The Well at World's End 4-9
CHAPTER 9: THEY COME TO CHEAPING KNOWE ONCE MORE. OF THE KING THEREOF
Toward evening comes Redhead, and tells Ralph how he hired him a dozen men-at-arms to follow him well-weaponed to Cheaping Knowe: withal he counselled him to take a good gift with him to that same town to buy the good will of the King there; who was a close-fist and a cruel lord.
Afterwards they sat together in the court of that fair house before good wine, Ralph and Ursula, and Redhead and the Sage of Swevenham, and spake of many things, and were merry and kind together. But on the morrow Redhead departed from Goldburg with his men, and he loth to depart, and they gave him farewell lovingly. Thereafter Ralph’s new men came to him in the hostelry, and he feasted them and did well to them, so that they praised him much. Then he gat him victuals and sumpter-horses for the journey, and bought good store of bows and arrows withal. Furthermore he took heed to Redhead’s word and bought a goodly gift of silver vessel and fine cloth for the King of Cheaping Knowe.
The day after he and his company departed from Goldburg toward the mountains, which they passed unfought and unwaylaid: partly because they were a band of stout men, and partly because a little before there had been a great overthrow of the wild men of those mountains at the hands of the men of Goldburg and the Chapmen; so that now the mountain-men lay close, and troubled none that rode with any force.
On the way they failed not to pass by the place where they had erst found Bull Nosy slain: there they saw his howe, heaped up exceeding high, covered in with earth, whereon the grass was now beginning to grow, and with a great standing stone on the top thereof, whereon was graven the image of a bull, with a sword thereunder; whereby the wayfarers wotted that this had been done in his memory by his brother, the new Lord of Utterbol.
So they came down out of the mountains to Whiteness, where they had good entertainment, but tarried not save for one night, riding their ways betimes to Cheaping Knowe: and they came before the gate thereof safe and sound on the third day; and slept in the hostelry of the chapmen. On the morrow Ralph went up to the King’s Castle with but three men unweaponed bearing the gift which he had got for the King. Albeit he sent not away his men-at-arms till he should know how the King was minded towards him.
As he went he saw in the streets sad tokens of the lord’s cruel justice, as handless men, fettered, dragging themselves about, and folk hung up before chapmen’s booths, and whipping-cheer, and the pillar, and such like. But whereas he might not help he would not heed, but came right to the Castle-gate, and entered easily when he had told his errand, for gift-bearing men are not oftenest withstood.
He was brought straightway into the great hall, where sat the King on his throne amidst the chiefs of the Porte, and his captains and sergeants, who were, so to say, his barons, though they were not barons of lineage, but masterful men who were wise to do his bidding.
As he went up the hall he saw a sort of poor caytiffs, women as well as men, led away from the high-place in chains by bailiffs and tipstaves; and he doubted not that these were for torments or maiming and death; and thought it were well might he do them some good.
Being come to the King, he made his obeisance to him, and craved his good will and leave to wage men-at-arms to bring him through the mountains.
The King was a tall man, a proper man of war; long-legged, black bearded, and fierce-eyed. Some word he had heard of Ralph’s gift, therefore he was gracious to him; he spake and said: “Thou hast come across the mountains a long way, fair Sir; prithee on what errand?” Answered Ralph: “For no errand, lord, save to fare home to mine own land.” “Where is thine own land?” said the King, stretching out his legs and lying back in his chair. “West-away, lord, many a mile,” said Ralph. “Yea,” quoth the King, “and how far didst thou go beyond the mountains? As far as Utterbol?” Said Ralph: “Yet further, but not to Utterbol.” “Hah!” said the King, “who goeth beyond Utterbol must have a great errand; what was thine?”
Ralph thought for a moment, and deemed it best to say as little as he might concerning Ursula; so he answered, and his voice grew loud and bold: “I was minded to drink a draught of the WELL at the WORLD’S END, and even so I did.” As he spake, he drew himself up, and his brows were knit a little, but his eyes sparkled from under them, and his cheleks were bright and rosy. He half drew the sword from the scabbard, and sent it back rattling, so that the sound of it went about the hall; he upreared his head and looked around him on this and that one of the warriors of the aliens, and he sniffed the air into his nostrils as he stood alone amongst them, and set his foot down hard on the floor of the King’s hall, and his armour rattled upon him.
But the King sat bolt upright in his chair and stared Ralph’s face; and the warriors and lords and merchants fell back from Ralph and stood in an ordered rank on either side of him and bent their heads before him. None spoke till the King said in a hoarse voice, but lowly and wheedling: “Tell us, fair Sir, what is it that we can do to pleasure thee?”
