The Song Of Arthur - Chapter XXIV
by S. Fowler Wright
Return to Chapter XXIII
The Death Of Arthur.
Within the walls of Joyous Garde again
Sir Lancelot called his knights. "To here remain,"
He said, when their assembled strength he saw,
Were simple; or from further lands to bring
Such force in open field to meet the king
As might the centre of his rule contest
Would not be past regard. But that to do
I have no purpose. Had I this foreseen,
Would I to Arthur have returned his queen?
I know not. Yet no more I urged her do
Than to her honour and her lord were due.
Ye see me worsted. Would I leave this land
For any warning word? I tell ye nay.
Yet will I this too harsh command obey.
For else so wounded were our Christian realm
That hordes of heathenry might overwhelm
The very faith we know... But this to me
Is single. None but I this sentence named.
And those whose lands in Arthur's danger lie,
Or by their vows are bound, may leave unblamed
My path of exile."
Persaunt answered: "Nay,
Our choice was changeless when we rode away
First from Carlisle. What welcome now would meet
Those who should leave thee at thy more retreat?
We may not cast again, for wealth or woe;
Nor would I at more need than now we know."
So Palomides said, and so Lavaine,
And others, all alike. For loss or gain,
Their path was chosen.
"Friends," Sir Lancelot said,
"I thank ye. To the most mine own estate,
And fair broad lands I rule may compensate
Your present losses, those I gladly give.
I have enough beside. Nor might I live
In larger comfort than my friends."
With one consent they swore his part to hold:
"Nor do we hardship for ourselves forecast
From rash resolve, for now will fall amiss
A land to treason and rebellion sold.
How long shall Gawain and his friends outlast
False Modred, boring like a mole below?
For Arthur's empire and his throne relied
On the whole Table's valour, faith and pride
- Not least thine own - and what remains today?
How few, how broken, and how spent are they
Of ancient prowess that the years forget,
The knights of good repute who ring him yet -
Ulfius, Brastias, Bedivere and Kay."
In full obedience to the king's command,
By sea, from Cardiff to the Benoic land,
Within ten days Sir Lancelot sailed. There went
A hundred of the greatest knights who were
The constellations of the firmament
Of Arthur's kingdom, while he watched, aware
That those who would Sir Lancelot's exile share
Departed half his strength. Should health endure
In that drained body which, to work its cure,
Had half its life-blood from itself expelled?
But Gawain to his single purpose held
Of vengeance that no space of exile slew.
At Arthur's ear he urged: "Neglect the hour,
And treason will to such dimension grow
That not thyself could weed it. Use thy power,
Instant and all, to such swift overthrow
That Benoic's rebels at thy feet shall cower.
"Give them no grace to well-stuffed holds to flee,
But rout them in clear field, or nakedly
Possess them, in unfurnished walls confined,
Being too hustled for good garnishing."
This counsel pleased the king, whose milder mood
The queen had chafed. For when she surely saw
That Lancelot bent to the dividing law,
And never customs of old days renewed
Would more content her, then her wrath she turned
On Arthur. Never would forgiveness now
Be spoken. Never would her lips allow
The right she yielded in past days. Her hate
Was not for him whose jealous wrath had burned
The writhing flesh, had Lancelot' speed delayed.
But him who now, at Gawain's urging, made
Severance and exile where she loved. Exempt
By Arthur's oath from judgement of past days,
And made reproachless of continued wrong
By Lancelot's going, with a bold contempt
She bared the truth to Arthur.
Clear he saw
The faithless years, and Gawain, urging war,
A better audience found. Not yet was spent
The strength of Arthur's realm. He called the host
Of those still faithful. To the Benoic coast
He sailed from Cardiff on the exiles' track,
But found no war. For Lancelot, flinching back
Behind strong walls, his restless knights forbade
Either in force, or lighter ranks arrayed,
To make resistance to the king's advance,
At which they murmured much. Though Lionel
Gave the like counsel from a diverse mind:
"Bide ye behind strong walls, till black winds rise,
And cold rains lash them from December skies,
Then will they fret in sodden tents to dwell,
And so disperse, more solid roofs to find,
When we, outraging at what hour we will,
As easy butchers shall select and kill."
By hotter impulse urged, Sir Galihud
Spake in more wrath: "To those of kingly blood
It is most shameful to their strength contain
The while their foes in open freedom ride,
And helpless hinds, perchance, are chased or slain,
Who should secure in their protection bide."
And Bors, who most would Lancelot heed, alike
Was hard in protest: "That which few will say
Is thought by all. Except we backward strike,
We fail at last. And of such mood are they
As will not thank thee for thy gentleness.
War can we well sustain, or peace approve,
But thus to watch our foes without remove,
The while they mock us, and the land oppress
By tithe or rapine, is for naught to lose
All previous honour, and our shame to choose."
But answer made Sir Lancelot: "While I led
Undoubting knights of old, was ever said
Dishonour of my counsel or my name?
Think ye I lust to work my kindred's shame?
Mine own rebuke? But haply here I know
A surer honour than your pleadings show.
For more our praise, when this sharp woe be told,
If the surrounding heathen lands behold
In silent walls our greater might reserved,
Than proudly to contend with him we served.
And I will this concede. A word I send
To pray the king that he our wound amend
By such fair treaty as may all content.
Such issue might I yet be bold to bring,
If I could Gawain pass, and reach the king."
Thereat a damsel and a dwarf he sent,
Who made unhindered way to Arthur's tent,
Having the freedom of the impotent.
Sir Lucan met them: "Come ye, as I guess,
From the most noble knight, Sir Lancelot?"
"Yes," said the damsel.
"God thy purpose bless.
For we who love the king would hinder not
One hope of peace, however weak it be."
"Why should it be so weak? If tales be true,
Faint-hearted is the king this strife to see.
And Lancelot shows, by that he doth not do,
A like reluctance."
"Might the king decide
Unthwarted, none would lay the sword aside
More soon or gladly."
"Must he seek permit
From those he rules of right?"
"He craveth it
As one who bends beneath a harder will,
Reluctant, to his bane."
"Is Gawain here?"
"It is his custom with the king to sit."
"God ruleth all! I must my part fulfil
For gain or loss."
At this Sir Lucan led
Through curtained porchways to a silken bed
Where the king rested; and his couch beside
Was Gawain, and such knights as best supplied
His need of friendship.
"Gracious lord," she said,
"I come from Lancelot in no hostile way,
A sign of peace preferred; and this to say:
That from no durance, but of right goodwill,
If from his land in good accord ye go,
He will, his leigence to thy throne to show,
Give tribute of much worth, and service true,
Await to hear thy calls. But yet will bide
In this far realm, that naught again misguide
To evil of surmise.... Good lord, methinks
- Boldly I speak - that this thy gain would be.
