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 to the Country
of the King's Son
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. Concerning Swevenham
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 Riding
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.
"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 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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
"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'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."
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."
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.
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
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,
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.
"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."
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?"
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!"
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!"
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.
"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,
Ralph Cometh to the Wood Perilous. An Adventure Therein
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.
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
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.
So he went up to Falcon and loosed him, and stood by him bridle in hand, and looked to it that his sword was handy to him: and he hearkened, and the sound drew nigher and nigher to him. Then lightly he got into the saddle and gathered the reins into his left hand, and sat peering up the trodden wood-glades, lest he should have to ride for his life suddenly. Therewith he heard voices talking roughly and a man whistling, and athwart the glade of the wood from the northwest, or thereabout, came new folk; and he saw at once that there went two men a-horseback and armed; so he drew his sword and abode them close to the want-ways. Presently they saw the shine of his war-gear, and then they came but a little nigher ere they drew rein, and sat on their horses looking toward him. Then Ralph saw that they were armed and clad as those of the company which had gone before. One of the armed men rode a horse-length after his fellow, and bore a long spear over his shoulder. But the other who rode first was girt with a sword, and had a little axe hanging about his neck, and with his right hand he seemed to be leading something, Ralph could not see what at first, as his left side was turned toward Ralph and the want-way.
Now, as Ralph looked, he saw that at the spearman's saddle-bow was hung a man's head, red-haired and red-bearded; for this man now drew a little nigher, and cried out to Ralph in a loud and merry voice: "Hail, knight! whither away now, that thou ridest the green-wood sword in hand?"
Ralph was just about to answer somewhat, when the first man moved a little nigher, and as he did so he turned so that Ralph could see what betid on his right hand; and lo! he was leading a woman by a rope tied about her neck (though her hands were loose), as though he were bringing a cow to market. When the man stayed his horse she came forward and stood within the slack of the rope by the horse's head, and Ralph could see her well, that though she was not to say naked, her raiment was but scanty, for she had nought to cover her save one short and strait little coat of linen, and shoes on her feet. (Yet Ralph deemed her to be of some degree, whereas he caught the gleam of gold and gems on her hands, and there was a golden chaplet on her head. She stood now by the horse's head with her hands folded, looking on, as if what was tiding and to betide, were but a play done for her pleasure.)
"I ride to seek adventures; and here meseemeth is one come to hand. Or what will ye with the woman?"
Said the man who had the woman in tow: "Trouble not thine head therewith; we lead her to her due doom. As for thee, be glad that thou art not her fellow; since forsooth thou seemest not to be one of them; so go thy ways in peace."
"(No foot further will I go," said Ralph, "till ye loose the woman and let her go; or else tell me what her worst deed is."
The man laughed, and said: "That were a long tale to tell; and it is little like that thou shalt live to hear the ending thereof.")
Therewith he wagged his head at the spearman, who suddenly let his spear fall into the rest, and spurred, and drave on at Ralph all he might. There and then had the tale ended, but Ralph, who was wary, though he were young, and had Falcon well in hand, turned his wrist and made the horse swerve, so that the man-at-arms missed his attaint, but could not draw rein speedily enough to stay his horse; and as he passed by all bowed over his horse's neck, Ralph gat his sword two-handed and rose in his stirrups and smote his mightiest; and the sword caught the foeman on the neck betwixt sallet and jack, and nought held before it, neither leather nor ring-mail, so that the man's head was nigh smitten off, and he fell clattering from his saddle: yet his stirrups held him, so that his horse went dragging him on earth as he gallopped over rough and smooth betwixt the trees of the forest. Then Ralph turned about to deal with his fellow, and even through the wrath and fury of the slaying saw him clear and bright against the trees as he sat handling his axe doubtfully, but the woman was fallen back again somewhat.
But even as Ralph raised his sword and pricked forward, (the woman sprang as light as a leopard on to the saddle behind the foeman, and wound her arms about him and dragged him back just as he was raising his axe to smite her, and as Ralph rode forward she cried out to him, "Smite him, smite! O lovely creature of God!")
