The Song Of Arthur - Chapter XIV
by S. Fowler Wright
Return to Chapter XIII
After his son by Aries' wife, Sir Tor,
Four sons in wedlock born had Pellinor.
First, and of name unstained, Sir Aglovale;
Lamorack; and Dormer of the lonely Vale,
Who not to Camelot came; and last of all,
And first at last, the late-born Percival.
Came one who came but seldom to the court,
Beside his rein a younger squire who brought;
And first a lodgement in the town he sought,
Long time for one, and shorter days for two;
And then to Arthur in full hall they drew.
And there, in loyal words, but firm and few,
He asked for knighthood for that squire. The king,
Who favoured all in bold approach that came
To ask for noble gifts in knighthood's name,
Looked on a slender youth he might have thought
More fit for cloisters than a warrior court,
And answered: "Of what name and birth is he
Who asks a boon which well might baleful be
To one unformed the boisterous lists to ride?"
"He is the last son of King Pellinor,
Who held thy part, and in thy service died.
His name is Percival."
"What name is thine?"
"I am his brother, Aglovale."
Came down with outstretched hands of welcoming.
"Now for the sake of good King Pellinor,
Nor least for Lamorack, nor least for Tor,
The boon I grant thee, and the gain is mine.
If of good heart and seemly grace he be.
Tomorrow's matins shall the knighting see
Of one I else had doubted."
With the morn
He knighted Percival, but when were met,
The joyous converse of the meal to share,
Noble and knight and dame, and each was set
In order of desert (except that they,
The Table knights, in equal circle were),
He ordered that the meaner knights among
Should Percival be placed. Unproved and young
And slight, with quiet regardful eyes he sate,
Resentless that the king had judged him so;
For whom the lowliest place was not too low.
There was a damsel of the queen who came
Of blood most noble. Fair of face was she,
And fair of form. There was no maid could be
More worth, except, her natural vaunt to shame,
Was speech denied her lips, as all men knew.
Now from her place arose that damsel dumb,
And passed in silence down the hall, and took
The young knight by the hand; and sweet and clear
Her words along the board could all men hear,
As though from Heaven they fell: "I pray thee come,
God's knight and mine, to take thy right." She led
Up the long hall, none staying, until she stood
By those feared sieges Merlin cursed with dread.
"Take thou the place so long reserved," she said,
"For none but thee," and having placed him thus,
At the right hand of the siege perilous,
That still stood vacant, left the hall and sent
To find a priest for her last sacrament.
"Now may I die in good content," said she,
"For I have seen him whom I lived to see."
Then made the court great joy of Percival,
Although they wist not what should yet befall,
Or what his honour or his place should be.
When hate in ruthless hearts prevails, and they
In whispered counsels join that hate to pay,
It may be soothly not themselves could say
How much they mean, or what its end should be.
Not Modred cared; for Lamorack's father slew
One whom he not for friend or father knew;
And Gareth held apart; but yet were three,
Gawain, Gaheris, Agravain, who saw
As monstrous wrong that filial hands must mend,
The rising fame of Lamorack, and his place
That nearer grew to Arthur. More offend,
Even than that, in Lamorack's boast they found
That he their mother loved, and doubt that she
Would well receive him if occasion lay
Lightly across her path. This doubt to test
Was Gawain's counsel: "Let her bate the trap,
And he may ride to find, by likely hap,
A greeting couched beneath the summer trees
More warm and willing than his heart foresees."
So spake he, ambush in his mind, and so
They wrought that Queen Morgause to Fourstone Tower,
Which deep within the hiding woodlands lay,
From Camelot's walls a short ten miles away,
Came from her northern home; and brief the hour
Ere Lamorack knew, and in a secret wise
He sent a missive for her only eyes,
To plead her favour: 'Short the time we met,'
He wrote, 'but never can my heart forget
Thy voice, thine eyes, the tender words were said,
Ere came the step that turned thy steps away.
I own no feuds that elder hates have bred,
For I must love thee, though thy scorn repay.'
So read she with a heart that beat reply
Ere thought had formed. To such a plaint deny
It had no strength, nor she the care to try.
Love was her nature, and her life with Lot,
Who valued as his own, but loved her not
In Love's more potent and diviner way,
Had left the hunger of her heart unfed.
Hence had she gone with Arthur once astray,
And the long years between that deed that lay
And sweet langour of her autumn day
Had changed her naught at heart, although their tread
Dimmed the love-asking eyes, and dulled the head
That yet was gold.
That Lamorack loved her now,
Whom for that feud of blood she might not wed,
Stirred pulses of desire which would not still,
Nor would she strive to rule, for all her will
Was with them. 'Come,' she wrote, 'nor deem that thou
Alone canst love, nor only thou forget
Our houses' sundering hates. But heed ye yet
That all be secret, lest more wrong it bear.'
Then told she of a hidden woodland way,
By lovers used long dead, unguessed today,
Which gained a low door and a secret stair.
Ere the moon rose, but when the light had died,
The damsel that her missive brought would guide,
That none their tryst should guess, and none betray.
This caution gained that where the ambush lay
Sir Lamorack came not. Where the damsel led
Was none to heed his charger's noiseless tread
On the strewn leaves of summer's first defeat.
So in still night at Fourstone Tower they met,
In fearless mood, with joys that those who meet,
Love-drawn, rejecting fate, alone may know,
Deeming that none, but where their trust was set
In certain faith, the useless path could show;
And no threat seemed, and passed the midnight hour,
And wide night-silence held the lonely tower,
While over all a cupped moon sailed, and far
Lit the blue void, and paled a following star,
And the great woods around that hold that lay,
Wind-stirred, breathed softly, as in sleep; and they
Slept also at the last.
But on the heath
Were shadows from the deep wood's shades that crossed
Its clearer space, and in the wall were lost,
And ceased; and then, their turret height beneath,
Bust turmoil, and the shouts of angered men.
Steel clashed: a death-cry sounded: noise of feet
Rushed upwards, clanging on the stones; and then
On the barred door were sudden blows that beat,
And broke it through, and entered there the twain
Of her fierce sons, Gaheris and Agravain,
Whom least she loved or loved her.
"If from your hearts all filial fear be dead,
And reverence for her right, and knightly shame
Be lost in hatred for my father's name,
That thine of old in equal field he slew,
Then turned ye to my life the swords ye show
Gaheris answered: "Nay,
No sword is mine a fenceless knight to slay;
And that she willed ye scarce might choose but do.
Is one remede." And instant with the word
Leapt the swift steel, and smote. The sword-blade bare
Steamed with his mother's blood: his mother's hair
Clung to it: and her head between them rolled,
Half-hidden in its own abundant gold.
But Agravain turned, and stumbled on the stair.
Wood wrath was Gawain when he heard. He said:
"I would that she were live, and he were dead;
Nor rest I till his death shall compassed be."
Wroth also was the king, and Lancelot more.
"Sire," said he, "now from Christian shore to shore
This tale shall pass. Alas, that on thy name
Shall fall the shadow of so great a shame!
For not in sudden heat this deed was done.
Treason fore thought it shows, and hence is none
Shall trust thy peace hereafter. Think ye how
Lamorack's praised seat must vacant stand from now.
For will he trust restraint of Orkney's hate?
Or indignation for the deed abate
Beside Gaheris at our feast to sit
As in one fellowship of noble vows?
And how shall Tristram, when he hear, regard
So foul an evil? Will he make of it
Occasion to avoid thy court and thee?
Most likely is it; and our grief shall be
Both for his absence and its shaming cause."