For now the including waves of heathenry
Flow inward from all sides. Thy glory sinks
In this thy Table's rift: thy friends despair:
Thy foes make triumph. But the peace I sue
Would those strong foes confound, and all renew
The previous fortress of the Christian pale."
So ceased she, doubtful of her words' avail,
For Arthur's answer paused, and Gawain's eyes
Showed hard rejection. But the knights around
Murmured approval, and the urgent sound
Stirred the sad king. "More fair is peace," he said,
"Than war where Christians blood of Christians shed.
Gladly I - "
Gawain bore him down. "My king,
What will the watching world conclude, if so
From these denying walls you turn and go,
When near the end of thy long journeying?
..... Let me give answer."
"Nephew, thine shall be
The choice of answer... Yet a kind reply
Were best to find. I would not all deny.
It hath a fair and friendly sound to me."
"Is but one answer: Tell thy perjured lord
His need is only to restore the slain.
Peace shall be his when Gareth lives again.
But else my answer is a naked sword.
For all that others may or may not do
I will without relent his life pursue,
Till either I be lost, or lost is he."
Unheeded tears from those who heard him fell,
And knew from those rejecting words too well
What fruit of evil days would likely be.
The damsel, seeing what was plain to see,
That Gawain ruled the king's infirmity,
Required no more than royal leave to go;
And Arthur to so bold a messenger,
Gave approbation in a brief farewell.
Next morn Sir Gawain rose, short tale to tell,
And armed, and rode those silent gates below.
He cried on high: "Thy laggard limbs bestir,
Some front of manhood to our host to show.
Crawl forth from where ye lurk, or else will we
As vermin haul ye shivering out. No walls
Will long avail ye. None at last but falls
By famine's gradual siege, or swift assault.
Will ye show knighthood, or most basely die?"
But Lancelot, hindered by his noble fault,
Replied not. Of his restless knights arose
Sir Bors, who joined not in their japes, but sent
For arms and charger. To the gate he went,
Thinking: One end is here, and only one.
Were Gawain of his hateful vaunt foredone
There were no other of like mind.
"Abate this clamour. For a knight is here
To give thy breath a different use." His spear
Sank as he spake, and thus in full career,
As waves by wind and tide opposed they met.
In honour's scroll shall Gawain's name be set
Above Sir Bors'? Their records speak. But now
Was plain to see how fate will chance allow
To weight decisive scales. Good knights were they,
Alike of excellence; but all would say
That Bors was deadlier in his cool design,
And younger by a ten years' space, and famed
As next to Lancelot when strong knights were named;
Yet now he broke a worthless lance, and fell
Sore hurt, for Gawain's, that endured too well,
Transfixed him in the side.
Sir Lionel led
Swift rescue for his brother's need, and loud
Defied the victor: "As a Paynim proud,
Boast not the Christian knight thy lance hath slain.
Another waits thee."
Hard they crashed, but not
Was Lionel of the might of Lancelot,
Nay, nor of Bors. His backward length he fell,
And rose too bruised for further strife.
The lance of Gawain drave, but not so deep
But Bors might yet his life's dear burden keep,
By leechcraft, and God's grace. They thought him slain
Who raised him, but with care they bore him in,
And barred their high forbidding gates again.
Had shame and honour each a different dress
Worn to Sir Lancelot, then his course had been
At once apparent. All his days had seen
Clear choice and instant, till this last distress
Reduced him to the depth that losers know.
But now was answered to his doubt. His kin,
Taking his risk, had met such overthrow
As had not been if he his part had done.
Him had the challenge sought, as his the sin
Which had this hard unnatured strife begun.
So Gawain found at last his purpose won
When from the gate Sir Lancelot rode. At last
The fierce ger-falcon, open-beaked for prey,
Faced the blue lions in a mortal fray.
Out thronged Sir Lancelot's part, that strife to view:
Thronged in the field the sieging host thereto.
King Arthur gazed on those who once had been
The bulwarks of his throne, when friend and queen
Had been his nearest and most loved; and they
In glad allegiance would his word obey.
"Alas!" he said, "how stands their front to us?
More famed, more powerful, and more numerous
Are those whom Lancelot hath restrained than we.
In this, more friendship hath he shown to me
Than any feigning would. Alas that they
Who most sustained us should be reft away!"
Answered Sir Bedivere: "God changeth all,
Lest by concerting of ourselves we fall.
Doth noon endure? Hast known a lasting day?
That which thou wast shall never time betray.
Content ye that such noble things we see."
As thus they spake, the willing chargers ran,
Great-hearted, of their riders confident.
Such speed, such weight was theirs, and such the skill
Of those who rode them, that from equal will
An equal fate they found, for in one heap
Chargers and riders rolled. But soon arose
Those knights long practised, either seats to keep,
Or falls control. The deadlier swords they bared.
And those who watched for hour-long strife prepared,
Knowing their durance and their parity.
So was it. And though most around had guessed
That Lancelot would the final victor be,
Yet now they doubted. So Sir Gawain pressed,
With blows so fast, of such malignity,
That Lancelot more his shifting shield addressed
To ward them, than assailed with like aggress.
Like to an eager hound, on leash too long,
But slipped at last, was Gawain. Recked he naught
Of cool defence, but in blind fury fought,
Each swinging stroke impelled by lust to slay.
Sir Lancelot met the tempest as he might,
With craft, with patience, only swift to smite
When showed the instant chance. He turned away
Strokes that had slain him else. The evil will
That sought not knightly praise, but sought to kill,
Was sensed by all who watched. Yet came an hour
When not less vicious, but with failing power,
The quick blows rained, while Lancelot's hard replies
Became more frequent and more dangerous,
Until he backward stept, and spake: "Behold,
I have a vantage which I would not use.
I ask forgiveness. Wilt thou still refuse
Accord of honour?"
"Wouldst thou foil me thus?
Defend thee! Only when thy heart is cold
Can there be peace between us."
This only end."
With all his tempered might,
Exact of purpose where and how to smite,
Such stroke he dealt that Gawain sideward fell.
Vainly he strove to rise.
"Now if thou wilt,
My life is thine," he cried, "for wit ye well
I would not spare ye."
"Yea, may God defend
That I should ever in thy danger lie.
For surely at that hour my life should end,
But no such hatred to thyself have I."
At that, he turned, and left him where he lay,
By those who served him to be borne away.
While Arthur watched, and spake no word, but rode
Back from that field, and where red fury glowed
The ashes of strife grew pale; and in his heart
He cried: "Alas! That such a gulf should part
The true friends once we were."
