She stayed her speech a while, and her eyes glittered in her flushed face and she set her teeth; and she was as one beside herself till Ralph kissed her feet, and caressed her, and she went on again.
"Dear friend, when thou knowest what these men are and have been thou wilt bless thy friend Roger for leading thee forth from the Burg by night and cloud, whatever else may happen to thee.
"Well, we abode in the wildwood, friends and good fellows from the first; and that young man, though he loved me ever, was somewhat healed of the fever of love, and was my faithful friend, in such wise that neither I nor my lord had aught to find fault with in him. Meanwhile we began to grow strong, for many joined us therein who had fled from their tyrants of the good towns and the manors of the baronage, and at last in the third year naught would please my lord but we must enter into the Kingdom of the Tower, and raise his banner in the wealthy land, and the fair cities.
"Moreover, his father, the King of the Tower, died in his bed in these days, and no word of love or peace had passed between them since that morning when I was led out to be burned in the Great Square.
"So we came forth from the forest, we, and the Champions of the Dry Tree; and made the tale a short one. For the king, the mighty warrior and wise man, was dead: and his captains of war, some of them were dead, and some weary of strife; and those who had been eager in debate were falling to ask themselves wherefore they had fought and what was to do that they should still be fighting; and lo! when it came to be looked into, it was all a matter of the life and death of one woman, to wit me myself, and why should she not live, why should she not sit upon the throne with the man who loved her?
"Therefore when at last we came out from the twilight of the woods into the sunny fields of the Land of the Tower, there was no man to naysay us; nay, the gates of the strong places flew open before the wind of our banners, and the glittering of our spears drew the folk together toward the places of rejoicing. We entered the master City in triumph, with the houses hung with green boughs and the maidens casting flowers before our feet, and I sat a crowned Queen upon the throne high raised on the very place where erst I stood awaiting the coming of the torch to the faggots which were to consume me.
"There then began the reign of the Woman of the Waste; for so it was, that my lord left to my hands the real ruling of the kingdom, though he wore the crown and set the seal to parchments. As to them of the Dry Tree, though some few of them abode in the kingdom, and became great there, the more part of them went back to the wildwood and lived the old life of the Wood, as we had found them living it aforetime. But or ever they went, the leaders of them came before me, and kissed my feet, and with tears and prayers besought me, and bade me that if aught fell amiss to me there, I should come back to them and be their Lady and Queen; and whereas these wild men loved me well, and I deemed that I owed much to their love and their helping, I promised them and swore to them by the Water of the Well at the World's End that I would do no less than they prayed me: albeit I set no term or year for the day that I would come to them.
"And now my lord and I, we set ourselves to heal the wounds which war had made in the land: and hard was the work, and late the harvest; so used had men become to turmoil and trouble. Moreover, there were many, and chiefly the women who had lost husband, lover, son or brother, who laid all their griefs on my back; though forsooth how was I guilty of the old king's wrath against me, which was the cause of all? About this time my lord had the Castle of Abundance built up very fairly for me and him to dwell in at whiles; and indeed we had before that dwelt at a little manor house that was there, when we durst withdraw a little from the strife; but now he had it done as fair as ye saw it, and had those arras cloths made with the story of my sojourn in the wilderness, even as ye saw them. But the days and the years wore, and wealth came back to the mighty of the land, and fields flourished and the acres bore increase, and fair houses were builded in the towns; and the land was called happy again.
"But for me I was not so happy: and I looked back fondly to the days of the greenwood and the fellowship of the Dry Tree, and the days before that, of my flight with my lord. And moreover with the wearing of the years those murmurs against me and the blind causeless hatred began to grow again, and chiefly methinks because I was the king, and my lord the king's cloak: but therewith tales concerning me began to spring up, how that I was not only a sorceress, but even one foredoomed from of old and sent by the lords of hell to wreck that fair Land of the Tower and make it unhappy and desolate. And the tale grew and gathered form, till now, when the bloom of my beauty was gone, I heard hard and fierce words cried after me in the streets when I fared abroad, and that still chiefly by the women: for yet most men looked on me with pleasure. Also my counsellors and lords warned me often that I must be wary and of great forbearance if trouble were to be kept back.
"Now amidst these things as I was walking pensively in my garden one summer day, it was told me that a woman desired to see me, so I bade them bring her. And when she came I looked on her, and deemed that I had seen her aforetime: she was not old, but of middle age, of dark red hair, and brown eyes somewhat small: not a big woman, but well fashioned of body, and looking as if she had once been exceeding dainty and trim. She spake, and again I seemed to have heard her voice before: 'Hail, Queen,' she said, 'it does my heart good to see thee thus in thy glorious estate.' So I took her greeting; but those tales of my being but a sending of the Devil for the ruin of that land came into my mind, and I sent away the folk who were thereby before I said more to her. Then she spake again: 'Even so I guessed it would be that thou wouldst grow great amongst women.'
"But I said, 'What is this? and when have I known thee before-time?' She smiled and said naught; and my mind went back to those old days, and I trembled, and the flesh crept upon my bones, lest this should be the coming back in a new shape of my mistress whom I had slain. But the woman laughed, and said, as if she knew my thoughts: 'Nay, it is not so: the dead are dead; fear not: but hast thou forgotten the Dale of Lore?'
"'Nay,' said I, 'never; and art thou then the carline that learned me lore? But if the dead come not back, how do the old grow young again? for 'tis a score of years since we two sat in the Dale, and I longed for many things.'
"Said the woman: 'The dead may not drink of the Well at the World's End; yet the living may, even if they be old; and that blessed water giveth them new might and changeth their blood, and they are as young folk for a long while again after they have drunken.' 'And hast thou drunken?' said I.
"'Yea,' she said; 'but I am minded for another draught.' I said: 'And wherefore hast thou come to me, and what shall I give to thee?' She said, 'I will take no gift of thee as now, for I need it not, though hereafter I may ask a gift of thee. But I am to ask this of thee, if thou wilt be my fellow-farer on the road thither?' 'Yea?' said I, 'and leave my love and my lord, and my kingship which he hath given me? for this I will tell thee, that all that here is done, is done by me.'
"'Great is thy Kingship, Lady,' said the woman, and smiled withal. Then she sat silent a little, and said: 'When six months are worn, it will be springtide; I will come to thee in the spring days, and know what thy mind is then. But now I must depart.' Quoth I: 'Glad shall I be to talk with thee again; for though thou hast learned me much of wisdom, yet much more I need; yea, as much as the folk here deem I have already.' 'Thou shalt have no less,' said the woman. Then she kissed my hands and went her ways, and I sat musing still for a long while: because for all my gains, and my love that I had been loved withal, and the greatness that I had gotten, there was as it were a veil of unhappiness wrapped round about my heart.
"So wore the months, and ere the winter had come befell an evil thing, for my lord, who had loved me so, and taken me out of the wilderness, died, and was gathered to the fathers, and there was I left alone; for there was no fruit of my womb by him alive. My first-born had been slain by those wretches, and a second son that I bore had died of a pestilence that war and famine had brought upon the land. I will not wear thy soul with words about my grief and sorrow: but it is to be told that I sat now in a perilous place, and yet I might not step down from it and abide in that land, for then it was a sure thing, that some of my foes would have laid hand on me and brought me to judgment for being but myself, and I should have ended miserably. So I gat to me all the strength that I might, and whereas there were many who loved me still, some for my own sake, and some for the sake of my lord that was, I endured in good hope that all my days were not done. Yet I longed for the coming of the Teacher of Lore; for now I made up my mind that I would go with her, and seek to the Well at the World's End for weal and woe.
"She came while April was yet young: and I need make no long tale of how we gat us away: for whereas she was wise in hidden lore, it was no hard matter for her to give me another semblance than mine own, so that I might have walked about the streets of our city from end to end, and none had known me. So I vanished away from my throne and my kingdom, and that name and fame of a witch-wife clove to me once and for all, and spread wide about the cities of folk and the kingdoms, and many are the tales that have arisen concerning me, and belike some of these thou hast heard told."
Ralph reddened and said: "My soul has been vexed by some inkling of them; but now it is at rest from them for ever."
"May it be so!" she said: "and now my tale is wearing thin for the present time.
"Back again went my feet over the ways they had trodden before, though the Teacher shortened the road much for us by her wisdom. Once again what need to tell thee of these ways when thine own eyes shall behold them as thou wendest them beside me? Be it enough to say that once again I came to that little house in the uttermost wilderness, and there once more was the garth and the goat-house, and the trees of the forest beyond it, and the wood-lawns and the streams and all the places and things that erst I deemed I must dwell amongst for ever."
