The Song Of Arthur - part 4
by S. Fowler Wright
Elaine Of Carbonac.
Elaine Of Carbonac.
Before Sir Tristram first to Camelot came,
Or Palomides bore a boasted name,
While Lamorack lived, and courtly life was gay,
Oblivious that nor Earth nor Heaven should stay
The lengthening shadows of the later day,
One Pentecost when the full Table's might
Was ranged, and Arthur at the crowded hall
Rejoicing gazed, he marked swift silence fall
Of those whose lips were loud, whose hearts were light.
For there, in that wide hall, in all men's sight,
It seemed without approach, a hermit stood
In russet garbed; and murmurs of the wood,
And shadowing of great trees, a wondrous thing,
Were round them, till the solid walls became
Less real than they, and what were truth or dream
Were hard to tell; though likeliest all may seem
And naught may be.
Was never earthly knight
Should gaze undaunted on such wildering sight.
Fear stilled the hall. But boldly spake the king:
"Friend, if thou art, I charge thee speak, for here
Are those who will not flinch, and will not fear,
For any wonder or device you bring."
The hermit answered: "Naught of fear I tell,
And all of life is wonder. Wit ye well.
Why are two sieges vacant at thy side?"
The king gave answer: "Here are sieges void
By Merlin's word. If any there should sit,
By fault of honour or of birth unfit,
He were God's outcast, and his life destroyed,
Though how we may not guess."
The sage replied:
"So is it rightly. For one siege awaits
A knight God-favoured and most kingly bred,
Who is not yet conceived, but soon will be;
Destined at last the hidden Grail to see
Which sin hath clouded, and the private hates
Which here divide ye, and the lusts as strong,
Which the high purpose of the Table wrong,
Reject from dwelling where it else might be."
He ceased, and vanished, and the canopy
Of great boughs faded, and the fresh night air
No longer swayed them. But the walls were there,
Solid again for wildered eyes to see.
Then through the silence, to the knights anear,
There came the sound of Modred's whispered sneer:
"What said he? This bold knight conceived today?
That puts his coming half a life away.
No closer rival now should Gawain fear."
Sir Lancelot to the Bridge of Corbin rode,
Dealing to all the justice of the king,
According to that sworn knight-errant code
Which lent his lance to such adventuring
As evil might avert, or rescue bring.
Men say that from Le Fey's malignant spell
He rescued one her jealous hate had cast
Into such torture as no life could last,
Except by magic art, conceived of hell.
For in a vapour of such heat she lay
As had too quickly swept her life away
For Morgan's malice, save a loathly spell
Held the reluctant soul therein to dwell,
Twisting in ceaseless pain that would not slay.
Sir Lancelot, entering through the eddying steam,
As no man till that hour had dared to do,
Found it unreal as a fading dream,
(Who knoweth what be feigned or what be true?)
Only that lady's mortal need he knew,
And by the hand amidst the clouding steam
He caught her, and to sunlit safety drew.
Naked she was as one at birth must be,
And, as the magic failed, so fair to see
That none should doubt the cause of Morgan's hate.
Fair thanks she paid, as in good sooth she might,
And being serviced well, and robed aright,
She said: "Fair lord, and more than lord to me,
Wilt thou that side by side we kneel to give
Thanks to High God that through thine aid I live?"
"That will I gladly."
Then she led to where
There stood a chapel on a wild sea-shore.
Peaceful it seemed, but in the graveyard there
Were tombs that once had known the reverent care
Love gives to death, but now were burst and bare,
Emptied of those sad burdens once they bore .
For came a dragon at the noon of night
From the black depths outraging. Wide it tore
Even strong stone, its carnal meal to reach.
Sir Lancelot asked: "What means it?"
"Nay," she said,
"Naught is there here to void, and naught to dread.
The dragon comes not in the hours of light.
But mark its trail along the lonely beach.
Some deep sea-cavern holds it sleeping now."
Sir Lancelot answered naught, nor made delay,
But to that chapel's holy quietude
He followed whom he saved, with her to pray.
Then, as they left it, once again he viewed
Those tombs so foully raped. "The night," he said,
" - the next dark night its slimy coil's extend
On the dry earth where mortal feet may tread,
Shall two lives counter where one life shall end."
So meant he surely, and two nights from then,
Unfollowed by the feet of fearful men
For closer comfort than a mile behind,
Again he sought the plundered tombs, to find
More strenuous hours. In sheltering dunes he lay,
Between them and the sands.
The clouds were low,
With scattering rain that drove as cold as snow,
The autumn moon was yet two hours away,
When came the dragon, with a fiery breath
That lit the rain; and to the place of death
On lizard feet it dragged its length.
Where Lancelot from the hiding dunes arose,
At which the hot sparks waxed to spouting flame
That seared his shield. Against such breath to close
How can he? But his swifter feet contrive
Its hinder parts to reach, and there to drive
An instant thrust, before the swinging tail
Grazes, but does not clasp, his covering mail,
As he leaps backward. On his shield he takes
A further burst of fire, the while he makes
Swift feint to foil its slower-moving wit,
And thrusts again.
Now, where its side is slit,
A black smoke rises, and the fire is less
That from its frustrate jaws out-jets. And now,
From feint more sudden, and more bold aggress,
The great sword downward sweeps. Before its tail
Its spine is severed, and its quarters fail:
The legs can move, the tail can swing no more.
The sword its belly slits, and smoke and gore
Soak the dark ground, and choke the murky air.
Backward Sir Lancelot stept, at last aware
That men who had not dangered close before
Were round him now. The dragon's bellowing roar,
Which in the stress of strife he did not hear,
Had reached them where they hoved, and brought them near
When changed its tone to shriller notes of pain.
Now riding foremost of the closing train,
On a white stallion, Corbin's holy king,
Of royal mien, though maimed by Balyn's spear,
Pellam, advanced and spake: "Fair valiant knight,
For thy much service this foul beast to slay
I would requite thee in such seemly way
As to thy rank accords. My halls to grace,
I pray thee choose them for thy biding place."
Sir Lancelot answered: "None such rank could claim
He were not honoured by thy courtesy."
For Pellam's was a name of high degree.
Close-born of blood, and lineal heir was he
To Joseph, who the Grail from Holy Land
To Britain brought.
"Fair knight," he asked, "thy name?"
"Men call me Lancelot of the Lake."
"- Whose fame
Hath come before thee. . . Goodliest cause have I
High Heaven to thank for thee."
"I know not why.
But thank thy bounty."
Surely naught he knew
Of Pellam's secret hope. But yet were true
Those words, and more than barren courtesy.
For, at Elaine, his daughter's birth, a seer
Foretold that one, the noblest knight of all,
Would sire her babe; and he she bore would grow
To find the Grail, and save a world of woe
Should men look Godward, as they might; and so
They taught her to expect and wait. But few
Of knights world-famous came to Corbin now,
While she to youth's full flower from childhood grew,
And none who could be called the best. But here
Was one whose greatest claim would all allow.
Hope rose: "My halls," King Pellam urged, "are near.
Thy needs are instant from this strife." He led
To those high towers which once had Balyn wrecked,
Since by a thousand's toil again erect.
They showed like crystal in the morning light,
From ground that rose to no exceeding height,
Though loftier than the moors that round it spread.
Inward they passed to chambers richly dight,
And the high service of a kingly court,
Which yet maintained its royal state, although
It bore the burden of enduring woe.
Sir Lancelot entering here was tended well,
And being to the hall of banquet brought,
He first the name of Pellam's daughter heard,
And scarcely heard it, with regarding slight,
And tribute of the careless-kindly word
Of casual greeting said; nor marked the light
Her shy glance held responsive, doubting naught,
As nurse and priest and sire from childhood taught,
By Heaven's guiding rule, herself he sought.
Nor Pellam doubt allowed. What knight should see
And leave unbarriered wealth? For fair was she
As any of high blood could wish to be.
Guenever's grace, Guenever's gold, she had:
Guenever's green her slender beauty clad.
Though not the keen swift flame of life which glowed
In Arthur's queen, that all her motions showed,
Was hers, yet sweeter lips and eyes more fair,
And surely dawn of tenderer youth was there.
But Lancelot of all ladies cared for one,
And not for lust's advance, or service done,
Either required or took love's harvestry.
Marvels of Corbin and of Carbonac
Had Lancelot heard, and all believed; for he
Knew well that wonders duller minds will lack
The wit for credence, God's unclosing hand
Scatters disordered as the stars, and far
Beyond our reading as their wanderings are,
Though all His purpose, and his laws obey.
For what but shadows of His thoughts are they?
A dove upon an open casement lit,
Closing white pinions. In its beak it held,
The olive sign which first the fears dispelled
Of those who doubted the receding wave
Would make such large retreat as life would save
For those who in their sole frail refuge lay.
Around its neck a little censer swung,
From which such odours spread as none may say
In human speech, for guests of God were they
Who filled King Pellam's hall of banquet there.
Instant before the eyes of wondering men
The viands that the royal table bore
Were tenfold richer than they showed before,
Transformed to food for heavenly conclaves fit.
And as men stretched with eager hands for it,
Being compelled beyond their fears thereto,
There came a damsel up the hall, who wore
A garment of the dawn's most lucent hue.
