Broad lay the sun upon the plain amidst the wildwood when he awoke and sprang out of bed and looked out of the window (for the chamber was in the gable of the hall and there was nought of the castle beyond it). It was but little after noon of a fair June day, for Ralph had slumbered as it behoved a young man. The light wind bore into the chamber the sweet scents of the early summer, the chief of all of them being the savour of the new-cut grass, for about the wide meadows the carles and queens were awork at the beginning of hay harvest; and late as it was in the day, more than one blackbird was singing from the bushes of the castle pleasance. Ralph sighed for very pleasure of life before he had yet well remembered where he was or what had befallen of late; but as he stood at the window and gazed over the meadows, and the memory of all came back to him, he sighed once more for a lack of somewhat that came into his heart, and he smiled shamefacedly, though there was no one near, as his thought bade him wonder if amongst the haymaking women yonder there were any as fair as those yellow-clad thrall-women of the Burg; and as he turned from the window a new hope made his heart beat, for he deemed that he had been brought to that house that he might meet some one who should change his life and make him a new man.
So he did on his raiment and went his ways down to the hall, and looked about for Roger, but found him not, nor any one else save the carline, who presently came in from the buttery, and of whom he asked, where was Roger. Quoth she: “He has been gone these six hours, but hath left a word for thee, lord, to wit, that he beseeches thee to abide him here for two days at the least, and thereafter thou art free to go if thou wilt. But as for me” (and therewith she smiled on him as sweetly as her wrinkled old face might compass) “I say to thee, abide beyond those two days if Roger cometh not, and as long as thou art here I will make thee all the cheer I may. And who knoweth but thou mayest meet worthy adventures here. Such have ere now befallen good knights in this house or anigh it.”
“I thank thee, mother,” quoth Ralph, “and it is like that I may abide here beyond the two days if the adventure befall me not ere then. But at least I will bide the eating of my dinner here to-day.”
“Well is thee, fair lord,” said the carline. “If thou wilt but walk in the meadow but a little half hour all shall be ready for thee. Forsooth it had been dight before now, but that I waited thy coming forth from thy chamber, for I would not wake thee. And the saints be praised for the long sweet sleep that hath painted thy goodly cheeks.” So saying she hurried off to the buttery, leaving Ralph laughing at her outspoken flattering words.
Then he got him out of the hall and the castle, for no door was shut, and there was no man to be seen within or about the house. So he walked to and fro the meadow and saw the neat-herds in the pasture, and the hay-making folk beyond them, and the sound of their voices came to him on the little airs that were breathing. He thought he would talk to some of these folk ere the world was much older, and also he noted between the river and the wood many cots of the husbandmen trimly builded and thatched, and amidst them a little church, white and delicate of fashion; but as now his face was set toward the river because of the hot day. He came to a pool a little below where a wooden foot-bridge crossed the water, and about the pool were willows growing, which had not been shrouded these eight years, and the water was clear as glass with a bottom of fine sand. There then he bathed him, and as he sported in the water he bethought him of the long smooth reaches of Upmeads Water, and the swimming low down amidst the long swinging weeds between the chuckle of the reed sparrows, when the sun was new risen in the July morning. When he stood on the grass again, what with the bright weather and fair little land, what with the freshness of the water, and his good rest, and the hope of adventure to come, he felt as if he had never been merrier in his life-days. Withal it was a weight off his heart that he had escaped from the turmoil of the wars of the Burg of the Four Friths, and the men of the Dry Tree, and the Wheat-wearers, with the thralldom and stripes and fire-raising, and the hard life of strife and gain of the walled town and strong place.
When he came back to the castle gate there was the carline in the wicket peering out to right and left, seeking him to bring him in to dinner. And when she saw him so joyous, with his lips smiling and his eyes dancing for mirth, she also became joyous, and said: “Verily, it is a pity of thee that there is never a fair damsel or so to look on thee and love thee here to-day. Far would many a maiden run to kiss thy mouth, fair lad. But now come to thy meat, that thou mayest grow the fairer and last the longer.”