“King,” said Ralph, “I am not here to take gifts but to give them rather: yet since thou biddest me I will crave somewhat of thee, that thou mayst be the more content: and moreover the giving shall cost thee nothing: I crave of thee to give me life and limb and freedom for the poor folk whom I saw led down the hall by thy tipstaves, even now. Give me that or nothing.” The King scowled, but he spake: “This is indeed a little gift of thee to take; yet to none else save thee had I given it.”
Therewith he spake to a man beside him and said: “Go thou, set them free, and if any hurt hath befallen them thy life shall answer for it. Is it enough, fair Sir, and have we thy goodwill?” Ralph laughed for joy of his life and his might, and he answered: “King, this is the token of my goodwill; fear naught of me.” And he turned to his men, and bade them bright forth the gift of Goldburg and open it before the King; and they did so. But when the King cast eyes on the wares his face was gladdened, for he was a greedy wolf, and whoso had been close to his mouth would have heard him mutter: “So mighty! yet so wealthy!” But he thanked Ralph aloud and in smooth words. And Ralph made obeisance to him again, and then turned and went his ways down the hall, and was glad at heart that he had become so mighty a man, for all fell back before him and looked on him with worship. Howbeit he had looked on the King closely and wisely, and deemed that he was both cruel and guileful, so that he rejoiced that he had spoken naught of Ursula, and he was minded to keep her within gates all the while they abode at Cheaping-Knowe.
When he came to the hostel he called his men-at-arms together and asked them how far they would follow him, and with one voice they said all that they would go with him whereso he would, so that it were not beyond reason. So they arrayed them for departure on the morrow, and were to ride out of gates about mid-morning. So wore the day to evening; but ere the night was old came a man asking for Ralph, as one who would have a special alms of him, a poor man by seeming, and evilly clad. But when Ralph was alone with him, the poor man did him to wit that for all his seeming wretchedness he was but disguised, and was in sooth a man of worship, and one of the Porte. Quoth he: “I am of the King’s Council, and I must needs tell thee a thing of the King: that though he was at the first overawed and cowed by the majesty of thee, a Friend of the Well, he presently came to himself, which was but ill; so that what for greed, what for fear even, he is minded to send men to waylay thee, some three leagues from the town, on your way to the mountains, but ye shall easily escape his gin now I have had speech of thee; for ye may take a by-road and fetch a compass of some twelve miles, and get aback of the waylayers. Yet if ye escape this first ambush, unless ye are timely in riding early tomorrow it is not unlike that he shall send swift riders to catch up with you ere ye come to the mountains. Now I am come to warn thee hereof, partly because I would not have so fair a life spilt, which should yet do so well for the sons of Adam, and partly also because I would have a reward of thee for my warning and my wayleading, for I shall show thee the way and the road.”
Said Ralph: “Ask and fear not; for if I may trust thee I already owe thee a reward.” “My name is Michael-a-dale,” said the man, “and from Swevenham I came hither, and fain would I go thither, and little hope I have thereof save I go privily in some such band as thine, whereas the tyrant holdeth me on pain, as well I know, of an evil death.”
“I grant thine asking, friend,” said Ralph; “and now thou wert best go to thine house and truss what stuff thou mayst have with thee and come back hither in the grey of the morning.”
The man shook his head and said: “Nay; here must I bide night-long, and go out of gates amongst thy men-at-arms, and clad like one of them with iron enough about me to hide the fashion of me; it were nowise safe for me to go back into the town; for this tyrant wages many a spy: yea, forsooth, I fear me by certain tokens that it is not all so certain that I have not been spied upon already, and that it is known that I have come to thee. And I will tell thee that by hook or by crook the King already knoweth somewhat of thee and of the woman who is in thy company.”
Ralph flushed red at that word, and felt his heart bound: but even therewith came into them the Sage; and straightway Ralph took him apart and told him on what errand the man was come, and ask him if he deemed him trusty. Then the Sage went up to Michael and looked him hard in the face awhile, and then said: “Yea, honest he is unless the kindred of Michael of the Hatch of Swevenham have turned thieves in the third generation.”
“Yea,” said Michael, “and dost thou know the Hatch?”
“As I know mine own fingers,” said the Sage; “and even so I knew it years and years before thou wert born.” Therewith he told the new-comer what he was, and the two men of Swevenham made joy of each other. And Ralph was fain of them, and went into the chamber wherein sat Ursula, and told her how all things were going, and she said that she would be naught but glad to leave that town, which seemed to her like to Utterbol over again.