The Well at the World's End
Table of Contents
BOOK ONE The Road Unto Love
1 The Sundering of the Ways 2 Ralph Goeth Back Home to the High House 3 Ralph Cometh to the Cheaping-Town 4 Ralph Rideth the Downs 5 Ralph Cometh to Higham-on-the-Way 6 Ralph Goeth His Ways From the Abbey of St. Mary at Higham 7 The Maiden of Bourton Abbas 8 Ralph Cometh to the Wood Perilous. An Adventure Therein 9 Another Adventure in the Wood Perilous 10 A Meeting and a Parting in the Wood Perilous 11 Now Must Ralph Ride For It 12 Ralph Entereth Into the Burg of the Four Friths 13 The Streets of the Burg of the Four Friths 14 What Ralph Heard of the Matters of the Burg of the Four Friths 15 How Ralph Departed From the Burg of the Four Friths 16 Ralph Rideth the Wood Perilous Again 17 Ralph Cometh to the House of Abundance 18 Of Ralph in the Castle of Abundance 19 Ralph Readeth in a Book Concerning the Well at the World's End 20 Ralph Meeteth a Man in the Wood 21 Ralph Weareth Away Three Days Uneasily 22 An Adventure in the Wood 23 The Leechcraft of the Lady 24 Supper and Slumber in the Woodland Hall
BOOK TWO The Road Unto Trouble
1 Ralph Meets With Love in the Wilderness 2 They Break Their Fast in the Wildwood 3 The Lady Telleth Ralph of the Past Days of Her Life 4 The Lady Tells of Her Deliverance 5 Yet More of the Lady's Story 6 The Lady Tells Somewhat of Her Doings After She Left the Wilderness 7 The Lady Tells of the Strife and Trouble That Befell After Her Coming 8 The Lady Maketh an End of Her Tale 9 They Go On Their Way Once More 10 Of the Desert-House and the Chamber of Love in the Wilderness 11 Ralph Cometh Out of the Wilderness 12 Ralph Falleth in With Friends and Rideth to Whitwall 13 Richard Talketh With Ralph Concerning the Well at the World's End. 14 Ralph Falleth in With Another Old Friend 15 Ralph Dreams a Dream Or Sees a Vision 16 Of the Tales of Swevenham 17 Richard Bringeth Tidings of Departing 18 Ralph Departeth From Whitwall With the Fellowship of Clement Chapman 19 Master Clement Tells Ralph Concerning the Lands Whereunto They Were 20 They Come to the Mid-Mountain Guest-House 21 A Battle in the Mountains 22 Ralph Talks With Bull Shockhead 23 Of the Town of Cheaping Knowe 24 Ralph Heareth More Tidings of the Damsel 25 The Fellowship Comes to Whiteness 26 They Ride the Mountains Toward Goldburg 27 Clement Tells of Goldburg 28 Now They Come to Goldburg 29 Of Goldburg and the Queen Thereof 30 Ralph Hath Hope of Tidings Concerning the Well at the World's End 31 The Beginning of the Road To Utterbol 32 Ralph Happens on Evil Days 33 Ralph is Brought on the Road Towards Utterbol 34 The Lord of Utterbol Will Wot of Ralph's Might and Minstrelsy 35 Ralph Cometh To the Vale of the Tower 36 The Talk of Two Women Concerning Ralph 37 How Ralph Justed With the Aliens 38 A Friend Gives Ralph Warning 39 The Lord of Utterbol Makes Ralph a Free Man 40 They Ride Toward Utterness From Out of Vale Turris 41 Redhead Keeps Tryst
BOOK THREE The Road To The Well At World's End.
1 An Adventure in the Wood Under the Mountains 2 Ralph Rides the Wood Under the Mountains 3 Ralph Meeteth With Another Adventure in the Wood Under the Mountain 4 They Ride the Wood Under the Mountains 5 They Come on the Sage of Swevenham 6 Those Two Are Learned Lore by the Sage of Swevenham 7 An Adventure by the Way 8 They Come to the Sea of Molten Rocks 9 They Come Forth From the Rock-Sea 10 They Come to the Gate of the Mountains 11 They Come to the Vale of Sweet Chestnuts 12 Winter Amidst of the Mountains 13 Of Ursula and the Bear 14 Now Come the Messengers of the Innocent Folk 15 They Come to the Land of the Innocent Folk 16 They Come to the House of the Sorceress 17 They Come Through the Woodland to the Thirsty Desert 18 They Come to the Dry Tree 19 They Come Out of the Thirsty Desert 20 They Come to the Ocean Sea 21 Now They Drink of the Well at the World's End 22 Now They Have Drunk and Are Glad
BOOK FOUR The Road Home
1 Ralph and Ursula Come Back Again Through the Great Mountains 2 They Hear New Tidings of Utterbol 3 They Winter With the Sage; and Thereafter Come Again to Vale Turris 4 A Feast in the Red Pavilion 5 Bull Telleth of His Winning of the Lordship of Utterbol 6 They Ride From Vale Turris. Redhead Tells of Agatha 7 Of Their Riding the Waste, and of a Battle Thereon 8 Of Goldburg Again, and the Queen Thereof 9 They Come to Cheaping Knowe Once More. Of the King Thereof 10 An Adventure on the Way to the Mountains 11 They Come Through the Mountains Into the Plain 12 The Roads Sunder Again 13 They Come to Whitwall Again 14 They Ride Away From Whitwall 15 A Strange Meeting in the Wilderness 16 They Come to the Castle of Abundance Once More 17 They Fall in With That Hermit 18 A Change of Days in the Burg of the Four Friths 19 Ralph Sees Hampton and the Scaur 20 They Come to the Gate of Higham By the Way 21 Talk Between Those Two Brethren 22 An Old Acquaintance Comes From the Down Country to See Ralph 23 They Ride to Bear Castle 24 The Folkmote of the Shepherds 25 They Come to Wulstead 26 Ralph Sees His Father and Mother Again 27 Ralph Holds Converse With Katherine His Gossip 28 Dame Katherine Tells of the Pair of Beads, and Whence She Had Them 29 They Go Down to Battle in Upmeads 30 Ralph Brings His Father and Mother to Upmeads 31 Ralph Brings Ursula Home to the High House 32 Yet a Few Words Concerning Ralph of Upmeads
The Road Unto Love
The Sundering of the Ways
Long ago there was a little land, over which ruled a regulus or kinglet, who was called King Peter, though his kingdom was but little. He had four sons whose names were Blaise, Hugh, Gregory and Ralph: of these Ralph was the youngest, whereas he was but of twenty winters and one; and Blaise was the oldest and had seen thirty winters.
Now it came to this at last, that to these young men the kingdom of their father seemed strait; and they longed to see the ways of other men, and to strive for life. For though they were king's sons, they had but little world's wealth; save and except good meat and drink, and enough or too much thereof; house-room of the best; friends to be merry with, and maidens to kiss, and these also as good as might be; freedom withal to come and go as they would; the heavens above them, the earth to bear them up, and the meadows and acres, the woods and fair streams, and the little hills of Upmeads, for that was the name of their country and the kingdom of King Peter.
So having nought but this little they longed for much; and that the more because, king's sons as they were, they had but scant dominion save over their horses and dogs: for the men of that country were stubborn and sturdy vavassors, and might not away with masterful doings, but were like to pay back a blow with a blow, and a foul word with a buffet. So that, all things considered, it was little wonder if King Peter's sons found themselves straitened in their little land: wherein was no great merchant city; no mighty castle, or noble abbey of monks: nought but fair little halls of yeomen, with here and there a franklin's court or a shield-knight's manor-house; with many a goodly church, and whiles a house of good canons, who knew not the road to Rome, nor how to find the door of the Chancellor's house.
So these young men wearied their father and mother a long while with telling them of their weariness, and their longing to be gone: till at last on a fair and hot afternoon of June King Peter rose up from the carpet which the Prior of St. John's by the Bridge had given him (for he had been sleeping thereon amidst the grass of his orchard after his dinner) and he went into the hall of his house, which was called the High House of Upmeads, and sent for his four sons to come to him. And they came and stood before his high-seat and he said:
"Sons, ye have long wearied me with words concerning your longing for travel on the roads; now if ye verily wish to be gone, tell me when would ye take your departure if ye had your choice?"
They looked at one another, and the three younger ones nodded at Blaise the eldest: so he began, and said: "Saving the love and honour that we have for thee, and also for our mother, we would be gone at once, even with the noon's meat still in our bellies. But thou art the lord in this land, and thou must rule. Have I said well, brethren?" And they all said "Yea, yea." Then said the king; "Good! now is the sun high and hot; yet if ye ride softly ye may come to some good harbour before nightfall without foundering your horses. So come ye in an hour's space to the Four-want-way, and there and then will I order your departure."
The young men were full of joy when they heard his word; and they departed and went this way and that, gathering such small matters as each deemed that he needed, and which he might lightly carry with him; then they armed themselves, and would bid the squires bring them their horses; but men told them that the said squires had gone their ways already to the Want-way by the king's commandment: so thither they went at once a-foot all four in company, laughing and talking together merrily.
It must be told that this Want-way aforesaid was but four furlongs from the House, which lay in an ingle of the river called Upmeads Water amongst very fair meadows at the end of the upland tillage; and the land sloped gently up toward the hill-country and the unseen mountains on the north; but to the south was a low ridge which ran along the water, as it wound along from west to east. Beyond the said ridge, at a place whence you could see the higher hills to the south, that stretched mainly east and west also, there was presently an end of the Kingdom of Upmeads, though the neighbours on that side were peaceable and friendly, and were wont to send gifts to King Peter. But toward the north beyond the Want-way King Peter was lord over a good stretch of land, and that of the best; yet was he never a rich man, for he had no freedom to tax and tail his folk, nor forsooth would he have used it if he had; for he was no ill man, but kindly and of measure. On these northern marches there was war at whiles, whereas they ended in a great forest well furnished of trees; and this wood was debateable, and King Peter and his sons rode therein at their peril: but great plenty was therein of all wild deer, as hart, and buck, and roe, and swine, and bears and wolves withal. The lord on the other side thereof was a mightier man than King Peter, albeit he was a bishop, and a baron of Holy Church. To say sooth he was a close-fist and a manslayer; though he did his manslaying through his vicars, the knights and men-at-arms who held their manors of him, or whom he waged.