Therewith was Ralph beside them, and though he were loth to slay a man held in the arms of a woman, yet he feared lest the man should slay her with some knife-stroke unless he made haste; so he thrust his sword through him, and the man died at once, and fell headlong off his horse, dragging down the woman with him.
Then Ralph lighted down from his horse, and the woman rose up to him, her white smock all bloody with the slain man. Nevertheless was she as calm and stately before him, as if she were sitting on the dais of a fair hall; so she said to him:
"Young warrior, thou hast done well and knightly, and I shall look to it that thou have thy reward. And now I rede thee go not to the Burg of the Four Friths; for this tale of thee shall get about and they shall take thee, if it were out of the very Frith-stool, and there for thee should be the scourge and the gibbet; for they of that Burg be robbers and murderers merciless.
He looked at her hard as she spake, and noted that she spake but slowly, and turned red and white and red again as she looked at him. But whatever she did, and in spite of her poor attire, he deemed he had never seen woman so fair. (Her hair was dark red, but her eyes grey, and light at whiles and yet at whiles deep; her lips betwixt thin and full, but yet when she spoke or smiled clad with all enticements; her chin round and so wrought as none was ever better wrought; her body strong and well-knit; tall she was, with fair and large arms, and limbs most goodly of fashion, )of which but little was hidden, since her coat was but thin and scanty. But whatever may be said of her, no man would have deemed her aught save most lovely. Now her face grew calm and stately again as it was at the first, and she laid a hand on Ralph's shoulder, and smiled in his face and said:
"Surely thou art fair, though thy strokes be not light." Then she took his hand and caressed it, and said again: "Dost thou deem that thou hast done great things, fair child? Maybe. Yet some will say that thou hast but slain two butchers: and if thou wilt say that thou hast delivered me; yet it may be that I should have delivered myself ere long. Nevertheless hold up thine heart, for I think that greater things await thee."
Then she turned about, and saw the dead man, how his feet yet hung in the stirrups as his fellow's had done, save that the horse of this one stood nigh still, only reaching his head down to crop a mouthful of grass; so she said: "Take him away, that I may mount on his horse."
So he drew the dead man's feet out of the stirrups, and dragged him away to where the bracken grew deep, and laid him down there, so to say hidden. Then he turned back to the lady, who was pacing up and down near the horse as the beast fed quietly on the cool grass. When Ralph came back she took the reins in her hand and put one foot in the stirrup as if she would mount at once; (but suddenly lighted down again, and turning to Ralph, cast her arms about him, and kissed his face many times, blushing red as a rose meantime. )Then lightly she gat her up into the saddle, and bestrode the beast, and smote his flanks with her heels, and went her ways riding speedily toward the south-east, so that she was soon out of sight.
Therewith he went and drew the body of the slain man down into a little hollow where the bracken was high and the brambles grew strong, so that it might not be lightly seen. Then he called to him Falcon, his horse, and looked about for cover anigh the want-way, and (found a little thin coppice of hazel and sweet chestnut, } just where two great oaks had been felled a half score years ago; and looking through the leaves thence, he could see the four ways clearly enough, though it would not be easy for anyone to see him thence.
Thither he betook him, and he did the rein off Falcon, but tethered him by a halter in the thickest of the copse, and sat down himself nigher to the outside thereof; (he did off his helm and drew what meat he had from out his wallet and ate and drank in the beginning of the summer night; and then sat pondering awhile on what had befallen on this second day of his wandering. The moon shone out presently, little clouded, but he saw her not, for though he strove to wake awhile, slumber soon overcame him, )and nothing waked him till the night was passing, nor did he see aught of that company of which the lady had spoken, and which in sooth came not.
A Meeting and a Parting in the Wood Perilous
Then Ralph saw that it was none other than the damsel of the hostelry of Bourton Abbas, and he came up to her and reached out his hand to her, and she took it in both hers and held it and said, smiling: ("It is nought save mountains that shall never meet. )Here have I followed on thy footsteps; yet knew I not where thou wouldst be in the forest. And now I am glad to have fallen in with thee; for I am going a long way."