Was no man there her name or nature knew,
But all could guess the clouded Grail she bore
High-lifted, for within its misty shell
It burnt far brighter than the flames of hell
Show, through the blackness of the nether skies,
The desolation that around it lies.
But this was golden-rose, and lovelier far
Than earth's bright metals or its roses are.
"Pellam," she said, "the long-sought sign am I.
Lift thy sad heart, for now the hour is nigh."
She spake, and was not, and the hushed hall heard
A murmur as of leaves which have no word,
But myriad answers to the wind's caress.
"Now," said the king, "is God's high mercy here,
And Heaven's door, to those who inward press,
Yields at the latch; but if it open wide
Not God Himself, but only men decide."
The Grail was that the hand of Christ had set
To His own lips, and from that touch divine
Had passed it, burdened with translated wine
To those whom most he loved, lest men forget
His lonely duel with the king of night.
This sacred cup the wandering saint had brought
When from the tomb of Christ he came, and taught
A faith unknown. And by its pregnant sight
Had sins been cleansed, and wrongs been rectified,
Till those whose hearts the Holy Name denied,
Leagued with wild heathen of the Northern Sea,
Ravaged the land; and lest the Sacred Grail
Should fall to impious use, and rescue fail,
God snatched it from the hands and sights of men,
Yet left it near them, its return decreed
If loyal service done, and Christly creed,
Should cleanse their hearts and clear their sight. And when
Heir should be born to Pellam's line, he knew
God's mercy offered, and the test was then.
"Cold," said King Pellam, "is his courtesy.
No more he heeds her than the crouching hound
He steps aside to pass. What gain can be
From this brief sojourn?"
"Lo," Dame Brisen said,
"Where fate so wills it shall a way be found,
And that be mine to do."
The dame was known
For arts of night and sleights of sorcery
Such as plain-dealing men must fear to see
Being unbucklered for defence therefrom.
But not for ill her magic spells would she,
As did Sir Garlon, ere he died, contrive,
But rather that avert of ill should be,
And weakness sheltered stand, and cultures thrive.
"Do that thou wilt," King Pellam said. "I know
Thou wilt not fail me."
Then Elaine she sent
With marshalled escort of strong spears, as though
On some far visit of set state she went,
But so devised that scarce from sight were they
When the broad road they left, a tower to gain
Through the dark woods, but four short leagues away;
The castle of Case.
Against a driving rain
They rode with draggled plumes, and wind that blew
Disordered cloaks, and lapped drenched pencels dry.
Not the dense-closing woods, that hid the sky,
And forced at times a single file, could break
The storm's short fury, but as Case was seen
- A square grey stronghold, which a heaving lake
As greyly bordered, where all else was green -
The wind fell, and blue heaven returned.
Who centred all, no sound of winds astir,
No beating of the storm's full fury, roused
Feeling or thought, her mind a formless fear
Of that so long designed, so swiftly near,
With wonder and with expectation blent.
Would this strange knight reject? Would fate relent?
Was she next blessed to Her by God espoused?
Was she most cursed no natural love to know?
Or would he love her if she wrought it so?
... Her cloak was cast. The log fire blazed. The voice
Of Brisen reached her: "Fix your eyes on me.
Believe and triumph. Your long-loved is he.
You are Guenever. At most risk you came
The willing bondage of his love to claim.
Subject and silent shall your part be done
And not since that fair birth of God His Son
Shall be such vantage to the world of men,
Or honour like to thine."
As tranced she heard;
And with no sign and no revealing word
Bent to the counsel all her life had known,
Passed to the chamber where her mentor led,
To wait in darkness and in doubt alone.
One came to Lancelot whom it seemed he knew,
Whose hand a missive from his doublet drew
In furtive wise, and showed a ruby ring
Which was Guenever's secret signalling,
For when she wore it was her meaning clear.
But in this distant land -? How came she here?
Wondering he took the script, though naught he said,
By caution ruled, but walked apart and read:
'I bide the night at Case. If here ye speed
The time is thine.'
The words were brief. But when
Risked Arthur's queen the peril of the pen
In amorous scroll? And that which here was writ
Might be eclipsed, he thought, by nimble wit,
Seeing the friendship that the king and she
So long had shown him. Fain of heart was he,
And little stirred a careful doubt to weigh.
Doth hunger cavil at the meal's display?
He made excuse for short abide. He said
He must ride onward at the fall of day.
Yes, through the night. With secret joy the king
Gave courteous answer. Had he willed to stay
It had been joy to hear. Fair journeying
He else must wish him. "That," Sir Lancelot said,
"I think to find."
The summer eve was red
When he rode lonely on the open way,
Till the great woods contained him.
Dark were they
When noon was clearest. One strait path alone
Less dense in closure made the darkness less.
Will little light suffice where else is none.
Good pace he made. 'In such close wilderness
Once rode Rience,' he thought, 'and might not see
The waiting ambush, nor his loss avoid
For all the knights behind him.' Ware was he
Of any movement heard from brake or tree,
And bare his sword, and drest his shield. Fordone
By false device he had some fear to be,
Yet confident in that short scroll was he;
And none waylaid him. Now the light ahead,
Though darkness only, was more clear to see
Than the faint difference in the boughs above.
As daylight seemed it when he left the wood,
And in a wide cleared space the stronghold stood,
Lightless itself, as though it housed the dead.
The postern opened as he reined thereat,
With noiseless motion. One dim light supplied
Its feeble aid his iron feet to guide
Behind the gentler steps of her who led.
"Be ever silent as thou canst," she said,
"For here hath come - it was an hour from now -
King Arthur's nephew."
How should he doubt the tale? Or fail to see
Its likely menace? Here, he knew not how,
Or on what pretext made, the queen had come
To this fair land where he was known to be.
And if one followed whose hostility,
Sullen and jealous to suspect, was plain
In earlier deeds and words, could caution take
Too great a care?
His further steps were light
Till came they to a chamber richly dight,
But void of life, and lightless. Here she laid
Her dim lamp on the board, where cates were seen,
And a great flagon of red wine. "The queen,"
She said, "lies in the inner room. She bade
That all be vacant. For thy use was spread
That which thou see'st. Of her care, she said
Wine would be welcome from so long a ride."
"I thank the thought," he answered, fear of guile
Not entering to his mind. The wine he tried,
And found it good. He drank full deep, the while
With lifted lamp the open door she held,
Showing a room as dimly gloomed; but he
Dazed by the draught, saw what he looked to see,
And would do till God's light her craft dispelled.
Near was the morn, and ere the morn to go,
Sir Lancelot thought, was wise resolve, and so
Rose, and the shuttered casement loosed. The air
Of morning entered, and the sunlight fair.
From that clear dawn the night's enchantment fled...
One whom he knew not from the nuptial bed
Watched with wide eyes, but whom he could not guess.
And cold to that bare-breasted loveliness,
And hot in wrath a treasoned trick to pay,
"Traitress!" He cried, and snatched his sword, that lay
On a near chest, "the while thy life endure
Gyved am I in a shame that naught can cure."
Meeting his glance thereat, she answered: "Lord,
I nothing dread thee, nor that naked sword:
Nor scorn I life: nor do I lean indeed
Too surely on thy fair repute. I plead
Another life foretold. To slay me thus
Would slay thy child. For this my father willed,
That God's high purpose be complete through us,
The long doom lifted, and the quest fulfilled."
"Who art thou, traitress?"
"Lord, Elaine am I.
King Pellam's daughter."
"Well, I let thee live!
And that I venge not must I next forgive.
You knew not all the bitter wrong you did,
And none can measure what its fruits may be...
That I should slay thee suppliant, God forbid,
Or that I fail thy gracious youth to see."
Then down he laid the sword, and courteously
Halsed her and kissed. "I will not blame," he said,
"Largely thyself, but who this witchery
Contrived to snare us. What its end shall be
God only knoweth."
"Fair my lord," she said,
"Be gracious to me! For my maidenhed
Is lost to thee. And not of evil will
I gave it, nor of wanton mood, but so
That God his mercy to our land should show,
And that foretold the coming days fulfil."
Kindly he answered, though she knew too well
Wroth was he yet for that which there befell,
Nor meant for aught her further love to be.
"In any need," he said, "thy call to me
Shall bring swift answer. On my sword depend..
Though never more we meet, believe me friend.
God keep thee ever."
Then he turned to go;
For more of love she was not born to know.
Thus for Elaine love's joy awaked and died
In one short night, and all her years beyond
Looked back thereto, or took their livelier pride
From the fair fruit it showed. Her first despond
At life dawn-ended died, as well might be
The child she bore from grace to grace to see
Nor of need her life had been
So bounded, for a knight who harboured near,
Sir Bromell, swore that with his single spear,
For neither depth of snow nor may-day green
Moving therefrom, throughout the changing year
The bridge of Corbin would he hold, that so
Should be her name renowned, and all men know
He most her worshipped, and esteemed her best,
Purest, and most delect, and loveliest.
Naught would she heed his homage. More her thought
Returned to him from whom no word was brought,
Nor whom herself by any word she sought;
But more her toils and more her prayers she spent
Her babe to guard; and all her cares were bent
That in the years beyond he should not fail
In the hard seeking of the Sacred Grail.
