But when all was done to make the wounded knight as easy as might be, the Lady turned to the other twain, and said kindly: “Now, lords, it were good to get to table, since here is wherewithal.” And she looked on them both full kindly as she spake the words, but nowise wantonly; even as the lady of a fair house might do by honoured guests. So the hearts of both were cheered, and nothing loth they sat down by her on the grass and fell to meat. Yet was the Knight of the Sun a little moody for a while, but when he had eaten and drunken somewhat, he said: “It were well if someone might come hereby, some hermit or holy man, to whom we might give the care of Walter: then might we home to Sunway, and send folk with a litter to fetch him home softly when the due time were.”
“Yea,” said the Lady, “that might happen forsooth, and perchance it will; and if it were before nightfall it were better.”
Ralph saw that as she spake she took hold of the two fingers of her left hand with her right forefinger, and let the thumb meet it, so that it made a circle about them, and she spake something therewith in a low voice, but he heeded it little, save as he did all ways that her body moved. As for the Knight of the Sun, he was looking down on the grass as one pondering matters, and noted this not. But he said presently: “What hast thou to say of Walter now? Shall he live?” “Yea,” she said, “maybe as long as either of you twain.” The knight looked hard at Ralph, but said nothing, and Ralph heeded not his looks, for his eyes were busy devouring the Lady.
So they abode a little, and the more part of what talk there was came from the Lady, and she was chiefly asking Ralph of his home in Upmeads, and his brethren and kindred, and he told her all openly, and hid naught, while her voice ravished his very soul from him, and it seemed strange to him, that such an one should hold him in talk concerning these simple matters and familiar haps, and look on him so kindly and simply. Ever and anon would she go and look to the welfare of the wounded man, and come back from him (for they sat a little way aloof), and tell them how he did. And still the Knight of the Sun took little heed, and once again gloom settled down on him.
Amidst all this the sun was set, and the long water lay beneath the heavens like a sheet of bright, fairhued metal, and naught stirred it: till at last the Lady leaned forward to Ralph, and touched his shoulder (for he was sitting over against her, with his back to the water), and she said: “Sir Knight, Sir Knight, his wish is coming about, I believe verily.” He turned his head to look over his shoulder, and, as if by chance-hap, his cheek met the outstretched hand she was pointing with: she drew it not away very speedily, and as sweet to him was the touch of it as if his face had been brushed past by a summer lily.
“Nay, look! something cometh,” she cried; and he looked and saw a little boat making down the water toward the end anigh them. Then the Knight of the Sun seemed to awake at her word, and he leapt to his feet, and stood looking at the new comer.
It was but a little while ere the boat touched the shore, and a man stepped out of it on to the grass and made it fast to the bank, and then stood and looked about him as if seeking something; and lo, it was a holy man, a hermit in the habit of the Blackfriars.
Then the Knight of the Sun hastened down to the strand to meet him, and when Ralph was thus left alone with the Lady, though it were but for a little, his heart beat and he longed sore to touch her with his hand, but durst not, and did but hope that her hand would stray his way as it had e’en now. But she arose and stood a little way from him, and spake to him sweetly of the fairness of the evening, and the wounded man, and the good hap of the friar’s coming before nightfall; and his heart was wrung sore with the love of her.
So came the knight up from the strand, and the holy man with him, who greeted Ralph and the Lady and blessed them, and said: “Now, daughter, show me thy sick man; for I am somewhat of a leech, and this thy baron would have me heal him, and I have a right good will thereto.”
So he went to the Black Knight, and when he had looked to his hurts, he turned to them and said: “Have ye perchance any meat in the wilderness?” “Yea,” quoth the Knight of the Sun; “there is enough for a day or more, and if we must needs abide here longer, I or this young man may well make shift to slay some deer, great or little, for our sustenance and the healing of my friend.”
“It is well,” said the Friar; “my hermitage is no great way hence, in the thicket at the end of this water. But now is the fever on this knight, and we may not move him ere morning at soonest; but to-morrow we may make a shift to bear him hence by boat: or, if not, then may I go and fetch from my cell bread and other meat, and milk of my goats; and thus shall we do well till we may bring him to my cell, and then shall ye leave him there; and afterwards I will lead him home to Sunway where thou dwellest, baron, when he is well enough healed; or, if he will not go thither, let him go his ways, and I myself will come to Sunway and let thee wot of his welfare.”
The knight yeasaid all this, and thereafter the Friar and the Lady together tended the wounded knight, and gave him water to drink, and wine. And meanwhile Ralph and the Knight of the Sun lay down on the grass and watched the eve darkening, and Ralph marvelled at his happiness, and wondered what the morrow would bring forth.
But amidst his happy thoughts the Knight of the Sun spake to him and said: “Young knight, I have struck a bargain with her that thou shalt follow us home, if thou wilt: but to say sooth, I think when the bargain was struck I was minded when I had thee at Sunway to cast thee into my prison. But now I will do otherwise, and if thou must needs follow after thine own perdition, as I have, thou shalt do so freely; therefore take again thine armour and weapons, and do what thou wilt with them. But if thou wilt do after my rede, get thee away to-morrow, or better, to-night, and desire our fellowship no more.”