He laughed gaily and went into the hall with her, and now was it well dight with bankers and dorsars of goodly figured cloth, and on the walls a goodly halling of arras of the Story of Alexander. So he sat to table, and the meat and drink was of the best, and the carline served him, praising him ever with fulsome words as he ate, till he wished her away.
After dinner he rested awhile, and called to the carline and bade her bring him his sword and his basnet. “Wherefore?” said she. “Whither wilt thou?”
Said he, “I would walk abroad to drink the air.”
“Wilt thou into the wildwood?” said she.
“Nay, mother,” he said, “I will but walk about the meadow and look on the hay-making folk.”
“For that,” said the carline, “thou needest neither sword nor helm. I was afeard that thou wert about departing, and thy departure would be a grief to my heart: in the deep wood thou mightest be so bestead as to need a sword in thy fist; but what shouldst thou do with it in this Plain of Abundance, where are nought but peaceful husbandmen and frank and kind maidens? and all these are as if they had drunk a draught of the WELL AT THE WORLD’S END.”
Ralph started as she said the word, but held his peace awhile. Then he said: “And who is lord of this fair land?” “There is no lord, but a lady,” said the carline. “How hight she?” said Ralph. “We call her the Lady of Abundance,” said the old woman. Said Ralph: “Is she a good lady?” “She is my lady,” said the carline, “and doeth good to me, and there is not a carle in the land but speaketh well of her— it may be over well.” “Is she fair to look on?” said Ralph. “Of women-folk there is none fairer,” said the carline; “as to men, that is another thing.”
Ralph was silent awhile, then he said: “What is the Well at the World’s End?”
“They talk of it here,” said she, “many things too long to tell of now: but there is a book in this house that telleth of it; I know it well by the look of it though I may not read in it. I will seek it for thee to-morrow if thou wilt.”
“Have thou thanks, dame,” said he; “and I pray thee forget it not; but now I will go forth.”
“Yea,” said the carline, “but abide a little.”
Therewith she went into the buttery, and came back bearing with her a garland of roses of the garden, intermingled with green leaves, and she said: “The sun is yet hot and over hot, do this on thine head to shade thee from the burning. I knew that thou wouldst go abroad to-day, so I made this for thee in the morning; and when I was young I was called the garland-maker. It is better summer wear than thy basnet.”
He thanked her and did it on smiling, but somewhat ruefully; for he said to himself: “This is over old a dame that I should wear a love-token from her.” But when it was on his head, the old dame clapped her hands and cried: “O there, there! Now art thou like the image of St. Michael in the Choir of Our Lady of the Thorn: there is none so lovely as thou. I would my Lady could see thee thus; surely the sight of thee should gladden her heart. And withal thou art not ill clad otherwise.”
Indeed his raiment was goodly, for his surcoat was new, and it was of fine green cloth, and the coat-armour of Upmead was beaten on it, to wit, on a gold ground an apple-tree fruited, standing by a river-side.
Now he laughed somewhat uneasily at her words, and so went forth from the castle again, and made straight for the hay-making folk on the other side of the water; for all this side was being fed by beasts and sheep; but at the point where he crossed, the winding of the stream brought it near to the castle gate. So he came up with the country folk and greeted them, and they did as much by him in courteous words: they were goodly and well-shapen, both men and women, gay and joyous of demeanour and well clad as for folk who work afield. So Ralph went from one to another and gave them a word or two, and was well pleased to watch them at their work awhile; but yet he would fain speak somewhat more with one or other of them. At last under the shade of a tall elm-tree he saw an old man sitting heeding the outer raiment of the haymakers and their victual and bottles of drink; and he came up to him and gave him the sele of the day; and the old man blessed him and said: “Art thou dwelling in my lady’s castle, fair lord?” “A while at least,” said Ralph. Said the old man: “We thank thee for coming to see us; and meseemeth from the look of thee thou art worthy to dwell in my Lady’s House.”
