The Well at the World's End
Part 8 out of 11
and the end of it stands like a bastion above the lava-sea,
and on its sides and its head are streaks ruddy and tawny,
where the earth-fires have burnt not so long ago: see ye?"
Ralph looked and said: "Yea, father, I see it, and its rifts and its ridges,
and its crannies."
Quoth the Sage: "Behind that ness shall ye come to the Rock
of the Fighting Man, which is the very Gate of the Mountains;
and I will not turn again nor bid you farewell till I have brought
you thither. And now time presses; for I would have you come
timely to that cavern, whereof I have taught you, before ye
fall on the first days of winter, or ye shall be hard bestead.
So now we will eat a morsel, and then use diligence that we
may reach the beginning of the rock-sea before nightfall."
So did they, and the Sage led them down by a slant-way
from off the ridge, which was toilsome but nowise perilous.
So about sunset they came down into the plain, and found a belt
of greensward, and waters therein betwixt the foot of the ridge
and the edge of the rock-sea. And as for the said sea,
though from afar it looked plain and unbroken, now that they
were close to, and on a level with it, they saw that it rose
up into cliffs, broken down in some places, and in others
arising high into the air, an hundred foot, it might be.
Sometimes it thrust out into the green shore below the fell,
and otherwhile drew back from it as it had cooled ages ago.
So they came to a place where there was a high wall of rock round three sides
of a grassy place by a stream-side, and there they made their resting-place,
and the night went calmly and sweetly with them.
They Come Forth From the Rock-Sea
On the morrow the Sage led them straight into the rock-sea whereas it
seemed to them at first that he was but bringing them into a blind alley;
but at the end of the bight the rock-wall was broken down into a long
scree of black stones. There the Sage bade Ralph and Ursula dismount
(as for him he had been going afoot ever since that first day)
and they led the horses up the said scree, which was a hard business,
as they were no mountain beasts. And when they were atop of the scree
it was harder yet to get them down, for on that side it was steeper;
but at last they brought it about, and came down into a little grassy
plain or isle in the rock sea, which narrowed toward the eastern end,
and the rocks on either side were smooth and glossy, as if the heat
had gone out of them suddenly, when the earth-fires had ceased
in the mountains.
Now the Sage showed them on a certain rock a sign cut, whereof they
had learned in the book aforesaid, to wit, a sword crossed by a
three-leaved bough; and they knew by the book that they should
press on through the rock-sea nowhere, either going or returning,
save where they should see this token.
Now when they came to the narrow end of the plain they found still a wide way
between the rock-walls, that whiles widened out, and whiles drew in again.
Whiles withal were screes across the path, and little waters that ran
out of the lava and into it again, and great blocks of fallen stone,
sometimes as big as a husbandman's cot, that wind and weather had
rent from the rocks; and all these things stayed them somewhat.
But they went on merrily, albeit their road winded so much, that the Sage
told them, when evening was, that for their diligence they had but come
a few short miles as the crow flies.
Many wild things there were, both beast and fowl, in these islands
and bridges of the rock-sea, hares and conies to wit, a many,
and heathfowl, and here and there a red fox lurking about the crannies
of the rock-wall. Ralph shot a brace of conies with his Turk bow,
and whereas there were bushes growing in the chinks, and no lack
of whin and ling, they had firing enough, and supped off this venison
of the rocks.
So passed that day and two days more, and naught befell, save that on
the midnight of the first day of their wending the rock-sea, Ralph awoke
and saw the sky all ablaze with other light than that of the moon;
so he arose and went hastily to the Sage, and took him by the shoulder,
and bid him awake; "For meseems the sky is afire, and perchance the foe
is upon us."
The Sage awoke and opened his eyes, and rose on his elbow and looked
around sleepily; then he said laughing: "It is naught, fair lord,
thou mayst lie down and sleep out the remnant of the night,
and thou also, maiden: this is but an earth-fire breaking
out on the flank of the mountains; it may be far away hence.
Now ye see that he may not scale the rocks about us here without toil;
but to-morrow night we may climb up somewhere and look on
what is toward."
So Ralph lay down and Ursula also, but Ralph lay long awake
watching the light above him, which grew fiercer and redder
in the hours betwixt moonset and daybreak, when he fell asleep,
and woke not again till the sun was high.
But on the next day as they went, the aspect of the rock-sea about
them changed: for the rocks were not so smooth and shining and orderly,
but rose up in confused heaps all clotted together by the burning, like to
clinkers out of some monstrous forge of the earth-giants, so that their way
was naught so clear as it had been, but was rather a maze of jagged stone.
But the Sage led through it all unfumbling, and moreover now and again
they came on that carven token of the sword and the bough. Night fell,
and as it grew dark they saw the glaring of the earth-fires again;
and when they were rested, and had done their meat, the Sage said:
"Come now with me, for hard by is there a place as it were a stair that
goeth to the top of a great rock, let us climb it and look about us."
So did they, and the head of the rock was higher than
the main face of the rock-sea, so that they could see afar.
Thence they looked north and beheld afar off a very pillar of fire
rising up from a ness of the mountain wall, and seeming as if it
bore up a black roof of smoke; and the huge wall gleamed grey,
because of its light, and it cast a ray of light across
the rock-sea as the moon doth over the waters of the deep:
withal there was the noise as of thunder in the air, but afar off:
which thunder indeed they had heard oft, as they rode through
the afternoon and evening.
Spake the Sage: "It is far away: yet if the wind were not blowing
from us, we had smelt the smoke, and the sky had been darkened by it.
Now it is naught so far from Utterbol, and it will be for a token
to them there. For that ness is called the Candle of the Giants,
and men deem that the kindling thereof forebodeth ill to the lord
who sitteth on the throne in the red hall of Utterbol."
Ralph laid his hand on Ursula's shoulder and said:
"May the Sage's saw be sooth!"
She put her hand upon the hand and said: "Three months ago
I lay on my bed at Bourton Abbas, and all the while here
was this huge manless waste lying under the bare heavens
and threatened by the storehouse of the fires of the earth:
and I had not seen it, nor thee either, O friend; and now it
hath become a part of me for ever."
Then was Ralph exceeding glad of her words, and the Sage laughed
inwardly when he beheld them thus.
So they came adown from the rock and lay down presently under
the fiery heavens: and their souls were comforted by the sound
of the horses cropping the grass so close to their ears,
that it broke the voice of the earth-fires' thunder, that ever
and anon rolled over the grey sea amidst which they lay.
On the morrow they still rode the lava like to clinkers,
and it rose higher about them, till suddenly nigh sunset it
ended at a turn of their winding road, and naught lay betwixt
them and that mighty ness of the mountains, save a wide
grassy plain, here and there swelling into low wide risings
not to be called hills, and besprinkled with copses of bushes,
and with trees neither great nor high. Then spake the Sage:
"Here now will we rest, and by my will to-morrow also, that your beasts
may graze their fill of the sweet grass of these unwarded meadows.
which feedeth many a herd unowned of man, albeit they pay
a quit-rent to wild things that be mightier than they.
And now, children, we have passed over the mighty river that once
ran molten betwixt these mountains and the hills yonder to the west,
which we trod the other day; yet once more, if your hearts fail you,
there is yet time to turn back; and no harm shall befall you,
but I will be your fellow all the way home to Swevenham if ye will.
But if ye still crave the water of the Well at the World's End,
I will lead you over this green plain, and then go back
home to mine hermitage, and abide there till ye come to me,
or I die."
Ralph smiled and said: "Master, no such sorry story shall
I bear back to Upmeads, that after many sorrows borne,
and perils overcome, I came to the Gates of the Mountains,
and turned back for fear of that which I had not proved."
So spake he; but Ursula laughed and said: "Yea, then should I
deem thy friendship light if thou leftest me alone and unholpen
in the uttermost wilderness; and thy manhood light to turn back
from that which did not make a woman afraid."
Then the Sage looked kindly on them and said: "Yea, then is
the last word spoken, and the world may yet grow merrier to me.
Look you, some there be who may abuse the gifts of the Well
for evil errands, and some who may use it for good deeds;
but I am one who hath not dared to use it lest I should
abuse it, I being along amongst weaklings and fools:
but now if ye come back, who knows but that I may fear no longer,
but use my life, and grow to be a mighty man. Come now, let us
dight our supper, and kindle as big a fire as we lightly may;
since there is many a prowling beast about, as bear and lynx and lion;
for they haunt this edge of the rock-sea whereto the harts
and the wild bulls and the goats resort for the sweet grass,
and the water that floweth forth from the lava."
So they cut good store of firing, whereas there was a plenty
of bushes growing in the clefts of the rocks, and they made a big
fire and tethered their horses anigh it when they lay down to rest;
and in the night they heard the roaring of wild things round about them,
and more than once or twice, awakening before day, they saw the shape
of some terrible creature by the light of the moon mingled with
the glare of the earth-fires, but none of these meddled with them,
and naught befell them save the coming of the new day.
They Come to the Gate of the Mountains
That day they herded their horses thereabout, and from time to time
the Sage tried those two if they were perfect in the lore of the road;
and he found that they had missed nothing.
They lay down in the self-same place again that night, and arose betimes
on the morrow and went their ways over the plain as the Sage led, till it
was as if the mountains and their terror hung over their very heads, and the
hugeness and blackness of them were worse than a wall of fire had been.
It was still a long way to them, so that it was not till noon of the third day
from the rock-sea that they came to the very feet of that fire-scorched ness,
and wonderful indeed it seemed to them that anything save the eagles could
have aught to tell of what lay beyond it.
There were no foothills or downs betwixt the plain and the mountains,
naught save a tumble of rocks that had fallen from the cliffs,
piled up strangely, and making a maze through which the Sage
led them surely; and at last they were clear even of this,
and were underneath the flank of that ness, which was so huge that
themseemed that there could scarce be any more mountain than that.
Little of its huge height could they see, now they were close to it,
for it went up sheer at first and then beetled over them till they
could see no more of its side; as they wound about its flank, and they
were long about it, the Sage cried out to those two and stretched
out his hand, and behold! the side of the black cliff plain and smooth
and shining as if it had been done by the hand of men or giants,
and on this smooth space was carven in the living rock the image
of a warrior in mail and helm of ancient fashion, and holding a sword
in his right hand. From head to heel he seemed some sixty feet high,
and the rock was so hard, that he was all clean and clear to see;
and they deemed of him that his face was keen and stern of aspect.
So there they stood in an awful bight of the mountain,
made by that ness, and the main wall from which it thrust out.
But after they had gazed awhile and their hearts were
in their mouths, the Sage turned on those twain and said:
"Here then is the end of my journey with you; and ye wot all
that I can tell you, and I can say no word more save to bid you
cast all fear aside and thrive. Ye have yet for this day's
journey certain hours of such daylight as the mountain pass
will give you, which at the best is little better than twilight;
therefore redeem ye the time."
But Ralph got off his horse, and Ursula did in likewise, and they both
kissed and embraced the old man, for their hearts were full and fain.