Said Ralph: "And did the carline keep troth with thee? Was she not but luring thee thither to be her thrall? Or did the book that I read in the Castle of Abundance but lie concerning thee?"
"She held her troth to me in all wise," said the Lady, "and I was no thrall of hers, but as a sister, or it may be even as a daughter; for ever to my eyes was she the old carline who learned me lore in the Dale of the wildwood.
"But now a long while, years long, we abode in that House of the Sorceress ere we durst seek further to the Well at the World's End. And yet meseems though the years wore, they wore me no older; nay, in the first days at least I waxed stronger of body and fairer than I had been in the King's Palace in the Land of the Tower, as though some foretaste of the Well was there for us in the loneliness of the desert; although forsooth the abiding there amidst the scantiness of livelihood, and the nakedness, and the toil, and the torment of wind and weather were as a penance for the days and deeds of our past lives. What more is to say concerning our lives here, saving this, that in those days I learned yet more wisdom of the Teacher of Lore, and amidst that wisdom was much of that which ye call sorcery: as the foreseeing of things to come, and the sending of dreams or visions, and certain other matters. And I may tell thee that the holy man who came to us last even, I sent him the dream which came to him drowsing, and bade him come to the helping of Walter the Black: for I knew that I should take thy hand and flee with thee this morning e'en as I have done: and I would fain have a good leech to Walter lest he should die, although I owe him hatred rather than love. Now, my friend, tell me, is this an evil deed, and dost thou shrink from the Sorceress?"
He strained her to his bosom and kissed her mouth, and then he said: "Yet thou hast never sent a dream to me." She laughed and said: "What! hast thou never dreamed of me since we met at the want-way of the Wood Perilous?" "Never," said he. She stroked his cheek fondly, and said: "Young art thou, sweet friend, and sleepest well a-nights. It was enough that thou thoughtest of me in thy waking hours." Then she went on with her tale.
The Lady Maketh an End of Her Tale
"Well, my friend, after we had lived thus a long time, we set out one day to seek to the Well at the World's End, each of us signed and marked out for the quest by bearing such-like beads as thou and I both bear upon our necks today. Once again of all that befell us on that quest I will tell thee naught as now: because to that Well have I to bring thee: though myself, belike, I need not its waters again."
Quoth Ralph: "And must thou lead me thy very self, mayest thou not abide in some safe place my going and returning? So many and sore as the toils and perils of the way may be." "What!" she said, "and how shall I be sundered from thee now I have found thee? Yea, and who shall lead thee, thou lovely boy? Shall it be a man to bewray thee, or a woman to bewray me? Yet need we not go tomorrow, my beloved, nor for many days: so sweet as we are to each other.
"But in those past days it was needs must we begin our quest before the burden of years was over heavy upon us. Shortly to say it, we found the Well, and drank of its waters after abundant toil and peril, as thou mayst well deem. Then the life and the soul came back to us, and the past years were as naught to us, and my youth was renewed in me, and I became as thou seest me to-day. But my fellow was as a woman of forty summers again, strong and fair as I had seen her when she came into the garden in the days of my Queenhood, and thus we returned to the House of the Sorceress, and rested there for a little from our travel and our joy.
"At last, and that was but some five years ago, the Teacher said to me: 'Sister, I have learned thee all that thine heart can take of me, and thou art strong in wisdom, and moreover again shall it be with thee, as I told of thee long ago, that no man shall look on thee that shall not love thee. Now I will not seek to see thy life that is coming, nor what thine end shall be, for that should belike be grievous to both of us; but this I see of thee, that thou wilt now guide thy life not as I will, but as thou wilt; and since my way is not thy way, and that I see thou shalt not long abide alone, now shall we sunder; for I am minded to go to the most ancient parts of the world, and seek all the innermost of wisdom whiles I yet live; but with kings and champions and the cities of folk will I have no more to do: while thou shalt not be able to refrain from these. So now I bid thee farewell.'
"I wept at her words, but gainsaid them naught, for I wotted that she spake but the truth; so I kissed her, and we parted; she went her ways through the wildwood, and I abode at the House of the Sorceress, and waited on the wearing of the days.
"But scarce a month after her departure, as I stood by the threshold one morning amidst of the goats, I saw men come riding from out the wood; so I abode them, and they came to the gate of the garth and there lighted down from their horses, and they were three in company; and no one of them was young, and one was old, with white locks flowing down from under his helm: for they were all armed in knightly fashion, but they had naught but white gaberdines over their hauberks, with no coat-armour or token upon them. So they came through the garth-gate and I greeted them and asked them what they would; then the old man knelt down on the grass before me and said: 'If I were as young as I am old my heart would fail me in beholding thy beauty: but now I will ask thee somewhat: far away beyond the forest we heard rumours of a woman dwelling in the uttermost desert, who had drunk of the Well at the World's End, and was wise beyond measure. Now we have set ourselves to seek that woman, and if thou be she, we would ask a question of thy wisdom.'
"I answered that I was even such as they had heard of, and bade them ask.
"Said the old man:
"'Fifty years ago, when I was yet but a young man, there was a fair woman who was Queen of the Land of the Tower and whom we loved sorely because we had dwelt together with her amidst tribulation in the desert and the wildwood: and we are not of her people, but a fellowship of free men and champions hight the Men of the Dry Tree: and we hoped that she would one day come back and dwell with us and be our Lady and Queen: and indeed trouble seemed drawing anigh her, so that we might help her and she might become our fellow again, when lo! she vanished away from the folk and none knew where she was gone. Therefore a band of us of the Dry Tree swore an oath together to seek her till we found her, that we might live and die together: but of that band of one score and one, am I the last one left that seeketh; for the rest are dead, or sick, or departed: and indeed I was the youngest of them. But for these two men, they are my sons whom I have bred in the knowledge of these things and in the hope of finding tidings of our Lady and Queen, if it were but the place where her body lieth. Thou art wise: knowest thou the resting place of her bones?"
"When I had heard the tale of the old man I was moved to my inmost heart, and I scarce knew what to say. But now this long while fear was dead in me, so I thought I would tell the very sooth: but I said first: 'Sir, what I will tell, I will tell without beseeching, so I pray thee stand up.' So did he, and I said: 'Geoffrey, what became of the white hind after the banners had left the wildwood'? He stared wild at me, and I deemed that tears began to come into his eyes; but I said again: 'What betid to dame Joyce's youngest born, the fair little maiden that we left sick of a fever when we rode to Up-castle?' Still he said naught but looked at me wondering: and said: 'Hast thou ever again seen that great old oak nigh the clearing by the water, the half of which fell away in the summer-storm of that last July?'
"Then verily the tears gushed out of his eyes, and he wept, for as old as he was; and when he could master himself he said: 'Who art thou? Who art thou? Art thou the daughter of my Lady, even as these are my sons?' But I said: 'Now will I answer thy first question, and tell thee that the Lady thou seekest is verily alive; and she has thriven, for she has drunk of the Well at the World's End, and has put from her the burden of the years. O Geoffrey, and dost thou not know me?' And I held out my hand to him, and I also was weeping, because of my thought of the years gone by; for this old man had been that swain who had nigh died for me when I fled with my husband from the old king; and he became one of the Dry Tree, and had followed me with kind service about the woods in the days when I was at my happiest.
"But now he fell on his knees before me not like a vassal but like a lover, and kissed my feet, and was beside himself for joy. And his sons, who were men of some forty summers, tall and warrior-like, kissed my hands and made obeisance before me.
"Now when we had come to ourselves again, old Geoffrey, who was now naught but glad, spake and said: 'It is told amongst us that when our host departed from the Land of the Tower, after thou hadst taken thy due seat upon the throne, that thou didst promise our chieftains how thou wouldst one day come back to the fellowship of the Dry Tree and dwell amongst us. Wilt thou now hold to thy promise?' I said: 'O Geoffrey, if thou art the last of those seekers, and thou wert but a boy when I dwelt with you of old, who of the Dry Tree is left to remember me?' He hung his head awhile then, and spake: 'Old are we grown, yet art thou fittest to be amongst young folk: unless mine eyes are beguiled by some semblance which will pass away presently.' 'Nay,' quoth I, 'it is not so; as I am now, so shall I be for many and many a day.' 'Well,' said Geoffrey, 'wherever thou mayst be, thou shalt be Queen of men.'
"'I list not to be Queen again,' said I. He laughed and said: 'I wot not how thou mayst help it.'
