On the morrow Blaise went to his chaffer and to visit the men of the Port at the Guildhall: he bade Ralph come with him, but he would not, but abode in the hall of the hostel and sat pondering sadly while men came and went; but he heard no word spoken of the Well at the World’s End. In like wise passed the next day and the next, save that Richard was among those who came into the hall, and he talked long with Ralph at whiles; that is to say that he spake, and Ralph made semblance of listening.
Now as is aforesaid Richard was old and wise, and he loved Ralph much, more belike than Lord Blaise his proper master, whereas he had no mind for chaffer, or aught pertaining to it: so he took heed of Ralph and saw that he was sad and weary-hearted; so on the sixth day of their abiding at Whitwall, in the morning when all the chapmen were gone about their business, and he and Ralph were left alone in the Hall, he spake to Ralph and said: “This is no prison, lord.” “Even so,” quoth Ralph. “Nay, if thou doubtest it,” said Richard, “let us go to the door and try if they have turned the key and shot the bolt on us.” Ralph smiled faintly and stood up, and said: “I will go with thee if thou willest it, but sooth to say I shall be but a dull fellow of thine to-day.” Said Richard: “Wouldst thou have been better yesterday, lord, or the day before?” “Nay,” said Ralph. “Wilt thou be better to-morrow?” said Richard. Ralph shook his head. Said Richard: “Yea, but thou wilt be, or thou mayst call me a fool else.” “Thou art kind, Richard,” said Ralph; “and I will come with thee, and do what thou biddest me; but I must needs tell thee that my heart is sick.” “Yea,” quoth Richard, “and thou needest not tell me so much, dear youngling; he who runs might read that in thee. But come forth.”
So into the street they went, and Richard brought Ralph into the market-place, and showed him where was Blaise’s booth (for he was thriving greatly) but Ralph would not go anigh it lest his brother should entangle him in talk; and they went into the Guildhall which was both great and fair, and the smell of the new-shaven oak (for the roof was not yet painted) brought back to Ralph’s mind the days of his childhood when he was hanging about the building of the water-reeve’s new house at Upmeads. Then they went into the Great Church and heard a Mass at the altar of St. Nicholas, Ralph’s very friend; and the said church was great to the letter, and very goodly, and somewhat new also, since the blossom-tide of Whitwall was not many years old: and the altars of its chapels were beyond any thing for fairness that Ralph had seen save at Higham on the Way.
But when they came forth from the church, Ralph looked on Richard with a face that was both blank and weary, as who should say: “What is to do now?” And forsooth so woe-begone he looked, that Richard, despite his sorrow and trouble for him, could scarce withhold his laughter. But he said: “Well, foster son (for thou art pretty much that to me), since the good town pleasureth thee little, go we further afield.”
So he led him out of the market-place, and brought him to the east gate of the town which hight Petergate Bar, and forth they went and out into the meadows under the walls, and stayed him at a little bridge over one of the streams, for it was a land of many waters; there they sat down in a nook, and spake Richard to Ralph, saying:
“Lord Ralph, ill it were if the Upmeads kindred came to naught, or even to little. Now as for my own master Blaise, he hath, so please you, the makings of a noble chapman, but not of a noble knight; though he sayeth that when he is right rich he will cast aside all chaffer; naught of which he will do. As for the others, my lord Gregory is no better, or indeed worse, save that he shall not be rich ever, having no mastery ver himself; while lord Hugh is like to be slain in some empty brawl, unless he come back speedily to Upmeads.”
“Yea, yea,” said Ralph, “what then? I came not hither to hear thee missay my mother’s sons.” But Richard went on: “As for thee, lord Ralph, of thee I looked for something; but now I cannot tell; for the heart in thee seemeth to be dead; and thou must look to it lest the body die also.” “So be it!” said Ralph.
Said Richard: “I am old now, but I have been young, and many things have I seen and suffered, ere I came to Upmeads. Old am I, and I cannot feel certain hopes and griefs as a young man can; yet have I bought the knowledge of them dear enough, and have not forgotten. Whereby I wot well that my drearihead is concerning a woman. Is it not so?” “Yea,” quoth Ralph. Said Richard: “Now shalt thou tell me thereof, and so lighten thine heart a little.” “I will not tell thee,” said Ralph; “or, rather, to speak more truly, I cannot.” “Yea,” said Richard, “and though it were now an easier thing for me to tell thee of the griefs of my life than for thee to hearken to the tale, yet I believe thee. But mayhappen thou mayst tell me of one thing that thou desirest more than another.” Said Ralph: “I desire to die.” And the tears started in his eyes therewith. But Richard spake, smiling on him kindly: “That way is open for thee on any day of the week. Why hast thou not taken it already?” But Ralph answered naught. Richard said: “Is it not because thou hopest to desire something; if not to-day, then to-morrow, or the next day or the next?” Still Ralph spake no word; but he wept. Quoth Richard: “Maybe I may help thee to a hope, though thou mayest think my words wild. In the land and the thorp where I was born and bred there was talk now and again of a thing to be sought, which should cure sorrow, and make life blossom in the old, and uphold life in the young.” “Yea,” said Ralph, looking up from his tears, “and what was that? and why hast thou never told me thereof before?” “Nay,” said Richard, “and why should I tell it to the merry lad I knew in Upmeads? but now thou art a man, and hast seen the face of sorrow, it is meet that thou shouldest hear of THE WELL AT THE WORLD’S END.”
