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

Chapter 34

The Lord of Utterbol Will Wot of Ralph’s Might and Minstrelsy

A little before sunset they made halt for the night, and Ralph was shown to a tent as erst, and had meat and drink good enough brought to him. But somewhat after he had done eating comes David to him and says: “Up, young man! and come to my lord, he asketh for thee.”

“What will he want with me?” said Ralph.

“Yea, that is a proper question to ask!” quoth David; “as though the knife should ask the cutler, what wilt thou cut with me? Dost thou deem that I durst ask him of his will with thee?” “I am ready to go with thee,” said Ralph.

So they went forth; but Ralph’s heart fell and he sickened at the thought of seeing that man again. Nevertheless he set his face as brass, and thrust back both his fear and his hatred for a fitter occasion.

Soon they came into the pavilion of the Lord, who was sitting there as yester eve, save that his gown was red, and done about with gold and turquoise and emerald. David brought Ralph nigh to his seat, but spake not. The mighty lord was sitting with his head drooping, and his arm hanging over his knee, with a heavy countenance as though he were brooding matters which pleased him naught. But in a while he sat up with a start, and turned about and saw David standing there with Ralph, and spake at once like a man waking up: “He that sold thee to me said that thou wert of avail for many things. Now tell me, what canst thou do?”

Ralph so hated him, that he was of half a mind to answer naught save by smiting him to slay him; but there was no weapon anigh, and life was sweet to him with all the tale that was lying ahead. So he answered coldly: “It is sooth, lord, that I can do more than one deed.”

“Canst thou back a horse?” said the Lord. Said Ralph: “As well as many.” Said the Lord: “Canst thou break a wild horse, and shoe him, and physic him?”

“Not worse than some,” said Ralph.

“Can’st thou play with sword and spear?” said the Lord.

“Better than some few,” said Ralph. “How shall I know that?” said the Lord. Said Ralph: “Try me, lord!” Indeed, he half hoped that if it came to that, he might escape in the hurley.

The Lord looked on him and said: “Well, it may be tried. But here is a cold and proud answerer, David. I misdoubt me whether it be worth while bringing him home.”

David looked timidly on Ralph and said: “Thou hast paid the price for him, lord.”

“Yea, that is true,” said the Lord. “Thou! can’st thou play at the chess?” “Yea,” said Ralph. “Can’st thou music?” said the other. “Yea,” said Ralph, “when I am merry, or whiles indeed when I am sad.”

The lord said: “Make thyself merry or sad, which thou wilt; but sing, or thou shalt be beaten. Ho! Bring ye the harp.” Then they brought it as he bade.

But Ralph looked to right and left and saw no deliverance, and knew this for the first hour of his thralldom. Yet, as he thought of it all, he remembered that if he would do, he must needs bear and forbear; and his face cleared, and he looked round about again and let his eyes rest calmly on all eyes that he met till they came on the Lord’s face again. Then he let his hand fall into the strings and they fell a-tinkling sweetly, like unto the song of the winter robin, and at last he lifted his voice and sang:

Still now is the stithy this morning unclouded,

Nought stirs in the thorp save the yellow-haired maid

A-peeling the withy last Candlemas shrouded

From the mere where the moorhen now swims unafraid.

For over the Ford now the grass and the clover

Fly off from the tines as the wind driveth on;

And soon round the Sword-howe the swathe shall lie over,

And to-morrow at even the mead shall be won.

But the Hall of the Garden amidst the hot morning,

It drew my feet thither; I stood at the door,

And felt my heart harden ‘gainst wisdom and warning

As the sun and my footsteps came on to the floor.

When the sun lay behind me, there scarce in the dimness

I saw what I sought for, yet trembled to find;

But it came forth to find me, until the sleek slimness

Of the summer-clad woman made summer o’er kind.

There we the once-sundered together were blended,

We strangers, unknown once, were hidden by naught.

I kissed and I wondered how doubt was all ended,

How friendly her excellent fairness was wrought.

Round the hall of the Garden the hot sun is burning,

But no master nor minstrel goes there in the shade,

It hath never a warden till comes the returning,

When the moon shall hang high and all winds shall be laid.

Waned the day and I hied me afield, and thereafter

I sat with the mighty when daylight was done,

But with great men beside me, midst high-hearted laughter,

I deemed me of all men the gainfullest one.