But when two years had been, on random quest
Far wandering through the barren, lava'd land,
(Where might no life its waiting curse withstand,
Save lustwort on the marsh, to death that led)
Came Bors to Carbonac.
The wounded king
Received him, for himself and kinship's claim,
With honour; and at the meal, how Lancelot came
That earlier year he told, and how that he
Broke the strong spell of Morgan's sorcery;
And how the dragon of the tombs he slew,
That fed on death, and held the grave in fee,
(The fading purple of a lustrous wing
Yet shown in proof). But naught of all said he
That else had been, when Brisen's wile was tried,
And falsehood's word had caused Sir Lancelot ride
To where till dawn in amorous bondage he
Had lain, and thought that in that secret hour
Guenever's tryst he kept. He did not tell
What came therefrom, through which, he trusted well,
The fruitless land from Balyn's curse should be,
As Merlin told, redeemed; and, tenfold more,
The Grail achieved; nor how that full time should see
The healing of the mystic wound he bore.
But while the maimed king spake, his daughter brought
The guest-cup to Sir Bors. More fair he thought,
Either in wandering ways or Arthur's court,
Was seldom damsel that his eyes had seen.
For she, on whom her kingdom's hope was set
Its curse to break, if freed to different ways,
Had shown to all her equal right of praise
With those who first at Camelot's banquets shone.
His mind recalled the tale of Arthur's queen
As young, as regal, and as radiant-fair
To him who was not then the kingdom's heir
Supposed, but Anton's son, where first they met.
And when he lightly cast that thought away,
Then also by the cradled babe that lay
At her near hand, his passing glance was stayed,
And when withdrawn returned without his will,
- Slight heed his wont of nameless babes - and still,
Unreasoned, from that night recalled would rise
The thought of Benoic's lord, his house's head.
And when, the while the fretting doubt he weighed,
She passed, and bent aloud her love to speak,
He heard the name of Galahad. "Scarce," he said,
"That name but Benoic knows, and boldened now,
Lady, I ask, and in some trust that thou
Wilt grace reply, nor deem the thing I seek
Of idlesse born, or any lurking guile,
But in some hope of right, and most goodwill -
Who fathered this thy babe? In whom I see,
If later days their lofty end fulfil,
One like our Lancelot, and no less than he."
And she, down-glancing on the babe the while,
And more to Heaven than whom she heard, replied:
"Yea, for my first love and my last was he,
Who loved me never. Of older time was told
That fate should close me, and this birth should be.
So learnt I from my earliest days. To me
This woe was given, through long years to hold
A dream, which dreamlike came, and might not stay.
"One joy was mine, that passed with dawn. One pain,
That gave me Galahad. When he knows not vain
His kisses stained me on the night I lay
In that witched wedlock, till the lighting day
Dissolved it, thinkest thou, past his wrath, it may
Rejoice him aught?"
"We may not doubt," he said,
"Births of good knights, though come of bonds unwed,
Such bonds assoils, and must rejoice their sires;
And when the word stirs Heaven through all its quires,
Their angels in the sight of God are glad."
Scarcely he spake when that which Lancelot
Had seen was his to see. The same white dove
Lit on the sill. The board was richly spread
With heavenly fare. The maiden came. She said:
"Sir Bors de Ganis, see thou hide it not.
Here is no shame; and no conceal should be.
The babe that Lancelot on this maid begot,
First chosen of the knights of God is he,
Himself to chasten, and the Grail to see.
But what comes after will not God decide:
The choice is open, and the gates are wide...
This to the evil court of Arthur tell:
Use well the years, and yet may all be well."
She ceased, and was not. Bors in marvel spake:
"Much have I wandered, and have seen too much
Of wonders in God's world to this mistake.
Well would I that a better dawn should break,
And Arthur's purpose to its height arrive.
Yet jealous lusts and hates and treasons thrive
Too closely round him still, and next his throne - "
Here failed his voice, for that to all men known
Should not be spoken, save in undertone
To those of closest trust; or else denied,
Though even for that false assert he died,
As might by ordeal of God's justice be.
He said: "Of all strange haps is this to me
Most wondrous, and the name of Carbonac
Hath such repute that well this hold were named
The Tower of Ventures."
"Sooth ye speak," replied
The wounded king. "No Christian realm contains
A place which doth so much God's buckler lack.
All fiends make revel which the night unchains...
But now comes Heaven, and not since Garlon died
(I own it justly, though my son was he)
Have been such marvels as at last we see.
"Not any sojourns here except his pains
Be equalled to his Godless plight, for save
His guardian angel shield him, naught remains
Sufficient for his aid where fiends are free."
"To prove so strange a test must knighthood crave,
I will endure this night."
"You will not so
If by my counsel ruled. Four months ago,
In such bold mood, a night must Gawain stay.
But with much honour lost he rode away
Ere the dawn opened its full flower."
I will adventure."
"Then thy sins confess.
The fiends will siege thee, but their power is less
When cleansed the soul."
"That will I gladly."
He took that hazard with clean heart, to show
God's knights are fearless of the ranks of hell.
In a fair chamber was he laid, alight
With many torches. There alone he lay,
For none so bold as would beside him stay,
And when at dawn they asked of what befell
He found clear answer hard.
"I may not well
Divide what happened from maze of dreams aright.
But little rest was mine, for first there came
A spear that no man held. From out the wall
It seemed it issued, with a point of flame,
Clear-burning, amber. Though no guiding hand
Controlled, it held its level course, and through
My shoulder thrust. But this I doubt to tell.
For the wound was not as the point withdrew,
Though long I felt, and feel, its scorching pain.
And when, so hurt, I would awhile have lain
On the soft couch (though still mine arms I kept)
A door swung wide, and one whose sword was bare
Entered (unless perchance in all I slept)
And bade me rise, my life to guard. I said
I was too hurt for strife, but ruthless there
That knight assailed me. Long we fought, until
I lopped his helm, that to his feet he bled,
Whereon I bade him yield, but he withdrew
The way he entered, and returned anew
Whole-helmed and fresh. Again we fought. Again
I had the vantage, but this time I thrust
Between him and the door, that needs he must
Fight on or yield him. Hard he strove in vain
To pass me sideward, and his refuge win;
But to the ground I smote him. Lest he die,
He yielded, and his name he gave - the Knight
Of the Strait Marshes.
"Thus he went, and I
Resought my couch. Some while I lay therein,
Still, by God's mercy, with my arms in sight,
For shafts and quarrels came, I know not whence,
Nor how so many in such place could find
A natural entrance through the casement wide.
I seized mine arms, and by their large defence
I lived, who else a dozen times had died.
For still the arrows fell - before - behind -
And I was wounded in bare spots, although
Few hours have followed, and no wounds I show.
"Then as the shafts their cruel hunt declined,
A lion entered. Wide of mouth was he,
With mane erect, and roaring throat. He leapt,
And reft my shield, but yet my sword I kept,
Which, at close wrestle, through his throat I drave.
"A dragon followed. Not my life to save,
Being so wounded and so toiled, had I
Done more encounter. But his first offence
Turned from me, when a leopard old and grim
Assailed him from behind, so tearing him
That, though he writhed and fought, with short suspense
I saw that which followed could I not foresee,
For as, blood-drenched, with lashing tail he lay,
The leopard licked his paws, and turned away,
Indifferent to his death; and while he died
Out from his mouth a vomit spewed, which threw
A hundred tiny dragons loose, and they
Turned on him, and devoured, and fast they grew
Distending with his blood before it dried.
"The vision passed, if such it were, and peace
Came to me, and with sleepless eyes I saw
A bard of reverend age enthroned who sate,
And smote his harp to give my fears release.
Two adders, careless of the truceless war
Which parts them from mankind, his son to hear,
Had mounted to his neck, and void of fear
Curled round it, while, with cadent voice elate
Of God's high ransom of our race he told;
And how St. Joseph came in days of old,
Gently regardless of the heathen sword,
And brought the Sacred Grail that once our Lord
Passed to His Chosen on the night of woe.
And having closed his song, he bade me go,
Content that life remained. And at that word
A storm without, which earst I scarce had heard,
Though loud it ravened through the tortured night,
To sudden silence fell. Such peace was mine
Scarce could I to blest sleep my heart incline,
However worn, I was so loth to be
Oblivious of that wondrous ecstasy."
So much he told, and they believed him well,
But more, from divers cause, he did not tell
For warning had he heard, that though so far
He had not faltered at the test, he yet
Was distant from the goal that God had set
For those who surely of his chosen are.
Much had he yet to gain, and much forget,
Before he might that holy contest win,
Though was he pure in heart from greed and guile,
Or from the kindlier faults of carnal sin.
And yet more secret than his own, he heard
A warning that he should to Lancelot bear,
That though of most repute for earth's brief while
In skill and fortitude beyond compare,
So that no other knights his equals were,
Yet would he fail upon a harder field,
And honour's shining crest be his to yield,
Unless he cleansed him of continual sin.
Well knew Sir Bors of what was meant. He knew
How strait the cords of Lancelot's bondage drew.
