Herewith they were come to a little thorp where the way sundered, for the highway went on to Whitwall, and a byway turned off to Swevenham. Thereby was a poor hostel, where they stayed and rested for the night, because evening was at hand. So when those four had eaten and drunk there together, Ralph spoke and said: “Michael-a-dale, thou art for Swevenham to-morrow?” “Yea, lord,” said Michael, “belike I shall yet find kindred there; and I call to thy mind that I craved of thee to lead me to Swevenham as payment for all if I had done aught for thy service.”
“Sooth is that,” said Ralph, “thou shalt go with my good-will; and, as I deem, thou shalt not lack company betwixt here and Swevenham, whereas our dear friend here, the friend of thy father’s father, is going the same road.”
Then the Sage of Swevenham leaned across the board, and said: “What word hath come out of thy mouth, my son?” Said Ralph, smiling on him: “It is the last word which we have heard from thee of this matter, though verily it was spoken a while ago. What wilt thou add to it as now?” “This,” quoth the Sage, “that I will leave thee no more till thou biddest me go from thee. Was this word needful?”
Ralph reached his hand to him and said: “It is well and more; but the road hence to Upmeads may yet be a rough one.” “Yea,” said the Sage, “yet shall we come thither all living, unless my sight now faileth.”
Then Ursula rose up and came to the old man, and cast her arms about him and said: “Yea, father, come with us, and let thy wisdom bless our roof-tree. Wilt thou not teach our children wisdom; yea, maybe our children’s children, since thou art a friend of the Well?”
“I know not of the teaching of wisdom,” said the Sage; “but as to my going with thee, it shall be as I said e’en-now; and forsooth I looked for this bidding of thee to make naught of the word which I spoke ere yet I had learned wisdom of thee.”
Therewith were they merry, and fain of each other, and the evening wore amidst great content.
But when morning was come they gat to horse, and Ralph spake to Michael and said: “Well, friend, now must thou ride alone to thy kindred, and may fair days befall thee in Swevenham. But if thou deem at any time that matters go not so well with thee as thou wouldst, then turn thine head to Upmeads, and try it there, and we shall further thee all we may.”
Then came the Sage to Michael as he sat upon his horse, a stalwarth man of some forty winters, and said: “Michael-a-dale, reach me thine hand.” So did he, and the Sage looked into the palm thereof, and said: “This man shall make old bones, and it is more like than not, King’s son, that he shall seek to thee at Upmeads ere he die.” Said Ralph: “His coming shall be a joy to us, how pleasant soever our life may be otherwise. Farewell, Michael! all good go with thee for thine wholesome redes.”
So then Michael gave them farewell, and rode his ways to Swevenham, going hastily, as one who should hurry away from a grief.
But the three held on their way to Whitwall, and it was barely noon when they came to the gate thereof on a Saturday of latter May, It was a market-day, and the streets were thronged, and they looked on the folk and were fain of them, since they seemed to them to be something more than aliens. The folk also looked on them curiously, and deemed them goodly, both the old man and the two knights, for they thought no otherwise of Ursula than that she was a carle.
But now as they rode, slowly because of the crowd, up Petergate, they heard a cry of one beside them, as of a man astonished but joyful; so Ralph drew rein, and turned thither whence the cry came, and Ursula saw a man wide-shouldered, grey-haired, blue-eyed, and ruddy of countenance—a man warrior-like to look on, and girt with a long sword. Ralph lighted down from his horse, and met the man, who was coming toward him, cast his arms about his neck, and kissed him, and lo, it was Richard the Red. The people round about, when they saw it, clapped their hands, and crowded about the two crying out: “Hail to the friends long parted, and now united!” But Richard, whom most knew, cried out: “Make way, my masters! will ye sunder us again?” Then he said to Ralph: “Get into thy saddle, lad; for surely thou hast a tale to tell overlong for the open street.”
Ralph did as he was bidden, and without more ado they went on all toward that hostelry where Ralph had erst borne the burden of grief. Richard walked by Ralph’s side, and as he went he said: “Moreover, lad, I can see that thy tale is no ill one; therefore my heart is not wrung for thee or me, though I wait for it a while.” Then again he said: “Thou doest well to hide her loveliness in war-weed even in this town of peace.”
Ursula reddened, and Richard laughed and said: “Well, it is a fair rose which thou hast brought from east-away. There will be never another couple in these parts like you. Now I see the words on thy lips; so I tell thee that Blaise thy brother is alive and well and happy; which last word means that his coffer is both deep and full. Forsooth, he would make a poor bargain in buying any kingship that I wot of, so rich he is, yea, and mighty withal.”
Said Ralph: “And how went the war with Walter the Black?”
Even as he spake his face changed, for he bethought him over closely of the past days, and his dream of the Lady of Abundance and of Dorothea, who rode by him now as Ursula. But Richard spake: “Short is the tale to tell. I slew him in shock of battle, and his men craved peace of the good town. Many were glad of his death, and few sorrowed for it; for, fair as his young body was, he was a cruel tyrant.”
