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The Well at the World's End
by William Morris
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Then spake the Elder and said: "Ye champions of the Dry Tree, will ye wend with us under the Captain our brother against his foemen and ours?"

Then stood forth Stephen a-Hurst and said, "Master shepherd, for nought else are we come hither."

Said the Elder: "Will ye come with us as friends or as hirelings? for in any case we would have you by our sides, and not in face of us; and though we be shepherds, and unhoused, or ill-housed, yet have we wherewithal to wage you, as ye know well enough, who have whiles lifted our gear."

Then Stephen laughed and said: "True it is that we have whiles driven prey in your country, yea, and had some hard knocks therein; but all that was in playing the game of war, and now since we are to fight side by side, we will be paid by our foes and not by our friends; so neither hair nor wool will we have of yours, whatever we may have of the Burgers; and it is like that we shall be good friends of yours hence-forward."

Once more all they that were there shouted. But once more the Elder spoke and said: "Is any man now wishful to speak?" None answered till a big and burly man rose up and said: "Nay, Tall Thomas, thou hast said and done all that need was, and I deem that time presses; wherefore my mind is that we now break up this mote, and that after we have eaten a morsel we get ourselves into due array and take to the road. Now let any man speak against this if he will."

None gainsaid him; nay, all seemed well-pleased. So the Elder proclaimed the breaking up of the mote, and they went from out the hallowed place and sat down in the dyke on the outside of the rampart and behind the country which stretched out all lovely and blue before them, for the day was bright and fair. There then certain women brought victual and drink to them, and served the strangers first.

So when they had eaten and drunk, Ralph bade the Shepherds array them duly, and appointed them leaders of tens and hundreds with the help of Giles, who was now clad in a hauberk and mail-coif and looked a proper man-at-arms. Then they told over their company, and numbered of the Dry Tree one hundred and fifty champions, outtaken Stephen and Roger; of the men of Garton were twenty and two, and of the Shepherds three hundred and seventy and seven stout carles, some eighty of whom had bows, and the rest glaives and spears and other staff-weapons. There was not much armour of defence amongst them, but they were one and all stark carles and doughty.

So when they were told over and made five hundred and fifty and four, they gat them into array for the road; and Ralph went afoot with no armour but his sallet, and a light coat of fence which he had gotten him in the Burg. He would have had Ursula ride on her palfrey with the Sage, but she would not, and held it for mirth and pleasure that she should go afoot through the land, now she was so nigh come home to her lord's house; so she went forth by Ralph's side with her broidered gown trussed through her girdle so that the trimness of her feet drew the eyes of all men to them. As for Richard, he took a half score of the champions, and they rode on ahead to see that all was clear before the main host; which he might well do, as he knew the country so well.



CHAPTER 25

They Come to Wulstead

Thus went they, and nought befell them to tell of till they came anigh the gates of Wulstead hard on sunset. The gates, it has been said; for whereas Ralph left Wulstead a town unwalled, he now found it fenced with pales, and with two towers strongly framed of timber, one on either side the gate, and on the battlements of the said towers they saw spears glittering; before the gate they saw a barrier of big beams also, and the gleaming of armour therein. Ralph was glad when he saw that they meant some defence; for though Wulstead was not in the lands of Upmeads, yet it was always a friendly neighbour, and he looked to eke out his host therein.

Wulstead standeth on a little hill or swelling of the earth, and the road that the company of Ralph took went up to the gate across the plain meadows, which had but here and there a tree upon them, so that the going of the company was beheld clearly from the gate; as was well seen, because anon came the sound of the blowing of great horns, and the spears thickened in the towers. Then Ralph stayed his company two bowshots from the barriers, while he himself, with his sword in his sheath, took Ursula's hand and set forth an easy pace toward the gate. Some of his company, and specially Roger and Stephen, would have letted him; but he laughed and said, "Why, lads, why? these be friends." "Yea," quoth Roger, "but an arrow knoweth no kindred nor well-willers: have a care, lord." Said the Sage of Swevenham: "Ye speak but after the folly of men of war; the hands and the eyes that be behind the bows have other hands and eyes behind them which shall not suffer that a Friend of the Well shall be hurt."

So Ralph and Ursula went forth, and came within a stone's cast of the barrier, when Ralph lifted up his voice and said: "Is there a captain of the townsfolk within the timber there?" A cheery voice answered him: "Yea, yea, lad; spare thy breath; I am coming to thee."

And therewith a man came from out the barrier and did off his headpiece and ran straight toward Ralph, who saw at once that it was Clement Chapman; he made no more ado, but coming up to Ralph fell to clipping him in his arms, while the tears ran down his face. Then he stood aloof and gazed upon him speechless a little while, and then spake: "Hail, and a hundred times hail! but now I look on thee I see what hath betid, and that thou art too noble and high that I should have cast mine arms about thee. But now as for this one, I will be better mannered with her."

Therewith he knelt down before Ursula, and kissed her feet, but reverently. And she stooped down and raised him up, with a merry countenance kissed his face, and stroked his cheeks with her hand and said: "Hail, friend of my lord! Was it not rather thou than he who delivered me from the pain and shame of Utterbol, whereas thou didst bring him safe through the mountains unto Goldburg? And but for that there had been no Well, either for him or for me."

But Clement stood with his head hanging down, and his face reddening. Till Ralph said to him: "Hail, friend! many a time we thought of this meeting when we were far away and hard bestead; but this is better than all we thought of. But now, Clement, hold up thine head and be a stout man of war, for thou seest that we are not alone."

Said Clement: "Yea, fair lord, and timely ye come, both thou and thy company; and now that I have my speech again which joy hath taken away from me at the first, I shall tell thee this, that if ye go further than the good town ye shall be met and fought withal by men who are over-many and over-fierce for us." "Yea," said Ralph, "and how many be they?" Quoth Clement: "How many men may be amongst them I wot not, but I deem there be some two thousand devils."

Now Ralph reddened, and he took Clement by the shoulder, and said: "Tell me, Clement, are they yet in Upmeads?" "Sooth to say," said Clement, "by this while they may be therein; but this morn it was yet free of them; but when thou art home in our house, thy gossip shall belike tell thee much more than I can; for she is foreseeing, and hath told us much in this matter also that hath come to pass." Then spake Ralph: "Where are my father and my mother; and shall I go after them at once without resting, through the dark night and all?"

Said Clement, and therewith his face brightened: "Nay, thou needest go no further to look for them than the House of Black Canons within our walls: there are they dwelling in all honour and dignity these two days past." "What!" said Ralph, "have they fled from Upmeads, and left the High House empty? I pray thee, Clement, bring me to them as speedily as may be."

"Verily," said Clement, "they have fled, with many another, women and children and old men, who should but hinder the carles who have abided behind. Nicholas Longshanks is the leader of them down there, and the High House is their stronghold in a way; though forsooth their stout heads and strong hands are better defence."

Here Ralph brake in: "Sweetling Ursula, though thy feet have worn a many miles to-day, I bid thee hasten back to the company and tell Richard that it is as I said, to wit, that friends, and good guesting await them; so let them hasten hither and come within gates at once. For as for me, I have sworn it that I will not go one step back till I have seen my father and mother in their house of Upmeads. Is it well said, Clement?" "Yea, forsooth," said Clement; but he could not take his eyes off Ursula's loveliness, as she kilted her skirts and ran her ways like one of Diana's ladies in the wildwood. At last he said, "Thou shalt wot, fair sir, that ye will have a little band to go with thee from us of Wulstead; forsooth we had gone to-morrow morn in any case, but since thou art here, all is well." Even as he spake a great shout broke out from the company as Ursula had given her message, and then came the tramp of men and horses and the clash of weapons as they set forward; and Clement looked and beheld how first of all the array came Ursula, bearing the hallowed staff in her hand; for her heart also was set on what was to come. Then cried out Clement: "Happy art thou, lord, and happy shalt thou be, and who shall withstand thee? Lo! what a war-duke it is! and what a leader that marches with fate in her hands before thine host!"

