
in the mountains, so be it. But whatever he hath a mind to,
let none hinder him, but further him rather; hearest thou? take
him with thee."
Then was Ralph overflowing with thanks, but the Lord heeded him naught,
but looked askance at him and sourly. And he rose up withal, and led
the damsel by the hand into another chamber; and she minced in her gait
and leaned over to the Lord and spake softly in his ear and laughed,
and he laughed in his turn and toyed with her neck and shoulders.
But the great men turned and went their ways from the Tower,
and Ralph went with Otter and was full of glee, and as merry
as a bird. But Otter looked on him, and said gruffly:
"Yea now, thou art like a song-bird but newly let out of his cage.
But I can see the string which is tied to thy leg, though thou
feelest it not."
"Why, what now?" quoth Ralph, making as though he were astonished.
"Hearken," said Otter: "there is none nigh us, so I will speak straight out;
for I love thee since the justing when we tried our might together.
If thou deemest that thou art verily free, ride off on the backward
road when we go forward; I warrant me thou shalt presently meet
with an adventure, and be brought in a captive for the second time."
"How then," said Ralph, "hath not the Lord good will toward me?"
Said Otter: "I say not that he is now minded to do thee a mischief
for cruelty's sake; but he is minded to get what he can out of thee.
If he use thee not for the pleasuring of his wife (so long as her
pleasure in thee lasteth) he will verily use thee for somewhat else.
And to speak plainly, I now deem that he will make thee my mate,
to use with me, or against me as occasion may serve; so thou shalt
be another captain of his host." He laughed withal, and said again:
"But if thou be not wary, thou wilt tumble off that giddy height,
and find thyself a thrall once more, and maybe a gelding to boot."
Now waxed Ralph angry and forgat his prudence, and said:
"Yea, but how shall he use me when I am out of reach of his hand?"
"Oho, young man," said Otter, "whither away then, to be out
of his reach?"
"Why," quoth Ralph still angrily, "is thy Lord master of all
the world?" "Nay," said the captain, "but of a piece there of.
In short, betwixt Utterbol and Goldburg, and Utterbol
and the mountains, and Utterbol and an hundred miles north,
and an hundred miles south, there is no place where thou canst live,
no place save the howling wilderness, and scarcely there either,
where he may not lay hand on thee if he do but whistle. What, man! be
not downhearted! come with us to Utterbol, since thou needs must.
Be wise, and then the Lord shall have no occasion against thee;
above all, beware of crossing him in any matter of a woman.
Then who knows" (and here he sunk his voice well nigh to a whisper)
"but thou and I together may rule in Utterbol and make
better days there."
Ralph was waxen master of himself by now, and was gotten wary indeed,
so he made as if he liked Otter's counsel well, and became exceeding gay;
for indeed the heart within him was verily glad at the thought of his
escaping from thralldom; for more than ever now he was fast in his mind
to flee at the time appointed by Redhead.
So Otter said: "Well, youngling, I am glad that thou takest it thus,
for I deem that if thou wert to seek to depart, the Lord would make it
an occasion against thee."
"Such an occasion shall he not have, fellow in arms," quoth Ralph.
"But tell me, we ride presently, and I suppose are bound for Utterness
by the shortest road?" "Yea," said Otter, "and anon we shall come
to the great forest which lieth along our road all the way to Utterness
and beyond it; for the town is, as it were, an island in the sea of
woodland which covers all, right up to the feet of the Great Mountains,
and does what it may to climb them whereso the great wall or its
buttresses are anywise broken down toward our country; but the end
of it lieth along our road, as I said, and we do but skirt it.
A woeful wood it is, and save for the hunting of the beasts,
which be there in great plenty, with wolves and bears, yea, and lions
to boot, which come down from the mountains, there is no gain in it.
No gain, though forsooth they say that some have found it gainful."
"How so?" said Ralph. Said Otter: "That way lieth the way
to the Well at the World's End, if one might find it.
If at any time we were clear of Utterbol, I have a mind
for the adventure along with thee, lad, and so I deem hast
thou from all the questions thou hast put to me thereabout."
Ralph mastered himself so that his face changed not, and he said:
"Well, Captain, that may come to pass; but tell me, are there any
tokens known whereby a man shall know that he is on the right path
to the Well?"
"The report of folk goeth," said Otter, "concerning one token,
where is the road and the pass through the Great Mountains,
to wit, that on the black rock thereby is carven the image
of a Fighting Man, or monstrous giant, of the days long gone by.
Of other signs I can tell thee naught; and few of men are alive
that can. But there is a Sage dwelleth in the wood under
the mountains to whom folk seek for his diverse lore; and he,
if he will, say men, can set forth all the way, and its perils,
and how to escape them. Well, knight, when the time comes,
thou and I will go find him together, for he at least is not hard
to find, and if he be gracious to us, then will we on our quest.
But as now, see ye, they have struck our tents and the Queen's
pavilion also; so to horse, is the word."
"Yea," quoth Ralph, looking curiously toward the place where the Queen's
pavilion had stood; "is not yonder the Queen's litter taking the road?"
"Yea, surely," said Otter.
"Then the litter will be empty," said Ralph. "Maybe, or maybe not,"
said Otter; "but now I must get me gone hastily to my folk;
doubtless we shall meet upon the road to Utterbol."
So he turned and went his ways; and Ralph also ran to his horse,
whereby was David already in the saddle, and so mounted, and the whole
rout moved slowly from out of Vale Turris, Ralph going ever by David.
The company was now a great one, for many wains were joined to them,
laden with meal, and fleeces, and other household stuff, and withal
there was a great herd of neat, and of sheep, and of goats, which the
Lord's men had been gathering in the fruitful country these two days;
but the Lord was tarrying still in the tower.
They Ride Toward Utterness From Out of Vale Turris
So they rode by a good highway, well beaten, past the Tower and over
the ridge of the valley, and came full upon the terrible sight
of the Great Mountains, and the sea of woodland lay before them,
swelling and falling, and swelling again, till it broke grey against
the dark blue of the mountain wall. They went as the way led,
down hill, and when they were at the bottom, thence along their
highway parted the tillage and fenced pastures from the rough
edges of the woodland like as a ditch sunders field from field.
They had the wildwood ever on their right hand, and but a little
way from where they rode the wood thickened for the more part into
dark and close thicket, the trees whereof were so tall that they
hid the overshadowing mountains whenso they rode the bottoms,
though when the way mounted on the ridges, and the trees gave
back a little, they had sight of the woodland and the mountains.
On the other hand at whiles the thicket came close up to the roadside.
Now David biddeth press on past the wains and the driven beasts,
which were going very slowly. So did they, and at last were well nigh
at the head of the Lord's company, but when Ralph would have pressed
on still, David refrained him, and said that they must by no means outgo
the Queen's people, or even mingle with them; so they rode on softly.
But as the afternoon was drawing toward evening they heard great
noise of horns behind them) and the sound of horses galloping.
Then David drew Ralph to the side of the way, and everybody about,
both before and behind them, drew up in wise at the wayside,
and or ever Ralph could ask any question, came a band of men-at-arms
at the gallop led by Otter, and after them the Lord on his black steed,
and beside him on a white palfrey the woman whom Ralph had seen
in the Tower, and whom he had taken for the Queen, her light
raiment streaming out from her, and her yellow hair flying loose.
They passed in a moment of time, and then David and Ralph and the rest
rode on after them.
Then said Ralph: "The Queen rideth well and hardily."
"Yea," said David, screwing his face into a grin, would he or no.
Ralph beheld him, and it came into his mind that this was not the Queen
whom he had looked on when they first came into Vale Turris, and he said:
"What then! this woman is not the Queen?"
David spake not for a while, and then he answered:
"Sir Knight, there be matters whereof we servants of my Lord
say little or nothing, and thou wert best to do the like."
And no more would he say thereon.
Redhead Keeps Tryst
They rode not above a dozen miles that day, and pitched their
tents and pavilions in the fair meadows by the wayside looking
into the thick of the forest. There this betid to tell of,
that when Ralph got off his horse, and the horse-lads were gathered
about the men-at-arms and high folk, who should take Ralph's
horse but Redhead, who made a sign to him by lifting his eyebrows
as if he were asking him somewhat; and Ralph took it as a question
as to whether his purpose held to flee on the morrow night;
so he nodded a yeasay, just so much as Redhead might note it;
and naught else befell betwixt them.
When it was barely dawn after that night, Ralph awoke with the sound
of great stir in the camp, and shouting of men and lowing
and bleating of beasts; so he looked out, and saw that the wains
and the flocks and herds were being got on to the road, so that they
might make good way before the company of the camp took the road.
But he heeded it little and went to sleep again.
When it was fully morning he arose, and found that the men were not hastening
their departure, but were resting by the wood-side and disporting them about
the meadow; so he wandered about amongst the men-at-arms and serving-men, and
came across Redhead and hailed him; and there was no man very nigh to them;
so Redhead looked about him warily, and then spake swiftly and softly:
"Fail not to-night! fail not! For yesterday again was I told by one
who wotteth surely, what abideth thee at Utterbol if thou go thither.
I say if thou fail, thou shalt repent but once--all thy life long to wit."
Ralph nodded his head, and said: "Fear not, I will not fail thee."
And therewith they turned away from each other lest they should be noted.
About two hours before noon they got to horse again, and, being no
more encumbered with the wains and the beasts, rode at a good pace.
As on the day before the road led them along the edge of
the wildwood, and whiles it even went close to the very thicket.
Whiles again they mounted somewhat, and looked down on the thicket,
leagues and leagues thereof, which yet seemed but a little space
because of the hugeness of the mountain wall which brooded over it;
but oftenest the forest hid all but the near trees.