In that forest had King Peter's father died in battle, and his eldest son also; therefore, being a man of peace, he rode therein but seldom, though his sons, the three eldest of them, had both ridden therein and ran therefrom valiantly. As for Ralph the youngest, his father would not have him ride the Wood Debateable as yet.
So came those young men to the Want-ways, and found their father sitting there on a heap of stones, and over against him eight horses, four destriers, and four hackneys, and four squires withal. So they came and stood before their father, waiting for his word, and wondering what it would be.
Now spake King Peter: "Fair sons, ye would go on all adventure to seek a wider land, and a more stirring life than ye may get of me at home: so be it! But I have bethought me, that, since I am growing old and past the age of getting children, one of you, my sons, must abide at home to cherish me and your mother, and to lead our carles in war if trouble falleth upon us. Now I know not how to choose by mine own wit which of you shall ride and which abide. For so it is that ye are diverse of your conditions; but the evil conditions which one of you lacks the other hath, and the valiancy which one hath, the other lacks. Blaise is wise and prudent, but no great man of his hands. Hugh is a stout rider and lifter, but headstrong and foolhardy, and over bounteous a skinker; and Gregory is courteous and many worded, but sluggish in deed; though I will not call him a dastard. As for Ralph, he is fair to look on, and peradventure he may be as wise as Blaise, as valiant as Hugh, and as smooth-tongued as Gregory; but of all this we know little or nothing, whereas he is but young and untried. Yet may he do better than you others, and I deem that he will do so. All things considered, then, I say, I know not how to choose between you, my sons; so let luck choose for me, and ye shall draw cuts for your roads; and he that draweth longest shall go north, and the next longest shall go east, and the third straw shall send the drawer west; but as to him who draweth the shortest cut, he shall go no whither but back again to my house, there to abide with me the chances and changes of life; and it is most like that this one shall sit in my chair when I am gone, and be called King of Upmeads.
"Now, my sons, doth this ordinance please you? For if so be it doth not, then may ye all abide at home, and eat of my meat, and drink of my cup, but little chided either for sloth or misdoing, even as it hath been aforetime."
The young men looked at one another, and Blaise answered and said: "Sir, as for me I say we will do after your commandment, to take what road luck may show us, or to turn back home again." They all yeasaid this one after the other; and then King Peter said: "Now before I draw the cuts, I shall tell you that I have appointed the squires to go with each one of you. Richard the Red shall go with Blaise; for though he be somewhat stricken in years, and wise, yet is he a fierce carle and a doughty, and knoweth well all feats of arms.
"Lancelot Longtongue shall be squire to Hugh; for he is good of seeming and can compass all courtesy, and knoweth logic (though it be of the law and not of the schools), yet is he a proper man of his hands; as needs must he be who followeth Hugh; for where is Hugh, there is trouble and debate.
"Clement the Black shall serve Gregory: for he is a careful carle, and speaketh one word to every ten deeds that he doeth; whether they be done with point and edge, or with the hammer in the smithy.
"Lastly, I have none left to follow thee, Ralph, save Nicholas Longshanks; but though he hath more words than I have, yet hath he more wisdom, and is a man lettered and far-travelled, and loveth our house right well.
"How say ye, sons, is this to your liking?"
They all said "yea." Then quoth the king; "Nicholas, bring hither the straws ready dight, and I will give them my sons to draw."
So each young man came up in turn and drew; and King Peter laid the straws together and looked at them, and said:
"Thus it is, Hugh goeth north with Lancelot, Gregory westward with Clement." He stayed a moment and then said: "Blaise fareth eastward and Richard with him. As for thee, Ralph my dear son, thou shalt back with me and abide in my house and I shall see thee day by day; and thou shalt help me to live my last years happily in all honour; and thy love shall be my hope, and thy valiancy my stay."
Therewith he arose and threw his arm about the young man's neck; but he shrank away a little from his father, and his face grew troubled; and King Peter noted that, and his countenance fell, and he said:
"Nay nay, my son; grudge not thy brethren the chances of the road, and the ill-hap of the battle. Here at least for thee is the bounteous board and the full cup, and the love of kindred and well-willers, and the fellowship of the folk. O well is thee, my son, and happy shalt thou be!"
But the young man knit his brows and said no word in answer.
Then came forward those three brethren who were to fare at all adventure, and they stood before the old man saying nought. Then he laughed and said: "O ho, my sons! Here in Upmeads have ye all ye need without money, but when ye fare in the outlands ye need money; is it not a lack of yours that your pouches be bare? Abide, for I have seen to it."
Therewith he drew out of his pouch three little bags, and said; "Take ye each one of these; for therein is all that my treasury may shed as now. In each of these is there coined money, both white and red, and some deal of gold uncoined, and of rings and brooches a few, and by estimation there is in each bag the same value reckoned in lawful silver of Upmeads and the Wolds and the Overhill-Countries. Take up each what there is, and do the best ye may therewith."
Then each took his bag, and kissed and embraced his father; and they kissed Ralph and each other, and so got to horse and departed with their squires, going softly because of the hot sun. But Nicholas slowly mounted his hackney and led Ralph's war-horse with him home again to King Peter's House.
Ralph Goeth Back Home to the High House
Ralph and King Peter walked slowly home together, and as they went King Peter fell to telling of how in his young days he rode in the Wood Debateable, and was belated there all alone, and happed upon men who were outlaws and wolfheads, and feared for his life; but they treated him kindly, and honoured him, and saw him safe on his way in the morning. So that never thereafter would he be art and part with those who hunted outlaws to slay them. "For," said he, "it is with these men as with others, that they make prey of folk; yet these for the more part prey on the rich, and the lawful prey on the poor. Otherwise it is with these wolfheads as with lords and knights and franklins, that as there be bad amongst them, so also there be good; and the good ones I happed on, and so may another man."
Hereto paid Ralph little heed at that time, since he had heard the tale and its morality before, and that more than once; and moreover his mind was set upon his own matters and these was he pondering. Albeit perchance the words abode with him. So came they to the House, and Ralph's mother, who was a noble dame, and well-liking as for her years, which were but little over fifty, stood in the hall-door to see which of her sons should come back to her, and when she saw them coming together, she went up to them, and cast her arms about Ralph and kissed him and caressed him—being exceeding glad that it was he and not one of the others who had returned to dwell with them; for he was her best-beloved, as was little marvel, seeing that he was by far the fairest and the most loving. But Ralph's face grew troubled again in his mother's arms, for he loved her exceeding well; and forsooth he loved the whole house and all that dwelt there, down to the turnspit dogs in the chimney ingle, and the swallows that nested in the earthen bottles, which when he was little he had seen his mother put up in the eaves of the out-bowers: but now, love or no love, the spur was in his side, and he must needs hasten as fate would have him. However, when he had disentangled himself from his mother's caresses, he enforced himself to keep a cheerful countenance, and upheld it the whole evening through, and was by seeming merry at supper, and went to bed singing.
Ralph Cometh to the Cheaping-Town
He slept in an upper chamber in a turret of the House, which chamber was his own, and none might meddle with it. There the next day he awoke in the dawning, and arose and clad himself, and took his wargear and his sword and spear, and bore all away without doors to the side of the Ford in that ingle of the river, and laid it for a while in a little willow copse, so that no chance-comer might see it; then he went back to the stable of the House and took his destrier from the stall (it was a dapple-grey horse called Falcon, and was right good,) and brought him down to the said willow copse, and tied him to a tree till he had armed himself amongst the willows, whence he came forth presently as brisk-looking and likely a man-at-arms as you might see on a summer day. Then he clomb up into the saddle, and went his ways splashing across the ford, before the sun had arisen, while the throstle-cocks were yet amidst their first song.
Then he rode on a little trot south away; and by then the sun was up he was without the bounds of Upmeads; albeit in the land thereabout dwelt none who were not friends to King Peter and his sons: and that was well, for now were folk stirring and were abroad in the fields; as a band of carles going with their scythes to the hay-field; or a maiden with her milking-pails going to her kine, barefoot through the seeding grass; or a company of noisy little lads on their way to the nearest pool of the stream that they might bathe in the warm morning after the warm night. All these and more knew him and his armour and Falcon his horse, and gave him the sele of the day, and he was nowise troubled at meeting them; for besides that they thought it no wonder to meet one of the lords of Upmeads going armed about his errands, their own errands were close at home, and it was little likely that they should go that day so far as to Upmeads Water, seeing that it ran through the meadows a half-score miles to the north-ward.
So Ralph rode on, and came into the high road, that led one way back again into Upmeads, and crossed the Water by a fair bridge late builded between King Peter and a house of Canons on the north side, and the other way into a good cheaping-town hight Wulstead, beyond which Ralph knew little of the world which lay to the south, and seemed to him a wondrous place, full of fair things and marvellous adventures.
So he rode till he came into the town when the fair morning was still young, the first mass over, and maids gathered about the fountain amidst the market-place, and two or three dames sitting under the buttercross. Ralph rode straight up to the house of a man whom he knew, and had often given him guesting there, and he himself was not seldom seen in the High House of Upmeads. This man was a merchant, who went and came betwixt men's houses, and bought and sold many things needful and pleasant to folk, and King Peter dealt with him much and often. Now he stood in the door of his house, which was new and goodly, sniffing the sweet scents which the morning wind bore into the town; he was clad in a goodly long gown of grey welted with silver, of thin cloth meet for the summer-tide: for little he wrought with his hands, but much with his tongue; he was a man of forty summers, ruddy-faced and black-bearded, and he was called Clement Chapman.
When he saw Ralph he smiled kindly on him, and came and held his stirrup as he lighted down, and said: "Welcome, lord! Art thou come to give me a message, and eat and drink in a poor huckster's house, and thou armed so gallantly?"
Ralph laughed merrily, for he was hungry, and he said: "Yea, I will eat and drink with thee and kiss my gossip, and go my ways."