"I said: 'Tell me of the Dry Tree, how the champions have sped, and have they grown greater or less.' Said he: 'They are warriors and champions from father to son; therefore have they thriven not over well; yet they have left the thick of the wood, and built them a great castle above the little town hight Hampton; so that is now called Hampton under Scaur, for upon the height of the said Scaur is our castle builded: and there we hold us against the Burg of the Four Friths which hath thriven greatly; there is none so great as the Burg in all the lands about.'
"I said: 'And the Land of the Tower, thriveth the folk thereof at all?' 'Nay,' he said, 'they have been rent to pieces by folly and war and greediness: in the Great City are but few people, grass grows in its streets; the merchants wend not the ways that lead thither. Naught thriveth there since thou stolest thyself away from them.'
"'Nay,' I said, 'I fled from their malice, lest I should have been brought out to be burned once more; and there would have been none to rescue then.' 'Was it so?' said old Geoffrey; 'well it is all one now; their day is done.'
"'Well,' I said, 'come into my house, and eat and drink therein and sleep here to-night, and to-morrow I shall tell thee what I will do.'
"Even so they did; and on the morrow early I spake to Geoffrey and said: 'What hath befallen the Land of Abundance, and the castle my lord built for me there; which we held as our refuge all through the War of the Tower, both before we joined us to you in the wildwood, and afterwards?' He said: 'It is at peace still; no one hath laid hand on it; there is a simple folk dwelling there in the clearing of the wood, which forgetteth thee not; though forsooth strange tales are told of thee there; and the old men deem that it is but a little since thou hast ceased to come and go there; and they are ready to worship thee as somewhat more than the Blessed Saints, were it not for the Fathers of the Thorn who are their masters.'
"I pondered this a while, and then said: 'Geoffrey, ye shall bring me hence away to the peopled parts, and on the way, or when we are come amongst the cities and the kingdoms, we will settle it whither I shall go. See thou! I were fain to be of the brotherhood of the Dry Tree; yet I deem it will scarce be that I shall go and dwell there straightway.'
"Therewith the old man seemed content; and indeed now that the first joy of our meeting, when his youth sprang up in him once more, was over, he found it hard to talk freely with me, and was downcast and shy before me, as if something had come betwixt us, which had made our lives cold to each other.
"So that day we left the House of the Sorceress, which I shall not see again, till I come there hand in hand with thee, beloved. When we came to the peopled parts, Geoffrey and his sons brought me to the Land of Abundance, and I found it all as he had said to me: and I took up my dwelling in the castle, and despised not those few folk of the land, but was kind to them: but though they praised my gifts, and honoured me as the saints are honoured, and though they loved me, yet it was with fear, so that I had little part with them. There I dwelt then; and the book which thou didst read there, part true and part false, and altogether of malice against me, I bought of a monk who came our way, and who at first was sore afeared when he found that he had come to my castle. As to the halling of the Chamber of Dais, I have told thee before how my lord, the King's Son, did do make it in memory of the wilderness wherein he found me, and the life of thralldom from which he brought me. There I dwelt till nigh upon these days in peace and quiet: not did I go to the Dry Tree for a long while, though many of them sought to me there at the Castle of Abundance; and, woe worth the while! there was oftenest but one end to their guesting, that of all gifts, they besought me but of one, which, alack! I might not give them: and that is the love that I have given to thee, beloved.—And, oh! my fear, that it will weigh too light with thee, to win me pardon of thee for all that thou must needs pardon me, ere thou canst give me all thy love, that I long for so sorely."
They Go On Their Way Once More
"Look now," she said, "I have held thee so long in talk, that the afternoon is waning; now is it time for us to be on the way again; not because I misdoubt me of thy foeman, but because I would take thee to a fairer dwelling of the desert, and one where I have erst abided; and moreover, there thou shalt not altogether die of hunger. See, is it not as if I had thought to meet thee here?"
"Yea, in good sooth," said he, "I wot that thou canst see the story of things before they fall."
She laughed and said: "But all this that hath befallen since I set out to meet thee at the Castle of Abundance I foresaw not, any more than I can foresee to-morrow. Only I knew that we must needs pass by the place whereto I shall now lead thee, and I made provision there. Lo! now the marvel slain: and in such wise shall perish other marvels which have been told of me; yet not all. Come now, let us to the way."
So they joined hands and left the pleasant place, and were again going speedily amidst the close pine woods awhile, where it was smooth underfoot and silent of noises withal.
Now Ralph said: "Beloved, thou hast told me of many things, but naught concerning how thou camest to be wedded to the Knight of the Sun, and of thy dealings with him."
Said she, reddening withal: "I will tell thee no more than this, unless thou compel me: that he would have me wed him, as it were against my will, till I ceased striving against him, and I went with him to Sunway, which is no great way from the Castle of Abundance, and there befell that treason of Walter the Black, who loved me and prayed for my love, and when I gainsaid him, swore by all that was holy, before my lord, that it was I who sought his love, and how I had told and taught him ways of witchcraft, whereby we might fulfill our love, so that the Baron should keep a wife for another man. And the Knight of the Sun, whose heart had been filled with many tales of my wisdom, true and false, believed his friend whom he loved, and still believeth him, though he burneth for the love of me now; whereas in those first days of the treason, he burned with love turned to hatred. So of this came that shaming and casting-forth of me. Whereof I will tell thee but this, that the brother of my lord, even the tall champion whom thou hast seen, came upon me presently, when I was cast forth; because he was coming to see the Knight of the Sun at his home; and he loved me, but not after the fashion of his brother, but was kind and mild with me. So then I went with him to Hampton and the Dry Tree, and great joy made the folk thereof of my coming, whereas they remembered their asking of aforetime that I would come to be a Queen over them, and there have I dwelt ever since betwixt Hampton and the Castle of Abundance; and that tall champion has been ever as a brother unto me."
Said Ralph, "And thou art their Queen there?" "Yea," she said, "in a fashion; yet have they another who is mightier than I, and might, if she durst, hang me over the battlements of the Scaur, for she is a fierce and hard woman, and now no longer young in years."
"Is it not so then," said Ralph, "that some of the ill deeds that are told of thee are of her doing?"
"It is even so," she said, "and whiles when she has spoken the word I may not be against her openly, therefore I use my wisdom which I have learned, to set free luckless wights from her anger and malice. More by token the last time I did thus was the very night of the day we parted, after thou hadst escaped from the Burg."
"In what wise was that?" said Ralph. She said: "When I rode away from thee on that happy day of my deliverance by thee, my heart laughed for joy of the life thou hadst given me, and of thee the giver, and I swore to myself that I would set free the first captive or death-doomed creature that I came across, in honour of my pleasure and delight: now speedily I came to Hampton and the Scaur; for it is not very far from the want-ways of the wood: and there I heard how four of our folk had been led away by the men of the Burg, therefore it was clear to me that I must set these men free if I could; besides, it pleased me to think that I could walk about the streets of the foemen safely, who had been but just led thitherward to the slaughter. Thou knowest how I sped therein. But when I came back again to our people, after thou hadst ridden away from us with Roger, I heard these tidings, that there was one new-come into our prison, a woman to wit, who had been haled before our old Queen for a spy and doomed by her, and should be taken forth and slain, belike, in a day or two. So I said to myself that I was not free of my vow as yet, because those friends of mine, I should in any case have done my best to deliver them: therefore I deemed my oath bound me to set that woman free. So in the night-tide when all was quiet I went to the prison and brought her forth, and led her past all the gates and wards, which was an easy thing to me, so much as I had learned, and came with her into the fields betwixt the thorp of Hampton and the wood, when it was more daylight than dawn, so that I could see her clearly, and no word as yet had we spoken to each other. But then she said to me: 'Am I to be slain here or led to a crueller prison?' And I said: 'Neither one thing nor the other: for lo! I have set thee free, and I shall look to it that there shall be no pursuit of thee till thou hast had time to get clear away.' But she said: 'What thanks wilt thou have for this? Wherefore hast thou done it?' And I said, 'It is because of the gladness I have gotten.' Said she, 'And would that I might get gladness!' So I asked her what was amiss now that she was free. She said: 'I have lost one thing that I loved, and found another and lost it also.' So I said: 'Mightest thou not seek for the lost?' She said, 'It is in this wood, but when I shall find it I shall not have it.' 'It is love that thou art seeking,' said I. 'In what semblance is he?'