Answered the king: "Now God defend that I
Should lose them thus! There are no stars that shine
More brightly from this gleaming ring of mine,
Which I have wrought for better ends."
Lamorack, at least, thy ring shall lose, for they
- Not Gawain least - are sworn his life to slay,
Waiting their time unawed of Heaven or thee."
"Yea," said the king, "I know their moods; but yet
Some counsel may be ours this doom to let."
But Agravain, who not that stroke forgave
Which left alive the one he would not save,
And dealt such death to one he would not slay,
Gaheris left in wrath, and rode away
With Modred, who his sullen mood would use
To nurture discord, for his mind forwent,
Thinking some far chance-favoured time to choose,
When Lancelot would be short of aid, and he
Would prove Guenever's infidelity
So barely in the nation's sight, the king,
However loth, would find no hindering
Of sudden feud awake; and Arthur, thus
Compelled to take a strife he should not lose,
Would break the Benoic knights, and after that,
Weakened himself thereby, would quickly fall
To Modred's treason, who at need would call
The heathen to his aid the crown to win.
So dreamed that misbred spawn of carnal sin
(So short the joy thereof, so long the woe),
But not to any at this time he bared
His secret mind, but with slow craft prepared
To bring Pendragon's rule and splendour low.
As rose the woodland to the open wold
There came a flying knight their path adown,
Who reined behind them. In that safety found
He showed a wound: a hard pursuit he told:
"One cometh who no knightly ruth will stay;
With greed to plunder, and with lust to slay,
He ravens all the land. But coward is he.
From your bright shields he would not pause to flee.
Swift be your steeds his felon course to stay."
Sir Dinadan joined them as they spake: "Perde,
Too much thou askest on a proofless plea."
"No time is left for proof, for here is he."
Then came Sir Breuse sans Pitie, riding hard;
And with no warning for debate or guard,
He on the knights of Orkney charged, that both
Were overcast, Modred and Agravain.
And Breuse returned his horse, and rode again
Across the fallen. Dinadan, though loth
His life to chance for knights he naught esteemed,
Because the name of Arthur's court he deemed
Thereby degraded, charged, and overbore
Sir Breuse, who rose and fled, as once before,
Vanquished by that same lance. The rescued knights
Spake, courteous: "Ill thine aid our praise requites,
Not knowing whom we praise, or how to pay
Thy rescue from the shame in which we lay."
But Dinadan lifted vizor, and replied:
"Praise from your lips were never yet my pride.
Nor any covert hate, or open blame
I found unwelcome, or accounted shame."
Then the hurt knight, Sir Dalan, spake: "For me,
I thank no rescue from such hands as thine.
Sworn am I to slay thee, as I count to do,
Who once in wayside strife my father slew."
"So," said Sir Dinadan, "it well may be.
Misventures chance us. Yet thy mind may rest.
I did it knightly at his own request.
Remedeless grief can further hurts amend?"
"Yet must thou for his death thy life defend."
"Bethink thy wound. I would not maim thee more."
"I think the rather of the oath I swore."
"Well, as thou wilt." The needful course he ran,
And with but half his strength Sir Dinadan
Down cast Sir Dalan. Nigh neckbroke he lay;
Too nearly slain for further lust to slay.
How fared Sir Tristram? To his forced accord
Would Mark be loyal? Little word there came
From Cornwall. Few were there of lofty name
Who loved the life of Camelot, or could sit
With Arthur's knights at meal, nor feel unfit
Through fault of prowess, or the larger shame
Upon Tintagel's court and land that lay.
Except Sir Dinas, who, to all men's sight,
With care of honour kept his prudent way,
Only Sir Fergus was a Table knight
Who bore a shield of Cornwall. Came he now
As in routine of service, but he brought
Letters, and gifts, and words of sundry sort,
From Tristram, and from those who made his train,
And also from Iseult. The Cornish queen
Wrote to Guenever most, her grace to gain;
And Tristram wrote to Lancelot. 'Here,' he said,
'Here at Tintagel, while the year is green,
Good joys are ours whose hearts and lips are wed.
For Mark, who of Iseult no more requires,
Holds court at Terribil, coming only here
When at the harvest of the waning year
His tithing dues he takes.' Good hope he gave
That peace was made between them.
From different temper, and the sense he had,
Dimly, of future days, and woes remote,
Which Nimue's nurture gave: 'Our hearts are glad
Your joys to hear. But trust not Mark. The more
His speech be smooth, I would the more be ware.
That foxes change for any oaths they swear
I have not known. Believe, the claws are there,
Waiting their time.'
Guenever wrote alike,
Warning Iseult: 'For all your ills before
Your joys are greater now. But vipers strike
Without the warning that a hound would bay.'
With these good missives, and with those the king
To Mark and Tristram sent, a damsel rode
With escort well-beseen and furnishing
While Mark was at Tintagel. No conceal
Was made, and Arthur, in his kingly way,
Gave generous words to Mark, and naught of ill
He wrote to Tristram. Yet King Mark, who read
A menace in the words which was not said
('He doubts me surely, or he had not writ'),
Guessed with more right what sharp and friendless wit
Those other letters held he did not see.
"Damsel," he asked, "of thy good courtesy,
Wilt bear my missive to King Arthur back,
For such fair guerdon as thou shalt not lack?"
"That will I freely, with no boon at all,
For I return to Camelot."
Soon she told
Her pledge to Tristram and Iseult: "His gold
I would not take, but needs must grant;" and they
Took counsel, with the warnings lately writ
Vexing their minds: "What doth he plot to say?
Wilt bring it to us ere you ride away?"
The damsel answered: "If my faith I hold
To bear it at the last to Arthur, yea."
"That shalt thou doubtless do."
To Mark she went:
"I wait thy letter." But his own mistrust
Had stirred: "To write I have no more intent.
My mind is altered."
But his mind remained
Fixed on the thought that, if endure he must
From nephew and from wife reject and scorn,
With rancour imaged past its truth, no less
Should Arthur feel them in a like distress,
Learning Guenever false, with less to plead
Than had Iseult for that adulterous deed.
With this design he penned in secret wise
Letters to Arthur and to Lancelot,
And to Guenever, which one burden bore.
He wrote to Arthur: "That in faith I swore
Content thee that I have not failed to do.
I let my queen be false. If thine be true,
Are lies abroad. The better fame have I
That nightly by my side she doth not lie."
Then to the queen he wrote: "Iseult to praise
Should one be slack who keeps her lustful ways,
Yet in more cheating wise of secret sin?"
And last to Lancelot: "Light thy threats I weigh.
As safe as traitors bide, so safe are they.
For thine own judgement dost thou watch thy friend,
Deeming alike the wrong, alike the end?"
These letters in a varlet's hands he laid,
Saying: "Be secret. Let to none be known
That such thou hast, nor their subscriptions shown,
Until deliverance be assuredly made."
The varlet was a faithful knave. He rode
To Camelot first, and found his journey vain.
The king was at Caerleon. To horse again
He climbed for that long ride by ford and hill,
Not speaking aught to any. He found the king
At mass, the queen beside him. Lingering
In the main porch, among the waiting train
He bribed a servitor, who thought no ill,
To give the letters sole and secretly
To king and queen, as many a poor man's plea
Might be so passed. He watched awhile, and learned
His errand surely done: the guerdon earned.
Alone was Arthur when the scroll he read,
First in high wrath, and then discomfited
With doubts most hateful, and most hard to slay.
'To such foul depths,' he thought, 'should Mark betray
My trust in Lancelot, and my faith in her?....
