Thus came they into the market-place of Wulstead nigh to Clement’s house, and there the company stood in ordered ranks. Ralph looked round about half expecting to see his gossip standing in the door; but Clement smiled and said: “Thou art looking round for thy gossip, fair sir; but she is upon the north gate in war-gear; for we be too few in Wulstead to spare so clean-limbed and strong-armed a dame from our muster; but she shall be here against thou comest back from the Austin Canons, wither forsooth thou mayst go at once if thou wilt let me be master in the matter of lodging.” Said Ralph, smiling: “Well, Ring of Wulstead, since thou givest leave I will e’en take it, nor needest thou give me any guide to the House of St. Austin, for I know it well. Sweetheart,” said he, turning to Ursula, “what sayest thou: wilt thou come with me, or abide till to-morrow, when I shall show thee to my kinsmen?” “Nay,” she said, “I will with thee at once, my lord, if thou wilt be kind and take me; for meseemeth I also have a word to say to thy father, and the mother that bore thee.”
“And thou, Hugh,” said Ralph, “what sayest thou?” “Why, brother,” said Hugh, “I think my blessing will abide the morrow’s morn, for I have nought so fair and dear to show our father and mother as thou hast. Also to-morrow thou wilt have more to do; since thou art a captain, and I but a single varlet.” And he smiled a little sourly on Ralph; who heeded it little, but took Ursula’s hand and went his way with her.
It was but a few minutes for them to come to the House of the Canons, which was well walled toward the fields at the west of the town, so that it was its chief defence of that side. It was a fair house with a church but just finished, and Ralph could see down the street its new white pinnacles and the cross on its eastern gable rising over the ridge of the dortoir. They came to the gate, and round about it were standing men-at-arms not a few, who seemed doughty enough at first sight; but when Ralph looked on them he knew some of them, that they were old men, and somewhat past warlike deeds, for in sooth they were carles of Upmeads. Him they knew not, for he had somewhat cast down the visor of his helm; but they looked eagerly on the fair lady and the goodly knight.
So Ralph spake to the porter and bade him show him where was King Peter of Upmeads and his Lady wife; and the porter made him obeisance and told him that they were in the church, wherein was service toward; and bade him enter. So they went in and entered the church, and it was somewhat dim, because the sun was set, and there were many pictures, and knots of flowers in the glass of the windows.
So they went halfway down the nave, and stood together there; and the whole church was full of the music that the minstrels were making in the rood-loft, and most heavenly sweet it was; and as Ralph stood there his heart heaved with hope and love and the sweetness of his youth; and he looked at Ursula, and she hung her head, and he saw that her shoulders were shaken with sobs; but he knew that it was with her as with him, so he spake no word to her.
Now when his eyes cleared and he was used to the twilight of the church, he looked toward the choir, and saw near to the Jesus altar a man and a woman standing together even as they were standing, and they were somewhat stricken in years. So presently he knew that this would be his father and mother; so he stood still and waited till the service should be over; and by then it was done the twilight was growing fast in the church, and the sacristan was lighting a lamp here and there in some of the chapels, and the aisles of the choir.
So King Peter and his wife turned and came slowly down the nave, and when they were come anigh, Ralph spake aloud, and said: “Hail, King Peter of Upmeads!” And the old man stopped and said unto him: “Yea, forsooth, my name is Peter, and my business is to be a king, or a kinglet rather; and once it seemed no such hard craft; but now it all goes otherwise, and belike my craft has left me; even as it fares with a leech when folk are either too well or too ill to need his leech-craft.”
Then he looked at Ralph and at Ursula, and said: “Either my eyes are worse than I deemed yesterday, or thou art young, and a gallant knight, and she that is standing by thee is young, and fair. Ah, lad! time was when I would have bid thee come home, thou and thy sweetling, to my house with me, and abide there in ease and feastfully; but now the best rede I can give thee is to get thee gone from the land, for there is all unpeace in it. And yet, forsooth, friend, I know not where to send thee to seek for peace, since Upmeads hath failed us.”
While he spoke, and Ralph was sore moved by the sound of his voice, and his speech wherein kindness and mocking was so blended, the Dame of Upmeads came to Ralph and laid her hand on his arm, and said in a pleasant voice, for she was soft-hearted and soft-spoken both: “Will not the fair young warrior and his mate do so much for an old man and his wife, who have heard not tidings of their best beloved son for two years well nigh, as to come with them to their chamber, and answer a little question or two as to the parts of the world they have seen of late?”
Ralph nodded yeasay and began to move toward the porch, the Dame of Upmeads sticking close to him all the time, and King Peter following after and saying: “Yea, young man, thou mayst think the worse of me for hanging about here amongst the monks, when e’en now, for all I know, the battle is pitched in Upmeads; but Nicholas and all of them would have it so—Yea, and all my sons are away, fair sir; though of the eldest, who meseems was born with a long head, we hear that he is thriving, and hath grown great.”
As he spake they were come into the porch, and passed into the open air, where it was still light; then the Dame turned round on Ralph and caught him by the two arms and cried out and cast her arms about his neck; and when she could sunder herself a little from him, she said: “0 Ralph, I deemed that I knew thy voice, but I durst not halse thee till I knew it was mine own flesh and blood, lest I should have died for grief to think it was thee when it was not. O son, how fair thou art! Now do off thy sallet that I may see thee, thy face and thy curly head.”