Thus they rode some twenty miles, and made stay at sunset in a
place that seemed rather a clearing of the wood than a meadow;
for they had trees on their left hand at a furlong's distance,
as well as on their right at a stone's throw.
Ralph saw not Redhead as he got off his horse, and David according to his wont
went with him to his tent. But after they had supped together, and David had
made much of Ralph, and had drank many cups to his health, he said to him:
"The night is yet young, yea, but new-born; yet must I depart from thee,
if I may, to meet a man who will sell me a noble horse good cheap;
and I may well leave thee now, seeing that thou hast become a free man;
so I bid thee goodnight."
Therewith he departed, and was scarce gone out ere Redhead cometh in,
and saith in his wonted rough loud voice: "Here, knight, here is
the bridle thou badest me get mended; will the cobbling serve?"
Then seeing no one there, he fell to speaking softer and said:
"I heard the old pimp call thee a free man e'en now:
I fear me that thou art not so free as he would have thee think.
Anyhow, were I thou, I would be freer in two hours space.
Is it to be so?"
"Yea, yea," said Ralph. Redhead nodded: "Good is that," said he; "I say in
two hours' time all will be quiet, and we are as near the thicket as may be;
there is no moon, but the night is fair and the stars clear; so all that thou
hast to do is to walk out of this tent, and turn at once to thy right hand:
come out with me now quietly, and I will show thee."
They went out together and Redhead said softly: "Lo thou that doddered
oak yonder; like a piece of a hay-rick it looks under the stars;
if thou seest it, come in again at once."
Ralph turned and drew Redhead in, and said when they were in the tent again:
"Yea, I saw it: what then?"
Said Redhead: "I shall be behind it abiding thee."
"Must I go afoot?" said Ralph, "or how shall I get me a horse?"
"I have a horse for thee," said Redhead, "not thine own,
but a better one yet, that hath not been backed to-day. Now
give me a cup of wine, and let me go."
Ralph filled for him and took a cup himself, and said:
"I pledge thee, friend, and wish thee better luck; and I would
have thee for my fellow in this quest."
"Nay," said Redhead, "it may not be: I will not burden thy luck with my
ill-luck...and moreover I am seeking something which I may gain at Utterbol,
and if I have it, I may do my best to say good-night to that evil abode."
"Yea," said Ralph, "and I wish thee well therein."
Said Redhead, stammering somewhat; "It is even that woman
of the Queen's whereof I told thee. And now one last word,
since I must not be over long in thy tent, lest some one
come upon us. But, fair sir, if thy mind misgive thee
for this turning aside from Utterbol; though it is not to be
doubted that the damsel whom thou seekest hath been there,
it is not all so sure that thou wouldst have found her there.
For of late, what with my Lord and my Lady being both away,
the place hath been scant of folk; and not only is the said
damsel wise and wary, but there be others who have seen her
besides my Lord, and who so hath seen her is like to love her;
and such is she, that whoso loveth her is like to do her will.
So I bid thee in all case be earnest in thy quest; and think
that if thou die on the road thy damsel would have died for thee;
and if thou drink of the Well and come back whole and safe,
I know not why thou shouldest not go straight to Utterbol
and have the damsel away with thee, whosoever gainsay it.
For they (if there be any such) who have drunk of the Well
at the World's End are well looked to in this land.
Now one more word yet; when I come to Utterbol, if thy damsel
be there still, fear not but I will have speech of her,
and tell of thee, and what thou wert looking to, and how thou
deemedst of her."
Therewith he turned and departed hastily.
But Ralph left alone was sorely moved with hope and fear, and a longing that
grew in him to see the damsel. For though he was firmly set on departure,
and on seeking the sage aforesaid, yet his heart was drawn this way and that:
and it came into his mind how the damsel would fare when the evil Lord came
home to Utterbol; and he could not choose but make stories of her meeting of
the tyrant, and her fear and grief and shame, and the despair of her heart.
So the minutes went slow to him, till he should be in some new place and
doing somewhat toward bringing about the deliverance of her from thralldom,
and the meeting of him and her.
The Road To The Well At World's End.
An Adventure in the Wood Under the Mountains
Now was the night worn to the time appointed, for it was two hours after
midnight, so he stepped out of his tent clad in all his war gear, and went
straight to the doddered oak, and found Redhead there with but one horse,
whereby Ralph knew that he held to his purpose of going his ways to Utterbol:
so he took him by the shoulders and embraced him, rough carle as he was,
and Redhead kneeled to him one moment of time and then arose and went off into
the night. But Ralph got a-horseback without delay and rode his ways warily
across the highway and into the wood, and there was none to hinder him.
Though it was dark but for the starlight, there was a path, which the horse,
and not Ralph, found, so that he made some way even before the first glimmer
of dawn, all the more as the wood was not very thick after the first mile,
and there were clearings here and there.
So rode Ralph till the sun was at point to rise, and he was about
the midst of one of those clearings or wood-lawns, on the further side
whereof there was more thicket, as he deemed, then he had yet come to;
so he drew rein and looked about him for a minute. Even therewith he deemed
he heard a sound less harsh than the cry of the jay in the beech-trees,
and shriller than the moaning of the morning breeze in the wood.
So he falls to listening with both ears, and this time deems that
he hears the voice of a woman: and therewith came into his mind
that old and dear adventure of the Wood Perilous; for he was dreamy
with the past eagerness of his deeds, and the long and lonely night.
But yet he doubted somewhat of the voice when it had passed his ears,
so he shook his rein, for he thought it not good to tarry.
Scarce then had his horse stepped out, ere there came a woman running
out of the thicket before him and made toward him over the lawn.
So he gat off his horse at once and went to meet her, leading his horse;
and as he drew nigh he could see that she was in a sorry plight; she had
gathered up her skirts to run the better, and her legs and feet were naked:
the coif was gone from her head and her black hair streamed out behind her:
her gown was rent about the shoulders and bosom, so that one sleeve
hung tattered, as if by the handling of some one.
So she ran up to him crying out: "Help, knight, help us!"
and sank down therewith at his feet panting and sobbing.
He stooped down to her, and raised her up, and said in a kind voice:
"What is amiss, fair damsel, that thou art in such a plight;
and what may I for thine avail? Doth any pursue thee,
that thou fleest thus?"
She stood sobbing awhile, and then took hold of his two hands and said:
"O fair lord, come now and help my lady! for as for me, since I am with thee,
I am safe."
"Yea," said he, "Shall I get to horse at once?"
And I therewith he made as if he would move away from her;
but she still held his hands, and seemed to think it good so to do,
and she spake not for a while but gazed earnestly into his face.
She was a fair woman, dark and sleek and lithe...for in good
sooth she was none other than Agatha, who is afore told of.
Now Ralph is somewhat abashed by her eagerness, and lets his
eyes fall before hers; and he cannot but note that despite
the brambles and briars of the wood that she had run through,
there were no scratches on her bare legs, and that her arm
was unbruised where the sleeve had been rent off.
At last she spake, but somewhat slowly, as if she were thinking
of what she had to say: "O knight, by thy knightly oath
I charge thee come to my lady and help and rescue her:
she and I have been taken by evil men, and I fear that they
will put her to shame, and torment her, ere they carry her off;
for they were about tying her to a tree when I escaped:
for they heeded not me who am but the maid, when they had the mistress
in their hands." "Yea," said he, "and who is thy mistress?"
Said the damsel: "She is the Lady of the Burnt Rock;
and I fear me that these men are of the Riders of Utterbol;
and then will it go hard with her; for there is naught but hatred
betwixt my lord her husband and the tyrant of Utterbol."
Said Ralph: "And how many were they?" "O but three,
fair sir, but three," she said; "and thou so fair and strong,
like the war-god himself."
Ralph laughed: "Three to one is long odds," quoth he, "but I will come
with thee when thou hast let go my hands so that I may mount my horse.
But wilt thou not ride behind me, fair damsel; so wearied and spent
as thou wilt be by thy night."
She looked on him curiously, and laid a hand on his breast,
and the hauberk rings tinkled beneath the broidered surcoat;
then she said: "Nay, I had best go afoot before thee,
so disarrayed as I am."
Then she let him go, but followed him still with her eyes as he gat
him into the saddle. She walked on beside his horse's head;
and Ralph marvelled of her that for all her haste she had been in,
she went somewhat leisurely, picking her way daintily so as to tread
the smooth, and keep her feet from the rough.
Thus they went on, into the thicket and through it, and the damsel put
the thorns and briars aside daintily as she stepped, and went slower still
till they came to a pleasant place of oak-trees with greensward beneath them;
and then she stopped, and turning, faced Ralph, and spoke with another
voice than heretofore, whereas there was naught rueful or whining therein,
but somewhat both of glee and of mocking as it seemed. "Sir knight,"
she said, "I have a word or two for thy ears; and this is a pleasant place,
and good for us to talk together, whereas it is neither too near to her,
nor too far from her, so that I can easily find my way back to her.
Now, lord, I pray thee light down and listen to me." And therewith she
sat down on the grass by the bole of a great oak.
"But thy lady," said Ralph, "thy lady?" "O sir," she said;
"My lady shall do well enough: she is not tied so fast,
but she might loose herself if the need were pressing.
Light down, dear lord, light down!"
But Ralph sat still on his horse, and knit his brows, and said:
"What is this, damsel? hast thou been playing a play with me?
Where is thy lady whom thou wouldst have me deliver?
If this be but game and play, let me go my ways; for time presses,
and I have a weighty errand on hand."
She rose up and came close to him, and laid a hand on his knee
and looked wistfully into his face as she said: "Nay then,
I can tell thee all the tale as thou sittest in thy saddle;
for meseems short will be thy farewell when I have told it."