Ralph looked on her and himseemed some pain or shame touched his heart, and he said: "I am a knight adventurous; I have nought to do save to seek adventures. Why should I not go with thee?"
She looked at him earnestly awhile and said: "Nay, it may not be; thou art a lord's son, and I a yeoman's daughter." She stopped, and he said nothing in answer.
"Furthermore," said she, "it is a long way, and I know not how long." Again he made no answer, and she said: ("I am going to seek the WELL AT THE WORLD'S END, and to find it and live, or to find it not, and die.")
He spake after a while: "Why should I not come with thee?"
It was growing light now, and (he could see that she reddened and then turned pale and set her lips close.)
Then she said: "Because thou willest it not: because thou hadst liefer make that journey with some one else."
He reddened in his turn, and said: "I know of no one else who shall go with me."
"Who told thee this tale?" said she. Ralph answered, reddening again, "I was told by one who seemed to know both of that folk, and of the Burg of the Four Friths, and she said that the folk of Hampton were a good folk, and that they of the Burg were evil."
The damsel smiled sadly when she heard him say 'She,' and when he had done she said: "And I have heard, and not from yesterday, that at Hampton dwelleth the Fellowship of the Dry Tree, and that those of the fellowship are robbers and reivers. Nevertheless they will perchance be little worse than the others; and the tale tells that the way to the Well at the World's End is by the Dry Tree; so thither will I at all adventure. And now will I say farewell to thee, for it is most like that I shall not see thee again."
"O, maiden!" said Ralph, "why wilt thou not go back to Bourton Abbas? There I might soon meet thee again, and yet, indeed, I also am like to go to Hampton. Shall I not see thee there?"
She shook her head and said: "Nay, since I must go so far, I shall not tarry; (and, sooth to say, if I saw thee coming in at one gate I should go out by the other, for why should I dally with a grief that may not be amended. For indeed I wot that thou shalt soon forget to wish to see me, )either at Bourton Abbas or elsewhere; so I will say no more than once again farewell."
Then she came close to him and put her hands on his shoulders and kissed his mouth; and then she turned away swiftly, caught up her cloak, and gat lightly into the saddle, and so shook her reins and rode away east toward Hampton, and left Ralph standing there downcast and pondering many things. It was still so early in the summer morning, and he knew so little what to do, that presently he turned and walked back to his lair amongst the hazels, and there he lay down, and his thoughts by then were all gone back again to the lovely lady whom he had delivered, and he wondered if he should ever see her again, (and, sooth to say, he sorely desired to see her. )Amidst such thoughts he fell asleep again, (for the night yet owed him something of rest, so young as he was and so hard as he had toiled, both body and mind, during the past day.)
Now Must Ralph Ride For It
Now Must Ralph Ride For It
When he awoke again the sun was shining through the hazel leaves, though it was yet early; he arose and looked to his horse, and led him out of the hazel copse and stood and looked about him; and lo! a man coming slowly through the wood on Ralph's right hand, and making as it seemed for the want-way; he saw Ralph presently, and stopped, and bent a bow which he held in his hand, and then came towards him warily, with the arrow nocked. But Ralph went to meet him with his sword in his sheath, and leading Falcon by the rein, and the man stopped and took the shaft from the string: he had no armour, but there was a little axe and a wood-knife in his girdle; he was clad in homespun, and looked like a carle of the country-side. Now he greeted Ralph, and Ralph gave him the sele of the day, and saw that the new-comer was both tall and strong, dark of skin and black-haired, but of a cheerful countenance. He spake frank and free to Ralph, and said: "Whither away, lord, out of the woodland hall, and the dwelling of deer and strong-thieves? (I would that the deer would choose them a captain, and gather head and destroy the thieves?and some few others with them.")
Said Ralph: "I may scarce tell thee till I know myself. Awhile ago I was minded for the Burg of the Four Friths; but now I am for Hampton under Scaur."
("Yea?" said the carle, "when the Devil drives, to hell must we.")
