But the morning began to wear as he sat deep in these thoughts and still the Carline came not to him; and he thought: “She leaveth me alone that I may do her bidding: so will I without tarrying.” And he arose and did on his hauberk and basnet, and girt his sword to his side, and went forth, a-foot as before. He crossed the river by a wide ford and stepping stones somewhat below the pool wherein he had bathed on that first day; and already by then he had got so far, what with the fresh air of the beauteous morning, what with the cheerful tinkling of his sword and hauberk, he was somewhat amended of his trouble and heaviness of spirit. A little way across the river, but nigher to the wood, was a house or cot of that country-folk, and an old woman sat spinning in the door. So Ralph went up thither, and greeted her, and craved of her a draught of milk; so the goody turned about and cried out to one within, and there came forth one of the maidens whom Ralph had met fishing that other day, and the old woman bade her bring forth milk and bread. Then the carline looked hard at Ralph, and said: “Ah! I have heard tell of thee: thou art abiding the turn of the days up at the castle yonder, as others have done before thee. Well, well, belike thou shalt have thy wish, though whether it shall be to thy profit, who shall say?”
Thereat Ralph’s heart fell again, and he said: “Sayest thou, mother, that there have been others abiding like me in the tower? I know not what thy words mean.”
The carline laughed. “Well,” said she, “here comes thy morning’s bait borne by shapely hands enough; eat and drink first; and then will I tell thee my meaning.”
Therewith came the maiden forth with the bowl and the loaf; and indeed she was fair enough, and shy and kind; but Ralph heeded her little, nor was his heart moved by her at all. She set a stool for him beside the door and he sat down and ate and drank, though his heart was troubled; and the maiden hung about, and seemed to find it no easy matter to keep her eyes off him.
Presently the carline, who had been watching the two, said: “Thou askest of the meaning of my words; well, deemest thou that I have had more men than one to love me?” “I know not, mother,” said Ralph, who could scarce hold himself patient. “There now!” quoth the carline, “look at my damsel! (she is not my daughter, but my brother’s,) there is a man, and a brisk lad too, whom she calleth her batchelor, and is as I verily deem well-pleased with him: yet lo you how she eyeth thee, thou fair man, and doth so with her raiment that thou mayst best see how shapely she is of limb and foot, and toyeth her right hand with her left wrist, and the like.—Well, as for me, I have had more lovers than one or two. And why have I had just so many and no more? Nay, thou needest not make any long answer to me. I am old now, and even before I was old I was not young: I am now foul of favour, and even before I became foul, I was not so fair—well then?”
“Yea, what then?” said Ralph. “This then, fair young fool,” said she: “the one whom thou lovest, long hath she lived, but she is not old to look on, nor foul; but fair—O how fair!”
Then Ralph forgot his fear, and his heart grew greedy and his eyes glistened, and he said, yet he spoke faintly: “Yea, is she fair?” “What! hast thou not seen her?” said the carline. Ralph called to mind the guise in which he had seen her and flushed bright red, as he answered: “Yea, I deem that I have: surely it was she.” The carline laughed: “Well,” said she; “however thou hast seen her, thou hast scarce seen her as I have.” Said Ralph, “How was that?” Said she: “It is her way here in the summer-tide to bathe her in yonder pool up the water:” (and it was the same pool wherein Ralph had bathed) “And she hath me and my niece and two other women to hold up the silken cloth betwixt her body and the world; so that I have seen her as God made her; and I shall tell thee that when he was about that work he was minded to be a craftsmaster; for there is no blemish about her that she should hide her at all or anywhere. Her sides are sleek, and her thighs no rougher than her face, and her feet as dainty as her hands: yea, she is a pearl all over, withal she is as strong as a knight, and I warrant her hardier of heart than most knights. A happy man shalt thou be; for surely I deem thou hast not come hither to abide her without some token or warrant of her.”
Ralph held down his head, and he could not meet the old woman’s eyes as she spake thus; and the maiden took herself out of earshot at the first words of the carline hereof, and was halfway down to the river by now.
Ralph spake after a while and said: “Tell me, is she good, and a good woman?” The dame laughed scornfully and said: “Surely, surely; she is the saint of the Forest Land, and the guardian of all poor folk. Ask the carles else!”
Ralph held his peace, and rose to be gone and turning saw the damsel wading the shallow ford, and looking over her shoulder at him. He gave the dame good day, and departed light-foot but heavy hearted. Yet as he went, he kept saying to himself: “Did she not send that Roger to turn my ways hither? yet she cometh not. Surely she hath changed in these last days, or it may be in these last hours: yea, or this very hour.”
Amidst such thoughts he came into the wood, and made his way by the paths and open places, going south and east of the House: Whereas the last day he had gone west and north. He went a soft pace, but wandered on without any stay till it was noon, and he had seen nought but the wild things of the wood, nor many of them. But at last he heard the tinkle of a little bell coming towards him: so he stood still and got the hilt of his sword ready to his hand; and the tinkle drew nearer, and he heard withal the trample of some riding-beast; so he went toward the sound, and presently in a clearer place of the wood came upon a man of religion, a clerk, riding on a hackney, to whose neck hung a horse-bell: the priest had saddle bags beside him and carried in his right hand a book in a bag. When he met Ralph he blessed him, and Ralph gave him the sele of the day, and asked him whither he would. Said the Priest: “I am for the Little Plain and the Land of Abundance; whence art thou, my son, and whither wilt thou?” “From that very land I come,” said Ralph, “and as to whither, I seek adventures; but unless I see more than I have this forenoon, or thou canst tell me of them, back will I whence I came: yet to say sooth, I shall not be sorry for a fellow to help me back, for these woodland ways are some-what blind.”
