The Well at World's End 4-15
CHAPTER 15: A STRANGE MEETING IN THE WILDERNESS
On the morrow betimes they got to the road again; the country at first, though it was scanty of tillage, was not unfurnished of sheep, being for the most part of swelling hills and downs well grassed, with here and there a deep cleft in them. They saw but few houses, and those small and poor. A few shepherds they fell in with, who were short of speech, after the manner of such men, but deemed a greeting not wholly thrown away on such goodly folk as those wayfarers.
So they rode till it was noon, and Richard talked more than his wont was, though his daily use it was to be of many words: nor did the Sage spare speech; but Ursula spoke little, nor heeded much what the others said, and Ralph deemed that she was paler than of wont, and her brows were knitted as if she were somewhat anxious. As for him, he was grave and calm, but of few words; and whiles when Richard was wordiest he looked on him steadily for a moment whereat Richard changed countenance, and for a while stinted his speech, but not for long; while Ralph looked about him, inwardly striving to gather together the ends of unhappy thoughts that floated about him, and to note the land he was passing through, if indeed he had verily seen it aforetime, elsewhere than in some evil dream.
At last when they stopped to bait by some scrubby bushes at the foot of a wide hill-side, he took Richard apart, and said to him: “Old friend, and whither go we?” Said Richard: “As thou wottest, to the Burg of the Four Friths.” “Yea,” said Ralph, “but by what road?” Said Richard: “Youngling is not thine heart, then, as strong as thou deemedst last night?” Ralph was silent a while, and then he said: “I know what thou wouldst say; we are going by the shortest road to the Castle of Abundance.”
He spake this out loud, but Richard nodded his head to him, as if he would say: “Yea, so it is; but hold thy peace.” But Ralph knew that Ursula had come up behind him, and, still looking at Richard, he put his open hand aback toward her, and her hand fell into it. Then he turned about to her, and saw that her face was verily pale; so he put his hands on her shoulders and kissed her kindly; and she let her head fall on to his bosom and fell a-weeping, and the two elders turned away to the horses, and feigned to be busy with them.
Thus then they bided some minutes of time, and then all gat to horse again, and Ursula’s face was cleared of the grief of fear, and the colour had come back to her cheeks and lips. But Ralph’s face was stern and sorrowful to behold; howbeit, as they rode away he spake in a loud and seeming cheerful voice: “Still ever shorteneth more and more the way unto my Fathers’ House: and withal I am wishful to see if it be indeed true that the men of the Burg have become mild and peaceful; and to know what hath befallen those doughty champions of the Dry Tree; and if perchance they have any will to hold us a tilting in courteous fashion.”
Richard smiled on him, and said: “Thou holdest more then by the Dry Tree than by the Burg; though while agone we deemed the Champions worse men to meet in the wood than the Burgers.”
“So it is,” said Ralph; “but men are oft mis-said by them that know them not thoroughly: and now, if it were a good wish, O Sage of Swevenham, I were fain to fall in with the best of all those champions, a tall man and a proper, who, meseems, had good-will toward me, I know not why.”
Quoth the Sage: “If thou canst not see the end of this wish fulfilled, no more can I. And yet, meseems something may follow it which is akin to grief: be content with things so done, my son.”
Now Ralph holds his peace, and they speed on their way, Ursula riding close by Ralph’s side, and caressing him with looks, and by touch also when she might; and after a while he fell to talking again, and ever in the same loud, cheerful voice. Till at last, in about another hour, they came in sight of the stream which ran down toward the Swelling Flood from that pool wherein erst the Lady of Abundance had bathed her before the murder. Hard looked Ralph on the stream, but howsoever his heart might ache with the memory of that passed grief, like as the body aches with the bruise of yesterday’s blow, yet he changed countenance but little, and in his voice was the same cheery sound. But Ursula noted him, and how his eyes wandered, and how little he heeded the words of the others, and she knew what ailed him, for long ago he had told her all that tale, and so now her heart was troubled, and she looked on him and was silent.
Thus, then, a little before sunset, they came on that steep cliff with the cave therein, and the little green plain thereunder, and the rocky bank going down sheer into the water of the stream. Forsooth they came on it somewhat suddenly from out of the bushes of the valley; and there indeed not only the Sage and Richard, but Ursula also, were stayed by the sight as folk compelled; for all three knew what had befallen there. But Ralph, though he looked over his shoulder at it all, yet rode on steadily, and when he saw that the others lingered, he waved his hand and cried out as he rode: “On, friends, on! for the road shortens towards my Fathers’ House.” Then were they ashamed, and shook their reins to hasten after him.
But in that very nick of time there came forth one from amidst the bushes that edged the pool of the stream and strode dripping on to the shallow; a man brown and hairy, and naked, save for a green wreath about his middle. Tall he was above the stature of most men; awful of aspect, and his eyes glittered from his dark brown face amidst of his shockhead of the colour of rain-spoilt hay. He stood and looked while one might count five, and then without a word or cry rushed up from the water, straight on Ursula, who was riding first of the three lingerers, and in the twinkling of an eye tore her from off her horse; and she was in his grasp as the cushat in the claws of the kite. Then he cast her to earth, and stood over her, shaking a great club, but or ever he brought it down he turned his head over his shoulder toward the cliff and the cave therein, and in that same moment first one blade and then another flashed about him, and he fell crashing down upon his back, smitten in the breast and the side by Richard and Ralph; and the wounds were deep and deadly.