"What meanest thou, good fellow?" said Ralph, "Is Hampton then so evil an abode?" And indeed it was in his mind that the adventure of the lady led captive bore some evil with it.
Said the carle: "If thou wert not a stranger in these parts I need not to answer thy question; but I will answer it presently, yet not till we have eaten, for (I hunger, and have in this wallet both bread and cheese, and thou art welcome to a share thereof, if thou hungerest also, as is most like, whereas thou art young and fresh coloured."
"So it is," said Ralph, laughing, "and I also may help to spread this table in the wilderness, since there are yet some crumbs in my wallet. )Let us sit down and fall to at once."
"By your leave, Sir Gentleman," said the carle, "we will go a few yards further on, where there is a woodland brook, whereof we may drink when my bottle faileth."
"Nay, I may better that," said Ralph, "for I have wherewithal." "Nevertheless," said the carle, "we will go thither, for here is it too open for so small a company as ours, since this want-way hath an ill name, and I shall lead thee whereas we shall be somewhat out of the way of murder-carles. So come on, if thou trusteth in me."
Ralph yeasaid him, and they went together a furlong from the want-way into a little hollow place wherethrough ran a clear stream betwixt thick-leaved alders. The carle led Ralph to the very lip of the water so that the bushes covered them; there they sat down and drew what they had from their wallets, and so fell to meat; and amidst of the meat the carle said:
"Fair Knight, as I suppose thou art one, I will ask thee if any need draweth thee to Hampton?"
Said Ralph: "The need of giving the go-by to the Burg of the Four Friths, since I hear tell that the folk thereof be robbers and murderers."
"Thou shalt find that out better, lord, by going thither; but I shall tell thee, that though men may slay and steal there time and time about, yet in regard to Hampton under Scaur, it is Heaven, wherein men sin not. And I am one who should know, for I have been long dwelling in Hell, that is Hampton; and now am I escaped thence, and am minded for the Burg, if perchance I may be deemed there a man good enough to ride in their host, whereby I might avenge me somewhat on them that have undone me: some of whom meseemeth must have put in thy mouth that word against the Burg. Is it not so?"
"Maybe," said Ralph, "for thou seemest to be a true man." No more he spake though he had half a mind to tell the carle all the tale of that adventure; but something held him back when he thought of that lady and her fairness. Yet again his heart misgave him of what might betide that other maiden at Hampton, and he was unquiet, deeming that he must needs follow her thither. The carle looked on him curiously and somewhat anxiously, but Ralph's eyes were set on something that was not there; or else maybe had he looked closely on the carle he might have deemed that longing to avenge him whereof he spoke did not change his face much; for in truth there was little wrath in it.
Now the carle said: "Thou hast a tale which thou deemest unmeet for my ears, as it well may be. Well, thou must speak, or refrain from speaking, what thou wilt; but thou art so fair a young knight, and so blithe with a poor man, and withal I deem that thou mayest help me to some gain and good, that I will tell thee a true tale: and first that the Burg is a good town under a good lord, who is no tyrant nor oppressor of peaceful men; and that thou mayest dwell there in peace as to the folk thereof, who be good folk, albeit they be no dastards to let themselves be cowed by murder-carles. And next I will tell thee that the folk of the town of Hampton be verily as harmless and innocent as sheep; but that they be under evil lords who are not their true lords, who lay heavy burdens on them and torment them even to the destroying of their lives: and lastly I will tell thee that I was one of those poor people, though not so much a sheep as the more part of them, therefore have these tyrants robbed me of my croft, and set another man in my house; and me they would have slain had I not fled to the wood that it might cover me. And happy it was for me that I had neither wife, nor chick, nor child, else had they done as they did with my brother, whose wife was too fair for him, since he dwelt at Hampton; so that they took her away from him to make sport for them of the Dry Tree, who dwell in the Castle of the Scaur, who shall be thy masters if thou goest thither.