Said the Priest: “I will bear thee company with a good will; and I know the road right well; for I am the Vicar appointed by the fathers of the Thorn to serve the church of the Little Plain, and the chapel of St. Anthony yonder in the wood, and to-day I go to the church of the good folk there.”
So Ralph turned, and went along with him, walking by his bridle-rein. And as they went the priest said to him: “Art thou one of my lady’s lords?” Ralph reddened as he sighed, and said: “I am no captain of hers.” Then smiled the priest and said: “Then will I not ask thee of thine errand; for belike thou wouldest not tell me thereof.”
Ralph said nought, but waxed shamefaced as he deemed that the priest eyed him curiously. At last he said: “I will ask thee a question in turn, father.” “Yea,” said the priest. Said Ralph: “This lady of the land, the Lady of Abundance, is she a very woman?” “Holy Saints!” quoth the priest, blessing himself, “what meanest thou?” Said Ralph: “I mean, is she of those who outwardly have a woman’s semblance, but within are of the race of the ancient devils, the gods of the Gentiles?”
Then the priest crossed himself again, and spake as solemnly as a judge on the bench: “Son, I pray that if thou art not in thy right mind, thou will come thereinto anon. Know this, that whatever else she may be, she is a right holy woman. Or hast thou perchance heard any evil tales concerning her?”
Now Ralph was confused at his word, and knew not what to say; for though in his mind he had been piecing together all that he had heard of the lady both for good and for evil, he had no clear tale to tell even to himself: so he answered nothing.
But the priest went on: “Son, I shall tell thee that such tales I have heard, but from whose mouth forsooth? I will tell thee; from a sort of idle jades, young women who would be thought fairer than they be, who are afraid of everything save a naked man, and who can lie easier than they can say their paternoster: from such as these come the stories; or from old crones who live in sour anger with themselves and all else, because they have lived no goodly life in their youth, and have not learned the loveliness of holy church. Now, son, shall the tales of such women, old and young, weigh in thy mind beside the word I tell thee of what I have seen and know concerning this most excellent of ladies? I trow not. And for my part I tell thee, that though she is verily as fair as Venus (God save us) yet is she as chaste as Agnes, as wise as Katherine, and as humble and meek as Dorothy. She bestoweth her goods plentifully to the church, and is merciful to poor men therewith; and so far as occasion may serve her she is constant at the Holy Office; neither doth she spare to confess her sins, and to do all penance which is bidden her, yea and more. For though I cannot say to my knowledge that she weareth a hair; yet once and again have I seen her wending this woodland toward the chapel of her friend St. Anthony by night and cloud, so that few might see her, obedient to the Scripture which sayeth, ‘Let not thy right hand know what thy left hand doeth,’ and she barefoot in her smock amidst the rugged wood, and so arrayed fairer than any queen in a golden gown. Yea, as fair as the woodwives of the ancient heathen.”
Therewith the priest stayed his words, and seemed as if he were fallen into a dream; and he sighed heavily. But Ralph walked on by his bridle-rein dreamy no less; for the words that he had heard he heeded not, save as they made pictures for him of the ways of that woman of the forest.
So they went on soberly till the priest lifted up his head and looked about like one come out of slumber, and said in a firm voice: “I tell thee, my son, that thou mayest set thy love upon her without sin.” And therewith suddenly he fell a-weeping; and Ralph was ill at ease of his weeping, and went along by him saying nought; till the priest plucked up heart again, and said, turning to Ralph, but not meeting his eye: “My son, I weep because men and women are so evil, and mis-say each other so sorely, even as they do by this holy woman.” As he spake his tears brake out again, and Ralph strode on fast, so as to outgo him, thinking it unmannerly to seem as if he noted not his sorrow; yet withal unable to say aught to him thereof. Moreover it irked him to hear a grown man weeping for grief, even though it were but a priest.
Within a while the priest caught up with him, his tears all staunched, and fell to talk with him cheerfully concerning the wood, and the Little Land and the dwellers therein and the conditions of them, and he praised them much, save the women. Ralph answered him with good cheer in likewise; and thus they came to the cot of the old woman, and both she and the maiden were without the house, the old carline hithering and thithering on some errand, the maiden leaning against a tree as if pondering some matter. As they passed by, the priest blessed them in words, but his eyes scowled on them, whereat the carline grinned, but the damsel heeded him not, but looked wistfully on Ralph. The priest muttered somewhat as he passed, which Ralph caught not the meaning of, and fell moody again; and when he was a little past the ford he drew rein and said: “Now, son, I must to my cell hard by the church yonder: but yet I will say one word to thee ere we sunder; to wit, that to my mind the Holy Lady will love no one but the saints of heaven, save it be some man with whom all women are in love.”
Therewith he turned away suddenly, and rode smartly towards his church; and Ralph deemed that he was weeping once more. As for Ralph, he went quietly home toward the castle, for the sun was setting now, and as he went he pondered all these things in his heart.