It was the monk who had been his guide the day before who had now waked him, and he stood by the bedside holding a great bowl of milk in his hand, and as Ralph sat up, and rubbed his eyes, with all his youthful sloth upon him, the monk laughed and said:
“That is well, lord, that is well! I love to see a young man so sleepy in the morning; it is a sign of thriving; and I see thou art thriving heartily for the time when thou shalt come back to us to lead my lord’s host in battle.”
“Where be the bale-fires?” said Ralph, not yet fully awake.
“Where be they!” said the brother, “where be they! They be sunken to cold coals long ago, like many a man’s desires and hopes, who hath not yet laid his head on the bosom of the mother, that is Holy Church. Come, my lord, arise, and drink the monk’s wine of morning, and then if ye must need ride, ride betimes, and ride hard; for the Wood Perilous beginneth presently as ye wend your ways; and it were well for thee to reach the Burg of the Four Friths ere thou be benighted. For, son, there be untoward things in the wood; and though some of them be of those for whom Christ’s Cross was shapen, yet have they forgotten hell, and hope not for heaven, and their by-word is, ‘Thou shalt lack ere I lack.’ Furthermore there are worse wights in the wood than they be— God save us!—but against them have I a good hauberk, a neck-guard which I will give thee, son, in token that I look to see thee again at the lovely house of Mary our Mother.”
Ralph had taken the bowl and was drinking, but he looked over the brim, and saw how the monk drew from his frock a pair of beads, as like to Dame Katherine’s gift as one pea to another, save that at the end thereof was a little box shapen crosswise. Ralph emptied the bowl hastily, got out of bed, and sat on the bed naked, save that on his neck was Dame Katherine’s gift. He reached out his hand and took the beads from the monk and reddened therewith, as was his wont when he had to begin a contest in words: but he said:
“I thank thee, father; yet God wot if these beads will lie sweetly alongside the collar which I bear on my neck as now, which is the gift of a dear friend.”
The monk made up a solemn countenance and said: “Thou sayest sooth, my son; it is most like that my chaplet, which hath been blessed time was by the holy Richard, is no meet fellow for the gift of some light love of thine: or even,” quoth he, noting Ralph’s flush deepen, and his brow knit, “or even if it were the gift of a well-willer, yet belike it is a worldly gift; therefore, since thy journey is with peril, thou wert best do it off and let me keep it for thee till thou comest again.”
Now as he spake he looked anxiously, nay, it may be said greedily, at the young man. But Ralph said nought; for in his heart he was determined not to chaffer away his gossip’s gift for any shaveling’s token. Yet he knew not how to set his youthful words against the father’s wisdom; so he stood up, and got his shirt into his hand, and as he did it over his head he fell to singing to himself a song of eventide of the High House of Upmeads, the words whereof were somewhat like to these:
Art thou man, art thou maid, through the long grass a-going?
For short shirt thou bearest, and no beard I see,
And the last wind ere moonrise about thee is blowing.
Would’st thou meet with thy maiden or look’st thou for me?
Bright shineth the moon now, I see thy gown longer;
And down by the hazels Joan meeteth her lad:
But hard is thy palm, lass, and scarcely were stronger
Wat’s grip than thine hand-kiss that maketh me glad.
And now as the candles shine on us and over,
Full shapely thy feet are, but brown on the floor,
As the bare-footed mowers amidst of the clover
When the gowk’s note is broken and mid-June is o’er.
O hard are mine hand-palms because on the ridges
I carried the reap-hook and smote for thy sake;
And in the hot noon-tide I beat off the midges
As thou slep’st ‘neath the linden o’er-loathe to awake.
And brown are my feet now because the sun burneth
High up on the down-side amidst of the sheep,
And there in the hollow wherefrom the wind turneth,
Thou lay’st in my lap while I sung thee to sleep.
O friend of the earth, O come nigher and nigher,
Thou art sweet with the sun’s kiss as meads of the May,
O’er the rocks of the waste, o’er the water and fire,
Will I follow thee, love, till earth waneth away.
The monk hearkened to him with knitted brow, and as one that liketh not the speech of his fellow, though it be not wise to question it: then he went out of the chamber, but left the pair of beads lying in the window. But Ralph clad himself in haste, and when he was fully clad, went up to the window and took the beads in his hand, and looked into them curiously and turned them over, but left them lying there. Then he went forth also, and came into the forecourt of the house, and found there a squire of the men-at-arms with his weapons and horse, who helped him to do on his war-gear.
So then, just as he was setting his foot in the stirrup, came the Brother again, with his face once more grown smiling and happy; and in his left hand he held the chaplet, but did not offer it to Ralph again, but nodded his head to him kindly, and said: “Now, lord, I can see by thy face that thou art set on beholding the fashion of this world, and most like it will give thee the rue.”
Then came a word into Ralph’s mouth, and he said: “Wilt thou tell me, father, whose work was the world’s fashion?”
The monk reddened, but answered nought, and Ralph spake again:
“Forsooth, did the craftsman of it fumble over his work?”
Then the monk scowled, but presently he enforced himself to speak blithely, and said: “Such matters are over high for my speech or thine, lord; but I tell thee, who knoweth, that there are men in this House who have tried the world and found it wanting.”
Ralph smiled, and said stammering:
“Father, did the world try them, and find them wanting perchance?”
Then he reddened, and said: “Are ye verily all such as this in this House? Who then is it who hath made so fair a lordship, and so goodly a governance for so many people? Know ye not at all of the world’s ways!”
“Fair sir,” said the monk sternly, “they that work for us work for the Lord and all his servants.”
“Yea,” said Ralph, “so it is; and will the Lord be content with the service of him whom the devil hath cast out because he hath found him a dastard?”
The monk frowned, yet smiled somewhat withal, and said: “Sir, thou art young, but thy wits are over old for me; but there are they in this House who may answer thee featly; men who have read the books of the wise men of the heathen, and the doctors of Holy Church, and are even now making books for the scribes to copy.” Then his voice softened, and he said: “Dear lord, we should be right fain of thee here, but since thou must needs go, go with my blessing, and double blessing shalt thou have when thou comest back to us.” Then Ralph remembered his promise to the shepherds and took a gold crown from his pouch, and said: “Father, I pray thee say a mass for the shepherd downsmen; and this is for the offering.”
The monk praised the gift and the bidding, and kissed Ralph, who clomb into his saddle; and the brother hospitalier brought him his wallet with good meat and drink therein for the way. Then Ralph shook his rein, and rode out of the abbey-gate, smiling at the lay-brethren and the men-at-arms who hung about there.
But he sighed for pleasure when he found himself in the street again, and looked on the shops of the chapmen and the booths of the petty craftsmen, as shoe-smiths and glovers, and tinsmiths and coppersmiths, and horners and the like; and the folk that he met as he rode toward the southern gate seemed to him merry and in good case, and goodly to look on. And he thought it pleasant to gaze on the damsels in the street, who were fair and well clad: and there were a many of them about his way now, especially as he drew nigh the gate before the streets branched off: for folk were coming in from the countryside with victual and other wares for the town and the Abbey; and surely as he looked on some of the maidens he deemed that Hall-song of Upmeads a good one.