"What wilt thou, my friend? Straightway she fell to making a picture of thee in words; so that I knew that she had met thee, and belike after I had departed from thee, and my heart was sore thereat; for now I will tell thee the very truth, that she was a young woman and exceeding fair, as if she were of pearl all over, and as sweet as eglantine; and I feared her lest she should meet thee again in these wildwoods. And so I asked her what would she, and she said that she had a mind to seek to the Well at the World's End, which quencheth all sorrow; and I rejoiced thereat, thinking that she would be far away from thee, not thinking that thou and I must even meet to seek to it also. So I gave her the chaplet which my witch-mistress took from the dead woman's neck; and went with her into the wildwood, and taught her wisdom of the way and what she was to do. And again I say to thee that she was so sweet and yet with a kind of pity in her both of soul and body, and wise withal and quiet, that I feared her, though I loved her; yea and still do: for I deem her better than me, and meeter for thee and thy love than I be.—Dost thou know her?"
"Yea," said Ralph, "and fair and lovely she is in sooth. Yet hast thou naught to do to fear her. And true it is that I saw her and spake with her after thou hadst ridden away. For she came by the want-ways of the Wood Perilous in the dawn of the day after I had delivered thee; and in sooth she told me that she looked either for Death, or the Water of the Well to end her sorrow."
Then he smiled and said; "As for that which thou sayest, that she had been meeter for me than thou, I know not this word. For look you, beloved, she came, and passed, and is gone, but thou art there and shalt endure."
She stayed, and turned and faced him at that word; and love so consumed her, that all sportive words failed her; yea and it was as if mirth and light-heartedness were swallowed up in the fire of her love; and all thought of other folk departed from him as he felt her tears of love and joy upon his face, and she kissed and embraced him there in the wilderness.
Of the Desert-House and the Chamber of Love in the Wilderness
Then in a while they grew sober and went on their ways, and the sun was westering behind them, and casting long shadows. And in a little while they were come out of the thick woods and were in a country of steep little valleys, grassy, besprinkled with trees and bushes, with hills of sandstone going up from them, which were often broken into cliffs rising sheer from the tree-beset bottoms: and they saw plenteous deer both great and small, and the wild things seemed to fear them but little. To Ralph it seemed an exceeding fair land, and he was as joyous as it was fair; but the Lady was pensive, and at last she said: "Thou deemest it fair, and so it is; yet is it the lonesomest of deserts. I deem indeed that it was once one of the fairest of lands, with castles and cots and homesteads all about, and fair people no few, busy with many matters amongst them. But now it is all passed away, and there is no token of a dwelling of man, save it might be that those mounds we see, as yonder, and yonder again, are tofts of house-walls long ago sunken into the earth of the valley. And now few even are the hunters or way-farers that wend through it."
Quoth Ralph: "Thou speakest as if there had been once histories and tales of this pleasant wilderness: tell me, has it anything to do with that land about the wide river which we went through, Roger and I, as we rode to the Castle of Abundance the other day? For he spoke of tales of deeds and mishaps concerning it." "Yea," she said, "so it is, and the little stream that runs yonder beneath those cliffs, is making its way towards that big river aforesaid, which is called the Swelling Flood. Now true it is also that there are many tales about of the wars and miseries that turned this land into a desert, and these may be true enough, and belike are true. But these said tales have become blended with the story of those aforesaid wars of the Land of the Tower; of which indeed this desert is verily a part, but was desert still in the days when I was Queen of the Land; so thou mayst well think that they who hold me to be the cause of all this loneliness (and belike Roger thought it was so) have scarce got hold of the very sooth of the matter."
"Even so I deemed," said Ralph: "and to-morrow we shall cross the big river, thou and I. Is there a ferry or a ford there whereas we shall come, or how shall we win over it?"
She was growing merrier again now, and laughed at this and said: "O fair boy! the crossing will be to-morrow and not to-day; let to-morrow cross its own rivers; for surely to-day is fair enough, and fairer shall it be when thou hast been fed and art sitting by me in rest and peace till to-morrow morning. So now hasten yet a little more; and we will keep the said little stream in sight as well as we may for the bushes."
So they sped on, till Ralph said: "Will thy feet never tire, beloved?" "O child," she said, "thou hast heard my story, and mayst well deem that they have wrought many a harder day's work than this day's. And moreover they shall soon rest; for look! yonder is our house for this even, and till to-morrow's sun is high: the house for me and thee and none else with us." And therewith she pointed to a place where the stream ran in a chain of pools and stickles, and a sheer cliff rose up some fifty paces beyond it, but betwixt the stream and the cliff was a smooth table of greensward, with three fair thorn bushes thereon, and it went down at each end to the level of the river's lip by a green slope, but amidmost, the little green plain was some ten feet above the stream, and was broken by a little undercliff, which went down sheer into the water. And Ralph saw in the face of the high cliff the mouth of a cave, however deep it might be.
"Come," said the Lady, "tarry not, for I know that hunger hath hold of thee, and look, how low the sun is growing!" Then she caught him by the hand, and fell to running with him to the edge of the stream, where at the end of the further slope it ran wide and shallow before it entered into a deep pool overhung with boughs of alder and thorn. She stepped daintily over a row of big stones laid in the rippling shallow; and staying herself in mid-stream on the biggest of them, and gathering up her gown, looked up stream with a happy face, and then looked over her shoulder to Ralph and said: "The year has been good to me these seasons, so that when I stayed here on my way to the Castle of Abundance, I found but few stones washed away, and crossed wellnigh dry-shod, but this stone my feet are standing on now, I brought down from under the cliff, and set it amid-most, and I said that when I brought thee hither I would stay thereon and talk with thee while I stood above the freshness of the water, as I am doing now."
Ralph looked on her and strove to answer her, but no words would come to his lips, because of the greatness of his longing; she looked on him fondly, and then stooped to look at the ripples that bubbled up about her shoes, and touched them at whiles; then she said: "See how they long for the water, these feet that have worn the waste so long, and know how kind it will run over them and lap about them: but ye must abide a little, waste-wearers, till we have done a thing or two. Come, love!" And she reached her hand out behind her to Ralph, not looking back, but when she felt his hand touch it, she stepped lightly over the other stones, and on to the grass with him, and led him quietly up the slope that went up to the table of greensward before the cave. But when they came on to the level grass she kissed him, and then turned toward the valley and spake solemnly: "May all blessings light on this House of the wilderness and this Hall of the Summer-tide, and the Chamber of Love that here is!"
Then was she silent a while, and Ralph brake not the silence. Then she turned to him with a face grown merry and smiling, and said: "Lo! how the poor lad yearneth for meat, as well he may, so long as the day hath been. Ah, beloved, thou must be patient a little. For belike our servants have not yet heard of the wedding of us. So we twain must feed each the other. Is that so much amiss?"
He laughed in her face for love, and took her by the wrist, but she drew her hand away and went into the cave, and came forth anon holding a copper kettle with an iron bow, and a bag of meal, which she laid at his feet; then she went into the cave again, and brought forth a flask of wine and a beaker; then she caught up the little cauldron, which was well-beaten, and thin and light, and ran down to the stream therewith, and came up thence presently, bearing it full of water on her head, going as straight and stately as the spear is seen on a day of tourney, moving over the barriers that hide the knight, before he lays it in the rest. She came up to him and set the water-kettle before him, and put her hands on his shoulders, and kissed his cheek, and then stepped back from him and smote her palms together, and said: "Yea, it is well! But there are yet more things to do before we rest. There is the dighting of the chamber, and the gathering of wood for the fire, and the mixing of the meal, and the kneading and the baking of cakes; and all that is my work, and there is the bringing of the quarry for the roast, and that is thine."
Then she ran into the cave and brought forth a bow and a quiver of arrows, and said: "Art thou somewhat of an archer?" Quoth he: "I shoot not ill." "And I," she said, "shoot well, all woodcraft comes handy to me. But this eve I must trust to thy skill for my supper. Go swiftly and come back speedily. Do off thine hauberk, and beat the bushes down in the valley, and bring me some small deer, as roe or hare or coney. And wash thee in the pool below the stepping-stones, as I shall do whiles thou art away, and by then thou comest back, all shall be ready, save the roasting of the venison."
So he did off his wargear, but thereafter tarried a little, looking at her, and she said: "What aileth thee not to go? the hunt's up." He said: "I would first go see the rock-hall that is for our chamber to-night; wilt thou not bring me in thither?" "Nay," she said, "for I must be busy about many matters; but thou mayst go by thyself, if thou wilt."
So he went and stooped down and entered the cave, and found it high and wide within, and clean and fresh and well-smelling, and the floor of fine white sand without a stain.