“What sayest thou?” said Ralph. “Is she a good lady and a gracious?” “O yea, yea,” said the carle. Said Ralph: “Thou meanest, I suppose, that she is fair to look on, and soft-spoken when she is pleased?”
“I mean far more than that,” said the carle; “surely is she most heavenly fair, and her voice is like the music of heaven: but withal her deeds, and the kindness of her to us poor men and husbandmen, are no worse than should flow forth from that loveliness.”
“Will you be her servants?” said Ralph, “or what are ye?” Said the carle: “We be yeomen and her vavassors; there is no thralldom in our land.” “Do ye live in good peace for the more part?” said Ralph. Said the carle: “Time has been when cruel battles were fought in these wood-lawns, and many poor people were destroyed therein: but that was before the coming of the Lady of Abundance.”
“And when was that?” said Ralph. “I wot not,” said the old carle; “I was born in peace and suckled in peace; and in peace I fell to the loving of maidens, and I wedded in peace, and begat children in peace, and in peace they dwell about me, and in peace shall I depart.”
“What then,” said Ralph (and a grievous fear was born in his heart), “is not the Lady of Abundance young?” Said the carle: “I have seen her when I was young and also since I have been old, and ever was she fair and lovely, and slender handed, as straight as a spear, and as sweet as white clover, and gentle-voiced and kind, and dear to our souls.”
“Yea,” said Ralph, “and she doth not dwell in this castle always; where else then doth she dwell?” “I wot not,” said the carle, “but it should be in heaven: for when she cometh to us all our joys increase in us by the half.”
“Look you, father,” said Ralph, “May it not have been more than one Lady of Abundance that thou hast seen in thy life-days; and that this one that now is, is the daughter’s daughter of the one whom thou first sawest— how sayest thou?” The carle laughed: “Nay, nay,” said he, “It is not so: never has there been another like to her in all ways, in body and voice, and heart and soul. It is as I say, she is the same as she was always.” “And when,” said Ralph, with a beating heart, “does she come hither? Is it at some set season?” “Nay, from time to time, at all seasons,” said the carle; “and as fair she is when she goeth over the snow, as when her feet are set amidst the June daisies.”
Now was Ralph so full of wonder that he scarce knew what to say; but he bethought him of that fair waste on the other side of the forest, the country through which that wide river flowed, so he said: “And that land north-away beyond the wildwood, canst thou tell me the tale of its wars, and if it were wasted in the same wars that tormented this land?” The carle shook his head: “As to the land beyond this wood,” quoth he, “I know nought of it, for beyond the wood go we never: nay, most often we go but a little way into it, no further than we can see the glimmer of the open daylight through its trees,—the daylight of the land of Abundance— that is enough for us.”
“Well,” said Ralph, “I thank thee for the tale thou hast told me, and wish thee more years of peace.”
“And to thee, young man,” said the carle, “I wish a good wish indeed, to wit that thou mayest see the Lady of Abundance here before thou departest.”
His words once more made Ralph’s heart beat and his cheek flush, and he went back to the castle somewhat speedily; for he said to himself, after the folly of lovers, “Maybe she will be come even now, and I not there to meet her.” Yet when he came to the castle-gate his heart misgave him, and he would not enter at once, but turned about to go round the wall by the north and west. In the castle he saw no soul save the old dame looking out of the window and nodding to him, but in the pasture all about were neatherds and shepherds, both men and women; and at the north-west corner, whereas the river drew quite close to the wall, he came upon two damsels of the field-folk fishing with an angle in a quiet pool of the stream. He greeted them, and they, who were young and goodly, returned his greeting, but were shamefaced at his gallant presence, as indeed was he at the thoughts of his heart mingled with the sight of their fairness. So he passed on at first without more words than his greeting. Yet presently he turned back again, for he longed to hear some word more concerning the Lady whose coming he abode. They stood smiling and blushing as he came up to them again, and heeded their angles little.