While this regret
Weakened resolve, a barque wide-sheeted set
Its southward course for Benoic's coast. Its freight
Was one short scroll: "The while in vain debate
Ye war with Lancelot, all thy pride of power
Doth Modred trample and usurp. For me
Is strait control designed in London's tower.
Tomorrow there I ride perforce. To thee
Why send I warning? Nay, I would not see
Thine end so abject in the dust, nor be
Myself at Modred's will."
King Arthur read
That missive. Well Guenever's hand he knew.
"Now swear I, by the throne of God," he said,
"If Modred be so false that this be true,
Though twice my son, I would his life pursue
Beyond earth's barriers to the brink of hell."
And Gawain swore alike: "If this thing be,
There is no refuge or of land or sea
Should save him, by God's wounds, though more my kin
Than once the cuckoo breeds can boast."
Of war on Lancelot to swift end was brought.
Haste - but was haste too late? - Was theirs to call
From that vain siege allies and lieges all
For bloodier battle - but were all too few?
Sailing from Benoic while a fair wind blew,
And beating round the Breton land, they laid
Their course to find the Kentish sands, and drew
Slowly thereby, through falling winds delayed,
While Modred, moving with his host of those
Who to the grace of Arthur's rule were foes,
Or sought in discords for their gains, or who,
Impatient of the old, believed the new
Would flower more fairly, watched his sails, and made
Strong battle ready to dispute the shore.
Then Arthur anchored, and aloft displayed
Pendragon, gules and or, a sign of dread
To those who watched it rise. A hundred years
Had seen it call the strength of Christian spears
Around it, to assert with slaughter red
Freedom and peace.
Ashore did Modred set
His battle subtly. Arthur's landing met
Hired heathen of the outer darkness, ranged
In the first rank, that those should latest jar
Who held one creed, whose friendships were not far.
Such would he leash reserved till strife was hot,
For who, at clash of swords awaketh not
To joy of battle, careless whom the foe?
And deemed he that those lines of first array
Might well suffice the king's thin ranks to stay,
Seeing how few of those great knights were here
Who once had held the heathen world in fear,
Exiles or slain, and vain alike to aid:
Where Tor's bold strength, and heavy-smiting blade?
Dinadan's gay mocks, and subtle plays of spear?
Lavaine's fierce youth, and Bors' unboasted skill?
The joyous might of Tristram? Or the stark
Hard hewing of Agravain? Gaheris' sword-sleights?
Or those scarred veterans of a hundred fights,
Blamor and Bleoberis?
Yet were here
Knights of good heart and faith, to whom the king
Spake such unvaunting words as still were clear
From shame, or faltering doubt, or baser fear:
"To me, in age left lonely, and to you,
Life-comrades, whom the shadows closer drew,
God gives this trust, to save from godless hands
A realm that on His laws was built. Behold,
How basely ranged the rank of treason stands,
Fronted by heathen from the alien lands
To whom their pride is lost, their faith is sold.
Now for the land we love, the faith we hold,
And for the greatness of the dream we had,
Which must without our swords to darkness fall,
God gives our hands to strike, Who ruleth all,
To break or to be broken. Well I know
It is not in our hearts to flinch or fly,
And in a fairer cause shall no man die."
So spake the king, and with no further word
Leapt downward to the flood, and those who heard
Plunged in the waves alike, and struggling free
They gained to where the sands forget the sea.
First where the heathen axes flashed and fell
Lord Gawain forward forced a desperate way,
And close on either side, and knightly well,
The remnant of the Table fought alike.
Sword-hewn, death-reddened their path, until the chief
Of the wild horde, to win their hard relief,
Lord Gawain faced, his more advance to stay.
Beneath his shield the irresistible thrust
Of the straight sword gave death, but not the less
Nor later, the great axe, round-whirling, crushed
The helm where Lancelot's sword had beat before,
And Gawain, dazed with death, and blind with gore,
Yet forward for short space bewildered way
Cleared ere he sank.
The roar of strife went on.
Well fought the ranks of Modred, but the might
Of Arthur's Table yet availed to smite
That treasoned rabble. Falling, knight by knight,
They each, before they fell, so freely slew
That the gored ranks of Modred backward drew,
Sullen, reluctant, till, amidst the slain,
Stood the sad king on British earth again,
Alone of all his greatest.
With ordered force the loftier ground to gain,"
He bade his nearest.
"Sire, Lord Gawain lies
Slain on the slain."
But from the trampled shore
Gawain, yet living, to the camp they bore,
And in the king's tent laid him. Never more
Should lovers' breasts arouse him, nor the sight
Of lances lowering to the imminent fight,
Nor, kneeling seldom in default of pride,
The altar of the Lord God crucified.
Greatest nor least was he, nor worst nor best,
Of those who to the dream of Arthur drew.
Sagacious, prudent, at the fatal test
Most valiant. To his own and cause at least
Most faithful. One who gained from life's full feast
The most of lust and fame that one man may.
Now faint and dim within the broken brain
Life beat, and the indomitable will,
Its far-receding tide controlling still,
Made last assertion. "Write," he bade, and they
Wrote swiftly, as the words he spake with pain.
"To Lancelot, lord of Benoic and of Gaul,
Flower of all knighthood known in every land,
I, Gawain, dying of the wound you dealt
In Benoic, (which a meaner axe hath found),
Send greeting. Know that here, on Dover sand,
Sir Modred, as we drave the boats aground,
Assailed us with a numerous host, and we
Closed on the slippery marge of sand and sea.
"There was a strife to lift thy heart; for there
Each knight recalled our earlier fames, and though
A broken remnant of the strength we were
- As well thou knowest - we came at last aland,
And broke them backward some short space, but I
Was deathly wounded, and most like to die
Even as these words of last appeal are writ.
And for full triumph to this bout renew,
Weak are they who continue, weak and few.
Against their path is harder barrier set
Than all thy force should lightly foil - and they,
What counsel hath Geraint? What might hath Kay?
"Behold, with dying life my hate is dead.
The wrongs I did thee - count the words unsaid:
The deeds that none may change may none forget
More nobly than thyself. My grief hath said
Injurious words unjustly. Wrong was I.
Fate willed it; and we may not wake the dead.
But now the sword hath left my hand, and he
Who wast thy long time comrade and thy king,
Held closelier than myself, as well you know,
And not through these last days at heart thy foe.
Is left as fated in thy hand, for now
What but the knights you lead, and who but thou
Hath rescue equal to this need? This dole
I largely wrought, and largely now to thee
I look for its reversal.... Yet for me
Thy prayers be potent to release my soul
From all that lies between us."
So they writ.
And having closed it with his seal, he died.
Sir Modred licked his wounds and backward drew,
While Arthur, instant-eager to pursue,
Released the comfort of his ships, as one
On his own land, for whom their use was done.