Yet who should prove that only friendship lies
In the much freedom of their meeting eyes?....
It is not only Mark. My sister sent
That shield's rude blazon with the same intent....
Do all men think it? Is it only I
Who would the libel of that shield deny,
Blindly resolving that I will not see?....
Yet Mark is Mark; and for that shield - it came
From one who sought to snare my life with guile,
And now would bring my honour's height to shame,
And break my peace with discord. Let it be.
Surely I am not Mark, nor Tristram he.'
Sir Lancelot, seeing him walk apart, approached:
"Lord, art thou vext?" And Arthur: "I am shamed.
A base thought stirred me. Ask me naught. For named
Such thoughts are tenfold evil. Never encroached
Fears and false doubts upon thee, oh, my friend,
When all things paused at peace, and windless days
Prevailed as though thy former strength had reft
The heart of life, till naught of worth were left
To choose or do? In such a vacancy
Cold doubts have stirred and evil fears in me,
Which to the height of speech I would not raise.
For thoughts may cease still-born, that spoken grow
Beyond revert of silence."
"Yea, I know."
No more he said, and might have thought no more
Of what had vexed the king, except that came
Guenever to him with fierce wrath aflame:
"Read what King Mark hath writ! The varlet bore
A like one to the king. We well may guess
What venomed words it held. Will Arthur heed?"
"Content ye there. By that he said to me
In the last hour, he heeds its warning less
Than blames himself for heeding."
"Such is he
That I may well believe it. Mark is one
He would not take to guide him."
"That would none
Who loves high honour. But our shame is more
That one so mean can shame us."
"Think not so.
There is no shame in that which none may know.
Nor shouldst thou pass it vengeless."
"What could I?"
"Need it be said by me that Mark should die?"
"So will he likely in some caitiff way,
Who is too base for knightly sword to slay.
He hath not harmed us, and his bolt is sped."
Then Arthur entered, and no more was said.
But Lancelot to his chamber passed, and there
Found the third missive in his varlet's care,
And read, and pondered: 'If her hest I do,
I waken that which might in silence die.
And would Mark meet me in a knightly style?
No hope is there. Of treason, twist and guile,
He knoweth more than most; and more than I
Have the right wits to foil. But knightly test?
Nay, though I haul him by his craven crest
Round his own halls, with all his minions by.'
Thus musing, on a window couch he lay,
In the low sunlight of the waning day,
And from vexation of tormenting thought
Passed to the joyless dreams that slumber brought,
While the cast scroll upon a chest nearby
Lay open, and Sir Dinadan came, as one
By friendship favoured, and beheld it lie,
And idly, knowing Sir Lancelot, as he might,
Read the base script, and felt his heart alight
With wrath thereat; and when Sir Lancelot woke
His cooler counsel with contempt he spoke:
"Vex not thine heart for this. A libel's weight
Not on its facts depends, but whence and why
Its utterance comes. For such as Mark to lie
Is nature, nor would other's praise abate....
Know ye the rumoured tale? Or false or true,
While the fair Queen Iseult in all men's sight
Was wed, Dame Bragwain for the bridal night
(Though naught the drunken king the treason knew)
Her place supplied till near of dawn, while she
With Tristram sported. Lies they well may be.
But not such lies as Mark will lust to hear,
Should at his court some strolling bard appear,
And wake to ribald song a licensed lyre,
Immune by custom from its victim's ire.
Word should be met by word, as deed by deed.
And this with song I answer. Hear and heed."
And Dinadan touched a careless harp, and sang:
"A king sat high at his bridal feast,
And fair was the maiden his throne beside,
And the wine was poured, and the mirth increased,
As they drank to his health, and his Irish bride,
And the Cornish knight, and the Cornish barque
That brought such bride to their lord, King Mark.
"For the wings of the western wind did bring
An Irish bride to a Cornish king,
And he saw that her face and her form were fair
As a dream of love in a night of hair,
And her voice was that of the rising lark:
But her thoughts were her own when she met King Mark.
"A knight sat nigh where the throne was set,
And her cheek grew pale when his name was named,
And her heart stood still when their glances met,
And leapt when the minstrels his deeds acclaimed,
And her thoughts flew back to the Cornish barque
As she sailed from the west to her lord, King Mark.
"For the wings of the western wind had brought
An Irish bride to a Cornish court.
For a kingdom's peace she had shared a throne,
But the thoughts of her heart to herself were known.
In the light of day she had wed King Mark.
But whose were the lips that she kissed in the dark?"
This was the lay the harper, Elliot, bore
With laughter through the land of Gales and Gore,
But first at Terribil, with King Mark at meat,
Full boldly did he rouse its strain (although,
Having been summoned to the minstrel's seat,
And largessed in the old accustomed way,
Which licensed what he would sing or say,
Without rebuke from lordly place or low,
No lawful peril snared him, yet for sure
Such song did seldom any king endure
Sung in his presence with his minions by).
"Minstrel," he said, as died its strains away,
"Why hast thou hastened to thy hanging day?
Dost hear the crows their carrion hunger cry,
As round the gallows-pole aloft they fly?
That bough's projection soon with fruit will bend:
Soon shall that hunger by thy flesh be fed."
"I have no thought to die," the harper said,
"Who know my brethren and myself too strong
For outrage of thy wrath. But naught of wrong
Is thine. If japing of my harp offend,
Are other minstrels who their aid will lend
To publish where thou wilt a song as gay.
The harper singeth as the knights will pay,
And that I sang a knight himself hath made,
Who had been forward in our minstrels trade,
Had he not chosen in the nobler way
The trammels of the heat and dust of war."
"You mean Sir Tristram?"
"Nay, Sir Dinadan."
"Why doth he thus - "
"Because a scroll he saw
Writ to Sir Lancelot."
"Get ye, while ye may,
Clear of my sight and court, and leave my land,
Lest change my mood of mercy."
"Good my lord,
I go, but hasteless. Till the land I leave
I warn thee plainly, for thine own reprieve
To guard my life as though thy dearest friend
Were periled. If mischance should meet me now,
There were but little count of where or how,
But all would place it at thy door. And then
You would be fameless in the words of men,
In tales of hall or winter hearth, as long
As should thy memory last in tale or song."
On the south coast of Ireland, where it faced
The wooded Lyonesse land, whose rock-torn tides
Beat on those shores which now deep ocean hides,
But then were dateless of their doom, there dwelt
A tribe not native to the land, who dealt
Rapine both inward and by swift sea-raid,
That grasped its plunder, and its sails would spread
Before resistance raised a hostile head.
Sessoines men called them and a word of dread
It sounded in the ears of those who sought
The peace that reaps and builds, that binds and stores;
For they would make swift raids on alien shores,
Ravaging, burning, tossing babes for sport
Upon the points of their long spears, and when
The slower gathering of more peaceful men
Made front against them, with their spoils would they
Climb their ships' sides again, and sail away.
Lyonesse they raided not when Tristram's sire
Ordered his land aright; for beacon's fire
And movement of light-armed, well-mounted, men
Would foil them, or the cost would pile too high.
Who lives by raiding doth not count to die
Once in three times or four, as like would be.
Rather they sailed some further leagues of sea
To where the less of fear and caution led
To more regardless ways.
There came a day
When talk of Cornwall rose. Tintagel's tower
Was rumoured to be weakly held. King Mark
At Terribil called his court and kept his power.
Lamed by a hunting wound Sir Tristram lay
In Dinas' castle twenty miles away.