'Fair is she as a flaming dawn,' he thought,
'And noble-natured in a generous sort,
Yet better were that she in dust should lie,
Than he, in all beyond herself so high,
Be draggled ever by her lustful whim.
What honour lies in her? What faith in him
Hath she shown ever? Cruel love she shows,
And jealous doubt, that near to hatred grows
At each false whisper that he loves away.
Here should his heart be drawn. And why should they
-This damsel and himself - be held apart?
Such love is hers as should his comfort be.'
So rose his thoughts, from love of Lancelot bred;
And had Guenever at his mercy been
The while he mused, belike that golden head
Had held no more its poise as Arthur's queen
And carnal mistress of his closest friend.
Neither he told of how, that doubt to end,
A vision came, as though the doors were wide
Which from our earthly eyes the Holiest hide.
Of that to speak were mortal words too few,
Too weak, too narrow. Then at last there came
A naked sword before his eyes which shone.
Steel was its hue. As though cold steel were flame
It glowed to blind him. When its blade withdrew
Was all divine but recollection gone.
Bors rode to Camelot. To Sir Lancelot there
All that his eyes had seen, his ears had heard,
He told of Carbonac. Was seld his care
Straight truth to hide. He said: "A bride more fair:
More equal to content thee: more designed
For gracious consort, or thy babes to bear,
In searching of ten realms you might not find.
Her child is thine; and thine herself should be."
But Lancelot answered: "All of her you tell
I well believe; and had I loved her well
It had been short of her sweet worth. But I
From shame to shame should pass to thus put by
My present bond, except consent were free
From her who holds me; and it will not be."
"Then wouldst thou?"
"Not of choice. But that she willed
Should be against all rule but Heaven's fulfilled."
No more was said. For what was left to say?
Too close in love and in accord were they
To barter words of difference. Each was ware
Of other's thoughts unspoken. Bors withdrew
The news he carried with their kin to share.
No secret was there in the thing he knew,
Whatever fruit its wider talk should bear.
Guenever heard it, as she must. Her eyes
Darkened in startled half-belief. She sent
An urgent word to Lancelot. Well he knew
That she, who oft would take false doubt for true,
Would not be stilled by less than truth. He said:
"I well believe the child is mine, but I
Was treasoned to suppose that there you lay.
Because that where I might I do not lie,
You must believe me wholly."
"That you say
Is wild for credence."
"It was all foretold
By Merlin. So King Pellam swears."
'Alike for Arthur's birth Mage Merlin wrought.
It may be.... Hast thou seen her since?'
"I shall not seek her. Distant lie
Those wilds from here."
"But in thy wanderings?"
Far is it from my thought to ride her way."
"Thou still dost love me most?"
"And only thee."
They closed awhile. Of near belief was she
That all and only truth he spake. But still
Hate must be hers for whom without his will
Had so possessed him, and in more degree
Because the father of that babe was he
Which she would never bear him. Half forgot
It might be with the passing days, but not
In aught condoned if memory stirred. And came
An hour that roused her to a fiercer flame.
A herald rode to Corbin. There he saw
A land more wasted than by waste of war;
At which he marvelled. Those who dwelt therein
Moved furtive, conscious of the hostile skies,
Or, like a beaten hound afraid to rise,
Crouched from the shadow of unlifted sin.
But high stood Carbonac, resistant still
To Hell's black malice, on its lonely hill;
The guardian angels of the Sacred Grail
Still winging round it, lest those powers prevail
Which Balyn had unloosed unconsciously.
King Pellam feasted at the board. He bade
The herald nearly at his side be set.
"For who may come from Arthur's court," said he,
"More than I honour him is grace to me;
For only Arthur is our hope today."
The herald in fit words replied: "I bring
My gracious lord's regard. As king to king
He greets thee well, and hath this word to say:
He rests, returning from the noise of war.
For Claudas, to his last retreat pursued,
Knelt in the dust before him. Now may all
Who join his peace trust less in dyke and wall
Than in the name of Arthur. Rape and feud
No more bring sorrow where his rule extends.
Now would he mark his bounds and count his friends,
And seal them surely from those lands away
Where yet the unruled, ungentled heathen slay.
"Therefore he calls to those of friendly sort,
Ladies and knights and kings, to make resort
To Camelot at the feast which next will fall,
That he may meet them in his festal hall,
And with new oaths confirm their lands. To those
Who come not, he will in good faith suppose
That naught of local rule or lands they claim;
Or that, as rebels to his sovereign name,
They ask chastisement, which they will not miss.
"But naught against thyself is meant in this,
Who may not be of health to roughly ride.
He knows thy heart too closely to mistake
A likely absence."
"Yea," the king replied,
"He holds us in a bond which will not break.
So would I have it, as he knows. He stayed
The long disaster of internal strife,
And in Logre such common right he made
That no man lacks whole roof, nor straw to lie,
Nor daily boon of meat, nor loaves of rye.
The surf in surety knows that child and wife
No lord shall barter from his hearth. In this,
Well hath he done; but yet is more to do.
I send such words as should not sound amiss,
Being in friendship said, and wholly true.
The hardest trial and the last is here,
Which Gawain's counsel, nay, nor Lancelot's spear,
Will aught avail to meet. For peace can breed
Evils which those of violence all exceed.
Heaven waits expectant of the final test.
Life's hardest trial is in sloth to rest.
But God's throws wide the gates of hope for men.
His mercy yet may all transform; as when
O'er the wide horror of a carrioned plain
Breaks the glad torrent of the cleansing rain...
Tell him that choiceless in my halls I stay:
But night and morning for his peace I pray."
"He shall be told in words as fair as thine."
They ceased, and at that moment spake Elaine:
"I would go for thee, if I might." For fain
Was all her heart again to Lancelot see.
And that she asked had reason's aid, for he
Being unfit, his nearest kin to send
Was seemly; and to that high concourse drawn
Would many ladies and bright damsels be.
He answered doubtful: "Should thy heart desire
I would not hinder." What strange fruit would fall
From that bold venture? Had his wit foreseen
That which it bore, is sure it had not been.
Yet all was natural of its kind.
Have waited such a chance to find," she said.
The herald pondered that he did not say,
Seeing her courage wake, for those as they
Who do the errands which to states belong
Know the good price of silence, as they know
Most things that move behind the outward show
Of those gay courts they serve.
He thought: 'Than she
How should a king's loved consort lovelier be?
Is any knight in all this warrior isle
Who would not gladden at her passing smile?
And he whose son she bore - ' Aloud he said:
"Kings will be many there, and queens be sent
By those held backward, all of fair intent
To honour Arthur and his rule augment.
But midst bold kings and beauteous queens, and those
The likeliest to themselves, a central rose
There will be ever."
"Of your courtesy
You speak," she said, "what is not meant for me."
So missioned, from her father's towers she rode
To dare the court of Arthur. In her train
A score of horses felt the knightly rein,
A hundred with gay ladies, grooms and squires,
Marshalled behind them. Shield and silk and plume
Irised the drear road through that land of gloom,
Till with clear dawns of gold and sunset fires
The young spring met them, as they left behind
The desolate land, and made their upward march
Beneath the clear green of the leafing larch,
A fairer scene in further vales to find.
Here seemed it that she saw with different eyes.
Gone was the curse that held her land. The cries
Of building birds were round her. The spring air
Was on her lips and kissed her coifless hair.
How should she doubt of better times to be?
Further they rode with yet new realms to see,
And royal welcomes at their ruling towers,
Until the fertile pastures of Logre
Were round them, shining in the sunlit hours,
Or clouded low, and drenched with driving showers,
As the wind varied. Willowed streams they saw
Wandering uncertain in a level land,
And left them for soft-contoured hills, that stand
Dividing vale from vale, and passing these,
Through the white ocean of their orchard trees
They climbed again, till high bare downs they rode
Scarred with deep clefts that holly held and haw,
Till the white walls above the oakwoods showed
Which were their journey's end.
King Arthur came
Two miles to meet them of his courtesy,
His queen beside him, for: "God's truth!" Said he
"Those who support my power shall all men see
Sustained and honoured to their just degree;
And Pellam's is a great and noble name."
Thus on the open road those ladies met
Where many eyes were on them: those who knew
And those who knew not. So the scene was set
From which fierce wrath and hate and madness grew.
Yet in that meeting was there naught to view
But signs of courtesy, and words of grace.
Had some bare chamber been their meeting place,
It might have been no other, for the guile
Of women covers hate with guile for smile,
And the smooth word that hides the poisoned sting.
There too was Lancelot at King Arthur's side.
He saw her whom he swore he would not see.
Clear to his mind another scene must be:
- A casement to the morning opening wide:
A chamber where that lady shiftless lay,
Fair as the dawn that showed her. How were they
As though that had not been to meet again?
As though beneath his heart she had not lain,
Or he begotten that fair child who now
Grew nearly to the hour of knightly vow
And knightly deed forecast by Merlin's word?
Now shamedly to his mind the sword recurred
Which once beneath her small peaked breasts he set;
And when his glance her own, that flinched not, met
It faltered and withdrew. Yet not the less,
Neither that vision of her loveliness,
Nor her near presence moved him, nor the thought
Of the fair fruit that wildered night had brought,
From his set faith to swerve. He turned aside,
As distant from that lady's rein to ride
As in the marshalled cavalcade might be
Without conspicuous change, as those who came
Mingled with those they met.