Therewith were they all joined together, and Ursula gave the guisarme into Ralph's hand, and with his other hand he took hers, and the bar of the barrier was lifted and the gates thrown open, and they all streamed into the street, the champions coming last and towering over the footmen as they sat, big men on their big horses, as if they were very bodyguards of the God of War.



CHAPTER 26

Ralph Sees His Father and Mother Again

Thus came they into the market-place of Wulstead nigh to Clement's house, and there the company stood in ordered ranks. Ralph looked round about half expecting to see his gossip standing in the door; but Clement smiled and said: "Thou art looking round for thy gossip, fair sir; but she is upon the north gate in war-gear; for we be too few in Wulstead to spare so clean-limbed and strong-armed a dame from our muster; but she shall be here against thou comest back from the Austin Canons, wither forsooth thou mayst go at once if thou wilt let me be master in the matter of lodging." Said Ralph, smiling: "Well, Ring of Wulstead, since thou givest leave I will e'en take it, nor needest thou give me any guide to the House of St. Austin, for I know it well. Sweetheart," said he, turning to Ursula, "what sayest thou: wilt thou come with me, or abide till to-morrow, when I shall show thee to my kinsmen?" "Nay," she said, "I will with thee at once, my lord, if thou wilt be kind and take me; for meseemeth I also have a word to say to thy father, and the mother that bore thee."

"And thou, Hugh," said Ralph, "what sayest thou?" "Why, brother," said Hugh, "I think my blessing will abide the morrow's morn, for I have nought so fair and dear to show our father and mother as thou hast. Also to-morrow thou wilt have more to do; since thou art a captain, and I but a single varlet." And he smiled a little sourly on Ralph; who heeded it little, but took Ursula's hand and went his way with her.

It was but a few minutes for them to come to the House of the Canons, which was well walled toward the fields at the west of the town, so that it was its chief defence of that side. It was a fair house with a church but just finished, and Ralph could see down the street its new white pinnacles and the cross on its eastern gable rising over the ridge of the dortoir. They came to the gate, and round about it were standing men-at-arms not a few, who seemed doughty enough at first sight; but when Ralph looked on them he knew some of them, that they were old men, and somewhat past warlike deeds, for in sooth they were carles of Upmeads. Him they knew not, for he had somewhat cast down the visor of his helm; but they looked eagerly on the fair lady and the goodly knight.

So Ralph spake to the porter and bade him show him where was King Peter of Upmeads and his Lady wife; and the porter made him obeisance and told him that they were in the church, wherein was service toward; and bade him enter. So they went in and entered the church, and it was somewhat dim, because the sun was set, and there were many pictures, and knots of flowers in the glass of the windows.

So they went halfway down the nave, and stood together there; and the whole church was full of the music that the minstrels were making in the rood-loft, and most heavenly sweet it was; and as Ralph stood there his heart heaved with hope and love and the sweetness of his youth; and he looked at Ursula, and she hung her head, and he saw that her shoulders were shaken with sobs; but he knew that it was with her as with him, so he spake no word to her.

Now when his eyes cleared and he was used to the twilight of the church, he looked toward the choir, and saw near to the Jesus altar a man and a woman standing together even as they were standing, and they were somewhat stricken in years. So presently he knew that this would be his father and mother; so he stood still and waited till the service should be over; and by then it was done the twilight was growing fast in the church, and the sacristan was lighting a lamp here and there in some of the chapels, and the aisles of the choir.

So King Peter and his wife turned and came slowly down the nave, and when they were come anigh, Ralph spake aloud, and said: "Hail, King Peter of Upmeads!" And the old man stopped and said unto him: "Yea, forsooth, my name is Peter, and my business is to be a king, or a kinglet rather; and once it seemed no such hard craft; but now it all goes otherwise, and belike my craft has left me; even as it fares with a leech when folk are either too well or too ill to need his leech-craft."

Then he looked at Ralph and at Ursula, and said: "Either my eyes are worse than I deemed yesterday, or thou art young, and a gallant knight, and she that is standing by thee is young, and fair. Ah, lad! time was when I would have bid thee come home, thou and thy sweetling, to my house with me, and abide there in ease and feastfully; but now the best rede I can give thee is to get thee gone from the land, for there is all unpeace in it. And yet, forsooth, friend, I know not where to send thee to seek for peace, since Upmeads hath failed us."

While he spoke, and Ralph was sore moved by the sound of his voice, and his speech wherein kindness and mocking was so blended, the Dame of Upmeads came to Ralph and laid her hand on his arm, and said in a pleasant voice, for she was soft-hearted and soft-spoken both: "Will not the fair young warrior and his mate do so much for an old man and his wife, who have heard not tidings of their best beloved son for two years well nigh, as to come with them to their chamber, and answer a little question or two as to the parts of the world they have seen of late?"

Ralph nodded yeasay and began to move toward the porch, the Dame of Upmeads sticking close to him all the time, and King Peter following after and saying: "Yea, young man, thou mayst think the worse of me for hanging about here amongst the monks, when e'en now, for all I know, the battle is pitched in Upmeads; but Nicholas and all of them would have it so—Yea, and all my sons are away, fair sir; though of the eldest, who meseems was born with a long head, we hear that he is thriving, and hath grown great."

As he spake they were come into the porch, and passed into the open air, where it was still light; then the Dame turned round on Ralph and caught him by the two arms and cried out and cast her arms about his neck; and when she could sunder herself a little from him, she said: "O Ralph, I deemed that I knew thy voice, but I durst not halse thee till I knew it was mine own flesh and blood, lest I should have died for grief to think it was thee when it was not. O son, how fair thou art! Now do off thy sallet that I may see thee, thy face and thy curly head."

So did he, smiling as one who loved her, and again she fell to kissing and clipping him. Then his father came up and thrust her aside gently and embraced him also, and said: "Tell me, son, what thou are become? Thou art grown much of a man since thou stolest thyself away from me. Is there aught behind this goodly raiment of thine? And this fair lady, hath she stolen thee away from thy foes to bring thee home to us?"

Ralph laughed and said: "No less than that, father; I will tell thee all presently; but this first, that I am the captain of a goodly company of men-at-arms; and"——"Ah, son, sweetheart," said his mother, "and thou wilt be going away from us again to seek more fame: and yet, as I look on thee thou seemest to have grown great enough already. I deem thou wilt not leave us."

"Mother, my dear," said Ralph, "to-morrow morn we shall go down to battle in Upmeads, and the day after I shall come hither again, and bring you back to the High House with all honour and glory. But look, mother," and he took Ursula's hand, "here is a daughter and a darling that I have brought back to thee, for this is my wedded wife."

Then Ursula looked beseechingly at the Dame, who took her in her arms and clipped her and kissed her; and said, "Welcome, daughter; for I feel thy body that thou lovest me."

Then said King Peter; "Forsooth, son, she is a sweet and dainty creature. If there be a fairer than her, I wot not; but none so fair have mine eyes looked on. Tell me whose daughter she is, and of what lineage?" And therewith he took her hand and kissed her.

But Ursula said: "I am come of no earl or baron. I am a yeoman's daughter, and both my father and my mother are dead, and I have no nigh kin save one brother who loveth me not, and would heed it little if he never saw my face again. Now I tell thee this: that if my lord biddeth me go from him, I will depart; but for the bidding of none else will I leave him."

King Peter laughed and said: "Never will I bid thee depart." Then he took her hand and said: "Sweetling, fair daughter, what is thy name?" "Ursula," she said. Said he: "Ursula, thy palms are harder than be the hands of the dainty dames of the cities, but there is no churls' blood in thee meseemeth. What is thy kindred of the yeoman?" She said: "We be come of the Geirings of old time: it may be that the spear is broken, and the banner torn; but we forget not our forefathers, though we labour afield, and the barons and the earls call us churls. It is told amongst us that that word is but another way of saying earl and that it meaneth a man."

Then spoke Ralph: "Father and mother both, I may well thank thee and bless thee that your eyes look upon this half of me with kind eyes. And now I shall tell thee that for this woman, her heart is greater than a king's or a leader of folk. And meseemeth her palms have hardened with the labour of delivering me from many troubles."