Ralph heeded him no more, but drew Ursula away from him, and raised her up and laid her head upon his knee; and she had not quite swooned away, and forsooth had taken but little hurt; only she was dizzy with terror and the heaving up and casting down.
She looked up into Ralph’s face, and smiled on him and said: “What hath been done to me, and why did he do it?”
His eyes were still wild with fear and wrath, as he answered: “O Beloved, Death and the foeman of old came forth from the cavern of the cliff. What did they there, Lord God? and he caught thee to slay thee; but him have I slain. Nevertheless, it is a terrible and evil place: let us go hence.”
“Yea,” she said, “let us go speedily!” Then she stood up, weak and tottering still, and Ralph arose and put his left arm about her to stay her; and lo, there before them was Richard kneeling over the wild-man, and the Sage was coming back from the river with his headpiece full of water; so Ralph cried out: “To horse, Richard, to horse! Hast thou not done slaying the woodman?”
But therewith came a weak and hoarse voice from the earth, and the wild-man spake. “Child of Upmeads, drive not on so hard: it will not be long. For thou and Richard the Red are naught lighthanded.”
Ralph marvelled that the wild-man knew him and Richard, but the wild-man spake again: “Hearken, thou lover, thou young man!”
But therewith was the Sage come to him and kneeling beside him with the water, and he drank thereof, while Ralph said to him: “What is this woodman? and canst thou speak my Latin? What art thou?”
Then the wild-man when he had drunk raised him up a little, and said: “Young man, thou and Richard are deft leeches; ye have let me blood to a purpose, and have brought back to me my wits, which were wandering wide. Yet am I indeed where my fool’s brains told me I was.”
Then he lay back again, and turned his head as well as he could toward the cavern in the cliff. But Ralph deemed he had heard his voice before, and his heart was softened toward him, he knew not why; but he said: “Yea, but wherefore didst thou fall upon the Lady?” The wild-man strove with his weakness, and said angrily: “What did another woman there?” Then he said in a calmer but weaker voice: “Nay, my wits shall wander no more from me; we will make the journey together, I and my wits. But 0, young man, this I will say if I can. Thou fleddest from her and forgattest her. I came to her and forgat all but her; yea, my very life I forgat.”
Again he spoke, and his voice was weaker yet: “Kneel down by me, or I may not tell thee what I would; my voice dieth before me.”
Then Ralph knelt down by him, for he began to have a deeming of what he was, and he put his face close to the dying man’s, and said to him; “I am here, what wouldst thou?”
Said the wild-man very feebly: “I did not much for thee time was; how might I, when I loved her so sorely? But I did a little. Believe it, and do so much for me that I may lie by her side when I am dead, who never lay by her living. For into the cave I durst go never.”
Then Ralph knew him, that he was the tall champion whom he had met first at the churchyard gate of Netherton; so he said: “I know thee now, and I will promise to do thy will herein. I am sorry that I have slain thee; forgive it me.”
A mocking smile came into the dying man’s eyes, and he spake whispering: “Richard it was; not thou.”
The smile spread over his face, he strove to turn more toward Ralph, and said in a very faint whisper: “The last time!”
No more he said, but gave up the ghost presently. The Sage rose up from his side and said: “Ye may now bury this man as he craved of thee, for he is dead. Thus hath thy wish been accomplished; for this was the great champion and duke of the men of the Dry Tree. Indeed it is a pity of him that he is dead, for as terrible as he was to his foes, he was no ill man.”
Spake Richard: “Now is the riddle areded of the wild-man and the mighty giant that haunted these passes. We have played together or now, in days long past, he and I; and ever he came to his above. He was a wise man and a prudent that he should have become a wild-man. It is great pity of him.”
But Ralph took his knight’s cloak of red scarlet, and they lapped the wild-man therein, who had once been a champion beworshipped. But first Ursula sheared his hair and his beard, till the face of him came back again, grave, and somewhat mocking, as Ralph remembered it, time was. Then they bore him in the four corners across the stream, and up on to the lawn before the cliff; and Richard and the Sage bore him into the cave, and laid him down there beside the howe which Ralph had erewhile heaped over the Lady; and now over him also they heaped stones.
Meanwhile Ursula knelt at the mouth of the cave and wept; but Ralph turned him about and stood on the edge of the bank, and looked over the ripple of the stream on to the valley, where the moon was now beginning to cast shadows, till those two came out of the cave for the last time. Then Ralph turned to Ursula and raised her up and kissed her, and they went down all of them from that place of death and ill-hap, and gat to horse on the other side of the stream, and rode three miles further on by the glimmer of the moon, and lay down to rest amongst the bushes of the waste, with few words spoken between them.