But he drew himself away from them, and turned about with no
word more, and went his ways, and presently was hidden from their
eyes by the rocky maze which lay about the mountain's foot.
Then the twain mounted their horses again and set forth silently
on the road, as they had been bidden.
In a little while the rocks of the pass closed about them,
leaving but a way so narrow that they could see a glimmer of
the stars above them as they rode the twilight; no sight they had
of the measureless stony desert, yet in their hearts they saw it.
They seemed to be wending a straight-walled prison without an end,
so that they were glad when the dark night came on them.
Ralph found some shelter in the cleft of a rock above a mound
where was little grass for the horses. He drew Ursula
into it, and they sat down there on the stones together.
So long they sat silent that a great gloom settled upon Ralph,
and he scarce knew whether he were asleep or waking, alive or dead.
But amidst of it fell a sweet voice on his ears, and familiar words
asking him of what like were the fields of Upmeads, and the flowers;
and of the fish of its water, and of the fashion of the building of his
father's house; and of his brethren, and the mother that bore him.
Then was it to him at first as if a sweet dream had come across
the void of his gloom, and then at last the gloom and the dread
and the deadness left him, and he knew that his friend and fellow
was talking to him, and that he sat by her knee to knee,
and the sweetness of her savoured in his nostrils as she leaned
her face toward him, and he knew himself for what he was;
and yet for memory of that past horror, and the sweetness of his
friend and what not else, he fell a-weeping. But Ursula bestirred
herself and brought out food from her wallet, and sat down beside
him again, and he wiped the tears from his eyes and laughed,
and chid himself for being as a child in the dark, and then they
ate and drank together in that dusk nook of the wilderness.
And now was he happy and his tongue was loosed, and he fell to telling
her many things of Upmeads, and of the tale of his forefathers,
and of his old loves and his friends, till life and death seemed to him
as they had seemed of time past in the merry land of his birth.
So there anon they fell asleep for weariness, and no dreams
of terror beset their slumbers.
They Come to the Vale of Sweet Chestnuts
When they went on their way next morning they found little change in the pass,
and they rode the dread highway daylong, and it was still the same:
so they rested a little before nightfall at a place where there was
water running out of the rocks, but naught else for their avail.
Ralph was merry and helpful and filled water from the runnel,
and wrought what he might to make the lodging meet; and as they ate
and rested he said to Ursula: "Last night it was thou that beguiled
me of my gloom, yet thereafter till we slept it was my voice for
the more part, and not thine, that was heard in the wilderness.
Now to-night it shall be otherwise, and I will but ask a question of thee,
and hearken to the sweetness of thy voice."
She laughed a little and very sweetly, and she said:
"Forsooth, dear friend, I spoke to thee that I might hear thy voice
for the more part, and not mine, that was heard in the desert;
but when I heard thee, I deemed that the world was yet alive
for us to come back to."
He was silent awhile, for his heart was pierced with the sweetness of
her speech, and he had fain have spoken back as sweetly as a man might;
yet he could not because he feared her somewhat, lest she should turn
cold to him; therefore himseemed that he spoke roughly, as he said:
"Nevertheless, my friend, I beseech thee to tell me of thine old home,
even as last night I told thee of mine."
"Yea," she said, "with a good will." And straightway
she fell to telling him of her ways when she was little,
and of her father and mother, and of her sister that had died,
and the brother whom Ralph had seen at Bourton Abbas:
she told also of bachelors who had wooed her, and jested
concerning them, yet kindly and without malice, and talked
so sweetly and plainly, that the wilderness was become a familiar
place to Ralph, and he took her hand in the dusk and said:
"But, my friend, how was it with the man for whom thou wert
weeping when I first fell in with thee at Bourton Abbas?"
She said: "I will tell thee plainly, as a friend may to a friend.
Three hours had not worn from thy departure ere tidings came to me
concerning him, that neither death nor wounding had befallen him;
and that his masterless horse and bloodstained saddle were but a device
to throw dust into our eyes, so that there might be no chase after
him by the men of the Abbot's bailiff, and that he might lightly
do as he would, to wit, swear himself into the riders of the Burg
of the Four Friths; for, in sooth, he was weary of me and mine.
Yet further, I must needs tell thee that I know now, that when I wept
before thee it was partly in despite, because I had found out in my heart
(though I bade it not tell me so much) that I loved him but little."
"Yea," said Ralph, "and when didst thou come to that knowledge
of thine heart?"
"Dear friend," she said, "mayhappen I may tell thee hereafter,
but as now I will forbear." He laughed for joy of her,
and in a little that talk fell down between them.
Despite the terror of the desert and the lonely ways, when Ralph
laid him down on his stony bed, happiness wrapped his heart about.
Albeit all this while he durst not kiss or caress her,
save very measurely, for he deemed that she would not suffer it;
nor as yet would he ask her wherefore, though he had it in his
mind that he would not always forbear to ask her.
Many days they rode that pass of the mountains, though it
was not always so evil and dreadful as at the first beginning;
for now again the pass opened out into little valleys, wherein was
foison of grass and sweet waters withal, and a few trees.
In such places must they needs rest them, to refresh their
horses as well as themselves, and to gather food, of venison,
and wild-fruit and nuts. But abiding in such vales was very
pleasant to them.
At last these said valleys came often and oftener, till it
was so that all was pretty much one valley, whiles broken by a
mountain neck, whiles straitened by a ness of the mountains that
jutted into it, but never quite blind: yet was the said valley
very high up, and as it were a trench of the great mountain.
So they were glad that they had escaped from that strait
prison betwixt the rock-walls, and were well at ease:
and they failed never to find the tokens that led them on the way,
even as they had learned of the Sage, so that they were not
beguiled into any straying.
And now they had worn away thirty days since they had parted from the Sage,
and the days began to shorten and the nights to lengthen apace;
when on the forenoon of a day, after they had ridden a very rugged
mountain-neck, they came down and down into a much wider valley
into which a great reef of rocks thrust out from the high mountain,
so that the northern half of the said vale was nigh cleft atwain by it;
well grassed was the vale, and a fair river ran through it,
and there were on either side the water great groves of tall and great
sweet-chestnuts and walnut trees, whereon the nuts were now ripe.
They rejoiced as they rode into it; for they remembered how the Sage
had told them thereof, that their travel and toil should be stayed
there awhile, and that there they should winter, because of the bread
which they could make them of the chestnuts, and the plenty of walnuts,
and that withal there was foison of venison.
So they found a ford of the river and crossed it, and went straight
to the head of the rocky ness, being shown thither by the lore of
the Sage, and they found in the face of the rock the mouth of a cavern,
and beside it the token of the sword and the branch. Therefore they knew
that they had come to their winter house, and they rejoiced thereat,
and without more ado they got off their horses and went into the cavern.
The entry thereof was low, so that they must needs creep into it,
but within it was a rock-hall, high, clean and sweet-smelling.
There then they dight their dwelling, doing all they might
to be done with their work before the winter was upon them.
The day after they had come there they fell to on the in-gathering
of their chestnut harvest, and they dried them, and made them into meal;
and the walnuts they gathered also. Withal they hunted the deer,
both great and small; amongst which Ralph, not without some peril,
slew two great bears, of which beasts, indeed, there was somewhat
more than enough, as they came into the dale to feed upon the nuts
and the berry-trees. So they soon had good store of peltries for their
beds and their winter raiment, which Ursula fell to work on deftly,
for she knew all the craft of needlework; and, shortly to tell it,
they had enough and to spare of victual and raiment.
Winter Amidst of the Mountains
In all this they had enough to be busy with, so that time hung
not heavy on their hands, and the shadow of the Quest was nowise
burdensome to them, since they wotted that they had to abide
the wearing of the days till spring was come with fresh tidings.
Their labour was nowise irksome to them, since Ralph was deft
in all manner of sports and crafts, such as up-country folk follow,
and though he were a king's son, he had made a doughty yeoman:
and as for Ursula, she also was country-bred, of a lineage
of field-folk, and knew all the manners of the fields.
Withal in whatsoever way it were, they loved each other dearly,
and all kind of speech flowed freely betwixt them.
Sooth to say, Ralph, taking heed of Ursula, deemed that she
were fain to love him bodily, and he wotted well by now,
that, whatever had befallen, he loved her, body and soul.
Yet still was that fear of her naysay lurking in his heart,
if he should kiss her, or caress her, as a man with a maid.
Therefore he forbore, though desire of her tormented him
grievously at whiles.
They wore their armour but little now, save when they were about
some journey wherein was peril of wild beasts. Ursula had dight
her some due woman's raiment betwixt her knight's surcoat
and doe-skins which they had gotten, so that it was not unseemly
of fashion. As for their horses, they but seldom backed them,
but used them to draw stuff to their rock-house on sledges,
which they made of tree-boughs; so that the beasts grew fat,
feeding on the grass of the valley and the wild-oats withal,
which grew at the upper end of the bight of the valley,
toward the northern mountains, where the ground was sandy.
No man they saw, nor any signs of man, nor had they seen any
save the Sage, since those riders of Utterbol had vanished
before them into the night.
So wore autumn into winter, and the frost came, and the snow,
with prodigious winds from out of the mountains:
yet was not the weather so hard but that they might go forth
most days, and come to no hurt if they were wary of the drifts;
and forsooth needs must they go abroad to take venison
for their livelihood.
So the winter wore also amidst sweet speech and friendliness betwixt the two,
and they lived still as dear friends, and not as lovers.
Seldom they spoke of the Quest, for it seemed to them now a matter
over great for speech. But now they were grown so familiar each
to each that Ursula took heart to tell Ralph more of the tidings
of Utterbol, for now the shame and grief of her bondage there was but
as a story told of another, so far away seemed that time from this.
But so grievous was her tale that Ralph grew grim thereover, and he said:
"By St. Nicholas! it were a good deed, once we are past the mountains again,
to ride to Utterbol and drag that swine and wittol from his hall
and slay him, and give his folk a good day. But then there is thou,
my friend, and how shall I draw thee into deadly strife?"
"Nay," she said, "whereso thou ridest thither will I, and one fate shall lie
on us both. We will think thereof and ask the Sage of it when we return.
Who knows what shall have befallen then? Remember the lighting of the candle
of Utterbol that we saw from the Rock-sea, and the boding thereof."
So Ralph was appeased for that time.
Oft also they spake of the little lands whence they came, and on a time amidst
of such talk Ursula said: "But alas, friend, why do I speak of all this,
when now save for my brother, who loveth me but after a fashion, to wit
that I must in all wise do his bidding, lad as he is, I have no longer kith
nor kin there, save again as all the folk of one stead are somewhat akin.
I think, my dear, that I have no country, nor any house to welcome me."
Said Ralph: "All lands, any land that thou mayst come to,
shall welcome thee, and I shall look to it that so it shall be."
And in his heart he thought of the welcome of Upmeads,
and of Ursula sitting on the dais of the hall of the High-House.
