Katherine cast friendly looks on them and said: “Gossip, and thou, Clement, I will make a clean breast of it once for all. In the days when I was first wedded to Master Clement yonder, he found his bed cold without me, for he was a hot lover; therefore would he often have me with him on his journeys, how hard soever or perilous the way might be. Yea, Clement, thou lookest the sooth, though thou sayest it not, I was nought loth thereto, partly because I would not grieve thee, my man; but partly, and belike mostly, because I was wishful to see the ways of the world even at the risk of being thrust out of the world. So it befell us on a time to make a journey together, a journey exceeding long, in the company of certain chapmen, whereof some, and not a few, died on the way. But we lived, and came into the eastern parts of the earth to a city right ancient, and fulfilled of marvels, which hight Sarras the Holy. There saw we wonders whereof were it overlong to tell of here; but one while I will tell thee, my lord. But this I must needs say, that I heard tell of a woman dwelling there, who was not old by seeming, but had in her the wisdom of ten lives, and the longing gat hold of me to see her and learn wisdom of her. So I entreated many who were called wise, some with prayers, and some with gifts also, to help me to speech of her; but I gat nothing either by praying or giving; they that would have helped me could not, and they that could would not. So, what between one thing and another, the longing to see the Wise Woman grew as it were into a madness in me. Amidst of which we fell in with a merchant exceeding wise in ancient lore, who looked at me (though Clement knew it not) with eyes of love. Of this man I asked concerning the Wise Woman, and he seeing my desire, strove to use it merchant-like, and would deal with me and have in payment for his learning a gift which I had nought to do to give. Howbeit madness and my desire for speech with the Wise Woman got the better of me, and I promised to give no less than he would, trusting to beguile him after I had got my desire, and be quit of him. So he led me to the woman and went his ways. She dwelt all by herself in a nook of an ancient ruined palace, erst the house of the ancientest of all the kings of Sarras. When I came to her, I saw nought dreadful or ugsome about her: she was cheerful of countenance and courteous of demeanour, and greeted me kindly as one neighbour in the street of Wulstead might do to another. I saw her, that she was by seeming a woman of some forty winters, trim and well-fashioned of body, nowise big, but slender, of dark red hair and brown eyes somewhat small.
“Now, she said to me, ‘I have looked for thee a while; now thou art come, thou shalt tell me what thou needest, and thy needs will I fulfil. Yet needs must thou do a thing for me in return, and maybe thou wilt deem it a great thing. Yet whereas thou has struck a bargain before thou camest hither, if I undo that for thee, the bargain with me may be nought so burdensome. How sayest thou?’
“Well, I saw now that I was in the trap, for ill had it been in those days had Clement come to know that I had done amiss; for he was a jealous lover, and a violent man.”
Clement smiled hereat, but said nought, and Katherine went on: “Trap or no trap, if I were eager before, I was over-eager now; so when she bade me swear to do her will, I swore it without tarrying.
“Then she said: ‘Sit down before me, and I will teach thee wisdom.’ What did she teach me? say ye. Well, if I told you belike ye would be none the wiser; but so much she told me, that my heart swelled with joy of the wisdom which I garnered. Say thou, Clement, if I have been the worser woman to thee, or thy friends, or mine.”
“Nay, goodwife,” said Clement, “I have nought against thee.”
Katherine laughed and went on:
“At last the Wise Woman said, ‘Now that thou hast of me all that may avail thee, comes the other part of our bargain, wherein I shall take and thou shalt give.’
“Quoth I, ‘That is but fair, and thou shalt find me true to thee.’ She said, ‘If thou be not, I shall know it, and shall amend it in such wise that it shall cost thee much.’
“Then she looked on me long and keenly, and said afterward: ‘Forsooth I should forbear laying this charge upon thee if I did not deem that thou wouldst be no less than true. But now I will try it, whereas I deem that the days of my life henceforward shall not be many; and many days would it take me to find a woman as little foolish as thee and as little false, and thereto as fairly fashioned.’