Ralph sprang to his feet as he said the word, and cried out eagerly: “Old friend, and where then wert thou bred and born?” Richard laughed and said: “See, then, there is yet a deed and a day betwixt thee and death! But turn about and look straight over the meadows in a line with yonder willow-tree, and tell me what thou seest.” Said Ralph: “The fair plain spreading wide, and a river running through it, and little hills beyond the water, and blue mountains beyond them, and snow yet lying on the tops of them, though the year is in young July.” “Yea,” quoth Richard; “and seest thou on the first of the little hills beyond the river, a great grey tower rising up and houses anigh it?” “Yea,” said Ralph, “the tower I see, and the houses, for I am far-sighted; but the houses are small.” “So it is,” said Richard; “now yonder tower is of the Church of Swevenham, which is under the invocation of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus; and the houses are the houses of the little town. And what has that to do with me? sayest thou: why this, that I was born and bred at Swevenham. And indeed I it was who brought my lord Blaise here to Whitwall, with tales of how good a place it was for chaffer, that I might see the little town and the great grey tower once more. Forsooth I lied not, for thy brother is happy here, whereas he is piling up the coins one upon the other. Forsooth thou shouldest go into his booth, fair lord; it is a goodly sight.”
But Ralph was walking to and fro hastily, and he turned to Richard and said: “Well, well! but why dost thou not tell me more of the Well at the World’s End?”
Said Richard: “I was going to tell thee somewhat which might be worth thy noting; or might not be worth it: hearken! When I dwelt at Swevenham over yonder, and was but of eighteen winters, who am now of three score and eight, three folk of our township, two young men and one young woman, set out thence to seek the said Well: and much lore they had concerning it, which they had learned of an old man, a nigh kinsman of one of them. This ancient carle I had never seen, for he dwelt in the mountains a way off, and these men were some five years older than I, so that I was a boy when they were men grown; and such things I heeded not, but rather sport and play; and above all, I longed for the play of war and battle. God wot I have had my bellyful of it since those days! Howbeit I mind me the setting forth of these three. They had a sumpter-ass with them for their livelihood on the waste; but they went afoot crowned with flowers, and the pipe and tabour playing before them, and much people brought them on the way. By St. Christopher! I can see it all as if it were yesterday. I was sorry of the departure of the damsel; for though I was a boy I had loved her, and she had suffered me to kiss her and toy with her; but it was soon over. Now I call to mind that they had prayed our priest, Sir Cyprian, to bless them on their departure, but he naysaid them; for he held that such a quest came of the inspiration of the devils, and was but a memory of the customs of the ancient gentiles and heathen. But as to me, I deemed it naught, and was sorry that my white-bosomed, sweet-breathed friend should walk away from me thus into the clouds.”
“What came of it?” said Ralph, “did they come back, or any of them?” “I wot not,” said Richard, “for I was weary of Swevenham after that, so I girt myself to a sword and laid a spear upon my shoulder and went my ways to the Castle of the Waste March, sixty miles from Swevenham town, and the Baron took me in and made me his man: and almost as little profit were in my telling thee again of my deeds there, as there was in my doing them: but the grey tower of Swevenham I have never seen again till this hour.”
Said Ralph: “Now then it behoveth me to go to Swevenham straightway: wilt thou come with me? it seemeth to be but some four miles hence.”
Richard held his peace and knit his brows as if pondering the matter, and Ralph abided till he spake: so he said: “Foster-son, so to call thee, thou knowest the manner of up-country carles, that tales flow forth from them the better if they come without over much digging and hoeing of the ground; that is, without questioning; so meseems better it will be if I go to Swevenham alone, and better if I be asked to go, than if I go of myself. Now to-morrow is Saturday, and high market in Whitwall; and I am not so old but that it is likeliest that there will be some of my fellows alive and on their legs in Swevenham: and if such there be, there will be one at the least in the market to-morrow, and I will be there to find him out: and then it will go hard if he bring me not to Swevenham as a well-beloved guest; and when I am there, and telling my tidings, and asking them of theirs, if there be any tales concerning the Well at the World’s End working in their bellies, then shall I be the midwife to bring them to birth. Ha? Will it do?”
“Yea,” said Ralph, “but how long wilt thou be?” Said Richard: “I shall come back speedily if I find the land barren; but if the field be in ear I shall tarry to harvest it. So keep thou thy soul in patience.” “And what shall I do now?” said Ralph. “Wear away the hours,” said Richard. And to begin with, come back within the gates with me and let us go look at thy brother’s booth in the market-place: it is the nethermost of a goodly house which he is minded to dwell in; and he will marry a wife and sit down in Whitwall, so well he seemeth like to thrive; for they have already bidden him to the freedom of the city, and to a brother of the Faring-Knights, whereas he is not only a stirring man, but of good lineage also: for now he hideth not that he is of the Upmeads kindred.”