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

Chapter 22

An Old Acquaintance Comes From the Down Country to See Ralph

But an hour after midnight Ralph arose, as his purpose was, and called Richard, and they took their swords and went forth and about the thorp and around its outskirts, and found naught worse than their own watch any where; so they came back again to their quarters and found Roger standing at the door, who said to Ralph: “Lord, here is a man who would see thee.” “What like is he?” said Ralph. Said Roger “He is an old man, but a tough one; however, I have got his weapons from him.” “Bring him in,” said Ralph, “and he shall have his say.”

So they all went into the chamber together and there was light therein; but the man said to Ralph: “Art thou the Captain of the men-at-arms, lord?” “Yea,” said Ralph. Said the man, “I were as lief have these others away.” “So be it,” said Ralph; “depart for a little while, friends.” So they went but Ursula lay in the bed, which was in a nook in the wall; the man looked about the chamber and said: “Is there any one in the bed?” “Yea,” said Ralph, “my wife, good fellow; shall she go also?” “Nay,” said the carle, “we shall do as we are now. So I will begin my tale.”

Ralph looked on him and deemed he had seen him before, but could not altogether call his visage to mind; so he held his peace and the man went on.

“I am of the folk of the shepherds of the Downs: we be not a many by count of noses, but each one of us who is come to man’s yean, and many who be past them, as I myself, can handle weapons at a pinch. Now some deal we have been harried and have suffered by these wretches who have eaten into the bowels of this land; that is to say, they have lifted our sheep, and slain some of us who withstood them: but whereas our houses be uncostly and that we move about easily from one hill-side to another, it is like that we should have deemed it wisest to have borne this trouble, like others of wind and weather, without seeking new remedy, but that there have been tokens on earth and in the heavens, whereof it is too long to tell thee, lord, at present, which have stirred up our scattered folk to meet together in arms. Moreover, the blood of our young men is up, because the Burg-devils have taken some of our women, and have mishandled them grievously and shamefully, so that naught will keep point and edge from seeking the war-clash. Furthermore, there is an old tale which hath now come up again, That some time when our folk shall be in great need, there shall come to our helping one from afar, whose home is anigh; a stripling and a great man; a runaway, and the conqueror of many: then, say they, shall the point and the edge bring the red water down on the dear dales; whereby we understand that the blood of men shall be shed there, and naught to our shame or dishonour. Again I mind me of a rhyme concerning this which sayeth:

The Dry Tree shall be seen

On the green earth, and green

The Well-spring shall arise

For the hope of the wise.

They are one which were twain,

The Tree bloometh again,

And the Well-spring hath come

From the waste to the home.

Well, lord, thou shalt tell me presently if this hath aught to do with thee: for indeed I saw the Dry Tree, which hath scared us so many a time, beaten on thy sergeants’ coats; but now I will go on and make an end of my story.”

Ralph nodded to him kindly, for now he remembered the carle, though he had seen him but that once when he rode the Greenway across the downs to Higham. The old man looked up at him as if he too had an inkling of old acquaintance with Ralph, but went on presently:

“There is a woman who dwells alone with none to help her, anigh to Saint Ann’s Chapel; a woman not very old; for she is of mine own age, and time was we have had many a fair play in the ingles of the downs in the July weather — not very old, I say, but wondrous wise, as I know better than most men; for oft, even when she was young, would she foretell things to come to me, and ever it fell out according to her spaedom. To the said woman I sought to-day in the morning, not to win any wisdom of her, but to talk over remembrances of old days; but when I came into her house, lo, there was my carline walking up and down the floor, and she turned round upon me like the young woman of past days, and stamped her foot and cried out: ‘What does the sluggard dallying about women’s chambers when the time is come for the deliverance?’

“I let her talk, and spake no word lest I should spoil her story, and she went on:

“‘Take thy staff, lad, for thou art stout as well as merry, and go adown to the thorps at the feet of the downs toward Higham; keep thee well from the Burg-devils, and go from stead to stead till thou comest on a captain of men-at-arms who is lord over a company of green-coats, green-coats of the Dry Tree — a young lord, fair-faced, and kind-faced, and mighty, and not to be conquered, and the blessing of the folk and the leader of the Shepherds, and the foe of their foeman and the well-beloved of Bear-father. Go night and day, sit not down to eat, stand not to drink; heed none that crieth after thee for deliverance, but go, go, go till thou hast found him. Meseems I see him riding toward Higham, but those dastards will not open gate to him, of that be sure. He shall pass on and lie to-night, it may be at Mileham, it may be at Milton, it may be at Garton; at one of those thorps shall ye find him. And when ye have found him thus bespeak him: O bright Friend of the Well, turn not aside to fall on the Burgers in this land, either at Foxworth Castle, or the Longford, or the Nineways Garth: all that thou mayest do hereafter, thou or thy champions. There be Burgers otherwhere, housed in no strong castle, but wending the road toward the fair greensward of Upmeads. If thou delay to go look on them, then shall thy work be to begin again amid sorrow of heart and loss that may not be remedied.’ Hast thou heard me, lord?”

