He read again in the book that night, till he had gotten the whole tale into his head, and he specially noted this of it, that it told not whence that Lady came, nor what she was, nor aught else save that there she was in the wood by herself, and was found therein by the king’s son: neither told the tale in what year of the world she was found there, though it told concerning all the war and miseries which she had bred, and which long endured. Again, he could not gather from that book why she had gone back to the lone place in the woods, whereas she might have wedded one of those warring barons who sorely desired her: nor why she had yielded herself to the witch of that place and endured with patience her thralldom, with stripes and torments of her body, like the worst of the thralls of the ancient heathen men. Lastly, he might not learn from the book where in the world was that lone place, or aught of the road to the Well at the World’s End. But amidst all his thinking his heart came back to this: “When I meet her, she will tell me of it all; I need be no wiser than to learn how to meet her and to make her love me; then shall she show me the way to the Well at the World’s End, and I shall drink thereof and never grow old, even as she endureth in youth, and she shall love me for ever, and I her for ever.”
So he thought; but yet amidst these happy thoughts came in this evil one, that whereas all the men-folk spoke well of her and worshipped her, the women-folk feared her or hated her; even to the lecherous old woman who had praised the beauty of her body for his torment. So he thought till his head grew heavy, and he went and lay down in his bed and slept, and dreamed of the days of Upmead; and things forgotten in his waking time came between him and any memories of his present longing and the days thereof.
He awoke and arose betimes in the morning, and when he had breakfasted he bade the carline bring him his weapons. “Wilt thou again to the wood?” said she. “Didst thou not bid me fare thither yesterday?” said he. “Yea,” she said; “but to-day I fear lest thou depart and come not back.” He laughed and said: “Seest thou not, mother, that I go afoot, and I in hauberk and helm? I cannot run far or fast from thee. Also” (and here he broke off his speech a little) “where should I be but here?”
“Ah,” she said, “but who knows what may happen?” Nevertheless she went and fetched his war-gear and looked at him fondly as he did it on, and went his ways from the hall.
Now he entered the wood more to the south than he had done yesterday, and went softly as before, and still was he turning over in his mind the thoughts of last night, and ever they came back. “Might I but see her! Would she but love me! O for a draught of the Well at the World’s End, that the love might last long and long!”
So he went on a while betwixt the trees and the thickets, till it was a little past noon. But all on a sudden a panic fear took him, lest she should indeed come to the castle while he was away, and not finding him, depart again, who knows whither; and when this thought came upon him, he cried aloud, and hastened at his swiftest back again to the castle, and came there breathless and wearied, and ran to the old woman, and cried out to her; “Is she come? is she come?”
The carline laughed and said, “Nay, she is not, but thou art come: praise be to the saints! But what aileth thee? Nay, fear not, she shall come at last.”
Then grew Ralph shamefaced and turned away from her, and miscalled himself for a fool and a dastard that could not abide the pleasure of his lady at the very place whereto she had let lead him. So he wore through the remnant of the day howso he might, without going out-adoors again; and the carline came and spake with him; but whatever he asked her about the lady, she would not tell aught of any import, so he refrained him from that talk, and made a show of hearkening when she spake of other matters; as tales concerning the folk of the land, and the Fathers of the Thorn, and so forth.
On the next morning he arose and said to himself, that whatever betid, he would bide in the castle and the Plain of Abundance till the lady came; and he went amongst the haymaking folk in the morning and ate his dinner with them, and strove to be of good cheer, and belike the carles and queens thought him merry company; but he was now wearying his heart with longing, and might not abide any great while in one place; so when, dinner over, they turned to their work again, he went back to the Castle, and read in that book, and looked at the pictures thereof, and kept turning his wonder and hope and fear over and over again in his mind, and making to himself stories of how he should meet the Lady and what she would say to him, and how he should answer her, till at last the night came, and he went to his bed, and slept for the very weariness of his longing.
When the new day came he arose and went into the hall, and found the carline there, who said to him, “Fair sir, will thou to the wood again to-day?” “Nay,” said Ralph, “I must not, I dare not.” “Well,” she said, “thou mayest if thou wilt; why shouldst thou not go?” Said Ralph, reddening and stammering: “Because I fear to; thrice have I been away long from the castle and all has gone well; but the fourth time she will come and find me gone.”
The carline laughed: “Well,” she said, “I shall be here if thou goest; for I promise thee not to stir out of the house whiles thou art away.” Said Ralph: “Nay, I will abide here.” “Yea,” she said, “I see: thou trustest me not. Well, no matter; and to-day it will be handy if thou abidest. For I have an errand to my brother in the flesh, who is one of the brethren of the Thorn over yonder. If thou wilt give me leave, it will be to my pleasure and gain.”
Ralph was glad when he heard this, deeming that if she left him alone there, he would be the less tempted to stray into the wood again. Besides, he deemed that the Lady might come that day when he was alone in the Castle, and that himseemed would make the meeting sweeter yet. So he yea-said the carline’s asking joyously, and in an hour’s time she went her ways and left him alone there.
Ralph said to himself, when he saw her depart, that he would have the more joy in the castle of his Lady if he were alone, and would wear away the day in better patience therefor. But in sooth the hours of that day were worse to wear than any day there had yet been. He went not without the house at all that day, for he deemed that the folk abroad would note of him that he was so changed and restless.
Whiles he read in that book, or turned the leaves over, not reading it; whiles he went into the Chamber of Estate, and pored over the woven pictures there wherein the Lady was figured. Whiles he wandered from chamber to chamber, not knowing what to do.
At last, a little after dark, back comes the carline again, and he met her at the door of the hall, for he was weary of his own company, and the ceaseless turning over and over of the same thoughts.
As for her, she was so joyous of him that she fairly threw her arms about him and kissed and clipped him, as though she had been his very mother. Whereof he had some shame, but not much, for he deemed that her goodwill to him was abundant, which indeed it was.
Now she looks on him and says: “Truly it does my heart good to see thee: but thou poor boy, thou art wearing thyself with thy longing, and thy doubting, and if thou wilt do after my rede, thou wilt certainly go into the wood to-morrow and see what may befall; and indeed and in sooth thou wilt leave behind thee a trusty friend.”
He looked on her kindly, and smiled, and said, “In sooth, mother, I deem thou art but right; though it be hard for me to leave this house, to which in a way my Lady hath bidden me. Yet I will do thy bidding herein.” She thanked him, and he went to his bed and slept; for now that he had made up his mind to go, he was somewhat more at rest.