Therewith were they come to the hostel of the Lamb which was the very same house wherein Ralph had abided aforetime; and as he entered it, it is not to be said but that inwardly his heart bled for the old sorrow. Ursula looked on him lovingly and blithely; and when they were within doors Richard turned to the Sage and said: “Hail to thee, reverend man! wert thou forty years older to behold, outworn and forgotten of death, I should have said that thou wert like to the Sage that dwelt alone amidst the mountains nigh to Swevenham when I was a little lad, and fearsome was the sight of thee unto me.”
The Sage laughed and said: “Yea, somewhat like am I yet to myself of forty years ago. Good is thy memory, greybeard.”
Then Richard shook his head, and spake under his breath: “Yea, then it was no dream or coloured cloud, and he hath drank of the waters, and so then hath my dear lord.” Then he looked up bright-faced, and called on the serving-men, and bade one lead them into a fair chamber, and another go forth and provide a banquet to be brought in thither. So they went up into a goodly chamber high aloft; and Ursula went forth from it awhile, and came back presently clad in very fair woman’s raiment, which Ralph had bought for her at Goldburg. Richard looked on her and nothing else for a while; then he walked about the chamber uneasily, now speaking with the Sage, now with Ursula, but never with Ralph. At last he spake to Ursula, and said: “Grant me a grace, lady, and be not wroth if I take thy man into the window yonder that I may talk with him privily while ye hold converse together, thou and the Sage of Swevenham.”
She laughed merrily and said: “Sir nurse, take thy bantling and cosset him in whatso corner thou wilt, and I will turn away mine eyes from thy caresses.”
So Richard took Ralph into a window, and sat down beside him and said: “Mayhappen I shall sadden thee by my question, but I mind me what our last talking together was about, and therefore I must needs ask thee this, was that other one fairer than this one is?”
Ralph knit his brows: “I wot not,” quoth he, “since she is gone, that other one.”
“Yea,” said Richard, “but this I say, that she is without a blemish. Did ye drink of the Well together?”
“Yea, surely,” said Ralph. Said Richard: “And is this woman of a good heart? Is she valiant?” “Yea, yea,” said Ralph, flushing red.
“As valiant as was that other?” said Richard. Said Ralph: “How may I tell, unless they were tried in one way?” Yet Richard spake: “Are ye wedded?” “Even so,” said Ralph.
“Dost thou deem her true?” said Richard. “Truer than myself,” said Ralph, in a voice which was somewhat angry.
Quoth Richard: “Then is it better than well, and better than well; for now hast thou wedded into the World of living men, and not to a dream of the Land of Fairy.”
Ralph sat silent a little, and as if he were swallowing somewhat; at last he said: “Old friend, I were well content if thou wert to speak such words no more; for it irks me, and woundeth my heart.”
Said Richard: “Well, I will say no more thereof; be content therefore, for now I have said it, and thou needest not fear me, what I have to say thereon any more, and thou mayst well wot that I must needs have said somewhat of this.”
Ralph nodded to him friendly, and even therewith came in the banquet, which was richly served, as for a King’s son, and wine was poured forth of the best, and they feasted and were merry. And then Ralph told all the tale of his wanderings how it had betid, bringing in all that Ursula had told him of Utterbol; while as for her she put in no word of it. So that at last Ralph, being wishful to hear her tell somewhat, made more of some things than was really in them, so that she might set him right; but no word more she said for all that, but only smiled on him now and again, and sat blushing like a rose over her golden-flowered gown, while Richard looked on her and praised her in his heart exceedingly.
But when Ralph had done the story (which was long, so that by then it was over it had been dark night some while), Richard said: “Well, fosterling, thou hast seen much, and done much, and many would say that thou art a lucky man, and that more and much more lieth ready to thine hand. Whither now wilt thou wend, or what wilt thou do?”
Ralph’s face reddened, as its wont had been when it was two years younger, at contention drawing nigh, and he answered: “Where then should I go save to the House of my Fathers, and the fields that fed them? What should I do but live amongst my people, warding them from evil, and loving them and giving them good counsel? For wherefore should I love them less than heretofore? Have they become dastards, and the fools of mankind?”
Quoth Richard: “They are no more fools than they were belike, nor less valiant. But thou art grown wiser and mightier by far; so that thou art another manner man than thou wert, and the Master of Masters maybe. To Upmeads wilt thou go; but wilt thou abide there? Upmeads is a fair land, but a narrow; one day is like another there, save when sorrow and harm is blent with it. The world is wide, and now I deem that thou holdest the glory thereof in the hollow of thine hand.”