Ralph heard him, and the heart within him was divided. It was in his mind to speak debonairely to the knight; but again he felt as if he hated him, and the blythe words would not come, and he answered doggedly: “I will not leave my Lady since she biddeth me go with her. If thou wilt then, make the most of it that thou art stronger than I, and a warrior more proven; set me before thy sword, and fight with me and slay me.”
Then rose the wrath to the knight’s lips, and he brake forth: “Then is there one other thing for thee to do, and that is that thou take thy sword, which I have just given back to thee, and thrust her through therewith. That were better for thee and for me, and for him who lieth yonder.”
Therewith he arose and strode up and down in the dusk, and Ralph wondered at him, yet hated him now not so much, since he deemed that the Lady would not love him, and that he was angered thereby. Yet about Ralph’s heart there hung a certain fear of what should be.
But presently the knight came and sat down by him again, and again fell to speech with him, and said: “Thou knowest that I may not slay thee, and yet thou sayest, fight with me; is this well done?” “Is it ill done?” said Ralph, “I wot not why.”
The knight was silent awhile, and then he said: “With what words shall I beseech thee to depart while it is yet time? It may well be that in days to come I shall be good to thee, and help thee.”
But Ralph said never a word. Then said the knight, and sighed withal: “I now see this of thee, that thou mayst not depart; well, so let it be!” and he sighed heavily again. Then Ralph strove with himself, and said courteously: “Sir, I am sorry that I am a burden irksome to thee; and that, why I know not, thou mayst not rid thyself of me by the strong hand, and that otherwise thou mayst not be rid of me. What then is this woman to thee, that thou wouldst have me slay her, and yet art so fierce in thy love for her?” The Knight of the Sun laughed wrathfully thereat, and was on the point of answering him, when up came those two from the wounded man, and the Friar said: “The knight shall do well; but well it is for him that the Lady of Abundance was here for his helping; for from her hands goeth all healing, as it was with the holy men of old time. May the saints keep her from all harm; for meek and holy indeed she is, as oft we have heard it.”
The Lady put her hand on his shoulder, as if to bid him silence, and then set herself down on the grass beside the Knight of the Sun, and fell to talking sweetly and blithely to the three men. The Friar answered her with many words, and told her of the deer and fowl of the wood and the water that he was wont to see nigh to his hermitage; for of such things she asked him, and at last he said: “Good sooth, I should be shy to say in all places and before all men of all my dealings with God’s creatures which live about me there. Wot ye what? E’en now I had no thought of coming hitherward; but I was sitting amongst the trees pondering many things, when I began to drowse, and drowsing I heard the thornbushes speaking to me like men, and they bade me take my boat and go up the water to help a man who was in need; and that is how I came hither; benedicite.”
So he spake; but the Knight of the Sun did but put in a word here and there, and that most often a sour and snappish word. As for Ralph, he also spake but little, and strayed somewhat in his answers; for he could not but deem that she spake softlier and kinder to him than to the others; and he was dreamy with love and desire, and scarce knew what he was saying.
Thus they wore away some two hours, the Friar or the Lady turning away at whiles to heed the wounded man, who was now talking wildly in his fever.
But at last the night was grown as dark as it would be, since cloud and storm came not, for the moon had sunk down: so the Lady said: “Now, lords, our candle hath gone out, and I for my part will to bed; so let us each find a meet chamber in the woodland hall; and I will lie near to thee, father, and the wounded friend, lest I be needed to help thee in the night; and thou, Baron of Sunway, lie thou betwixt me and the wood, to ward me from the wild deer and the wood-wights. But thou, Swain of Upmeads, wilt thou deem it hard to lie anear the horses, to watch them if they be scared by aught?”
“Yea,” said the Knight of the Sun, “thou art Lady here forsooth; even as men say of thee, that thou swayest man and beast in the wildwood. But this time at least it is not so ill-marshalled of thee: I myself would have shown folk to chamber here in likewise.”
Therewith he rose up, and walked to and fro for a little, and then went, and sat down on a root of the oak-tree, clasping his knees with his hands, but lay not down awhile. But the Lady made herself a bed of the bracken which was over from those that Ralph had gathered for the bed of the wounded Knight; and the Friar lay down on the grass nigh to her, and both were presently asleep.
Then Ralph got up quietly; and, shamefacedly for very love, passed close beside the sleeping woman as he went to his place by the horses, taking his weapons and wargear with him: and he said to himself as he laid him down, that it was good for him to be quite alone, that he might lie awake and think at his ease of all the loveliness and kindness of his Lady. Howbeit, he was a young man, and a sturdy, used to lying abroad in the fields or the woods, and it was his custom to sleep at once and sweetly when he lay down after the day’s work had wearied him, and even so he did now, and was troubled by no dreams of what was past or to come.