A raid that would its sudden spoil embark
Before full battle could its front array
Was first proposed. But then a happier dream
Gained hearing. Since Tintagel first was built
On its precipitous height, no storming foe
Had forced its gates. But those who rest secure
In old repute may keep their watch less sure,
Their guard less numerous, than would those who know
A former breach hath been. And Mark's esteem,
Or for himself or for the knights he led,
Was not enough to make such venture seem
Fantastic, nor to make too wild a dream
The hope to hold it. Arthur? All men knew
He loved not Mark. His special grace to sue
Should not be hopeless, nor its terms too hard.
But if large menace from his wrath should grow,
Their ships would wait them in the bays below.
So was it planned. A casual raid became
A strong invasion, in close secret schemed,
Long to prepare, and swift to move. It sailed
By moonless night, when western winds prevailed,
And on the Cornish coast, a blackening flame,
It landed, inward swept and landward lay
Around Tintagel. Frighted men were they,
Frighted and few, who closed its gates, and gazed
On ranks half hidden by the dust they raised
Swarming toward it.
Mark at Terribil
Heard, and his council called: "Our utmost power,"
He said, "may fail to break their leaguer through;
And though the high walls of that virgin tower
We boast inviolate, what no sword may do
May hunger shortly, for its vats to fill
Too little care hath been; too much delay,
Since the last crops were reaped, its pits to store."
"Then must we hazard forth our best array,"
Some voices called, but some protested: "Nay
Best were it first for Arthur's aid to pray."
"That were to wait too long."
"If they be more
In numbers, yet is ours the mightiest one.
We have Sir Tristram."
"Let Sir Tristram be,"
Said Mark. "How think you would he deal for me?"
"He would for Cornwall."
Dinas answered: "Nay,
A boar hath lamed him. With what force we may,
We must quick rescue make, and wait for more."
So rowelled by a need too sharp to shun,
They dressed their strength, and made short march to where
Those whose sole trade was war in strong prepare
Turned front to meet them.
Though Logre might jibe
At Cornish knighthood and the shields it bore,
Yet hardly fought the ranks by Dinas led,
Breaking the phalanx of the Irish tribe;
And those of Andret, who less fainly sped,
Swung round behind them, with more weight to probe
The puncture made. A gust of laughter shook
The giant chieftain of the raiding horde,
Judging the issue of the strife they took:
"Drive they so hard? We mend our lines anew?
Nay; but their thrust avoid, and let them through."
So it was done. The ranks of Cornwall gored
The sieging host until it backward drew
To right and left. With change of blows enough,
But yet with less than such a breach should need,
Beneath Tintagel's rocky cliffs they came,
Mark in their midst triumphant. Moatless gates
That closed the steep approach were open now,
And hands outstretched to greet them. Who should heed
The rush that broke their rear till surging in
The foe was nigh those castle gates to win?
Then was the fiercest strife that man beheld.
Of Cornwall's knights the heathen axes felled
The bravest and the best, who did not fly
The sheltering walls to gain.
While those who died
Prolonged defence, the general host relied
On the near safety of the gates. Distressed
And harried, jostling through the straitened way,
No victoring aspect of relief had they,
While on their rear pursuit so closely pressed
That, when the loud portcullis fell, they slew
A score of foes so caught, and heard the cries
Of friends without who their desertion knew,
And died unrescued.
High its towers might rise,
And strong might be Tintagel's gates, but how
Should that give comfort? Scant of food before,
By Mark's own act the need was sharper now,
Tenfold; nor likely could their swords restore
Even that which had been ere relief was tried.
Now that the number of their foes they knew,
And the wild valour of that heathen crew,
Hope to disperse them with the force he had
Died, or to break again their leaguer through.
What was there left for Mark's sharp guiles to do?
With Ireland's wilier chief the laughter lay.
Yet each must count the hurrying hours alike.
Haste in their thoughts who yet were feared to strike...
The food would fail.... Would Arthur move ere long....
The walls too high to storm... The host too strong
To break that sieged it. Mark's the sharper fear.
Starvation and strong foes alike so near.
To Tristram turned his thoughts again. By night
A messenger he sent who brought reply
When night returned: "My wound is with me still,
A laming hurt. But in few days I will
What knighthood may."
A neutral place was set
Where Mark the Irish chief, Elesha, met.
Shaggy and huge, a brawny bulk was he,
In crimson leather dressed from neck to knee,
That bore barbaric gems, and clasps of gold,
And scrolls the boasts of his fell deeds that told.
With bold decisive words his speech began:
"In swift surrender will thy safety be.
Else for each hour delayed I hang a man;
Thyself the first."
"We have no cause to yield,
Whose towers are strong. But in the open field,
Resortless of such walls, your risk is more,
If from Logre by land, or shipped from Gore,
The Table knights upon thee fall."
It will not be. Dost think I do not know
How Arthur loves thee? Make a likelier guess.
He would be blithe to hear thy more distress,
And in thy place confirm me."
"Thinkst thou that?
Thou hast the more to learn. A rightful king
He will sustain against all piracy."
"What, if thy throat were choked, were that to thee?
Wilt yield and live? Or else the rope prefer
Short weeks ahead?"
"I put thy bluster by,
And proffer in its place fair bargaining.
I will withdraw in peace agreed, and leave
No more defence thy strong assaults to grieve
Than ere I came, and in four weeks from now,
If all thy storms be vain, nor rescue rise,
It shall be yielded to thee."
Were that to thee. For while you here remain
The month you ask a starving week will be."
"Dost thou believe so fond a tale? We stand
Amidst the tribute of a fertile land,
Garnished for all the winter months are we."
"So shouldst thou say, but better proof is mine.
Be wise, and yield ye."
"If our oaths combine
Consent that nine days hence will either side
A champion to assert its right provide,
Not Arthur, though he came, would that deny,
Nor God's high verdict would he dare put by."
"You offer that? Your need is sharp indeed."
Lightly Elesha to such choice agreed.
For here were gain unhoped, secure to stand
Lord of Tintagel and the Cornish land
By Heaven's deciding rule. His heathen heart
Dreadless that God to His appointed part
Might equal prove, elated leapt. "I take
Thy proffer. Let the strife on foot be tried.
I am too largely made a course to ride
On any steed I know."
The choice was his,
So challenged, as was his the right to choose
Who should his champion be. But naught to lose
Or hazard, but to make clear certainty
He thought. For who in mortal combat yet
The wide sweep of his ponderous axe had met,
Nor fallen as a branch the woodmen shear?
Thus was their treaty made, and trustless peace
Through the slow days prevailed, without release
Of hostile caution and closed gates. The fear
That Tristram might not in good time appear
Moved in the mind of Mark, with lewd contrive
Of treason to his oath: "An outbreak yet
Of swift surprise might tear the circling net,
If Tristram should not by that morn arrive
The desperate strife to take. For who beside
Should dare that axe's sweep - or, daring, bide?"
But Tristram came before the chosen day,
With ten good Table knights his call had brought,
Intending to divide contemptuous way
Through the wild ranks whose felon leaguer lay
Around the towers he loved.
But need was naught
For shield to dress or naked sword to show.
Mark's message warned him of a dormant foe
While yet six miles away. The pursuivant
Who gave it told him of the treaty made,
By which all jeopard on himself was laid,
And Cornwall's freedom and his life were one.
He heard a bargain which he did not praise.
"To fight on foot? For one so lately lame
Poor is the choice," he said; "and failure lays
A yoke of stablished right, where right was none,
Upon the bent neck of the land."
Should look for Mark the bolder thing to do?
His own life's safety would he first regard.
