The Well at World's End 3-11
CHAPTER 11: THEY COME TO THE VALE OF SWEET CHESTNUTS
When they went on their way next morning they found little change in the pass, and they rode the dread highway daylong, and it was still the same: so they rested a little before nightfall at a place where there was water running out of the rocks, but naught else for their avail. Ralph was merry and helpful and filled water from the runnel, and wrought what he might to make the lodging meet; and as they ate and rested he said to Ursula: “Last night it was thou that beguiled me of my gloom, yet thereafter till we slept it was my voice for the more part, and not thine, that was heard in the wilderness. Now to-night it shall be otherwise, and I will but ask a question of thee, and hearken to the sweetness of thy voice.”
She laughed a little and very sweetly, and she said: “Forsooth, dear friend, I spoke to thee that I might hear thy voice for the more part, and not mine, that was heard in the desert; but when I heard thee, I deemed that the world was yet alive for us to come back to.”
He was silent awhile, for his heart was pierced with the sweetness of her speech, and he had fain have spoken back as sweetly as a man might; yet he could not because he feared her somewhat, lest she should turn cold to him; therefore himseemed that he spoke roughly, as he said: “Nevertheless, my friend, I beseech thee to tell me of thine old home, even as last night I told thee of mine.”
“Yea,” she said, “with a good will.” And straightway she fell to telling him of her ways when she was little, and of her father and mother, and of her sister that had died, and the brother whom Ralph had seen at Bourton Abbas: she told also of bachelors who had wooed her, and jested concerning them, yet kindly and without malice, and talked so sweetly and plainly, that the wilderness was become a familiar place to Ralph, and he took her hand in the dusk and said: “But, my friend, how was it with the man for whom thou wert weeping when I first fell in with thee at Bourton Abbas?”
She said: “I will tell thee plainly, as a friend may to a friend. Three hours had not worn from thy departure ere tidings came to me concerning him, that neither death nor wounding had befallen him; and that his masterless horse and bloodstained saddle were but a device to throw dust into our eyes, so that there might be no chase after him by the men of the Abbot’s bailiff, and that he might lightly do as he would, to wit, swear himself into the riders of the Burg of the Four Friths; for, in sooth, he was weary of me and mine. Yet further, I must needs tell thee that I know now, that when I wept before thee it was partly in despite, because I had found out in my heart (though I bade it not tell me so much) that I loved him but little.”
“Yea,” said Ralph, “and when didst thou come to that knowledge of thine heart?”
“Dear friend,” she said, “mayhappen I may tell thee hereafter, but as now I will forbear.” He laughed for joy of her, and in a little that talk fell down between them.
Despite the terror of the desert and the lonely ways, when Ralph laid him down on his stony bed, happiness wrapped his heart about. Albeit all this while he durst not kiss or caress her, save very measurely, for he deemed that she would not suffer it; nor as yet would he ask her wherefore, though he had it in his mind that he would not always forbear to ask her.
Many days they rode that pass of the mountains, though it was not always so evil and dreadful as at the first beginning; for now again the pass opened out into little valleys, wherein was foison of grass and sweet waters withal, and a few trees. In such places must they needs rest them, to refresh their horses as well as themselves, and to gather food, of venison, and wild-fruit and nuts. But abiding in such vales was very pleasant to them.
At last these said valleys came often and oftener, till it was so that all was pretty much one valley, whiles broken by a mountain neck, whiles straitened by a ness of the mountains that jutted into it, but never quite blind: yet was the said valley very high up, and as it were a trench of the great mountain. So they were glad that they had escaped from that strait prison betwixt the rock-walls, and were well at ease: and they failed never to find the tokens that led them on the way, even as they had learned of the Sage, so that they were not beguiled into any straying.
And now they had worn away thirty days since they had parted from the Sage, and the days began to shorten and the nights to lengthen apace; when on the forenoon of a day, after they had ridden a very rugged mountain-neck, they came down and down into a much wider valley into which a great reef of rocks thrust out from the high mountain, so that the northern half of the said vale was nigh cleft atwain by it; well grassed was the vale, and a fair river ran through it, and there were on either side the water great groves of tall and great sweet-chestnuts and walnut trees, whereon the nuts were now ripe. They rejoiced as they rode into it; for they remembered how the Sage had told them thereof, that their travel and toil should be stayed there awhile, and that there they should winter, because of the bread which they could make them of the chestnuts, and the plenty of walnuts, and that withal there was foison of venison.
So they found a ford of the river and crossed it, and went straight to the head of the rocky ness, being shown thither by the lore of the Sage, and they found in the face of the rock the mouth of a cavern, and beside it the token of the sword and the branch. Therefore they knew that they had come to their winter house, and they rejoiced thereat, and without more ado they got off their horses and went into the cavern. The entry thereof was low, so that they must needs creep into it, but within it was a rock-hall, high, clean and sweet-smelling.
There then they dight their dwelling, doing all they might to be done with their work before the winter was upon them. The day after they had come there they fell to on the in-gathering of their chestnut harvest, and they dried them, and made them into meal; and the walnuts they gathered also. Withal they hunted the deer, both great and small; amongst which Ralph, not without some peril, slew two great bears, of which beasts, indeed, there was somewhat more than enough, as they came into the dale to feed upon the nuts and the berry-trees. So they soon had good store of peltries for their beds and their winter raiment, which Ursula fell to work on deftly, for she knew all the craft of needlework; and, shortly to tell it, they had enough and to spare of victual and raiment.