So wore the days till Candlemass, when the frost broke and the snows began
to melt, and the waters came down from the mountains, so that the river
rose over its banks and its waters covered the plain parts of the valley,
and those two could go dryshod but a little way out of their cavern;
no further than the green mound or toft which lay at the mouth thereof:
but the waters were thronged with fowl, as mallard and teal and coots,
and of these they took what they would. Whiles also they waded
the shallows of the flood, and whiles poled a raft about it,
and so had pleasure of the waters as before they had had of the snow.
But when at last the very spring was come, and the grass began
to grow after the showers had washed the plain of the waterborne mud,
and the snowdrop had thrust up and blossomed, and the celandine had come,
and then when the blackthorn bloomed and the Lent-lilies hid the grass
betwixt the great chestnut-boles, when the sun shone betwixt the showers
and the west wind blew, and the throstles and blackbirds ceased not
their song betwixt dawn and dusk, then began Ralph to say to himself,
that even if the Well at the World's End were not, and all that the Sage
had told them was but a tale of Swevenham, yet were all better than
well if Ursula were but to him a woman beloved rather than a friend.
And whiles he was pensive and silent, even when she was by him,
and she noted it and forbore somewhat the sweetness of her glances,
and the caressing of her soft speech: though oft when he looked on
her fondly, the blood would rise to her cheeks, and her bosom would
heave with the thought of his desire, which quickened hers so sorely,
that it became a pain and grief to her.
Of Ursula and the Bear
It befell on a fair sunny morning of spring, that Ralph sat alone
on the toft by the rock-house, for Ursula had gone down the meadow
to disport her and to bathe in the river. Ralph was fitting the blade
of a dagger to a long ashen shaft, to make him a strong spear;
for with the waxing spring the bears were often in the meadows again;
and the day before they had come across a family of the beasts
in the sandy bight under the mountains; to wit a carle, and a quean
with her cubs; the beasts had seen them but afar off, and whereas
the men were two and the sun shone back from their weapons, they had
forborne them; although they were fierce and proud in those wastes,
and could not away with creatures that were not of their kind.
So because of this Ralph had bidden Ursula not to fare abroad without
her sword, which was sharp and strong, and she no weakling withal.
He bethought him of this just as he had made an end of his spear-shaping,
so therewith he looked aside and saw the said sword hanging
to a bough of a little quicken-tree, which grew hard by the door.
Fear came into his heart therewith, so he arose and strode down over
the meadow hastily bearing his new spear, and girt with his sword.
Now there was a grove of chestnuts betwixt him and the river,
but on the other side of them naught but the green grass down to
the water's edge.
Sure enough as he came under the trees he heard a shrill cry, and knew
that it could be naught save Ursula; so he ran thitherward whence came
the cry, shouting as he ran, and was scarce come out of the trees ere
he saw Ursula indeed, mother-naked, held in chase by a huge bear as big
as a bullock: he shouted again and ran the faster; but even therewith,
whether she heard and saw him, and hoped for timely help, or whether she
felt her legs failing her, she turned on the bear, and Ralph saw that she
had a little axe in her hand wherewith she smote hardily at the beast;
but he, after the fashion of his kind, having risen to his hind legs,
fenced with his great paws like a boxer, and smote the axe out of her hand,
and she cried out bitterly and swerved from him and fell a running again;
but the bear tarried not, and would have caught her in a few turns;
but even therewith was Ralph come up, who thrust the beast into the side
with his long-headed spear, and not waiting to pull it out again,
drew sword in a twinkling, and smote a fore-paw off him and then drave
the sword in over the shoulder so happily that it reached his heart,
and he fell over dead with a mighty thump.
Then Ralph looked around for Ursula; but she had already run
back to the river-side and was casting her raiment on her;
so he awaited her beside the slain bear, but with drawn sword,
lest the other bear should come upon them; for this was
the he-bear. Howbeit he saw naught save presently Ursula all
clad and coming towards him speedily; so he turned toward her,
and when they met he cast himself upon her without a word,
and kissed her greedily; and she forbore not at all, but kissed
and caressed him as if she could never be satisfied.
So at last they drew apart a little, and walked quietly toward
the rock-house hand in hand. And on the way she told him that even
as she came up on to the bank from the water she saw the bear coming
down on her as fast as he could drive, and so she but caught up
her axe, and ran for it: "Yet I had little hope, dear friend,"
she said, "but that thou shouldst be left alone in the wilderness."
And therewith she turned on him and cast her arms about him again,
all weeping for joy of their two lives.
Thus slowly they came before the door of their rock-house and Ralph said:
"Let us sit down here on the grass, and if thou art not over wearied
with the flight and the battle, I will ask thee a question."
She laid herself down on the grass with a sigh, yet it was as of one
who sighs for pleasure and rest, and said, as he sat down beside her:
"I am fain to rest my limbs and my body, but my heart is at rest;
so ask on, dear friend."
The song of birds was all around them, and the scent of many
blossoms went past on the wings of the west wind, and Ralph was
silent a little as he looked at the loveliness of his friend;
then he said: "This is the question; of what kind are thy kisses
this morning, are they the kisses of a friend or a lover?
Wilt thou not called me beloved and not friend? Shall not we
two lie on the bridal bed this same night?"
She looked on him steadily, smiling, but for love and sweetness,
not for shame and folly; then she said: "O, dear friend
and dearest lover, three questions are these and not one;
but I will answer all three as my heart biddeth me.
And first, I will tell thee that my kisses are as thine;
and if thine are aught but the kisses of love, then am I befooled.
And next, I say that if thou wilt be my friend indeed,
I will not spare to call thee beloved, or to be all thy friend.
But as to thy third question; tell me, is there not time
enough for that?"
She faltered as she spake, but he said: "Look, beloved, and see how fair
the earth is to-day! What place and what season can be goodlier than this?
And were it not well that we who love each other should have our full joy
out of this sweet season, which as now is somewhat marred by our desire?"
"Ah, beloved!" she said, looking shyly at him, "is it so marred
by that which marreth not us?"
"Hearken!" he said; "how much longer shall this fairness and peace,
and our leisure and safety endure? Here and now the earth rejoiceth about us,
and there is none to say us nay; but to-morrow it may all be otherwise.
Bethink thee, dear, if but an hour ago the monster had slain thee,
and rent thee ere we had lain in each other's arms!"
"Alas!" she said, "and had I lain in thine arms an hundred times,
or an hundred times an hundred, should not the world be barren
to me, wert thou gone from it, and that could never more be?
But thou friend, thou well-beloved, fain were I to do thy
will that thou mightest be the happier...and I withal.
And if thou command it, be it so! Yet now should I tell
thee all my thought, and it is on my mind, that for a many
hundreds of years, yea, while our people were yet heathen,
when a man should wed a maid all the folk knew of it, and were
witnesses of the day and the hour thereof: now thou knowest
that the time draws nigh when we may look for those messengers
of the Innocent Folk, who come every spring to this cave to see
if there be any whom they may speed on the way to the Well
at the World's End. Therefore if thou wilt (and not otherwise)
I would abide their coming if it be not over long delayed;
so that there may be others to witness our wedding besides God,
and those his creatures who dwell in the wilderness.
Yet shall all be as thou wilt."
"How shall I not do after thy bidding?" said Ralph.
"I will abide their coming: yet would that they were here
to-day! And one thing I will pray of thee, that because of them
thou wilt not forbear, or cause me to forbear, such kissing
and caressing as is meet betwixt troth-plight lovers."
She laughed and said: "Nay, why should I torment thee...or me?
We will not tarry for this." And therewith she took her arm
about his neck and kissed him oft.
Then they said naught awhile, but sat listening happily
to the song of the pairing birds. At last Ralph said:
"What was it, beloved, that thou wert perchance to tell me concerning
the thing that caused thine heart to see that thy betrothed,
for whom thou wepst or seemedst to weep at the ale-house
at Bourton Abbas, was of no avail to thee?"
She said: "It was the sight of thee; and I thought also how I might
never be thine. For that I have sorrowed many a time since."
Said Ralph: "I am young and unmighty, yet lo!
I heal thy sorrow as if I were an exceeding mighty man.
And now I tell thee that I am minded to go back with thee
to Upmeads straightway; for love will prevail."
"Nay," she said, "that word is but from the teeth outwards;
for thou knowest, as I do, that the perils of the homeward
road shall overcome us, despite of love, if we have not drunk
of the Well at the World's End."
Again they were silent awhile, but anon she arose to her feet and said:
"Now must I needs dight victual for us twain; but first"
(and she smiled on him withal), "how is it that thou hast not asked
me if the beast did me any hurt? Art thou grown careless of me,
now the wedding is so nigh?"
He said: "Nay, but could I not see thee that thou wert not hurt?
There was no mark of blood upon thee, nor any stain at all."
Then she reddened, and said: "Ah, I forgot how keen-eyes thou art."
And she stood silent a little while, as he looked on her and loved
her sweetness. Then he said: "I am exceeding full of joy,
but my body is uneasy; so I will now go and skin that troll
who went so nigh to slay thee, and break up the carcase,
if thou wilt promise to abide about the door of the house,
and have thy sword and the spear ready to hand, and to don thine
helm and hauberk to boot."
She laughed and said: "That were but strange attire for a cook-maid, Ralph,
my friend; yet shall I do thy will, my lord and my love."
Then went Ralph into the cave, and brought forth the armour and did it on her,
and kissed her, and so went his ways to the carcase of the bear, which lay
some two furlongs from their dwelling; and when he came to the quarry
he fell to work, and was some time about it, so huge as the beast was.
Then he hung the skin and the carcase on a tree of the grove, and went
down to the river and washed him, and then went lightly homewards.
Now Come the Messengers of the Innocent Folk
But when he had come forth from the chestnut-grove, and could
see the face of their house-rock clearly, he beheld new tidings;
for there were folk before the door of the dwelling, and Ursula was
standing amidst of them, for he could see the gleam of her armour;
and with the men he could see also certain beasts of burden,
and anon that these were oxen. So he hastened on to find
what this might mean, and drew his sword as he went.
But when he came up to the rock, he found there two young men
and an elder, and they had with them five oxen, three for riding,
and two sumpter beasts, laden: and Ursula and these men
were talking together friendly; so that Ralph deemed that
the new-comers must be the messengers of the Innocent Folk.
They were goodly men all three, somewhat brown of skin,
but well fashioned, and of smiling cheerful countenance,
well knit, and tall. The elder had a long white beard,
but his eye was bright, and his hand firm and smooth.
They were all clad in white woollen raiment, and bore no armour,
but each had an axe with a green stone blade, curiously tied
to the heft, and each of the young men carried a strong bow
and a quiver of arrows.
Ralph greeted the men, and bade them sit down on the toft and eat
a morsel; they took his greeting kindly, and sat down, while Ursula
went into the cave to fetch them matters for their victual,
and there was already venison roasting at the fire on the toft,
in the place where they were wont to cook their meat.