But not of fear, or conscious weakness bred
Was Modred's long retreat, which did not stay
Till camped he on the high bare plain that lay
Across the Camelot road. For this was wit.
Should Arthur enter through the gates of it,
His cause were crescent by such large regain.
So camped their armies on that windy plain,
Having thrown out their lines as even fell.
"With dawn," said Arthur, "shall he learn full well
That not Excalibar its last hath slain."
And with these words he slept, while those around
His safety watched. It seemed he dreamless lay
Till came the hour that furthest lies from day.
But then he cried as one in mortal fear,
So loud that those without his tent could hear,
And came Sir Lucan and Sir Bedivere
In doubt of treason. But the king they found
Harmless of evil, though as wild of mien
As who the author of man's fall had seen.
"Good friends," he cried, "from such a dream I wake
As to its roots the boldest heart would shake.
I dreamed that from a noble throne I fell
Down to black night, and in its nether pit
Foul serpents writhed, that not the yawns of hell
Could be more frightful, nor more seemly fit
For scapeless torture. As they hissed and bit
My panic waked me, but the reek of it
Is with me still, and reason shows too well
It was no potent that our arms excel,
When with the dawn we meet a graceless foe."
"Dreams," said Sir Lucan, "to the night belong.
But if our cause be clean, our hearts be strong,
As shadows from the chasing light they go.
With sleep's return, a better dream may be."
"That will I gladly prove," the king replied,
And slept again, and those who watched beside
No further movement saw, no murmur heard.
But when with morn from that tranced sleep he stirred,
He had another stranger tale to tell.
He said: "I did not dream. But here to me
The ghost, the ghost himself, of Gawain came.
He bid me for my life my haste to tame,
Lest final ruin to the realm befell.
"That did he urge with hard insistency,
Saying that Lancelot for our rescue stirs
(And such is Lancelot that it well may be.)
So, at the last, I swore it. Tell me this.
If one in maze of dreams shall swear amiss,
Is honour bondaged in the waking day?"
"That," said Sir Bedivere, "were hard to say.
But what amiss was there? A month's delay
May bring such rescue that a price too high
Were hard to bid therefor."
"I will not make
False peace to break it. Still may prudence take
A dallying path, or seek a truce that yet
Unlikely concord may in truth beget."
At this was counsel called, and full consent
He heard from those who shunned a dubious day.
Thereon a herald to Sir Modred went.
"The king," he said, "desires a bloodless way
Of mutual honour. With no long delay,
His heir may mount a vacant throne. Wilt thou
Make parley, that some bridge of peace be sought,
Ere further strife reduce the king and thee
To equal weakness, and the lewd report
Of those who have the wit to fear ye now?
If this be granted, he will send thee here
Good knights, Sir Lucan and Sir Bedivere,
With power to pledge him."
Modred's harsh reply,
Edged with contempt, assented: "Let them bring
A parchment of such sort as owns me king,
And I will bargain."
On this half consent,
To Modred's tent the knights of Arthur went
With no such writ, but having power to grant
Rule of rich cities, to his greed content.
They argued long, the while, at Modred's ear
Contending counsels strove, for wisdom said
That princely profit at no price was here,
Where else the coming night must count the dead.
'For better is it that our lives remain,
Than that the cold moon light a thousand slain,
Though richer guerdon at such cost should be.
And are we doubtless of full victory?
More may ye seize than that which first ye gain.
Take that which cost us naught.'
But greed replied:
'Thine is the vantage now. This lowly plea
Reveals a weakness which were vain to hide.
Is here ripe harvest for our swords to reap.
Refuse them wholly.'
But at last he said:
"Yield ye the lands beneath the Thames to me,
Both weald and wold, my sovereign realm to be,
With full reversion when shall Arthur die
Of all his kingdom else, and so will I
Swear peace upon the Cross of God."
They lothly made, and, to its terms decide,
Was bargain that at noon, from either side,
Should the two kings before their armies meet,
Bringing their stewards and their counsellors
To the same count, unarmed, that no swift heat
Of chance-bred anger, or more craftful cause
Of engined treason, should its concord stir.
This Arthur heard, and though with hard demur,
Accepted, as his honour bound. At noon,
While the two armies stood with fronts arrayed,
Where a stunt thorn a mark for meeting made,
Mid-distanced, with their trains, thirteen a side,
The two kings met. No guarding arms they wore:
No weapons, save their swords of use, they bore.
All were unarmed alike, where trust was none.
But ere debate of terms was well begun,
It chanced - for chance and fate are words akin,
And those who think they lose or think they win
Are altered by such scales as no men weigh -
Crawled from the thorn that marked that meeting-place,
An adder in the noon's pale sunlight lay.
It slept unmarked, until it writhed to feel
The hard encounter of Sir Lucan's heel,
At which it stirred and struck.
With light consent
Of those who saw, and with no more intent
Than to destroy the venomed snake, he drew
Bare steel, but ere its end the reptile knew,
A warning cry from Modred's host arose:
"Treason!" They cried, and as two seas oppose,
Whelming a narrow land between them set,
The armies forward swayed, until they met
With savage fronts confused and turbulent.
What order hath the tempest? What design
The wind's wild havoc? Not as line to line
Arrayed for trial were they loosed, but all
In turmoil mixed, that now no trumpet-call
Could range: no leader's voice control. But loud
The tumult roared, and sword and axe were plied
On those who faced them, with no surer guide
Of who were friend or foe. And cloud on cloud
Hid the clear heaven the while they smote, until
They formed a black and low-descending shroud
On those who only to be killed or kill
Strove fameless in the gloom. For all were they
Savage and ruthless to be slain or slay,
Who fought for faith and land and freedom; or
Greedful to take the baser gains of war.
By lowering cloud and rising dust concealed,
Waged for long hours on that unsheltered field,
With equal waste, a battle leaderless,
Witless, unguided and unruled. Distress
Of slaughter only could the end procure
Of men too strengthless or to deal or dure.
So when dull-clouded day to darkness drew
The slain possessed the field, for those who slew
Were remnants only, of such weariness
That flight to effort, or pursuit to press,
Alike would strength exceed.
That misted field
King Arthur, living yet, as even fell,
With bitter grief surveyed. "Alas! Too well
Did Gawain warn me. Here to gain or yield
Is equal. Can men swear to serve the dead?
Or take them captive? All our force is shed
In loss alike... But should God's justice give
That traitor to my sight, through whom have died
So many of good faith who held His side,
There were one more who surely would not live.
Yea, even though my life his death should pay."
But, as he spake, Sir Modred standing near,
And leaning wearied on his sword, he saw,
Lonely among the slain. And Bedivere
And Lucan only at his side remained,
And both were weakened by the toll of war,
Sir Lucan nigh to death.