She needs must see
His motion, and its cold intent construe.
So saw the queen alike, and thought the same,
But with more joy, which yet must doubt undo.
'So doth he here - but when I should not see?'
And urged by this self-torturing thought, she bade
New dispositions for fresh guests be made
Which any hour might bring. Sir Lancelot found
His chamber distanced from her own. Elaine
Was neighboured closely to the queen, and so
That all seemed grace to those who did not know
What passions raged beneath fair words. She said,
At night's retreat, with none but Brisen near:
"I am a tree whose summer leaves are shed
While spring is jocund yet. What hope is here?
For falsehood might I scorn, or death forget,
But Lancelot is not false, and is not dead.
His am I by my womb's sole fruit, but yet
No wrong, no honour, and no right have I;
While he contemns me wholly."
"Wouldst thou try
Another bout?" Dame Brisen asked; and she
Was swift to answer: "Yea. More right have I
Than that adulteress. Better life would be
For Lancelot surely had he none but me.
I yet would win him if I might."
As the hall cleared, a single whispered word:
'Come to me. Arthur sleeps apart.' Believe
I yet may aid thee to good end. Expect
It will be as before."
In this consent,
Dame Brisen to Sir Lancelot's chamber went.
How should he now the new deceit detect?
Loose-robed he waited for a wonted call,
As the queen's caution ruled. The words were low:
'All slumber. But the bowers are crowded all.
Move softly.' Like a ghost she went ahead.
Small was the lamp she bore his steps to show.
All else was blackness. But he saw she led
To the queen's tower, where those alone would lie
Who had her trust, and served their secret sin.
The caution which had lodged Elaine therein
Became the pit that snared them.
Scarce went by
The clock's next chime before a damsel went
A truer message from the queen to bear.
Backward she came. "Sir Lancelot is not there.
His place is empty."
Guessing the fact without the truth, was live
The jealous queen without restraint to drive
Her doubt to prove. In haste that chamber nigh
She sought, and when she vainly twirled the pin,
Hard blows she dealt, and voices rose therein:
"Nay, do not open.".... "Who, hell's curse, art thou?"
Wide came the door, and there Sir Lancelot stood,
Loosed-robed, and gazing with distracted eyes
On the wrothed queen. What could be pleaded now?
Never he well Guenever's wrath withstood.
This was his weakness at her tongue to quail.
Wildered he stood. Did mind and memory fail?
How could he answer, had her words allowed?
Here was no shadow of such transient cloud
As oft her jealous moods would raise. Distraught,
Confounded as by guilt, he answered naught
While her loosed fury drove her tongue to rail
In bitter words that did not wait reply.
"Is this thy faith? Is this thine oath? Dost try
A second magic? Should the babes be two?
Did Merlin this design? But might not I
Hear the full tale at once?... Or didst thou lie,
And I believe? And wouldst thou swear anew?
Thou couldst not, dost not, fool me twice. Begone
With thy false leman! Go! Foul traitor, go!"
He turned ignobly who had blenchless faced
A tenfold onfall of good knights. Despair
That one so loved should thus her heart declare,
And shame for what had been against his will,
And baffled reason (for the queen had placed
Elaine within her private tower unguessed)
Unhelmed his mind. And as she forward stept
He turned, and flung the casement wide, and leapt
To the black void without.
A thorn's arrest
Stayed what had been a fatal fall. He lay
Bloodied by many prick's, but yet sustained,
So that his folly's debt was less to pay.
The chamber which he left to silence fell,
But only shortly, while those ladies there
Saw the poor harvest that their wiles had gained.
Elaine was first to speak, who speechless heard
The queen's hard railing. Bitter grief and fear
Roused her to answer with the poisoned word
Which else had none been ever like to hear:
"Madam, your jealous spite's full gain you see.
Curse could I, but you need no curse from me.
False to the noblest king the world hath known,
A discord to the realm that shakes his throne,
You chose the next of noble name to be
His curse the more. You need no curse from me.
Though by the garth's good grace his life endure,
Our loss is still beyond a mortal cure.
I saw the madness in his eyes. For me
God made him; and His high design by thee
Could not be thwarted. Still the boast is mine
- His child to knighthood grows; and is not thine."
"Dame," said the queen, "I charge and warn thee well
That thou this court with morn avoid, for I
Am minded much to slay thee... Shouldst thou tell
That which this night hath been, to mean or high,
To maid or man, I bid thee this regard:
You could not make my shameful fall more hard
Than would be his thereby."
"His fall can be
No greater. Death were gentlest friend. But I
Will neither aught reveal nor aught deny.
Why should I vex the king? And all but he
Know what thou art."
"I have too sharp a fear
That both have lost him, for thy words to care.
Yet can we rouse alarm?"
Dame Brisen said:
"It were but bootless, for he is not dead,
Nor lying maimed beneath. I heard him go
Through the small postern in the court below."
At morn Elaine an urgent reason spake
That she ride homeward for her father's sake,
And Arthur wondered, but in courtesy
Allowed, and that the readier that the queen
Assured him that she did not feign; and so
He rode beside her, that she should not go
Without full honour, through the woodlands green
With many knights around them. Bors of these
Came earliest to her rein, to say farewell.
Glad was she of that night's ill chance to tell
To one she trusted, and of Lancelot's kin.
Short were her words, which had as short reply:
"Long have I looked such end to meet. Do thou
In converse hold the king the most ye may,
Retarding his return, the while that I
Make rule for that which should not hinder now,
Yet must be ordered in a secret way."
Aside he turned, and when the long array
Had passed him all, he backward spurred, and found
The wild queen pacing like a hindered hound
In her own garth, and there with Lionel
And Ector (pausing but short tale to tell)
He charged her in no heedless words: "You weep,
But should we pity? Tears are now too late.
Our greatest through your fault is lost, and lies
We know not where, nor in what need. Through thee
We lack the leader of our house. For he,
Alike in valour and in courtesy,
In noble living both of wild and hall,
Led, and exampled, and sustained us all."
"Oh, Bors," she said, "ungentle words let be.
How can we find him?"
"Gentle words to thee
Are hard to render when I count the woe
That through thee only doth so widely fall,
Because you loved - if reason name it so -
One whom you did not trust, and did not know."
"Still is our cause the same. Wilt aid me now?"
"I will, to find him. Though I know not how."
Sir Ector said: "We three could ride away
As on some secret quest, which none would stay,
And none would doubt; and if Sir Lancelot's place
Continue vacant, then might well be thought
That he were following, in his customed sort,
For aid or rescue should his friends outpace,
Through eager hearts, their strength of strife. And then
We may divide, and search both near and far,
More in wild places than the haunts of men,
For as in trance the blind inclinings are
Of minds distraught. And that he used to choose
Yet may he."
To this counsel all agreed.
Large treasure gave the queen to meet their need.
And so, forthright, but in no secret way,
They garnished, armed, and went.
Through woods of May,
Through summer fields, through waste and wilderness,
By ford, by pass, through citied plain, they rode
Separate, but meeting at set times, that so
All might the issue of their searchings know,
Till summer waned; but naught they learned, although
Endlong and overthwart they searched, until
Fairley it chanced they met a knight they knew,
Sir Melion. "Dost thou some far quest pursue?"
"I am for Arthur's court." "Of friendship, say,
Wilt thou a message to the king convey?"
"That will I freely." "Then this warning give:
Sir Lancelot long is lost, and may not live.
And till that less we dread, or more we learn,
We may not gladly to the court return."
This message Melion bore, and found the court
Disturbed by previous doubt, for truth suppressed
Is pregnant yet. Though Arthur's knights would go
On distant quests, it was not often so
That none their going or their far resort
Would know. And four who ranked with Arthur's best
- Not Lancelot only, but his closest kin -
Could not be lost without remark. And now
Was Arthur instant in demand that all
Around him then, who had no closer call,
Should ride the land for rescue. "Think ye how
He oft hath succoured those who did not win
Their quests alone. If now some witchly gin
Hath snared him, or some league's outnumbering might
Hath overborne, or treason guiled, were we
Graceless and recreant, should our motions be
Less swift to reach him."
At this word arose
In eager haste Sir Sagramore; and those
Of Lancelot's house as quickly; and Ewaine,
As generous nature urged; and neither slow
Nor swift, but as of cool resolve to go,
Sir Gawain; and two other knights as fain
For Lancelot's rescue, Aglovale, and he
Who was the youngest and should greatest be
Of those four brethren, Percival. In all
Were eighteen of the Table knights who swore
They would not stint their search through byre and hall,
Through woods and wilds, through kingdoms, shore to shore,
That in the pale of Arthur's peace might be,
Nay, nor in further lands of heathenry
Till they should find him, or, at least, resolve
What fate had fallen.
In one glittering band
The city gates they passed, to thence expand
In twos and threes, to search the various land,
And reunite at trysts agreed.
Rode the two brethren on one path. They sought
Through the green valleys of the land they knew.