So then came Ursula forth from the cave, and served the new-comers
and Ralph of such things as she had, and they ate and drank together;
and none said aught of their errand till they had done their meat,
but they talked together pleasantly about the spring,
and the blossoms of the plain and the mountain, and the wild
things that dwelt thereabout.
But when the meal was over, the new-comers rose to their feet, and bowed
before Ralph and Ursula, and the elder took up the word and said:
"Ye fair people, have ye any errand in the wilderness, or are ye
chance-comers who have strayed thus far, and know not how to return?"
"Father," said Ralph, "we have come a long way on an errand
of life or death; for we seek the WELL at the WORLD'S END.
And see ye the token thereof, the pair of beads which we bear,
either of us, and the fashion whereof ye know."
Then the elder bowed to them again, and said: "It is well;
then is this our errand with you, to be your way-leaders as far
as the House of the Sorceress, where ye shall have other help.
Will ye set out on the journey to-day? In one hour shall
we be ready."
"Nay," said Ralph, "we will not depart till tomorrow morn, if it may be so.
Therewith I bid you sit down and rest you, while ye hearken a word which I
have to say to you."
So they sat down again, and Ralph arose and took Ursula
by the hand, and stood with her before the elder, and said:
"This maiden, who is my fellow-farer in the Quest,
I desire to wed this same night, and she also desireth me:
therefore I would have you as witnesses hereto.
But first ye shall tell us if our wedding and the knowing
each other carnally shall be to our hurt in the Quest;
for if that be so, then shall we bridle our desires and perform
our Quest in their despite."
The old man smiled upon them kindly, and said: "Nay, son,
we hear not that it shall be the worse for you in any wise
that ye shall become one flesh; and right joyful it is to us,
not only that we have found folk who seek to the Well
at the World's End, but also that there is such love as I
perceive there is betwixt such goodly and holy folk as ye be.
For hither we come year by year according to the behest
that we made to the fairest woman of the world, when she came
back to us from the Well at the World's End, and it is many
and many a year ago since we found any seekers after the Well
dwelling here. Therefore have we the more joy in you.
And we have brought hither matters good for you, as raiment,
and meal, and wine, on our sumpter-beasts; therefore as ye
have feasted us this morning, so shall we feast you this even.
And if ye will, we shall build for you in the grove yonder
such a bower as we build for our own folk on the night
of the wedding."
Ralph yeasaid this, and thanked them. So then the elder cried:
"Up, my sons, and show your deftness to these dear friends!"
Then the young men arose, naught loth, and when they had hoppled
their oxen and taken the burdens from off them, they all went
down the meadow together into the chestnut grove, and they
fell to and cut willow boughs, and such-like wood, and drave
stakes and wove the twigs together; and Ralph and Ursula worked
with them as they bade, and they were all very merry together:
because for those two wanderers it was a great delight to see
the faces of the children of men once more after so many months,
and to hold converse with them; while for their part the young men
marvelled at Ursula's beauty, and the pith and goodliness of Ralph.
By then it was nigh evening they had made a very goodly wattled bower,
and roofed it with the skins that were in the cave, and hung it
about with garlands, and strewn flowers on the floor thereof.
And when all was done they went back to the toft before
the rock-chamber, where the elder had opened the loads,
and had taken meal thence, and was making cakes at the fire.
And there was wine there in well-hooped kegs, and wooden cups
fairly carven, and raiment of fine white wool for those twain,
broidered in strange but beauteous fashion with the feathers
of bright-hued birds.
So then were those twain arrayed for the bridal; and the meat
was dight and the cups filled, and they sat down on the grassy
toft a little before sunset, and feasted till the night was come,
and was grown all light with the moon; and then Ralph rose up,
and took Ursula's hand, and they stood before the elder,
and bade him and the young men bear witness that they were wedded:
then those twain kissed the newcomers and departed to their bridal
bower hand in hand through the freshness of the night.
They Come to the Land of the Innocent Folk
When it was morning they speedily gat them ready for the road,
whereas they had little to take with them; so they departed joyously,
howbeit both Ralph and Ursula felt rather love than loathing for their
winter abode. The day was yet young when they went their ways.
Their horses and all their gear were a great wonder to the young men,
for they had seen no such beasts before: but the elder said that once
in his young days he had led a man to the Well who was riding a horse
and was clad in knightly array.
So they went by ways which were nowise dreadful, though they
were void of men-folk, and in three days' time they were come
out of the mountains, and in three more the said mountains were
to behold but a cloud behind them, and the land was grown goodly,
with fair valleys and little hills, though still they saw no men,
and forsooth they went leisurely, for oxen are but slow-going nags.
But when they were gone eight days from the Valley of Sweet-chestnuts,
they came across a flock of uncouth-looking sheep on a green hill-side,
and four folk shepherding them, two carles to wit, and two queans,
like to their way-leaders, but scarce so goodly, and ruder of raiment.
These men greeted them kindly, and yet with more worship than fellowship,
and they marvelled exceedingly at their horses and weapons.
Thence they passed on, and the next day came into a wide valley,
well-grassed and watered, and wooded here and there; moreover there
were cots scattered about it. There and thenceforth they met men
a many, both carles and queans, and sheep and neat in plenty, and they
passed by garths wherein the young corn was waxing, and vineyards
on the hillsides, where the vines were beginning to grow green.
The land seemed as goodly as might be, and all the folk they met
were kind, if somewhat over reverent.
On the evening of that day they came into the town of that folk,
which was but simple, wholly unfenced for war, and the houses but low,
and not great. Yet was there naught of filth or famine, nor any
poverty or misery; and the people were merry-faced and well-liking,
and clad goodly after their fashion in white woollen cloth or frieze.
All the people of the town were come forth to meet them, for runners
had gone before them, and they stood on either side of the way
murmuring greetings, and with their heads bent low in reverence.
Thus rode Ralph and Ursula up to the door of the Temple,
or Mote-house, or Guest-house, for it was all these,
a house great, and as fair as they knew how to make it.
Before the door thereof were standing the elders of the Folk;
and when they drew rein, the eldest and most reverend of these
came forth and spake in a cheerful voice, yet solemnly:
"Welcome and thrice welcome to the Seekers after length
of days and happy times, and the loving-kindness of the Folks
of the Earth!"
Then all the elders gathered about them, and bade them light
down and be at rest amongst them, and they made much of them
and brought them into the Mote-house, where-in were both women
and men fair and stately, and the men took Ralph by the hand
and the women Ursula, and brought them into chambers where they
bathed them and did off their wayfaring raiment, and clad them
in white woollen gowns of web exceeding fine, and fragrant withal.
Then they crowned them with flowers, and led them back into
the hall, whereas now was much folk gathered, and they set them
down on a dais as though they had been kings, or rather gods;
and when they beheld them there so fair and lovely, they cried
out for joy of them, and bade them hail oft and oft.
There then were they feasted by that kind folk, and when meat was
done certain youths and maidens fell to singing songs very sweetly;
and the words of the songs were simple and harmless, and concerning
the fairness of the earth and the happy loves of the creatures
that dwell therein.
Thereafter as the night aged, they were shown to a sleeping chamber,
which albeit not richly decked, or plenished with precious things,
was most dainty clean, and sweet smelling, and strewn with flowers,
so that the night was sweet to them in a chamber of love.
They Come to the House of the Sorceress
On the morrow the kind people delayed them little,
though they sorrowed for their departure, and before
noon were their old way-leaders ready for them;
and the old man and his two grandsons (for such they were)
were much honoured of the simple people for their way-leading
of the Heavenly Folk; for so they called Ralph and Ursula.
So they gat them to the way in suchlike guise as before,
only they had with them five sumpter oxen instead of two;
for the old man told them that not only was their way longer,
but also they must needs pass through a terrible waste, wherein was
naught for their avail, neither man, nor beast, nor herb.
Even so they found it as he said; for after the first day's
ride from the town they came to the edge of this same waste,
and on the fourth day were deep in the heart of it:
a desert it was, rather rocky and stony and sandy
than mountainous, though they had hills to cross also:
withal there was but little water there, and that foul and stinking.
Long lasted this waste, and Ralph thought indeed that it
had been hard to cross, had not their way-leaders been;
therefore he made marks and signs by the wayside, and took note
of the bearings of rocks and mounds against the day of return.
Twelve days they rode this waste, and on the thirteenth it began
to mend somewhat, and there was a little grass, and sweet waters,
and they saw ahead the swelling hills of a great woodland,
albeit they had to struggle through marshland and low scrubby
thicket for a day longer, or ever they got to the aforesaid trees,
which at first were naught but pines; but these failed in a while,
and they rode a grass waste nearly treeless, but somewhat
well watered, where they gat them good store of venison.
Thereafter they came on woods of oak and sweet-chestnut,
with here and there a beech-wood.
Long and long they rode the woodland, but it was hard on May
when they entered it, and it was pleasant therein, and what with
one thing, what with another, they had abundant livelihood there.
Yet was June at its full when at last they came within sight
of the House of the Sorceress, on the hottest of a fair afternoon.
And it was even as Ralph had seen it pictured in the arras
of the hall of the Castle of Abundance; a little house built
after the fashion of houses in his own land of the west;
the thatch was trim, and the windows and doors were unbroken,
and the garth was whole, and the goats feeding therein,
and the wheat was tall and blossoming in the little closes,
where as he had looked to see all broken down and wild,
and as to the house, a mere grass-grown heap, or at the most
a broken gable fast crumbling away.
Then waxed his heart sore with the memory of that passed time,
and the sweetness of his short-lived love, though he refrained
him all he might: yet forsooth Ursula looked on him anxiously,
so much his face was changed by the thoughts of his heart.
But the elder of the way-leaders saw that he was moved, and deemed that
he was wondering at that house so trim and orderly amidst the wildwood,
so he said: "Here also do we after our behest to that marvellous
and lovely Lady, that we suffer not this house to go to ruin:
ever are some of our folk here, and every year about this season
we send two or more to take the places of those who have dwelt in
the House year-long: so ever is there someone to keep all things trim.
But as to strangers, I have never in my life seen any Seeker of
the Well herein, save once, and that was an old hoar man like to me,
save that he was feebler in all wise than I be."
Now Ralph heard him talking, yet noted his words but little;
for it was with him as if all the grief of heart which he had penned
back for so long a while swelled up within him and burst its bounds;
and he turned toward Ursula and their eyes met, and she looked shy
and anxious on him and he might no longer refrain himself, but put
his hands to his face (for they had now drawn rein at the garth-gate)
and brake out a weeping, and wept long for the friend whose feet
had worn that path so often, and whose heart, though she were dead,
had brought them thither for their thriving; and for love and sorrow
of him Ursula wept also.
But the old man and his grandsons turned their heads away from
his weeping, and got off their horses, and went up to the house-door,
whereby were now standing a carle and a quean of their people.
