The Water of the Wondrous Isles 1-1
CHAPTER I ~ CATCH AT UTTERHAY
Whilom, as tells the tale, was a walled cheaping-town hight Utterhay, which was builded in a bight of the land a little off the great highway which went from over the mountains to the sea.
The said town was hard on the borders of a wood, which men held to be mighty great, or maybe measureless; though few indeed had entered it, and they that had, brought back tales wild and confused thereof.
Therein was neither highway nor byway, nor wood-reeve nor way-warden; never came chapman thence into Utterhay; no man of Utterhay was so poor or so bold that he durst raise the hunt therein; no outlaw durst flee thereto; no man of God had such trust in the saints that he durst build him a cell in that wood.
For all men deemed it more than perilous; and some said that there walked the worst of the dead; othersome that the Goddesses of the Gentiles haunted there; others again that it was the faery rather, but they full of malice and guile. But most commonly it was deemed that the devils swarmed amidst of its thickets, and that wheresoever a man sought to, who was once environed by it, ever it was the Gate of Hell whereto he came. And the said wood was called Evilshaw.
Nevertheless the cheaping-town throve not ill; for whatso evil things haunted Evilshaw, never came they into Utterhay in such guise that men knew them, neither wotted they of any hurt that they had of the Devils of Evilshaw.
Now in the said cheaping-town, on a day, it was market and high noon, and in the market-place was much people thronging; and amidst of them went a woman, tall, and strong of aspect, of some thirty winters by seeming, black-haired, hook-nosed and hawk-eyed, not so fair to look on as masterful and proud. She led a great grey ass betwixt two panniers, wherein she laded her marketings. But now she had done her chaffer, and was looking about her as if to note the folk for her disport; but when she came across a child, whether it were borne in arms or led by its kinswomen, or were going alone, as were some, she seemed more heedful of it, and eyed it more closely than aught else.
So she strolled about till she was come to the outskirts of the throng, and there she happened on a babe of some two winters, which was crawling about on its hands and knees, with scarce a rag upon its little body. She watched it, and looked whereto it was going, and saw a woman sitting on a stone, with none anigh her, her face bowed over her knees as if she were weary or sorry. Unto her crept the little one, murmuring and merry, and put its arms about the woman’s legs, and buried its face in the folds of her gown: she looked up therewith, and showed a face which had once been full fair, but was now grown bony and haggard, though she were scarce past five and twenty years. She took the child and strained it to her bosom, and kissed it, face and hands, and made it great cheer, but ever woefully. The tall stranger stood looking down on her, and noted how evilly she was clad, and how she seemed to have nought to do with that throng of thriving cheapeners, and she smiled somewhat sourly.
At last she spake, and her voice was not so harsh as might have been looked for from her face: Dame, she said, thou seemest to be less busy than most folk here; might I crave of thee to tell an alien who has but some hour to dwell in this good town where she may find her a chamber wherein to rest and eat a morsel, and be untroubled of ribalds and ill company? Said the poor-wife: Short shall be my tale; I am over poor to know of hostelries and ale-houses that I may tell thee aught thereof. Said the other: Maybe some neighbour of thine would take me in for thy sake? Said the mother: What neighbours have I since my man died; and I dying of hunger, and in this town of thrift and abundance?
The leader of the ass was silent a while, then she said: Poor woman! I begin to have pity on thee; and I tell thee that luck hath come to thee today.
Now the poor-wife had stood up with the babe in her arms and was turning to go her ways; but the alien put forth a hand to her, and said: Stand a while and hearken good tidings. And she put her hand to her girdle-pouch, and drew thereout a good golden piece, a noble, and said: When I am sitting down in thine house thou wilt have earned this, and when I take my soles out thereof there will be three more of like countenance, if I be content with thee meanwhile.
The woman looked on the gold, and tears came into her eyes; but she laughed and said: Houseroom may I give thee for an hour truly, and therewithal water of the well, and a mouse’s meal of bread. If thou deem that worth three nobles, how may I say thee nay, when they may save the life of my little one. But what else wouldst thou of me? Little enough, said the alien; so lead me straight to thine house.
So went they forth of the market-place, and the woman led them, the alien and the ass, out of the street through the west gate of Utterhay, that, to wit, which looked on Evilshaw, and so into a scattering street without the wall, the end of which neared a corner of the wood aforesaid: the houses there were nought so evil of fashion, but whereas they were so nigh unto the Devil’s Park, rich men might no longer away with them, and they were become wares for poor folk.
Now the townswoman laid her hand on the latch of the door that was hers, and threw the door open; then she put forth her palm to the other, and said: Wilt thou give me the first gold now, since rest is made sure for thee, as long as thou wilt? The ass-leader put it into her hand, and she took it and laid it on her baby’s cheek, and then kissed both gold and child together; then she turned to the alien and said: As for thy way-beast, I have nought for him, neither hay nor corn: thou wert best to leave him in the street. The stranger nodded a yeasay, and the three went in together, the mother, the child, and the alien.
Not right small was the chamber; but there was little therein; one stool to wit, a yew-chair, a little table, and a coffer: there was no fire on the hearth, nought save white ashes of small wood; but it was June, so that was of no account.
The guest sat down in the yew-chair, and the poor-wife laid her child down gently on the floor and came and stood before the stranger, as if abiding her bidding.
Spake the alien: Nought so uncomely or strait is thy chamber; and thy child, which I see is a woman, and therefore belike shall long abide with thee, is lovely of shape, and fair of flesh. Now also thou shalt have better days, as I deem, and I pray them on thine head.
She spake in a kind wheedling voice, and the poor-wife’s face grew softer, and presently tears fell down on to the table from her, but she spake no word. The guest now drew forth, not three nobles, but four, and laid them on the table, and said: Lo, my friend, the three nobles which I behight thee! now are they thine; but this other thou shalt take and spend for me. Go up into the town, and buy for me white bread of the best; and right good flesh, or poulaine if it may be, already cooked and dight; and, withal, the best wine that thou mayst get, and sweetmeats for thy baby; and when thou comest back, we will sit together and dine here. And thereafter, when we be full of meat and drink, we shall devise something more for thy good speed.
The woman knelt before her weeping, but might speak no word because of the fullness of her heart. She kissed the guest’s hands, and took the money, and then arose and caught up her child, and kissed her bare flesh eagerly many times, and then hastened out of the house and up the street and through the gate; and the guest sat hearkening to the sound of her footsteps till it died out, and there was nought to be heard save the far-off murmur of the market, and the chirrup of the little one on the floor.
Then arose the guest and took up the child from the floor, who kicked and screamed, and craved her mother as her broken speech might; but the alien spake softly to her, and said: Hush, dear one, and be good, and we will go and find her; and she gave her therewith a sugar-plum from out of her scrip. Then she came out of doors, and spake sweetly to the little one: See now this pretty way-beast. We will ride merrily on him to find thy mother.
Then she laid the child in the pannier with a soft cushion under, and a silk cloth over her, so that she lay there happily. Then she took her ass’s rein and went her ways over the waste toward Evilshaw; for, as ye may deem, where the houses and the street ended, the beaten way ended also.
Quietly and speedily she went, and met but three men on the way; and when these saw her, and that she was making for Evilshaw, they turned their heads away, each one, and blessed themselves, and went past swiftly. Not one sought to stay her, or held any converse with her, and no foot she heard following after her. So in scarce more than the saying of a low mass she was in amongst the trees, with her ass and her wares and her prey.
No stay she made there, but held forward at her best before the night should fall upon her. And whatsoever might be told concerning the creatures that other folk had met in Evilshaw, of her it must needs be said that therein she happened on nought worser than herself.