And she sighed withal.
Then Ralph was ashamed to gainsay her, and she now become gentle and sweet
and enticing, and sad withal; so he got off his horse and tied him to a tree,
and went and stood by the damsel as she lay upon the grass, and said:
"I prithee tell thy tale and let me depart if there be naught for me to do."
Then she said: "This is the first word, that as to the Red Rock,
I lied; and my lady is the Queen of Utterbol, and I am her thrall,
and it is I who have drawn thee hither from the camp."
The blood mounted to Ralph's brow for anger; when he called to mind how
he had been led hither and thither on other folk's errands ever since he
left Upmeads. But he said naught, and Agatha looked on him timidly and said:
"I say I am her thrall, and I did it to serve her and because she bade me."
Said Ralph roughly: "And Redhead, him whom I saved from torments and death;
dost thou know him? didst thou know him?"
"Yea," she said, "I had from him what he had learned concerning thee
from the sergeants and others, and then I put words into his mouth."
"Yea then," quoth Ralph, "then he also is a traitor!" "Nay, nay,"
she said, "he is a true man and loveth thee, and whatever he hath said
to thee he troweth himself. Moreover, I tell thee here and now that all
that he told thee of the affairs of Utterbol, and thine outlook there,
is true and overtrue."
She sprang to her feet therewith, and stood before him and clasped her hands
before him and said: "I know that thou seekest the Well at the World's End
and the deliverance of the damsel whom the Lord ravished from the wild man:
now I swear it by thy mouth, that if thou go to Utterbol thou art undone
and shalt come to the foulest pass there, and moreover that so going thou
shalt bring the uttermost shame and torments on the damsel."
Said Ralph: "Yea, but what is her case as now? tell me."
Quoth Agatha: "She is in no such evil case; for my lady
hateth her not as yet, or but little; and, which is far more,
my lord loveth her after his fashion, and withal as I deem
feareth her; for though she hath utterly gainsaid his desire,
he hath scarce so much as threatened her. A thing unheard of.
Had it been another woman she had by this time known
all the bitterness that leadeth unto death at Utterbol."
Ralph paled and he scowled on her, then he said:
"And how knowest thou all the privity of the Lord of Utterbol?
who telleth thee of all this?" She smiled and spake daintily:
"Many folk tell me that which I would know; and that is
because whiles I conquer the tidings with my wits,
and whiles buy it with my body. Anyhow what I tell thee
is the very sooth concerning this damsel, and this it is:
that whereas she is but in peril, she shall be in deadly peril,
yea and that instant, if thou go to Utterbol, thou, who art
her lover..." "Nay," said Ralph angrily, "I am not her lover,
I am but her well-willer." "Well," quoth Agatha looking down
and knitting her brows, "when thy good will towards her has
become known, then shall she be thrown at once into the pit
of my lord's cruelty. Yea, to speak sooth, even as it is,
for thy sake (for her I heed naught) I would that the lord
might find her gone when he cometh back to Utterbol."
"Yea," said Ralph, reddening, "and is there any hope
for her getting clear off?" "So I deem," said Agatha.
She was silent awhile and then spake in a low voice:
"It is said that each man that seeth her loveth her; yea, and will
befriend her, even though she consent not to his desire.
Maybe she hath fled from Utterbol."
Ralph stood silent awhile with a troubled face; and then he said:
"Yet thou hast not told me the why and wherefore of this play
of thine, and the beguiling me into fleeing from the camp.
Tell it me that I may pardon thee and pass on."
She said: "By thine eyes I swear that this is sooth, and that
there is naught else in it than this: My lady set her love,
when first she set her eyes upon thee--as forsooth all women must:
as for me, I had not seen thee (though I told my lady that I had)
till within this hour that we met in the wood."
She sighed therewith, and with her right hand played
with the rent raiment about her bosom. Then she said:
"She deemed that if thou camest a mere thrall to Utterbol,
though she might command thy body, yet she would not gain thy love;
but that if perchance thou mightest see her in hard need,
and evilly mishandled, and mightest deliver her, there might at least
grow up pity in thee for her, and that love might come thereof,
as oft hath happed aforetime; for my lady is a fair woman.
Therefore I, who am my lady's servant and thrall, and who,
I bid thee remember, had not seen thee, took upon me to make
this adventure, like to a minstrel's tale done in the flesh.
Also I spake to my lord and told him thereof; and though he jeered
at my lady to me, he was content, because he would have her
set her heart on thee utterly; since he feared her jealousy,
and would fain be delivered of it, lest she should play
some turn to his newly beloved damsel and do her a mischief.
Therefore did he set thee free (in words) meaning, when he had
thee safe at Utterbol again (as he nowise doubted to have thee)
to do as he would with thee, according as occasion might serve.
For at heart he hateth thee, as I could see well.
So a little before thou didst leave the camp, we, the Queen and I,
went privily into a place of the woods but a little way hence.
There I disarrayed both my lady and myself so far as was needful
for the playing out the play which was to have seemed to thee
a real adventure. Then came I to thee as if by chance hap, that I
might bring thee to her; and if thou hadst come, we had a story
for thee, whereby thou mightest not for very knighthood forbear
to succour her and bring her whither she would, which in the long
run had been Utterbol, but for the present time was to have been
a certain strong-house appertaining to Utterbol, and nigh unto it.
This is all the tale, and now if thou wilt, thou mayst pardon me;
or if thou wilt, thou mayst draw out thy sword and smite off my head.
And forsooth I deem that were the better deed."
She knelt down before him and put her palms together,
and looked up at him beseechingly. His face darkened
as he beheld her thus, but it cleared at last, and he said:
"Damsel, thou wouldst turn out but a sorry maker, and thy
play is naught. For seest thou not that I should have found
out all the guile at Utterbol, and owed thy lady hatred rather
than love thereafter."
"Yea," she said, "but my lady might have had enough of thy love by then,
and would belike have let thee alone to fall into the hands of the Lord.
Lo now! I have delivered thee from this, so that thou art quit both of
the Lord and the lady and me: and again I say that thou couldst scarce
have missed, both thou and thy damsel, of a miserable ending at Utterbol."
"Yea," said Ralph, softly, and as if speaking to himself, "yet am
I lonely and unholpen." Then he turned to Agatha and said:
"The end of all this is that I pardon thee, and must depart forthwith;
for when ye two come back to the camp, then presently will
the hunt be up."
She rose from her knees, and stood before him humbly and said:
"Nay, I shall requite thee thy pardon thus far, that I will fashion
some tale for my lady which will keep us in the woods two days or three;
for we have provided victual for our adventure."
Said Ralph: "I may at least thank thee for that, and will trust in thee
to do so much." Quoth she: "Then might I ask a reward of thee:
since forsooth other reward awaiteth me at Utterbol."
"Thou shalt have it," said Ralph. She said: "The reward is that thou
kiss me ere we part."
"It must needs be according to my word," said Ralph, "yet I must
tell thee that my kiss will bear but little love with it."
She answered naught but laid her hands on his breast and put
up her face to him, and he kissed her lips. Then she said:
"Knight, thou hast kissed a thrall and a guileful woman,
yet one that shall smart for thee; therefore grudge not the kiss
nor repent thee of thy kindness."
"How shalt thou suffer?" said he. She looked on him steadfastly
a moment, and said: "Farewell! may all good go with thee."
Therewith she turned away and walked off slowly through the wood,
and somewhat he pitied her, and sighed as he got into his saddle;
but he said to himself: "How might I help her? Yet true it is
that she may well be in an evil case: I may not help everyone."
Then he shook his rein and rode his ways.
Ralph Rides the Wood Under the Mountains
A long way now rode Ralph, and naught befell him but the fashion of the wood.
And as he rode, the heart within him was lightened that he had escaped
from all the confusion and the lying of those aliens, who knew him not,
nor his kindred, and yet would all use him each for his own ends:
and withal he was glad that he was riding all alone upon his quest,
but free, unwounded, and well weaponed.
The wood was not very thick whereas he rode, so that he could see
the whereabouts of the sun, and rode east as far as he could judge it.
Some little victual he had with him, and he found woodland fruit
ripening here and there, and eked out his bread therewith; neither did
water fail him, for he rode a good way up along a woodland stream
that cleft the thicket, coming down as he deemed from the mountains,
and thereby he made the more way: but at last he deemed that
he must needs leave it, as it turned overmuch to the north.
The light was failing when he came into a woodlawn amidst
of which was a pool of water, and all that day he had had no
adventure with beast or man, since he had sundered from Agatha.
So he lay down and slept there with his naked sword by his side,
and awoke not till the sun was high in the heavens next morning.
Then he arose at once and went on his way after he had washed him,
and eaten a morsel.
After a little the thick of the wood gave out, and the land was
no longer flat, as it had been, but was of dales and of hills,
not blinded by trees. In this land he saw much deer, as hart
and wild swine; and he happened also on a bear, who was about
a honey tree, and had taken much comb from the wild bees.
On him Ralph drew his sword and drave him exceeding loth from
his purchase, so that the knight dined off the bear's thieving.
Another time he came across a bent where on the south
side grew vines well fruited, and the grapes a-ripening;
and he ate well thereof before he went on his way.
Before nightfall he came on that same stream again, and it was now running
straight from the east; so he slept that night on the bank thereof.
On the morrow he rode up along it a great way, till again it seemed
to be coming overmuch from the north; and then he left it, and made
on east as near as he could guess it by the sun.
Now he passed through thickets at whiles not very great,
and betwixt them rode hilly land grassed mostly with long
coarse grass, and with whin and thorn-trees scattered about.