But Ralph slowly gat off his horse and stood by Ursula who was on
the ground already, but would not touch her, for he was ashamed.
But she looked on him kindly and said: "Dear friend, there is
no need for shame; for though I be young, I know how grievous it
is when the dead that we have loved come across our ways, and we
may not speak to them, nor they to us. So I will but bid thee
be comforted and abide in thy love for the living and the dead."
His tears brake out again at that word, for he was but young,
and for a while there was a lull in the strife that had beset his days.
But after a little he looked up, and dashed the tears from his eyes
and smiled on Ursula and said: "The tale she told me of this place,
the sweetness of it came back upon me, and I might not forbear."
She said: "O friend, thou art kind, and I love thee."
So then they joined hands and went through the garth together, and up to
the door, where stood the wardens, who, when they saw them turning thither,
came speedily down the path to them, and would have knelt in worship to them;
but they would not suffer it, but embraced and kissed them, and thanked
them many times for their welcome. The said wardens, both carle and quean,
were goodly folk of middle age, stalwart, and kind of face.
So then they went into the house together, and entered into
the self-same chamber, where of old the Lady of Abundance had
sickened for fear of the Sorceress sitting naked at her spell-work.
Great joy they made together, and the wardens set meat and drink
before the guests, and they ate and drank and were of good cheer.
But the elder who had brought them from Chestnut-dale said:
"Dear friends, I have told you that these two young men are my
grand-children, and they are the sons of this man and woman whom ye see;
for the man is my son. And so it is, that amongst us the care
of the Quest of the Well at the World's End hath for long been
the heritage of our blood, going with us from father to son.
Therefore is it naught wonderful, though I have been sundry times
at this house, and have learned about the place all that may
be learned. For my father brought me hither when I was yet a boy;
that time it was that I saw the last man of whom we know for sure
that he drank of the Water of the Well, and he was that old
hoar man like unto me, but, as I said, far weaker in all wise;
but when he came back to us from the Well he was strong and stalwart,
and a better man than I am now; and I heard him tell his name
to my father, that he was called the Sage of Swevenham."
Ralph looked on Ursula and said: "Yea, father, and it was
through him that we had our lore concerning the way hither;
and it was he that bade us abide your coming in the rock-house
of the Vale of Sweet-chestnuts."
"Then he is alive still," said the elder. Said Ralph:
"Yea, and as fair and strong an old man as ye may lightly see."
"Yea, yea," said the elder, "and yet fifty years ago his
course seemed run."
Then said Ralph: "Tell me, father, have none of your own folk sought
to the Well at the World's End?" "Nay, none," said the elder.
Said Ralph: "That is strange, whereas ye are so nigh thereto,
and have such abundant lore concerning the way."
"Son," said the elder, "true it is that the water of that Well
shall cause a man to thrive in all ways, and to live through
many generations of men, maybe, in honour and good-liking;
but it may not keep any man alive for ever; for so have
the Gods given us the gift of death lest we weary of life.
Now our folk live well and hale, and without the sickness
and pestilence, such as I have heard oft befall folk in other lands:
even as I heard the Sage of Swevenham say, and I wondered
at his words. Of strife and of war also we know naught:
nor do we desire aught which we may not easily attain to.
Therefore we live long, and we fear the Gods if we should
strive to live longer, lest they should bring upon us war
and sickness, and over-weening desire, and weariness of life.
Moreover it is little that all of us should seek to the Well
at the World's End; and those few that sought and drank
should be stronger and wiser than the others, and should make
themselves earthly gods, and, maybe, should torment the others
of us and make their lives a very burden to be borne.
Of such matters are there tales current amongst us that so it
hath been of yore and in other lands; and ill it were if such
times came back upon us."
Ralph hung his head and was silent; for the joy of the Quest seemed
dying out as the old man's words dropped slowly from his mouth.
But he smiled upon Ralph and went on: "But for you, guests,
it is otherwise, for ye of the World beyond the Mountains
are stronger and more godlike than we, as all tales tell;
and ye wear away your lives desiring that which ye may scarce get;
and ye set your hearts on high things, desiring to be masters
of the very Gods. Therefore ye know sickness and sorrow,
and oft ye die before your time, so that ye must depart
and leave undone things which ye deem ye were born to do;
which to all men is grievous. And because of all this ye
desire healing and thriving, whether good come of it, or ill.
Therefore ye do but right to seek to the Well at the World's End,
that ye may the better accomplish that which behoveth you,
and that ye may serve your fellows and deliver them from
the thralldom of those that be strong and unwise and unkind,
of whom we have heard strange tales."
Ralph reddened as he spake, and Ursula looked on him anxiously,
but that talk dropped for the present, and they fell to talking
of lighter and more familiar matters.
Thereafter they wandered about the woods with the wardens
and the way-leaders, and the elder brought them to the ancient
altar in the wood whereon the Sorceress had offered up the goat;
and the howe of the woman dight with the necklace of the Quest
whom the Lady found dead in the snow; and the place nigh
the house where the Sorceress used to torment her thrall
that was afterwards the Lady of Abundance; yea, and they went
further afield till they came to the Vale of Lore, and the Heath
above it where they met, the King's Son and the Lady.
All these and other places were now become as hallowed
ground to the Innocent People, and to Ralph no less.
In the house, moreover, was a fair ark wherein they kept matters
which had belonged to the Lady, as her shoes and her smock,
wrapped in goodly cloth amidst well-smelling herbs; and these
things they worshipped as folk do with relics of the saints.
In another ark also they showed the seekers a book wherein
was written lore concerning the Well, and the way thereto.
But of this book had the Sage forewarned Ralph and his mate,
and had bidden them look to it that they should read in it,
and no otherwhere than at that ancient altar in the wood,
they two alone, and clad in such-like gear as they wore
when they hearkened to his reading by his hermitage.
And so it was that they found the due raiment in the ark along
with the book. Therefore day after day betimes in the morning
they bore the said book to the altar and read therein,
till they had learned much wisdom.
Thus they did for eight days, and on the ninth they rested and were merry
with their hosts: but on the tenth day they mounted their horses and
said farewell, and departed by the ways they had learned of, they two alone.
And they had with them bread and meal, as much as they might bear,
and water-skins moreover, that they might fill them at the last sweet
water before they came to the waterless desert.
They Come Through the Woodland to the Thirsty Desert
So they ride their ways, and when they were come well into the wildwood
past the house, and had spoken but few words to each other, Ralph put
forth his hand, and stayed Ursula, and they gat off their horses
under a great-limbed oak, and did off their armour, and sat down on
the greensward there, and loved each other dearly, and wept for joy
of their pain and travail and love. And afterwards, as they sat side
by side leaning up against the great oak-bole, Ralph spake and said:
"Now are we two once again all alone in the uttermost parts of the earth,
and belike we are not very far from the Well at the World's End;
and now I have bethought me that if we gain that which we seek for,
and bear back our lives to our own people, the day may come when we
are grown old, for as young as we may seem, that we shall be as lonely
then as we are this hour, and that the folk round about us shall
be to us as much and no more than these trees and the wild things
that dwell amongst them."
She looked on him and laughed as one over-happy, and said:
"Thou runnest forward swiftly to meet trouble, beloved!
But I say that well will it be in those days if I love the folk
then as well as now I love these trees and the wild things
whose house they are."
And she rose up therewith and threw her arms about the oak-bole and kissed
its ruggedness, while Ralph as he lay kissed the sleekness of her feet.
And there came a robin hopping over the leaves anigh them, for in
that wood most of the creatures, knowing not man, were tame to him,
and feared the horses of those twain more than their riders.
And now as Ursula knelt to embrace Ralph with one hand, she held out
the other to the said robin who perched on her wrist, and sat there
as a hooded falcon had done, and fell to whistling his sweet notes,
as if he were a-talking to those new-comers: then Ursula gave him a
song-reward of their broken meat, and he flew up and perched on her shoulder,
and nestled up against her cheek, and she laughed happily and said:
"Lo you, sweet, have not the wild things understood my words, and sent
this fair messenger to foretell us all good?"
"It is good," said Ralph laughing, "yet the oak-tree hath not spoken yet,
despite of all thy kissing: and lo there goes thy friend the robin,
now thou hast no more meat to give him."
"He is flying towards the Well at the World's End," she said,
"and biddeth us onward: let us to horse and hasten:
for if thou wilt have the whole truth concerning my heart,
it is this, that some chance-hap may yet take thee from me
ere thou hast drunk of the waters of the Well."
"Yea," said Ralph, "and in the innermost of my heart lieth the fear
that mayhappen there is no Well, and no healing in it if we
find it, and that death, and the backward way may yet sunder us.
This is the worst of my heart, and evil is my coward fear."
But she cast her arms about him and kissed and caressed him, and cried out:
"Yea, then fair have been the days of our journeying, and fair this hour
of the green oak! And bold and true thine heart that hath led thee thus far,
and won thee thy desire of my love."
So then they armed them, and mounted their horses and set forward.
They lived well while they were in the wood, but on the third day they
came to where it thinned and at last died out into a stony waste like
unto that which they had passed through before they came to the House
of the Sorceress, save that this lay in ridges as the waves of a great sea;
and these same ridges they were bidden to cross over at their highest,
lest they should be bewildered in a maze of little hills and dales
leading no whither.
So they entered on this desert, having filled their water-skins at
a clear brook, whereat they rejoiced when they found that the face
of the wilderness was covered with a salt scurf, and that naught
grew there save a sprinkling of small sage bushes.
Now on the second day of their riding this ugly waste,
as they came up over the brow of one of these stony ridges,
Ralph the far-sighted cried out suddenly: "Hold! for I see
a man weaponed."
"Where is he?" quoth Ursula, "and what is he about?"
Said Ralph: "He is up yonder on the swell of the next ridge,
and by seeming is asleep leaning against a rock."
Then he bent the Turk bow and set an arrow on the string and they
went on warily. When they were down at the foot of the ridge
Ralph hailed the man with a lusty cry, but gat no answer of him;
so they went on up the bent, till Ralph said: "Now I can see
his face under his helm, and it is dark and the eyes are hollow:
I will off horse and go up to him afoot, but do thou, beloved,
sit still in thy saddle."
But when he had come nigher, he turned and cried out to her:
"The man is dead, come anigh." So she went up to him and dismounted,
and they both together stood over the man, who was lying up against
a big stone like one at rest. How long he had lain there none knows
but God; for in the saltness of the dry desert the flesh had dried
on his bones without corrupting, and was as hardened leather.
He was in full armour of a strange and ancient fashion, and his sword
was girt to his side, neither was there any sign of a wound about him.
Under a crag anigh him they found his horse, dead and dry like to himself;
and a little way over the brow of the ridge another horse in like case;
and close by him a woman whose raiment had not utterly perished, nor her hair;
there were gold rings on her arms, and her shoes were done with gold:
she had a knife stuck in her breast, with her hand still clutching the
handle thereof; so that it seemed that she had herself given herself death.