Therewith the carle led him into the house; and if it were goodly without, within it was better. For there was a fair chamber panelled with wainscot well carven, and a cupboard of no sorry vessels of silver and latten: the chairs and stools as fair as might be; no king's might be better: the windows were glazed, and there were flowers and knots and posies in them; and the bed was hung with goodly web from over sea such as the soldan useth. Also, whereas the chapman's ware-bowers were hard by the chamber, there was a pleasant mingled smell therefrom floating about. The table was set with meat and drink and vessel of pewter and earth, all fair and good; and thereby stood the chapman's wife, a very goodly woman of two-score years, who had held Ralph at the font when she was a slim damsel new wedded; for she was come of no mean kindred of the Kingdom of Upmeads: her name was Dame Katherine.
Now she kissed Ralph's cheek friendly, and said: "Welcome, gossip! thou art here in good time to break thy fast; and we will give thee a trim dinner thereafter, when thou hast been here and there in the town and done thine errand; and then shalt thou drink a cup and sing me a song, and so home again in the cool of the evening."
Ralph seemed a little troubled at her word, and he said: "Nay, gossip, though I thank thee for all these good things as though I had them, yet must I ride away south straightway after I have breakfasted, and said one word to the goodman. Goodman, how call ye the next town southward, and how far is it thither?"
Quoth Clement: "My son, what hast thou to do with riding south? As thou wottest, going hence south ye must presently ride the hill-country; and that is no safe journey for a lonely man, even if he be a doughty knight like to thee, lord."
Said Ralph, reddening withal: "I have an errand that way."
"An errand of King Peter's or thine own?" said Clement.
"Of King Peter's, if ye must wot," said Ralph.
Clement were no chapman had he not seen that the lad was lying; so he said:
"Fair lord, saving your worship, how would it be as to the speeding of King Peter's errand, if I brought thee before our mayor, and swore the peace against thee; so that I might keep thee in courteous prison till I had sent to thy father of thy whereabouts?"
The young man turned red with anger; but ere he could speak Dame Katherine said sharply: "Hold thy peace, Clement! What hast thou to meddle or make in the matter? If our young lord hath will to ride out and see the world, why should we let him? Yea, why should his father let him, if it come to that? Take my word for it that my gossip shall go through the world and come back to those that love him, as goodly as he went forth. And hold! here is for a token thereof."
Therewith she went to an ark that stood in the corner, and groped in the till thereof and brought out a little necklace of blue and green stones with gold knobs betwixt, like a pair of beads; albeit neither pope nor priest had blessed them; and tied to the necklace was a little box of gold with something hidden therein. This gaud she gave to Ralph, and said to him: "Gossip, wear this about thy neck, and let no man take it from thee, and I think it will be salvation to thee in peril, and good luck to thee in the time of questing; so that it shall be to thee as if thou hadst drunk of the WELL AT THE WORLD'S END."
"What is that water?" said Ralph, "and how may I find it?"
"I know not rightly," she said, "but if a body might come by it, I hear say it saveth from weariness and wounding and sickness; and it winneth love from all, and maybe life everlasting. Hast thou not heard tell of it, my husband?"
"Yea," said the chapman, "many times; and how that whoso hath drunk thereof hath the tongue that none may withstand, whether in buying or selling, or prevailing over the hearts of men in any wise. But as for its wherabouts, ye shall not find it in these parts. Men say that it is beyond the Dry Tree; and that is afar, God wot! But now, lord Ralph, I rede thee go back again this evening with Andrew, my nephew, for company: forsooth, he will do little less gainful than riding with thee to Upmeads than if he abide in Wulstead; for he is idle. But, my lord, take it not amiss that I spake about the mayor and the tipstaves; for it was but a jest, as thou mayest well wot."
Ralph's face cleared at that word, and he stood smiling, weighing the chaplet in his hand; but Dame Katherine said:
"Dear gossip, do it on speedily; for it is a gift from me unto thee: and from a gossip even king's sons may take a gift."
Quoth Ralph: "But is it lawful to wear it? is there no wizardry within it?"
"Hearken to him!" she said, "and how like unto a man he speaketh; if there were a brawl in the street, he would strike in and ask no word thereof, not even which were the better side: whereas here is my falcon-chick frighted at a little gold box and a pair of Saracen beads."
"Well," quoth Ralph, "the first holy man I meet shall bless them for me."
"That shall he not," said the dame, "that shall he not. Who wotteth what shall betide to thee or me if he do so? Come, do them on, and then to table! For seest thou not that the goodman is wearying for meat? and even thine eyes will shine the brighter for a mouthful, king's son and gossip."
She took him by the hand and did the beads on his neck and kissed and fondled him before he sat down, while the goodman looked on, grinning rather sheepishly, but said nought to them; and only called on his boy to lead the destrier to stable. So when they were set down, the chapman took up the word where it had been dropped, and said: "So, Lord Ralph, thou must needs take to adventures, being, as thou deemest, full grown. That is all one as the duck taketh to water despite of the hen that hath hatched her. Well, it was not to be thought that Upmeads would hold you lords much longer. Or what is gone with my lords your brethren?"
Said Ralph: "They have departed at all adventure, north, east, and west, each bearing our father's blessing and a bag of pennies. And to speak the truth, goodman, for I perceive I am no doctor at lying, my father and mother would have me stay at home when my brethren were gone, and that liketh me not; therefore am I come out to seek my luck in the world: for Upmeads is good for a star-gazer, maybe, or a simpler, or a priest, or a worthy good carle of the fields, but not for a king's son with the blood running hot in his veins. Or what sayest thou, gossip?"
Quoth the dame: "I could weep for thy mother; but for thee nought at all. It is good that thou shouldest do thy will in the season of youth and the days of thy pleasure. Yea, and I deem that thou shalt come back again great and worshipful; and I am called somewhat foreseeing. Only look to it that thou keep the pretty thing that I have just given thee."
"Well," said the chapman, "this is fine talk about pleasure and the doing of one's will; nevertheless a whole skin is good wares, though it be not to be cheapened in any market of the world. Now, lord, go thou where thou wilt, whether I say go or abide; and forsooth I am no man of King Peter's, that I should stay thee. As for the name of the next town, it is called Higham-on-the-Way, and is a big town plenteous of victuals, with strong walls and a castle, and a very rich abbey of monks: and there is peace within its walls, because the father abbot wages a many men to guard him and his, and to uphold his rights against all comers; wherein he doth wisely, and also well. For much folk flocketh to his town and live well therein; and there is great recourse of chapmen thither. No better market is there betwixt this and Babylon. Well, Sir Ralph, I rede thee if thou comest unhurt to Higham-on-the-Way, go no further for this time, but take service with the lord abbot, and be one of his men of war; thou may'st then become his captain if thou shouldest live; which would be no bad adventure for one who cometh from Upmeads."
Ralph looked no brighter for this word, and he answered nought to it: but said presently:
"And what is to be looked for beyond Higham if one goeth further? Dost thou know the land any further?"
The carle smiled: "Yea forsooth, and down to the Wood Perilous, and beyond it, and the lands beyond the Wood; and far away through them. I say not that I have been to the Dry Tree; but I have spoken to one who hath heard of him who hath seen it; though he might not come by a draught of the Well at the World's End."
Ralph's eyes flashed, and his cheeks reddened as he listened hereto; but he spake quietly:
"Master Clement, how far dost thou make it to Higham-on-the-Way?"
"A matter of forty miles," said the Chapman; "because, as thou wottest, if ye ride south from hence, ye shall presently bring your nose up against the big downs, and must needs climb them at once; and when ye are at the top of Bear Hill, and look south away ye shall see nought but downs on downs with never a road to call a road, and never a castle, or church, or homestead: nought but some shepherd's hut; or at the most the little house of a holy man with a little chapel thereby in some swelly of the chalk, where the water hath trickled into a pool; for otherwise the place is waterless." Therewith he took a long pull at the tankard by his side, and went on:
"Higham is beyond all that, and out into the fertile plain; and a little river hight Coldlake windeth about the meadows there; and it is a fair land; though look you the wool of the downs is good, good, good! I have foison of this year's fleeces with me. Ye shall raise none such in Upmeads."
Ralph sat silent a little, as if pondering, and then he started up and said: "Good master Clement, we have eaten thy meat and thank thee for that and other matters. Wilt thou now be kinder, and bid thy boy bring round Falcon our horse; for we have far to go, and must begone straight-away."
"Yea, lord," said Clement, "even so will I do." And he muttered under his breath; "Thou talkest big, my lad, with thy 'we'; but thou art pressed lest Nicholas be here presently to fetch thee back; and to say sooth I would his hand were on thy shoulder even now."
Then he spake aloud again, and said:
"I must now begone to my lads, and I will send one round with thy war-horse. But take my rede, my lord, and become the man of the Abbot of St. Mary's of Higham, and all will be well."
Therewith he edged himself out of the chamber, and the dame fell to making a mighty clatter with the vessel and trenchers and cups on the board, while Ralph walked up and down the chamber his war-gear jingling upon him. Presently the dame left her table-clatter and came up to Ralph and looked kindly into his face and said: "Gossip, hast thou perchance any money?"
He flushed up red, and then his face fell; yet he spake gaily: "Yea, gossip, I have both white and red: there are three golden crowns in my pouch, and a little flock of silver pennies: forsooth I say not as many as would reach from here to Upmeads, if they were laid one after the other."
She smiled and patted his cheek, and said:
"Thou art no very prudent child, king's son. But it comes into my mind that my master did not mean thee to go away empty-handed; else had he not departed and left us twain together."
Therewith she went to the credence that stood in a corner, and opened a drawer therein and took out a little bag, and gave it into Ralph's hand, and said: "This is the gift of the gossip; and thou mayst take it without shame; all the more because if thy father had been a worser man, and a harder lord he would have had more to give thee. But now thou hast as much or more as any one of thy brethren."
He took the bag smiling and shame-faced, but she looked on him fondly and said:
"Now I know not whether I shall lay old Nicholas on thine heels when he cometh after thee, as come he will full surely; or whether I shall suffer the old sleuth-hound nose out thy slot of himself, as full surely he will set on to it."
"Thou mightest tell him," said Ralph, "that I am gone to take service with the Abbot of St. Mary's of Higham: hah?"
She laughed and said: "Wilt thou do so, lord, and follow the rede of that goodman of mine, who thinketh himself as wise as Solomon?"