To these he spake:
"Now shall one stroke for God this conflict win,
And lift the yoke of mine exceeding sin,
Which through long years hath been of weight to break
The splendour of my dream: and bring to this
My Table's valour, grace and goodliness."
But Lucan counselled: "Let not wrath dismiss
Thy mind from wisdom, to reverse success.
Behold him stand alone. Not like to thee,
For whom a kingdom waits; but friendless, left
Unhappy, last amidst his faction slain.
For thee, thy throne is bare, thy friends remain.
From night endured, a better dawn may be."
Answered the king: "But that I must I do.
For tide me death, or tide me life, not I
Avoid this field of death except shall die
That traitor, first from whom our failure springs."
"Thereto God speed ye," said Sir Bedivere.
Then from that scene of woe, where knights and kings
Lay heaped, alike the traitor and the true,
King Arthur snatched a broken trenchant spear,
And hard at Modred ran, and thrust him through,
Foining beneath his shield; but as the blow
Drave upward to the heart, Sir Modred's brand
Swung round. Such blow could never helm withstand,
Impelled by bitter hate sure death to deal.
Alike they fell, but not alike they lay.
For Modred was the wolves' awaited prey,
But bent Sir Lucan and Sir Bedivere
To lift the wounded king, though wounded they;
To death Sir Lucan.
With slow toil and pain
They bore him to a ruined shrine, that stood
Roofless, but sheltered by the closing wood
That the wide field begirt. About the plain
Now roamed the spoilers, and the cries were heard
Of wounded men, for ease of plunder slain.
At which these knights with loyal faith bestirred
A better safety for the king to find.
But Lucan's strength too near to death declined
More effort to sustain, and while they bent
To lift the king anew, his life outspent
No more obeyed his will. To earth he sank,
And deathward swooned. At which the wounded king
Stirred weakly to lamenting words: "Alas!
That ever Lancelot from my side was sent.
He had not failed his Benoic spears to bring
In such bold presence that their knees had bent
In suppliant wise; but now alone am I,
Dying the while I watch Sir Lucan die,
Whose need was greater than mine own, and yet
No greater than could loyal love forget.
Long would I weep his death, if life were mine,
But now" - to Bedivere he spake - "do thou
Weakness and grief forget, and aid me now
In one last service. Take Excalibar
To the near lake, and fling it out and far,
And here return to tell me what shall be
(As told me long agone by Nimue)
Thy wonder to awake, to hear or see."
"That will I."
In good faith he spake, and cast
His heavy arms aside, that strength might last,
And took the jewelled sword, and loth to leave
The king unguarded, hastened to the shore.
But rose a doubt, his anxious mind to grieve:
Why to the waters should his hand restore
The costless weapon that the whole world knew?
Retrieveless were it by mistake to do,
And wild the thoughts of those whom wounds dement.
That which they purpose may they much repent
When the blood slackens, and its heat is less.
So with no thought to any trust betray,
Nor by denial to his lord distress,
He hid it, where a low thorn marked the spot,
And to the king returned.
Waking faint life afresh, the king required:
"Tell me what signs ye saw, and hide them not."
"I flung the good sword, as thyself desired,
Far outward in the lake."
"What chanced thereto?"
"Surely it sank, as any sword would do."
"Yea, but what else?"
"Good lord, what else should be?"
There were but winds to feel, and waves to see."
"Thou hast betrayed me, whom I trusted. Thou!
Trusted so long. Yet do my purpose now
And I forgive thee. But I charge thee haste.
My life is in thy hands, to save or waste."
Then turned Sir Bedivere, repenting sore
His first deceit. The hidden sword he found,
And with true purpose to the water bore.
But then the moon shone out, and all around
Was softly silvered, and the hilt it lit
To ghostly splendour, and the sight of it
His purpose quaked again. The king's sick whim,
Thinking the sword to be no more for him,
Would cast it whence it came. But should he live?
Would he obedience of such sort forgive,
With that weird blade no more against his side?
Again he hid the sword. Again he lied:
Of moon and mist, of wind and water spake.
But Arthur in such bitter wrath replied
It seemed new life in full returning tide
Rose as he heard. "Ah, traitor, wouldst thou take
A sword not thine, and for that simple prize
Let all men scorn thy name in days to be?
Though thou hast wrought my death, I yet will rise
With strength to slay thee."
Then Sir Bedivere
Ran lightly to the sword, and to the lake
Hurled it far out, and saw, with wondering eyes,
An arm so swiftly from the waters rise
That by the hilt the falling sword it caught,
And brandished thrice, and to the lake withdrew.
Then he, returning in short words and few,
What had been told. To whom, as one that knew
Before he heard, or larger cares controlled,
Answered the king: "I pray thee haste to aid
My passing toward the shore, for sore I dred
Too long I waited, and my life is sped."
Naught spake Sir Bedivere. Hard haste he made,
Though burdened, shoreward. In his heart was cold,
More than the night, the fear his treason's fault
Had Arthur to the brink of death betrayed.
Hard-breathing, the dank marsh he passed: nor halt
Through the deep dunes his haste allowed: the rank
Dead reeds he broke beneath his feet: the lake
Was round him now, mist-hidden, or else the mist
Moon-opalled on the water. A starless vault
In dark-blue depths the ruling moon abyssed.
Then through the silence came a wailing cry,
And shoreward slow from where the sword had sank,
Moved a dark barge, and seeming queens he knew
Of earlier days, who stretched pale hands to take
The wounded king. To these he gave. One said:
"Oh, brother, I dred me for thy wound. Too long
You tarried from me. Rest you here, to wake
Where is nor pain nor winter more."
Turned from her, and sinking his wound-weary head,
Found comfort on the knees of Nimue.
Then seemed it to Sir Bedivere that these,
The queens of earlier years whom once he knew,
Dipped soundless oars in that dark lake. The barge
Slid from the shore. A sombre deep despair
He felt thereat. And through the dark, and through
The silence, with a sharp and desolate cry,
He sought the king: "Lord Arthur, wouldst thou leave
Those who have held thy part? Your comrades grieve?
And stablish those who hate thee?"
Came faintly to him, as from mist and dream:
"Take comfort yet for larger days to be.
For not in great things past, nor more in me,
Thy trust can stand. The Vale of Avallon,
To which I go, may heal the wound I bear.
But if I gain nor health nor comfort there,
Pray for the soul of one you will not see."
And while he spake the heavy barge moved on,
Returning to the mist, and all was gone.
But Bedivere wept, and weeping turned, and took
Blind path. Men say he wandered through the night,
Lost in dark woods, but with the morning light
He came upon a lonely hermitage
Where one who once had been in all men's sight
A bishop ruling at the Church's head
Lived humbly, having lost his wealth to raise
A chapel in those woods to God His praise.