Ralph and Ursula buried these two with the heaping of stones
and went their ways; but some two miles thence they came upon
another dead man-at-arms, and near him an old man unweaponed,
and they heaped stones on them.
Thereabout night overtook them, and it was dark, so they lay down
in the waste, and comforted each other, and slept two or three hours,
but arose with the first glimmer of dawn, and mounted and rode
forth onward, that they might the sooner be out of that deadly desert,
for fear clung to their hearts.
This day, forsooth, they found so many dead folk, that they might not stay
to bury them, lest they themselves should come to lie there lacking burial.
So they made all the way they might, and rode on some hours by starlight
after the night was come, for it was clear and cold. So that at last
they were so utterly wearied that they lay down amongst those dead folk,
and slept soundly.
On the morrow morn Ralph awoke and saw Ursula sleeping peacefully
as he deemed, and he looked about on the dreary desert and its dead
men and saw no end to it, though they lay on the top of one of those
stony bents; and he said softly to himself: "Will it end at all then?
Surely all this people of the days gone by were Seekers of the Well
as we be; and have they belike turned back from somewhere further on,
and might not escape the desert despite of all? Shall we turn now:
shall we turn? surely we might get into the kindly wood from here."
So he spake; but Ursula sat up (for she was not asleep) and said:
"The perils of the waste being abundant and exceeding hard to face,
would not the Sage or his books have told us of the most deadly?"
Said Ralph: "Yet here are all these dead, and we were not told of them,
nevertheless we have seen the token on the rocks oft-times yesterday,
so we are yet in the road, unless all this hath been but a snare
and a betrayal."
She shook her head, and was silent a little; then she said:
"Ralph, my lad, didst thou see this token (and she set hand to
the beads about her neck) on any of those dead folk yesterday?"
"Nay," said Ralph, "though sooth to say I looked for it."
"And I in likewise," she said; "for indeed I had misgivings
as the day grew old; but now I say, let us on in the faith
of that token and the kindness of the Sage, and the love of
the Innocent People; yea, and thy luck, O lad of the green fields
far away, that hath brought thee unscathed so far from Upmeads."
So they mounted and rode forth, and saw more and more of the dead folk;
and ever and anon they looked to them to note if they wore
the beads like to them but saw none so dight. Then Ursula said:
"Yea, why should the Sage and the books have told us aught of these
dead bodies, that are but as the plenishing of the waste; like to
the flowers that are cast down before the bier of a saint on a holy-day
to be trodden under foot by the churls and the vicars of the close.
Forsooth had they been alive now, with swords to smite withal,
and hands to drag us into captivity, it had been another matter:
but against these I feel bold."
Ralph sighed, and said: "Yea, but even if we die not in the waste,
yet this is piteous; so many lives passed away, so many hopes slain."
"Yea," she said; "but do not folk die there in the world behind us?
I have seen sights far worser than this at Utterbol,
little while as I was there. Moreover I can note that this
army of dead men has not come all in one day or one year,
but in a long, long while, by one and two and three;
for hast thou not noted that their raiment and wargear both,
is of many fashions, and some much more perished than other,
long as things last in this Dry Waste? I say that men die
as in the world beyond, but here we see them as they lie dead,
and have lain for so long."
He said: "I fear neither the Waste nor the dead men if thou
fearest not, beloved: but I lament for these poor souls."
"And I also," said she; "therefore let us on, that we may come
to those whose grief we may heal."
They Come to the Dry Tree
Presently as they rode they had before them one of the greatest
of those land-waves, and they climbed it slowly, going afoot
and leading their horses; but when they were but a little way
from the brow they saw, over a gap thereof, something, as it were
huge horns rising up into the air beyond the crest of the ridge.
So they marvelled, and drew their swords, and held them still awhile,
misdoubting if this were perchance some terrible monster of the waste;
but whereas the thing moved not at all, they plucked up heart
and fared on.
So came they to the brow and looked over it into a valley,
about which on all sides went the ridge, save where it was broken
down into a narrow pass on the further side, so that the said
valley was like to one of those theatres of the ancient
Roman Folk, whereof are some to be seen in certain lands.
Neither did those desert benches lack their sitters;
for all down the sides of the valley sat or lay children of men;
some women, but most men-folk, of whom the more part
were weaponed, and some with their drawn swords in their hands.
Whatever semblance of moving was in them was when the eddying
wind of the valley stirred the rags of their raiment,
or the long hair of the women. But a very midmost of this
dreary theatre rose up a huge and monstrous tree, whose topmost
branches were even the horns which they had seen from below
the hill's brow. Leafless was that tree and lacking of twigs,
and its bole upheld but some fifty of great limbs,
and as they looked on it, they doubted whether it were not
made by men's hands rather than grown up out of the earth.
All round about the roots of it was a pool of clear water,
that cast back the image of the valley-side and the bright sky
of the desert, as though it had been a mirror of burnished steel.
The limbs of that tree were all behung with blazoned shields
and knight's helms, and swords, and spears, and axes, and hawberks;
and it rose up into the air some hundred feet above the flat
of the valley.
For a while they looked down silently on to this marvel then
from both their lips at once came the cry THE DRY TREE.
Then Ralph thrust his sword back into his sheath and said:
"Meseems I must needs go down amongst them; there is naught
to do us harm here; for all these are dead like the others
that we saw."
Ursula turned to him with burning cheeks and sparkling eyes,
and said eagerly: "Yea, yea, let us go down, else might we
chance to miss something that we ought to wot of."
Therewith she also sheathed her sword, and they went both
of them down together, and that easily; for as aforesaid
the slope was as if it had been cut into steps for their feet.
And as they passed by the dead folk, for whom they had often
to turn aside, they noted that each of the dead leathery
faces was drawn up in a grin as though they had died in pain,
and yet beguiled, so that all those visages looked somewhat alike,
as though they had come from the workshop of one craftsman.
At last Ralph and Ursula stood on the level ground underneath the Tree,
and they looked up at the branches, and down to the water at their feet;
and now it seemed to them as though the Tree had verily growth in it,
for they beheld its roots, that they went out from the mound or islet of earth
into the water, and spread abroad therein, and seemed to waver about.
So they walked around the Tree, and looked up at the shields that hung
on its branches, but saw no blazon that they knew, though they were many
and diverse; and the armour also and weapons were very diverse of fashion.
Now when they were come back again to the place where they had
first stayed, Ralph said: "I thirst, and so belike dost thou;
and here is water good and clear; let us drink then, and so spare our
water-skins, for belike the dry desert is yet long." And therewith
he knelt down that he might take of the water in the hollow of his hand.
But Ursula drew him back, and cried out in terror: "O Ralph, do it not!
Seest thou not this water, that although it be bright and clear,
so that we may see all the pebbles at the bottom, yet nevertheless
when the wind eddies about, and lifts the skirts of our raiment,
it makes no ripple on the face of the pool, and doubtless it is heavy
with venom; and moreover there is no sign of the way hereabout,
as at other watering-steads; O forbear, Ralph!"
Then he rose up and drew back with her but slowly and unwillingly
as she deemed; and they stood together a while gazing on these marvels.
But lo amidst of this while, there came a crow wheeling over
the valley of the dead, and he croaked over the Dry Tree, and let
himself drop down to the edge of the pool, whereby he stalked
about a little after the manner of his kind. Then he thrust
his neb into the water and drank, and thereafter took wing again;
but ere he was many feet off the ground he gave a grievous croak,
and turning over in the air fell down stark dead close to the feet of
those twain; and Ralph cried out but spake no word with meaning therein;
then said Ursula: "Yea, thus are we saved from present death."
Then she looked in Ralph's face, and turned pale and said hastily:
"O my friend how is it with thee?" But she waited not for an answer,
but turned her face to the bent whereby they had come down,
and cried out in a loud, shrill voice: "O Ralph, Ralph! look up
yonder to the ridge whereby we left our horses; look, look! there
glitters a spear and stirreth! and lo a helm underneath the spear:
tarry not, let us save our horses!"
Then Ralph let a cry out from his mouth, and set off running to
the side of the slope, and fell to climbing it with great strides,
not heeding Ursula; but she followed close after, and scrambled
up with foot and hand and knee, till she stood beside him
on the top, and he looked around wildly and cried out:
"Where! where are they?"
"Nowhere," she said, "it was naught but my word to draw thee from death;
but praise to the saints that thou are come alive out of the accursed valley."
He seemed not to hearken, but turned about once, and beat the air
with his hands, and then fell down on his back and with a great wail
she cast herself upon him, for she deemed at first that he was dead.
But she took a little water from one of their skins, and cast
it into his face, and took a flask of cordial from her pouch,
and set it to his lips, and made him drink somewhat thereof.
So in a while he came to himself and opened his eyes and smiled
upon her, and she took his head in her hands and kissed his cheek,
and he sat up and said feebly: "Shall we not go down into the valley?
there is naught there to harm us."
"We have been down there already," she said, "and well it is that we
are not both lying there now."
Then he got to his feet, and stretched himself, and yawned
like one just awakened from long sleep. But she said:
"Let us to horse and begone; it is early hours to slumber,
for those that are seeking the Well at the World's End."
He smiled on her again and took her hand, and she led him to his horse,
and helped him till he was in the saddle and lightly she gat
a-horseback, and they rode away swiftly from that evil place;
and after a while Ralph was himself again, and remembered all
that had happened till he fell down on the brow of the ridge.
Then he praised Ursula's wisdom and valiancy till she bade him
forbear lest he weary her. Albeit she drew up close to him
and kissed his face sweetly.
They Come Out of the Thirsty Desert
Past the Valley of the Dry Tree they saw but few dead
men lying about, and soon they saw never another:
and, though the land was still utterly barren, and all cast up
into ridges as before, yet the salt slime grew less and less,
and before nightfall of that day they had done with it:
and the next day those stony waves were lower; and the next
again the waste was but a swelling plain, and here and there
they came on patches of dwarf willow, and other harsh
and scanty herbage, whereof the horses might have a bait,
which they sore needed, for now was their fodder done:
but both men and horses were sore athirst; for, as carefully
as they had hoarded their water, there was now but little left,
which they durst not drink till they were driven perforce,
lest they should yet die of drought.
They journeyed long that day, and whereas the moon was up at night-tide
they lay not down till she was set; and their resting place was by some
low bushes, whereabout was rough grass mingled with willow-herb, whereby
Ralph judged that they drew nigh to water, so or ever they slept,
they and the horses all but emptied the water-skins. They heard some
sort of beasts roaring in the night, but they were too weary to watch,
and might not make a fire.
When Ralph awoke in the morning he cried out that he could see the woodland;
and Ursula arose at his cry and looked where he pointed, and sure enough
there were trees on a rising ground some two miles ahead, and beyond them,
not very far by seeming, they beheld the tops of great dark mountains.
On either hand moreover, nigh on their right hand, far off on their left,
ran a reef of rocks, so that their way seemed to be as between two walls.