Said Ralph: “Fair maidens, do ye know at all when the Lady of the castle may be looked for?” They were slow to answer, but at last one said: “No, fair sir, such as we know nothing of the comings and goings of great folk.”
Said Ralph, smiling on her for kindness, and pleasure of her fairness: “Is it not so that ye will be glad of her coming?”
But she answered never a word, only looked at him steadily, with her great grey eyes fixed in wonderment, while the other one looked down as if intent on her angling tools.
Ralph knew not how to ask another question, so he turned about with a greeting word again, and this time went on steadily round about the wall.
And now in his heart waxed the desire of that Lady, once seen, as he deemed, in such strange wise; but he wondered within himself if the devil had not sown that longing within him: whereas it might be that this woman on whom he had set his heart was herself no real woman but a devil, and one of the goddesses of the ancient world, and his heart was sore and troubled by many doubts and hopes and fears; but he said to himself that when he saw her then could he judge between the good and the evil, and could do or forbear, and that the sight of her would cure all.
Thus thinking he walked swiftly, and was soon round at the castle gate again, and entered, and went into the hall, where was the old dame, busied about some household matter. Ralph nodded to her and hastened away, lest she should fall to talk with him; and he set himself now to go from chamber to chamber, that he might learn the castle, what it was. He came into the guard-chamber and found the walls thereof all hung with armour and weapons, clean and in good order, though there was never a man-at-arms there, nor any soul except the old woman. He went up a stair therefrom on to the battlements, and went into the towers of the wall, and found weapons both for hand, and for cast and shot in each one of them, and all ready as if for present battle; then he came down into the court again and went into a very goodly ambulatory over against the hall, and he entered a door therefrom, which was but on the latch, and went up a little stair into a chamber, which was the goodliest and the richest of all. Its roof was all done with gold and blue from over sea, and its pavement wrought delicately in Alexandrine work. On the dais was a throne of carven ivory, and above it a canopy of baudekin of the goodliest fashion, and there was a foot-carpet before it, wrought with beasts and the hunting of the deer. As for the walls of that chamber, they were hung with a marvellous halling of arras, wherein was wrought the greenwood, and there amidst in one place a pot-herb garden, and a green garth with goats therein, and in that garth a little thatched house. And amidst all this greenery were figured over and over again two women, whereof one old and the other young; and the old one was clad in grand attire, with gold chains and brooches and rings, and sat with her hands before her by the house door, or stood looking on as the young one worked, spinning or digging in the garth, or milking the goats outside of it, or what not; and this one was clad in sorry and scanty raiment.
What all this might mean Ralph knew not; but when he had looked long at the greenery and its images, he said to himself that if he who wrought that cloth had not done the young woman after the likeness of the Lady whom he had helped in the wildwood, then it must have been done from her twin sister.
Long he abode in that chamber looking at the arras, and wondering whether the sitter in the ivory throne would be any other than the thrall in the greenwood cot. He abode there so long that the dusk began to gather in the house, and he could see the images no more; for he was filled with the sweetness of desire when he looked on them.
Then he went back slowly to the hall, and found the carline, who had lighted the waxlights and made meat ready for him; and when she saw him she cried out joyously: “Ah, I knew that thou wouldst come back. Art thou well content with our little land?”
“I like it well, dame,” said he; “but tell me, if thou canst, what is the meaning of the halling in the chamber with the ivory throne?”
Said the carline: “Thereof shall another tell thee, who can tell of it better than I; but it is nought to hide that yonder chamber is the chamber of estate of our Lady, and she sitteth there to hear the cases of folk and to give dooms.”