Then the Dame of Upmeads put her arms about Ursula's neck again, and bade her all welcome once more, with sweet words of darling and dear, and well-beloved daughter.

But King Peter said: "Son, thou hast not told me what thou are become; and true it is that thou hast the look of a great one."

Said Ralph: "Father and King, I have become the Lord of the Little Land of Abundance, the sworn brother of the Champions of the Dry Tree, the Lord of the Castle of the Scaur, the brother and Warduke of the Shepherds; and to-morrow shall I be the Conqueror of the robbers and the devils of the Burg. And this be not enough for me, hearken! I and my wife both, yea and she leading me, have drunk of the Well at the World's End, and have become Friends thereof."

And he looked at his father with looks of love, and his father drew nigh to him again, and embraced him once more, and stroked his cheeks and kissed him as if he had become a child again: "O son," said he, "whatsoever thou dost, that thou dost full well. And lo, one while when I look on thee thou art my dear and sweet child, as thou wert years agone, and I love thee dearly and finely; and another while thou art a great and mighty man, and I fear thee; so much greater thou seemest than we poor upland folk."

Then smiled Ralph for love and happiness, and he said: "Father, I am thy child in the house and at the board, and that is for thine helping. And I am thy champion and the fierce warrior afield, and that also is for thine helping. Be of good cheer; for thine house shall not wane, but wax." And all those four were full of joy and their hearts were raised aloft.

But as they spake thus came a lay-brother and bent the knee before King Peter and bade him and the Dame of Upmeads to supper in the name of the Prior, and the Captain and the Lady therewith; for indeed the rumour of the coming of an host for the helping of the countryside had gotten into that House, and the Prior and the brethern sorely desired to look upon the Captain, not knowing him for Ralph of Upmeads. So into the Hall they went together, and there the holy fathers made them great feast and joy; and King Peter might not refrain him, but told the Prior how this was his son come back from far lands, with the goodly Lady he had won to wife therein; and the Prior and all the fathers made much of Ralph, and rejoiced in their hearts when they saw how goodly a man of war he had gotten to be. And the Prior would lead him on to tell him of the marvels he had seen in the far parts of the world; but Ralph said but little thereon, whereas his thought was set on the days that lay even before his feet; yet some deal he told him of the uncouth manners of the lands beyond Whitwall, and at last he said: "Father, when the battles be over here, and there is peace on our lands again, I will ask thee to give me guesting for a night, that I may tell thee all the tale of what hath befallen me since the last summer day when I rode through Wulstead; but now I ask leave of thee to depart, for I have many things to do this even, as behoveth a captain, before I sleep for an hour or two. And if it be thy will, I would leave the Lady my wife with my mother here at least till morrow morn."

So the Prior gave him leave, loth though he were, and Ralph kissed his father and mother, and they blessed him. But Ursula said to him softly: "It is my meaning to go with thee down into Upmeads to-morrow; for who knoweth what may befall thee." Then he smiled upon her and went his ways down the hall and out-a-gates, while all men looked on him and did him worship.



CHAPTER 27

Ralph Holds Converse With Katherine His Gossip

Ralph went straight from St. Austin's to Clement's house, and found much people about the door thereof, what of the townsmen, what of the men of his own host. He passed through these, and found Clement in his chamber, and with him a half score of such company as was without, and amongst them Roger and the Sage; but Stephen and Richard both were amongst their men doing what was needful. All men arose when Ralph entered; but he looked around, and could see nought of his gossip amongst them. Then he sat down by Clement and asked if he had any fresh tidings; and Clement did him to wit that there had come in a carle from out of Upmeads, who had told them by sure tokens that the foe were come into the Upmeads-land at noon that day, and between then and sunset had skirmished with Nicholas and them that were holding the High House, but had gotten nought thereby. This man, said Clement, being both bold and of good sleight had mingled with the foe; and had heard the talk of them, and he said that they had no inkling of the Shepherds or the Dry Tree coming against them; but they looked to have aid from their own folk from the lands of Higham; wherefore they made a mock of the defence of the Upmeads' men; and said that since, when they were all joined together in Upmeads, they might enter where they would without the loss of a half-score men, therefore they would risk nought now; nor would they burn either the High House or the other steadings, since, said they, they were minded to keep them sound and whole for their own.

These tidings seemed good to Ralph; so he took a cup of wine and pledged the company, and said: "My masters, such of you as list to sleep long to-night had best be abed presently, for I warn you that the trumpets will blow for departure before the sun riseth to-morrow; and he that faileth to see to-morrow's battle will be sorry for his lack all his life long."

When he had thus spoken they all cried hail to him, and anon arose and went their ways. Then Ralph bade Clement come with him that he might visit the quarters of his men-at-arms, and see that all the leaders knew of the muster, and of the order of departing on the morrow; and Clement arose and went with him.

As they were on the way Ralph asked Clement what ailed his gossip Katherine that she had not come to meet him already; and Clement laughed and said: "Nought, nought; she is somewhat shamefaced to meet thee first amongst a many folk, and she not able belike to refrain her kisses and caresses to thee. Fear not, she is in her bower-aloft, and we shall find her there when we come back from our errand; fear not! she will not sleep till she hath had her arms about thee." "Good is that," said Ralph; "I had looked to see her ere now; but when we meet apart from folk, something we shall be able to say to each other, which belike neither she nor I had liked to leave unsaid till we meet again."

So came they to the chief quarters of the fighting men, and Ralph had all the leaders called to him, and he spake to them of how they should do on the morrow, both footmen and horsemen, whatwise they should stand together, and how they should fall on; and he told them all as clearly as if he were already in the field with the foe before him; so that they wondered at him, so young in years, being so old in the wisdom of war. Withal they saw of him that he had no doubt but that they should come to their above on the morrow; and all men, not only of the tried men-at-arms of the Dry Tree, but they of the Shepherds also, even those of them who had never stricken a stroke in anger, were of high heart and feared not what should befall.

So when all this business was over, they turned about and came their ways home to Clement's house again.

They saw lights in the chamber or ever they entered, and when they came to the door, lo! there within was Katherine walking up and down the floor as if she knew not how to contain herself. She turned and saw Ralph at the door, and she cried aloud and ran towards him with arms outspread. But when she drew nigh to him and beheld him closely, she withheld her, and falling down on her knees before him took his hand and fell to kissing it and weeping and crying out, "O my lord, my lord, thou art come again to us!" But Ralph stooped down to her, and lifted her up, and embraced her and kissed her on the cheeks and the mouth, and led her to the settle and sat down beside her and put his arm about her; and Clement looked on smiling, and sat him down over against them.

Then spake Katherine: "O my lord! how great and masterful hast thou grown; never did I hope to see thee come back so mighty a man." And again she wept for joy; but Ralph kissed her again, and she said, laughing through her tears: "Master Clement, this lord and warrior hath brought back with him something that I have not seen; and belike he hath had one fair woman in his arms, or more it may be, since I saw him last. For though he but kisses me as his gossip and foster-mother, yet are his kisses closer and kinder than they were aforetime."

Said Clement: "Sooth is the Sage's guess; yet verily, fair sir, I have told her somewhat of thy journeys, so far as I knew of them."

Said Katherine: "Dear lord and gossip, wilt thou not tell me more thereof now?"

"What!" said Ralph; "shall I not sleep to-night?"

"Dear gossip," she said, "thou art over-mighty to need sleep. And ah! I had forgotten in the joy of our meeting that to-morrow thou goest to battle; and how if thou come not again?"

"Fear nought," said Ralph; "art thou not somewhat foreseeing? Dost thou not know that to-morrow or the day after I shall come back unhurt and victorious; and then shall both thou and Clement come to Upmeads and abide there as long as ye will; and then shall I tell thee a many tales of my wanderings; and Ursula my beloved, she also shall tell thee."

Katherine reddened somewhat, but she said: "Would I might kiss her feet, dear lord. But now, I pray thee, tell me somewhat, now at once."

"So shall it be," said Ralph, "since thou wilt have it, dear gossip; but when I have done I shall ask thee to tell me somewhat, whereof hath long been wonder in my mind; and meseemeth that by the time we are both done with tales, I shall needs be putting on my helm again.—Nay, again I tell thee it is but a show of battle that I go to!"