To wisdom I hearkened; for there the wise father

Cast the seed of his learning abroad o’er the hall,

Till men’s faces darkened, but mine gladdened rather

With the thought of the knowledge I knew over all.

Sang minstrels the story, and with the song’s welling

Men looked on each other and glad were they grown,

But mine was the glory of the tale and its telling

How the loved and the lover were naught but mine own.

When he was done all kept silence till they should know whether the lord should praise the song or blame; and he said naught for a good while, but sat as if pondering: but at last he spake: “Thou art young, and would that we were young also! Thy song is sweet, and it pleaseth me, who am a man of war, and have seen enough and to spare of rough work, and would any day rather see a fair woman than a band of spears. But it shall please my lady wife less: for of love, and fair women, and their lovers she hath seen enough; but of war nothing save its shows and pomps; wherefore she desireth to hear thereof. Now sing of battle!”

Ralph thought awhile and began to smite the harp while he conned over a song which he had learned one yule-tide from a chieftain who had come to Upmeads from the far-away Northland, and had abided there till spring was waning into summer, and meanwhile he taught Ralph this song and many things else, and his name was Sir Karr Wood-neb. This song now Ralph sang loud and sweet, though he were now a thrall in an alien land:

Leave we the cup!

For the moon is up,

And bright is the gleam

Of the rippling stream,

That runneth his road

To the old abode,

Where the walls are white

In the moon and the night;

The house of the neighbour that drave us away

When strife ended labour amidst of the hay,

And no road for our riding was left us but one

Where the hill’s brow is hiding that earth’s ways are done,

And the sound of the billows comes up at the last

Like the wind in the willows ere autumn is past.

But oft and again

Comes the ship from the main,

And we came once more

And no lading we bore

But the point and the edge,

And the ironed ledge,

And the bolt and the bow,

And the bane of the foe.

To the House ‘neath the mountain we came in the morn,

Where welleth the fountain up over the corn,

And the stream is a-running fast on to the House

Of the neighbours uncunning who quake at the mouse,

As their slumber is broken; they know not for why;

Since yestreen was not token on earth or in sky.

Come, up, then up!

Leave board and cup,

And follow the gleam

Of the glittering stream

That leadeth the road

To the old abode,

High-walled and white

In the moon and the night;

Where low lies the neighbour that drave us away

Sleep-sunk from his labour amidst of the hay.

No road for our riding is left us save one,

Where the hills’ brow is hiding the city undone,

And the wind in the willows is with us at last,

And the house of the billows is done and o’er-past.

Haste! mount and haste

Ere the short night waste,

For night and day,

Late turned away,

Draw nigh again

All kissing-fain;

And the morn and the moon

Shall be married full soon.

So ride we together with wealth-winning wand,

The steel o’er the leather, the ash in the hand.

Lo! white walls before us, and high are they built;

But the luck that outwore us now lies on their guilt;

Lo! the open gate biding the first of the sun,

And to peace are we riding when slaughter is done.

When Ralph had done singing, all folk fell to praising his song, whereas the Lord had praised the other one; but the Lord said, looking at Ralph askance meanwhile: “Yea, if that pleaseth me not, and I take but little keep of it, it shall please my wife to her heart’s root; and that is the first thing. Hast thou others good store, new-comer?” “Yea, lord,” said Ralph. “And canst thou tell tales of yore agone, and of the fays and such-like? All that she must have.” “Some deal I can of that lore,” said Ralph.

Then the Lord sat silent, and seemed to be pondering: at last he said, as if to himself: “Yet there is one thing: many a blencher can sing of battle; and it hath been seen, that a fair body of a man is whiles soft amidst the hard hand-play. Thou! Morfinn’s luck! art thou of any use in the tilt-yard?” “Wilt thou try me, lord?” said Ralph, looking somewhat brisker. Said the Lord: “I deem that I may find a man or two for thee, though it is not much our manner here; but now go thou! David, take the lad away to his tent, and get him a flask of wine of the best to help out thy maundering with him.”

Therewith they left the tent, and Ralph walked by David sadly and with hanging head at first; but in a while he called to mind that, whatever betid, his life was safe as yet; that every day he was drawing nigher to the Well at the World’s End; and that it was most like that he shall fall in with that Dorothea of his dream somewhere on the way thereto. So he lifted up his head again, and was singing to himself as he stooped down to enter into his tent.

