The Well At The World's End, by William Morris

Chapter 21

Talk Between Those Two Brethren

Ralph asked Hugh first if he wotted aught of Gregory their brother. Hugh laughed and pointed to Higham, and said: “He is yonder.” “What,” said Ralph, “in the Abbot’s host?” “Yea,” said Hugh, laughing again, “but in his spiritual, not his worldly host: he is turned monk, brother; that is, he is already a novice, and will be a brother of the Abbey in six months’ space.” Said Ralph: “And Launcelot Long-tongue, thy squire, how hath he sped?” Said Hugh: “He is yonder also, but in the worldly host, not the spiritual: he is a sergeant of theirs, and somewhat of a catch for them, for he is no ill man-at-arms, as thou wottest, and besides he adorneth everything with words, so that men hearken to him gladly.” “But tell me,” said Ralph, “how it befalleth that the Abbot’s men of war be so churlish, and chary of the inside of their town; what have they to fear? Is not the Lord Abbot still a mighty man?” Hugh shook his head: “There hath been a change of days at Higham; though I say not but that the knights are over careful, and much over fearful.” “What has the change been?” said Ralph. Hugh said: “In time past my Lord Abbot was indeed a mighty man, and both this town of Higham was well garnished of men-at-arms, and also many of his manors had castles and strong-houses on them, and the yeomen were ready to run to their weapons whenso the gathering was blown. In short, Higham was as mighty as it was wealthy; and the Abbot’s men had naught to do with any, save with thy friends here who bear the Tree Leafless; all else feared those holy walls and the well-blessed men who warded them. But the Dry Tree feared, as men said, neither man nor devil (and I hope it may be so still since they are become thy friends), and they would whiles lift in the Abbot’s lands when they had no merrier business on hand, and not seldom came to their above in their dealings with his men. But all things come to an end; for, as I am told, some year and a half ago, the Abbot had debate with the Westland Barons, who both were and are ill men to deal with, being both hungry and doughty. The quarrel grew till my Lord must needs defy them, and to make a long tale short, he himself in worldly armour led his host against them, and they met some twenty miles to the west in the field of the Wry Bridge, and there was Holy Church overthrown; and the Abbot, who is as valiant a man as ever sang mass, though not over-wise in war, would not flee, and as none would slay him, might they help it, they had to lead him away, and he sits to this day in their strongest castle, the Red Mount west-away. Well, he being gone, and many of his wisest warriors slain, the rest ran into gates again; but when the Westlanders beset Higham and thought to have it good cheap, the monks and their men warded it not so ill but that the Westlanders broke their teeth over it. Forsooth, they turned away thence and took most of the castles and strong-houses of the Abbot’s lands; burned some and put garrisons into others, and drave away a mighty spoil of chattels and men and women, so that the lands of Higham are half ruined; and thereby the monks, though they be stout enough within their walls, will not suffer their men to ride abroad. Whereby, being cooped up in a narrow place, and with no deeds to hand to cheer their hearts withal, they are grown sour and churlish.”

“But, brother,” said Ralph, “howsoever churlish they may be, and howso timorous, I cannot see why they should shut their gates in our faces, a little band, when there is no foe anear them.”

“Ralph,” said Hugh, “thou must think of this once more, that the Dry Tree is no good let-pass to flourish in honest men’s faces; specialiter if they be monks. Amongst the brothers of Higham the tale goes that those Champions have made covenant with the devil to come to their above whensoever they be not more than one to five. Nay, moreover, it is said that there be very devils amongst them; some in the likeness of carles, and some (God help us) dressed up in women’s flesh; and fair flesh also, meseemeth. Also to-day they say in Higham that no otherwise might they ever have overcome the stark and cruel carles of the Burg of the Four Friths and chased them out of their town, as we know they have done. Hah! what sayest thou?”

“I say, Hugh,” quoth Ralph angrily, “that thou art a fool to go about with a budget of slanderous old wives’ tales.” Hugh laughed. “Be not so wroth, little lord, or I shall be asking thee tales of marvels also. But hearken. I shall smooth out thy frowns with a smile when thou hast heard this: this folk are not only afeard of their old enemies, the devil-led men, but also they fear those whom the devil-led men have driven out of house and home, to wit, the Burgers. Yet again they fear the Burgers yet more, because they have beaten some of the very foes of Higham, to wit, the Westland Barons; for they have taken from them some of their strong-holds, and are deemed to be gathering force.”

Ralph pondered a while, and then he said: “Brother, hast thou any tidings of Upmeads, or that these Burgers have gone down thither?” “God forbid!” said Hugh. “Nay, I have had no tidings of Upmeads since I was fool enough to leave it.”

“What! brother,” said Ralph, “thou hast not thriven then?”

“I have had ups and downs,” said Hugh, “but the ups have been one rung of the ladder, and the downs three — or more. Three months I sat in prison for getting me a broken head in a quarrel that concerned me not. Six months was I besieged in a town whither naught led me but ill-luck. Two days I wore in running thence, having scaled the wall and swam the ditch in the night. Three months I served squire to a knight who gave me the business of watching his wife of whom he was jealous; and to help me out of the weariness of his house I must needs make love myself to the said wife, who sooth to say was perchance worth it. Thence again I went by night and cloud. Ten months I wore away at the edge of the wildwood, and sometimes in it, with a sort of fellows who taught me many things, but not how to keep my hands from other men’s goods when I was hungry. There was I taken with some five others by certain sergeants of Higham, whom the warriors of the town had sent out cautiously to see if they might catch a few men for their ranks. Well, they gave me the choice of the gallows-tree or service for the Church, and so, my choice made, there have I been ever since, till I saw thy face this evening, fair sir.”

