The Well at World's End 2-19
CHAPTER 19: MASTER CLEMENT TELLS RALPH CONCERNING THE LANDS WHEREUNTO THEY WERE RIDING
When they were gotten a mile or two from Whitwall, and all was going smoothly, Clement came up to Ralph and rode at his left hand, and fell to speech with him, and said: “Now, lord, will I tell thee more concerning our journey, and the folk that we are like to meet upon the road. And of the perils, whatso they may be, I told thee not before, because I knew thee desirous of seeking adventures east-away, and knew that my tales would not hinder thee.”
“Yea,” said Ralph, “and had not this goodly fellowship been, I had gone alone, or with any carle that I could have lightly hired.”
Clement laughed and said: “Fair sir, thou wouldst have failed of hiring any one man to go with thee east-ward a many miles. For with less than a score of men well-armed the danger of death or captivity is over great, if ye ride the mountain ways unto Cheaping Knowe. Yea, and even if a poor man who hath nothing, wend that way alone, he may well fall among thieves, and be stolen himself body and bones, for lack of anything better to steal.”
Hereat Ralph felt his heart rise, when he thought of battle and strife, and he made his horse to spring somewhat, and then he said: “It liketh me well, dear friend, that I ride not with thee for naught, but that I may earn my daily bread like another.”
“Yea,” said Clement, looking on him kindly, “I deem of all thy brethren thou hast the biggest share of the blood of Red Robert, who first won Upmeads. And now thou shalt know that this good town of Whitwall that lieth behind us is the last of the lands we shall come to wherein folk can any courtesy, or are ruled by the customs of the manor, or by due lawful Earls and Kings, or the laws of the Lineage or the Port, or have any Guilds for their guiding, and helping. And though these folks whereunto we shall come, are, some of them, Christian men by name, and have amongst them priests and religious; yet are they wild men of manners, and many heathen customs abide amongst them; as swearing on the altars of devils, and eating horse-flesh at the High-tides, and spell-raising more than enough, and such like things, even to the reddening of the doom-rings with the blood of men and of women, yea, and of babes: from such things their priests cannot withhold them. As for their towns that we shall come to, I say not but we shall find crafts amongst them, and worthy good men therein, but they have little might against the tyrants who reign over the towns, and who are of no great kindred, nor of blood better than other folk, but merely masterful and wise men who have gained their place by cunning and the high hand. Thou shalt see castles and fair strong-houses about the country-side, but the great men who dwell therein are not the natural kindly lords of the land yielding service to Earls, Dukes, and Kings, and having under them vavassors and villeins, men of the manor; but their tillers and shepherds and workmen and servants be mere thralls, whom they may sell at any market, like their horses or oxen. Forsooth these great men have with them for the more part free men waged for their service, who will not hold their hands from aught that their master biddeth, not staying to ask if it be lawful or unlawful. And that the more because whoso is a free man there, house and head must he hold on the tenure of bow and sword, and his life is like to be short if he hath not sworn himself to the service of some tyrant of a castle or a town.”
“Yea, master Clement,” said Ralph, “these be no peaceful lands whereto thou art bringing us, or very pleasant to dwell in.”
“Little for peace, but much for profit,” said Clement; “for these lands be fruitful of wine and oil and wheat, and neat and sheep; withal metals and gems are dug up out of the mountains; and on the other hand, they make but little by craftsmanship, wherefore are they the eagerer for chaffer with us merchants; whereas also there are many of them well able to pay for what they lack, if not in money, then in kind, which in a way is better. Yea, it is a goodly land for merchants.”
“But I am no merchant,” said Ralph.
“So it is,” said Clement, “yet thou desireth something; and whither we are wending thou mayst hear tidings that shall please thee, or tidings that shall please me. To say sooth, these two may well be adverse to each other, for I would not have thee hear so much of tidings as shall lead thee on, but rather I would have thee return with me, and not throw thy young life away: for indeed I have an inkling of what thou seekest, and meseems that Death and the Devil shall be thy faring-fellows.”
Ralph held his peace, and Clement said in a cheerfuller voice: “Moreover, there shall be strange and goodly things to see; and the men of these parts be mostly goodly of body, and the women goodlier yet, as we carles deem.”
Ralph sighed, and answered not at once, but presently he said: “Master Clement, canst thou give me the order of our goings for these next days?” “Yea, certes,” said Clement. “In three days’ time we shall come to the entry of the mountains: two days thence we shall go without coming under any roof save the naked heavens; the day thereafter shall we come to the Mid-Mountain House, which is as it were an hostelry; but it was built and is upheld by the folks that dwell anigh, amongst whom be the folk of Cheaping Knowe; and that house is hallowed unto truce, and no man smiteth another therein; so that we oft come on the mountain strong-thieves there, and there we be blithe together and feast together in good fellowship. But when there be foemen in that house together, each man or each fellowship departing, hath grace of an hour before his foeman follow. Such are the customs of that house, and no man breaketh them ever. But when we depart thence we shall ride all day and sleep amidst the mountains, and if we be not beset that night or the morrow’s morn thereof, safe and unfoughten shall we come to Cheaping Knowe. Doth that suffice thee as at this time?” “Yea master,” quoth Ralph.
So therewith their talk dropped, for the moment; but Clement talked much with Ralph that day, and honoured him much, as did all that company.