Next day naught happed to tell of save that they journeyed on; the day was cloudy, so that Ralph saw no sign of the distant mountains; ever the land was the same, but belike somewhat more beset with pinewoods; they saw no folk at all on the road. So at even Ralph slept in his tent, and none meddled with him, save that David came to talk with him or he slept, and was merry and blithe with him, and he brought with him Otter, the captain of the guard, who was good company.

Thus wore three days that were hazy and cloudy, and the Lord sent no more for Ralph, who on the road spake for the more part with Otter, and liked him not ill; howbeit it seemed of him that he would make no more of a man’s life than of a rabbit’s according as his lord might bid slay or let live.

The three hazy days past, it fell to rain for four days, so that Ralph could see little of the face of the land; but he noted that they went up at whiles, and never so much down as up, so that they were wending up hill on the whole.

On the ninth day of his captivity the rain ceased and it was sunny and warm but somewhat hazy, so that naught could be seen afar, but the land near-hand rose in long, low downs now, and was quite treeless, save where was a hollow here and there and a stream running through it, where grew a few willows, but alders more abundantly.

This day he rode by Otter, who said presently: “Well, youngling of the North, to-morrow we shall see a new game, thou and I, if the weather be fair.” “Yea,” said Ralph, “and what like shall it be?” Said Otter, “At mid-morn we shall come into a fair dale amidst the downs, where be some houses and a tower of the Lord’s, so that that place is called the Dale of the Tower: there shall we abide a while to gather victual, a day or two, or three maybe: so my Lord will hold a tourney there: that is to say that I myself and some few others shall try thy manhood somewhat.” “What?” said Ralph, “are the new colt’s paces to be proven? And how if he fail?”

Quoth Otter, laughing: “Fail not, I rede thee, or my lord’s love for thee shall be something less than nothing.” “And then will he slay me?” said Ralph. Said Otter: “Nay I deem not, at least not at first: he will have thee home to Utterbol, to make the most of his bad bargain, and there shalt thou be a mere serving-thrall, either in the house or the field: where thou shalt be well-fed (save in times of scarcity), and belike well beaten withal.” Said Ralph, somewhat downcast: “Yea, I am a thrall, who was once a knight. But how if thou fail before me?” Otter laughed again: “That is another matter; whatever I do my Lord will not lose me if he can help it; but as for the others who shall stand before thy valiancy, there will be some who will curse the day whereon my lord bought thee, if thou turnest out a good spear, as ye call it in your lands. Howsoever, that is not thy business; and I bid thee fear naught; for thou seemest to be a mettle lad.”

So they talked, and that day wore like the others, but the haze did not clear off, and the sun went down red. In the evening David talked with Ralph in his tent, and said: “If to-morrow be clear, knight, thou shalt see a new sight when thou comest out from the canvas.” Said Ralph: “I suppose thy meaning is that we shall see the mountains from hence?” “Yea,” said David; “so hold up thine heart when that sight first cometh before thine eyes. As for us, we are used to the sight, and that from a place much nigher to the mountains: yet they who are soft-hearted amongst us are overcome at whiles, when there is storm and tempest, and evil tides at hand.”

Said Ralph: “And how far then are we from Utterbol?” Said David: “After we have left Bull-mead in the Dale of the Tower, where to-morrow thou art to run with the spear, it is four days’ ride to Utterness; and from Utterness ye may come (if my lord will) unto Utterbol in twelve hours. But tell me, knight, how deemest thou of thy tilting to-morrow?” Said Ralph: “Little should I think of it, if little lay upon it.” “Yea,” said David, “but art thou a good tilter?” Ralph laughed: quoth he, “That hangs on the goodness of him that tilteth against me: I have both overthrown, and been overthrown oft enough. Yet again, who shall judge me? for I must tell thee, that were I fairly judged, I should be deemed no ill spear, even when I came not uppermost: for in all these games are haps which no man may foresee.”

“Well, then,” said David, “all will go well with thee for his time: for my lord will judge thee, and if it be seen that thou hast spoken truly, and art more than a little deft at the play, he will be like to make the best of thee, since thou art already paid for.” Ralph laughed: yet as though the jest pleased him but little; and they fell to talk of other matters. And so David departed, and Ralph slept.

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