Nor would his cunning hold that strife too hard
For Tristram's gaining; nor, should Tristram fall,
Find in his death the greatest loss of all.
Through curious ranks they rode of those whose trade
Was rapine, but who marvelling now surveyed
The great groomed chargers, and the shields whereon
The Benoic lions, or Orkney's falcon shone,
Or the red dragon's ancient symbol high,
Midst arms less feared, that those who bore them sought
To bring to honour by the deeds they wrought.
Scowling, that rabble watched the knights go by.
An order other than their own they saw,
Born not of violence but restraint of law
Self-chosen. Hardened, trained, and skilled in war,
Their weakest through those ill-ruled ranks had torn
As the wild bison through the trampled corn.
Yet little daunted were Sessoine's wild crew
The dreaded Table knights' approach to view,
For in their numbers was their strength; and they
Were fierce and hardy, and equipped not ill
For barbarous battle; and their strength of will
To range bold ranks, or hold a dangerous prey,
Not in themselves, but in their leader lay.
So Tristram to Tintagel came. The day
Too soon he thought for mortal strife, but stay
Were vain to plead, nor did he think to fall
To that barbarian axe: "I take," he said,
"The same good weapon? Nay; his practised art
Is axe to axe belike, and more than I
He knows the crafts by which discomfited
A foe may stumble deathward. Prudent part
Is mine to rather on the sword rely.
So will I meet him."
So at morn they met
Within a barriered space by bargain set
Wide of Tintagel walls, yet not more far
Than ranged Sessoines behind their fencing bar.
But ere swung axe on shield, and hawberk bit,
"Wilt yield," Elesha asked, "and life acquit?
A woman's bodkin could this axe oppose,
If any sword shall save thee."
"He who knows
The ways of knighthood doth not waste his breath."
"Then short shall be thy chosen road to death."
Swift with the word the ponderous axe was swept
From left to right a downward-slanting blow.
But Tristram, from long bouts of swords adept,
With short retire, and broad shield leaning low,
Turned it to earth. Tintagel cheered to see.
But Tristram thought: "Of such brute strength is he,
I have not oft withheld a harder foe."
Yet instant as the thought his blade had thrust
To take swift vantage of the axe's fall.
Linked steel it met, and did no scathe at all,
But warned Elesha that more heed he must,
Or death's full price he might be called to pay.
So with like caution now their blows they change,
Ware to advance but to avoid more ware,
Knowing the sword's thrust or the axe's range
Might find them for such fatal moment bare
As would the strife decide. But blows enough
They gave and took, and bitter blows they were.
Now by retreat, and now by stooping low,
And now by sleight of shield, the threatening blow
Of the two-handed axe Sir Tristram's skill
Foiled of its deadliest aim, but felt he still
Too much its impact for good mail to last,
And when two hours of heavy strife were past,
His shield was cleft, his shredded mail was red:
Blood to his feet outdropped from every shred.
Though hot blood also from the wounds he gave
Reached the cold earth, thereby his life to save
Was less his hope with every stroke he met,
For the huge-thewed barbarian hewed as though
Some oak he felled by blow succeeding blow,
And cared not greatly were they more or less,
Doing his day's work with no weariness,
And of the tree's sure fall content to know.
'Well doth he cover, but the end is sure,'
Sir Dinas thought. 'Can mortal strength endure
That hail of blows? He may their force sustain
Awhile by valour; but to hope were vain
That he should overbear at last, and slay
Their evil dealer.' Then to Mark: "Wilt say
That now we yield? It were his life to spare,
Nor added loss thereby."
But Mark: "To care
More for his jeopard than for Cornwall's right,
Were no way kingly."
In his secret thought
He set Sir Tristram's death as fairly bought
By loss of Cornish land which Arthur's power
Might haply rescue at no distant hour.
Sir Tristram looked at death near-eyed. Awhile
His own sword's menace and traversing guile
Might the last stroke that bore his death delay.
But was there hope in that? His strength was through;
And his were feeble to the strokes he knew.
But as to dying sight a cross may rise,
A vision rode of Iseult's waiting eyes,
In faith and gentle courage confident,
Whereat, as dying hearts may sin repent,
His weakness shamed him. 'If,' he thought, 'I die,
Never again in mortal life shall I,
In the dear height of love's most ecstasy,
Her naked beauty of surrender see:
Never again through that high moment live
That feels her lips their passioned answer give.'
Should all be lost to him, and all to her,
And this gross heathen triumph? Like a spur
In the hot side of an exhausted steed,
That stirs it with the call of utmost need,
So that to do the more, except it die,
Its heart impels it, so to him there came
Strength with resolve. By one unlooked-for stride
He crossed the space that did their blows divide.
Battered and bloodied, feeble-kneed and lame,
Stumbling to death a moment's space before,
Now with one splendid sweep of sword he shore
Through the steel coif and shaggy throat as though
He slaughtered some great beast, too dense to know
His meaning, or avoid it. Spouting gore,
Not his, now drenched him as his steps withdrew,
From one who blundered forward ere he knew
Hard earth must take his dying bulk asprawl.
The great head struck the ground, and sideward bent,
Widening the red gap where its throat was rent.
Faster the stream of life outpulsed. Was none
Could doubt the life of that huge beast was done,
And Tristram victor, though alike to fall
He seemed, as with uncertain steps and slow
He reached the dropped axe of his slaughtered foe,
And raised it for assert of victory.
Sir Dinas gained his side the first: "I praise
High God, who did thy sudden purpose raise
So bold a stroke beneath his guard to give."
"Nay, by God's life Itself, it was not He.
Give ye nor thanks to Him, nor thanks to me.
Iseult hath Cornwall saved. She bade me live
When my heart faltered, and my shield was low."
"To her," Sir Dinas answered, "swift shall go
The courier that we held await to bear
A word she will not doubt; for none could show
More bravely when thou dost for strife prepare."
"Honour to her is more than life. Above
Days of soft ease, or dearer rites of love,
Though on all sides contending deaths were near,
The fear to fail me were her greatest fear.
She dreads not for herself, nor much for me,
But only lest she might my weakness be,
Who is my strength and rescue. Call her here.
I am too wounded to regain her side."
So spoke Sir Tristram, and the loud delight
That shook Tintagel heard not; nor the tide
Of the wild flight of men now leaderless
He saw. For blurred was all of sound and sight;
And scarce he gained the couch with gait upright
Which should be his through long weeks' weariness,
While at his side Iseult's soft hands supplied
The gentle succour that close death denied.
Mark at Tintagel stayed his foe to bleed.
Many he slew, for which was cause, for they
Were of the nature of a beast of prey,
And who should loose them, further rape to breed,
Might well be partnered in their guilt before
The eternal Throne of God. For sought he more
For ransom than restraint, and those he slew
Were landless, wealthless men; except a few,
Worthless to keep, but good to use, he sent
To chaffer ransom for their comrades held,
Whose backs he bent the while in servile toil.
The dykes they strengthened, and the woods they felled
Not simply to enrich the Cornish soil,
But rather that their friends should more repent
Their evil usage, and their price be paid
To the full tale required.
There came a day
When the high chamber where Sir Tristram lay
Was roused by turmoil in the hall below
Of rushing feet, and clanging blows, and cries
Such as in hour of storming foes may rise
Rather than when wide peace prevails.
He asked, "should men be bold to chase and slay
In the main hall? That cry was mortal."
Answered Iseult, "it is not thine to stay
Such bickers. Mark is here."