Now so it was that Ralph was wary; and this time he looked closely at the carle, and found that he spake coldly for a man with so much wrath in his heart; therefore he was in doubt about the thing; moreover he called to mind the words of the lady whom he had delivered, and her loveliness, and the kisses she had given him, and he was loth to find her a liar; and he was loth also to think that the maiden of Bourton had betaken her to so evil a dwelling. So he said:
"Friend, I know not that I must needs be a partaker in the strife betwixt Hampton and the Burg, or go either to one or the other of these strongholds. Is there no other way out of this wood save by Hampton or the Burg? or no other place anigh, where I may rest in peace awhile, and then go on mine own errands?"
Said the Carle: "There is a thorp that lieth somewhat west of the Burg, which is called Apthorp; but it is an open place, not fenced, and is debateable ground, whiles held by them of the Burg, whiles by the Dry Tree; and if thou tarry there, and they of the Dry Tree take thee, soon is thine errand sped; and if they of the Burg take thee, then shalt thou be led into the Burg in worse case than thou wouldest be if thou go thereto uncompelled. What sayest thou, therefore? Who shall hurt thee in the Burg, a town which is under good and strong law, if thou be a true man, as thou seemest to be? And if thou art seeking adventures, as may well be, thou shalt soon find them there ready to hand. I rede thee come with me to the Burg; for, to say sooth, I shall find it somewhat easier to enter therein if I be in the company of thee, a knight and a lord."
So betwixt one thing and the other, speech hung on his lips awhile, when suddenly the carle said: "Hist! thou hast left thy horse without the bushes, and he is whinnying" (which indeed he was), "there is now no time to lose. To horse straightway, for certainly there are folk at hand, and they may be foemen, and are most like to be."
Therewith they both arose and hastened to where Falcon stood just outside the alder bushes, and Ralph leapt a-horseback without more ado, and the carle waited no bidding to leap up behind him, and pointing to a glade of the wood which led toward the highway, cried out, "Spur that way, thither! they of the Dry Tree are abroad this morning. Spur! 'tis for life or death!"
Ralph shook the rein and Falcon leapt away without waiting for the spur, while the carle looked over his shoulder and said, "Yonder they come! they are three; and ever they ride well horsed. Nay, nay! They are four," quoth he, as a shout sounded behind them. "Spur, young lord! spur! And thine horse is a mettlesome beast. Yea, it will do, it will do."
Therewith came to Ralph's ears the sound of their horse-hoofs beating the turf, and he spurred indeed, and Falcon flew forth.
"Ah," cried the carle! "but take heed, for they see that thy horse is good, and one of them, the last, hath a bent Turk bow in his hand, and is laying an arrow on it; as ever their wont is to shoot a-horseback: a turn of thy rein, as if thine horse were shying at a weasel on the road!"
Ralph stooped his head and made Falcon swerve, and heard therewith the twang of the bowstring and straightway the shaft flew past his ears. Falcon galloped on, and the carle cried out: "There is the highway toward the Burg! Do thy best, do thy best! Lo you again!"
For the second shaft flew from the Turkish bow, and the noise of the chase was loud behind them. Once again twanged the bow-string, but this time the arrow fell short, and the woodland man, turning himself about as well as he might, shook his clenched fist at the chase, crying out in a voice broken by the gallop: "Ha, thieves! I am Roger of the Rope-walk, I go to twist a rope for the necks of you!"
Then he spake to Ralph: "They are turning back: they are beaten, and withal they love not the open road: yet slacken not yet, young knight, unless thou lovest thine horse more than thy life; for they will follow on through the thicket on the way-side to see whether thou wert born a fool and hast learned nothing later."
"Yea, or even slower," said Ralph, drawing rein somewhat, "for now I deem the chase done: and after all is said, I have no will to slay Falcon, who is one of my friends, as thou perchance mayest come to be another."
Thereafter he went a hand-gallop till the wood began to thin, and there were fields of tillage about the highway; and presently Roger said: "Thou mayst breathe thy nag now, and ride single, for we are amidst friends; not even a score of the Dry Tree dare ride so nigh the Burg save by night and cloud."