They halted at their mother's tower, whose thought
Was on the dead: on Gawain's murderous guile,
Who Pellinor first to evil end had brought,
And then had Lamorack snared: "My heart will rue
Your further deaths," she wept, "if Arthur's court
You hold, or with that falcon brood consort.
Stay with me. I am old. My sight is dim.
Tears are its bane."
But Percival answered: "Nay,
You would not that. It were our shame to stay.
Dormer is near you. Rest your heart on him.
The king's blood in us takes tempestuous way
To Heaven's assault, and should I loiter here
Yourself would sorrow for a rusted spear."
Thereat they went, from warm embraces changed.
From ruth they wept, but not that ruth deranged
The values of the knightly code they knew.
Some weeks they rode, while summer changed its hue
To autumns gold. Some wayside bouts were theirs.
Some wrongs they righted, and some knaves they slew.
But naught of Lancelot could they learn, although
They followed many a doubtful tale, until
In Percival a privy purpose grew
To search alone and further. Thus to go
Without restraint, or word of evil will,
He rose by night, and left Sir Agolvale
To wake in lonely wrath, of naught avail.
A broad stream, and a fair white bridge. Beyond
A white tower rose. But not on these were cast
The eyes of Percival. "What means thy bond?
Who art thou?" Asked he of a knight who stood
Chained like a watchdog to a stake of wood.
"I am Sir Persides. I pray thee break
This fetter, if thou canst."
Of Arthur's Table? Say, how camest thou thus?"
"Because that lady's lust I would not ease
Who owns those towers. Through all the night I lie
On the cold ground, and when the moon is high
She bids me whine for food, or else I die."
"Stretch the chain hard, and somewhat lean away,
For else I dread me that my rescue slay."
"Dread ye not that. Is here no life to lose."
"Yet hadst thou valour to her lust refuse."
As thus they spake, his sword he upward swang,
Downward it came, and on the chain it rang.
Nor on that only, for the mail beside
It cleft, and left a wound, not deep but wide.
Free stept Sir Persides, amazed to be,
Through one who looked so slight so quickly free.
"That was a stroke of might. Except the chain
Had been so massive had my life been slain."
"Give me not thanks, but rather God in me,
For when the measure of a need I see
My strength augments, or so it seems."
The need is here. The bridge - behold - beware.
I have no weapon to thy danger share."
Sir Percival turned. Across the bridge there came
A knight - if knight he were - but knight of name,
By the foul use he tried, he could not be.
His lance was down. His steed was spurred as though
He rode at joust against a mounted foe
Aware to meet him. Moment scant remained
For gaining lance and steed, but these were gained.
And as that false knight, with more haste than skill,
Came to the crash, it was not his to kill,
But his to feel. His own unruly spear
Glanced from a slanted shield, and ended clear,
While he such buffet felt as left his seat
Unridered. On the low stone parapet
He rolled, and tumbled to the stream below.
Yet was no splash to hear. His fall to meet
A boat lay moored. The heavy fall it met
With bruising violence. On its thwart asprawl
They saw him, stilled by that ignoble fall,
But were he live or dead they could not know,
Nor had they cause to care. His steed supplied
The need of Persides. "I may not ride,"
He said, "beside thee, these ill towers to leave,
Without dishonour, for my servants lie
Dungeoned within them."
"Then these towers to grieve
Must be our purpose, till we loose them free."
"You have no fear to all their might defy?"
"Am I to weigh God's danger? Nay, not I.
It is not my poor strength, but God in me,
Which at their jeopard must their rescue be.
So must we surely by our vows believe."
No more said Persides. The recreant's lance
He lifted from the dust: he climbed his steed.
"That which I may," he said, "to meet thy need
I will not fail at any pass to do."
"Surely that purpose is God's purpose too."
Bridge crossed; they reined those towers before.
Upon the wall their lady came. She said:
"What would ye, hoving here? Is Gartas dead?
Go, with my curse, and do no mischief more."
Answered Sir Percival: "We cast to do
No mischief, nor have done. But set ye free
Those whom thou hast, or in God's name will we
Their bonds release. Except a need more great
Constrain me, surely should my sword abate
Thine evil customs. Take my warning here.
Soon shall thy neck the sword of justice sheer
Except forthright thy lust-born treasons end."
"Wilt thou go quietly, if I all release?"
"If all be well returned, we part in peace.
But with no warrant, shouldst thou more offend,
To leave thee scatheless."
With this word content,
To break that bondage from the wall she went.
And in short hour, with those who served him free,
And all his gear restored, Sir Persides
Rode with his rescuer to a tower more kind,
Service and ease without restraint to find,
For he who held it was a liege to him.
But Percival would not rest. "I may not ease
This quest," he said, "till Lancelot's sure release,
Or certain knowledge of his death there be...
You are for Camelot? Then of courtesy
I pray thee bear this word to Aglovale:
If backward to the court his steps have been.
I will not leave this quest, nor think to fail.
That was my purpose when I left unseen,
Knowing that others had a shorter mind
To end it with the ending year. But say
To those false knights Sir Modred and Sir Kay,
Despite the jibings and the scorn I met
When came I to the court, it may be yet
That I shall do my part, and more than they.
I think not ever to return until
God's grace within me shall this hope fulfil."
So was it. To the court Sir Persides
Rode ere the leaves had left the autumn trees,
There came he to Sir Modred and Sir Kay.
"Fair lords," he said, "I have these words to say
That come from that young knight, Sir Percival:
Before he enters to this court again,
In God he trusts, where never trust is vain,
Of more accomplished nobleness to be
Than ever either at your best were ye,
And more reputed in the mouths of men."
To which they answered: "God to fruit may bring
The poorest stock. But, at his knighting, then
He showed no promise of leaf. Unlikelier thing
You shall not tell us in an hour's debate,"
And parted, mirthful of a boast so great.
But Percival rode alone, and learned to lie
On the cold ground beneath the open sky;
To lose, and shrink not at so large a loss,
All comforts of sure roof and board and bed.
Only the forest boughs were overhead:
Only the forest green was round him now.
So rode he till another knight he met
Wandering like ways to hold a likely vow,
But longer had he sought a heavenly debt
To cancel by such deeds as knights may do.
Now was his shield defaced, his plumage shed,
But neither of the other asked these two.
Lance to the rest and spur to flank they set,
To prove their strength against they cared not who.
Now greater than his own he hardly found
The skill that flung him to the bruising ground.
Yet rose he with dressed shield, and sword he drew,
As one not sated by so rude a fall.
"What! Would ye more?" That knight in wonder said.
"I would have lightly passed, and let thee be.
Death for hot youth provides too cold a bed.
Yet thy most asking shalt thou have," said he.
And slowly he alit, and heedfully
His charger tied. A dinted sword he drew,
Which yet of point was sharp, of steel was true.
And chose fair ground, and in no haste he met
The impetuous claim of youth against him set.
Strength clashed with strength, and agile youth opposed
The wariness of longer-practised skill.
Wound paid for wound as oft the combat closed,
And then retired for breathing rests, until
Much marvel might it seem that either knight
Could for so long sustain so fierce a fight,
While the red tribute of their wounds down-ran.
Then Percival words too long delayed began:
"Good knight - for I was seldom matched till now -
I pray thee pause, and of thy gentleness
Thy name reveal. We could not fight for less,
Who have no quarrel; nor more bitterly
Our failing lives reduce if holiest vow
Or honour's ordeal proof required."
To whom he spake, against a steadying tree
Leaning the while, made answer: "Old am I,
Of many battles, yet to death so nigh
I have not come till now: I have not felt
So many wounds as thy quick sword hath dealt.
I am Sir Ector, of the Table known.
Nearer to Lancelot none, of trust or kin."
"Alas!" Sir Percival said, "mine eager haste
My strength to prove, hath cast my life to waste
In conflict with my natural friend. Herein
I pay God's value for a vauntful sin.
Percival de Galis is the name I bore
In the short life which now will live no more.
I sought Sir Lancelot in these wilds, but I
Came blindly, futile at thy hands to die."
"Nay," said Sir Ector, "mine the death you tell,
For as I rest me here I know too well
I bleed too deeply for my life to dure.
Pierced am I by a hurt no leech could cure.
But this I charge thee, by the faith we share,
Seek thou some priory, with no pause, and bring
A priest to aid me.... Do not speak it there,
Nor after at the court, I warn thee well,
That by the violence of thy hand I fell,
For Lancelot therefor were thy certain foe.
Say only that you found me spent, as though
Seeking him both we rode the same rough way,
And you came later, and you found me thus."
"Alas!" Sir Percival answered, "what you say
I cannot. Not the strength to stand is mine.
Death's weakness answers pride too orgulous.
I rise no longer, strive the most I may."
So at the door of death await they sat
Until his latch should rise to let them through.
Being so weak, unknightly tears they knew
For high resolves and hopes relinquished
Through life's defeat. Until Sir Percival said:
"What use are lamentations?" And thereat
Bent knees of prayer, and all to God resigned;
And from that worship lifted eyes to find
More than the forest boughs before him now,
More than the light their crowding leaves allow,
More sweetness than the flowering hawthorns give.
"What saw you?" asked Sir Ector. . .
"What saw you?"
"I saw the Grail itself, by which we live,
For all my limbs are whole, and strength anew
Beats through them. There I glimpsed the Blood Divine.