Thence he saw again from time to time the huge wall of the mountains
rising up into the air like a great black cloud that would
swallow up the sky, and though the sight was terrible, yet it
gladdened him, since he knew that he was on the right way.
So far he rode, going on the whole up-hill, till at last there
was a great pine-wood before him, so that he could see no ending
to it either north or south.
It was now late in the afternoon, and Ralph pondered whether he should
abide the night where he was and sleep the night there, or whether
he should press on in hope of winning to some clear place before dark.
So whereas he was in a place both rough and waterless, he deemed it better
to go on, after he had rested his horse and let him bite the herbage a while.
Then he rode his ways, and entered the wood and made the most of the way.
Ralph Meeteth With Another Adventure in the Wood Under the Mountain
Soon the wood grew very thick of pine-trees, though there
was no undergrowth, so that when the sun sank it grew dark
very speedily; but he still rode on in the dusk, and there
were but few wild things, and those mostly voiceless,
in the wood, and it was without wind and very still.
Now he thought he heard the sound of a horse going behind him
or on one side, and he wondered whether the chace were up,
and hastened what he might, till at last it grew black night,
and he was constrained to abide. So he got off his horse,
and leaned his back against a tree, and had the beast's reins over
his arm; and now he listened again carefully, and was quite sure
that he could hear the footsteps of some hard-footed beast going
nowise far from him. He laughed inwardly, and said to himself:
"If the chacer were to pass but three feet from my nose
he should be none the wiser but if he hear me or my horse."
And therewith he cast a lap of his cloak over the horse's head,
lest he should whinny if he became aware of the other beast;
and so there he stood abiding, and the noise grew greater
till be could hear clearly the horse-hoofs drawing nigh,
till they came very nigh, and then stopped.
Then came a man's voice that said: "Is there a man anigh in the wood?"
Ralph held his peace till he should know more; and the voice spake again
in a little while: "If there be a man anigh let him be sure that I
will do him no hurt; nay, I may do him good, for I have meat with me."
Clear was the voice, and as sweet as the April blackbird sings.
It spake again: "Naught answereth, yet meseemeth I know surely that a man
is anigh; and I am aweary of the waste, and long for fellowship."
Ralph hearkened, and called to mind tales of way-farers
entrapped by wood-wives and evil things; but he thought:
"At least this is no sending of the Lord of Utterbol, and,
St. Nicholas to aid, I have little fear of wood-wights. Withal
I shall be but a dastard if I answer not one man, for fear of I
know not what." So he spake in a loud and cheerful voice:
"Yea, there is a man anigh, and I desire thy fellowship,
if we might but meet. But how shall we see each other in
the blackness of the wildwood night?"
The other laughed, and the laugh sounded merry and sweet,
and the voice said: "Hast thou no flint and fire-steel?"
"No," said Ralph. "But I have," said the voice, "and I am
fain to see thee, for thy voice soundeth pleasant to me.
Abide till I grope about for a stick or two."
Ralph laughed in turn, as he heard the new-comer moving about;
then he heard the click of the steel on the flint, and saw
the sparks showering down, so that a little piece of the wood
grew green again to his eyes. Then a little clear flame
sprang up, and therewith he saw the tree-stems clearly,
and some twenty yards from him a horse, and a man stooping
down over the fire, who sprang up now and cried out:
"It is a knight-at-arms! Come hither, fellow of the waste;
it is five days since I have spoken to a child of Adam;
so come nigh and speak to me, and as a reward of thy speech
thou shalt have both meat and firelight."
"That will be well paid," said Ralph laughing, and he stepped
forward leading his horse, for now the wood was light all about,
as the fire waxed and burned clear; so that Ralph could see
that the new-comer was clad in quaintly-fashioned armour
after the fashion of that land, with a bright steel sallet
on the head, and a long green surcoat over the body armour.
Slender of make was the new-comer, not big nor tall of stature.
Ralph went up to him hastily, and merrily put his hand on his shoulder,
and kissed him, saying: "The kiss of peace in the wilderness to thee!"
And he found him smooth-faced and sweet-breathed.
But the new comer took his hand and led him to where the firelight was
brightest and looked on him silently a while; and Ralph gave back the look.
The strange-wrought sallet hid but little of the new comer's face, and as
Ralph looked thereon a sudden joy came into his heart, and he cried out:
"O, but I have kissed thy face before! O, my friend, my friend!"
Then spake the new-comer and said: "Yea, I am a woman,
and I was thy friend for a little while at Bourton Abbas,
and at the want-ways of the Wood Perilous."
Then Ralph cast his arms about her and kissed her again;
but she withdrew her from him, and said: "Help me, my friend,
that we may gather sticks to feed our fire, lest it die
and the dark come again so that we see not each other's faces,
and think that we have but met in a dream."
Then she busied herself with gathering the kindling; but presently she
looked up at him, and said: "Let us make the wood shine wide about,
for this is a feastful night."
So they gathered a heap of wood and made the fire great; and then
Ralph did off his helm and hauberk and the damsel did the like,
so that he could see the shapeliness of her uncovered head.
Then they sat down before the fire, and the damsel drew meat
and drink from her saddle-bags, and gave thereof to Ralph,
who took it of her and her hand withal, and smiled on her
and said: "Shall we be friends together as we were at
Bourton Abbas and the want-ways of the Wood Perilous?"
She shook her head and said: "If it might be! but it may not be.
Not many days have worn since then; but they have brought
about changed days." He looked on her wistfully and said:
"But thou wert dear to me then."
"Yea," she said, "and thou to me; but other things have befallen,
and there is change betwixt."
"Nay, what change?" said Ralph.
Even by the firelight he saw that she reddened as she answered:
"I was a free woman then; now am I but a runaway thrall."
Then Ralph laughed merrily, and said, "Then are we brought
the nigher together, for I also am a runaway thrall."
She smiled and looked down: then she said: "Wilt thou tell
me how that befell?"
"Yea," said he, "but I will ask thee first a question or two."
She nodded a yeasay, and looked on him soberly, as a child waiting
to say its task.
Said Ralph: "When we parted at the want-ways of the Wood
Perilous thou saidst that thou wert minded for the Well
at the World's End, and to try it for life or death.
But thou hadst not then the necklace, which now I see thee bear,
and which, seest thou! is like to that about my neck.
Wilt thou tell me whence thou hadst it?"
She said: "Yea; it was given unto me by a lady, mighty as I deem,
and certainly most lovely, who delivered me from an evil plight,
and a peril past words, but whereof I will tell thee afterwards.
And she it was who told me of the way to the Well at the World's End,
and many matters concerning them that seek it, whereof thou
shalt wot soon."
Said Ralph: "As to how thou wert made a thrall thou needest not to tell me;
for I have learned that of those that had to do with taking thee
to Utterbol. But tell me; here are met we two in the pathless wilds,
as if it were on the deep sea, and we two seeking the same thing.
Didst thou deem that we should meet, or that I should seek thee?"
Now was the fire burning somewhat low, but he saw that she looked on
him steadily; yet withal her sweet voice trembled a little as she answered:
"Kind friend, I had a hope that thou wert seeking me and wouldst find me:
for indeed that fairest of women who gave me the beads spake to me of thee,
and said that thou also wouldst turn thee to the quest of the Well at
the World's End; and already had I deemed thine eyes lucky as well as lovely.
But tell me, my friend, what has befallen that lady that she is not
with thee? For in such wise she spake of thee, that I deemed that naught
would sunder you save death."
"It is death that hath sundered us," said Ralph.
Then she hung her head, and sat silent a while, neither did
he speak till she had risen up and cast more wood upon the fire;
and she stood before it with her back towards him.
Then he spake to her in a cheerful voice and said: "Belike we
shall be long together: tell me thy name; is it not Dorothy?"
She turned about to him with a smiling face, and said:
"Nay lord, nay: did I not tell thee my name before?
They that held me at the font bid the priest call me Ursula,
after the Friend of Maidens. But what is thy name?"
"I am Ralph of Upmeads," quoth he; and sat a while silent,
pondering his dream and how it had betrayed him as to her name,
when it had told him much that he yet deemed true.
She came and sat down by him again, and said to him: "Thy questions I
have answered; but thou hast not yet told me the tale of thy captivity."
Her voice sounded exceeding sweet to him, and he looked on her face and spake
as kindly as he knew how, and said: "A short tale it is to-night at least:
I came from Whitwall with a Company of Chapmen, and it was thee I was
seeking and the Well at the World's End. All went well with me, till I
came to Goldburg, and there I was betrayed by a felon, who had promised
to lead me safe to Utterness, and tell me concerning the way unto the Well.
But he sold me to the Lord of Utterbol, who would lead me to his house;
which irked me not, at first, because I looked to find thee there.
Thereafter, if for shame I may tell the tale, his lady and wife
cast her love upon me, and I was entangled in the nets of guile:
yet since I was told, and believed that it would be ill both for thee
and for me if I met thee at Utterbol, I took occasion to flee away,
I will tell thee how another while."
She had turned pale as she heard him, and now she said: "It is indeed
God's mercy that thou camest not to Utterbol nor foundest me there,
for then had both we been undone amidst the lusts of those two;
or that thou camest not there to find me fled, else hadst thou been undone.
My heart is sick to think of it, even as I sit by thy side."
Said Ralph: "Thy last word maketh me afraid and ashamed to ask thee a thing.
But tell me first, is that Lord of Utterbol as evil as men's fear would make
him? for no man is feared so much unless he is deemed evil."
She was silent a while, and then she said: "He is so evil that it
might be deemed that he has been brought up out of hell."
Then Ralph looked sore troubled, and he said: "Dear friend, this is
the thing hard for me to say. In what wise did they use thee at Utterbol?
