Ralph went with Richard now without more words, and they came into the market-place and unto Blaise’s booth and house, which was no worse than the best in the place; and the painters and stainers were at work on the upper part of it to make it as bright and goodly as might be with red and blue and green and gold, and all fair colours, and already was there a sign hung out of the fruitful tree by the water-side. As for the booth, it was full within of many wares and far-fetched and dear-bought things; as pieces of good and fine cloth plumbed with the seal of the greatest of the cities; and silk of Babylon, and spices of the hot burning islands, and wonders of the silversmith’s and the goldsmith’s fashioning, and fair-wrought weapons and armour of the best, and every thing that a rich chapman may deal in. And amidst of it all stood Blaise clad in fine black cloth welted with needle work, and a gold chain about his neck. He was talking with three honourable men of the Port, and they were doing him honour with kind words and the bidding of help. When he saw Ralph and Richard come in, he nodded to them, as to men whom he loved, but were beneath him in dignity, and left not talking with the great men. Richard grinned a little thereat, as also did Ralph in his heart; for he thought: “Here then is one of the Upmeads kin provided for, so that soon he may buy with his money two domains as big as Upmeads and call them his manors.”
Now Ralph looks about him, and presently he sees a man come forward to meet him from the innermost of the booth, and lo! there was come Clement Chapman. His heart rose at the sight of him, and he thought of his kind gossip till he could scarce withhold his tears. But Clement came to him and cast his arms about him, and kissed him, and said: “Thou shalt pardon me for this, lord, for it is the kiss of the gossip which she bade me give thee, if I fell in with thee, as now I have, praised be the Saints! Yet it irks me that I shall see little more of thee at this time, for to-morrow early I must needs join myself to my company; for we are going south awhile to a good town some fifty miles hence. Nevertheless, if thou dwellest here some eight days I shall see thee again belike, since thereafter I get me eastward on a hard and long journey not without peril. How sayest thou?”
“I wot not,” quoth Ralph looking at Richard. Said Richard: “Thou mayst wot well, master Clement, that my lord is anhungered of the praise of the folks, and is not like to abide in a mere merchant-town till the mould grow on his back.” “Well, well,” said Clement, “however that may be, I have now done my matters with this cloth-lord, Blaise, and he has my florins in his pouch: so will not ye twain come with me and drink a cup till he hath done his talk with these magnates?”
Ralph was nothing loth, for besides that he loved master Clement, and that his being in company was like having a piece of his home anigh him, he hoped to hear some tidings concerning the Well at the World’s End.
So he and Richard went with master Clement to the Christopher, a fair ale-house over against the Great Church, and sat down to good wine; and Ralph asked of Clement many things concerning dame Katherine his gossip, and Clement told him all, and that she was well, and had been to Upmeads, and had seen King Peter and the mother of Ralph; and how she had assuaged his mother’s grief at his departure by forecasting fair days for her son. All this Ralph heard gladly, though he was somewhat shamefaced withal, and sat silent and thinking of many matters. But Richard took up the word and said: “Which way camest thou from Wulstead, master Clement?” “The nighest way I came,” said Clement, “through the Woods Perilous.” Said Richard: “And they of the Dry Tree, heardest thou aught of them?” “Yea, certes,” quoth Clement, “for I fell in with their Bailiff, and paid him due scot for the passage of the Wood; he knoweth me withal, and we talked together.” “And had he any tidings to tell thee of the champions?” said Richard. Said Clement, “Great tidings maybe, how that there was a rumour that they had lost their young Queen and Lady; and if that be true, it will go nigh to break their hearts, so sore as they loved her. And that will make them bitter and fierce, till their grief has been slaked by the blood of men. And that the more as their old Queen abideth still, and she herself is ever of that mind.”
Ralph hearkened, and his heart was wounded that other men should speak of his beloved: but he heard how Richard said: “Hast thou ever known why that company of champions took the name of the Dry Tree?” “Why, who should know that, if thou knowest it not, Richard of Swevenham?” said Clement: “Is it not by the token of the Dry Tree that standeth in the lands on the hither side of the Wall of the World?” Richard nodded his head; but Ralph cried out: “O Master Clement, and hast thou seen it, the Wall of the World?” “Yea, afar off, my son,” said he; “or what the folk with me called so; as to the Dry Tree, I have told thee at Wulstead that I have seen it not, though I have known men who have told me that they have seen it.” “And must they who find the Well at the World’s End come by the Dry Tree?” “Yea, surely,” said Clement. Quoth Richard: “And thus have some heard, who have gone on that quest, and they have heard of the Champions of Hampton, and have gone thither, being deceived by that name of the Dry Tree, and whiles have been slain by the champions, whiles have entered their company.” “Yea,” said Clement, “so it is that their first error hath ended their quest. But now, lord Ralph, I will tell thee one thing; to wit, that when I return hither after eight days wearing, I shall be wending east, as I said e’en now, and what will that mean save going somewhat nigher to the Wall of the World; for my way lieth beyond the mountains that ye see from hence, and beyond the mountains that lie the other side of those; and I bid thee come with us, and I will be thy warrant that so far thou shalt have no harm: but when thou hast come so far, and hast seen three very fair cities, besides towns and castles and thorps and strange men, and fair merchandize, God forbid that thou shouldest wend further, and so cast away thy young life for a gay-coloured cloud. Then will be the time to come back with me, that I may bring thee through the perils of the way to Wulstead, and Upmeads at the last, and the folk that love thee.”
Richard held his peace at this word, but Ralph said: “I thank thee, Master Clement, for thy love and thy helping hand; and will promise thee to abide thee here eight days at the least; and meanwhile I will ponder the matter well.”