Sir Tristram rose,
Haggard and weak, but of no mind to bide
While murder worked beneath. It seemed that those
Were several, by the lasting din, who died
As he went downward.
In the hall he found
All had grown silent, save a whimpering hound
That crouching, half in greed, and half in fear,
Lapped a hot bloodstream, where a sundered limb
Lay somewhat separate from the corse of him
Who once had owned it; and the hindered breath
Was loud from one who lost the fight with death.
Two others on the rushstrewn stones were cast
Whose days of evil or of grace were past.
One who a belly-thrust had felt, and then,
The while he grovelled, had his skull been cleft.
The other was through neck and shoulder slit.
He grasped a bare sword, but the blade of it
Was bloodless. Known were all as worthless men,
Mark's minions, for his meanest dealings fit.
But who had havoc'd and this carnage left?
Sir Tristram stirred to speech the breathing man.
"Sadoc," he gasped, and said no more. "Then died
Who should," Tristram, with little ruth, replied.
But wherefore was it? Sadoc was a knight
Of good report, though blemished. All men said
His ways were honest. If his word were plight
It would be honoured. That was known. But yet
Against this long repute old tale was set,
Of which men whispered only.
Tristram first landed on the Cornish shore,
Before he came to strength and man's degree,
A force of Paynims far from oversea,
Raiding on Cornwall's southern coast, had burned
And rapined for short time, till Boudwin learned
(A younger brother of King Mark was he),
And dealt to end them.
Ships of fire he sent
Among their anchored fleet, and this destroyed,
They sought in vain the ravaged land to void,
As was their wont when gathered fury rose.
And thus, outnumbered by remorseless foes,
They perished wholly.
Mark, who came too late,
Heard the full anthem raised of Boudwin's praise,
And charged him fiercely when alone they met:
"Why didst thou? Was a day too long to wait?
Dost think to take my throne?"
"Such waiting days
Good lives had wasted, and good steads had burned.
Thy throne? I lust not for thy tarnished state.
I sought no honour; and the gain is thine."
"Thy word is faithless that the gain is mine,
Who know thy treason; and the price it earned
I pay thee now."
His dagger's point he drave
Deep to the heart of one so all unware
He had not heeded that its point was bare
Before he felt it. Mark a priceless slave
Hanged for the deed. His brother's infant child
He would alike destroy. Fair words beguiled
Its mother to his board; but there she heard
The warning of a brief low-whispered word;
Called whom in haste she could, and horsed, and fled.
Mark sought Sir Sadoc: "Ride her down," he said.
"She shall be thine to trade: the babe to slay.
A babe is slain with ease. The price I pay
Will be thy fortune."
Sadoc rode her down
On the wild moors that east of Cornwall lie.
"Good knight, what wouldst thou?"
"From King Mark I ride.
More could I tell thee if we spake aside.
Bring the child with thee. Let the train go on."
She did not falter to the word, but took
A sleeping child, and with no backward look
Her steaming horse she turned. The train went on.
Down a deep gulch they rode. He spake as though
He were far other than her deadly foe...
Next day to Mark he came. "Such deed to do
I ruled reluctant heart. The dame I slew.
Her crow-plucked bones from any searching eye
Hid by the heather of great moorlands lie,
Where no man for a hundred years shall tread.
The babe I drowned. Its tender bones will be
The nameless burden of the wandering sea
Till the last trumpet rouse its myriad dead.
So have I made thy throne secure, and brought
Long peace to Cornwall, as of right I ought."
Mark's mean eyes met him: "Much the thanks I pay;
And if some while my better gifts delay,
You will regard that such reward too soon,
Too freely, given were a doubtful boon,
Making suspect its cause, as should not be."
"That," answered Sadoc, "is content to me."
Mark smiled, and left him. Could he claim reward
Without assertion of his knighthood's shame?
And what had Mark to give, or he to claim,
Which could fair balance of that loss afford
To one not lacking in estate or name?
So had it been. There came no rumoured word
Of Boudwin's wife, and though foul whispers stirred
Of where Sir Sadoc for two days had been,
And to what end he went, no proof was seen.
Years of fair life may slander's chase delay,
But slowly would a shadow lift that lay
Darkly as that, and creeping onward still
At call of such deed or evil will.
Many the summers went, the winters came,
Yet faintly Sadoc's was a tainted name.
Now Tristram raised his eyes, and Sadoc stood
With Fergus at the door, hard breathing still,
His bare sword bloodied: "Though I smote to kill,
As rats are slain," he said, "my cause was good."
"Nay," said Fergus, "well the cause I know.
A knight of Arundel, two hours ago,
To Mark, with talk that roused his anger, came.
He told that live were Boudwin's child and dame.
The child now grown and knighted. In full hall
His mother showed a prince's festive pall
Dark stained and slit. 'Behold how Boudwin died,
Stabbed basely by his brother's hand,' she cried.
'Now on his son a mother's charge I lay,
The slayer through all realms to seek and slay.'
"Thereafter was a tourney held, whereat
The new young knight, Sir Alisander, gat
Full honour, flinging all. From how he spake
- This busy prater - if I aught mistake,
Himself some loss of former pride had known
From Alisander's proofless spear. At that,
Mark signed, and to his call his minion came.
A knight not distant heard him speak thy name
As one on whom his vengeance first would fall...
But much I marvel, being four to one,
Slain were they wholly, and thy hurt was none."
"And marvel were it, had there been but one
- One of the four - not craven. But to do
Such deed, they being what they were, it seemed
There were too many there, or else too few.
They might have slain me ere a doubt I knew.
But each perchance in his base scheming deemed
Three were enough a single knight to slay,
And he would backward shrink, and share the pay
Without the peril of a forward push.
And when I smote an arm aside, and bare
Came my own sword, there was not one would care
A central place to take. Such rats to slay
(Swine rather, rats are bolder-souled than they)
Tires the arm only."
"Do you well believe,"
Sir Tristram asked, "this tale of Boudwin's heir?"
"It were no wonder if plain truth it were,
For truth it is, which now to hide were vain,
Mark thought my sword that guiltless dame had slain,
Which was their safety, for their lives to grieve
He had not slackened else. And then to name
The towers from which the babe of Boudwin came
Makes likelier truth. For there at need to fly
Was natural. Hers it was. Entrusted long
To her near cousin, and the knight she wed.
"At Mark's entreaty, when she wisely fled,
I overrode her. Only thought had I
To guard and warn her, that she should not die.
She told me then that distant walls and strong
Should be her surety till the child should be
Of age and valour grown to right her wrong."
Sir Dinas entered while they spake, and heard
A tale he all believed and partly knew.
"Surely," he said, "a knightly deed to do
Was thine, and knightly was thy silence too;
Nor for this refuse will good knights condemn
The hand that slew them. Mark himself for them
Will feel less rancour than relief that they
Are silent who before too much could say."
"Yet," said Sir Tristram, "for thy peace it were
To leave this land, and for some time repair
To Arthur's court. Myself will write the word
Which will be warrant for thy welcome there."
So was it done. In scorn of Mark, and those
Who dare not in day's light such lords oppose,
Whatever spite of privy thoughts they had,
They sent Sir Sadoc forth. King Mark the while
To that false knight who brought the envious tale
The lands of Sadoc gave. Of dear avail
They proved, for Sadoc turned a sideward mile,
Ere from his home he rode his hasteless way,
Some gold to gather, and some debts to pay.
And so they met. Brief words and fierce awoke,
And swords were bared. With one unhindered stroke
Sir Sadoc clove him to his chattering tongue.