So Ralph stayed his horse, and he and Roger lighted down, and Ralph looked about him and saw a stone tower builded on a little knoll amidst a wheatfield, and below it some simple houses thatched with straw; there were folk moreover working, or coming and going about the fields, who took little heed of the two when they saw them standing quiet by the horse's head; but each and all of these folk, so far as could be seen, had some weapon.
Then said Ralph: "Good fellow, is this the Burg of the Four Friths?" The carle laughed, and said: "Simple is the question, Sir Knight: yonder is a watch-tower of the Burg, whereunder husbandmen can live, because there be men-at-arms therein. And all round the outskirts of the Frank of the Burg are there such-like towers to the number of twenty-seven. For that, say folk, was the tale of the winters of the Fair Lady who erewhile began the building of the Burg, when she was first wedded to the Forest Lord, who before that building had dwelt, he and his fathers, in thatched halls of timber here and there about the clearings of the wild-wood. But now, knight, if thou wilt, thou mayest go on softly toward the Gate of the Burg, and if thou wilt I will walk beside thy rein, which fellowship, as aforesaid, shall be a gain to me."
Said Ralph: "I pray thee come with me, good fellow, and show me how easiest to enter this stronghold." So, when Falcon was well breathed, they went on, passing through goodly acres and wide meadows, with here and there a homestead on them, and here and there a carle's cot. Then came they to a thorp of the smallest on a rising ground, from the further end of which they could see the walls and towers of the Burg. Thereafter right up to the walls were no more houses or cornfields, nought but reaches of green meadows plenteously stored with sheep and kine, and with a little stream winding about them.
Ralph Entereth Into the Burg of the Four Friths
When they came up to the wall they saw that it was well builded of good ashlar, and so high that they might not see the roofs of the town because of it; but there were tall towers on it, a many of them, strong and white. The road led up straight to the master-gate of the Burg, and there was a bailey before it strongly walled, and manned with weaponed men, and a captain going about amongst them. But they entered it along with men bringing wares into the town, and none heeded them much, till they came to the very gate, on the further side of a moat that was both deep and clean; but as now the bridge was down and the portcullis up, so that the market-people might pass in easily, for it was yet early in the day. But before the door on either side stood men-at-arms well weaponed, and on the right side was their captain, a tall man with bare grizzled head, but otherwise all-armed, who stopped every one whom he knew not, and asked their business.
As Ralph came riding up with Roger beside him, one of the guard laid his spear across and bade them stand, and the captain spake in a dry cold voice: "Whence comest thou, man-at-arms?" "From the Abbey of St. Mary at Higham," said Ralph. "Yea," said the captain, smiling grimly, "even so I might have deemed: thou wilt be one of the Lord Abbot's lily lads." "No I am not," quoth Ralph angrily. "Well, well," said the captain, "what is thy name?"
"Ralph Motherson," quoth Ralph, knitting his brow. Said the captain "And whither wilt thou?" Said Ralph, "On mine own errands." ("Thou answerest not over freely," quoth the captain. Said Ralph, "Then is it even; for thou askest freely enough." "Well, well," said the captain, grinning in no unfriendly wise, "thou seemest a stout lad enough; )and as to my asking, it is my craft as captain of the North Gate: but now tell me friendly, goest thou to any kinsman or friend in the Burg?"
Then Ralph's brow cleared and he said, "Nay, fair sir." "Well then," said the captain, "art thou but riding straight through to another gate, and so away again?" "Nay," said Ralph, "if I may, I would abide here the night over, or may-happen longer." "Therein thou shalt do well, young man," said the captain; "then I suppose thou wilt to some hostelry? tell me which one."
Said Ralph, "Nay, I wot not to which one, knowing not the town." But Roger close by him spake and said: "My lord shall go to the Flower de Luce, which is in the big square."
"Truly," said the captain, "he goes to a good harbour; and moreover, fair sir, to-morrow thou shalt see a goodly sight from thine inn; thou mayst do no better, lord. But thou, carle, who art thou, who knowest the inside of our Burg so well, though I know thee not, for as well as I know our craftsmen and vavassors?"
