The Well at World's End 1-10
CHAPTER 10: A MEETING AND A PARTING IN THE WOOD PERILOUS
When the first glimmer of dawn was in the sky he awoke in the fresh morning, and sat up and hearkened, for even as he woke he had heard something, since wariness had made him wakeful. Now he hears the sound of horse-hoofs on the hard road, and riseth to his feet and goeth to the very edge of the copse; looking thence he saw a rider who was just come to the very crossing of the roads. The new comer was much muffled in a wide cloak, but he seemed to be a man low of stature. He peered all round about him as if to see if the way were clear, and then alighted down from horseback and let the hood fall off his head, and seemed pondering which way were the best to take. By this time it was grown somewhat lighter and Ralph, looking hard, deemed that the rider was a woman; so he stepped forward lightly, and as he came on to the open sward about the way, the new comer saw him and put a foot into the stirrup to mount, but yet looked at him over the shoulder, and then presently left the saddle and came forward a few steps as if to meet Ralph, having cast the cloak to the ground.
Then Ralph saw that it was none other than the damsel of the hostelry of Bourton Abbas, and he came up to her and reached out his hand to her, and she took it in both hers and held it and said, smiling: “It is nought save mountains that shall never meet. Here have I followed on thy footsteps; yet knew I not where thou wouldst be in the forest. And now I am glad to have fallen in with thee; for I am going a long way.”
Ralph looked on her and himseemed some pain or shame touched his heart, and he said: “I am a knight adventurous; I have nought to do save to seek adventures. Why should I not go with thee?”
She looked at him earnestly awhile and said: “Nay, it may not be; thou art a lord’s son, and I a yeoman’s daughter.” She stopped, and he said nothing in answer.
“Furthermore,” said she, “it is a long way, and I know not how long.” Again he made no answer, and she said: “I am going to seek the WELL AT THE WORLD’S END, and to find it and live, or to find it not, and die.”
He spake after a while: “Why should I not come with thee?”
It was growing light now, and he could see that she reddened and then turned pale and set her lips close.
Then she said: “Because thou willest it not: because thou hadst liefer make that journey with some one else.”
He reddened in his turn, and said: “I know of no one else who shall go with me.”
“Well,” she said, “it is all one, I will not have thee go with me.” “Yea, and why not?” said he. She said: “Wilt thou swear to me that nought hath happed to thee to change thee betwixt this and Bourton? If thou wilt, then come with me; if thou wilt not, then refrain thee. And this I say because I see and feel that there is some change in thee since yesterday, so that thou wouldst scarce be dealing truly in being my fellow in this quest: for they that take it up must be single-hearted, and think of nought save the quest and the fellow that is with them.”
She looked on him sadly, and his many thoughts tongue-tied him a while; but at last he said: “Must thou verily go on this quest?” “Ah,” she said, “now since I have seen thee and spoken with thee again, all need there is that I should follow it at once.”
Then they both kept silence, and when she spoke again her voice was as if she were gay against her will. She said: “Here am I come to these want-ways, and there are three roads besides the one I came by, and I wot that this that goeth south will bring me to the Burg of the Four Friths; and so much I know of the folk of the said Burg that they would mock at me if I asked them of the way to the Well at the World’s End. And as for the western way I deem that that will lead me back again to the peopled parts whereof I know; therefore I am minded to take the eastern way. What sayest thou, fair lord?”
Said Ralph: “I have heard of late that it leadeth presently to Hampton under the Scaur, where dwelleth a people of goodwill.”
“Who told thee this tale?” said she. Ralph answered, reddening again, “I was told by one who seemed to know both of that folk, and of the Burg of the Four Friths, and she said that the folk of Hampton were a good folk, and that they of the Burg were evil.”
The damsel smiled sadly when she heard him say ‘She,’ and when he had done she said: “And I have heard, and not from yesterday, that at Hampton dwelleth the Fellowship of the Dry Tree, and that those of the fellowship are robbers and reivers. Nevertheless they will perchance be little worse than the others; and the tale tells that the way to the Well at the World’s End is by the Dry Tree; so thither will I at all adventure. And now will I say farewell to thee, for it is most like that I shall not see thee again.”
“O, maiden!” said Ralph, “why wilt thou not go back to Bourton Abbas? There I might soon meet thee again, and yet, indeed, I also am like to go to Hampton. Shall I not see thee there?”
She shook her head and said: “Nay, since I must go so far, I shall not tarry; and, sooth to say, if I saw thee coming in at one gate I should go out by the other, for why should I dally with a grief that may not be amended. For indeed I wot that thou shalt soon forget to wish to see me, either at Bourton Abbas or elsewhere; so I will say no more than once again farewell.”
Then she came close to him and put her hands on his shoulders and kissed his mouth; and then she turned away swiftly, caught up her cloak, and gat lightly into the saddle, and so shook her reins and rode away east toward Hampton, and left Ralph standing there downcast and pondering many things. It was still so early in the summer morning, and he knew so little what to do, that presently he turned and walked back to his lair amongst the hazels, and there he lay down, and his thoughts by then were all gone back again to the lovely lady whom he had delivered, and he wondered if he should ever see her again, and, sooth to say, he sorely desired to see her. Amidst such thoughts he fell asleep again, for the night yet owed him something of rest, so young as he was and so hard as he had toiled, both body and mind, during the past day.