So then he went and sat by Clement's side, and began and told over as shortly as might be the tidings of his journeys. And oft she wept for pity thereat.

But when he was done and he had sat beholding her, and saw how goodly a woman she was, and how straight and well knit of body, he said: "Gossip, I wonder now, if thou also hast drunk of the Well; for thou art too fair and goodly to be of the age that we call thee. How is this! Also tell me how thou camest by this pair of beads that seem to have led me to the Well at the World's End? For as I said e'en now, I have long marvelled how thou hadst them and where."

"Fair sir," said Clement, "as for her drinking of the Well at the World's End, it is not so; but this is a good woman, and a valiant, and of great wisdom; and such women wear well, even as a well-wrought piece of armour that hath borne many strokes of the craftsman's hand, and hath in it some deal of his very mind and the wisdom of him. But now let her tell thee her tale (which forsooth I know not), for night is growing old."



CHAPTER 28

Dame Katherine Tells of the Pair of Beads, and Whence She Had Them

Katherine cast friendly looks on them and said: "Gossip, and thou, Clement, I will make a clean breast of it once for all. In the days when I was first wedded to Master Clement yonder, he found his bed cold without me, for he was a hot lover; therefore would he often have me with him on his journeys, how hard soever or perilous the way might be. Yea, Clement, thou lookest the sooth, though thou sayest it not, I was nought loth thereto, partly because I would not grieve thee, my man; but partly, and belike mostly, because I was wishful to see the ways of the world even at the risk of being thrust out of the world. So it befell us on a time to make a journey together, a journey exceeding long, in the company of certain chapmen, whereof some, and not a few, died on the way. But we lived, and came into the eastern parts of the earth to a city right ancient, and fulfilled of marvels, which hight Sarras the Holy. There saw we wonders whereof were it overlong to tell of here; but one while I will tell thee, my lord. But this I must needs say, that I heard tell of a woman dwelling there, who was not old by seeming, but had in her the wisdom of ten lives, and the longing gat hold of me to see her and learn wisdom of her. So I entreated many who were called wise, some with prayers, and some with gifts also, to help me to speech of her; but I gat nothing either by praying or giving; they that would have helped me could not, and they that could would not. So, what between one thing and another, the longing to see the Wise Woman grew as it were into a madness in me. Amidst of which we fell in with a merchant exceeding wise in ancient lore, who looked at me (though Clement knew it not) with eyes of love. Of this man I asked concerning the Wise Woman, and he seeing my desire, strove to use it merchant-like, and would deal with me and have in payment for his learning a gift which I had nought to do to give. Howbeit madness and my desire for speech with the Wise Woman got the better of me, and I promised to give no less than he would, trusting to beguile him after I had got my desire, and be quit of him. So he led me to the woman and went his ways. She dwelt all by herself in a nook of an ancient ruined palace, erst the house of the ancientest of all the kings of Sarras. When I came to her, I saw nought dreadful or ugsome about her: she was cheerful of countenance and courteous of demeanour, and greeted me kindly as one neighbour in the street of Wulstead might do to another. I saw her, that she was by seeming a woman of some forty winters, trim and well-fashioned of body, nowise big, but slender, of dark red hair and brown eyes somewhat small.

"Now, she said to me, 'I have looked for thee a while; now thou art come, thou shalt tell me what thou needest, and thy needs will I fulfil. Yet needs must thou do a thing for me in return, and maybe thou wilt deem it a great thing. Yet whereas thou has struck a bargain before thou camest hither, if I undo that for thee, the bargain with me may be nought so burdensome. How sayest thou?'

"Well, I saw now that I was in the trap, for ill had it been in those days had Clement come to know that I had done amiss; for he was a jealous lover, and a violent man."

Clement smiled hereat, but said nought, and Katherine went on: "Trap or no trap, if I were eager before, I was over-eager now; so when she bade me swear to do her will, I swore it without tarrying.

"Then she said: 'Sit down before me, and I will teach thee wisdom.' What did she teach me? say ye. Well, if I told you belike ye would be none the wiser; but so much she told me, that my heart swelled with joy of the wisdom which I garnered. Say thou, Clement, if I have been the worser woman to thee, or thy friends, or mine."

"Nay, goodwife," said Clement, "I have nought against thee."

Katherine laughed and went on:

"At last the Wise Woman said, 'Now that thou hast of me all that may avail thee, comes the other part of our bargain, wherein I shall take and thou shalt give.'

"Quoth I, 'That is but fair, and thou shalt find me true to thee.' She said, 'If thou be not, I shall know it, and shall amend it in such wise that it shall cost thee much.'

"Then she looked on me long and keenly, and said afterward: 'Forsooth I should forbear laying this charge upon thee if I did not deem that thou wouldst be no less than true. But now I will try it, whereas I deem that the days of my life henceforward shall not be many; and many days would it take me to find a woman as little foolish as thee and as little false, and thereto as fairly fashioned.'

"Therewith she put her hand to her neck, and took thence the self-same pair of beads which I gave to thee, dear gossip, and which (praise be to All Hallows!) thou hast borne ever since; and she said: 'Now hearken! Thou shalt take this pair of beads, and do with them as I bid thee. Swear again thereto.' So I swore by All Angels; and she said again: 'This pair of beads shall one day lead a man unto the Well at the World's End, but no woman; forsooth, if a woman have them of a woman, or the like of them, (for there be others,) they may serve her for a token; but will be no talisman or leading-stone to her; and this I tell thee lest thou seek to the Well on the strength of them. For I bid thee give them to a man that thou lovest—that thou lovest well, when he is in most need; only he shall not be of thine own blood. This is all that I lay upon thee; and if thou do it, thou shalt thrive, and if thou do it not, thou shalt come to harm. And I will tell thee now that this meeting betwixt us is not by chance-hap, but of my bringing about; for I have laboured to draw thee to me, knowing that thou alone of women would avail me herein. Now shalt thou go home to thine hostel, and take this for a token of my sooth-saying. The wise merchant who led thee unto me is abiding thine homecoming that he may have of thee that which thou promisedst to him. If then thou find him at thine hostel, and he take thee by the hand and lead thee to bed, whereas Clement is away till to-morrow even, then shalt thou call me a vain word-spinner and a liar; but if when thou comest home there, the folk there say to thee merchant Valerius is ridden away hastily, being called afar on a message of life and death, then shalt thou trow in me as a wise woman. Herewith depart, and I bid thee farewell.'

"So I went my ways to my hostel trembling, and at the door I met the chamberlain, who said to me, 'Lady, the merchant Valerius hath been here seeking thee, and he said that he would abide thy coming; but amidst of his abiding cometh a man who would speak to him privily; whereof it came that he called for his horse and bade me tell thee, Lady, that he was summoned on a matter of life and death, and would return to kiss thine hands in five days' space.'

"So I wotted that the woman had spoken sooth, and was wise and foreseeing, and something of a dread of her came upon me. But the next even back cometh Clement, and the day after we rode away from Sarras the Holy, and Valerius I saw never again. And as to the beads, there is nought to tell of them till they came into thine hands; and something tells me that it was the will of the Wise Woman that to no other hands they should come."

Here Katherine made an end, and both the men sat pondering her tale a little. As for Ralph, he deemed it certain that the Wise Woman of Sarras would be none other than she who had taught lore to the Lady of Abundance; but why she should have meant the beads for him he wotted not. Again he wondered how it was that the Lady of Abundance should have given the beads to Ursula, and whether she knew that they had no might to lead her to the Well at the World's End. And yet further he wondered how it was that Ursula, unholpen by the talisman, should have done so much to bring him to the Well; yea, and how she was the first to see it while he slept. But his heart told him that whereas he was seeking the Well with her, she must needs come thither with him, unless they were both cast away; withal Katherine looked at him and said: "Yea, dear lord, I wot what thou art thinking of; but couldest thou have left her, when thou hadst once found her again, Well or no Well?" "Sooth is that," said Ralph, "yet for all that she hath done without help of talisman or witchcraft is she the more worshipful and the dearer."

