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HOME > Classical Novels > The Well at the World's End > CHAPTER 10 Of the Desert-House and the Chamber of Love in the Wilderness
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CHAPTER 10 Of the Desert-House and the Chamber of Love in the Wilderness
 Then in a while they grew sober and went on their ways, and the sun was westering behind them, and casting long shadows. And in a little while they were come out of the thick woods and were in a country of steep little valleys, grassy, besprinkled with trees and bushes, with hills of sandstone going up from them, which were often broken into cliffs rising sheer from the tree-beset bottoms: and they saw plenteous deer both great and small, and the wild things seemed to fear them but little. To Ralph it seemed an exceeding fair land, and he was as joyous as it was fair; but the Lady was pensive, and at last she said: "Thou deemest it fair, and so it is; yet is it the lonesomest of deserts. I deem indeed that it was once one of the fairest of lands, with castles and cots and homesteads all about, and fair people no few, busy with many matters amongst them. But now it is all passed away, and there is no token of a dwelling of man, save it might be that those mounds we see, as yonder, and yonder again, are tofts of house-walls long ago sunken into the earth of the valley. And now few even are the hunters or way-farers that wend through it."  
Quoth Ralph: "Thou speakest as if there had been once histories and tales of this pleasant wilderness: tell me, has it anything to do with that land about the wide river which we went through, Roger and I, as we rode to the Castle of Abundance the other day? For he spoke of tales of deeds and mishaps concerning it." "Yea," she said, "so it is, and the little stream that runs yonder beneath those cliffs, is making its way towards that big river aforesaid, which is called the Swelling Flood. Now true it is also that there are many tales about of the wars and miseries that turned this land into a desert, and these may be true enough, and belike are true. But these said tales have become blended with the story of those aforesaid wars of the Land of the Tower; of which indeed this desert is verily a part, but was desert still in the days when I was Queen of the Land; so thou mayst well think that they who hold me to be the cause of all this loneliness (and belike Roger thought it was so) have scarce got hold of the very sooth of the matter."
"Even so I deemed," said Ralph: "and to-morrow we shall cross the big river, thou and I. Is there a ferry or a ford there whereas we shall come, or how shall we win over it?"
She was growing merrier again now, and laughed at this and said: "O fair boy! the crossing will be to-morrow and not to-day; let to-morrow cross its own rivers; for surely to-day is fair enough, and fairer shall it be when thou hast been fed and art sitting by me in rest and peace till to-morrow morning. So now hasten yet a little more; and we will keep the said little stream in sight as well as we may for the bushes."
So they sped on, till Ralph said: "Will thy feet never tire, beloved?" "O child," she said, "thou hast heard my story, and mayst well deem that they have wrought many a harder day's work than this day's. And moreover they shall soon rest; for look! yonder is our house for this even, and till to-morrow's sun is high: the house for me and thee and none else with us." And therewith she pointed to a place where the stream ran in a chain of pools and stickles, and a sheer cliff rose up some fifty paces beyond it, but betwixt the stream and the cliff was a smooth table of greensward, with three fair thorn bushes thereon, and it went down at each end to the level of the river's lip by a green slope, but amidmost, the little green plain was some ten feet above the stream, and was broken by a little undercliff, which went down sheer into the water. And Ralph saw in the face of the high cliff the mouth of a cave, however deep it might be.
"Come," said the Lady, "tarry not, for I know that hunger hath hold of thee, and look, how low the sun is growing!" Then she caught him by the hand, and fell to running with him to the edge of the stream, where at the end of the further slope it ran wide and shallow before it entered into a deep pool overhung with boughs of alder and thorn. She stepped daintily over a row of big stones laid in the rippling shallow; and staying herself in mid-stream on the biggest of them, and gathering up her gown, looked up stream with a happy face, and then looked over her shoulder to Ralph and said: "The year has been good to me these seasons, so that when I stayed here on my way to the Castle of Abundance, I found but few stones washed away, and crossed wellnigh dry-shod, but this stone my feet are standing on now, I brought down from under the cliff, and set it amid-most, and I said that when I brought thee hither I would stay thereon and talk with thee while I stood above the freshness of the water, as I am doing now."
Ralph looked on her and strove to answer her, but no words would come to his lips, because of the greatness of his longing; she looked on him fondly, and then stooped to look at the ripples that bubbled up about her shoes, and touched them at whiles; then she said: "See how they long for the water, these feet that have worn the waste so long, and know how kind it will run over them and lap about them: but ye must abide a little, waste-wearers, till we have done a thing or two. Come, love!" And she reached her hand out behind her to Ralph, not looking back, but when she felt his hand touch it, she stepped lightly over the other stones, and on to the grass with him, and led him quietly up the slope that went up to the table of greensward before the cave. But when they came on to the level grass she kissed him, and then turned toward the valley and spake solemnly: "May all blessings light on this House of the wilderness and this Hall of the Summer-tide, and the Chamber of Love that here is!"
Then was she silent a while, and Ralph brake not the silence. Then she turned to him with a face grown merry and smiling, and said: "Lo! how the poor lad yearneth for meat, as well he may, so long as the day hath been. Ah, beloved, thou must be patient a little. For belike our servants have not yet heard of the wedding of us. So we twain must feed each the other. Is that so much amiss?"
He laughed in her face for love, and took her by the wrist, but she drew her hand away and went into the cave, and came forth anon holding a copper kettle with an iron bow, and a bag of meal, which she laid at his feet; then she went into the cave again, and brought forth a flask of wine and a beaker; then she caught up the little cauldron, which was well-beaten, and thin and light, and ran down to the stream therewith, and came up thence presently, bearing it full of water on her head, going as straight and stately as the spear is seen on a day of tourney, moving over the barriers that hide the knight, before he lays it in the rest. She came up to him and set the water-kettle before him, and put her hands on his shoulders, and kissed his cheek, and then stepped back from him and smote her palms together, and said: "Yea, it is well! But there are yet more things to do before we rest. There is the dighting of the chamber, and the gathering of wood for the fire, and the mixing of the meal, and the kneading and the baking of cakes; and all that is my work, and there is the bringing of the quarry for the roast, and that is thine."
Then she ran into the cave and brought forth a bow and a quiver of arrows, and said: "Art thou somewhat of an archer?" Quoth he: "I shoot not ill." "And I," she said, "shoot well, all woodcraft comes handy to me. But this eve I must trust to thy skill for my supper. Go swiftly and come back speedily. Do off thine hauberk, and beat the bushes down in the valley, and bring me some small deer, as roe or hare or coney. And wash thee in the pool below the stepping-stones, as I shall do whiles thou art away, and by then thou comest back, all shall be ready, save the roasting of the venison."
So he did off his wargear, but thereafter tarried a little, looking at her, and she said: "What aileth thee not to go? the hunt's up." He said: "I would first go see the rock-hall that is for our chamber to-night; wilt thou not bring me in thither?" "Nay," she said, "for I must be busy about many matters; but thou mayst go by thyself, if thou wilt."
So he went and stooped down and entered the cave, and found it high and wide within, and clean and fresh and well-smelling, and the floor of fine white sand without a stain.
So he knelt down and kissed the floor, and said aloud: "God bless this floor of the rock-hall ............
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