Did they deal with thee shamefully?" She answered him quietly:
"Nay," she said, "fear not! no shame befell me, save that I was
a thrall and not free to depart. Forsooth," she said, smiling,
"I fled away timely before the tormentors should be ready.
Forsooth it is an evil house and a mere piece of hell.
But now we are out of it and free in the wildwood, so let us forget it;
for indeed it is a grief to remember it. And now once more let us mend
the fire, for thy face is growing dim to me, and that misliketh me.
Afterwards before we lie down to sleep we will talk a little of the way,
whitherward we shall turn our faces to-morrow."
So they cast on more wood, and pineapples, and sweet it was to Ralph
to see her face come clear again from out the mirk of the wood.
Then they sat down again together and she said: "We two are
seeking the Well at the World's End; now which of us knows more
of the way? who is to lead, and who to follow?" Said Ralph:
"If thou know no more than I, it is little that thou knowest.
Sooth it is that for many days past I have sought thee that thou
mightest lead me."
She laughed sweetly, and said: "Yea, knight, and was it for
that cause that thou soughtest me, and not for my deliverance?"
He said soberly: "Yet in very deed I set myself to deliver thee."
"Yea," she said, "then since I am delivered, I must needs deem
of it as if it were through thy deed. And as I suppose thou
lookest for a reward therefor, so thy reward shall be, that I
will lead thee to the Well at the World's End. Is it enough?"
"Nay," said Ralph. They held their peace a minute, then she said:
"Maybe when we have drunk of that Water and are coming back,
it will be for thee to lead. For true it is that I shall scarce
know whither to wend; since amidst of my dreaming of the Well,
and of...other matters, my home that was is gone like a dream."
He looked at her, but scarce as if he were heeding all her words.
Then he spoke: "Yea, thou shalt lead me. I have been
led by one or another ever since I have left Upmeads."
Now she looked on him somewhat ruefully, and said:
"Thou wert not hearkening e'en now; so I say it again,
that the time shall come when thou shalt lead me."
In Ralph's mind had sprung up again that journey from the Water of
the Oak-tree; so he strove with himself to put the thought from him,
and sighed and said: "Dost thou verily know much of the way?"
She nodded yeasay. "Knowest thou of the Rock of the Fighting Man?"
"Yea," she said. "And of the Sage that dwelleth in this same wood?"
"Most surely," she said, "and to-morrow evening or the morrow after
we shall find him; for I have been taught the way to his dwelling;
and I wot that he is now called the Sage of Swevenham. Yet I must
tell thee that there is some peril in seeking to him; whereas his
dwelling is known of the Utterbol riders, who may follow us thither.
And yet again I deem that he will find some remedy thereto."
Said Ralph: "Whence didst thou learn all this, my friend?"
And his face grew troubled again; but she said simply:
"She taught it to me who spake to me in the wood by
Hampton under Scaur."
She made as if she noted not the trouble in his face, but said:
"Put thy trust in this, that here and with me thou art even
now nigher to the Well at the World's End than any other
creature on the earth. Yea, even if the Sage of Swevenham
be dead or gone hence, yet have I tokens to find the Rock
of the Fighting Man, and the way through the mountains,
though I say not but that he may make it all clearer.
But now I see thee drooping with the grief of days bygone;
and I deem also that thou art weary with the toil of the way.
So I rede thee lie down here in the wilderness and sleep,
and forget grief till to-morrow is a new day."
"Would it were come," said he, "that I might see thy face the clearer;
yet I am indeed weary."
So he went and fetched his saddle and lay down with his head thereon;
and was presently asleep. But she, who had again cast wood on the fire,
sat by his head watching him with a drawn sword beside her,
till the dawn of the woodland began to glimmer through the trees:
then she also laid herself down and slept.
They Ride the Wood Under the Mountains
When Ralph woke on the morrow it was broad day as far as the trees
would have it so. He rose at once, and looked about for his fellow,
but saw her not, and for some moments of time he thought he had
but dreamed of her; but he saw that the fire had been quickened from
its embers, and close by lay the hauberk and strange-fashioned helm,
and the sword of the damsel, and presently he saw her coming
through the trees barefoot, with the green-sleeved silken surcoat
hanging below the knees and her hair floating loose about her.
She stepped lightly up to Ralph with a cheerful smiling countenance
and a ruddy colour in her cheeks, but her eyes moist as if she
could scarce keep back the tears for joy of the morning's meeting.
He thought her fairer than erst, and made as if he would put his arms
about her, but she held a little aloof from him, blushing yet more.
Then she said in her sweet clear voice: "Hail fellow-farer! now
begins the day's work. I have been down yonder, and have found
a bright woodland pool, to wash the night off me, and if thou wilt do
in likewise and come back to me, I will dight our breakfast meantime,
and will we speedily to the road." He did as she bade him,
thinking of her all the while till he came back to her fresh and gay.
Then he looked to their horses and gave them fodder gathered from
the pool-side, and so turned to Ursula and found her with the meat
ready dight; so they ate and were glad.
When they had broken their fast Ralph went to saddle the horses, and coming
back found Ursula binding up her long hair, and she smiled on him and said:
"Now we are for the road I must be an armed knight again: forsooth I
unbound my hair e'en now and let my surcoat hang loose about me in token
that thou wottest my secret. Soothly, my friend, it irks me that now
we have met after a long while, I must needs be clad thus graceless.
But need drave me to it, and withal the occasion that was given to me
to steal this gay armour from a lad at Utterbol, the nephew of the lord;
who like his eme was half my lover, half my tyrant. Of all which I will tell
thee hereafter, and what wise I must needs steer betwixt stripes and kisses
these last days. But now let us arm and to horse. Yet first lo you,
here are some tools that in thine hands shall keep us from sheer famine:
as for me I am no archer; and forsooth no man-at-arms save in seeming."
Therewith she showed him a short Turk bow and a quiver of arrows,
which he took well pleased. So then they armed each the other,
and as she handled Ralph's wargear she said: "How well-wrought
and trusty is this hauberk of thine, my friend; my coat is but a toy
to it, with its gold and silver rings and its gemmed collar:
and thy plates be thick and wide and well-wrought, whereas mine
are little more than adornments to my arms and legs."
He looked on her lovingly and loved her shapely hands amidst the dark
grey mail, and said: "That is well, dear friend, for since my
breast is a shield for thee it behoves it to be well covered."
She looked at him, and her lips trembled, and she put out her
hand as if to touch his cheek, but drew it back again and said:
"Come now, let us to horse, dear fellow in arms."
So they mounted and went their ways through a close pine-wood,
where the ground was covered with the pine-tree needles,
and all was still and windless. So as they rode said Ursula:
"I seek tokens of the way to the Sage of Swevenham.
Hast thou seen a water yesterday?" "Yea," said Ralph,
"I rode far along it, but left it because I deemed that it
turned north overmuch." "Thou wert right," she said,
"besides that thy turning from it hath brought us together;
for it would have brought thee to Utterbol at last. But now have we
to hit upon another that runneth straight down from the hills:
not the Great Mountains, but the high ground whereon is the
Sage's dwelling. I know not whether the ride be long or short;
but the stream is to lead us."
On they rode through the wood, wherein was little change for hours;
and as they rested Ursula gave forth a deep breath, as one who has cast
off a load of care. And Ralph said: "Why sighest thou, fellow-farer?"
"O," she said, "it is for pleasure, and a thought that I had:
for a while ago I was a thrall, living amongst fears that sickened the heart;
and then a little while I was a lonely wanderer, and now...Therefore
I was thinking that if ever I come back to mine own land and my home,
the scent of a pine-wood shall make me happy."
Ralph looked on her eagerly, but said naught for a while;
but at last he spoke: "Tell me, friend," said he, "if we
be met by strong-thieves on the way, what shall we do then?"
"It is not like to befall," she said, "for men fear the wood,
therefore is there little prey for thieves therein: but if we
chance on them, the token of Utterbol on mine armour shall make
them meek enough." Then she fell silent a while, and spoke again:
"True it is that we may be followed by the Utterbol riders;
for though they also fear the wood, they fear it not so much as they
fear their Lord. Howbeit, we be well ahead, and it is little
like that we shall be overtaken before we have met the Sage;
and then belike he shall provide."
"Yea," said Ralph, "but what if the chase come up with us:
shall we suffer us to be taken alive?" She looked on him solemnly,
laid her hand on the beads about her neck, and answered:
"By this token we must live as long as we may, whatsoever may befall;
for at the worst may some road of escape be opened to us.
Yet O, how far easier it were to die than to be led back to Utterbol!"
A while they rode in silence, both of them: but at last spake Ralph,
but slowly and in a dull and stern voice: "Maybe it were good that
thou told me somewhat of the horrors and evil days of Utterbol?"
"Maybe," she said, "but I; will not tell thee of them.
Forsooth there are some things which a man may not easily tell to a man,
be he never so much his friend as thou art to me. But bethink thee"
(and she smiled somewhat) "that this gear belieth me, and that I am
but a woman; and some things there be which a woman may not tell
to a man, nay, not even when he hath held her long in his arms."
And therewith she flushed exceedingly. But he said in a kind voice:
"I am sorry that I asked thee, and will ask thee no more thereof."
She smiled on him friendly, and they spake of other matters as
they rode on.
But after a while Ralph said: "If it were no misease to thee to tell
me how thou didst fall into the hands of the men of Utterbol,
I were fain to hear the tale."
She laughed outright, and said: "Why wilt thou be forever harping on the time
of my captivity, friend? And thou who knowest the story somewhat already?
Howbeit, I may tell thee thereof without heart-burning, though it be
a felon tale."
He said, somewhat shame-facedly: "Take it not ill that I am fain to hear
of thee and thy life-days, since we are become fellow-farers."