And these said reefs were nowise like those that they had seen of late,
but black and, as to their matter, like to the great mountains by the rock of
the Fighting Man: but as the reefs ran eastward they seemed to grow higher.
Now they mounted their horses at once and rode on; and the beasts
were as eager as they were, and belike smelt the water.
So when they had ridden but three miles, they saw a fair little
river before them winding about exceedingly, but flowing
eastward on the whole. So they spurred on with light
hearts and presently were on the banks of the said river,
and its waters were crystal-clear, though its sands were black:
and the pink-blossomed willow-herb was growing abundantly
on the sandy shores. Close to the water was a black rock,
as big as a man, whereon was graven the sign of the way,
so they knew that there was no evil in the water, wherefore they
drank their fill and watered their horses abundantly,
and on the further bank was there abundance of good grass.
So when they had drunk their fill, for the pleasure of the cool water
they waded the ford barefoot, and it was scarce above Ursula's knee.
Then they had great joy to lie on the soft grass and eat their meat,
while the horses tore eagerly at the herbage close to them.
So when they had eaten, they rested awhile, but before they
went further they despoiled them, one after other, and bathed
in a pool of the river to wash the foul wilderness off them.
Then again they rested and let the horses yet bite the grass,
and departed not from that pleasant place till it was two hours
after noon. As they were lying there Ralph said he could hear
a great roar like the sound of many waters, but very far off:
but to Ursula it seemed naught but the wind waxing in the boughs
of the woodland anigh them.
They Come to the Ocean Sea
Being come to the wood they went not very far into it that day,
for they were minded to rest them after the weariness of the wilderness:
they feasted on a hare which Ralph shot, and made a big fire
to keep off evil beasts, but none came nigh them, though they
heard the voices of certain beasts as the night grew still.
To be short, they slept far into the morrow's morn, and then,
being refreshed, and their horses also, they rode strongly all day,
and found the wood to be not very great; for before sunset they
were come to its outskirts, and the mountains lay before them.
These were but little like to that huge wall they had passed
through on their way to Chestnut-dale, being rather great hills
than mountains, grass-grown, and at their feet somewhat wooded,
and by seeming not over hard to pass over.
The next day they entered them by a pass marked with the token,
which led them about by a winding way till they were on the side
of the biggest fell of all; so there they rested that night
in a fair little hollow or dell in the mountain-side. There
in the stillness of the night both Ursula, as well as Ralph,
heard that roaring of a great water, and they said to each other
that it must be the voice of the Sea, and they rejoiced thereat,
for they had learned by the Sage and his books that they must needs
come to the verge of the Ocean-Sea, which girdles the earth about.
So they arose betimes on the morrow, and set to work to climb
the mountain, going mostly a-foot; and the way was long,
but not craggy or exceeding steep, so that in five hours'
time they were at the mountain-top, and coming over the brow
beheld beneath them fair green slopes besprinkled with trees,
and beyond them, some three or four miles away, the blue
landless sea and on either hand of them was the sea also,
so that they were nigh-hand at the ending of a great ness,
and there was naught beyond it; and naught to do if they missed
the Well, but to turn back by the way they had come.
Now when they saw this they were exceedingly moved and they looked on
one another, and each saw that the other was pale, with glistening eyes,
since they were to come to the very point of their doom, and that it should
be seen whether there were no such thing as the Well in all the earth,
but that they had been chasing a fair-hued cloud; or else their Quest
should be achieved and they should have the world before them, and they
happy and mighty, and of great worship amidst all men.
Little they tarried, but gat them down the steep of the mountain,
and so lower and lower till they were come to ground nigh level;
and then at last it was but thus, that without any great rock-wall
or girdle of marvellous and strange land, there was an end of earth,
with its grass and trees and streams, and a beginning of the ocean,
which stretched away changeless, and it might be for ever.
Where the land ended there was but a cliff of less than an hundred
feet above the eddying of the sea; and on the very point of the ness
was a low green toft with a square stone set atop of it, whereon as
they drew nigh they saw the token graven, yea on each face thereof.
Then they went along the edge of the cliff a mile on each side
of the said toft, and then finding naught else to note, naught save
the grass and the sea, they came back to that place of the token,
and sat down on the grass of the toft.
It was now evening, and the sun was setting beyond them,
but they could behold a kind of stair cut in the side of the cliff,
and on the first step whereof was the token done; wherefore they
knew that they were bidden to go down by the said stair;
but it seemed to lead no whither, save straight into the sea.
And whiles it came into Ralph's mind that this was naught
but a mock, as if to bid the hapless seekers cast themselves
down from the earth, and be done with it for ever.
But in any case they might not try the adventure of that stair
by the failing light, and with the night long before them.
So when they had hoppled their horses, and left them to graze
at their will on the sweet grass of the meadow, they laid
them down behind the green toft, and, being forwearied,
it was no long time ere they twain slept fast at the uttermost
end of the world.
Now They Drink of the Well at the World's End
Ralph awoke from some foolish morning dream of Upmeads,
wondering where he was, or what familiar voice had cried out
his name: then he raised himself on his elbow, and saw Ursula
standing before him with flushed face and sparkling eyes,
and she was looking out seaward, while she called on his name.
So he sprang up and strove with the slumber that still
hung about him, and as his eyes cleared he looked down,
and saw that the sea, which last night had washed the face
of the cliff, had now ebbed far out, and left bare betwixt
the billows and the cliff some half mile of black sand,
with rocks of the like hue rising out of it here and there.
But just below the place where they stood, right up against the cliff,
was builded by man's hand of huge stones a garth of pound,
the wall whereof was some seven feet high, and the pound
within the wall of forty feet space endlong and overthwart;
and the said pound was filled with the waters of a spring
that came forth from the face of the cliff as they deemed,
though from above they might not see the issue thereof;
but the water ran seaward from the pound by some way unseen,
and made a wide stream through the black sand of the foreshore:
but ever the great basin filled somewhat faster than
it voided, so that it ran over the lip on all sides,
making a thin veil over the huge ashlar-stones of the garth.
The day was bright and fair with no wind, save light airs
playing about from the westward ort, and all things gleamed
and glittered in the sun.
Ralph stood still a moment, and then stretched abroad his arms,
and with a great sob cast them round about the body of his beloved,
and strained her to his bosom as he murmured about her, THE WELL
AT THE WORLD'S END. But she wept for joy as she fawned upon him,
and let her hands beat upon his body.
But when they were somewhat calmed of their ecstasy of joy,
they made ready to go down by that rocky stair. And first they did
off their armour and other gear, and when they were naked they did
on the hallowed raiment which they had out of the ark in the House
of the Sorceress; and so clad gat them down the rock-hewn stair,
Ralph going first, lest there should be any broken place;
but naught was amiss with those hard black stones, and they came
safely to a level place of the rock, whence they could see the face
of the cliff, and how the waters of the Well came gushing forth
from a hollow therein in a great swelling wave as clear as glass;
and the sun glistened in it and made a foam-bow about its edges.
But above the issue of the waters the black rock had been smoothed
by man's art, and thereon was graven the Sword and the Bough,
and above it these words, to wit:
YE WHO HAVE COME A LONG WAY TO LOOK UPON ME, DRINK OF ME, IF YE
DEEM THAT YE BE STRONG ENOUGH IN DESIRE TO BEAR LENGTH OF DAYS:
OR ELSE DRINK NOT; BUT TELL YOUR FRIENDS AND THE KINDREDS OF THE
EARTH HOW YE HAVE SEEN A GREAT MARVEL.
So they looked long and wondered; and Ursula said: "Deemest thou,
my friend, that any have come thus far and forborne to drink?"
Said Ralph: "Surely not even the exceeding wise might remember
the bitterness of his wisdom as he stood here."
Then he looked on her and his face grew bright beyond measure, and cried out:
"O love, love! why tarry we? For yet I fear lest we be come too late,
and thou die before mine eyes ere yet thou hast drunken."
"Yea," she said, "and I also fear for thee, though thy face is ruddy and thine
eyes sparkle, and thou art as lovely as the Captain of the Lord's hosts."
Then she laughed, and her laughter was as silver bells rung tunably,
and she said: "But where is the cup for the drinking?"
But Ralph looked on the face of the wall, and about the height of his hand saw
square marks thereon, as though there were an ambrye; and amidst the square
was a knop of latten, all green with the weather and the salt spray.
So Ralph set his hand to the knop and drew strongly, and lo it was
a door made of a squared stone hung on brazen hinges, and it opened
easily to him, and within was a cup of goldsmith's work, with the sword
and the bough done thereon; and round about the rim writ this posey:
"THE STRONG OF HEART SHALL DRINK FROM ME." So Ralph took it and held
it aloft so that its pure metal flashed in the sun, and he said:
"This is for thee, Sweetling."
"Yea, and for thee," she said.
Now that level place, or bench-table went up to the very gushing and
green bow of the water, so Ralph took Ursula's hand and led her along,
she going a little after him, till he was close to the Well, and stood
amidst the spray-bow thereof, so that he looked verily like one
of the painted angels on the choir wall of St. Laurence of Upmeads.
Then he reached forth his hand and thrust the cup into the water, holding it
stoutly because the gush of the stream was strong, so that the water of
the Well splashed all over him, wetting Ursula's face and breast withal:
and he felt that the water was sweet without any saltness of the sea.
But he turned to Ursula and reached out the full cup to her, and said:
"Sweetling, call a health over the cup!"
She took it and said: "To thy life, beloved!" and drank withal,
and her eyes looked out of the cup the while, like a child's
when he drinketh. Then she gave him the cup again and said:
"Drink, and tarry not, lest thou die and I live."
Then Ralph plunged the cup into the waters again, and he held
the cup aloft, and cried out: "To the Earth, and the World of Manfolk!"
and therewith he drank.
For a minute then they clung together within the spray-bow of the Well,
and then she took his hand and led him back to the midst of the bench-table,
and he put the cup into the ambrye, and shut it up again, and then they sat
them down on the widest of the platform under the shadow of a jutting rock;
for the sun was hot; and therewithal a sweet weariness began to steal
over them, though there was speech betwixt them for a little, and Ralph said:
"How is it with thee, beloved?"
"O well indeed," she said.
Quoth he: "And how tasteth to thee the water of the Well?"
Slowly she spake and sleepily: "It tasted good, and as if thy
love were blended with it."
And she smiled in his face; but he said: "One thing I wonder over:
how shall we wot if we have drunk aright? For whereas if we were sick or old
and failing, or ill-liking, and were now presently healed of all this,
and become strong and fair to look on, then should we know it for sure--
but now, though, as I look on thee, I behold thee the fairest of all women,
and on thy face is no token of toil and travail, and the weariness of the way;
and though the heart-ache of loneliness and captivity, and the shame
of Utterbol has left no mark upon thee--yet hast thou not always been
sweet to my eyes, and as sweet as might be? And how then?"...But
he broke off and looked on her and she smiled upon the love in his eyes,
and his head fell back and he slept with a calm and smiling face.