I saw the Sacred Cup clear silver shine,
But by whose hands upborne I might not see."
"So," Percival said, "the vision came to me,
And so new strength revived these limbs of mine.
But, by God's grace, a larger sight than thine
Hath blessed me, for a maiden whitely clad
Held in her lifted hands the Cup."
Much grace was thine so large a sight to see,"
Sir Ector answered.
For life returned, they sought, with toilsome care,
Flawed helm and down-hacked harness to repair.
And then remounted, and such way they took
As neither on his search had passed before,
Together now new countries to explore:
Nothing too wild, too bare, to overlook.
But leave we them with converse to beguile
The lonely length of many a weary mile,
And turn we to Sir Lancelot. He the while
Wandered distraught and roofless. Fruits that grew
Wild in the summer woods were all he knew
Of food; or haply, when the winter fell,
The crusts to beggars' tongues that taste so well.
Water he drank. No shining arms he wore,
But thorn-encountered rags. His feet were sore
From naked meeting of sharp stones. Two years
He wandered, till one day a verdant ground
He entered, and therein pitched tents he found,
Oak-shaded. From a branch a white shield swang.
Two swords were near it, and two leaning spears.
Thereat his heart arose. Wide space he leapt
Toward them. From its sheath one sword he drew,
And whirled, rejoicing in his strength. It swept
Clanging the shield. Again, again, it rang
Such battered music as the hammering hail
When five strong knights in gathered force assail.
Out from those tents a dwarf in wonder ran.
"Good fellow, cease this antic noise. Put down
A sword not thine," his sharp rebuke began.
He saw no danger from a roisterous clown,
That good knight, Sir Bliaunt, his master, near.
His thought was first that master's wrath to fear,
Who lay at ease the hinder tent within,
With little welcome for so wild a din.
He seized a lifted arm, those strokes to stay,
But Lancelot flung him with such force away
That nigh neck-broken on the ground he lay,
Thereat he cried for help, and forth there came
Sir Bliaunt, roused to wondering wrath. No arms
He wore, but had a robe of crimson flame
Loosely around him drawn. Small knight was he,
But one of graceful speech and dignity,
Though now disordered of his mood. Some space
In doubtful silence stood they, face to face,
The madman armed: the sane in fenceless guise.
He saw the frenzy in Sir Lancelot's eyes,
And flinched not at the test
"Good friend," he said,
"I pray thee yield that sword. An easeful bed
Food and fit clothing are thy greater needs,
Which I will find thee with good heart."
Sir Lancelot answered, "length of life, will leave
This sword untaken." With the words anew
He whirled it high, a whistling circle through,
Whereat Sir Bliaunt, as a prudent man,
Drew backward to the tents, and there began
His arms to reach. The dwarf's attendant hands
Drew lace and clasp. In armour confident,
Again Sir Bliaunt to the madman went.
But Lancelot, of a countering sword aware,
Recked not himself of any covering bare;
One sudden downward tempest-stroke he swang.
Hard on Sir Bliaunt's helm of proof it rang,
Dinting the steel it could not cleave, that so
He sank, struck senseless by the murderous blow.
Careless to further harm a fallen man,
And flinging down a sword whose use was through,
Into the tent's rich dusk Sir Lancelot ran.
Dimly a couch of double breadth he knew.
Back to its foot the silken pall he threw,
Thinking in that soft warmth awhile to lie.
But one, already in its close recess
Who couched, outstarted with a frightened cry.
Her raised arms, in the dusk pale ivory,
Glimmered as her cast smock she seized and drew
Over the tumble of her loosened hair.
But Lancelot to sharp cries or smooth limbs bare
No heeding gave. Aware of weariness,
And simple with all longings to comply,
He sank to slumberous rest incontinent.
That lady's fear the while her feet impelled
Out from the tent to run scarce garmented.
There lay Sir Bliaunt as a slain man lies.
"Oh, Jesu, pity!" In her grief she said,
Distraught by this cold sight her eyes beheld,
"Tell me, good dwarf - Good dwarf, he is not dead?"
The stunned man wakened to her urgent cries.
Raised on one hand, he said with bitter glee:
"Thank a smith's art for that, but thank not me.
A stroke so sudden and so hard, perde,
I have not met from mortal hand before.
Where is the madman now?"
The dwarf replied:
"He dropped the sword, and in the tent to hide
Ran blindly; but, good master, vengeance here
Would bring no worship. None who looked could doubt
His noble nature. But his wits are out.
Perchance some overtaking grief he had,
Which bore him wholly down, and left him mad.
"Such is his mien, although so basely clad,
That as I saw him, to my memory came
Lonazep, and Lancelot in its tourney field,
As once I there beheld him."
Sir Bliaunt answered, "to so great a shame
That Lancelot ever from his height should bend.
And God defend that I to wrath should yield
To prove my valour on a witless man.
Ride thou forthright, with all the haste ye may
Back by the way we came. Sir Selivant
Inform of this perverse event, and say:
'Bring thou a litter, and good force to take
This knight demented, that, for mercy's sake,
Him may we harbour till his wits awake.'"
Fast to the White Tower rode the dwarf, and told
Sir Bliaunt's brother there how strange a chance
His sylvan pleasure had betrayed. Thereat
His brother came with six stout knaves, and brought
A horse-drawn litter.
Beds more hard and cold
Had been Sir Lancelot's woodland use. He lay
Contently sunk in this warm circumstance.
Heaven-granted sleep appeased his erring thought.
So deep he slumbered that he knew not aught
Of how they bore him from that tent away,
Lifting the couch, and him thereon. The day
Lengthened its shadows to the night's pursuit
As the White Tower's strong portal closed them in.
They bound him, as they must. But fairly clad
They kept him, and well lodged, and meetly fed.
Goodly he grew, but wits he could not win.
No knowledge, seemed it, of himself he had;
Naught of himself in any mood he said.
So spring to summer bloomed, and waning days
Shortened to Yule, and spring's returning feud
Its warfare on the winter nights renewed,
Till summer boskage hid the woodland ways,
Though from the height of heaven should overbrood
The leaf-prevented light.
There came a day
When rode Sir Bliaunt on some quest away,
Taking no train, and had not left his hold
More than a morning hour, or haply two,
When that false knight, the pitiless Breuse, and one
Bertlot, his brother, who alike was sold
To devil service, in an ambush lay
Which sought indifferent any weaker prey.
Sir Bliaunt was a smaller knight than they,
And, being single, seemed an overthrow
They should not miss. From right, from left, they came.
But Bliaunt was a cool and wily knight.
Light were the hurts he took, and naught the shame.
Separate he meets their charge with swerving sleight.
Their vainly-splintered spears his craft acclaim.
Now clanging swords to crackling spears succeed.
Sir Bliaunt well the twofold onfall met.
But how should shield against two points be set?
Or charger from two chargers swerve as one?
That which a knight could do was knightly done:
That was undone which never knight could do.
While to Sir Breuse's sword his shield was set,
He felt Sir Bertlot pierce his hawberk through.
Then round he reined, and spur to flank he set,
Seeking in flight his periled life to get.
Sir Lancelot, in a turret chamber high,
Gazed vacant at the vacant height of sky.
Gyves to his wrists and to his ankles held
With strength of steel that human strength excelled.
Save but for these, he had his movements free.
The noise of hoofbeats on the road below
Drew the sad eyes; and then their vacancy
Changed as deep waters to the dawn's clear glow
With expectation of new life alight.
He saw Sir Bliaunt's steed in stumbling flight,
Urged by the spur; and either side a knight
Swung at his helm the overtaking blow.
Sir Lancelot rose thereat. His chains to break
He strove, regardless of the pain he gave.
Fell to the ground the gyves his ankles wore.
The twisted links that with his teeth he tore
Snapt from the bleeding wrists and left them free.
So showed he surely, for his master's sake,
More than to saner wits the strength should be.
Fast downward to the postern gate he ran.
He saw Sir Bliaunt, vainly turned to bay,
Calling for succour to his house; but they
With the more wits had shown the more delay.
Sir Lancelot with bare arms a writhing man
Dragged from his seat. Sir Bertlot's sword he tore
From hands too weak to hold it. Not the more
Sir Breuse could face him weaponed thus. He smote
That bold knight backward from his croup, and when
Sir Bertlot's dagger at his naked throat
Aimed from the back, Sir Bliaunt swiftly then
Swung with tired arm a final stroke that shore
Dagger and hand at once to earth away.
The evil brethren from too sharp a fray
Drew backward, scrambled to their steeds, and fled,
Leaving the shorn hand in the dust. By now
Sir Selivant, who heard the uproar, led
Too late a rescue. Being told of how
The madman for his brother's life had struck,
He joined Sir Bliaunt's thanks to God, that they
Had shown him mercy on the earlier day.
Sir Bliaunt marked the bloodied wrists that tore
The chains for his salvation. "Gyve no more,"
He said, "those hands my folly sinned to bind,
For he is surely of a gracious kind.
Evil may blot the scroll of memory blank,
Yet for this lasting mercy God we thank.
Through that great darkness will the soul endure.
If gracious erst, still gracious: pure if pure.