No high cathedral where, in lordlier days,
A white-robed prelate, he had ministered
To kneeling ladies and great lords, had shown
Such colour or such art of stain and stone
As here were fashioned for the birds to view,
Or timid conies in the woodlands lone.
Here came Sir Bedivere, and as men do,
Appealing from the weight of earthly woe,
Or longing peace to gain, or faith pursue,
He sought God's shelter and regard; and so
Before the altar knelt, and to his side
The hermit came, in kindred mood to pray.
"For," said he, "as the dark pursued the day,
And in these woods was midnight, halting here,
With shine of torches, was a regal bier,
And queens were round it, with fair words who pled
That I would give God's burial to the dead,
Not asking rank or name. Such boon to plead
Was little, for all souls to God agreed
Are surely equal. Nor surprise I knew,
For noise of war the quiet woodlands through
Resounded yestermorn, and kings will die
When armies meet."
"You knew not whom they were?"
"Methought I knew them, though I would not swear.
One was most like the Queen of Gore, whom I
Met in far years. The weeping queens were three.
And one, who did not weep, was Nimue.
For when with Pelleas to the court she came,
I saw her nearly."
"Yet they did not name
The burden that they brought?"
"They named it not.
Hence may a doubt be ours. But doubt is less
Than fear must be. It were so sure a guess
That should those queens their bitter feuds forget
It were for Arthur only."
My fear must be. But, be it wrong or right,
My king shall be no more an earthly knight,
Having so rashly cast his sword away.
So, by thy friendship's leave. I here will stay
To serve God's altar with thee. Well we knew
The noon had left us when the Grail withdrew,
And could but wait the night that falleth now."
"If such strait service hast thou will to vow
As I am sworn to render, well with me
The closing of thine earthly life may be,
Till Heaven release thee wholly."
There they prayed
Till dawn the richness of that shrine arrayed
In colours that the eastern casements threw
On wall and altar, but no alien glow
Required the dragon banner, gules and blue,
That draped the western wall, and there below,
War-torn and stained, a kingly pall was spread,
The where a scroll in lettered gold they read:
Hic jacet Artur - and the tomb was new.
To Lancelot, sovereign through the king's retreat
Of Gaul and Benoic to the tideless strands,
Was but brief space to tend his wasted lands
Before, with trumpet at his gates, there came
A hastened herald. In Lord Gawain's name
He called for audience. Was new strife unsought,
Laden with further woes, Sir Lancelot thought,
Contrived by that implacable enmity?
Were Arthur's armies freed? Had Modred fled?
Was for his sin no respite? Wearily
The seals he broke, but as the scroll he read,
"Now by the mercy of high God," he said,
Is woe's relief. I never thought to fight
Another battle with the old delight,
Restored from doubt of shame. But here shall be
Our rescued honour. Yea, may God defend
That he, the noblest known, and once to me
Comrade and king, my leader and my friend,
Should stand in doubt of traitors, for the lack
Of lances in sure hands to cast them back.
No more in sheltering walls our strength shall be,
Nor men reproach us that the field we flee,
Till Arthur's previous realm our swords restore
From Lyonesse wastes to Orkney's louder shore."
Then was he urgent to the coast to bring
His war-proved knights with all their furnishing,
Assembled ships to board. Such host he brought
That those who in the front of Modred fought
Had likeliest scattered at their pennsels' view.
But when he landed on the Kentish shore,
Then, by God's mercy, first himself he knew
Conquered, whom no man conquered: overthrown,
Whom never mortal combat overthrew.
Sadly he to his kinsmen spake, and those,
The kings and barons who his leigance chose:
"Fair lords, who hastened to my call, to you
No less for this reverse my thanks are due,
And these I render. That we come too late
Is doubtless to all eyes, beyond debate.
Our swords are futile here. Can man rebel
From death's hard verdict? Yet remains to me
To do one service. If I learn aright,
King Arthur's queen, in fear, as well might be,
Of Modred's malice, or his lechery,"
(For boast he made that to the king's distress,
She should be his, a twice adulteress).
"From London's dubious shelter fled by night.
But whither none can tell. Men say she chose
The western road. But where, except to foes,
Without my rescue, could her advent be?
"Her must I seek, but this alone to me,
A private knight, belongs. You here shall bide,
The while that single on her search I ride
For two short weeks: but if my absence last,
Then count all vows released, all liegance past.
Let each his land regain, and ruling there
Save from the wreckage of great days that were
Such use as yet to God may justify
A dream that fell so far, but reached so high."
Answered Sir Bors: "Whatever loss hath been
Our lives remain, and while those lives endure
The Christian realms should stand. To seek the queen
May be thy part. But that alone to do,
Thy many foes unleashed, thy friends unsure,
It were too reckless thus thy death to woo
For even thee."
He answered: "Chance what may,
Needs must I forth, and needs this host must stay.
On this last quest for mine own peace I ride,
But cast no stake of death or broil beside.
Though mine a natural need my queen to find,
I may not move with threatening force behind,
Lest by that armed advance misthought be laid
War causeless on this realm that half I made."
So rode he on that last love-hungered quest,
Searching the rumours of the hazardous west,
Where treasons stirred and violence strove, as when
Waited the land for Arthur's rule, and men
Or died or slew, and justice glanced aside.
Eight days he ranged, hard-journeying near and wide
Through lands long peace had blessed, and recent war
Had blackened where it passed. For twice the track
He crossed where Modred's alien host had fled
Unleadered, lost, and on all sides he saw
Alike the heathen and the Christian dead
Left to the wolves, and manors brought to wrack,
Burnt steads, and trampled fields, and herds astray,
Where, in the yearlong peace of yesterday,
Sheltered and walled, had all men slept secure.
Then to black moors he came, where few men were,
And war turned sideward from those uplands bare,
By lack of spoil preserved; and seeking here,
In a close vale, that hid, from far or near,
Sight of grey walls, he found a nunnery,
And asked, as all he asked - and there was she.
"Now is God's mercy shown," he said, as one
Whose trail had not failed, whose work was done;
But she so coldly looked, he stayed, as though
Who sought for love had found a loveless foe.
And there, before her ladies, spake the queen:
"Here may ye all behold the knight with whom
I sinned aforetime.... Wouldst thou yet resume
The joys that brought such curse as late hath been?
Nay then, not I! Too late its fruits I saw.
Deaths of the noblest known in wrongful war,
Treason, and ruin of empire, and the fall
Of my most noble lord, the first of all
In life alike and death. No more to me
Can sin be sweet again, though sinned with thee.