Ralph smiled and answered her nothing.
"Well," she said, "I shall say what likes me when the hour is at hand. Lo, here! thine horse. Abide yet a moment of time, and then go whither thou needs must, like the wind of the summer day."
Therewith she went out of the chamber and came back again with a scrip which she gave to Ralph and said: "Herein is a flask of drink for the waterless country, and a little meat for the way. Fare thee well, gossip! Little did I look for it when I rose up this morning and nothing irked me save the dulness of our town, and the littleness of men's doings therein, that I should have to cut off a piece of my life from me this morning, and say, farewell gossip, as now again I do."
Therewith she kissed him on either cheek and embraced him; and it might be said of her and him that she let him go thereafter; for though as aforesaid he loved her, and praised her kindness, he scarce understood the eagerness of her love for him; whereas moreover she saw him not so often betwixt Upmeads and Wulstead: and belike she herself scarce understood it. Albeit she was a childless woman.
So when he had got to horse, she watched him riding a moment, and saw how he waved his hand to her as he turned the corner of the market-place, and how a knot of lads and lasses stood staring on him after she lost sight of him. Then she turned her back into the chamber and laid her head on the table and wept. Then came in the goodman quietly and stood by her and she heeded him not. He stood grinning curiously on her awhile, and then laid his hand on her shoulder, and said as she raised her face to him:
"Sweetheart, it availeth nought; when thou wert young and exceeding fair, he was but a little babe, and thou wert looking in those days to have babes of thine own; and then it was too soon: and now that he is such a beauteous young man, and a king's son withal, and thou art wedded to a careful carle of no weak heart, and thou thyself art more than two-score years old, it is too late. Yet thou didst well to give our lord the money. Lo! here is wherewithal to fill up the lack in thy chest; and here is a toy for thee in place of the pair of beads thou gavest him; and I bid thee look on it as if I had given him my share of the money and the beads."
She turned to Clement, and took the bag of money, and the chaplet which he held out to her, and she said: "God wot thou art no ill man, my husband, but would God I had a son like to him!"
She still wept somewhat; but the chapman said: "Let it rest there, sweetheart! let it rest there! It may be a year or twain before thou seest him again: and then belike he shall be come back with some woman whom he loves better than any other; and who knows but in a way he may deem himself our son. Meanwhile thou hast done well, sweetheart, so be glad."
Therewith he kissed her and went his ways to his merchandize, and she to the ordering of her house, grieved but not unhappy.
Ralph Rideth the Downs
As for Ralph, he rode on with a merry heart, and presently came to an end of the plain country, and the great downs rose up before him with a white road winding up to the top of them. Just before the slopes began to rise was a little thorp beside a stream, and thereby a fair church and a little house of Canons: so Ralph rode toward the church to see if therein were an altar of St. Nicholas, who was his good lord and patron, that he might ask of him a blessing on his journey. But as he came up to the churchyard-gate he saw a great black horse tied thereto as if abiding some one; and as he lighted down from his saddle he saw a man coming hastily from out the church-door and striding swiftly toward the said gate. He was a big man, and armed; for he had a bright steel sallet on his head, which covered his face all save the end of his chin; and plates he had on his legs and arms. He wore a green coat over his armour, and thereon was wrought in gold an image of a tree leafless: he had a little steel axe about his neck, and a great sword hung by his side. Ralph stood looking on him with his hand on the latch of the gate, but when the man came thereto he tore it open roughly and shoved through at once, driving Ralph back, so that he well-nigh overset him, and so sprang to his horse and swung himself into the saddle, just as Ralph steadied himself and ruffled up to him, half drawing his sword from the scabbard the while. But the man-at-arms cried out, "Put it back, put it back! If thou must needs deal with every man that shoveth thee in his haste, thy life is like to be but short."
He was settling himself in his saddle as he spoke, and now he shook his rein, and rode off speedily toward the hill-road. But when he was so far off that Ralph might but see his face but as a piece of reddish colour, he reined up for a moment of time, and turning round in his saddle lifted up his sallet and left his face bare, and cried out as if to Ralph, "The first time!" And then let the head-piece fall again, and set spurs to his horse and gallopped away.
Ralph stood looking at him as he got smaller on the long white road, and wondering what this might mean, and how the unknown man should know him, if he did know him. But presently he let his wonder run off him, and went his ways into the church, wherein he found his good lord and friend St. Nicholas, and so said a paternoster before his altar, and besought his help, and made his offering; and then departed and gat to horse again, and rode softly the way to the downs, for the day was hot.
The way was steep and winding, with a hollow cup of the hills below it, and above it a bent so steep that Ralph could see but a few yards of it on his left hand; but when he came to the hill's brow and could look down on the said bent, he saw strange figures on the face thereof, done by cutting away the turf so that the chalk might show clear. A tree with leaves was done on that hill-side, and on either hand of it a beast like a bear ramping up against the tree; and these signs were very ancient. This hill-side carving could not be seen from the thorp beneath, which was called Netherton, because the bent looked westward down into the hollow of the hill abovesaid; but from nigher to Wulstead they were clear to see, and Ralph had often beheld them, but never so nigh: and that hill was called after them Bear Hill. At the top of it was an earth-work of the ancient folk, which also was called Bear Castle. And now Ralph rode over the hill's brow into it; for the walls had been beaten down in places long and long ago.
Now he rode up the wall, and at the topmost of it turned and looked aback on the blue country which he had ridden through stretching many a league below, and tried if he could pick out Upmeads from amongst the diverse wealth of the summer land: but Upmeads Water was hidden, and he could see nothing to be sure of to tell him whereabouts the High House stood; yet he deemed that he could make out the Debateable Wood and the hills behind it well enough. Then he turned his horse about, and had the down-country before him; long lines of hills to wit, one rising behind the other like the waves of a somewhat quiet sea: no trees thereon, nor houses that he might see thence: nought but a green road that went waving up and down before him greener than the main face of the slopes.
He looked at it all for a minute or two as the south-west wind went past his ears, and played a strange tune on the innumerable stems of the bents and the hard-stalked blossoms, to which the bees sang counterpoint. Then the heart arose within him, and he drew the sword from the scabbard, and waved it about his head, and shook it toward the south, and cried out, "Now, welcome world, and be thou blessed from one end to the other, from the ocean sea to the uttermost mountains!"
A while he held the white steel in his fist, and then sheathed the blade, and rode down soberly over the turf bridge across the ancient fosse, and so came on to the green road made many ages before by an ancient people, and so trotted south along fair and softly.
Little is to be told of his journey through the downs: as he topped a low hill whereon were seven grave-mounds of the ancient folk in a row, he came on a shepherd lying amidst of his sheep: the man sprang to his feet when he heard horse-hoofs anigh him and saw the glint of steel, and he set his hand to a short spear which lay by him; but when he saw nought but Ralph, and heard how he gave him the sele of the day, he nodded his head in a friendly way, though he said nought in salutation; for the loneliness of the downs made the speech slow within him.
Again some two miles further on Ralph met a flock of sheep coming down a bent which the road climbed, and with them were three men, their drovers, and they drew nigh him as he was amidst of the sheep, so that he could scarce see the way. Each of these three had a weapon; one a pole-axe, another a long spear, and the third a flail jointed and bound with iron, and an anlace hanging at his girdle. So they stood in the way and hailed him when the sheep were gone past; and the man with the spear asked him whither away. "I am turned toward Higham-on-the-Way," quoth he; "and how many miles shall I ride ere I get there?"
Said one of them: "Little less than twenty, lord." Now it was past noon two hours, and the day was hot; so whereas the faces of the men looked kind and friendly, albeit somewhat rugged, he lighted down from his horse and sat down by the way-side, and drew his bottle of good wine from out of his wallet, and asked the men if they were in haste. "Nay, master," said he of the pole-axe, while all eyes turned to the bottle, "HE has gone by too long; and will neither meddle with us, nor may we deal with him."
"Well then," quoth Ralph, "there is time for bever. Have ye ought of a cup, that we may drink to each other?"
"Yea," said the carle with the anlace, "that have I." Therewith he drew from his pouch a ram's horn rimmed with silver, and held it up, and said as if he were speaking to it: "Now, Thirly, rejoice! for ye shall have lord's wine poured into thy maw."
Therewith he held it out toward Ralph, who laughed and filled it up, and filled for himself a little silver cup which he carried, and said: "To you, shepherds! Much wool and little cry!" And he drank withal.
"And I," quoth the man with the horn, "call this health; Much cry and little wool!"
"Well, well, how mean ye by that, Greasy Wat?" said the man with the spear, taking the horn as he spake; "that is but a poor wish for a lord that drinketh out of our cup."
Said Wat: "Why, neighbour, why! thy wit is none too hasty. The wool that a knight sheareth is war and battle; that is wounding and death; but the cry is the talk and boasting and minstrelsy that goeth before all this. Which is the best wish to wish him? the wounds and the death, or the fore-rumour and stir thereof which hurteth no man?"
Ralph laughed thereat, and was merry and blithe with them; but the spearman, who was an old man, said:
"For all Wat sayeth, lord, and his japes, ye must not misdeem of us that we shepherds of the Downs can do nought but run to ales and feasts, and that we are but pot-valiant: maybe thou thyself mayst live to see things go otherwise: and in that day may we have such as thee for captain. Now, fair lord, I drink to thy crown of valour, and thy good luck; and we thank thee for the wine and yet more for the blithe fellowship."
So Ralph filled up the ram's horn till Dame Katherine's good island wine was well-nigh spent; and at last he said:
"Now, my masters, I must to horse; but I pray you tell or we depart, what did ye mean when ye said that HE had gone past? Who is HE?"
The merry faces of the men changed at his word, and they looked in each other's faces, till at last the old spearman answered him:
"Fair lord, these things we have little will to talk about: for we be poor men with no master to fleece us, and no lord to help us: also we be folk unlearned and unlettered, and from our way of life, whereas we dwell in the wilderness, we seldom come within the doors of a church. But whereas we have drunk with thee, who seemest to be a man of lineage, and thou hast been blithe with us, we will tell thee that we have seen one riding south along the Greenway, clad in a coat as green as the way, with the leafless tree done on his breast. So nigh to him we were that we heard his cry as he sped along, as ye may hear the lapwing whining; for he said: 'POINT AND EDGE, POINT AND EDGE! THE RED WATER AMIDST OF THE HILLS!' In my lifetime such a man hath, to my knowledge, been seen thrice before; and after each sight of him followed evil days and the death of men. Moreover this is the Eve of St. John, and we deem the token the worse therefor. Or how deemest thou?"