But where was Alisander? That young knight,
Aware of morning and of morn's delight,
Let not his oath of vengeance cloud his sight
From other prospects. How should knighthood bring
That crime to justice? Beard a seated king?
He did not plainly put the purpose by.
Oaths are to keep. But yet, remote and high,
Vague and far-forward in his thoughts it lay.
So, of the day and all things confident,
Feeling sufficient for his vow's content
That he rode outward by the westward way
Toward the Cornish land, he left behind
The towers that were his home, his fate to find.
And Mark meantime, who did not wait to see
What first might chance, but worked by perfidy,
Tortuous in all, had letters sent to those
Who to all noble knights and deeds were foes,
Northgale's false wanton, Breuse, Malgrin, Le Fey,
Saying that if they would the life betray
Of that young knight, his service theirs would be
At any kindred need.
The Queen Le Fey
Was in the woods that west of Camelot lay
(For at Carlisle was Arthur, and she knew
That Caradoc would not aught against her do
While she did naught of treason) when she read
Mark's missive: "Here should be the road," she said,
"Which one from Arundel should take who rides
To venture where the king of Cornwall bides.
Here will I wait and watch. Young knights are sped
By other wiles than Mark would use, and more
The gain to her who doth their lives betray."
To her pavilion, where at ease she lay,
A word was brought: "At Camelot's tourney-play
(Which Caradoc orders, as his wont will be
When there he rules as Arthur's deputy)
A young knight, Alisander, came unknown,
Raw and unpractised by his guise was he,
But all who faced his spear were overthrown,
And each, in youthful pride, he forced to vow
That for a twelve month and a day from now
They will no armour wear. So great a shame
There hath not happened since the Table came,
And its first knights were chosen."
"Him to meet
Shall be my short contrive," the queen replied.
"But, nay," was answered, "that you may not do,
For Malgrin lured him with a tale untrue,
Meaning to slay him in the hard defeat
Which surely shall abase the boastful pride
That mocked the Table knights his spear had flung."
"That is most certain. Malgrin's sport will be
The tiring of the sword of one so young.
For sword-craft is not learned the easy way,
But only through long bouts of deadly play
By those who practice their full peers among.
How did he lure him?"
"By his frequent trick."
"Did no man warn him?"
"Friends are few to guide
One who is orgulous their pride to prick."
"Let all be ready that at dawn we ride.
Such clash of swords I would not lose to see."
So was it done. From southern woods to where
The heathered downlands to the skies are bare,
And through deep other woods whose hills divide
The Thames high source from Severn's broader side,
To Malgrin's tower she came.
Was bustling there
Barriers to build and level ground prepare
For mortal duel. Malgrin met the queen
In jovial mood: "A mortal bout? Perde!
That may it be for him, but not for me....
I do not seek them. Here they crowd. And I
Must meet their proud offence, and one must die.
But peril mine? So far, it hath not been."
Bare truth he spake. A damsel near-away,
Whose lands he cropped and would not loose, unless
She should by love's surrender yield them too,
Would missives send to plead her hard duress
To youthful knights of crescent fame; and they
Believed that Malgrin did such outrage do
As only in her hapless rape could end,
Unless their valours should her loss amend.
Hence to the rescue of her compassed hold
Knightly they came; and yet a doubt might be
That in good faith she wrote. For this was sure.
The squire who bore their missives freely went
Through Malgrin's leaguer with his full consent.
And sure it was that Malgrin's grim delight
Was in their coming. In their deaths were cold
Seven who had felt the older sword down-smite
Beyond endurance of their shields; and now,
In bold assertion of his knighthood's vow,
And youthful arrogance that wrong to cure,
And no way of himself or cause unsure,
Came Alisander. Morgan watched him ride
To take his station at the barrier-side,
And licked anticipating lips, as one
Who thinks to sate her ere this feast be done:
"Little hath Mark to fear. Should Malgrin fail,
Mine may be pitfalls of more sure avail."
Nothing she cared that Mark should escape or die,
But her sleek loins were stirred with lechery
Seeing him fashioned to her lust's content.
Now the high trumpets, not for tournament
Of knightly semblance, but for mortal war
Their clamant calling shrilled. The restless crowd
Stilled as that summons rose to heaven aloud,
In pause of expectation, till they saw
The long spears sink, the rushing chargers meet.
The lances splintered both, but while his seat
Sir Alisander held, Sir Malgrin fell.
Agile despite his bulk, he voided well
The saddle of a steed that sank and struck
Wide hooves in rising. Men were vocal now,
But not for peril of their lord. They knew
That marvels with the lance he could not do,
Being outridden oft, and cast by those
Whom would he later slay.
Unhurt he rose,
And neck-slung was his shield, his sword was bare,
As Alisander from his horse alit.
Scant was his time to make the like prepare
Before they joined. On helm and hawberk bit
The wide-swung blades. Shields shorn and laces slit
Soon owned the fury of that strife. But not
Gave Alisander half for all he got,
Though higher rose his blade, and faster fell.
For Malgrin would that pelting hail repel
With less of fury, but with more of wit.
Wary with shift of shield to conquer it,
And swift to thrust where opening showed, that so
Sir Alisander had a wound to know
Each time they closed, and soon the ground was wet
Beneath his feet, so fast his life he shed
From hurts agape. That such an end should be
No wonder waked. It was that sight to see
For which the crowd had joined. It was for that
Malgrin had lured him there. As some men slay
The flying deer, or seek the beast of prey
To prove in that bold strife their mastery,
Alike Sir Malgrin's evil boast would be
To count the tale of those his sword had sped.
Nor was there mercy in his heart to spare
Those whom he worsted. In the last despair
Of those who with blurred sight and shaking knee
Delayed their deaths, his savage joys would be.
Now Alisander, of his plight aware,
But yet of death incredulous, as though
A dream were round him that with dawn would go,
Used all his strength with sweeping blows to tame
The older, warier knight. Much strength he had,
And desperate courage for some time put by
The weakness born of wounds. But naught forbad
The wildness of his wasted strokes. A score
Sir Malgrin turned, or with swift sleights forbore
To take their fury. Now to all men seemed
That Alisander, whatsoe'er he dreamed,
Had seen the last of any waking day,
When one, the wildest stroke of all, made way
Unhindered. Leapt Sir Malgrin's head, clean-shorn
From the blood-spouting trunk. As prone it fell,
Sir Alisander, stooping forward, sank
Across it in such sort were hard to tell
If of the draught of death alike he drank.
Then wild confusion rose, as all men knew
That rule perverse of murder-lust was through.
Who cared if one were live, or both were dead?
Queen Morgan to the fallen came. She said:
"He was too certain in his own conceit
But though that severed head be sure defeat,
Is any victor?"
Near the maiden drew
Who lured its victims to that hard ado.
"Much have I longed to see this hour." She said.
"..... I wrote not of duress? He thought I did.
But other thoughts had I."
"Yet not for you
If any life survive, this knight will be."
"Truely you say this knight is not for me.
There is another whom I cast to wed.
Gervise le Gros, a neighbour-knight, is he.
And now these lands are mine, he blithe will be
To take me with them."
While they spake, was brought
A litter where the wounded knight was laid
Unconscious: "See his wounds, how deep they are,"
The damsel said. "Me thinks his feet too far
Have ventured on death's road for mortal aid
To bring him backward."
"Nay, but here is naught
Beyond remede to me," the sorceress said.
Soon was he stretched upon an easeful bed
While Morgan searched and salved his wounds, and stayed
Their pitious bleeding. More than twelve were they,
And one so deep it were bold hope to say
That life would conquer. As she wrought, she said,
Seeing his eyes were on her: "Dost thou seek
Again, and in thy recent strength, to live?"