Then spake the Sage, and said: “Yea, Richard of Swevenham, and how knowest thou but that this sorrow and trouble have not now fallen upon Upmeads? And if that be so, upon whom should they call to their helping rather than him who can help them most, and is their very lord?” Said Richard: “It may be so, wise man, though as yet we have heard no tidings thereof. But if my lord goeth to their help, yet, when the trouble shall be over, will he not betake him thither where fresh deeds await him?”
“Nay, Richard,” said the Sage, “art thou so little a friend of thy fosterling as not to know that when he hath brought back peace to the land, it will be so that both he shall need the people, and they him, so that if he go away for awhile, yet shall he soon come back? Yea, and so shall the little land, it may be, grow great.”
Now had Ralph sat quiet while this talk was going on, and as if he heeded not, and his eyes were set as if he were beholding something far away. Then Richard spoke again after there had been silence awhile: “Wise man, thou sayest sooth; yea, and so it is, that though we here have heard no tale concerning war in Upmeads, yet, as it were, we have been feeling some stirring of the air about us; even as though matters were changing, great might undone, and weakness grown to strength. Who can say but our lord may find deeds to hand or ever he come to Upmeads?”
Ralph turned his head as one awaking from a dream, and he said: “When shall to-morrow be, that we may get us gone from Whitwall, we three, and turn our faces toward Upmeads?”
Said Richard: “Wilt thou not tarry a day or two, and talk with thine own mother’s son and tell him of thine haps?” “Yea,” said Ralph, “and so would I, were it not that my father’s trouble and my mother’s grief draw me away.”
“O tarry not,” said Ursula; “nay, not for the passing of the night; but make this hour the sunrise, and begone by the clear of the moon. For lo! how he shineth through the window!”
Then she turned to Richard, and said: “O fosterer of my love, knowest thou not that as now he speaketh as a Friend of the Well, and wotteth more of far-off tidings than even this wise man of many years?”
Said Ralph: “She sayeth sooth, O Richard. Or how were it if the torch were even now drawing nigh to the High House of Upmeads: yea, or if the very House were shining as a dreary candle of the meadows, and reddening the waters of the ford! What do we here?”
Therewith he thrust the board from him, and arose and went to his harness, and fell to arming him, and he spake to Richard: “Now shall thine authority open to us the gates of the good town, though the night be growing old; we shall go our ways, dear friend, and mayhappen we shall meet again, and mayhappen not: and thou shalt tell my brother Blaise who wotteth not of my coming hither, how things have gone with me, and how need hath drawn me hence. And bid him come see me at Upmeads, and to ride with a good band of proper men, for eschewing the dangers of the road.”
Then spake Richard: “I shall tell Lord Blaise neither more nor less than thou mayst tell him thyself: for think it not that thou shalt go without me. As for Blaise, he may well spare me; for he is become a chief and Lord of the Porte; and the Porte hath now right good men-at-arms, and captains withal younger and defter than I be. But now suffer me to send a swain for my horse and arms, and another to the captain of the watch at West-gate Bar that he be ready to open to me and three of my friends, and to send me a let-pass for the occasion. So shall we go forth ere it be known that the brother of the Lord of the Porte is abiding at the Lamb. For verily I see that the Lady hath spoken truth; and it is like that she is forseeing, even as thou hast grown to be. And now I bethink me I might lightly get me a score of men to ride with us, whereas we may meet men worse than ourselves on the way.”
Said Ralph: “All good go with thy words, Richard; yet gather not force: there may stout men be culled on the road; and if thou runnest or ridest about the town, we may yet be stayed by Blaise and his men. Wherefore now send for thine horse and arms, and bid the host here open his gates with little noise when we be ready; and we will presently ride out by the clear of the moon. But thou, beloved, shalt don thine armour no more, but shalt ride henceforth in thy woman’s raiment, for the wild and the waste is well nigh over, and the way is but short after all these months of wandering; and I say that now shall all friends drift toward us, and they that shall rejoice to strike a stroke for my father’s son, and the peaceful years of the Friend of the Well.”
To those others, and chiefly to Ursula, it seemed that now he spoke strongly and joyously, like to a king and a captain of men. Richard did his bidding, and was swift in dealing with the messengers. But the Sage said: “Ralph, my son, since ye have lost one man-at-arms, and have gotten but this golden angel in his stead, I may better that. I prithee bid thy man Richard find me armour and weapons that I may amend the shard in thy company. Thou shalt find me no feeble man when we come to push of staves.”
Ralph laughed, and bade Richard see to it; so he dealt with the host, and bought good war-gear of him, and a trenchant sword, and an axe withal; and when the Sage was armed he looked as doughty a warrior as need be. By this time was Richard’s horse and war-gear come, and he armed him speedily and gave money to the host, and they rode therewith all four out of the hostel, and found the street empty and still, for the night was wearing. So rode they without tarrying into Westgate and came to the Bar, and speedily was the gate opened to them; and anon were they on the moonlit road outside of Whitwall.