“Yea, verily,” said Ralph, “and at sunrise shall we be in the saddle to ride straight to Upmeads. For I know thee, friend.”

“Hold a while,” said the carle, “for meseemeth I know thee also. But this withal she said: ‘But hearken, Giles, hearken a while, for I see him clearly, and the men that he rideth with, and the men that are following to his aid, fierce and fell are they; but so withal are the foemen that await them, and his are few, howsoever fierce. Therefore bid him this also. Haste, haste, haste! But haste not overmuch, lest thou speed the worse: in Bear Castle I see a mote of our folk, and thee amidst of it with thy champions, and I see the staves of the Shepherds rising round thee like a wood. In Wulstead I see a valiant man with sword by side and sallet on head, and with him sitteth a tall man-at-arms grizzle-headed and red-bearded, big-boned and mighty; they sit at the wine in a fair chamber, and a well-looking dame serveth them; and there are weaponed men no few about the streets. Wilt thou pass by friends, and old friends? Now ride on, Green Coats! stride forth, Shepherds! staves on your shoulders, Wool-wards! and there goes the host over the hills into Upmeads, and the Burg-devils will have come from the Wood Debateable to find graves by the fair river. And then do thy will, O Friend of the Well.’”

The carle took a breath, and then he said: “Lord, this is the say I was charged with, and if thou understandest it, well; but if it be dark to thee, I may make it clear if thou ask me aught.”

Ralph pondered a while, and then he said: “Is it known of others than thy spaewife that the Burgers be in Upmeads?” “Nay, lord,” said the carle, “and this also I say to thee, that I deem what she said that they be not in Upmeads yet, and but drawing thitherward, as I deem from the Wood Debateable.”

Ralph arose from his seat and strode up and down the chamber a while; then he went to bed, and stood over Ursula, who lay twixt sleeping and waking, for she was weary; then he came back to the carle, and said to him: “Good friend, I thank thee, and this is what I shall do: when daylight is broad (and lo, the dawn beginning!) I shall gather my men, and ride the shortest way, which thou shalt show me, to Bear Castle, and there I shall give the token of the four fires which erewhile a good man of the Shepherds bade me if I were in need. And it seems to me that there shall the mote be hallowed, though it may be not before nightfall. But the mote done, we shall wend, the whole host of us, be we few or many, down to Wulstead, where we shall fall in with my friend Clement Chapman, and hear tidings. Thence shall we wend the dear ways I know into the land where I was born and the folk amongst whom I shall die. And so let St. Nicholas and All Hallows do as they will with us. Deemest thou, friend, that this is the meaning of thy wise shefriend?”

The carle’s eyes glittered, and he rose up and stood close by Ralph, and said: “Even so she meant; and now I seem to see that but few of thy riders shall be lacking when they turn their heads away from Upmeads towards the strong-places of the Burg-devils that are hereabouts. But tell me, Captain of the host, is that victual and bread that I see on the board?”

Ralph laughed: “Fall to, friend, and eat thy fill; and here is wine withal. Thou needest not to fear it. Wert thou any the worse of the wine that Thirly poured into thee that other day?”

“Nay, nay, master,” said the carle between his mouthfuls, “but mickle the better, as I shall be after this: all luck to thee! Yet see I that I need not wish thee luck, since that is thine already. Sooth to say, I deemed I knew thee when I first set eyes on thee again. I looked not to see thee more; though I spoke to thee words at that time which came from my heart, almost without my will. Though it is but a little while ago, thou hast changed much since then, and hast got another sort of look in the eyes than then they had. Nay, nay,” said he laughing, “not when thou lookest on me so frankly and kindly; that is like thy look when we passed Thirly about. Yea, I see the fashion of it: one look is for thy friends, another for thy foes. God be praised for both. And now I am full, I will go look on thy wife.”

So he went up to the bed and stood over Ursula, while she, who was not fully awake, smiled up into his face. The old man smiled back at her and bent down and kissed her mouth, and said: “I ask thy pardon, lady, and thine, my lord, if I be too free, but such is our custom of the Downs; and sooth to say thy face is one that even a old man should not fail to kiss if occasion serve, so that he may go to paradise with the taste thereof on his lips.”

“We are nowise hurt by thy love, friend,” said Ursula; “God make thy latter days of life sweet to thee!”

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