He answered in low words with pauses weak:
"What is there but a man will lightly give
For life's high boon?"
"Then swear an oath to bind,
If I shall save thee by the arts I know,
A twelve months and a day in peace to go
Wearing no arms, but in such ease reclined
As they may gain whose rest is round them spread
By triumph in past days."
"What need," he said,
"So hard an oath requires?"
"It is no more
Than thou hast dealt to noble knights afore
With little cause to find."
Perforce he swore.
For three long days Sir Alisander slept,
By Morgan's potions held, the while he lay
In such good litter that a wildwood way
Which rose to where the pulling horses stept
With caution o'er rough stones and pitfalls wide,
That scarred the steep path on the mountain side,
Waked not his wounds anew.
When eve was barred
With the rich blazons of the sunset sky,
They came to Morgan's secret lone retreat,
The tower, of few men known, of Beau Regard,
Built on a crest of hill which rose to meet
Bare heaven, that only when the clouds went by
Was distance veiled. But though so wide a view,
Few were the men who saw, and scant who knew
Its lonely strength, so dense the woods that grew
Around it, and such width they stretched away.
Here in long pain Sir Alisander lay,
Chambered aloft, the while that Morgan's skill
(For much of herbs she knew, to save or kill)
Healed his deep wounds, and gave him ease anew.
But when the danger to his life was through
She left that castle for the land of Gore.
Return she purposed when should time restore
His fuller vigour, for her lust inclined
In climax of the best its joys to find.
Moment and mate and place must perfect be,
To wage long waiting with more ecstasy.
Would she return? Caprice alone could tell.
But when she left, a gentler damsel came
To tend his couch, and oft she stayed to share
The slow warm hours of summer light. Her name,
Elise, she gave him; but her words were slow
More of herself or of her place to show.
Only he judged, by that she did not say,
Nothing she loved, but much she feared, Le Fey.
Slow were her words to come, but even so
They came, for all the summer hours were slow.
Yet summer left the land, and autumn came,
Before he learned she bore a nobler name
Than even he, of Cornwall's blood could claim.
Cousin she was to Mark, and born as near
To Arthur's self: "I do her service here
Not of good will nor of good right, but more
To save my father from her spells, for he
In earlier years incurred her enmity.
He is the duke of those fair lands that lie
Between the Deeside and the mountains high
Of wild North Gales. This tower is mine of right.
But while I lend it for her sorceries,
And privy ventures, such as brought thee here,
She will not practice ill, as else she might,
Against his life. Yet when my father sees
The uses that degrade it, year by year,
He swears to end it by that element
Which for the cleansing of such haunts is meant."
"He would destroy your own ancestral tower?"
"He would release me from the sorceress' power
By that one charm that daunts all fiends; and she
Is artless to prevent, nor can foresee.
Much hath she conquered in her evil school
Of earth and air. But fire she doth not rule."
These things were said as in his arms she lay,
For summer idless worked as oft it will
To snare them in the bonds of wanton play;
And then she trusted who had long been still.
"Such as you count," he said, "she well may be.
I doubt it naught. And yet good friend to me
She proved, who healed me, having brought me here."
"So dost thou think? And to this idle year
Why did she vow thee?"
"That I do not know.
But haply that she thought my pride too high,
Who had to others at their overthrow
Dealt the same dish."
"For that she would not care.
She brought thee, frustrate as a stingless bee,
And bound thee by that oath to here remain
Whilst thou shouldst all thy former strength regain,
At her own time thy life to take or spare,
As thou shouldst pliant to her purpose be.
"That which so dearly hast thou done to me
She will require thee at her time to do,
Or cold rejection shalt thou dearly rue.
So dungeoned, death shalt all thine exit be."
Wrath stirred Sir Alisander: wrath and pride:
"She thought to hold me as a beast is tied,
Waiting its use? To serve or else to slay?
Rather than thus her carnal lust obey
I would myself contrive mine impotence."
"Why, being fitted for such sweet offence,
Such wrathed refusal? Hast thou done to me,"
She laughed, "so loth a deed thy mind rejects
Another bout as hard? More lewd is she
Than comes by nature, through her sorcery.
Thou shouldst be glad to take so fair a field."
"Nay, but because to thy sweet lure I yield,
I am not one shall any force compel.
Thou hast a stronger and a fairer spell
- And Morgan doth not come, from day to day."
"Nay," said Elise, "but any morn she may."
But Morgan came not, and at last she said,
As autumn to full winter's darkness led:
"Perchance she will not. None her mind can tell.
As changeful as a moving cloud is she,
Torn by the wind, or by the sun's caress
Altered in shape and changed from less to less.
Another, fiercer lust by now may be,
And her new purpose have no part in thee.
So this I counsel: Here awhile to dwell
Were prudence, for the snail that lacks its shell
Crawls not abroad. But when thy year is through,
If Morgan come not, as she may not do,
Ride forth in all thy previous strength, and I
My father's urging will no more deny.
But those high towers which I have loved so long
With Morgan's further sleights I will not wrong.
Bright fire shall cleanse them, as it only can.
"Here will we watch while this strong hold divides
The storm-blown clouds of winter, and its sides
Rebuff the cold embracings of the snow.
For in such season Morgan will not try
The frozen roads. It is her wont to go
To where the South Gales sands are warmer far
Than these deep woods and bleaker uplands are.
But when the swallows to our eaves return,
Before the build of nests I would not burn,
Wild fire shall be to all our bastions set,
While we ride forth; and all the past forget
In the green heart of northern woods will we,
Where Morgan will not seek, and would not see."
To this resolve she held. When jocund May
Approached its June, and every wildwood way
Was hawthorn-scented, troops of mounted men
Filed through the woods, and ringed that hold, and then
Fired it on every side. Too numerous they
For those aghast behind its walls who lay
To outrage on them. When their work was done,
They climbed their steeds again, and rode away.
Out from a postern gate, the smoke and heat
Of the wide-circling climbing fire to meet,
Rode Alisander and Elise. Behind,
The cries of those in doomed halls confined,
Fearful of foes without and fire within,
Rose with the smoke's black pyramid, that high,
In the still air, toward a cloudless sky,
Told of the havoc wrought beneath. The din
Grew fainter as they rode the northward way.
Far southward from Carlisle and Joyous Garde,
Yet from the fertile fields of fair Logre
Far north enough to hold security
From Morgan's searching hate, awhile they dwelt,
Finding life's best, although the oath he swore
He left aside, with large excuse, for how
Should dare he face the spell that Morgan dealt,
Either to leave Elise, or take her now
To sharper danger than had seemed before?
Yet at the last he left them, wife and son,
(For Elisander then, his heir, was born)
To scathe not Mark, but be by Mark undone.
The knife of murder found his heart, as it
Found Tristram's also on a later day
From Mark's own hand. But that was long-away.
And how life endeth is no dole to say,
Or if its hours have lasted long or less.
But be they of high heart and graciousness,
Weakness to shield and violence to repel,
For those whose lives no shame of baseness knew,
Whose deeds were loyal, and whose plights were true,
All paths to God must lead: all ends are well.
Yet justice for those noble deaths was done
When grew to strength Sir Alisander's son.
By him Mark's meagre ratlike form was cast
Over Tintagel's battlements at last.
Flung by the heels, that on the rocks below
It squirmed and died. But this was long away.
Fair now was summer and the sunlit day.
End of Chapter XIV