So he knelt down and kissed the floor, and said aloud: "God bless this floor of the rock-hall whereon my love shall lie to-night!" Then he arose and went out of the cave, and found the Lady at the entry stooping down to see what he would do; and she looked on him fondly and anxiously; but he turned a merry face to her, and caught her round the middle and strained her to his bosom, and then took the bow and arrows and ran down the slope and over the stream, into the thicket of the valley.
He went further than he had looked for, ere he found a prey to his mind, and then he smote a roe with a shaft and slew her, and broke up the carcase and dight it duly, and so went his ways back. When he came to the stream he looked up and saw a little fire glittering not far from the cave, but had no clear sight of the Lady, though he thought he saw her gown fluttering nigh one of the thorn-bushes. Then he did off his raiment and entered that pool of the stream, and was glad to bathe him in the same place where her body had been but of late; for he had noted that the stones of the little shore were still wet with her feet where she had gone up from the water.
But now, as he swam and sported in the sun-warmed pool he deemed he heard the whinnying of a horse, but was not sure, so he held himself still to listen, and heard no more. Then he laughed and bethought him of Falcon his own steed, and dived down under the water; but as he came up, laughing still and gasping, he heard a noise of the clatter of horse hoofs, as if some one were riding swiftly up the further side of the grassy table, where it was stony, as he had noted when they passed by.
A deadly fear fell upon his heart as he thought of his love left all alone; so he gat him at once out of the water and cast his shirt over his head; but while his arms were yet entangled in the sleeves thereof, came to his ears a great and awful sound of a man's voice roaring out, though there were no shapen words in the roar. Then were his arms free through the sleeves, and he took up the bow and fell to bending it, and even therewith he heard a great wailing of a woman's voice, and she cried out, piteously: "Help me, O help, lovely creature of God!"
Yet must he needs finish bending the bow howsoever his heart died within him; or what help would there be of a naked and unarmed man? At last it was bent and an arrow nocked on the string, as he leapt over the river and up the slope.
But even as he came up to that pleasant place he saw all in a moment of time; that there stood Silverfax anigh the Cave's mouth, and the Lady lying on the earth anigh the horse; and betwixt her and him the Knight of the Sun stood up stark, his shining helm on his head, the last rays of the setting sun flashing in the broidered image of his armouries.
He turned at once upon Ralph, shaking his sword in the air (and there was blood upon the blade) and he cried out in terrible voice: "The witch is dead, the whore is dead! And thou, thief, who hast stolen her from me, and lain by her in the wilderness, now shalt thou die, thou!"
Scarce had he spoken than Ralph drew his bow to the arrow-head and loosed; there was but some twenty paces betwixt them, and the shaft, sped by that fell archer, smote the huge man through the eye into the brain, and he fell down along clattering, dead without a word more.
But Ralph gave forth a great wail of woe, and ran forward and knelt by the Lady, who lay all huddled up face down upon the grass, and he lifted her up and laid her gently on her back. The blood was flowing fast from a great wound in her breast, and he tore off a piece of his shirt to staunch it, but she without knowledge of him breathed forth her last breath ere he could touch the hurt, and he still knelt by her, staring on her as if he knew not what was toward.
She had dight her what she could to welcome his return from the hunting, and had set a wreath of meadow-sweet on her red hair, and a garland of eglantine about her girdlestead, and left her feet naked after the pool of the stream, and had turned the bezels of her finger-rings outward, for joy of that meeting.
After a while he rose up with a most bitter cry, and ran down the green slope and over the water, and hither and thither amongst the bushes like one mad, till he became so weary that he might scarce go or stand for weariness. Then he crept back again to that Chamber of Love, and sat down beside his new-won mate, calling to mind all the wasted words of the day gone by; for the summer night was come now, most fair and fragrant. But he withheld the sobbing passion of his heart and put forth his hand, and touched her, and she was still, and his hand felt her flesh that it was cold as marble. And he cried out aloud in the night and the wilderness, where there was none to hear him, and arose and went away from her, passing by Silverfax who was standing nearby, stretching out his head, and whinnying at whiles. And he sat on the edge of the green table, and there came into his mind despite himself thoughts of the pleasant fields of Upmeads, and his sports and pleasures there, and the even-song of the High House, and the folk of his fellowship and his love. And therewith his breast arose and his face was wryed, and he wept loud and long, and as if he should never make an end of it. But so weary was he, that at last he lay back and fell asleep, and woke not till the sun was high in the heavens. And so it was, that his slumber had been so heavy, that he knew not at first what had befallen; and one moment he felt glad, and the next as if he should never be glad again, though why he wotted not. Then he turned about and saw Silverfax cropping the grass nearby, and the Lady lying there like an image that could move no whit, though the world awoke about her. Then he remembered, yet scarce all, so that wild hopes swelled his heart, and he rose to his knees and turned to her, and called to mind that he should never see her alive again, and sobbing and wailing broke out from him, for he was young and strong, and sorrow dealt hardly with him.
But presently he arose to his feet and went hither and thither, and came upon the quenched coals of the cooking-fire: she had baked cakes for his eating, and he saw them lying thereby, and hunger constrained him, so he took and ate of them while the tears ran down his face and mingled with the bread he ate. And when he had eaten, he felt stronger and therefore was life more grievous to him, and when he thought what he should do, still one thing seemed more irksome than the other.
He went down to the water to drink, and passed by the body of the Knight of the Sun, and wrath was fierce in his heart against him who had overthrown his happiness. But when he had drunk and washed hands and face he came back again, and hardened his heart to do what he must needs do. He took up the body of the Lady and with grief that may not be told of, he drew it into the cave, and cut boughs of trees and laid them over her face and all her body, and then took great stones from the scree at that other end of the little plain, and heaped them upon her till she was utterly hidden by them. Then he came out on to the green place and looked on the body of his foe, and said to himself that all must be decent and in order about the place whereas lay his love. And he came and stood over the body and said: "I have naught to do to hate him now: if he hated me, it was but for a little while, and he knew naught of me. So let his bones be covered up from the wolf and the kite. Yet shall they not lie alongside of her. I will raise a cairn above him here on this fair little plain which he spoilt of all joy." Therewith he fell to, and straightened his body, and laid his huge limbs together and closed his eyes and folded his arms over his breast; and then he piled the stones above him, and went on casting them on the heap a long while after there was need thereof.
Ralph had taken his raiment from the stream-side and done them on before this, and now he did on helm and hauberk, and girt his sword to his side. Then as he was about leaving the sorrowful place, he looked on Silverfax, who had not strayed from the little plain, and came up to him and did off saddle and bridle, and laid them within the cave, and bade the beast go whither he would. He yet lingered about the place, and looked all around him and found naught to help him, and could frame in his mind no intent of a deed then, nor any tale of a deed he should do thereafter. Yet belike in his mind were two thoughts, and though neither softened his grief save a little, he did not shrink from them as he did from all others; and these two were of his home at Upmeads, which was so familiar to him, and of the Well at the World's End, which was but a word.
Ralph Cometh Out of the Wilderness
Long he stood letting these thoughts run through his mind, but at last when it was now midmorning, he stirred and gat him slowly down the green slope, and for very pity of himself the tears brake out from him as he crossed the stream and came into the bushy valley. There he stayed his feet a little, and said to himself: "And whither then am I going?" He thought of the Castle of Abundance and the Champions of the Dry Tree, of Higham, and the noble warriors who sat at the Lord Abbot's board, and of Upmeads and his own folk: but all seemed naught to him, and he thought: "And how can I go back and bear folk asking me curiously of my wayfarings, and whether I will do this, that, or the other thing." Withal he thought of that fair damsel and her sweet mouth in the hostelry at Bourton Abbas, and groaned when he thought of love and its ending, and he said within himself: "and now she is a wanderer about the earth as I am;" and he thought of her quest, and the chaplet of dame Katherine, his gossip, which he yet bore on his neck, and he deemed that he had naught to choose but to go forward and seek that he was doomed to; and now it seemed to him that there was that one thing to do and no other. And though this also seemed to him but weariness and grief, yet whereas he had ever lightly turned him to doing what work lay ready to hand; so now he knew that he must first of all get him out of that wilderness, that he might hear the talk of folk concerning the Well at the World's End, which he doubted not to hear again when he came into the parts inhabited.
So now, with his will or without it, his feet bore him on, and he followed up the stream which the Lady had said ran into the broad river called the Swelling Flood; "for," thought he, "when I come thereabout I shall presently find some castle or good town, and it is like that either I shall have some tidings of the folk thereof, or else they will compel me to do something, and that will irk me less than doing deeds of mine own will."