Ralph stood silent awhile; for he was thinking of the big man whom he had met at the churchyard gate, and all this tale seemed wonderful to him. But at last he said:
"I cannot tell what there is in it; herein am I no help to you. To-day I am but little; though I may one day be great. Yet this may I do for you; tomorrow will I let sing a mass in St. Mary's Church on your behoof. And hereafter, if I wax as my will is, and I come to be lord in these lands, I will look to it to do what a good lord should do for the shepherds of the Downs, so that they may live well, and die in good hope. So may the Mother of God help me at need!"
Said the old shepherd: "Thou hast sworn an oath, and it is a good oath, and well sworn. Now if thou dost as thou swearest, words can but little thanks, yet deeds may. Wherefore if ever thou comest back hither, and art in such need that a throng of men may help thee therein; then let light a great fire upon each corner of the topmost wall of Bear Castle, and call to mind this watch-word: 'SMITE ASIDE THE AXE, O BEAR-FATHER,' and then shalt thou see what shall betide thee for thy good-hap: farewell now, with the saints to aid!"
Ralph bade them live well and hail, and mounted his horse and rode off down the Greenway, and as he rode the shepherds waved their weapons to him in token of good-will.
Ralph Cometh to Higham-on-the-Way
Nought more befell Ralph to tell of till he came to the end of the Downs and saw Higham lying below him overlooked by a white castle on a knoll, and with a river lapping it about and winding on through its fair green meadows even as Clement had told. From amidst its houses rose up three towers of churches above their leaden roofs, and high above all, long and great, the Abbey Church; and now was the low sun glittering on its gilded vanes and the wings of the angels high upon the battlements.
So Ralph rode down the slopes and was brisk about it, for it was drawing toward sunset, and he knew not at what hour they shut their gates. The road was steep and winding, and it was the more part of an hour ere he came to the gate, which was open, and like to be yet, for many folk were thronging in, which throng also had hindered him soon after he came into the plain country. The gate was fair and strong, but Ralph saw no men-at-arms about it that evening. He rode into the street unquestioned, and therein was the throng great of people clad in fair and gay attire; and presently Ralph called to mind that this was St. John's Eve, so that he knew that there was some feast toward.
At last the throng was so thick that he was stayed by it; and therewithal a religious who was beside him and thrust up against his horse, turned to him and gave him good even, and said: "By thy weapons and gear thou art a stranger here in our burg, Sir Knight?"
"So it is," said Ralph.
"And whither away?" said the monk; "hast thou some kinsman or friend in the town?"
"Nay," said Ralph, "I seek a good hostelry where I may abide the night for my money."
The monk shook his head and said: "See ye the folk? It is holiday time, and midsummer after haysel. Ye shall scarce get lodging outside our house. But what then? Come thou thither straightway and have harbour of the best, and see our prior, who loveth young and brisk men-at-arms like to thee. Lo now! the throng openeth a little; I will walk by thy bridle and lead thee the shortest road thither."
Ralph gainsaid him not, and they bored through the throng of the street till they came into the market-square, which was very great and clean, paved with stones all over: tall and fair houses rose up on three sides of it, and on the fourth was the Great Church which made those houses seem but low: most of it was new-built; for the lord Abbot that then was, though he had not begun it, had taken the work up from his forerunner and had pushed it forward all he might; for he was very rich, and an open-handed man. Like dark gold it showed under the evening sun, and the painted and gilded imagery shone like jewels upon it.
"Yea," said the monk, as he noted Ralph's wonder at this wonder; "a most goodly house it is, and happy shall they be that dwell there."
Therewith he led Ralph on, turning aside through the great square. Ralph saw that there were many folk therein, though it was too big to be thronged thick with them. Amidst of it was now a great pile of wood hung about with flowers, and hard by it a stage built up with hangings of rich cloth on one side thereof. He asked the monk what this might mean, and he told him the wood was for the Midsummer bale-fire, and the stage for the show that should come thereafter. So the brother led Ralph down a lane to the south of the great west door, and along the side of the minster and so came to the Abbey gate, and there was Ralph well greeted, and had all things given him which were due to a good knight; and then was he brought into the Guest-hall, a very fair chamber, which was now full of men of all degrees. He was shown to a seat on the dais within two of the subprior's, and beside him sat an honourable lord, a vassal of St. Mary's. So was supper served well and abundantly: the meat and drink was of the best, and the vessel and all the plenishing was as good as might be; and the walls of that chamber were hung with noble arras-cloth picturing the Pilgrimage of the Soul of Man.
Every man there who spoke with Ralph, and they were many, was exceeding courteous to him; and he heard much talk about him of the wealth of the lands of St. Mary's at Higham, and how it was flourishing; and of the Abbot how mighty he was, so that he might do what he would, and that his will was to help and to give, and be blithe with all men: and folk told of turmoil and war in other lands, and praised the peace of Higham-on-the-Way.
Ralph listened to all this, and smiled, and said to himself that to another man this might well be the end of his journey for that time; but for him all this peace and well-being was not enough; for though it were a richer land than Upmeads, yet to the peace and the quiet he was well used, and he had come forth not for the winning of fatter peace, but to try what new thing his youth and his might and his high hope and his good hap might accomplish.
So when the supper was over, and the wine and spices had been brought, the Guest-hall began to thin somewhat, and the brother who had brought Ralph thither came to him and said:
"Fair lord, it were nowise ill if ye went forth, as others of our guests have done, to see the deeds of Midsummer Eve that shall be done in the great square in honour of Holy John; for our manner therein at Higham has been much thought of. Look my son!"
He pointed to the windows of the hall therewith, and lo! they grew yellow and bright with some fire without, as if a new fiery day had been born out of the dusk of the summer night; for the light that shone through the windows out-did the candle-light in the hall. Ralph started thereat and laid his right hand to the place of his sword, which indeed he had left with the chamberlain; but the monk laughed and said: "Fear nothing, lord; there is no foeman in Higham: come now, lest thou be belated of the show."
So he led Ralph forth, and into the square, where there was a space appointed for the brethren and their guests to see the plays; and the square was now so full of folk that it seemed like as if that there were no one man in the streets which were erewhile so thronged.
There were rows of men-at-arms in bright armour also to keep the folk in their places, like as hurdles pen the sheep up; howbeit they were nowise rough with folk, but humble and courteous. Many and many were the torches and cressets burning steadily in the calm air, so that, as aforesaid, night was turned into day. But on the scaffold aforesaid were standing bright and gay figures, whose names or what they were Ralph had no time to ask.
Now the bells began to clash from the great tower of the minster, and in a little while they had clashed themselves into order and rang clear and tuneably for a space; and while they were ringing, lo! those gay-clad people departed from the scaffold, and a canvas painted like a mountain-side, rocky and with caves therein, was drawn up at the back of it. Then came thereon one clad like a king holding a fair maiden by the hand, and with him was a dame richly clad and with a crown on her head. So these two kissed the maiden, and lamented over her, and went their ways, and the maiden left alone sat down upon a rock and covered up her face and wept; and while Ralph wondered what this might mean, or what grieved the maiden, there came creeping, as it were from out of a cranny of the rocks, a worm huge-headed and covered over with scales that glittered in the torch-light. Then Ralph sprang up in his place, for he feared for the maiden that the worm would devour her: but the monk who sat by him pulled him down by the skirt, and laughed and said: "Sit still, lord! for the champion also has been provided."
Then Ralph sat down again somewhat abashed and looked on; yet was his heart in his mouth the while. And so while the maiden stood as one astonied before the worm, who gaped upon her with wide open mouth, there came forth from a cleft in the rocks a goodly knight who bore silver, a red cross; and he had his sword in his hand, and he fell upon the worm to smite him; and the worm ramped up against him, and there was battle betwixt them, while the maiden knelt anigh with her hands clasped together.
Then Ralph knew that this was a play of the fight of St. George with the worm; so he sat silent till the champion had smitten off the worm's head and had come to the maiden and kissed and embraced her, and shown her the grisly head. Then presently came many folk on to the scaffold, to wit, the king and queen who were the father and mother of the maiden, and a bishop clad in very fair vestments, and knights withal; and they stood about St. George and the maiden, and with them were minstrels who fell to playing upon harps and fiddles; while other some fell to singing a sweet song in honour of St. George, and the maiden delivered.
So when it was all done, the monk said: "This play is set forth by the men-at-arms of our lord Abbot, who have great devotion toward St. George, and he is their friend and their good lord. But hereafter will be other plays, of wild men and their feasting in the woods in the Golden Age of the world; and that is done by the scribes and the limners. And after that will be a pageant of St. Agnes ordered by the clothiers and the webbers, which be both many and deft in this good town. Albeit thou art a young man and hast ridden far to-day belike, and mayhappen thou wilt not be able to endure it: so it may be well to bring thee out of this throng straightway. Moreover I have bethought me, that there is much of what is presently to come which we shall see better from the minster roof, or even it may be from the tower: wilt thou come then?"
Ralph had liefer have sat there and seen all the plays to the end, for they seemed to him exceeding fair, and like to ravish the soul from the body; howbeit, being shamefaced, he knew not how to gainsay the brother, who took him by the hand, and led him through the press to the west front of the minster, where on the north side was a little door in a nook. So they went up a stair therein a good way till they came into a gallery over the western door; and looking forth thence Ralph deemed that he could have seen a long way had daylight been, for it was higher than the tops of the highest houses.
So there they abode a space looking down on the square and its throng, and the bells, which had been ringing when they came up, now ceased a while. But presently there arose great shouts and clamour amongst the folk below, and they could see men with torches drawing near to the pile of wood, and then all of a sudden shot up from it a great spiring flame, and all the people shouted together, while the bells broke out again over their heads.
Then the brother pointed aloof with his finger and said: "Lo you! fair lord, how bale speaks to bale all along the headlands of the down-country, and below there in the thorps by the river!"