Then speech came into Clement's mouth, and he said: "Wife, it is as I said before, when thy gossip had just departed from us. It was meet enough that thou shouldst have loved him better than me; but now it is even less to be undone than ever, when he has come back bringing with him a woman so valiant and lovely as is my Lady Ursula. So thou must e'en take the life that fate hath sent thee." Katherine laughed through her tears, and said: "Withal, goodman, I have been no bad wife to thee. And moreover, look thou, gossip dear: when I was wandering about with Clement amongst many perils, when our need seemed sorest, then would I think to give the beads to Clement; but so soon as I began to speak to him of the Well at the World's End he would belittle the tale of it, and would bid me look to it if it were not so, that where the world endeth the clouds begin."

As she spoke, Ralph lifted up his hand and pointed to the window, and said: "Friends, as we were speaking of all these marvels we were forgetting the need of Upmeads and the day of battle; and lo now! how the dawn is widening and the candles fading."

Scarce were the words out of his mouth, when on the quietness of the beginning of day brake out the sound of four trumpets, which were sounding in the four quarters of the town, and blowing men to the gathering. Then rose up both Ralph and Clement and took their weapons, and they kissed Katherine and went soberly out-a-doors into the market-place, where already weaponed men were streaming in to the muster.



CHAPTER 29

They Go Down to Battle in Upmeads

Before it was light were all men come into the market-place, and Ralph and Richard and Clement and Stephen a-Hurst fell to and arrayed them duly; and now, what with the company which Ralph had led into Wulstead, what with the men of the town, and them that had fled from Upmeads (though these last were mostly old men and lads), they were a thousand and four score and three. Ralph would go afoot as he went yesterday; but today he bore in his hand the ancient staff of war, the gold-written guisarme; and he went amongst the Shepherds, with whom were joined the feeble folk of Upmeads, men whom he had known of old and who knew him, and it was as if their hearts had caught fire from his high heart, and that whatever their past days had been to them, this day at least should be glorious. Withal anon comes Ursula from St. Austin's with the Sage of Swevenham, whose face was full smiling and cheerful. Ursula wore that day a hauberk under her gown, and was helmed with a sallet; and because of her armour she rode upon a little horse. Ralph gave her into the warding of the Sage, who was armed at all points, and looked a valiant man of war. But Ralph's brother, Hugh, had gotten him a horse, and had fallen into the company of the Champions, saying that he deemed they would go further forth than a sort of sheep-tending churls and the runaways of Upmeads.

As for Ralph, he walked up and down the ranks of the stout men of the Down-country, and saw how they had but little armour for defence, though their weapons for cutting and thrusting looked fell and handy. So presently he turned about to Giles, who, as aforesaid, bore a long hauberk, and said: "Friend, the walk we are on to-day is a long one for carrying burdens, and an hour after sunrise it will be hot. Wilt thou not do with thy raiment as I do?" And therewith he did off his hauberk and his other armour save his sallet. "This is good," said he, "for the sun to shine on, so that I may be seen from far; but these other matters are good for folk who fight a-horseback or on a wall; we striders have no need of them."

Then arose great shouting from the Shepherds, and men stretched out the hand to him and called hail on his valiant heart.

Amidst of which cries Giles muttered, but so as Ralph might hear him: "It is all down hill to Upmeads; I shall take off my iron-coat coming back again." So Ralph clapped him on the shoulder and bade him come back whole and well in any case. "Yea, and so shalt thou come back," said he.

Then the horns blew for departure, and they went their ways out of the market-place, and out into the fields through the new wooden wall of Wulstead. Richard led the way with a half score of the Champions, but he rode but a little way before Ralph, who marched at the head of the Shepherds.

So they went in the fresh morning over the old familiar fields, and strange it seemed to Ralph that he was leading an host into the little land of Upmeads. Speedily they went, though in good order, and it was but a little after sunrise when they were wending toward the brow of the little hill whence they would look down into the fair meads whose image Ralph had seen on so many days of peril and weariness.

And now Richard and his fore-riders had come up on to the brow and sat there on their horses clear against the sky; and Ralph saw how Richard drew his sword from the scabbard and waved it over his head, and he and his men shouted; then the whole host set up a great shout, and hastened up the bent, but with the end of their shout and the sound of the tramp of their feet and the rattle of their war-gear was mingled a confused noise of cries a way off, and the blowing of horns, and as Ralph and his company came crowding up on to the brow, he looked down and saw the happy meadows black with weaponed men, and armour gleaming in the clear morning, and the points of weapons casting back the low sun's rays and glittering like the sparks in a dying fire of straw. Then again he looked, and lo! the High House rising over the meadows unburned and unhurt, and the banner of the fruited tree hanging forth from the topmost tower thereof.

Then he felt a hand come on to his cheek, and lo, Ursula beside him, her cheeks flushed and her eyes glittering; and she cried out: "O thine home, my beloved, thine home!" And he turned to her and said; "Yea, presently, sweetheart!" "Ah," she said, "will it be long? and they so many!" "And we so mighty!" said Ralph. "Nay, it will be but a little while. Wise man of Swevenham, see to it that my beloved is anigh me to-day, for where I am, there will be safety."

The Sage nodded yeasay and smiled.

Then Ralph looked along the ridge to right and left of him, and saw that all the host had come up and had a sight of the foemen; on the right stood the Shepherds staring down into the meadow and laughing for the joy of battle and the rage of the oppressed. On the left sat the Champions of the Dry Tree on their horses, and they also were tossing up their weapons and roaring like lions for the prey; and down below the black crowd had drawn together into ordered ranks, and still the clamour and rude roaring of the warriors arose thence, and beat against the hill's brow.

Now so fierce and ready were the men of Ralph's company that it was a near thing but that they, and the Shepherds in especial, did not rush tumultuously down the hill all breathless and in ill order. But Ralph cried out to Richard to go left, and Giles to go right, and stay the onset for a while; and to bid the leaders come to him where he stood. Then the tumult amidst his folk lulled, and Stephen a-Hurst and Roger and three others of the Dry Tree came to him, and Giles brought three of the Shepherds, and there was Clement and a fellow of his. So when they were come and standing in a ring round Ralph, he said to them:

"Brothers in arms, ye see that our foes are all in array to meet us, having had belike some spy in Wulstead, who hath brought them the tale of what was toward. Albeit methinks that this irks not either you nor me; for otherwise we might have found them straggling, and scattered far and wide, which would have made our labour the greater. Now ye can see with your eyes that they are many more than we be, even were Nicholas to issue out of the High House against them, as doubtless he will do if need be. Brethren, though they be so many, yet my heart tells me that we shall overcome them; yet if we leave our strength and come down to them, both our toil shall be greater, and some of us, belike many, shall be slain; and evil should I deem it if but a score of my friends should lose their lives on this joyous day when at last I see Upmeads again after many troubles. Wherefore my rede is that we abide their onset on the hillside here; and needs must they fall on us, whereas we have Wulstead and friends behind us, and they nought but Nicholas and the bows and bills of the High House. But if any have aught to say against it let him speak, but be speedy; for already I see a stir in their array, and I deem that they will send men to challenge us to come down to them."

Then spake Stephen a-Hurst: "I, and we all meseemeth, deem that thou art in the right, Captain; though sooth to say, when we first set eyes on these dogs again, the blood so stirred in us that we were like to let all go and ride down on them."

Said Richard: "Thou biddest us wisdom of war; let them have the hill against them." Said Clement: "Yea, for they are well learned and well armed; another sort of folk to those wild men whom we otherthrew in the mountains."

And in like wise said they all.

Then spake Stephen again: "Lord, since thou wilt fight afoot with our friends of the Shepherds, we of the Dry Tree are minded to fare in like wise and to forego our horses; but if thou gainsay it——"

"Champion," said Ralph, "I do gainsay it. Thou seest how many of them be horsed, and withal ye it is who must hold the chase of them; for I will that no man of them shall escape."

They laughed joyously at his word, and then he said: "Go now, and give your leaders of scores and tens the word that I have said, and come back speedily for a little while; for now I see three men sundering them from their battle, and one beareth a white cloth at the end of his spear; these shall be the challengers."