The old woman crossed herself as she spoke, and Ralph wondered thereat, but asked no more questions, for he was scarce sorry that the carline would not tell him thereof, lest she should spoil the tale.
So passed the evening, and he went to bed and slept as a young man should, and the next day he was up betimes and went abroad and mingled with the carles and queens afield; but this time he spake not of the Lady, and heard nought to heed from any of that folk. So he went back to the castle and gat him a bow and arrows, and entered the thicket of the wood nigh where he and Roger first came out of it. He had prayed a young man of the folk to go with him, but he was not over willing to go, though he would not say wherefore. So Ralph went himself by himself and wandered some way into the wood, and saw nought worse than himself. As he came back, making a circuit toward the open meadows, he happened on a herd of deer in a lonely place, half wood half meadow, and there he slew a hart with one shaft, for he was a deft bowman. Then he went and fetched a leash of carles, who went with him somewhat less than half willingly, and between them they broke up the hart and carried him home to the castle, where the carline met them. She smiled on Ralph and praised the venison, and said withal that the hunting was well done; “For, as fond and as fair as thou mayst be, it is not good that young men should have their minds set on one thing only.” Therewith she led him in to his meat, and set him down and served him; and all the while of his dinner he was longing to ask her if she deemed that the Lady would come that day, since it was the last day of those which Roger had bidden him wait; but the words would not out of his mouth.
She looked at him and smiled, as though she had a guess of his thought, and at last she said to him: “Thy tongue is tied to-day. Hast thou, after all, seen something strange in the wood?” He shook his head for naysay. Said she: “Why, then, dost thou not ask more concerning the Well at the World’s End?”
He laughed, and said: “Maybe because I think that thou canst not tell me thereof.” “Well,” she said, “if I cannot, yet the book may, and this evening, when the sun is down, thou shalt have it.”
“I thank thee, mother,” said he; “but this is now the last day that Roger bade me wait. Dost thou think that he will come back to-night?” and he reddened therewith. “Nay,” she said, “I know not, and thou carest not whether he will come or not. Yet I know that thou wilt abide here till some one else come, whether that be early or late.” Again he reddened, and said, in a coaxing way: “And wilt thou give me guesting, mother, for a few more summer days?”
“Yea,” she said, “and till summer is over, if need be, and the corn is cut and carried, and till the winter is come and the latter end of winter is gone.” He smiled faintly, though his heart fell, and he said: “Nay, mother, and can it by any chance be so long a-coming?”
“O, fair boy,” she said, “thou wilt make it long, howsoever short it be. And now I will give thee a rede, lest thou vex thyself sick and fret thy very heart. To-morrow go see if thou canst meet thy fate instead of abiding it. Do on thy war-gear and take thy sword and try the adventure of the wildwood; but go not over deep into it.” Said he: “But how if the Lady come while I am away from this house?”
“Sooth to say,” said the carline, “I deem not that she will, for the way is long betwixt us and her.”
“Dost thou mean,” said Ralph, standing up from the board, “that she will not come ever? I adjure thee not to beguile me with soft words, but tell me the very sooth.” “There, there!” said she, “sit down, king’s son; eat thy meat and drink thy wine; for to-morrow is a new day. She will come soon or late, if she be yet in the world. And now I will say no more to thee concerning this matter.”
Therewith she went her ways from the hall, and when she came back with hand-basin and towel, she said no word to him, but only smiled kindly. He went out presently into the meadow (for it was yet but early afternoon) and came among the haymaking folk and spake with them, hoping that perchance some of them might speak again of the Lady of Abundance; but none of them did so, though the old carle he had spoken with was there, and there also were the two maidens whom he had seen fishing; and as for him, he was over faint-hearted to ask them any more questions concerning her.
Yet he abode with them long, and ate and drank amidst the hay with them till the moon shone brightly. Then he went back to the castle and found the carline in the hall, and she had the book with her and gave it to him, and he sat down in the shot-window under the waxlights and fell to reading of it.