"Well," she said, "this befell outside Utterbol, so I will tell thee.
"After I had stood in the thrall-market at Cheaping Knowe,
and not been sold, the wild man led me away toward the mountains
that are above Goldburg; and as we drew near to them on a day,
he said to me that he was glad to the heart-root that none
had cheapened me at the said market; and when I asked
him wherefore, he fell a weeping as he rode beside me, and said:
'Yet would God that I had never taken thee.' I asked what
ailed him, though indeed I deemed that I knew. He said:
'This aileth me, that though thou art not of the blood wherein I
am bound to wed, I love thee sorely, and would have thee to wife;
and now I deem that thou wilt not love me again.' I said that
he guessed aright, but that if he would do friendly with me,
I would be no less than a friend to him. 'That availeth little,'
quoth he; 'I would have thee be mine of thine own will.'
I said that might not be, that I could love but one man alone.
'Is he alive?' said he. 'Goodsooth, I hope so,' said I,
'but if he be dead, then is desire of men dead within me.'
"So we spake, and he was downcast and heavy of mood;
but thenceforward was he no worse to me than a brother.
And he proffered it to lead me back, if I would, and put
me safely on the way to Whitwall; but, as thou wottest,
I had need to go forward, and no need to go back.
"Thus we entered into the mountains of Goldburg; but one morning,
when he arose, he was heavier of mood than his wont, and was
restless withal, and could be steadfast neither in staying nor going,
nor aught else. So I asked what ailed him, and he said:
'My end draweth nigh; I have seen my fetch, and am fey.
My grave abideth me in these mountains.' 'Thou hast been
dreaming ugly dreams,' said I, 'such things are of no import.'
And I spoke lightly, and strove to comfort him. He changed not
his mood for all that; but said: 'This is ill for thee also;
for thou wilt be worser without me than with me in these lands.'
Even so I deemed, and withal I was sorry for him,
for though he were uncouth and ungainly, he was no ill man.
So against my will I tumbled into the samelike mood as his,
and we both fared along drearily. But about sunset,
as we came round a corner of the cliffs of those mountains,
or ever we were ware we happed upon a half-score of weaponed men,
who were dighting a camp under a big rock thereby:
but four there were with them who were still a-horseback;
so that when Bull Nosy (for that was his name) strove to flee
away with me, it was of no avail; for the said horsemen took us,
and brought us before an evil-looking man, who, to speak shortly,
was he whom thou hast seen, to wit, the Lord of Utterbol:
he took no heed of Bull Nosy, but looked on me closely,
and handled me as a man doth with a horse at a cheaping, so that I
went nigh to smiting him, whereas I had a knife in my bosom,
but the chaplet refrained me. To make a short tale of it,
he bade Bull sell me to him, which Bull utterly naysaid,
standing stiff and stark before the Lord, and scowling on him.
But the Lord laughed in his face and said: 'So be it, for I will
take her without a price, and thank thee for sparing my gold.'
Then said Bull: 'If thou take her as a thrall, thou wert
best take me also; else shall I follow thee as a free man
and slay thee when I may. Many are the days of the year,
and on some one of them will betide the occasion for the knife.'
"Thereat the Lord waxed very pale, and spake not, but looked
at that man of his who stood by Bull with a great sword in
his fist, and lifted up his hand twice, and let it fall twice,
whereat that man stepped back one pace, and swung his sword,
and smote Bull, and clave his skull.
"Then the colour came into the Lord's face again, and he said:
'Now, vassals, let us dine and be merry, for at least we have found
something in the mountains.' So they fell to and ate and drank,
and victual was given to me also, but I had no will to eat, for my
soul was sick and my heart was heavy, foreboding the uttermost evil.
Withal I was sorry for Bull Nosy, for he was no ill man and had
become my friend.
"So they abode there that night, leaving Bull lying like a dog
unburied in the wilderness; and on the morrow they took
the road to Utterbol, and went swiftly, having no baggage,
and staying but for victual, and for rest every night.
The Lord had me brought to him on that first evening of our journey,
and he saw me privily and spake to me, bidding me do shameful things,
and I would not; wherefore he threatened me grievously; and, I being
alone with him, bade him beware lest I should slay him or myself.
Thereat he turned pale, as he had done before Bull Nosy,
yet sent for none to slay me, but only bade me back to my keepers.
And so I came to Utterbol unscathed."
"And at Utterbol," said Ralph, "what befell thee there?"
Ursula smiled on him, and held up her finger; yet she answered:
"Utterbol is a very great house in a fair land, and there
are sundry roofs and many fair chambers. There was I brought
to a goodly chamber amidst a garden; and women servants were
given me who led me to the bath and clad me in dainty raiment,
and gave me to eat and to drink, and all that I needed.
That is all my tale for this time."
They Come on the Sage of Swevenham
Night was at hand before they came to the stream that they sought.
They found it cleaving the pine-wood, which held on till the very bank of it,
and was thick again on the further side in a few yards' space. The stream
was high-banked and ran deep and strong. Said Ursula as they came up to it:
"We may not cross it, but it matters not; and it is to-morrow that we must
ride up along it."
So they abode there, and made a fire by the waterside,
and watched there, turn and turn about, till it was broad day.
Naught befell to tell of, save that twice in the night Ralph
deemed that he heard a lion roar.
They got to horse speedily when they were both awake, and rode up
the stream, and began to go up hill, and by noon were come into a rough
and shaggy upland, whence from time to time they could see the huge
wall of the mountains, which yet seemed to Ralph scarce nigher,
if at all, than when he had beheld it ere he had come to Vale Turris.
The way was rough day-long, and now and again they found it hard
to keep the stream in sight, as especially when it cleft a hill,
and ran between sheer cliffs with no low shore on either side.
They made way but slowly, so that at last Ralph lost patience somewhat,
and said that he had but little hope of falling in with the Sage
that day or any day. But Ursula was of good cheer, and mocked
him merrily but sweetly, till his heart was lightened again.
Withal she bade him seek some venison, since they were drawing
out the time, and she knew not how long it would be ere they came
to the Sage's dwelling. Therefore he betook him to the Turk bow,
and shot a leash of heath-fowl, and they supped on the meat merrily
in the wilderness.
But if they were merry, they were soon weary; for they
journeyed on after sunset that night, since the moon was up,
and there was no thick wood to turn dusk into dark for them.
Their resting-place was a smooth piece of greensward betwixt
the water and a half circle of steep bent that well nigh
locked it about.
There then they abode, and in the stillness of the night heard
a thundering sound coming down the wind to them, which they
deemed was the roaring of distant waters; and when they went
to the lip of the river they saw flocks of foam floating by,
wherefore they thought themselves to be near some great
mountain-neck whereover the water was falling from some high place.
But with no to-do they lay down upon the greensward this second
night of their fellowship, and waked later than on the day before;
for so weary had they been, that they had kept but ill watch
in the dark night, and none at all after dawn began to glimmer.
Now Ralph sat up and saw Ursula still sleeping; then he rose to his feet and
looked about him, and saw their two horses cropping the grass under the bent,
and beside them a man, tall and white bearded, leaning on his staff.
Ralph caught up his sword and went toward the man, and the sun gleamed
from the blade just as the hoary-one turned to him; he lifted up his staff
as if in greeting to Ralph, and came toward him, and even therewith Ursula
awoke and arose, and saw the greybeard at once; and she cried out:
"Take heed to thy sword, fellow-farer, for, praised be the saints,
this is the Sage of Swevenham!"
So they stood there together till the Sage came up to them and
kissed them both, and said: "I am glad that ye are come at last;
for I looked for you no later than this. So now mount your
horses and come with me straightway; because life is short
to them who have not yet drunk of the Well at the World's End.
Moreover if ye chance to come on the riders of Utterbol,
it shall go hard with you unless I be at hand."
Ralph saw of him that though he was an old hoar man to look on,
yet he was strong and sturdy, tall, and of goodly presence,
with ruddy cheeks, and red lips and bright eyes, and that the skin
of his face and hands was nowise wrinkled: but about his neck
was a pair of beads like unto his own gossip's gift.
So now they mounted at once, and with no more words he led them
about the bent, and they came in a little while into the wood again,
but this time it was of beech, with here and there an open place
sprinkled about with hollies and thorns; and they rode down the wide
slope of a long hill, and up again on the other side.
Thus they went for an hour, and the elder spake not again, though it
might have been deemed by his eyes that he was eager and fain.
They also held their peace; for the hope and fear of their hearts
kept them from words.
They came to the hill-top, and found a plain land, though the close
wood still held on a while; but soon they rode into a clearing
of some twelve acres, where were fenced crofts with goats therein,
and three garths of tillage, wherein the wheat-shocks were
yet standing, and there were coleworts and other pot-herbs also.
But at the further end, whereas the wood closed in again,
was a little house builded of timber, strong and goodly,
and thatched with wheat-straw; and beside it was a bubbling
spring which ran in a brook athwart the said clearing;
over the house-door was a carven rood, and a bow and short
spear were leaned against the wall of the porch.
Ralph looked at all closely, and wondered whether this were perchance
the cot wherein the Lady of Abundance had dwelt with the evil witch.
But the elder looked on him, and said: "I know thy thought, and it
is not so; that house is far away hence; yet shalt thou come thereto.
Now, children, welcome to the house of him who hath found what ye seek,
but hath put aside the gifts which ye shall gain; and who belike shall
remember what ye shall forget."
Therewith he brought them into the house, and into a chamber,
the plenishing whereof was both scanty and rude.
There he bade them sit, and brought them victual, to wit,
cheese and goats' milk and bread, and they fell to speech concerning
the woodland ways, and the seasons, and other unweighty matters.