So they did after his bidding, and by then they had come back to Ralph those three men were at the foot of the hill, which was but low. Then Ralph said to his captains: "Stand before me, so that I be not seen of them until one of you hath made answer, 'Speak of this to our leader and captain.'" Even so they did; and presently those three came so nigh that they could see the whites of their eyes. They were all three well armed, but the foremost of them was clad in white steel from head to foot, so that he looked like a steel image, all but his face, which was pale and sallow and grim. He and his two fellows, when they were right nigh, rode slowly all along the front of Ralph's battles thrice, and none spake aught to them, and they gave no word to any; but when they came over against the captains who stood before Ralph for the fourth time, they reined up and faced them, and the leader put back his sallet and spake in a great and rough voice:

"Ye men! we have heard these three hours that ye were coming, wherefore we have drawn out into the meads which we have taken, that ye might see how many and how valiant we be, and might fear us. Wherefore now, ye broken reivers of the Dry Tree, ye silly shepherds of silly sheep, ye weavers and apprentices of Wulstead, and if there by any more, ye fools! we give you two choices this morn. Either come down to us into the meadow yonder, that we may slay you with less labour, or else, which will be the better for you, give up to us the Upmeads thralls who be with you, and then turn your faces and go back to your houses, and abide there till we come and pull you out of them, which may be some while yet. Hah! what say ye, fools?"

Then spake Clement and said: "Ye messengers of the robbers and oppressors, why make ye this roaring to the common people and the sergeants? Why speak ye not with our Captain?"

Cried out the challenger, "Where then is the Captain of the Fools? is he hidden? can he hear my word?"

Scarce was it out of his mouth ere the captains fell away to right and left, and there, standing by himself, was Ralph, holding the ancient lettered war-staff; his head was bare, for now he had done off his sallet, and the sun and the wind played in his bright hair; glorious was his face, and his grey eyes gleamed with wrath and mastery as he spake in a clear voice, and there was silence all along the ranks to hearken him:

"O messenger of the robbers! I am the captain of this folk. I see that the voice hath died away within the jaws of you; but it matters not, for I have heard thy windy talk, and this is the answer: we will neither depart, nor come down to you, but will abide our death by your hands here on this hill-side. Go with this answer."

The man stared wild at Ralph while he was speaking, and seemed to stagger in his saddle; then he let his sallet fall over his face, and, turning his horse about, rode swiftly, he and his two fellows, down the hill and away to the battle of the Burgers. None followed or cried after him; for now had a great longing and expectation fallen upon Ralph's folk, and they abode what shall befall with little noise. They noted so soon as the messenger was gotten to the main of the foemen that there was a stir amongst them, and they were ordering their ranks to move against the hill. And withal they saw men all armed coming from out the High House, who went down to the Bridge and abode there. Upmeads-water ran through the meadows betwixt the hill and the High House, as hath been said afore; but as it winded along, one reach of it went nigh to the House, and made wellnigh a quarter of a circle about it before it turned to run down the meadows to the eastward; and at this nighest point was there a wide bridge well builded of stone.

The Burg-devils heeded not the men at the Bridge, but, being all arrayed, made but short tarrying (and that belike only to hear the tale of their messenger) ere they came in two battles straight across the meadow. They on their right were all riders, and these faced the Champions of the Dry Tree, but a great battle of footmen came against the Shepherds and the rest of Ralph's footmen, but in their rearward was a company of well-horsed men-at-arms; and all of them were well armed and went right orderly and warrior-like.

It was but some fifteen minutes ere they were come to the foot of the hill, and they fell to mounting it with laughter and mockery, but Ralph's men held their peace. The horsemen were somewhat speedier than those on foot, though they rode but at a foot's pace, and when they were about halfway up the hill and were faltering a little (for it was somewhat steep, though nought high), the Champions of the Dry Tree could forbear them no longer, but set up a huge roar, and rode at them, so that they all went down the hill together, but the Champions were lost amidst of the huge mass of the foemen.

But Ralph was left at the very left end of his folk, and the foemen came up the hill speedily with much noise and many foul mocks as aforesaid, and they were many and many more than Ralph's folk, and now that the Champions were gone, could have enfolded them at either end; but no man of the company blenched or faltered, only here and there one spake soft to his neighbour, and here and there one laughed the battle-laugh.

Now at the hanging of the hill, whenas either side could see the whites of the foemen's eyes, the robbers stayed a little to gather breath; and in that nick of time Ralph strode forth into the midst between the two lines and up on to a little mound on the hill-side (which well he knew), and he lifted up the ancient guisarme, and cried on high: "Home now! Home to Upmeads!"

Then befell a marvel, for even as all eyes of the foemen were turned on him, straightway their shouts and jeering and laughter fell dead, and then gave place to shrieks and wailing, as all they who beheld him cast down their weapons and fled wildly down the hill, overturning whatever stood in their way, till the whole mass of them was broken to pieces, and the hill was covered with nought but cravens and the light-footed Shepherds slaughtering them in the chase.

But Ralph called Clement to him and they drew a stalworth band together, and, heeding nought the chase of the runaways, they fell on those who had the Champions in their midst, and fell to smiting down men on either hand; and every man who looked on Ralph crouched and cowered before him, casting down his weapons and throwing up his hands. Shortly to say it, when these horsemen felt this new onset, and looking round saw their men fleeing hither and thither over the green fields of Upmeads, smitten by the Shepherds and leaping into the deep pools of the river, they turned and fled, every man who could keep his saddle, and made for the Bridge, the Dry Tree thundering at their backs. But even as they came within bowshot, a great flight of arrows came from the further side of the water, and the banner of the Fruitful Tree came forth from the bridge-end with Nicholas and his tried men-at-arms behind it; and then indeed great and grim was the murder, and the proud men of the Burg grovelled on the ground and prayed for mercy till neither the Champions nor the men of Nicholas could smite helpless men any longer.

Now had Ralph held his hand from the chase, and he was sitting on a mound amidst of the meadow under an ancient thorn, and beside him sat the Sage of Swevenham and Ursula. And she was grown pale now and looked somewhat scared, and she spake in a trembling voice to Ralph, and said: "Alas friend! that this should be so grim! When we hear the owls a-nighttime about the High House, shall we not deem at whiles that it is the ghosts of this dreadful battle and slaughter wandering about our fair fields?" But Ralph spake sternly and wrathfully as he sat there bareheaded and all unarmed save for the ancient glaive: "Why did they not slay me then? Better the ghosts of robbers in our fields by night, than the over-burdened hapless thrall by day, and the scourged woman, and ruined child. These things they sought for us and have found death on the way—let it be!"

He laughed as he spake; but then the grief of the end of battle came upon him and he trembled and shook, and great tears burst from his eyes and rolled down his cheeks, and he became stark and hard-faced.

Then Ursula took his hands and caressed them, and kissed his face, and fell a-talking to him of how they rode the pass to the Valley of Sweet Chestnuts; and in a while his heart and his mind came back to him as it did that other time of which she spake, and he kissed her in turn, and began to tell her of his old chamber in the turret of the High House.

And now there come riding across the field two warriors. They draw rein by the mound, and one lights down, and lo! it is Long Nicholas; and he took Ralph in his arms, and kissed him and wept over him for all his grizzled beard and his gaunt limbs; but few words he had for him, save this: "My little Lord, was it thou that was the wise captain to-day, or this stout lifter and reiver!" But the other man was Stephen a-Hurst, who laughed and said: "Nay, Nicholas, I was the fool, and this stripling the wise warrior. But, Lord Ralph, thou wilt pardon me, I hope, but we could not kill them all, for they would not fight in any wise; what shall we do with them?" Ralph knit his brows and thought a little; then he said: "How many hast thou taken?" Said Stephen: "Some two hundred alive." "Well," quoth Ralph; "strip them of all armour and weapons, and let a score of thy riders drive them back the way they came into the Debateable Wood. But give them this last word from me, that or long I shall clear the said wood of all strong-thieves."