He went his ways till he came to where the wood and the trees ended, and the hills were lower and longer, well grassed with short grass, a down country fit for the feeding of sheep; and indeed some sheep he saw, and a shepherd or two, but far off. At last, after he had left the stream awhile, because it seemed to him to turn and wind round over much to the northward, he came upon a road running athwart the down country, so that he deemed that it must lead one way down to the Swelling Flood; so he followed it up, and after a while began to fall in with folk; and first two Companions armed and bearing long swords over their shoulders: he stopped as they met, and stared at them in the face, but answered not their greeting; and they had no will to meddle with him, seeing his inches and that he was well armed, and looked no craven: so they went on.
Next he came on two women who had with them an ass between two panniers, laden with country stuff; and they were sitting by the wayside, one old and the other young. He made no stay for them, and though he turned his face their way, took no heed of them more than if they were trees; though the damsel, who was well-liking and somewhat gaily clad, stood up when she saw his face anigh, and drew her gown skirt about her and moved daintily, and sighed and looked after him as he went on, for she longed for him.
Yet again came two men a-horseback, merchants clad goodly, with three carles, their servants, riding behind them; and all these had weapons and gave little more heed to him than he to them. But a little after they were gone, he stopped and said within himself: "Maybe I had better have gone their way, and this road doubtless leadeth to some place of resort."
But even therewith he heard horsehoofs behind him, and anon came up a man a-horseback, armed with jack and sallet, a long spear in his hand, and budgets at his saddle-bow, who looked like some lord's man going a message. He nodded to Ralph, who gave him good-day; for seeing these folk and their ways had by now somewhat amended his mind; and now he turned not, but went on as before.
At last the way clomb a hill longer and higher than any he had yet crossed, and when he had come to the brow and looked down, he saw the big river close below running through the wide valley which he had crossed with Roger on that other day. Then he sat down on the green bank above the way, so heavy of heart that not one of the things he saw gave him any joy, and the world was naught to him. But within a while he came somewhat to himself, and, looking down toward the river, he saw that where the road met it, it was very wide, and shallow withal, for the waves rippled merrily and glittered in the afternoon sun, though there was no wind; moreover the road went up white from the water on the other side, so he saw clearly that this was the ford of a highway. The valley was peopled withal: on the other side of the river was a little thorp, and there were carts and sheds scattered about the hither side, and sheep and neat feeding in the meadows, and in short it was another world from the desert.
Ralph Falleth in With Friends and Rideth to Whitwall
Ralph looks on to the ford and sees folk riding through the thorp aforesaid and down to the river, and they take the water and are many in company, some two score by his deeming, and he sees the sun glittering on their weapons.
Now he thought that he would abide their coming and see if he might join their company, since if he crossed the water he would be on the backward way: and it was but a little while ere the head of them came up over the hill, and were presently going past Ralph, who rose up to look on them, and be seen of them, but they took little heed of him. So he sees that though they all bore weapons, they were not all men-at-arms, nay, not more than a half score, but those proper men enough. Of the others, some half-dozen seemed by their attire to be merchants, and the rest their lads; and withal they had many sumpter horses and mules with them. They greeted him not, nor he them, nor did he heed them much till they were all gone by save three, and then he leapt into the road with a cry, for who should be riding there but Blaise, his eldest brother, and Richard the Red with him, both in good case by seeming; for Blaise was clad in a black coat welted with gold, and rode a good grey palfrey, and Richard was armed well and knightly.
They knew him at once, and drew rein, and Blaise lighted down from his horse and cast his arms about Ralph, and said: "O happy day! when two of the Upmeads kindred meet thus in an alien land! But what maketh thee here, Ralph? I thought of thee as merry and safe in Upmeads?"
Ralph said smiling, for his heart leapt up at the sight of his kindred: "Nay, must I not seek adventures like the rest? So I stole myself away from father and mother." "Ill done, little lord!" said Blaise, stroking Ralph's cheek.
Then up came Richard, and if Blaise were glad, Richard was twice glad, and quoth he: "Said I not, Lord Blaise, that this chick would be the hardest of all to keep under the coop? Welcome to the Highways, Lord Ralph! But where is thine horse? and whence and whither is it now? Hast thou met with some foil and been held to ransom?"
Ralph found it hard and grievous and dull work to answer; for now again his sorrow had taken hold of him: so he said: "Yea, Richard, I have had adventures, and have lost rather than won; but at least I am a free man, and have spent but little gold on my loss."
"That is well," said Richard, "but whence gat ye any gold for spending?" Ralph smiled, but sadly, for he called to mind the glad setting forth and the kind face of dame Katherine his gossip, and he said: "Clement Chapman deemed it not unmeet to stake somewhat on my luck, therefore I am no pauper."
"Well," said Blaise, "if thou hast no great errand elsewhere, thou mightest ride with us, brother. I have had good hap in these days, though scarce kingly or knightly, for I have been buying and selling: what matter? few know Upmeads and its kings to wite me with fouling a fair name. Richard, go fetch a horse hither for Lord Ralph's riding, and we will tarry no longer." So Richard trotted on, and while they abode him, Ralph asked after his brethren, and Blaise told him that he had seen or heard naught of them. Then Ralph asked of whither away, and Blaise told him to Whitwall, where was much recourse of merchants from many lands, and a noble market.
Back then cometh Richard leading a good horse while Ralph was pondering his matter, and thinking that at such a town he might well hear tidings concerning the Well at the World's End.
Now Ralph mounts, and they all ride away together. On the way, partly for brotherhood's sake, partly that he might not be questioned overmuch himself, Ralph asked Blaise to tell him more of his farings; and Blaise said, that when he had left Upmeads he had ridden with Richard up and down and round about, till he came to a rich town which had just been taken in war, and that the Companions who had conquered it were looking for chapmen to cheapen their booty, and that he was the first or nearly the first to come who had will and money to buy, and the Companions, who were eager to depart, had sold him thieves' penny-worths, so that his share of the Upmeads' treasure had gone far; and thence he had gone to another good town where he had the best of markets for his newly cheapened wares, and had brought more there, such as he deemed handy to sell, and so had gone on from town to town, and had ever thriven, and had got much wealth: and so at last having heard tell of Whitwall as better for chaffer than all he had yet seen, he and other chapmen had armed them, and waged men-at-arms to defend them, and so tried the adventure of the wildwoods, and come safe through.
Then at last came the question to Ralph concerning his adventures, and he enforced himself to speak, and told all as truly as he might, without telling of the Lady and her woeful ending.
Thus they gave and took in talk, and Ralph did what he might to seem like other folk, that he might nurse his grief in his own heart as far asunder from other men as might be.
So they rode on till it was even, and came to Whitwall before the shutting of the gates and rode into the street, and found it a fair and great town, well defensible, with high and new walls, and men-at-arms good store to garnish them.
Ralph rode with his brother to the hostel of the chapmen, and there they were well lodged.
Richard Talketh With Ralph Concerning the Well at the World's End. Concerning Swevenham
On the morrow Blaise went to his chaffer and to visit the men of the Port at the Guildhall: he bade Ralph come with him, but he would not, but abode in the hall of the hostel and sat pondering sadly while men came and went; but he heard no word spoken of the Well at the World's End. In like wise passed the next day and the next, save that Richard was among those who came into the hall, and he talked long with Ralph at whiles; that is to say that he spake, and Ralph made semblance of listening.
Now as is aforesaid Richard was old and wise, and he loved Ralph much, more belike than Lord Blaise his proper master, whereas he had no mind for chaffer, or aught pertaining to it: so he took heed of Ralph and saw that he was sad and weary-hearted; so on the sixth day of their abiding at Whitwall, in the morning when all the chapmen were gone about their business, and he and Ralph were left alone in the Hall, he spake to Ralph and said: "This is no prison, lord." "Even so," quoth Ralph. "Nay, if thou doubtest it," said Richard, "let us go to the door and try if they have turned the key and shot the bolt on us." Ralph smiled faintly and stood up, and said: "I will go with thee if thou willest it, but sooth to say I shall be but a dull fellow of thine to-day." Said Richard: "Wouldst thou have been better yesterday, lord, or the day before?" "Nay," said Ralph. "Wilt thou be better to-morrow?" said Richard. Ralph shook his head. Said Richard: "Yea, but thou wilt be, or thou mayst call me a fool else." "Thou art kind, Richard," said Ralph; "and I will come with thee, and do what thou biddest me; but I must needs tell thee that my heart is sick." "Yea," quoth Richard, "and thou needest not tell me so much, dear youngling; he who runs might read that in thee. But come forth."
