From The Well at the World's End
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.
He saw no folk in the street save here and there an old woman sitting at the door of her house, and maybe a young child with her. As he came to where the street turned somewhat, even such a carline was sitting on a clean white door-step on the sunny side, somewhat shaded by a tall rose-laurel tree in a great tub, and she sang as she sat spinning, and Ralph stayed to listen in his idle mood, and he heard how she sang in a dry, harsh voice:
Clashed sword on shield
In the harvest field;
And no man blames
The red red flames,
On roof and rick.
Now dead lies the yeoman
unwept and unknown
On the field he hath furrowed,
the ridge he hath sown:
And all in the middle
of wethers and neat
The maidens are driven
with blood on their feet;
For yet ’twixt the Burg-gate
and battle half-won
The dust-driven highway
creeps uphill and on,
And the smoke of the beacons
goes coiling aloft,
While the gathering horn bloweth
loud, louder and oft.
Throw wide the gates
For nought night waits;
Though the chase is dead
The moon’s o’erhead
And we need the clear
Our spoil to share.
Shake the lots in the helm then
for brethren are we,
And the goods of my missing
are gainful to thee.
Lo! thine are the wethers,
and his are the kine;
And the colts of the marshland
unbroken are thine,
With the dapple-grey stallion
that trampled his groom;
And Giles hath the gold-blossomed
rose of the loom.
Lo! leaps out the last lot
and nought have I won,
But the maiden unmerry,
by battle undone.
Even as her song ended came one of those fair yellow-gowned damsels round the corner of the street, bearing in her hand a light basket full of flowers: and she lifted up her head and beheld Ralph there; then she went slowly and dropped her eyelids, and it was pleasant to Ralph to behold her; for she was as fair as need be.
But Ralph looked to right and left and saw no deliverance, and knew this for the first hour of his thralldom. Yet, as he thought of it all, he remembered that if he would do, he must needs bear and forbear; and his face cleared, and he looked round about again and let his eyes rest calmly on all eyes that he met till they came on the Lord’s face again. Then he let his hand fall into the strings and they fell a-tinkling sweetly, like unto the song of the winter robin, and at last he lifted his voice and sang:
Still now is the stithy this morning unclouded,
Nought stirs in the thorp save the yellow-haired maid
A-peeling the withy last Candlemas shrouded
From the mere where the moorhen now swims unafraid.
For over the Ford now the grass and the clover
Fly off from the tines as the wind driveth on;
And soon round the Sword-howe the swathe shall lie over,
And to-morrow at even the mead shall be won.
But the Hall of the Garden amidst the hot morning,
It drew my feet thither; I stood at the door,
And felt my heart harden ‘gainst wisdom and warning
As the sun and my footsteps came on to the floor.
When the sun lay behind me, there scarce in the dimness
I saw what I sought for, yet trembled to find;
But it came forth to find me, until the sleek slimness
Of the summer-clad woman made summer o’er kind.
There we the once-sundered together were blended,
We strangers, unknown once, were hidden by naught.
I kissed and I wondered how doubt was all ended,
How friendly her excellent fairness was wrought.
Round the hall of the Garden the hot sun is burning,
But no master nor minstrel goes there in the shade,
It hath never a warden till comes the returning,
When the moon shall hang high and all winds shall be laid.
Waned the day and I hied me afield, and thereafter
I sat with the mighty when daylight was done,
But with great men beside me, midst high-hearted laughter,
I deemed me of all men the gainfullest one.
To wisdom I hearkened; for there the wise father
Cast the seed of his learning abroad o’er the hall,
Till men’s faces darkened, but mine gladdened rather
With the thought of the knowledge I knew over all.
Sang minstrels the story, and with the song’s welling
Men looked on each other and glad were they grown,
But mine was the glory of the tale and its telling
How the loved and the lover were naught but mine own.
When he was done all kept silence till they should know whether the lord should praise the song or blame; and he said naught for a good while, but sat as if pondering: but at last he spake: “Thou art young, and would that we were young also! Thy song is sweet, and it pleaseth me, who am a man of war, and have seen enough and to spare of rough work, and would any day rather see a fair woman than a band of spears.
Ralph looked on him and deemed he had seen him before, but could not altogether call his visage to mind; so he held his peace and the man went on.
“I am of the folk of the shepherds of the Downs: we be not a many by count of noses, but each one of us who is come to man’s yean, and many who be past them, as I myself, can handle weapons at a pinch. Now some deal we have been harried and have suffered by these wretches who have eaten into the bowels of this land; that is to say, they have lifted our sheep, and slain some of us who withstood them: but whereas our houses be uncostly and that we move about easily from one hill-side to another, it is like that we should have deemed it wisest to have borne this trouble, like others of wind and weather, without seeking new remedy, but that there have been tokens on earth and in the heavens, whereof it is too long to tell thee, lord, at present, which have stirred up our scattered folk to meet together in arms. Moreover, the blood of our young men is up, because the Burg-devils have taken some of our women, and have mishandled them grievously and shamefully, so that naught will keep point and edge from seeking the war-clash. Furthermore, there is an old tale which hath now come up again, That some time when our folk shall be in great need, there shall come to our helping one from afar, whose home is anigh; a stripling and a great man; a runaway, and the conqueror of many: then, say they, shall the point and the edge bring the red water down on the dear dales; whereby we understand that the blood of men shall be shed there, and naught to our shame or dishonour. Again I mind me of a rhyme concerning this which sayeth:
The Dry Tree shall be seen
On the green earth, and green
The Well-spring shall arise
For the hope of the wise.
They are one which were twain,
The Tree bloometh again,
And the Well-spring hath come
From the waste to the home.
Well, lord, thou shalt tell me presently if this hath aught to do with thee: for indeed I saw the Dry Tree, which hath scared us so many a time, beaten on thy sergeants’ coats; but now I will go on and make an end of my story.”