But as for the old man he spoke but few words, and as one
unused to speech, albeit he was courteous and debonair.
But when they had eaten and drunk he spake to them and said:
"Ye have sought to me because ye would find the Well at the World's End,
and would have lore of me concerning the road thereto; but before I tell
you what ye would, let me know what ye know thereof already."
Quoth Ralph: "For me, little enough I know, save that I must
come to the Rock of the Fighting Man, and that thou knowest
the way thither."
"And thou, damsel," quoth the long-hoary, "what knowest thou?
Must I tell thee of the way through the mountains and the Wall
of the World, and the Winter Valley, and the Folk Innocent,
and the Cot on the Way, and the Forest of Strange Things
and the Dry Tree?"
"Nay," she said, "of all this I wot somewhat, but it may be not enough."
Said the Sage: "Even so it was with me, when a many years ago
I dwelt nigh to Swevenham, and folk sought to me for lore,
and I told them what I knew; but maybe it was not enough, for they
never came back; but died belike or ever they had seen the Well.
And then I myself, when I was gotten very old, fared thither
a-seeking it, and I found it; for I was one of those who bore
the chaplet of the seekers. And now I know all, and can teach all.
But tell me, damsel, whence hadst thou this lore?"
Said Ursula: "I had it of a very fair woman who, as it seemeth,
was Lady and Queen of the Champions of Hampton under the Scaur,
not far from mine own land."
"Yea," quoth the Sage, "and what hath befallen her?...Nay, nay,"
said he, "I need not ask; for I can see by your faces that she is dead.
Therefore hath she been slain, or otherwise she had not been dead.
So I ask you if ye were her friends?"
Quoth Ursula; "Surely she was my friend, since she befriended me;
and this man I deem was altogether her friend."
Ralph hung his head, and the Sage gazed on him, but said naught.
Then he took a hand of each of them in his hands, and held
them a while silently, and Ralph was still downcast and sad,
but Ursula looked on him fondly.
Then spake the Sage: "So it is, Knight, that now I seem to understand
what manner of man thou art, and I know what is between you two;
whereof I will say naught, but will let the tree grow according to its seed.
Moreover, I wot now that my friend of past years would have me make you
both wise in the lore of the Well at the World's End; and when I have
done this, I can do no more, but let your good hap prevail if so it may.
Abide a little, therefore."
Then he went unto an ark, and took thence a book wrapped
in a piece of precious web of silk and gold, and bound
in cuir-bouilly wrought in strange devices. Then said he:
"This book was mine heritage at Swevenham or ever I
became wise, and it came from my father's grandsire:
and my father bade me look on it as the dearest of possessions;
but I heeded it naught till my youth had waned, and my manhood
was full of weariness and grief. Then I turned to it,
and read in it, and became wise, and the folk sought to me,
and afterwards that befell which was foredoomed.
Now herein amongst other matters is written of that which ye
desire to know, and I will read the same to you and expound it.
Yet were it not well to read in this book under a roof,
nay, though it be as humble and innocent as this.
Moreover, it is not meet that ye should hearken to this wisdom
of old times clad as ye are; thou, knight, in the raiment
of the manslayer, with the rod of wrath hanging at thy side;
and thou, maiden, attired in the garments of the tyrant,
which were won of him by lying and guile."
Then he went to another ark, and took from it two bundles,
which he gave, the one to Ralph, the other to Ursula, and said:
"Thou, maiden, go thou into the inner chamber here and doff
thy worldly raiment, and don that which thou wilt find wrapped
in this cloth; and thou, knight, take this other and get thee
into the thicket which is behind the house, and there do the like,
and abide there till we come to thee."
So Ralph took the bundle, and came out into the thicket and unarmed him,
and did on the raiment which he found in the cloth, which was but a long gown
of white linen, much like to an alb, broidered about the wrists and the hems
and collar with apparels of gold and silk, girt with a red silk girdle.
There he abode a little, wondering at all these things and all that had
befallen him since he had left Upmeads.
Anon the two others came to him, and Ursula was clad in
the same-like raiment and the elder had the book in his hand.
He smiled on Ralph and nodded friendly to him. As to Ursula,
she flushed as red as a rose when she set eyes on him, for she
said to herself that he was as one of the angels which she
had seen painted in the choir of St. Mary's at Higham.
Those Two Are Learned Lore by the Sage of Swevenham
Now the Sage led them through the wood till they came to a grassy
lawn amidst of which was a table of stone, which it seemed
to Ralph must be like to that whereon the witch-wife had offered
up the goat to her devils as the Lady of Abundance had told him;
and he changed countenance as the thought came into his mind.
But the Sage looked on him and shook his head and spake softly:
"In these wastes and wilds are many such-like places, where of old
time the ancient folks did worship to the Gods of the Earth
as they imagined them: and whereas the lore in this book cometh
of such folk, this is no ill place for the reading thereof.
But if ye fear the book and its writers, who are dead long ago,
there is yet time to go back and seek the Well without
my helping; and I say not but that ye may find it even thus.
But if ye fear not, then sit ye down on the grass, and I
will lay the book on this most ancient table, and read in it,
and do ye hearken heedfully."
So they sat down side by side, and Ralph would have taken Ursula's
hand to caress it, but she drew it away from him; howbeit she found it
hard to keep her eyes from off him. The Elder looked on them soberly,
but nowise in anger, and presently began reading in the book.
What he read shall be seen hereafter in the process of this tale;
for the more part thereof had but to do with the way to the Well
at the World's End, all things concerning which were told out fully,
both great and small. Long was this a-reading, and when the Sage
had done, he bade now one, now the other answer him questions
as to what he had read; and if they answered amiss he read that
part again, and yet again, as children are taught in the school.
Until at last when he asked any question Ralph or the maiden answered
it rightly at once; and by this time the sun was about to set.
So he bade them home to his house that they might eat and sleep there.
"But to-morrow," said he, "I shall give you your last lesson from this book,
and thereafter ye shall go your ways to the Rock of the Fighting Man,
and I look not for it that ye shall come to any harm on the way;
but whereas I seem to-day to have seen the foes of Utterbol seeking you,
I will lead you forth a little."
So they went home to the house, and he made them the most cheer
that he might, and spake to them in friendly and pleasant mood,
so that they were merry.
When it was morning they went again to the ancient altar,
and again they learned lore from the Elder, till they were
waxen wise in the matters of the Well at the World's End,
and long they sat and hearkened him till it was evening again,
and once more they slept in the house of the Sage of Swevenham.
An Adventure by the Way
When morrow dawned they arose betimes and did on their worldly raiment;
and when they had eaten a morsel they made them ready for the road,
and the elder gave them victual for the way in their saddle-bags, saying:
"This shall suffice for the passing days, and when it is gone ye have
learned what to do."
Therewithall they gat to horse; but Ralph would have the Elder
ride his nag, while he went afoot by the side of Ursula.
So the Sage took his bidding, but smiled therewith, and said:
"Thou art a King's son and a friendly young man, else had I said
nay to this; for it needeth not, whereas I am stronger than thou,
so hath my draught of the Well dealt with me."
Thus then they went their ways; but Ralph noted of Ursula
that she was silent and shy with him, and it irked him so much,
that at last he said to her: "My friend, doth aught ail me
with thee? Wilt thou not tell me, so that I may amend it?
For thou are grown of few words with me and turnest thee from me,
and seemest as if thou heedest me little. Thou art as a fair
spring morning gone cold and overcast in the afternoon.
What is it then? we are going a long journey together,
and belike shall find little help or comfort save in each other;
and ill will it be if we fall asunder in heart, though we
be nigh in body."
She laughed and reddened therewithal; and then her countenance fell and she
looked piteously on him and said: "If I seemed to thee as thou sayest,
I am sorry; for I meant not to be thus with thee as thou deemest.
But so it is that I was thinking of this long journey, and of thee
and me together in it, and how we shall be with each other if we come
back again alive, with all things done that we had to do."
She stayed her speech awhile, and seemed to find it hard
to give forth the word that was in her; but at last she said:
"Friend, thou must pardon me; but that which thou sawest in me,
I also seemed to see in thee, that thou wert grown shy and cold with me;
but now I know it is not so, since thou hast seen me wrongly;
but that I have seen thee wrongly, as thou hast me."
Therewith she reached her hand to him, and he took it and kissed
it and caressed it while she looked fondly at him, and they fared
on sweetly and happily together. But as this was a-saying and
a-doing betwixt them, and a while after, they had heeded the Elder
little or not at all, though he rode on the right hand of Ralph.
And for his part the old man said naught to them and made as if
he heard them not, when they spake thuswise together.
Now they rode the wood on somewhat level ground for a while;
then the trees began to thin, and the ground grew broken;
and at last it was very rugged, with high hills and
deep valleys, and all the land populous of wild beasts,
so that about sunset they heard thrice the roar of a lion.
But ever the Sage led them by winding ways that he knew,
round the feet of the hills, along stream-sides for the most part,
and by passes over the mountain-necks when they needs must,
which was twice in the day.
Dusk fell on them in a little valley, through which ran a stream bushed
about its edges, and which for the rest was grassy and pleasant,
with big sweet-chestnut trees scattered about it.
"Now," quoth the Elder; "two things we have to beware of in this valley,
the lions first; which, though belike they will not fall upon
weaponed men, may well make an onslaught on your horses, if they
wind them; and the loss of the beasts were sore to you as now.
But the second thing is the chase from Utterbol. As to the lions,
if ye build up a big fire, and keep somewhat aloof from the stream
and its bushes, and tether you horses anigh the fire, ye will have
no harm of them."
"Yea," said Ralph, "but if the riders of Utterbol are anigh us,
shall we light a candle for them to show them the way?" Said the Sage:
"Were ye by yourselves, I would bid you journey night-long, and
run all risk rather than the risk of falling into their hands.