So into the street they went, and Richard brought Ralph into the market-place, and showed him where was Blaise's booth (for he was thriving greatly) but Ralph would not go anigh it lest his brother should entangle him in talk; and they went into the Guildhall which was both great and fair, and the smell of the new-shaven oak (for the roof was not yet painted) brought back to Ralph's mind the days of his childhood when he was hanging about the building of the water-reeve's new house at Upmeads. Then they went into the Great Church and heard a Mass at the altar of St. Nicholas, Ralph's very friend; and the said church was great to the letter, and very goodly, and somewhat new also, since the blossom-tide of Whitwall was not many years old: and the altars of its chapels were beyond any thing for fairness that Ralph had seen save at Higham on the Way.
But when they came forth from the church, Ralph looked on Richard with a face that was both blank and weary, as who should say: "What is to do now?" And forsooth so woe-begone he looked, that Richard, despite his sorrow and trouble for him, could scarce withhold his laughter. But he said: "Well, foster son (for thou art pretty much that to me), since the good town pleasureth thee little, go we further afield."
So he led him out of the market-place, and brought him to the east gate of the town which hight Petergate Bar, and forth they went and out into the meadows under the walls, and stayed him at a little bridge over one of the streams, for it was a land of many waters; there they sat down in a nook, and spake Richard to Ralph, saying:
"Lord Ralph, ill it were if the Upmeads kindred came to naught, or even to little. Now as for my own master Blaise, he hath, so please you, the makings of a noble chapman, but not of a noble knight; though he sayeth that when he is right rich he will cast aside all chaffer; naught of which he will do. As for the others, my lord Gregory is no better, or indeed worse, save that he shall not be rich ever, having no mastery over himself; while lord Hugh is like to be slain in some empty brawl, unless he come back speedily to Upmeads."
"Yea, yea," said Ralph, "what then? I came not hither to hear thee missay my mother's sons." But Richard went on: "As for thee, lord Ralph, of thee I looked for something; but now I cannot tell; for the heart in thee seemeth to be dead; and thou must look to it lest the body die also." "So be it!" said Ralph.
Said Richard: "I am old now, but I have been young, and many things have I seen and suffered, ere I came to Upmeads. Old am I, and I cannot feel certain hopes and griefs as a young man can; yet have I bought the knowledge of them dear enough, and have not forgotten. Whereby I wot well that my drearihead is concerning a woman. Is it not so?" "Yea," quoth Ralph. Said Richard: "Now shalt thou tell me thereof, and so lighten thine heart a little." "I will not tell thee," said Ralph; "or, rather, to speak more truly, I cannot." "Yea," said Richard, "and though it were now an easier thing for me to tell thee of the griefs of my life than for thee to hearken to the tale, yet I believe thee. But mayhappen thou mayst tell me of one thing that thou desirest more than another." Said Ralph: "I desire to die." And the tears started in his eyes therewith. But Richard spake, smiling on him kindly: "That way is open for thee on any day of the week. Why hast thou not taken it already?" But Ralph answered naught. Richard said: "Is it not because thou hopest to desire something; if not to-day, then to-morrow, or the next day or the next?" Still Ralph spake no word; but he wept. Quoth Richard: "Maybe I may help thee to a hope, though thou mayest think my words wild. In the land and the thorp where I was born and bred there was talk now and again of a thing to be sought, which should cure sorrow, and make life blossom in the old, and uphold life in the young." "Yea," said Ralph, looking up from his tears, "and what was that? and why hast thou never told me thereof before?" "Nay," said Richard, "and why should I tell it to the merry lad I knew in Upmeads? but now thou art a man, and hast seen the face of sorrow, it is meet that thou shouldest hear of THE WELL AT THE WORLD'S END."
Ralph sprang to his feet as he said the word, and cried out eagerly: "Old friend, and where then wert thou bred and born?" Richard laughed and said: "See, then, there is yet a deed and a day betwixt thee and death! But turn about and look straight over the meadows in a line with yonder willow-tree, and tell me what thou seest." Said Ralph: "The fair plain spreading wide, and a river running through it, and little hills beyond the water, and blue mountains beyond them, and snow yet lying on the tops of them, though the year is in young July." "Yea," quoth Richard; "and seest thou on the first of the little hills beyond the river, a great grey tower rising up and houses anigh it?" "Yea," said Ralph, "the tower I see, and the houses, for I am far-sighted; but the houses are small." "So it is," said Richard; "now yonder tower is of the Church of Swevenham, which is under the invocation of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus; and the houses are the houses of the little town. And what has that to do with me? sayest thou: why this, that I was born and bred at Swevenham. And indeed I it was who brought my lord Blaise here to Whitwall, with tales of how good a place it was for chaffer, that I might see the little town and the great grey tower once more. Forsooth I lied not, for thy brother is happy here, whereas he is piling up the coins one upon the other. Forsooth thou shouldest go into his booth, fair lord; it is a goodly sight."
But Ralph was walking to and fro hastily, and he turned to Richard and said: "Well, well! but why dost thou not tell me more of the Well at the World's End?"
Said Richard: "I was going to tell thee somewhat which might be worth thy noting; or might not be worth it: hearken! When I dwelt at Swevenham over yonder, and was but of eighteen winters, who am now of three score and eight, three folk of our township, two young men and one young woman, set out thence to seek the said Well: and much lore they had concerning it, which they had learned of an old man, a nigh kinsman of one of them. This ancient carle I had never seen, for he dwelt in the mountains a way off, and these men were some five years older than I, so that I was a boy when they were men grown; and such things I heeded not, but rather sport and play; and above all, I longed for the play of war and battle. God wot I have had my bellyful of it since those days! Howbeit I mind me the setting forth of these three. They had a sumpter-ass with them for their livelihood on the waste; but they went afoot crowned with flowers, and the pipe and tabour playing before them, and much people brought them on the way. By St. Christopher! I can see it all as if it were yesterday. I was sorry of the departure of the damsel; for though I was a boy I had loved her, and she had suffered me to kiss her and toy with her; but it was soon over. Now I call to mind that they had prayed our priest, Sir Cyprian, to bless them on their departure, but he naysaid them; for he held that such a quest came of the inspiration of the devils, and was but a memory of the customs of the ancient gentiles and heathen. But as to me, I deemed it naught, and was sorry that my white-bosomed, sweet-breathed friend should walk away from me thus into the clouds."
"What came of it?" said Ralph, "did they come back, or any of them?" "I wot not," said Richard, "for I was weary of Swevenham after that, so I girt myself to a sword and laid a spear upon my shoulder and went my ways to the Castle of the Waste March, sixty miles from Swevenham town, and the Baron took me in and made me his man: and almost as little profit were in my telling thee again of my deeds there, as there was in my doing them: but the grey tower of Swevenham I have never seen again till this hour."
Said Ralph: "Now then it behoveth me to go to Swevenham straightway: wilt thou come with me? it seemeth to be but some four miles hence."
Richard held his peace and knit his brows as if pondering the matter, and Ralph abided till he spake: so he said: "Foster-son, so to call thee, thou knowest the manner of up-country carles, that tales flow forth from them the better if they come without over much digging and hoeing of the ground; that is, without questioning; so meseems better it will be if I go to Swevenham alone, and better if I be asked to go, than if I go of myself. Now to-morrow is Saturday, and high market in Whitwall; and I am not so old but that it is likeliest that there will be some of my fellows alive and on their legs in Swevenham: and if such there be, there will be one at the least in the market to-morrow, and I will be there to find him out: and then it will go hard if he bring me not to Swevenham as a well-beloved guest; and when I am there, and telling my tidings, and asking them of theirs, if there be any tales concerning the Well at the World's End working in their bellies, then shall I be the midwife to bring them to birth. Ha? Will it do?"
"Yea," said Ralph, "but how long wilt thou be?" Said Richard: "I shall come back speedily if I find the land barren; but if the field be in ear I shall tarry to harvest it. So keep thou thy soul in patience." "And what shall I do now?" said Ralph. "Wear away the hours," said Richard. "And to begin with, come back within the gates with me and let us go look at thy brother's booth in the market-place: it is the nethermost of a goodly house which he is minded to dwell in; and he will marry a wife and sit down in Whitwall, so well he seemeth like to thrive; for they have already bidden him to the freedom of the city, and to a brother of the Faring-Knights, whereas he is not only a stirring man, but of good lineage also: for now he hideth not that he is of the Upmeads kindred."