So did he, smiling as one who loved her, and again she fell to kissing and clipping him. Then his father came up and thrust her aside gently and embraced him also, and said: “Tell me, son, what thou are become? Thou art grown much of a man since thou stolest thyself away from me. Is there aught behind this goodly raiment of thine? And this fair lady, hath she stolen thee away from thy foes to bring thee home to us?”
Ralph laughed and said: “No less than that, father; I will tell thee all presently; but this first, that I am the captain of a goodly company of men-at-arms; and”——“Ah, son, sweetheart,” said his mother, “and thou wilt be going away from us again to seek more fame: and yet, as I look on thee thou seemest to have grown great enough already. I deem thou wilt not leave us.”
“Mother, my dear,” said Ralph, “to-morrow morn we shall go down to battle in Upmeads, and the day after I shall come hither again, and bring you back to the High House with all honour and glory. But look, mother,” and he took Ursula’s hand, “here is a daughter and a darling that I have brought back to thee, for this is my wedded wife.”
Then Ursula looked beseechingly at the Dame, who took her in her arms and clipped her and kissed her; and said, “Welcome, daughter; for I feel thy body that thou lovest me.”
Then said King Peter; “Forsooth, son, she is a sweet and dainty creature. If there be a fairer than her, I wot not; but none so fair have mine eyes looked on. Tell me whose daughter she is, and of what lineage?” And therewith he took her hand and kissed her.
But Ursula said: “I am come of no earl or baron. I am a yeoman’s daughter, and both my father and my mother are dead, and I have no nigh kin save one brother who loveth me not, and would heed it little if he never saw my face again. Now I tell thee this: that if my lord biddeth me go from him, I will depart; but for the bidding of none else will I leave him.”
King Peter laughed and said: “Never will I bid thee depart” Then he took her hand and said: “Sweetling, fair daughter, what is thy name?” “Ursula,” she said. Said he: “Ursula, thy palms are harder than be the hands of the dainty dames of the cities, but there is no churls’ blood in thee meseemeth. What is thy kindred of the yeoman?” She said: “We be come of the Geirings of old time: it may be that the spear is broken, and the banner torn; but we forget not our forefathers, though we labour afield, and the barons and the earls call us churls. It is told amongst us that that word is but another way of saying earl and that it meaneth a man.”
Then spoke Ralph: “Father and mother both, I may well thank thee and bless thee that your eyes look upon this half of me with kind eyes. And now I shall tell thee that for this woman, her heart is greater than a king’s or a leader of folk. And meseemeth her palms have hardened with the labour of delivering me from many troubles.”
Then the Dame of Upmeads put her arms about Ursula’s neck again, and bade her all welcome once more, with sweet words of darling and dear, and well-beloved daughter.
But King Peter said: “Son, thou hast not told me what thou are become; and true it is that thou hast the look of a great one.”
Said Ralph: “Father and King, I have become the Lord of the Little Land of Abundance, the sworn brother of the Champions of the Dry Tree, the Lord of the Castle of the Scaur, the brother and Warduke of the Shepherds; and to-morrow shall I be the Conqueror of the robbers and the devils of the Burg. And this be not enough for me, hearken! I and my wife both, yea and she leading me, have drunk of the Well at the World’s End, and have become Friends thereof.”
And he looked at his father with looks of love, and his father drew nigh to him again, and embraced him once more, and stroked his cheeks and kissed him as if he had become a child again: “O son,” said he, “whatsoever thou dost, that thou dost full well. And lo, one while when I look on thee thou art my dear and sweet child, as thou wert years agone, and I love thee dearly and finely; and another while thou art a great and mighty man, and I fear thee; so much greater thou seemest than we poor upland folk.”
Then smiled Ralph for love and happiness, and he said: “Father, I am thy child in the house and at the board, and that is for thine helping. And I am thy champion and the fierce warrior afield, and that also is for thine helping. Be of good cheer; for thine house shall not wane, but wax.” And all those four were full of joy and their hearts were raised aloft.
But as they spake thus came a lay-brother and bent the knee before King Peter and bade him and the Dame of Upmeads to supper in the name of the Prior, and the Captain and the Lady therewith; for indeed the rumour of the coming of an host for the helping of the countryside had gotten into that House, and the Prior and the brethern sorely desired to look upon the Captain, not knowing him for Ralph of Upmeads. So into the Hall they went together, and there the holy fathers made them great feast and joy; and King Peter might not refrain him, but told the Prior how this was his son come back from far lands, with the goodly Lady he had won to wife therein; and the Prior and all the fathers made much of Ralph, and rejoiced in their hearts when they saw how goodly a man of war he had gotten to be. And the Prior would lead him on to tell him of the marvels he had seen in the far parts of the world; but Ralph said but little thereon, whereas his thought was set on the days that lay even before his feet; yet some deal he told him of the uncouth manners of the lands beyond Whitwall, and at last he said: “Father, when the battles be over here, and there is peace on our lands again, I will ask thee to give me guesting for a night, that I may tell thee all the tale of what hath befallen me since the last summer day when I rode through Wulstead; but now I ask leave of thee to depart, for I have many things to do this even, as behoveth a captain, before I sleep for an hour or two. And if it be thy will, I would leave the Lady my wife with my mother here at least till morrow morn.”
So the Prior gave him leave, loth though he were, and Ralph kissed his father and mother, and they blessed him. But Ursula said to him softly: “It is my meaning to go with thee down into Upmeads to-morrow; for who knoweth what may befall thee.” Then he smiled upon her and went his ways down the hall and out-a-gates, while all men looked on him and did him worship.