“Therewith she put her hand to her neck, and took thence the self-same pair of beads which I gave to thee, dear gossip, and which (praise be to All Hallows!) thou hast borne ever since; and she said: ‘Now hearken! Thou shalt take this pair of beads, and do with them as I bid thee. Swear again thereto.’ So I swore by All Angels; and she said again: ‘This pair of beads shall one day lead a man unto the Well at the World’s End, but no woman; forsooth, if a woman have them of a woman, or the like of them, (for there be others,) they may serve her for a token; but will be no talisman or leading-stone to her; and this I tell thee lest thou seek to the Well on the strength of them. For I bid thee give them to a man that thou lovest—that thou lovest well, when he is in most need; only he shall not be of thine own blood. This is all that I lay upon thee; and if thou do it, thou shalt thrive, and if thou do it not, thou shalt come to harm. And I will tell thee now that this meeting betwixt us is not by chance-hap, but of my bringing about; for I have laboured to draw thee to me, knowing that thou alone of women would avail me herein. Now shalt thou go home to thine hostel, and take this for a token of my sooth-saying. The wise merchant who led thee unto me is abiding thine homecoming that he may have of thee that which thou promisedst to him. If then thou find him at thine hostel, and he take thee by the hand and lead thee to bed, whereas Clement is away till to-morrow even, then shalt thou call me a vain word-spinner and a liar; but if when thou comest home there, the folk there say to thee merchant Valerius is ridden away hastily, being called afar on a message of life and death, then shalt thou trow in me as a wise woman. Herewith depart, and I bid thee farewell.’
“So I went my ways to my hostel trembling, and at the door I met the chamberlain, who said to me, ‘Lady, the merchant Valerius hath been here seeking thee, and he said that he would abide thy coming; but amidst of his abiding cometh a man who would speak to him privily; whereof it came that he called for his horse and bade me tell thee, Lady, that he was summoned on a matter of life and death, and would return to kiss thine hands in five days’ space.’
“So I wotted that the woman had spoken sooth, and was wise and foreseeing, and something of a dread of her came upon me. But the next even back cometh Clement, and the day after we rode away from Sarras the Holy, and Valerius I saw never again. And as to the beads, there is nought to tell of them till they came into thine hands; and something tells me that it was the will of the Wise Woman that to no other hands they should come.”
Here Katherine made an end, and both the men sat pondering her tale a little. As for Ralph, he deemed it certain that the Wise Woman of Sarras would be none other than she who had taught lore to the Lady of Abundance; but why she should have meant the beads for him he wotted not. Again he wondered how it was that the Lady of Abundance should have given the beads to Ursula, and whether she knew that they had no might to lead her to the Well at the World’s End. And yet further he wondered how it was that Ursula, unholpen by the talisman, should have done so much to bring him to the Well; yea, and how she was the first to see it while he slept. But his heart told him that whereas he was seeking the Well with her, she must needs come thither with him, unless they were both cast away; withal Katherine looked at him and said: “Yea, dear lord, I wot what thou art thinking of; but couldest thou have left her, when thou hadst once found her again, Well or no Well?” “Sooth is that,” said Ralph, “yet for all that she hath done without help of talisman or witchcraft is she the more worshipful and the dearer.”
Then speech came into Clement’s mouth, and he said: “Wife, it is as I said before, when thy gossip had just departed from us. It was meet enough that thou shouldst have loved him better than me; but now it is even less to be undone than ever, when he has come back bringing with him a woman so valiant and lovely as is my Lady Ursula. So thou must e’en take the life that fate hath sent thee.” Katherine laughed through her tears, and said: “Withal, goodman, I have been no bad wife to thee. And moreover, look thou, gossip dear: when I was wandering about with Clement amongst many perils, when our need seemed sorest, then would I think to give the beads to Clement; but so soon as I began to speak to him of the Well at the World’s End he would belittle the tale of it, and would bid me look to it if it were not so, that where the world endeth the clouds begin.”
As she spoke, Ralph lifted up his hand and pointed to the window, and said: “Friends, as we were speaking of all these marvels we were forgetting the need of Upmeads and the day of battle; and lo now! how the dawn is widening and the candles fading.”
Scarce were the words out of his mouth, when on the quietness of the beginning of day brake out the sound of four trumpets, which were sounding in the four quarters of the town, and blowing men to the gathering. Then rose up both Ralph and Clement and took their weapons, and they kissed Katherine and went soberly out-a-doors into the market-place, where already weaponed men were streaming in to the muster.