(Then Roger's words hung on his lips awhile, and the knight bent his brow on him, till at last he said, "Sir Captain, I was minded to lie, and say that I am this young knight's serving-man." The captain broke in on him grimly, "Thou wert best not lie."
"Yea, sir," quoth Roger, "I deemed, as it was on my tongue's end, that thou wouldst find me out, so I have nought to do but tell thee the very sooth: this it is: I am a man made masterless by the thieves of the Dry Tree. From my land at Hampton under Scaur have I been driven, my chattels have been lifted, and my friends slain; and therefore by your leave would I ride in the host of the Burg, that I may pay back the harm which I had, according to the saw, 'better bale by breeding bale.' So, lord, I ask thee wilt thou lend me the sword and give me the loaf, that I may help both thee, and the Burg, and me?")
The captain looked at him closely and sharply, while the carle faced him with open simple eyes, and at last he said: "Well, carle, thou wert about to name thyself this young knight's serving-man; be thou even so whiles he abideth in the Burg; and when he leaveth the Burg then come back to me here any day before noon, and may be I shall then put a sword in thy fist and horse between thy thighs. But," (and he wagged his head threateningly at Roger) "see that thou art at the Flower de Luce when thou art called for."
Presently Ralph turned to Roger and spake to him somewhat sourly, and said: "Thou hadst one lie in thy mouth and didst swallow it; but how shall I know that another did not come out thence? Withal thou must needs be my fellow here, will I, nill I; for thou it was that didst put that word into the captain's mouth that thou shouldst serve me while I abide in the Burg. So I will say here and now, that my mind misgives me concerning thee, whether thou be not of those very thieves and tyrants whom thou didst mis-say but a little while ago."
"Yea," said Roger, "thou art wise indeed to set me down as one of the Dry Tree; doubtless that is why I delivered thee from their ambush even now. And as for my service, thou mayst need it; for indeed I deem thee not so safe as thou deemest thyself in this Burg."
"What!" said Ralph, "Dost thou blow hot and cold? why even now, when we were in the wood, thou wert telling me that I had nought at all to fear in the Burg of the Four Friths, and that all was done there by reason and with justice. What is this new thing then which thou hast found out, or what is that I have to fear?"
Roger changed countenance thereat and seemed somewhat confused, as one who has been caught unawares; but he gat his own face presently, and said: "Nay, Sir Knight, I will tell thee the truth right out. In the wood yonder thy danger was great that thou mightest run into the hands of them of the Dry Tree; therefore true it is that I spake somewhat beyond my warrant concerning the life of the folk of the Burg, as how could I help it? But surely whatever thy peril may be here, it is nought to that which awaited thee at Hampton."
"Anyhow, thou mayst turn the cold shoulder on me if thou wilt. Yet were I thee, I would not, for so it is, both that I can help thee, as I deem, in time to come, and that I have helped thee somewhat in time past."
Now Ralph was young and could not abide the blame of thanklessness; so he said, "Nay, nay, fellow, go we on together to the Flower de Luce."
Roger nodded his head and grumbled somewhat, and they made no stay except that now and again Ralph drew rein to look at goodly things in the street, for there were many open booths therein, so that the whole street looked like a market. The houses were goodly of building, but not very tall, the ways wide and well-paved. Many folk were in the street, going up and down on their errands, and both men and women of them seemed to Ralph stout and strong, but not very fair of favour. Withal they seemed intent on their business, and payed little heed to Ralph and his fellow, though he was by his attire plainly a stranger.
Now Ralph sees a house more gaily adorned than most, and a sign hung out from it whereon was done an image of St. Loy, and underneath the same a booth on which was set out weapons and war-gear exceeding goodly; and two knaves of the armourer were standing by to serve folk, and crying their wares with "what d'ye lack?" from time to time. So (he stayed and fell to looking wistfully at the gleam and glitter of those fair things, )till one of the aforesaid knaves came to his side and said:
"Fair Sir, surely thou lackest somewhat; what have we here for thy needs?" So Ralph thought and called to mind that strong little steel axe of the man whom he had slain yesterday, and asked for the sight of such a weapon, if he might perchance cheapen it. And( the lad brought a very goodly steel axe, gold-inlaid about the shaft, and gave him the price thereof, which Ralph deemed he might compass; so he brought round his scrip to his hand, that he might take out the money. But while his hand was yet in the bag, out comes the master-armourer, a tall and very stark carle, and said in courteous wise: "Sir Knight, thou art a stranger to me and I know thee not; so I must needs ask for a sight of thy license to buy weapons, under the seal of the Burg."