For love is past and lost in sacred fear,
And still from broken dreams I wake to hear
The words of condemnation. God Who hears
My night-long prayers, who sees my frequent tears,
His grace I trust for pardon, yet to see
The blessed face of Christ, when death shall be
My sought release at last; and trust I yet
That thou and I at His right hand be set
Before the throne of judgement. Sinners more
Than ever was I, as saints in Heaven adore
The mercy that forgave. So charge I thee
That thou forsake this land, and thought of me,
Thy kingdom thine again, and at thy side
Enthroned a younger and a lovelier bride,
And all things with thee well. For thou canst so
From this land's chaos hold apart thy realm,
Lest God's great condemnation overwhelm
Who work a further and a separate woe."
And Lancelot heard, and if at last he learnt
How sorely for herself her fierce love burnt
God knoweth. But this he answered: "Queen, to me
First when in youth we met, and first today
Thy welfare and thy will. It may not be
That lonely thou for thy soul's health shalt pray,
While I, forgetful of thy needs and thee,
Take new delights of love. But where is bent
Thy soul's desire, mine own, with like intent,
A kindred path shall tread. In all I wrought,
Thy safety only and thy peace I sought.
And though, consorting with thyself, I thought
To wrest new fortune from disastrous chance,
I may not think, nor ever seek, to see
A joy of life reborn apart from thee."
But she, with bitter words, and trustless glance,
Her misery showed. "Whatever vows you say,
I may not lightly from their sound believe
But you will wed some other."
He answered: "Nay,
You never in my words have falsehood known;
Though oft you doubted, and mistrusts have grown
Therefrom between us, with their fruits of woe."
"Yea, for such evil did our sin conceive,
And fields of fatal war. But all we see
Which might have been, and now shall never be
Through me, unhappy! Points the Heavenly way
Past the near darkening of our earthly day."
"Queen, when the Grail with bitter grief I sought,
Not for our joys alone, so dearly bought,
Had I come backward; but the place I held
With Arthur drew me. Had I cast away
All mortal bondage which behind me lay,
So nearly Godward to the goal I won
That had it likely been (except my son)
That none had passed me. Do not think but now
I shall thy purpose equal, vow for vow,
Though, hadst thou willed it, I had raised thee far,
Of a new realm to be its only star.
And doubt not, shouldst thou seek perfection thus,
I shall of that thou wouldst be emulous.
Only I ask one memory of thy face
Lit with love's light again: one last embrace,
Ere all be lost that held our souls akin."
"Nay," said she, "lest we fall to further sin,"
And turned, and left him.
When his mind again
Grew conscious of the world that round him lay,
He rode the blackness of great woods, wherein
But little moonlight found its hindered way.
Then went he blindly with an idle rein,
As prudence rules for those by night astray,
Letting the wearied charger's choice prevail,
By whose wise guidance, as the dawn was pale,
They halted at a chapel, strange to see
So nobly built amidst that greenery
Then waked he from despair's dull sense to hear
The wonder in the voice of Bedivere:
"My lord, Sir Lancelot! Now will hope anew
Revive our fallen land, if this be true
That thou hast to our rule returned."
Gave hopeless answer: "Nay, is left for me
No earthly triumph. Only seek I now
That God's great mercy at His feet allow
My prayers' approach."
As thus they spake, there came
The hermit who that church had raised, and he
Good welcome gave, and with fair courtesy
The urgent needs of horse and knight he met.
Stabled the steed, Sir Lancelot soon was set
At the spare board, the while Sir Bedivere
Told what had been, as only those can tell
Whose eyes have all beheld. No tale was here
Of fallen honour, though the Table fell:
"So well they fought, who had no mind to fly,
That as they died they slew more numerous,
Less noble-hearted foes, and falling thus
Left a bare field, until at Arthur's side
Were Lucan only and myself, and we
Bloodless with wounds agape, while wearily
He viewed that field where all he loved had died.
Till Modred, lonelier than himself, he saw
Not distant, and his heart aroused thereat
To instant challenge, which we could not stay.
One stroke was all, before Sir Modred lay
Writhing in death, but our dear lord alike
A fatal wound had felt."
Of inward shame, his twice against demur default he told:
"For that bright sword, with Judas lips I sold
My master, nearly to his death. For he
Waited relief too long, and that through me.
We know not surely that he died, although
The marvel of this sudden tomb we know.
We know not what fresh dawn may God allow,
But one thing surely - that the night is now."
And answer made Sir Lancelot: "Who may trust
In mortal glory more? To lowliest dust
However high the noon, at last we go.
Now am I purposed never more to know
The proud offence of arms, the verdict win;
But at God's feet to lay my weight of sin
Shall be my care henceforward. "If thou wilt,"
(Thus spake he to the hermit) "of thy grace,
Make of this shrine a sinner's resting-place,
Here will I end my days, and that long guilt,
Through which the honour of this realm was spilt,
Repent, though nothing grief availeth now."
The hermit answered with good words, and there
Sir Lancelot gave his days to fast and prayer,
Blaming himself for all; though more the blame
Was hers; and from Sir Modred's treason came
The final war; and clear was earlier cause,
When Lot with cunning purpose sent Morgause
To snare a youthful and unpractised knight,
Sowing a seed of death which did not die."
The strands which weave the skeins of destiny
Are many, past all human ordering.
More than all else, the last confusion grew
From Gareth's death, which none had wished. And who
Contrived the adder?
Half of human will,
Or right or wrong, befalls. But half is still
Of God's, unless blind Fate's, occasioning.
There came no news of Lancelot. That great host
Sir Bors held leashed, camped on the white-cliffed coast.
Moved restless, hungrier with the passing days
To spoil and spread. And he whom Lancelot gave
Less right to rule them turned a lustful gaze
To the rich land which lay so leaderless.
"Here," said Sir Lionel, "is a claimless prize,
As on lone sands the sea's cast bounty lies."
And when Sir Ector and Sir Bors were wroth,
He answered: "Nay, from anarch spoil to save
A land left lordless, were to half redress
The evil that its peace hath wrecked." And forth
He rode with those who owned his seigneury.
Sought he to save? His greedful heart was set
On seizure of such power as kings acquire.
Britain and Benoic in one bond again,
And Benoic foremost, was his thought. And yet
Saviour he was. For leapt a patriot fire
Of fierce resistance, banding all who saw
His purpose to control their native law
By usurpation. London gates he found
Barred to his challenge. Those wide walls around
He lay but briefly. From without, within,
His force was harassed till himself was slain;
And those who died not hastened to regain
The host at Dover.
Then Sir Bors' command
Returned it wholly to the Benoic land.
But for himself another course he planned
Than there to take his natural place. He said:
"I seek Sir Lancelot, be he live or dead.
For surely at his side mine end shall be."