Stephen departed on that errand; and presently comes Giles and another of the Shepherds with a like tale, and had a like answer.

Now amidst all these deeds it yet lacked an hour of noon. So presently Ralph arose and took Richard apart for a while and spoke with him a little, and then came back to Ursula and took her by the hand, and said: "Beloved, Richard shall take thee now to a pleasant abode this side the water; for I grudge that thou shouldst enter the High House without me; and as for me I must needs ride back to Wulstead to bring hither my father and mother, as I promised to do after the battle. In good sooth, I deemed it would have lasted longer." Said Ursula: "Dear friend, this is even what I should have bidden thee myself. Depart speedily, that thou mayst be back the sooner; for sorely do I long to enter thine house, beloved." Then Ralph turned to Nicholas, and said: "Our host is not so great but that thou mayst victual it well; yet I deem it is little less than when we left Wulstead early this morning."

"True is that, little lord," said Nicholas. "Hear a wonder amongst battles: of thy Shepherds and the other footmen is not one slain, and but some five hurt. The Champions have lost three men slain outright, and some fifteen hurt; of whom is thy brother Hugh, but not sorely." "Better than well is thy story then," said Ralph. "Now let them bring me a horse." So when he was horsed, he kissed Ursula and went his ways. And she abode his coming back at Richard's house anigh the water.



CHAPTER 30

Ralph Brings His Father and Mother to Upmeads

Short was the road back again to Wulstead, and whereas the day was not very old when Ralph came there, he failed not to stop at Clement's house, and came into the chamber where sat Dame Katherine in pensive wise nigh to the window, with her open hands in her lap. Quoth Ralph: "Rejoice, gossip! for neither is Clement hurt, nor I, and all is done that should be done." She moved her but little, but the tears came into her eyes and rolled down her cheeks. "What, gossip?" quoth Ralph; "these be scarce tears of joy; what aileth thee?" "Nay," said Katherine, "indeed I am joyful of thy tidings, though sooth to say I looked for none other. But, dear lord and gossip, forgive me my tears on the day of thy triumph; for if they be not wholly of joy, so also are they not wholly of sorrow. But love and the passing of the days are bittersweet within my heart to-day. Later on thou shalt see few faces more cheerful and merry in the hall at Upmeads than this of thy gossip's. So be merry now, and go fetch thy father and thy mother, and rejoice their hearts that thou hast been even better than thy word to them. Farewell, gossip; but look to see me at Upmeads before many days are past; for I know thee what thou art; and that the days will presently find deeds for thee, and thou wilt be riding into peril, and coming safe from out of it. Farewell!"

So he departed and rode to the House of St. Austin, and the folk gathered so about him in the street that at the gate of the Priory he had to turn about and speak to them; and he said: "Good people, rejoice! there are no more foemen of Wulstead anigh you now; and take this word of me, that I will see to it in time to come that ye live in peace and quiet here."

Folk shouted for joy, and the fathers who were standing within the gate heard his word and rejoiced, and some of them ran off to tell King Peter that his son was come back victorious already; so that by then he had dismounted at the Guest-house door, lo! there was the King and his wife with him, and both they alboun for departure. And when they saw him King Peter cried out: "There is no need to say a word, my son; unless thou wouldst tell the tale to the holy father Prior, who, as ye see, has e'en now come out to us."

Said Ralph: "Father and mother, I pray your blessing, and also the blessing of the father Prior here; and the tale is short enough: that we have overthrown them and slain the more part, and the others are now being driven like a herd of swine into their stronghold of the Wood Debateable, where, forsooth, I shall be ere the world is one month older. And in the doing of all this have but three of our men been slain and a few hurt, amongst whom is thy son Hugh, but not sorely."

"O yea, son," said his mother, "he shall do well enough. But now with thy leave, holy Prior, we will depart, so that we may sleep in the High House to-night, and feel that my dear son's hand is over us to ward us."

Then Ralph knelt before them, and King Peter and his wife blessed their son when they had kissed and embraced each other, and they wept for joy of him. The Prior also, who was old, and a worthy prelate, and an ancient friend of King Peter, might not refrain his tears at the joy of his friends as he gave Ralph his blessing. And then, when Ralph had risen up and the horses were come, he said to him: "One thing thou art not to forget, young conqueror, to wit, that thou art to come here early one day, and tell me all thy tale at full length."

"Yea, Prior," said Ralph, "or there is the High House of Upmeads for thee to use as thine own, and a rest for thee of three or four days while thou hearkenest the tale; for it may need that."

"Hearken," said King Peter softly to the Dame, "how he reckons it all his own; my day is done, my dear." He spake smiling, and she said: "Soothly he is waxen masterful, and well it becometh the dear youngling."

Now they get to horse and ride their ways, while all folk blessed them. The two old folk rode fast and pressed their nags whatever Ralph might do to give them pastime of words; so they came into the plain field of Upmeads two hours before sunset; and King Peter said: "Now I account it that I have had one day more of my life than was my due, and thou, son, hast added it to the others whereas thou didst not promise to bring me hither till morrow."

Ralph led them round by the ford, so that they might not come across the corpses of the robbers; but already were the Upmeads carles at work digging trenches wherein to bury them.

So Ralph led his father and his mother to the gate of the garth of High House; then he got off his horse and helped them down, and as he so dealt with his father, he said to him: "Thou art springy and limber yet, father; maybe thou wilt put on thine helm this year to ride the Debateable Wood with me."

The old man laughed and said: "Maybe, son; but as now it is time for thee to enter under our roof-tree once more."

"Nay," said Ralph, "but go ye in and sit in the high-seat and abide me. For did I not go straight back to you from the field of battle; and can I suffer it that any other hand than mine should lead my wife into the hall and up to the high-seat of my fathers; and therefore I go to fetch her from the house of Richard the Red where she is abiding me; but presently I shall lead her in, and do ye then with us what ye will."

Therewith he turned about and rode his ways to Richard's house, which was but a half-mile thence. But his father and mother laughed when he was gone, and King Peter said: "There again! thou seest, wife, it is he that commands and we that obey."

"O happy hour that so it is!" said the Lady, "and happy now shall be the wearing of our days."

So they entered the garth and came into the house, and were welcomed with all joy by Nicholas, and told him all that Ralph had said, and bade him array the house as he best might; for there was much folk about the High House, though the Upmeads carles and queans had taken the more part of the host to their houses, which they had delivered from the fire and sword, and they made much of them there with a good heart.



CHAPTER 31

Ralph Brings Ursula Home to the High House

Ralph speedily came to Richard's house and entered the chamber, and found Ursula alone therein, clad in the daintiest of her woman's gear of the web of Goldburg. She rose up to meet him, and he took her in his arms, and said: "Now is come the very ending of our journey that we so often longed for; and all will be ready by then we come to the High House."

"Ah," she said, as she clung to him, "but they were happy days the days of our journey; and to-morrow begins a new life."

"Nay," he said, "but rather this even; shall it be loathly to thee, lady?"

She said: "There will be many people whom I knew not yesterday." "There will be but me," he said, "when the night hath been dark for a little."

She kissed him and said nought. And therewithal came some of Richard's folk, for it was his house, and led with them a white palfrey for Ursula's riding, dight all gay and goodly.

"Come then," said Ralph, "thou needest not to fear the ancient house, for it is kind and lovely, and my father and my mother thou hast seen already, and they love thee. Come then, lest the hall be grown too dusk for men to see thy fairness." "Yea, yea," she said, "but first here is a garland I made for thee, and one also for me, while I was abiding thee after the battle, and my love and my hope is woven into it." And she set it on his head, and said, "O thou art fair, and I did well to meet thee in the dark wood." Then he kissed her dearly on the mouth and led her forth, and none went with them, and they mounted and went their ways.

But Ralph said: "I deem that we should ride the meadow to the bridge, because that way lies the great door of the hall, and if I know my father and Nicholas they will look for us that way. Dost thou yet fear these dead men, sweetheart, whom our folk slew this morning?" "Nay," she said, "it has been a long time since the morning, and they, and their fieriness which has so burned out, are now to me as a tale that hath been told. It is the living that I am going to, and I hope to do well by them."