Forsooth Ralph saw fire after fire break out to the westward; and the brother said: "And if we stood over the high altar and looked east, ye would see more of such fires and many more; and all these bales are piled up and lighted by vassals and villeins of my lord Abbot: now to-night they are but mere Midsummer bale-fires; but doubt ye not that if there came war into the land each one of these bales would mean at least a half-score of stout men, archers and men-at-arms, all ready to serve their lord at all adventure. All this the tyrants round about, that hate holy Church and oppress the poor, know full well; therefore we live in peace in these lands."
Ralph hearkened, but said nought; for amidst all this flashing of fire and flame, and the crying out of folk, and the measured clash of the bells so near him, his thought was confused, and he had no words ready to hand. But the monk turned from the parapet and looked him full in the face and said to him:
"Thou art a fair young man, and strong, and of gentle blood as I deem; and thou seemest to me to have the lucky look in thine eyes: now I tell thee that if thou wert to take service with my lord thou shouldest never rue it. Yea, why shouldest thou not wax in his service, and become his Captain of Captains, which is an office meet for kings?"
Ralph looked on him, but answered nought, for he could not gather his thoughts for an answer; and the brother said: "Think of it, I bid thee, fair young lord; and be sure that nowhere shalt thou have a better livelihood, not even wert thou a king's son; for the children of my lord Abbot are such that none dareth to do them any displeasure; neither is any overlord as good as is Holy Church."
"Yea," said Ralph, "doubtless thou sayest sooth; yet I wot not that I am come forth to seek a master."
Said the brother: "Nay, do but see the lord Abbot, as thou mayst do to-morrow, if thou wilt."
"I would have his blessing," said Ralph.
"No less shalt thou have," said the brother; "but look you down yonder; for I can see tokens that my lord is even now coming forth."
Ralph looked down and beheld the folk parting to right and left, and a lane made amidst the throng, guarded by men-at-arms mingled with the cross-bearers and brethren; and the sound of trumpets blared forth over the noises of the throng.
"If the lord Abbot cometh," said Ralph, "I were fain of his blessing to-night before I sleep: so go we down straightway that I may kneel before him with the rest."
"What!" said the monk, "Wilt thou, my lord, kneel amongst all these burgesses and vavassors when thou mightest see the Abbot in his own chamber face to face alone with him?"
"Father," said Ralph, "I am no great man, and I must needs depart betimes to-morrow; for I perceive that here are things too mighty and over-mastering for such as I be."
"Well," said the monk, "yet mayst thou come back again; so at present I will make no more words about it."
So they went down, and came out amidst the throng, above which the bale still flared high, making the summer night as light as day. The brother made way for Ralph, so that they stood in the front row of folk: they had not been there one minute ere they heard the sound of the brethren singing, and the Abbot came forth out of the lane that went down to the gate. Then all folk went down upon their knees, and thus abode him. Right so Ralph deemed that he felt some one pull his sleeve, but in such a throng that was nought of a wonder; howbeit, he turned and looked to his left, whence came the tug, and saw kneeling beside him a tall man-at-arms, who bore a sallet on his head in such wise that it covered all his face save the point of his chin. Then Ralph bethought him of the man of the leafless tree, and he looked to see what armoury the man bore on his coat; but he had nothing save a loose frock of white linen over his hauberk. Nevertheless, he heard a voice in his ear, which said, "The second time!" whereon he deemed that it was verily that same man: yet had he nought to do to lay hold on him, and he might not speak with him, for even therewith came the Abbot in garments all of gold, going a-foot under a canopy of baudekyn, with the precious mitre on his head, and the crozier borne before him, as if he had been a patriarch: for he was an exceeding mighty lord.
Ralph looked hard on him as he passed by, blessing the folk with upraised hand; and he saw that he was a tall spare man, clean-shaven, and thin-faced; but no old man, belike scarce of fifty winters. Ralph caught his eye, and he smiled on the goodly young man so kindly, that for a moment Ralph deemed that he would dwell in St. Mary's House for a little while; for, thought he, if my father, or Nicholas, hear of me therein, they must even let me alone to abide here.
Therewith the Abbot went forth to his place, and sat him down under a goodly cloth of estate, and folk stood up again; but when Ralph looked for the man in the sallet he could see nought of him. Now when the Abbot was set down, men made a clear ring round about the bale, and there came into the said ring twelve young men, each clad in nought save a goat-skin, and with garlands of leaves and flowers about their middles: they had with them a wheel done about with straw and hemp payed with pitch and brimstone. They set fire to the same, and then trundled it blazing round about the bale twelve times. Then came to them twelve damsels clad in such-like guise as the young men: then both bands, the young men and the maidens, drew near to the bale, which was now burning low, and stood about it, and joined hands, and so danced round it a while, and meantime the fiddles played an uncouth tune merrily: then they sundered, and each couple of men and maids leapt backward and forward over the fire; and when they had all leapt, came forward men with buckets of water which they cast over the dancers till it ran down them in streams. Then was all the throng mingled together, and folk trod the embers of the bale under foot, and scattered them hither and thither all over the square.
All this while men were going about with pitchers of wine and ale, and other good drinks; and every man drank freely what he would, and there was the greatest game and joyance.
But now was Ralph exceeding weary, and he said: "Father, mightest thou lead me out of this throng, and show me some lair where I may sleep in peace, I would thank thee blithely."
As he spake there sounded a great horn over the square, and the Abbot rose in his place and blessed all the people once more. Then said the monk:
"Come then, fair field-lord, now shalt thou have thy will of bed." And he laughed therewith, and drew Ralph out of the throng and brought him into the Abbey, and into a fair little chamber, on the wall whereof was pictured St. Christopher, and St. Julian the lord and friend of wayfarers. Then he brought Ralph the wine and spices, and gave him good-night, and went his ways.
As Ralph put the raiment from off him he said to himself a long day forsooth, so long that I should have thought no day could have held all that has befallen me. So many strange things have I seen, that surely my dreams shall be full of them; for even now I seem to see them, though I waken.
So he lay down in his bed and slept, and dreamed that he was fishing with an angle in a deep of Upmeads Water; and he caught many fish; but after a while whatsoever he caught was but of gilded paper stuffed with wool, and at last the water itself was gone, and he was casting his angle on to a dry road. Therewith he awoke and saw that day was dawning, and heard the minster clock strike three, and heard the thrushes singing their first song in the Prior's garden. Then he turned about and slept, and dreamed no more till he woke up in the bright sunny morning.
Ralph Goeth His Ways From the Abbey of St. Mary at Higham
It was the monk who had been his guide the day before who had now waked him, and he stood by the bedside holding a great bowl of milk in his hand, and as Ralph sat up, and rubbed his eyes, with all his youthful sloth upon him, the monk laughed and said:
"That is well, lord, that is well! I love to see a young man so sleepy in the morning; it is a sign of thriving; and I see thou art thriving heartily for the time when thou shalt come back to us to lead my lord's host in battle."
"Where be the bale-fires?" said Ralph, not yet fully awake.
"Where be they!" said the brother, "where be they! They be sunken to cold coals long ago, like many a man's desires and hopes, who hath not yet laid his head on the bosom of the mother, that is Holy Church. Come, my lord, arise, and drink the monk's wine of morning, and then if ye must need ride, ride betimes, and ride hard; for the Wood Perilous beginneth presently as ye wend your ways; and it were well for thee to reach the Burg of the Four Friths ere thou be benighted. For, son, there be untoward things in the wood; and though some of them be of those for whom Christ's Cross was shapen, yet have they forgotten hell, and hope not for heaven, and their by-word is, 'Thou shalt lack ere I lack.' Furthermore there are worse wights in the wood than they be— God save us!—but against them have I a good hauberk, a neck-guard which I will give thee, son, in token that I look to see thee again at the lovely house of Mary our Mother."
Ralph had taken the bowl and was drinking, but he looked over the brim, and saw how the monk drew from his frock a pair of beads, as like to Dame Katherine's gift as one pea to another, save that at the end thereof was a little box shapen crosswise. Ralph emptied the bowl hastily, got out of bed, and sat on the bed naked, save that on his neck was Dame Katherine's gift. He reached out his hand and took the beads from the monk and reddened therewith, as was his wont when he had to begin a contest in words: but he said:
"I thank thee, father; yet God wot if these beads will lie sweetly alongside the collar which I bear on my neck as now, which is the gift of a dear friend."
The monk made up a solemn countenance and said: "Thou sayest sooth, my son; it is most like that my chaplet, which hath been blessed time was by the holy Richard, is no meet fellow for the gift of some light love of thine: or even," quoth he, noting Ralph's flush deepen, and his brow knit, "or even if it were the gift of a well-willer, yet belike it is a worldly gift; therefore, since thy journey is with peril, thou wert best do it off and let me keep it for thee till thou comest again."
Now as he spake he looked anxiously, nay, it may be said greedily, at the young man. But Ralph said nought; for in his heart he was determined not to chaffer away his gossip's gift for any shaveling's token. Yet he knew not how to set his youthful words against the father's wisdom; so he stood up, and got his shirt into his hand, and as he did it over his head he fell to singing to himself a song of eventide of the High House of Upmeads, the words whereof were somewhat like to these:
Art thou man, art thou maid, through the long grass a-going? For short shirt thou bearest, and no beard I see, And the last wind ere moonrise about thee is blowing. Would'st thou meet with thy maiden or look'st thou for me?
Bright shineth the moon now, I see thy gown longer; And down by the hazels Joan meeteth her lad: But hard is thy palm, lass, and scarcely were stronger Wat's grip than thine hand-kiss that maketh me glad.
And now as the candles shine on us and over, Full shapely thy feet are, but brown on the floor, As the bare-footed mowers amidst of the clover When the gowk's note is broken and mid-June is o'er.
O hard are mine hand-palms because on the ridges I carried the reap-hook and smote for thy sake; And in the hot noon-tide I beat off the midges As thou slep'st 'neath the linden o'er-loathe to awake.
And brown are my feet now because the sun burneth High up on the down-side amidst of the sheep, And there in the hollow wherefrom the wind turneth, Thou lay'st in my lap while I sung thee to sleep.