Ralph Falleth in With Another Old Friend
Ralph went with Richard now without more words, and they came into the market-place and unto Blaise's booth and house, which was no worse than the best in the place; and the painters and stainers were at work on the upper part of it to make it as bright and goodly as might be with red and blue and green and gold, and all fair colours, and already was there a sign hung out of the fruitful tree by the water-side. As for the booth, it was full within of many wares and far-fetched and dear-bought things; as pieces of good and fine cloth plumbed with the seal of the greatest of the cities; and silk of Babylon, and spices of the hot burning islands, and wonders of the silversmith's and the goldsmith's fashioning, and fair-wrought weapons and armour of the best, and every thing that a rich chapman may deal in. And amidst of it all stood Blaise clad in fine black cloth welted with needle work, and a gold chain about his neck. He was talking with three honourable men of the Port, and they were doing him honour with kind words and the bidding of help. When he saw Ralph and Richard come in, he nodded to them, as to men whom he loved, but were beneath him in dignity, and left not talking with the great men. Richard grinned a little thereat, as also did Ralph in his heart; for he thought: "Here then is one of the Upmeads kin provided for, so that soon he may buy with his money two domains as big as Upmeads and call them his manors."
Now Ralph looks about him, and presently he sees a man come forward to meet him from the innermost of the booth, and lo! there was come Clement Chapman. His heart rose at the sight of him, and he thought of his kind gossip till he could scarce withhold his tears. But Clement came to him and cast his arms about him, and kissed him, and said: "Thou shalt pardon me for this, lord, for it is the kiss of the gossip which she bade me give thee, if I fell in with thee, as now I have, praised be the Saints! Yet it irks me that I shall see little more of thee at this time, for to-morrow early I must needs join myself to my company; for we are going south awhile to a good town some fifty miles hence. Nevertheless, if thou dwellest here some eight days I shall see thee again belike, since thereafter I get me eastward on a hard and long journey not without peril. How sayest thou?"
"I wot not," quoth Ralph looking at Richard. Said Richard: "Thou mayst wot well, master Clement, that my lord is anhungered of the praise of the folks, and is not like to abide in a mere merchant-town till the mould grow on his back." "Well, well," said Clement, "however that may be, I have now done my matters with this cloth-lord, Blaise, and he has my florins in his pouch: so will not ye twain come with me and drink a cup till he hath done his talk with these magnates?"
Ralph was nothing loth, for besides that he loved master Clement, and that his being in company was like having a piece of his home anigh him, he hoped to hear some tidings concerning the Well at the World's End.
So he and Richard went with master Clement to the Christopher, a fair ale-house over against the Great Church, and sat down to good wine; and Ralph asked of Clement many things concerning dame Katherine his gossip, and Clement told him all, and that she was well, and had been to Upmeads, and had seen King Peter and the mother of Ralph; and how she had assuaged his mother's grief at his departure by forecasting fair days for her son. All this Ralph heard gladly, though he was somewhat shamefaced withal, and sat silent and thinking of many matters. But Richard took up the word and said: "Which way camest thou from Wulstead, master Clement?" "The nighest way I came," said Clement, "through the Woods Perilous." Said Richard: "And they of the Dry Tree, heardest thou aught of them?" "Yea, certes," quoth Clement, "for I fell in with their Bailiff, and paid him due scot for the passage of the Wood; he knoweth me withal, and we talked together." "And had he any tidings to tell thee of the champions?" said Richard. Said Clement, "Great tidings maybe, how that there was a rumour that they had lost their young Queen and Lady; and if that be true, it will go nigh to break their hearts, so sore as they loved her. And that will make them bitter and fierce, till their grief has been slaked by the blood of men. And that the more as their old Queen abideth still, and she herself is ever of that mind."
Ralph hearkened, and his heart was wounded that other men should speak of his beloved: but he heard how Richard said: "Hast thou ever known why that company of champions took the name of the Dry Tree?" "Why, who should know that, if thou knowest it not, Richard of Swevenham?" said Clement: "Is it not by the token of the Dry Tree that standeth in the lands on the hither side of the Wall of the World?" Richard nodded his head; but Ralph cried out: "O Master Clement, and hast thou seen it, the Wall of the World?" "Yea, afar off, my son," said he; "or what the folk with me called so; as to the Dry Tree, I have told thee at Wulstead that I have seen it not, though I have known men who have told me that they have seen it." "And must they who find the Well at the World's End come by the Dry Tree?" "Yea, surely," said Clement. Quoth Richard: "And thus have some heard, who have gone on that quest, and they have heard of the Champions of Hampton, and have gone thither, being deceived by that name of the Dry Tree, and whiles have been slain by the champions, whiles have entered their company." "Yea," said Clement, "so it is that their first error hath ended their quest. But now, lord Ralph, I will tell thee one thing; to wit, that when I return hither after eight days wearing, I shall be wending east, as I said e'en now, and what will that mean save going somewhat nigher to the Wall of the World; for my way lieth beyond the mountains that ye see from hence, and beyond the mountains that lie the other side of those; and I bid thee come with us, and I will be thy warrant that so far thou shalt have no harm: but when thou hast come so far, and hast seen three very fair cities, besides towns and castles and thorps and strange men, and fair merchandize, God forbid that thou shouldest wend further, and so cast away thy young life for a gay-coloured cloud. Then will be the time to come back with me, that I may bring thee through the perils of the way to Wulstead, and Upmeads at the last, and the folk that love thee."
Richard held his peace at this word, but Ralph said: "I thank thee, Master Clement, for thy love and thy helping hand; and will promise thee to abide thee here eight days at the least; and meanwhile I will ponder the matter well."
Ralph Dreams a Dream Or Sees a Vision
Therewithall they parted after more talk concerning small matters, and Ralph wore through the day, but Richard again did him to wit, that on the morrow he would find his old friends of Swevenham in the Market. And Ralph was come to life again more than he had been since that evil hour in the desert; though hard and hard he deemed it that he should never see his love again.
Now as befalleth young men, he was a good sleeper, and dreamed but seldom, save such light and empty dreams as he might laugh at, if perchance he remembered them by then his raiment was on him in the morning. But that night him-seemed that he awoke in his chamber at Whitwall, and was lying on his bed, as he verily was, and the door of the chamber opened, and there entered quietly the Lady of the Woodland, dight even as he had seen her as she lay dead beside their cooking fire on that table of greensward in the wilderness, barefoot and garlanded about her brow and her girdlestead, but fair and fresh coloured as she was before the sword had pierced her side; and he thought that he rejoiced to see her, but no wild hope rose in his heart, and no sobbing passion blinded his eyes, nor did he stretch out hand to touch her, because he remembered that she was dead. But he thought she spake to him and said: "I know that thou wouldst have me speak, therefore I say that I am come to bid thee farewell, since there was no farewell between us in the wilderness, and I know that thou are about going on a long and hard and perilous journey: and I would that I could kiss thee and embrace thee, but I may not, for this is but the image of me as thou hast known me. Furthermore, as I loved thee when I saw thee first, for thy youth, and thy fairness, and thy kindness and thy valiancy, so now I rejoice that all this shall endure so long in thee, as it surely shall."
Then the voice ceased, but still the image stood before him awhile, and he wondered if she would speak again, and tell him aught of the way to the Well at the World's End; and she spake again: "Nay," she said, "I cannot, since we may not tread the way together hand in hand; and this is part of the loss that thou hast had of me; and oh! but it is hard and hard." And her face became sad and distressful, and she turned and departed as she had come.
Then he knew not if he awoke, or if it were a change in his dream; but the chamber became dark about him, and he lay there thinking of her, till, as it seemed, day began to dawn, and there was some little stir in the world without, and the new wind moved the casement. And again the door opened, and someone entered as before; and this also was a woman: green-clad she was and barefoot, yet he knew at once that it was not his love that was dead, but the damsel of the ale-house of Bourton, whom he had last seen by the wantways of the Wood Perilous, and he thought her wondrous fair, fairer than he had deemed. And the word came from her: "I am a sending of the woman whom thou hast loved, and I should not have been here save she had sent me." Then the words ended, while he looked at her and wondered if she also had died on the way to the Well at the World's End. And it came into his mind that he had never known her name upon the earth. Then again came the word: "So it is that I am not dead but alive in the world, though I am far away from this land; and it is good that thou shouldst go seek the Well at the World's End not all alone: and the seeker may find me: and whereas thou wouldst know my name, I hight Dorothea."
So fell the words again: and this image stood awhile as the other had done, and as the other had done, departed, and once more the chamber became dark, so that Ralph could not so much as see where was the window, and he knew no more till he woke in the early morn, and there was stir in the street and the voice of men, and the scent of fresh herbs and worts, and fruits; for it was market-day, and the country folk were early afoot, that they might array their wares timely in the market-place.