And she leaned over him to kiss his face but even therewith her own eyes
closed and she laid her head upon his breast, and slept as peacefully as he.
Now They Have Drunk and Are Glad
Long they slept till the shadows were falling from the west,
and the sea was flowing fast again over the sands beneath them,
though there was still a great space bare betwixt the cliff and the sea.
Then spake Ursula as if Ralph had but just left speaking; and she said:
"Yea, dear lord, and I also say, that, lovely as thou art now,
never hast thou been aught else but lovely to me. But tell me,
hast thou had any scar of a hurt upon thy body? For if now that
were gone, surely it should be a token of the renewal of thy life.
But if it be not gone, then there may yet be another token."
Then he stood upon his feet, and she cried out:
"O but thou art fair and mighty, who now shall dare gainsay thee?
Who shall not long for thee?"
Said Ralph: "Look, love! how the sea comes over the sand like the creeping
of a sly wood-snake! Shall we go hence and turn from the ocean-sea without
wetting our bodies in its waters?"
"Let us go," she said.
So they went down on to the level sands, and along the edges of
the sweet-water stream that flowed from the Well; and Ralph said:
"Beloved, I will tell thee of that which thou hast asked me:
when I was but a lad of sixteen winters there rode men a-lifting
into Upmeads, and Nicholas Longshanks, who is a wise man of war,
gathered force and went against them, and I must needs ride beside him.
Now we came to our above, and put the thieves to the road;
but in the hurly I got a claw from the war-beast, for the stroke
of a sword sheared me off somewhat from my shoulder:
belike thou hast seen the scar and loathed it."
"It is naught loathsome," she said, "for a lad to be a bold warrior,
nor for a grown man to think lightly of the memory of death drawn near
for the first time. Yea, I have noted it but let me see now what has
befallen with it."
As she spoke they were come to a salt pool in a rocky bight on their
right hand, which the tide was filling speedily; and Ralph spake:
"See now, this is the bath of the water of the ocean sea."
So they were speedily naked and playing in the water:
and Ursula took Ralph by the arm and looked to his shoulder and said:
"O my lad of the pale edges, where is gone thy glory?
There is no mark of the sword's pilgrimage on thy shoulder."
"Nay, none?" quoth he.
"None, none!" she said, "Didst thou say the very sooth of thy hurt
in the battle, O poor lad of mine?" "Yea, the sooth," said he.
Then she laughed sweetly and merrily like the chuckle of a flute
over the rippling waters, that rose higher and higher about them,
and she turned her eyes askance and looked adown to her own sleek side,
and laid her hand on it and laughed again. Then said Ralph:
"What is toward, beloved? For thy laugh is rather of joy that
of mirth alone."
She said: "O smooth-skinned warrior, O Lily and Rose of battle;
here on my side yesterday was the token of the hart's tyne
that gored me when I was a young maiden five years ago:
look now and pity the maiden that lay on the grass of the forest,
and the woodman a-passing by deemed her dead five years ago."
Ralph stooped down as the ripple washed away from her, then said:
"In sooth here is no mark nor blemish, but the best handiwork of God,
as when he first made a woman from the side of the Ancient Father
of the field of Damask. But lo you love, how swift the tide cometh up,
and I long to see thy feet on the green grass, and I fear the sea,
lest it stir the joy over strongly in our hearts and we be not able
to escape from its waves."
So they went up from out of the water, and did on the hallowed raiment
fragrant with strange herbs, and passed joyfully up the sand towards
the cliff and its stair; and speedily withal, for so soon as they were
clad again, the little ripple of the sea was nigh touching their feet.
As they went, they noted that the waters of the Well flowed seaward
from the black-walled pound by three arched openings in its outer face,
and they beheld the mason's work, how goodly it was; for it was as if it
had been cut out of the foot of a mountain, so well jointed were its stones,
and its walls solid against any storm that might drive against it.
They climbed the stair, and sat them down on the green grass awhile
watching the ocean coming in over the sand and the rocks, and Ralph said:
"I will tell thee, sweetling, that I am grown eager for the road;
though true it is that whiles I was down yonder amidst the ripple
of the sea I longed for naught but thee, though thou wert beside me,
and thy joyous words were as fire to the heart of my love.
But now that I am on the green grass of the earth I called to mind a dream
that came to me when we slept after the precious draught of the Well:
for methought that I was standing before the porch of the Feast-hall
of Upmeads and holding thine hand, and the ancient House spake to me
with the voice of a man, greeting both thee and me, and praising thy
goodliness and valiancy. Surely then it is calling me to deeds,
and if it were but morning, as it is now drawing towards sunset,
we would mount and be gone straightway."
"Surely," she said, "thou hast drunk of the Well, and the fear
of thee has already entered into the hearts of thy foemen far away,
even as the love of thee constraineth me as I lie by thy side;
but since it is evening and sunset, let it be evening,
and let the morning see to its own matters. So now let us be
pilgrims again, and eat the meal of pilgrims, and see to our horses,
and then wander about this lovely wilderness and its green meads,
where no son of man heedeth the wild things, till the night come,
bringing to us the rest and the sleep of them that have prevailed
over many troubles."
Even so they did, and broke bread above the sea, and looked
to their horses, and then went hand in hand about the goodly
green bents betwixt the sea and the rough of the mountain;
and it was the fairest and softest of summer evenings;
and the deer of that place, both little and great, had no
fear of man, but the hart and hind came to Ursula's hand;
and the thrushes perched upon her shoulder, and the hares
gambolled together close to the feet of the twain; so that it
seemed to them that they had come into the very Garden of God;
and they forgat all the many miles of the waste and
the mountain that lay before them, and they had no thought
for the strife of foemen and the thwarting of kindred,
that belike awaited them in their own land, but they thought
of the love and happiness of the hour that was passing.
So sweetly they wore through the last minutes of the day,
and when it was as dark as it would be in that fair season,
they lay down by the green knoll at the ending of the land,
and were lulled to sleep by the bubbling of the Well at
the World's End.
The Road Home
Ralph and Ursula Come Back Again Through the Great Mountains
On the morrow morning they armed them and took to their horses and departed
from that pleasant place and climbed the mountain without weariness,
and made provision of meat and drink for the Dry Desert, and so entered it,
and journeyed happily with naught evil befalling them till they came
back to the House of the Sorceress; and of the Desert they made little,
and the wood was pleasant to them after the drought of the Desert.
But at the said House they saw those kind people, and they saw
in their eager eyes as in a glass how they had been bettered
by their drinking of the Well, and the Elder said to them:
"Dear friends, there is no need to ask you whether ye
have achieved your quest; for ye, who before were lovely,
are now become as the very Gods who rule the world.
And now methinks we have to pray you but one thing, to wit
that ye will not be overmuch of Gods, but will be kind and lowly
with them that needs must worship you."
They laughed on him for kindness' sake, and kissed and embraced
the old man, and they thanked them all for their helping,
and they abode with them for a whole day in good-will and love,
and thereafter the carle, who was the son of the Elder, with his wife,
bade farewell to his kinsmen, and led Ralph and Ursula back through
the wood and over the desert to the town of the Innocent Folk.
The said Folk received them in all joy and triumph, and would have
them abide there the winter over. But they prayed leave to depart,
because their hearts were sore for their own land and their kindred.
So they abode there but two days, and on the third day were led
away by a half score of men gaily apparelled after their manner,
and having with them many sumpter-beasts with provision for the road.
With this fellowship they came safely and with little pain unto
Chestnut Vale, where they abode but one night, though to Ralph and Ursula
the place was sweet for the memory of their loving sojourn there.
They would have taken leave of the Innocent Folk in the said vale,
but those others must needs go with them a little further,
and would not leave them till they were come to the jaws
of the pass which led to the Rock of the Fighting Man.
Further than that indeed they would not, or durst not go;
and those huge mountains they called the Wall of Strife,
even as they on the other side called them the Wall of the World.
So the twain took leave of their friends there, and howbeit that they
had drunk of the Well at the World's End, yet were their hearts
grieved at the parting. The kind folk left with them abundant
provision for the remnant of the road, and a sumpter-ox to bear it;
so they were in no doubt of their livelihood. Moreover, though the turn
of autumn was come again and winter was at hand, yet the weather was
fair and calm, and their journey through the dreary pass was as light
as it might be to any men.
They Hear New Tidings of Utterbol
It was on a fair evening of later autumn-tide that they won their way out
of the Gates of the Mountains, and came under the rock of the Fighting Man.
There they kissed and comforted each other in memory of the terror
and loneliness wherewith they had entered the Mountains that other time;
though, sooth to say, it was to them now like the reading of sorrow
in a book.
But when they came out with joyful hearts into the green plain
betwixt the mountains and the River of Lava, they looked westward,
and beheld no great way off a little bower or cot, builded of boughs
and rushes by a blackthorn copse; and as they rode toward it they
saw a man come forth therefrom, and presently saw that he was hoary,
a man with a long white beard. Then Ralph gave a glad cry,
and set spurs to his horse and galloped over the plain;
for he deemed that it could be none other than the Sage of Swevenham;
and Ursula came pricking after him laughing for joy.
The old man abode their coming, and Ralph leapt off his horse
at once, and kissed and embraced him; but the Sage said:
"There is no need to ask thee of tidings; for thine eyes and thine whole
body tell me that thou hast drunk of the Well at the World's End.
And that shall be better for thee belike than it has been for me;
though for me also the world has not gone ill after my fashion
since I drank of that water."
Then was Ursula come up, and she also lighted down and made much
of the Sage. But he said: "Hail, daughter! It is sweet to see
thee so, and to wot that thou art in the hands of a mighty man:
for I know that Ralph thy man is minded for his Father's House,
and the deeds that abide him there; and I think we may journey
a little way together; for as for me, I would go back to Swevenham
to end my days there, whether they be long or short."
But Ralph said: "As for that, thou mayst go further than Swevenham,
and as far as Upmeads, where there will be as many to love and cherish
thee as at Swevenham."
The old man laughed a little, and reddened withal, but answered nothing.
Then they untrussed their sumpter-beast, and took meat and drink from
his burden, and they ate and drank together, sitting on the green grass there;
and the twain made great joy of the Sage, and told him the whole tale;
and he told them that he had been abiding there since the spring-tide,
lest they might have turned back without accomplishing their quest,
and then may-happen he should have been at hand to comfort them,
or the one of them left, if so it had befallen. "But," quoth he,
"since ye have verily drunk of the Well at the World's End, ye have come
back no later than I looked for you."
That night they slept in the bower there, and on the morrow betimes,
the Sage drove together three or four milch goats that he pastured there,
and went their ways over the plain, and so in due time entered into the
lava-sea. But the first night that they lay there, though it was moonless and
somewhat cloudy, they saw no glare of the distant earth-fires which they had
looked for; and when on the morrow they questioned the Sage thereof, he said:
"The Earth-fires ceased about the end of last year, as I have heard tell.
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