O friend of the earth, O come nigher and nigher, Thou art sweet with the sun's kiss as meads of the May, O'er the rocks of the waste, o'er the water and fire, Will I follow thee, love, till earth waneth away.
The monk hearkened to him with knitted brow, and as one that liketh not the speech of his fellow, though it be not wise to question it: then he went out of the chamber, but left the pair of beads lying in the window. But Ralph clad himself in haste, and when he was fully clad, went up to the window and took the beads in his hand, and looked into them curiously and turned them over, but left them lying there. Then he went forth also, and came into the forecourt of the house, and found there a squire of the men-at-arms with his weapons and horse, who helped him to do on his war-gear.
So then, just as he was setting his foot in the stirrup, came the Brother again, with his face once more grown smiling and happy; and in his left hand he held the chaplet, but did not offer it to Ralph again, but nodded his head to him kindly, and said: "Now, lord, I can see by thy face that thou art set on beholding the fashion of this world, and most like it will give thee the rue."
Then came a word into Ralph's mouth, and he said: "Wilt thou tell me, father, whose work was the world's fashion?"
The monk reddened, but answered nought, and Ralph spake again:
"Forsooth, did the craftsman of it fumble over his work?"
Then the monk scowled, but presently he enforced himself to speak blithely, and said: "Such matters are over high for my speech or thine, lord; but I tell thee, who knoweth, that there are men in this House who have tried the world and found it wanting."
Ralph smiled, and said stammering:
"Father, did the world try them, and find them wanting perchance?"
Then he reddened, and said: "Are ye verily all such as this in this House? Who then is it who hath made so fair a lordship, and so goodly a governance for so many people? Know ye not at all of the world's ways!"
"Fair sir," said the monk sternly, "they that work for us work for the Lord and all his servants."
"Yea," said Ralph, "so it is; and will the Lord be content with the service of him whom the devil hath cast out because he hath found him a dastard?"
The monk frowned, yet smiled somewhat withal, and said: "Sir, thou art young, but thy wits are over old for me; but there are they in this House who may answer thee featly; men who have read the books of the wise men of the heathen, and the doctors of Holy Church, and are even now making books for the scribes to copy." Then his voice softened, and he said: "Dear lord, we should be right fain of thee here, but since thou must needs go, go with my blessing, and double blessing shalt thou have when thou comest back to us." Then Ralph remembered his promise to the shepherds and took a gold crown from his pouch, and said: "Father, I pray thee say a mass for the shepherd downsmen; and this is for the offering."
The monk praised the gift and the bidding, and kissed Ralph, who clomb into his saddle; and the brother hospitalier brought him his wallet with good meat and drink therein for the way. Then Ralph shook his rein, and rode out of the abbey-gate, smiling at the lay-brethren and the men-at-arms who hung about there.
But he sighed for pleasure when he found himself in the street again, and looked on the shops of the chapmen and the booths of the petty craftsmen, as shoe-smiths and glovers, and tinsmiths and coppersmiths, and horners and the like; and the folk that he met as he rode toward the southern gate seemed to him merry and in good case, and goodly to look on. And he thought it pleasant to gaze on the damsels in the street, who were fair and well clad: and there were a many of them about his way now, especially as he drew nigh the gate before the streets branched off: for folk were coming in from the countryside with victual and other wares for the town and the Abbey; and surely as he looked on some of the maidens he deemed that Hall-song of Upmeads a good one.
The Maiden of Bourton Abbas
So went he through the gate, and many, both of men and maids gazed at him, for he was fair to look on, but none meddled with him.
There was a goodly fauburg outside the gate, and therein were fair houses, not a few, with gardens and orchards about them; and when these were past he rode through very excellent meadows lying along the water, which he crossed thrice, once by a goodly stone bridge and twice by fords; for the road was straight, and the river wound about much.
After a little while the road led him off the plain meads into a country of little hills and dales, the hill-sides covered with vineyards and orchards, and the dales plenteous of corn-fields; and now amongst these dales Higham was hidden from him.
Through this tillage and vine-land he rode a good while, and thought he had never seen a goodlier land; and as he went he came on husbandmen and women of the country going about their business: yet were they not too busy to gaze on him, and most greeted him; and with some he gave and took a little speech.
These people also he deemed well before the world, for they were well clad and buxom, and made no great haste as they went, but looked about them as though they deemed the world worth looking at, and as if they had no fear either of a blow or a hard word for loitering.
So he rode till it was noon, and he was amidst a little thorp of grey stone houses, trim enough, in a valley wherein there was more of wild-wood trees and less of fruit-bearers than those behind him. In the thorp was a tavern with the sign of the Nicholas, so Ralph deemed it but right to enter a house which was under the guard of his master and friend; therefore he lighted down and went in. Therein he found a lad of fifteen winters, and a maiden spinning, they two alone, who hailed him and asked his pleasure, and he bade them bring him meat and drink, and look to his horse, for that he had a mind to rest a while. So they brought him bread and flesh, and good wine of the hill-side, in a little hall well arrayed as of its kind; and he sat down and the damsel served him at table, but the lad, who had gone to see to his horse, did not come back.
So when he had eaten and drunk, and the damsel was still there, he looked on her and saw that she was sad and drooping of aspect; and whereas she was a fair maiden, Ralph, now that he was full, fell to pitying her, and asked her what was amiss. "For," said he, "thou art fair and ailest nought; that is clear to see; neither dwellest thou in penury, but by seeming hast enough and to spare. Or art thou a servant in this house, and hath any one misused thee?"
She wept at his words, for indeed he spoke softly to her; then she said: "Young lord, thou art kind, and it is thy kindness that draweth the tears from me; else it were not well to weep before a young man: therefore I pray thee pardon me. As for me, I am no servant, nor has any one misused me: the folk round about are good and neighbourly; and this house and the croft, and a vineyard hard by, all that is mine own and my brother's; that is the lad who hath gone to tend thine horse. Yea, and we live in peace here for the most part; for this thorp, which is called Bourton Abbas, is a land of the Abbey of Higham; though it be the outermost of its lands and the Abbot is a good lord and a defence against tyrants. All is well with me if one thing were not."
"What is thy need then?" said Ralph, "if perchance I might amend it." And as he looked on her he deemed her yet fairer than he had done at first. But she stayed her weeping and sobbing and said: "Sir, I fear me that I have lost a dear friend." "How then," said he, "why fearest thou, and knowest not? doth thy friend lie sick between life and death?" "O Sir," she said, "it is the Wood which is the evil and disease."
"What wood is that?" said he.
She said: "The Wood Perilous, that lieth betwixt us and the Burg of the Four Friths, and all about the Burg. And, Sir, if ye be minded to ride to the Burg to-day, do it not, for through the wood must thou wend thereto; and ye are young and lovely. Therefore take my rede, and abide till the Chapmen wend thither from Higham, who ride many in company. For, look you, fair lord, ye have asked of my grief, and this it is and nought else; that my very earthly love and speech-friend rode five days ago toward the Burg of the Four Friths all alone through the Wood Perilous, and he has not come back, though we looked to see him in three days' wearing: but his horse has come back, and the reins and the saddle all bloody."
And she fell a-weeping with the telling of the tale. But Ralph said (for he knew not what to say): "Keep a good heart, maiden; maybe he is safe and sound; oft are young men fond to wander wide, even as I myself."
She looked at him hard and said: "If thou hast stolen thyself away from them that love thee, thou hast done amiss. Though thou art a lord, and so fair as I see thee, yet will I tell thee so much."
Ralph reddened and answered nought; but deemed the maiden both fair and sweet. But she said: "Whether thou hast done well or ill, do no worse; but abide till the Chapmen come from Higham, on their way to the Burg of the Four Friths. Here mayst thou lodge well and safely if thou wilt. Or if our hall be not dainty enough for thee, then go back to Higham: I warrant me the monks will give thee good guesting as long as thou wilt."
"Thou art kind, maiden," said Ralph, "but why should I tarry for an host? and what should I fear in the Wood, as evil as it may be? One man journeying with little wealth, and unknown, and he no weakling, but bearing good weapons, hath nought to dread of strong-thieves, who ever rob where it is easiest and gainfullest. And what worse may I meet than strong-thieves?"
"But thou mayest meet worse," she said; and therewith fell a-weeping again, and said amidst her tears: "O weary on my life! And why should I heed thee when nought heedeth me, neither the Saints of God's House, nor the Master of it; nor the father and the mother that were once so piteous kind to me? O if I might but drink a draught from the WELL AT THE WORLD'S END!"
He turned about on her hastily at that word; for he had risen to depart; being grieved at her grief and wishful to be away from it, since he might not amend it. But now he said eagerly:
"Where then is that Well? Know ye of it in this land?"
"At least I know the hearsay thereof," she said; "but as now thou shalt know no more from me thereof; lest thou wander the wider in seeking it. I would not have thy life spilt."
Ever as he looked on her he thought her still fairer; and now he looked long on her, saying nought, and she on him in likewise, and the blood rose to her cheeks and her brow, but she would not turn her from his gaze. At last he said: "Well then, I must depart, no more learned than I came: but yet am I less hungry and thirsty than I came; and have thou thanks therefor."
Therewith he took from his pouch a gold piece of Upmeads, which was good, and of the touch of the Easterlings, and held it out to her. And she put out her open hand and he put the money in it; but thought it good to hold her hand a while, and she gainsayed him not.
Then he said: "Well then, I must needs depart with things left as they are: wilt thou bid thy brother bring hither my horse, for time presses."
"Yea," she said (and her hand was still in his), "Yet do thine utmost, yet shalt thou not get to the Burg before nightfall. O wilt thou not tarry?"
"Nay," he said, "my heart will not suffer it; lest I deem myself a dastard."
Then she reddened again, but as if she were wroth; and she drew her hand away from his and smote her palms together thrice and cried out: "Ho Hugh! bring hither the Knight's horse and be speedy!"
And she went hither and thither about the hall and into the buttery and back, putting away the victual and vessels from the board and making as if she heeded him not: and Ralph looked on her, and deemed that each way she moved was better than the last, so shapely of fashion she was; and again he bethought him of the Even-song of the High House at Upmeads, and how it befitted her; for she went barefoot after the manner of maidens who work afield, and her feet were tanned with the sun of hay harvest, but as shapely as might be; but she was clad goodly withal, in a green gown wrought with flowers.
