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HOME > Classical Novels > The Well at the World's End > CHAPTER 18 Of Ralph in the Castle of Abundance
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CHAPTER 18 Of Ralph in the Castle of Abundance
 Broad lay the sun upon the plain amidst the wildwood when he awoke and sprang out of bed and looked out of the window (for the chamber was in the gable of the hall and there was nought of the castle beyond it). It was but little after noon of a fair June day, for Ralph had slumbered as it behoved a young man. The light wind bore into the chamber the sweet scents of the early summer, the chief of all of them being the savour of the new-cut grass, for about the wide meadows the carles and queens were awork at the beginning of hay harvest; and late as it was in the day, more than one blackbird was singing from the bushes of the castle pleasance. Ralph sighed for very pleasure of life before he had yet well remembered where he was or what had befallen of late; but as he stood at the window and gazed over the meadows, and the memory of all came back to him, he sighed once more for a lack of somewhat that came into his heart, and he smiled shamefacedly, though there was no one near, as his thought bade him wonder if amongst the haymaking women yonder there were any as fair as those yellow-clad thrall-women of the Burg; and as he turned from the window a new hope made his heart beat, for he deemed that he had been brought to that house that he might meet some one who should change his life and make him a new man.  
So he did on his raiment and went his ways down to the hall, and looked about for Roger, but found him not, nor any one else save the carline, who presently came in from the buttery, and of whom he asked, where was Roger. Quoth she: "He has been gone these six hours, but hath left a word for thee, lord, to wit, that he beseeches thee to abide him here for two days at the least, and thereafter thou art free to go if thou wilt. But as for me" (and therewith she smiled on him as sweetly as her wrinkled old face might compass) "I say to thee, abide beyond those two days if Roger cometh not, and as long as thou art here I will make thee all the cheer I may. And who knoweth but thou mayest meet worthy adventures here. Such have ere now befallen good knights in this house or anigh it."
"I thank thee, mother," quoth Ralph, "and it is like that I may abide here beyond the two days if the adventure befall me not ere then. But at least I will bide the eating of my dinner here to-day."
"Well is thee, fair lord," said the carline. "If thou wilt but walk in the meadow but a little half hour all shall be ready for thee. Forsooth it had been dight before now, but that I waited thy coming forth from thy chamber, for I would not wake thee. And the saints be praised for the long sweet sleep that hath painted thy goodly cheeks." So saying she hurried off to the buttery, leaving Ralph laughing at her outspoken flattering words.
Then he got him out of the hall and the castle, for no door was shut, and there was no man to be seen within or about the house. So he walked to and fro the meadow and saw the neat-herds in the pasture, and the hay-making folk beyond them, and the sound of their voices came to him on the little airs that were breathing. He thought he would talk to some of these folk ere the world was much older, and also he noted between the river and the wood many cots of the husbandmen trimly builded and thatched, and amidst them a little church, white and delicate of fashion; but as now his face was set toward the river because of the hot day. He came to a pool a little below where a wooden foot-bridge crossed the water, and about the pool were willows growing, which had not been shrouded these eight years, and the water was clear as glass with a bottom of fine sand. There then he bathed him, and as he sported in the water he bethought him of the long smooth reaches of Upmeads Water, and the swimming low down amidst the long swinging weeds between the chuckle of the reed sparrows, when the sun was new risen in the July morning. When he stood on the grass again, what with the bright weather and fair little land, what with the freshness of the water, and his good rest, and the hope of adventure to come, he felt as if he had never been merrier in his life-days. Withal it was a weight off his heart that he had escaped from the turmoil of the wars of the Burg of the Four Friths, and the men of the Dry Tree, and the Wheat-wearers, with the thralldom and stripes and fire-raising, and the hard life of strife and gain of the walled town and strong place.
When he came back to the castle gate there was the carline in the wicket peering out to right and left, seeking him to bring him in to dinner. And when she saw him so joyous, with his lips smiling and his eyes dancing for mirth, she also became joyous, and said: "Verily, it is a pity of thee that there is never a fair damsel or so to look on thee and love thee here to-day. Far would many a maiden run to kiss thy mouth, fair lad. But now come to thy meat, that thou mayest grow the fairer and last the longer."
He laughed gaily and went into the hall with her, and now was it well dight with bankers and dorsars of goodly figured cloth, and on the walls a goodly halling of arras of the Story of Alexander. So he sat to table, and the meat and drink was of the best, and the carline served him, praising him ever with fulsome words as he ate, till he wished her away.
After dinner he rested awhile, and called to the carline and bade her bring him his sword and his basnet. "Wherefore?" said she. "Whither wilt thou?"
Said he, "I would walk abroad to drink the air."
"Wilt thou into the wildwood?" said she.
"Nay, mother," he said, "I will but walk about the meadow and look on the hay-making folk."