And so Sir Ector said, and Galihud,
Blamor and Bleoberis, and alike
A score of noble knights of Lancelot's blood.
Long time or less, as ardours held, they sought
Him under whom their fames had grown, and then,
Being nor gods nor saints, but mortal men,
The most returned to leman, land, or court,
Wearied of wandering far, and finding naught.
Were these who found Sir Lancelot. One by one,
Sir Bors the first, that lonely hermitage
They reached, and there, as men whose toils were done,
They stayed beside him: Villiers, Galihud,
Blamor and Bleoberis.
Four long years
He mourned the past with vain despairing tears,
Or found at times in lowliest prayer the peace
That passeth understanding. God's release
He waited, as the captive waits.
A night when thrice he slept, and thrice he heard,
Where seemed that none was near, and urgent word:
"Lancelot, thy queen is dead. With dawn do thou
For thy last service rise. She will not now
Reprove thy presence, nor thy kiss decline.
Her tears are ended, but the part is thine
To bring her where her injured lord is laid,
To sleep beside him. Who his trust betrayed
In life, may well in death redeem it now,
So far as ever may redemption be."
These words, repeated thrice, his mind distressed,
And would not leave him as vain dreams should flee
Day's livelier challenge. With the dawn he sought
The hermit's counsel.
"Such a dream to test
Were prudence surely. Ten short leagues away
Her convent stands, and but one toilsome day
Were needed, there to reach, the truth to learn;
And one for rest; and one for soon return,
If all be well."
"But well it will not be.
Forthright I go."
A meagre meal he ate,
Chose a good staff, and rose that road to take;
But went not singly. Those five knights his kin
Rose likewise. Every visage, worn and thin,
Alight with purpose. Feeble pace to make
Was theirs, whose chargers long had wandered free,
Whose thews had naught but herbs sustained. That day
But five slow leagues they toiled; and wearily
When came the second eve approached to see
The silent walls they sought.
They came to those
Who looked to see them, for the queen had said,
Before she died (who but that hour was dead):
"Expect Sir Lancelot, for I thrice have dreamed
That here he cometh, mindful to dispose
Mine earthly part beside my lord, that we
Who sinned and loved, and are not twain but three,
By God's forgiveness rest united now.
But this last prayer is mine, that God allow
My death too soon again in life to see
Him who in sinful hours was most to me."
And saying this she died.
Her ladies led
Sir Lancelot to her side. No tear he shed
For one who in warm life he loved, and now
Was cold in distant death. He sighed as one
Whose heart for passion and for grief was done,
And all to God resigned. No word he said;
Nor would her last repulse in death resist,
But left her where she lay, with lips unkissed.
A horse-drawn litter bore her through the weald
To that rich chapel, in great woods concealed,
The where her lord was laid (if laid he were),
And in the same fair tomb they couched her there.
And there three days and nights Sir Lancelot lay,
Till to relieve his woe the hermit came,
Resolved to lure him from that tomb away.
"All men must mourn," he said, "but here is blame
For grief inordinate. Should mortals claim
The homage due to God?"
Sir Lancelot said:
"You much mistake me. Not my tears are shed
For joys long past: for sinful days foredone.
But mine is grief that would not God His Son
Rebuke nor alter. When my heart recalls
My lord's high valours, nor in her the less
Beauty and bounty and all nobleness,
They twain in all ways regal: born to be
Allied in honour. But too soon through me
In ignominy of cold earth, my heart
Is feeble to sustain mine earthly part.
"Why was I born, a seed of death to be
To Arthur's greatness? Why did Nimue
Rescue my life, which else had failed? So well
She can the course of coming days foretell,
She must have known it, as sage Merlin knew,
Warning my lord in vain."
The hermit said:
"I do not urge that less thy heart repent
Of aught done wrongly. But four years hast thou
In this contrition at God's altar bent.
More than these years have known, what know ye now?
If the old bondage of thy carnal sin
Indeed hath left thee?"
Lancelot answered naught,
But rose thereat, and life resumed. He went
Through the slow motions of their days, as though
Awareless of himself. In vain his kin
For words of counsel or of comfort sought.
Still to Guenever's tomb his eyes would go:
His step would falter, and would turn away.
Little he drank, and less he ate. To pray
Was all his thought. Such prayers as God must hear
When life outlives its last defeat, and knows
That Godward with no better tale it goes
Than of reverse and failure, shame and sin.
So daily was he soon more worn and thin,
More bent and feeble, till at last he lay
Too weak to rise again. Around him drew
His loyal kinsmen, such good words to say
As yet might rouse him to awhile renew
A life still short of years; but: "Friends," he said,
"Ye stir me vainly. When the heart is dead
Why should the weary limbs their weight sustain?
Believe me dying. But one last request
I make, assured it is not made in vain.
Beside my queen I have no right to rest,
With him I wronged so greatly. Ye shall bear
My corse to Joyous Garde, and lay me there
To wait the doom of God companionless."
Faintly he spake, and then in weariness
Turned from them to the wall.
The hermit lay
In the same chamber as Sir Bors, and they
Slept the still hours, till dawn across the sky
Assailed the different beauty of the night.
Then in his sleep the hermit laughed outright,
In such full merriment as waked Sir Bors,
Who lightly roused him to enquire the cause,
And gat no thanks therefor.
"A dream was mine
That none would gladly leave. I saw the shine
Of angels' dazzling wings, that upward bore
Sir Lancelot from this troubled earthly shore
To Heaven's expanding gates. I saw the light
Which is God's presence, by those gates exposed
To my nigh-blinded eyes, and golden-rosed
Is all around me yet. No mortal sight
Was this, nor baseless fabric of the night.
I think not him again in life to see,
For this high vision was not fantasy.
Surely he enters that abode of bliss."
Answered Sir Bors: "So live a dream may be
Either for terror or for ecstasy
Extreme beyond our waking thoughts. But they
Alone are real, and the light of day
Dispels the visions of the night. I deem
His quiet sleeping will disprove the dream."
Then went they to Sir Lancelot, and his face
Showed peace so great that first they thought he lay
Calm in repose. But at the nearer view
Too surely there the fault of death they knew.
And rose they all his final charge to do.
Slowly they made that northward pilgrimage
Through lands grown strange, where now King Constantine
(Duke Cador's son, and next to Arthur's line),
Of tested valour, and of counsel sage,
Subdued and ordered; till at length they came
To view the mile-wide walls of Joyous Garde
Rear their grey strength. Here, in Sir Lancelot's name,
Had Ector ruled, while searching wide and far
To find its lord. Full soon the gates unbarred
Hearing the wonder of the names they said.
Toward the chapel choir the warden lead,
And there they laid him, joys and marvels past,
And sins and sorrows, to his rest at last.
End of Song Of Arthur