But whereas I am your guide, I bid you kindle your fire under
yonder big tree, and leave me to deal with the men of Utterbol;
only whatso I bid you, that do ye straightway."
"So be it," said Ralph, "I have been bewrayed so oft of late,
that I must needs trust thee, or all help shall fail me.
Let us to work." So they fell to and built up a big bale
and kindled it, and their horses they tethered to the tree;
and by then they had done this, dark night had fallen upon them.
So they cooked their victual at the fire (for Ralph had shot a hare
by the way) and the Sage went down to the stream and fetched them
water in a lethern budget: "For," said he, "I know the beasts
of the wood and they me, and there is peace betwixt us."
There then they sat to meat unarmed, for the Sage had said to them:
"Doff your armour; ye shall not come to handystrokes with
the Utterbol Riders."
So they ate their meat in the wilderness, and were nowise ungleeful,
for to those twain the world seemed fair, and they hoped for great things.
But though they were glad, they were weary enough, for the way had been
both rugged and long; so they lay them down to sleep while the night was
yet young. But or ever Ralph closed his eyes he saw the Sage standing
up with his cloak wrapped about his head, and making strange signs with
his right hand; so that he deemed that he would ward them by wizardry.
So therewith he turned about on the grass and was asleep at once.
After a while he started and sat up, half awake at first; for be
felt some one touch him; and his halfdreams went back to past days,
and he cried out: "Hah Roger! is it thou? What is toward?"
But therewith he woke up fully, and knew that it was the Sage
that had touched him, and withal he saw hard by Ursula.
sitting up also.
There was still a flickering flame playing about the red embers of their fire,
for they had made it very big; and the moon had arisen and was shining bright
in a cloudless sky.
The Sage spake softly but quickly: "Lie down together, ye two,
and I shall cast my cloak over you, and look to it that ye stir not from
out of it, nor speak one word till I bid you, whate'er may befall:
for the riders of Utterbol are upon us."
They did as he bade them, but Ralph got somewhat of an
eye-shot out of a corner of the cloak, and he could see
that the Sage went and stood up against the tree-trunk
holding a horse by the bridle, one on each side of him.
Even therewith Ralph heard the clatter of horse-hoofs over
the stones about the stream, and a man's voice cried out:
"They will have heard us; so spur over the grass to the fire
and the big tree: for then they cannot escape us."
Then came the thump of horse-hoofs on the turf, and in half
a minute they were amidst of a rout of men a-horseback, more than
a score, whose armour and weapons gleamed in the moonlight:
yet when these riders were gotten there, they were silent,
till one said in a quavering voice as if afeard:
"Otter, Otter! what is this? A minute ago and we could see
the fire, and the tree, and men and horses about them:
and now, lo you! there is naught save two great grey stones lying
on the grass, and a man's bare bones leaning up against the tree,
and a ruckle of old horse-bones on either side of him.
Where are we then?"
Then spake another; and Ralph knew the voice for Otter's: "I
wot not, lord; naught else is changed save the fire and the horses
and the men: yonder are the hills, yonder overhead is the moon,
with the little light cloud dogging her; even that is scarce changed.
Belike the fire was an earth-fire, and for the rest we saw wrong
in the moonlight."
Spake the first man again, and his voice quavered yet more:
"Nay nay, Otter, it is not so. Lo you the skeleton and the bones
and the grey stones! And the fire, here this minute, there the next.
O Otter, this is an evil place of an evil deed! Let us go
seek elsewhere; let us depart, lest a worse thing befall us."
And so with no more ado he turned his horse and smote his
spurs into him and galloped off by the way he had come,
and the others followed, nothing loth; only Otter tarried
a little, and looked around him and laughed and said:
"There goes my Lord's nephew; like my Lord he is not over bold,
save in dealing with a, shackled man. Well, for my part if
those others have sunk into the earth, or gone up into the air,
they are welcome to their wizardry, and I am glad of it.
For I know not how I should have done to have seen my mate
that out-tilted me made a gelded wretch of; and it would have
irked me to see that fair woman in the hands of the tormentors,
though forsooth I have oft seen such sights. Well, it is good;
but better were it to ride with my mate than serve the Devil
and his Nephew."
Therewith he turned rein and galloped off after the others,
and in a little while the sound of them had died off utterly
into the night, and they heard but the voices of the wild things,
and the wimbrel laughing from the hill-sides. Then came the Sage
and drew the cloak from those two, and laughed on them and said:
"Now may ye sleep soundly, when I have mended our fire;
for ye will see no more of Utterbol for this time, and it yet lacks
three hours of dawn: sleep ye then and dream of each other."
Then they arose and thanked the Sage with whole hearts and
praised his wisdom. But while the old man mended the fire
Ralph went up to Ursula and took her hand, and said:
"Welcome to life, fellow-farer!" and he gazed earnestly into
her eyes, as though he would have her fall into his arms:
but whereas she rather shrank from him, though she looked
on him lovingly, if somewhat shyly, he but kissed her hand,
and laid him down again, when he had seen her lying in her place.
And therewith they fell asleep and slept sweetly.
They Come to the Sea of Molten Rocks
When they woke again the sun was high above their heads, and they saw
the Sage dighting their breakfast. So they arose and washed the night off
them in the stream and ate hastily, and got to horse on a fair forenoon;
then they rode the mountain neck east from that valley; and it was a long
slope of stony and barren mountain nigh waterless.
And on the way Ursula told Ralph how the man who was scared by
the wizardry last night was verily the nephew of the Lord from whom
she had stolen her armour by wheedling and a seeming promise.
"But," said she, "his love lay not so deep but that he would
have avenged him for my guile on my very body had he taken us."
Ralph reddened and scowled at her word, and the Sage led them
into the other talk.
So long was that fell, that they were nigh benighted
ere they gained the topmost, or came to any pass.
When they had come to a place where there was a little pool
in a hollow of the rocks they made stay there, and slept safe,
but ill-lodged, and on the morrow were on their way betimes,
and went toiling up the neck another four hours, and came to a
long rocky ridge or crest that ran athwart it; and when they
had come to the brow thereof, then were they face to face
with the Great Mountains, which now looked so huge that they
seemed to fill all the world save the ground whereon they stood.
Cloudless was the day, and the air clean and sweet, and every
nook and cranny was clear to behold from where they stood:
there were great jutting nesses with straight-walled burgs
at their top-most, and pyramids and pinnacles that no hand
of man had fashioned, and awful clefts like long streets
in the city of the giants who wrought the world, and high
above all the undying snow that looked as if the sky had come
down on to the mountains and they were upholding it as a roof.
But clear as was the fashion of the mountains, they were yet a long
way off: for betwixt them and the ridge whereon those fellows stood,
stretched a vast plain, houseless and treeless, and, as they beheld
it thence grey and ungrassed (though indeed it was not wholly so)
like a huge river or firth of the sea it seemed, and such indeed
it had been once, to wit a flood of molten rock in the old days
when the earth was a-burning.
Now as they stood and beheld it, the Sage spake:
"Lo ye, my children, the castle and its outwork, and its
dyke that wardeth the land of the Well at the World's End.
Now from to-morrow, when we enter into the great sea of the rock
molten in the ancient earth-fires, there is no least peril
of pursuit for you. Yet amidst that sea should ye perish belike,
were it not for the wisdom gathered by a few; and they are dead
now save for the Book, and for me, who read it unto you.
Now ye would not turn back were I to bid you, and I will not bid you.
Yet since the journey shall be yet with grievous toil and much peril,
and shall try the very hearts within you, were ye as wise as
Solomon and as mighty as Alexander, I will say this much unto you;
that if ye love not the earth and the world with all your souls,
and will not strive all ye may to be frank and happy therein,
your toil and peril aforesaid shall win you no blessing
but a curse. Therefore I bid you be no tyrants or builders
of cities for merchants and usurers and warriors and thralls,
like the fool who builded Goldberg to be for a tomb to him:
or like the thrall-masters of the Burg of the Four Friths,
who even now, it may be, are pierced by their own staff or
overwhelmed by their own wall. But rather I bid you to live
in peace and patience without fear or hatred, and to succour
the oppressed and love the lovely, and to be the friends
of men, so that when ye are dead at last, men may say of you,
they brought down Heaven to the Earth for a little while.
What say ye, children?"
Then said Ralph: "Father, I will say the sooth about mine intent, though ye
may deem it little-minded. When I have accomplished this quest, I would get
me home again to the little land of Upmeads, to see my father and my mother,
and to guard its meadows from waste and its houses from fire-raising:
to hold war aloof and walk in free fields, and see my children growing up
about me, and lie at last beside my fathers in the choir of St. Laurence.
The dead would I love and remember; the living would I love and cherish;
and Earth shall be the well beloved house of my Fathers, and Heaven
the highest hall thereof."
"It is well," said the Sage, "all this shalt thou do and be no little-heart,
though thou do no more. And thou, maiden?"
She looked on Ralph and said: "I lost, and then I found,
and then I lost again. Maybe I shall find the lost once more.
And for the rest, in all that this man will do, I will help,
living or dead, for I know naught better to do."
"Again it is well," said the Sage, "and the lost which was verily thine
shalt thou find again, and good days and their ending shall betide thee.
Ye shall have no shame in your lives and no fear in your deaths.
Wherefore now lieth the road free before you."
Then was he silent a while, neither spake the others aught,
but stood gazing on the dark grey plain, and the blue wall that rose
beyond it, till at last the Sage lifted up his hand and said:
"Look yonder, children, to where I point, and ye shall see
how there thrusteth out a ness from the mountain-wall,
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