"For that," said the carline, "thou needest neither sword nor helm. I was afeard that thou wert about departing, and thy departure would be a grief to my heart: in the deep wood thou mightest be so bestead as to need a sword in thy fist; but what shouldst thou do with it in this Plain of Abundance, where are nought but peaceful husbandmen and frank and kind maidens? and all these are as if they had drunk a draught of the WELL AT THE WORLD'S END."
Ralph started as she said the word, but held his peace awhile. Then he said: "And who is lord of this fair land?" "There is no lord, but a lady," said the carline. "How hight she?" said Ralph. "We call her the Lady of Abundance," said the old woman. Said Ralph: "Is she a good lady?" "She is my lady," said the carline, "and doeth good to me, and there is not a carle in the land but speaketh well of her—it may be over well." "Is she fair to look on?" said Ralph. "Of women-folk there is none fairer," said the carline; "as to men, that is another thing."
Ralph was silent awhile, then he said: "What is the Well at the World's End?"
"They talk of it here," said she, "many things too long to tell of now: but there is a book in this house that telleth of it; I know it well by the look of it though I may not read in it. I will seek it for thee to-morrow if thou wilt."
"Have thou thanks, dame," said he; "and I pray thee forget it not; but now I will go forth."
"Yea," said the carline, "but abide a little."
Therewith she went into the buttery, and came back bearing with her a garland of roses of the garden, intermingled with green leaves, and she said: "The sun is yet hot and over hot, do this on thine head to shade thee from the burning. I knew that thou wouldst go abroad to-day, so I made this for thee in the morning; and when I was young I was called the garland-maker. It is better summer wear than thy basnet."
He thanked her and did it on smiling, but somewhat ruefully; for he said to himself: "This is over old a dame that I should wear a love-token from her." But when it was on his head, the old dame clapped her hands and cried: "O there, there! Now art thou like the image of St. Michael in the Choir of Our Lady of the Thorn: there is none so lovely as thou. I would my Lady could see thee thus; surely the sight of thee should gladden her heart. And withal thou art not ill clad otherwise."
Indeed his raiment was goodly, for his surcoat was new, and it was of fine green cloth, and the coat-armour of Upmead was beaten on it, to wit, on a gold ground an apple-tree fruited, standing by a river-side.
Now he laughed somewhat uneasily at her words, and so went forth from the castle again, and made straight for the hay-making folk on the other side of the water; for all this side was being fed by beasts and sheep; but at the point where he crossed, the winding of the stream brought it near to the castle gate. So he came up with the country folk and greeted them, and they did as much by him in courteous words: they were goodly and well-shapen, both men and women, gay and joyous of demeanour and well clad as for folk who work afield. So Ralph went from one to another and gave them a word or two, and was well pleased to watch them at their work awhile; but yet he would fain speak somewhat more with one or other of them. At last under the shade of a tall elm-tree he saw an old man sitting heeding the outer raiment of the haymakers and their victual and bottles of drink; and he came up to him and gave him the sele of the day; and the old man blessed him and said: "Art thou dwelling in my lady's castle, fair lord?" "A while at least," said Ralph. Said the old man: "We thank thee for coming to see us; and meseemeth from the look of thee thou art worthy to dwell in my Lady's House."
"What sayest thou?" said Ralph. "Is she a good lady and a gracious?" "O yea, yea," said the carle. Said Ralph: "Thou meanest, I suppose, that she is fair to look on, and soft-spoken when she is pleased?"
"I mean far more than that," said the carle; "surely is she most heavenly fair, and her voice is like the music of heaven: but withal her deeds, and the kindness of her to us poor men and husbandmen, are no worse than should flow forth from that loveliness."
"Will you be her servants?" said Ralph, "or what are ye?" Said the carle: "We be yeomen and her vavassors; there is no thralldom in our land." "Do ye live in good peace for the more part?" said Ralph. Said the carle: "Time has been when cruel battles were fought in these wood-lawns, and many poor people were destroyed therein: but that was before the coming of the Lady of Abundance."
"And when was that?" said Ralph. "I wot not," said the old carle; "I was born in peace and suckled in peace; and in peace I fell to the loving of maidens, and I wedded in peace, and begat children in peace, and in peace they dwell about me, and in peace shall I depart."
"What then," said Ralph (and a grievous fear was born in his heart), "is not the Lady of Abundance young?" Said the carle: "I have seen her when I was young and also since I have been old, and ever was she fair and lovely, and slender handed, as straight as a spear, and as sweet as white clover, and gentle-voiced and kind, and dear to our souls."
"Yea," said Ralph, "and she doth not dwell in this castle always; where else then doth she dwell?" "I wot not," said the carle, "but it should be in heaven: for when she cometh to us all our joys increase in us by the half."
"Look you, father," said Ralph, "May it not have been more than one Lady of Abundance that thou hast seen in thy life-days; and that this one that now is, is the daughter's daughter of the one whom thou first sawest—how sayest thou?" The carle laughed: "Nay, nay," said he, "It is not so: never has there been another like to her in all ways, in body and voice, and ............
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