"Hear a wonder," said Ralph, "that a free man for his money shall not buy wares set out to be bought, unless he have the Burg-Reeve's hand and seal for it! Nay, take thy florins, master, and give me the axe and let the jest end there." )"I jest not, young rider," quoth the armourer. "When we know thee for a liegeman of the Burg, thou shalt buy what thou wilt without question; but otherwise I have told thee the law, and how may I, the master of the craft, break the law? Be not wrath, fair sir, I will set aside thine axe for thee, till thou bring me the license, or bid me come see it, and thou shalt get the said license at the Town Hall straight-way, when they may certify thee no foeman of the Burg."
Ralph saw that it availed nothing to bicker with the smith, and so went his way somewhat crestfallen, and that the more as he saw Roger grinning a little.
Now they come into the market-place, on one side whereof was the master church of the town, which was strongly built and with a tall tower to it, but was not very big, and but little adorned. Over against it they saw the sign of the Flower de Luce, a goodly house and great. Thitherward they turned; but in the face of the hostelry amidmost the place was (a thing which Roger pointed at with a grin that spoke as well as words; and this was a high gallows-tree furnished with four forks or arms, each carved and wrought in the fashion of the very bough of a tree, from which dangled four nooses, and above them all was a board whereon was written in big letters THE DRY TREE.) And at the foot of this gallows were divers folk laughing and talking.
So Ralph understood at once that those four men whom he had seen led away bound yesterday should be hanged thereon; so he stayed a franklin who was passing by, and said to him, "Sir, I am a stranger in the town, and I would know if justice shall be done on the four woodmen to-day." "Nay," said the man, "but to-morrow; they are even now before the judges."
(Then said Roger in a surly voice, "Why art thou not there to look on?" "Because," quoth the man, "there is little to see there, and not much more to hearken. The thieves shall be speedily judged, and not questioned with torments, so that they may be the lustier to feel what the hangman shall work on them to-morrow; then forsooth the show shall be goodly. )But far better had it been if we had had in our hands the great witch of these dastards, as we looked to have her; but now folk say that she has not been brought within gates, and it is to be feared that she hath slipped through our fingers once more."
Roger laughed, and said: "Simple are ye folk of the Burg and know nought of her shifts. I tell thee it is not unlike that she is in the Burg even now, and hath in hand to take out of your prison the four whom ye have caught."
The franklin laughed scornfully in his turn and said: "If we be simple, thou art a fool merely: are we not stronger and more than the Dry Tree? How should she not be taken? How should she not be known if she were walking about these streets? Have we no eyes, fool-carle?" And he laughed again, for he was wroth.
(Ralph hearkened, and a kind of fear seemed griping his heart, so he asked the franklin: "Tell me, sir, are ye two speaking of a woman who is Queen of these strong-thieves?" "Yea," said he, "or it might better be said that she is their goddess, their mawmet, their devil, the very heart and soul of their wickedness. But one day shall we have her body and soul, and then shall her body have but an evil day of it till she dieth in this world."
"Yea, forsooth, if she can die at all," quoth Roger.
The franklin looked sourly on him and said: "Good man, thou knowest much of her, meseemeth?Whence art thou?" Said Roger speedily: "From Hampton under Scaur; and her rebel I am, and her dastard, and her runaway. Therefore I know her forsooth."
"Well," the Franklin said, "thou seemest a true man, and yet I would counsel thee to put a rein on thy tongue when thou art minded to talk of the Devil of the Dry Tree, or thou mayst come to harm in the Burg.")