The Well at World's End 2-23
CHAPTER 23: OF THE TOWN OF CHEAPING KNOWE
Now when it was evening they pitched their camp down in the plain fields amidst tall elmtrees, and had their banners still flying over the tents to warn all comers of what they were. But the next morning the chapmen and their folk were up betimes to rummage their loads, and to array their wares for the market; and they gat not to the road before mid-morning. Meantime of their riding Ralph had more talk with Bull, who said to him: “Fair lord, I rede thee when thou art in the market of Cheaping Knowe, bid master Clement bring thee to the thrall-merchant, and trust me that if such a fair image as that we were speaking of hath passed through his hands within these three months, he will remember it; and then thou shalt have at least some tale of what hath befallen her but a little while ago.”
That seemed good rede to Ralph, and when they went on their way he rode beside Clement, and asked him many things concerning Cheaping Knowe; and at last about the thrall-market therein. And Clement said that, though he dealt not in such wares, he had often seen them sold, and knew the master of that market. And when Ralph asked if the said master would answer questions concerning the selling of men and of women, Clement smiled and said: “Yea, yea, he will answer; for as he lives by selling thralls, and every time a thrall is sold by him he maketh some gain by it, it is to his profit that they change masters as often as may be; and when thou askest of the woman whom thou art seeking, he will be deeming that there will be some new chaffer ahead. I will bring thee to him, and thou shalt ask him of what thou wilt, and belike he will tell thee quietly over the wine-cup.”
Therewith was Ralph well content, and he grew eager to enter into the town.
They came to the gates a little before sunset, after they had passed through much fair country; but nigh to the walls it was bare of trees and thickets, whereas, said Clement, they had been cut down lest they should serve as cover to strong-thieves or folk assailing the town. The walls were strong and tall, and a great castle stood high up on a hill, about which the town was builded; so that if the town were taken there would yet be another town within it to be taken also. But the town within, save for the said castle, was scarce so fairly builded as the worst of the towns which Ralph had seen erst, though there were a many houses therein.
Much people was gathered about the gate to see the merchants enter with banners displayed; and Ralph deemed many of the folk fair, such as were goodly clad; for many had but foul clouts to cover their nakedness, and seemed needy and hunger-pinched. Withal there were many warriors amongst the throng, and most of these bore a token on their sleeves, to wit, a sword reddened with blood. And Clement, speaking softly in Ralph’s ear, did him to wit that this was the token of the lord who had gotten the castle in those days, and was tyrant of the town; and how that he had so many men-at-arms ready to do his bidding that none in the town was safe from him if he deemed it more for his pleasure and profit to rob or maim, or torment or slay, than to suffer them to live peaceably. “But with us chapmen,” said Clement, “he will not meddle, lest there be an end of chaffer in the town; and verily the market is good.”
Thus they rode through the streets into the market place, which was wide and great, and the best houses of the town were therein, and so came to the hostel of the Merchants, called the Fleece, which was a big house, and goodly enough.
The next morning Clement and the other chapmen went up into the Castle, bearing with them gifts out of their wares for the lord, and Clement bade Ralph keep close till he came back, and especially to keep his war-caught thrall, Bull Shockhead, safe at home, lest he be taken from him, and to clothe him in the guise of the chapman lads, and to dock his hair; and even so Ralph did, though Bull were loath thereto.
About noon the chapmen came back again well pleased; and Clement gave Ralph a parchment from the lord, which bade all men help and let pass Ralph of Upmeads, as a sergeant of the chapmen’s guard, and said withal that now he was free to go about the town if he listed, so that he were back at the hostel of the Fleece by nightfall.
So Ralph went in company with some of the sergeants and others, and looked at this and that about the town without hindrance, save that the guard would not suffer them to pass further than the bailey of the Castle. And for the said bailey, forsooth, they had but little stomach; for they saw thence, on the slopes of the Castle-hill, tokens of the cruel justice of the said lord; for there were men and women there, yea, and babes also, hanging on gibbets and thrust through with sharp pales, and when they asked of folk why these had suffered, they but looked at them as if astonished, and passed on without a word.
So they went thence, and found the master-church, and deemed it not much fairer than it was great; and it was nowise great, albeit it was strange and uncouth of fashion.
Then they came to great gardens within the town, and they were exceeding goodly, and had trees and flowers and fruits in them which Ralph had not seen hitherto, as lemons, and oranges, and pomegranates; and the waters were running through them in runnels of ashlar; and the weather was fair and hot; so they rested in those gardens till it was evening, and then gat them home to Fleece, where they had good entertainment.