Came they then to the bridge-end and there was no man there, nought but the kine that were wandering about over the dewy grass of eventide. Then they rode over the bridge and through the orchard, and still there was no man, and all gates were open wide. So they came into the base-court of the house, and it also was empty of folk; and they came to the great doors of the hall and they were open wide, and they could see through them that the hall was full of folk, and therein by the light of the low sun that streamed in at the shot-window at the other end they saw the faces of men and the gleam of steel and gold.

So they lighted down from their horses, and took hand in hand and entered bright-faced and calm, and goodly beyond the goodliness of men; then indeed all that folk burst forth into glad cries, and tossed up their weapons, and many wept for joy.

As they went slowly up the long hall (and it was thirty fathom of length) Ralph looked cheerfully and friendly from side to side, and beheld the faces of the Shepherds and the Champions, and the men of Wulstead, and his own folk; and all they cried hail to him and the lovely and valiant Lady. Then he looked up to the high-seat, and saw that his father's throne was empty, and his mother's also; but behind the throne stood a knight all armed in bright armour holding the banner of Upmeads; but his father and mother stood on the edge of the dais to meet him and Ursula; and when they came up thither these old folk embraced them and kissed them and led them up to the table. Then Ralph bade Ursula sit by his mother, and made him ready to sit by his father in all love and duty. But King Peter stayed him and said: "Nay, dear son, not there, but here shalt thou sit, thou saviour of Upmeads and conqueror of the hearts of men; this is a little land, but therein shall be none above thee." And therewith he set Ralph down in the throne, and Ralph, turning to his left hand, saw that it was Ursula, and not his mother, who sat beside him. But at the sight of these two in the throne the glad cries and shouts shook the very timbers of the roof, and the sun sank under while yet they cried hail to the King of Upmeads.

Then were the lights brought and the supper, and all men fell to feast, and plenteous was the wine in the hall; and sure since first men met to eat together none have been merrier than they.

But now when men had well eaten, and the great cup called the River of Upmeads was brought in, the cupbearers, being so bidden before, brought it last of all to King Peter, and he stood up with the River in his hand and spoke aloud, and said: "Lords and warriors, and good people all, here I do you to wit, that it is not because my son Ralph has come home to-day and wrought us a great deliverance, and that my love hath overcome me; it is not for this cause that I have set him in my throne this even; but because I see and perceive that of all the kindred he is meetest to sit therein so long as he liveth; unless perchance this lovely and valiant woman should bear him a son even better than himself—and so may it be. Therefore I do you all to wit that this man is the King of Upmeads, and this woman is his Lady and Queen; and so deem I of his prowess, and his wisdom, and kindliness, that I trow he shall be lord and servant of other lands than Upmeads, and shall draw the good towns and the kindreds and worthy good lords into peace and might and well-being, such as they have not known heretofore. Now within three days shall mass be sung in the choir of St. Laurence, and then shall King Ralph swear on the gospels such oaths as ye wot of, to guard his people, and help the needy, and oppress no man, even as I have sworn it. And I say to you, that if I have kept the oath to my power, yet shall he keep it better, as he is mightier than I.

"Furthermore, when he hath sworn, then shall the vassals swear to him according to ancient custom, to be true to him and hardy in all due service. But so please you I will not abide till then, but will kneel to him and to his Lady and Queen here and now."

Even so he did, and took Ralph's hand in his and swore service to him such as was due; and he knelt to Ursula also, and bade her all thanks for what she had done in the helping of his son; and they raised him up and made much of him and of Ralph's mother; and great was the joy of all folk in the hall.

So the feast went on a while till the night grew old, and folk must fare bedward. Then King Peter and his wife brought Ralph and Ursula to the chamber of the solar, the kingly chamber, which was well and goodly dight with hangings and a fair and glorious bed, and was newly decked with such fair flowers as the summer might furnish; and at the threshold King Peter stayed them and said: "Kinsman, and thou, dear friend, this is become your due chamber and resting-place while ye live in the world, and this night of all others it shall be a chamber of love; for ye are, as it were, new wedded, since now first ye are come amongst the kindred as lover and beloved; and thou, Ursula, art now at last the bride of this ancient house; now tell me, doth it not look friendly and kindly on thee?"

"O yea, yea," she said. "Come thou, my man and my darling and let us be alone in the master-chamber of this ancient House."

Then Ralph drew her unto him; and the old man blessed them and prayed for goodly offspring for them, that the House of Upmeads might long endure.

And thus were they two left alone amidst the love and hope of the kindred, as erst they lay alone in the desert.



CHAPTER 32

Yet a Few Words Concerning Ralph of Upmeads

Certain it is that Ralph failed not of his promise to the good Prior of St. Austin's at Wulstead, but went to see him speedily, and told him all the tale of his wanderings as closely as he might, and hid naught from him; which, as ye may wot, was more than one day's work or two or three. And ever when Ralph thus spoke was a brother of the House sitting with the Prior, which brother was a learned and wise man and very speedy and deft with his pen. Wherefore it has been deemed not unlike that from this monk's writing has come the more part of the tale above told. And if it be so, it is well.

Furthermore, it is told of Ralph of Upmeads that he ruled over his lands in right and might, and suffered no oppression within them, and delivered other lands and good towns when they fell under tyrants and oppressors; and for as kind a man as he was in hall and at hearth, in the field he was a warrior so wise and dreadful, that oft forsooth the very sound of his name and rumour of his coming stayed the march of hosts and the ravage of fair lands; and no lord was ever more beloved. Till his deathday he held the Castle of the Scaur, and cleansed the Wood Perilous of all strong-thieves and reivers, so that no high-street of a good town was safer than its glades and its byways. The new folk of the Burg of the Four Friths made him their lord and captain, and the Champions of the Dry Tree obeyed him in all honour so long as any of them lasted. He rode to Higham and offered himself as captain to the abbot thereof, and drave out the tyrants and oppressors thence, and gave back peace to the Frank of Higham. Ever was he true captain and brother to the Shepherd-folk, and in many battles they followed him; and were there any scarcity or ill hap amongst them, he helped them to the uttermost of his power. The Wood Debateable also he cleared of foul robbers and reivers, and rooted out the last of the Burg-devils, and delivered three good towns beyond the wood from the cruelty of the oppressor.

Once in every year he and Ursula his wife visited the Land of Abundance, and he went into the castle there as into a holy place, and worshipped the memory of the Lady whom he had loved so dearly. With all the friends of his quest he was kind and well-beloved.

In about two years from the day when he rode home, came to him the Lord Bull of Utterbol with a chosen band, of whom were both Otter and Redhead. That very day they came he was about putting his foot in the stirrup to ride against the foemen; so Bull and his men would not go into the High House to eat, but drank a cup where they stood, and turned and rode with him straightway, and did him right manly service in battle; and went back with him afterwards to Upmeads, and abode with him there in feasting and joyance for two months' wearing. And thrice in the years that followed, when his lands at home seemed safest and most at peace, Ralph took a chosen band, and Ursula with them, and Clement withal, and journeyed through the wastes and the mountains to Utterbol, and passed joyous days with his old thrall of war, Bull Nosy, now become a very mighty man and the warder of the peace of the Uttermost lands.

Clement and Katherine came oft to the High House, and Katherine exceeding often; and she loved and cherished Ursula and lived long in health of body and peace of mind.

All the days that Ralph of Upmeads lived, he was the goodliest of men, and no man to look on him had known it when he grew old; and when he changed his life, an exceeding ancient man, he was to all men's eyes in the very blossom of his age.

As to Ursula his wife, she was ever as valiant and true as when they met in the dark night amidst of the Eastland wood. Eight goodly children she bore him, and saw four generations of her kindred wax up; but even as it was with Ralph, never was she less goodly of body, nay rather, but fairer than when first she came to Upmeads; and the day whereon any man saw her was a day of joyful feast to him, a day to be remembered for ever. On one day they two died and were laid together in one tomb in the choir of St. Laurence of Upmeads. AND HERE ENDS THE TALE OF THE WELL AT THE WORLD'S END.

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