So he watched her going to and fro; and at last he said: "Maiden, wilt thou come hither a little, before I depart?"
"Yea," she said; and came and stood before him: and he deemed that she was scarce so sad as she had been; and she stood with her hands joined and her eyes downcast. Then he said:
"Now I depart. Yet I would say this, that I am sorry of thy sorrow: and now since I shall never see thee more, small would be the harm if I were to kiss thy lips and thy face."
And therewith he took her hands in his and drew her to him, and put his arms about her and kissed her many times, and she nothing lothe by seeming; and he found her as sweet as May blossom.
Thereafter she smiled on him, yet scarce for gladness, and said: "It is not all so sure that I shall not see thee again; yet shall I do to thee as thou hast done to me."
Therewith she took his face between her hands, and kissed him well-favouredly; so that the hour seemed good to him.
Then she took him by the hand and led him out-a-doors to his horse, whereby the lad had been standing a good while; and he when he saw his sister come out with the fair knight he scowled on them, and handled a knife which hung at his girdle; but Ralph heeded him nought. As for the damsel, she put her brother aside, and held the stirrup for Ralph; and when he was in the saddle she said to him:
"All luck go with thee! Forsooth I deem thee safer in the Wood than my words said. Verily I deem that if thou wert to meet a company of foemen, thou wouldest compel them to do thy bidding."
"Farewell to thee maiden," said Ralph, "and mayst thou find thy beloved whole and well, and that speedily. Fare-well!"
She said no more; so he shook his rein and rode his ways; but looked over his shoulder presently and saw her standing yet barefoot on the dusty highway shading her eyes from the afternoon sun and looking after him, and he waved his hand to her and so went his ways between the houses of the Thorp.
Ralph Cometh to the Wood Perilous. An Adventure Therein
Now when he was clear of the Thorp the road took him out of the dale; and when he was on the hill's brow he saw that the land was of other fashion from that which lay behind him. For the road went straight through a rough waste, no pasture, save for mountain sheep or goats, with a few bushes scattered about it; and beyond this the land rose into a long ridge; and on the ridge was a wood thick with trees, and no break in them. So on he rode, and soon passed that waste, which was dry and parched, and the afternoon sun was hot on it; so he deemed it good to come under the shadow of the thick trees (which at the first were wholly beech trees), for it was now the hottest of the day. There was still a beaten way between the tree-boles, though not overwide, albeit, a highway, since it pierced the wood. So thereby he went at a soft pace for the saving of his horse, and thought but little of all he had been told of the perils of the way, and not a little of the fair maid whom he had left behind at the Thorp.
After a while the thick beech-wood gave out, and he came into a place where great oaks grew, fair and stately, as though some lord's wood-reeve had taken care that they should not grow over close together, and betwixt them the greensward was fine, unbroken, and flowery. Thereby as he rode he beheld deer, both buck and hart and roe, and other wild things, but for a long while no man.
The afternoon wore and still he rode the oak wood, and deemed it a goodly forest for the greatest king on earth. At last he came to where another road crossed the way he followed, and about the crossway was the ground clearer of trees, while beyond it the trees grew thicker, and there was some underwood of holly and thorn as the ground fell off as towards a little dale.
There Ralph drew rein, because he doubted in his mind which was his right road toward the Burg of the Four Friths; so he got off his horse and abode a little, if perchance any might come by; he looked about him, and noted on the road that crossed his, and the sward about it, the sign of many horses having gone by, and deemed that they had passed but a little while. So he lay on the ground to rest him and let his horse stray about and bite the grass; for the beast loved him and would come at his call or his whistle.
Ralph was drowsy when he lay down, and though he said to himself that he would nowise go to sleep, yet as oft happens, he had no defence to make against sleepiness, and presently his hands relaxed, his head fell aside, and he slept quietly. When he woke up in a little space of time, he knew at once that something had awaked him and that he had not had his sleep out; for in his ears was the trampling of horse-hoofs and the clashing of weapons and loud speech of men. So he leapt up hastily, and while he was yet scarce awake, took to whistling on his horse; but even therewith those men were upon him, and two came up to him and laid hold of him; and when he asked them what they would, they bade him hold his peace.
Now his eyes cleared, and he saw that those men were in goodly war-gear, and bore coats of plate, and cuir-bouilly, or of bright steel; they held long spears and were girt with good swords; there was a pennon with them, green, whereon was done a golden tower, embattled, amidst of four white ways; and the same token bore many of the men on their coats and sleeves. Unto this same pennon he was brought by the two men who had taken him, and under it, on a white horse, sat a Knight bravely armed at all points with the Tower and Four Ways on his green surcoat; and beside him was an ancient man-at-arms, with nought but an oak wreath on his bare head, and his white beard falling low over his coat: but behind these twain a tall young man, also on a white horse and very gaily clad, upheld the pennon. On one side of these three were five men, unarmed, clad in green coats, with a leafless tree done on them in gold: they were stout carles, bearded and fierce-faced: their hands were bound behind their backs and their feet tied together under their horses' bellies. The company of those about the Knight, Ralph deemed, would number ten score men.
So when those twain stayed Ralph before the Knight, he turned to the old man and said:
"It is of no avail asking this lither lad if he be of them or no: for no will be his answer. But what sayest thou, Oliver?"
The ancient man drew closer to Ralph and looked at him up and down and all about; for those two turned him about as if he had been a joint of flesh on the roasting-jack; and at last he said:
"His beard is sprouting, else might ye have taken him for a maid of theirs, one of those of whom we wot. But to say sooth I seem to know the fashion of his gear, even as Duke Jacob knew Joseph's tabard. So ask him whence he is, lord, and if he lie, then I bid bind him and lead him away, that we may have a true tale out of him; otherwise let him go and take his chance; for we will not waste the bread of the Good Town on him."
The Knight looked hard on Ralph, and spake to him somewhat courteously:
"Whence art thou, fair Sir, and what is thy name? for we have many foes in the wildwood."
Ralph reddened as he answered: "I am of Upmeads beyond the down country; and I pray thee let me be gone on mine errands. It is meet that thou deal with thine own robbers and reivers, but not with me."
Then cried out one of the bounden men: "Thou liest, lad, we be no robbers." But he of the Knight's company who stood by him smote the man on the mouth and said: "Hold thy peace, runagate! Thou shalt give tongue to-morrow when the hangman hath thee under his hands."
The Knight took no heed of this; but turned to the ancient warrior and said: "Hath he spoken truth so far?"
"Yea, Sir Aymer," quoth Oliver; "And now meseems I know him better than he knoweth me."
Therewith he turned to Ralph and said: "How fareth Long Nicholas, my lord?"
Ralph reddened again: "He is well," said he.
Then said the Knight: "Is the young man of a worthy house, Oliver?"
But ere the elder could speak, Ralph brake in and said: "Old warrior, I bid thee not to tell out my name, as thou lovest Nicholas."
Old Oliver laughed and said: "Well, Nicholas and I have been friends in a way, as well as foes; and for the sake of the old days his name shall help thee, young lord." Then he said to his Knight: "Yea, Sir Aymer, he is of a goodly house and an ancient; but thou hearest how he adjureth me. Ye shall let his name alone."
The Knight looked silently on Ralph for a while; then he said: "Wilt thou wend with us to the Burg of the Four Friths, fair Sir? Wert thou not faring thither? Or what else dost thou in the Wood Perilous?"
Ralph turned it over in his mind; and though he saw no cause why he should not join himself to their company, yet something in his heart forbade him to rise to the fly too eagerly; so he did but say: "I am seeking adventures, fair lord."
The Knight smiled: "Then mayst thou fill thy budget with them if thou goest with us," quoth he. Now Ralph did not know how he might gainsay so many men at arms in the long run, though he were scarce willing to go; so he made no haste to answer; and even therewith came a man running, through the wood up from the dale; a long, lean carle, meet for running, with brogues on his feet, and nought else but a shirt; the company parted before him to right and left to let him come to the Knight, as though he had been looked for; and when he was beside him, the Knight leaned down while the carle spake softly to him and all men drew out of ear-shot. And when the carle had given his message the Knight drew himself straight up in his saddle again and lifted up his hand and cried out:
"Oliver! Oliver! lead on the way thou wottest! Spur! spur, all men!"
Therewith he blew one blast from a horn which hung at his saddle-bow; the runner leapt up behind old Oliver, and the whole company went off at a smart trot somewhat south-east, slantwise of the cross-roads, where the wood was nought cumbered with undergrowth; and presently they were all gone to the last horse-tail, and no man took any more note of Ralph.
Another Adventure in the Wood Perilous
Ralph left alone pondered a little; and thought that he would by no means go hastily to the Burg of the Four Friths. Said he to himself; This want-way is all unlike to the one near our house at home: for belike adventures shall befall here: I will even abide here for an hour or two; but will have my horse by me and keep awake, lest something hap to me unawares.
Therewith he whistled for Falcon his horse, and the beast came to him, and whinnied for love of him, and Ralph smiled and tied him to a sapling anigh, and himself sat down on the grass, and pondered many things; as to what folk were about at Upmeads, and how his brethren were faring; and it was now about five hours after noon, and the sun's rays fell aslant through the boughs of the noble oaks, and the scent of the grass and bracken trodden by the horse-hoofs of that company went up into the warm summer air. A while he sat musing but awake, though the faint sound of a little stream in the dale below mingled with all the lesser noises of the forest did its best to soothe him to sleep again: and presently had its way with him; for he leaned his head back on the bracken, and in a minute or two was sleeping once more and dreaming some dream made up of masterless memories of past days.
When he awoke again he lay still a little while, wondering where in the world he was, but as the drowsiness left him, he arose and looked about, and saw that the sun was sinking low and gilding the oakboles red. He stood awhile and watched the gambols of three hares, who had drawn nigh him while he slept, and now noted him not; and a little way he saw through the trees a hart and two hinds going slowly from grass to grass, feeding in the cool eventide; but presently he saw them raise their heads and amble off down the slope of the little dale, and therewith he himself turned his face sharply toward the north-west, for he was fine-eared as well as sharp-eyed, and on a little wind which had just arisen came down to him the sound of horse-hoofs once more.