“Well, brother,” said Ralph, “all that shall be amended, and thou shalt back to Upmeads with me. Yet wert thou to amend thyself somewhat, it might not be ill.”

Quoth Hugh: “It shall be tried, brother. But may I ask thee somewhat?” Said Ralph: “Ask on.” “Fair Sir,” said Hugh, “thou seemedst grown into a pretty man when I saw thee e’en-now before this twilight made us all alike; but the men at thy back are not wont to be led by men who have not earned a warrior’s name, yet they follow thee: how cometh that about? Again, before the twilight gathered I saw the woman that rideth anigh us (who is now but a shadow) how fair and gentle she is: indeed there is no marvel in her following thee (though if she be an earl’s daughter she is a fair getting for an imp of Upmeads), for thou art a well shapen lad, little lord, and carriest a sweet tongue in thy mouth. But tell me, what is she?”

“Brother,” said Ralph kindly, “she is my wife.”

“I kiss her hands,” said Hugh; “but of what lineage is she?”

“She is my wife,” said Ralph. Said Hugh: “That is, forsooth, a high dignity.” Said Ralph: “Thou sayest sooth, though in mockery thou speakest, which is scarce kind to thine own mother’s son: but learn, brother, that I am become a Friend of the Well, and were meet to wed with the daughters of the best of the Kings: yet is this one meeter to wed with me than the highest of the Queens; for she also is a Friend of the Well. Moreover, thou sayest it that the champions of the Dry Tree, who would think but little of an earl for a leader, are eager to follow me: and if thou still doubt what this may mean, abide, till in two days or three thou see me before the foeman. Then shalt thou tell me how much changed I am from the stripling whom thou knewest in Upmeads a little while ago.”

Then was Hugh somewhat abashed, and he said: “I crave thy pardon, brother, but never had I a well filed tongue, and belike it hath grown no smoother amid the hard haps which have befallen me of late. Besides it was dull in there, and I must needs try to win a little mirth out of kith and kin.”

“So be it, lad,” quoth Ralph kindly, “thou didst ask and I told, and all is said.”

“Yet forsooth,” said Hugh, “thou hast given me marvel for marvel, brother.” “Even so,” said Ralph, “and hereafter I will tell thee more when we sit safe by the wine at Upmeads.”

Now cometh back one of the fore-riders and draweth rein by Ralph and saith that they are hard on a little thorp under the hanging of the hill that was the beginning of the Down country on that road. So Ralph bade make stay there and rest the night over, and seek new tidings on the morrow; and the man told Ralph that the folk of the thorp were fleeing fast at the tidings of their company, and that it were best that he and some half score should ride sharply into the thorp, so that it might not be quite bare of victuals when they came to their night’s lodging. Ralph bids him so do, but to heed well that he hurt no man, or let fire get into any house or roof; so he takes his knot of men and rides off on the spur, and Ralph and the main of them come on quietly; and when they came into the street of the thorp, lo there by the cross a big fire lighted, and the elders standing thereby cap in hand, and a score of stout carles with weapons in their hands. Then the chief man came up to Ralph and greeted him and said: “Lord, when we heard that an armed company was at hand we deemed no less than that the riders of the Burg were upon us, and deemed that there was nought for it but to flee each as far and as fast as he might. But now we have heard that thou art a good lord seeking his own with the help of worthy champions, and a foeman to those devils of the Burg, we bid thee look upon us and all we have as thine, lord, and take kindly such guesting as we may give thee.”

The old man’s voice quavered a little as he looked on the stark shapes of the Dry Tree; but Ralph looked kindly on him, and said: “Yea, my master, we will but ask for a covering for our heads, and what victual thou mayst easily spare us in return for good silver, and thou shalt have our thanks withal. But who be these stout lads with staves and bucklers, or whither will they to-night?”

Thereat a tall young man with a spear in his hand and girt with a short sword came forth and said boldly: “Lord, we be a few who thought when we heard that the Burg-devils were at hand that we might as well die in the field giving stroke for stroke, as be hauled off and drop to pieces under the hands of their tormentors; and now thou hast come, we have little will to abide behind, but were fain to follow thee, and do thee what good we can: and after thou hast come to thine above, when we go back to our kin thou mayst give us a gift if it please thee: but we deem that no great matter if thou but give us leave to have the comfort of thee and thy Champions for a while in these hard days.”

When he had done speaking there rose up from the Champions a hum as of praise, and Ralph was well-pleased withal, deeming it a good omen; so he said: “Fear not, good fellows, that I shall forget you when we have overcome the foemen, and meanwhile we will live and die together. But thou, ancient man, show our sergeants where our riders shall lie to-night, and what they shall do with their horses.”

So the elders marshalled the little host to their abodes for that night, lodging the more part of them in a big barn on the western outskirt of the thorp. The elder who led them thither, brought them victual and good drink, and said to them: “Lords, ye were best to keep a good watch to-night because it is on this side that we may look for an onfall from the foemen if they be abroad to-night; and sooth to say that is one cause we have bestowed you here, deeming that ye would not grudge us the solace of knowing that your valiant bodies were betwixt us and them, for we be a poor unwalled people.”

Stephen to whom he spake laughed at his word, and said: “Heart-up, carle! within these few days we shall build up a better wall than ye may have of stone and lime; and that is the overthrow of our foemen in the open field.”

So there was kindness and good fellowship betwixt the thorp-dwellers and the riders, and the country folk told those others many tales of the evil deeds of the Burg-devils, as they called them; but they could not tell them for certain whether they had gone down into Upmeads.

As to Ralph and Ursula they, with Richard and Roger, were lodged in the headman’s house, and had good feast there, and he also talked over the where-abouts of the Burgers with the thorp-dwellers, but might have no certain tidings. So he and Ursula and his fellows went to bed and slept peacefully for the first hours of the night.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 22:07