The months to autumn turned. Sir Lancelot still
In the White Tower remained, but bound no more.
Well was he served, and seemly. Grace for grace
His bearing gave them, though his wandered mind
Returned not. Naught of any previous place
Recalled he: naught of any name or face
His earlier life had known.
Now cold declined
The ageing year. The leafless woodland through,
Bleak from the north, a wind of winter blew,
As Lancelot from the postern wandered free.
Unarmed, unmounted, unrestrained was he;
Like a strong dog to gentle usage brought,
He walked unfeared, unwatched, unchecked. Was naught
Borne from the far woods but the cold wind's cry?
Sir Lancelot lifted eyes that wistfully
Sought recollection through associate sound.
But naught his mind recalled, the while around
The outcry neared.
A strong thick-shouldered boar
Broke from the copse. Its tushes streaming gore,
Froth at its mouth, its small red eyes alight
With fury at its chase, and lust to fight,
It turned to bay; and round next instant bayed
Hounds of like fury, yet which paused afraid
Of the grim menace of its sweeping jaw.
Behind the rout of hounds, Sir Lancelot saw
The hunters ride, with sound of horn to cheer
A chase that seemed its red conclusion near.
He saw one huntsman spring to ground. His spear
He leaned against an oak. His horse thereto
He loosely tied. To Lancelot's clouded thought
Old recollection as in mist it brought.
The spear he seized. A sword beside the selle
Was hung in sheath. Unarmed, but weaponed well,
He mounted, and a new pursuit he led
Of that strong boar that once again had fled,
With breath regained, to find deliverance so
From hounds that would not fight, and would not go.
The boar's new flight outpaced the hounds: outpaced
The hunt, except Sir Lancelot. Only he,
Reckless of all except the beast he chased,
Was close behind it when it turned to see
Its single foe. Beside a hermitage,
And buttressed by a broad far-branching tree,
It swung around its final strife to wage.
The spear-thrust passed its sudden swerve. The steed
Side-reined too late, the boar's swift outrush met.
Surely before it died it paid its debt
Of vengeance on the foes that unprovoked
Pursued its life, a merry sport to them.
Screamed the great charger as the sharp tusk tore
A length of fatal wound, nor thus content,
Returning, in the brawn of Lancelot's thigh
Ploughed to the bone, before his feet were free.
Or sane or madman, now wood wrath was he
At that deep wound, to feel its pain, and see
His own blood falling. While he rose he drew
The sword that at the saddle's peak did hang.
As came the boar again, aloft it swang,
And with one sweep the severed head downfell.
Out came the hermit, in good time to view
That wondrous stroke, but with more care to see
The wound from which the life-blood leapt. "Good sir,
Come with me while ye may, for else must be
Thy dear life forfeit." But the pain he knew
Caused in the madman's heart wild wrath to stir.
With sword aloft and angered eyes he ran
At whom would friend him. When his weakened pace
Showed that he stumbled on a losing race,
He flung his sword, but that fell short. And so
The hermit of good heart advanced again.
"Fair sir," he said, "bethink, the boar is slain.
I do but seek to aid thee."
"Go thy way.
Slain am I, and I do but seek to slay."
But now a tramp of hooves the hermit heard.
To meet them down a forest path he ran.
A knight of honour rode before his train.
He met the runner with a shortened rein:
"What need impels thee?"
"Lord, the goodliest man
Mine eyes have seen hath slain a boar, but took
So deep a wound he dies unaided."
For aid is here."
Too weak Sir Lancelot lay
For further folly. To the hermitage
They bore him, where the good man nursed him well,
So that the deep wound healed, but sooth to tell
Was meagre diet for his strength's return.
Yet rose he at the last, and as before
He wandered, leaving with no thanks. He came
After long days to Corbin, naked, gaunt,
And crossed the bridge which once he rode to find
That which had snared him to the broken mind
Which now was vacant of its place and name.
He came again to Carbonac. But now
In the low street beneath the outer wall
A curious rabble jeered and chased, until
The madman turned with sudden lust to kill,
And the mob broke before him, scattering all.
Yet one he caught, and by the legs he flung
Among the fliers. Had that rout returned
Too closely, further of the wage they earned
They had been likely paid, but knights and squires,
Who from the wall had watched the evil chase,
Came forth for rescue. "Though his wits be lost,"
They said, "his worship yet our fence requires
For see the scars that line him! Wounds as those
Were taken in no life of soft repose.
And to outlast them all such victoring shows
As marks him mightiest."
In their guard he passed
The great scrolled gate, and in the yard they made
A strong-barred shelter. To such home at last
He came, where clean warm straw was round him laid,
And meat was thrown, and water brought. But who
Would venture close approach were bold and few.
There was a youth, a nephew of the king,
Who grew to years of knighthood. This degree
King Pellam, at the feast of Candelmas,
Bestowed upon him. With a bounty free,
Sir Castor, as he now was titled, gave
New robes to all who would.
The madman now,
Quietened by kindness, and by food restored,
Brought to the low foot of the festive board
By those who kept him, in such robe as clad
The guests around, such noble aspect had
In that fresh garb that all with wonder viewed.
"Here is such knight that, were his wits renewed,
And he were garnished with good arms," they said,
"As Gawain might avoid, or Lancelot dread."
But wits he had not. When the meal was through,
He wandered vaguely, as a dog would do,
From hall to garth, and as a dog would lie,
On the green sward he stretched adrowse. And so
Lay in the shadows when the sun was low,
When down the pathway came Elaine. "Is this,"
She asked her ladies, "he with wits amiss?"
And then she looked, and from her cheek the blood
Drew backward. Was it? Yet it could not be!
And yet it might, and was. "Abide ye here,"
She said, "but wake him not, nor draw ye near.
Wait my return."
King Pellam next she sought,
"Oh, father, for thine aid!"
"Mine aid is sure.
What would ye?"
"Lancelot in the garth is laid."
"I cannot think it."
"Yet my doubt is naught.
He is the fool we harbour."
"If thy mind
Be certain, hold thee still, and let me deal."
Then called he four of trust, the truth to find,
Dame Brisen with them, by her spells to aid
Should some black imp his crafty guise conceal
In that strange semblance.
Still Sir Lancelot slept
As thus they came, the while those ladies kept
Their distant watch. Dame Brisen looked, and said:
"It is Sir Lancelot, but his wits are shed.
Wake him not rashly lest his wrath we feel.
Stand back, and I will such enchantment use
That he will rouse not."
"Daughter," asked the king,
"How would ye rule him? Those their wits who lose
Are violent most to where before they clave."
"To mine own chamber bear him. Lose I more,
Betide what will, where all was lost before?
I will this venture prove, as Christ me save."
To that high room where Galahad's birth had been,
Borne witless thus, he on her bed was laid.
The bearers voided, and the door she barred,
And kneeling, weeping, at his side she prayed:
"Oh, Christ, Who sought the sinful! Lord," she cried,
"Hear me, who gladly for this knight had died,
Whom such strange curse (if not Thy work it were)
Doomed by bewitching guile his peace to snare.
My friend, my first love and my last, is laid,
Through my false scheming from his mind dismayed.
Restore him, though he slay me: though to me
His eyes be hateful, as his cause may be
Beyond condone to hate me. Lord, restore!
Though till I reach glad death's releasing shore
Our ways be sundered."
While she prayed, there came,
Intenser, and more soft than earthly flame,
Rose-light, with odours more than roses hold,
Haloing her hair, as never earthly crown
Makes splendour for a young queen's insolence.
Faltered her sight before that light intense,
As beating wings she heard, and lowlier down
She bent; nor owned she any thought so bold
As dared a lifted glance the Grail to view.
But soothly in her thankful heart she knew
Her prayer was gained, and where she knelt she sank
Sighing into sleep, for God's deep peace she knew,
Though the night entered as the Grail withdrew.
Sir Lancelot lifted eyes no madness held,
But yet were wildered. On a silken bed
His gauntness lay, and at his side there stood
King Pellam, and Elaine. "Fair lord," he said,
"For God's high mercy tell me where I be,
And how to here I came. For all to me
Is strange, and recollection void."
Gave answer: "Dear my lord, the worst to tell
I will not falter. Yet that all is well
Believe, and doubt not. Evil days are done.
But for four years, as one of wits bereft,
Since on a night you know the court you left,
You wild have wandered, making home with none,
Till hungered here you came, unkempt, unclad,
And shelter, though none knew you, here you had,
Until beneath mine eyes you came, and I
- Should I forget you? - to this chamber high
Conveyed you, where, last night, the Sacred Grail
Entered, and healed you."
"That you would not lie
My trust is sure. God's judgement falls too hard,
Deciding for me that I should not die;
And, lest with wit's return its use should fail,
Tell me how many of my plight are ware."
"All in these towers could well your weakness see,
But no man had a thought of whom you were,
Nor are they told today. Excepting we,
And Brisen, none hath known, and none shall know."
"There is no further need my name to show.
While will I rest to ponder what shall be,
And nurse the sores I feel, for now to me
Returns, with wits regained, their price of pain."
So for long weeks he lay, with slow regain
Of health, of vigour, and of comeliness.
Speaking few words; and those few words were less
Of lasting than immediate needs. And she
Waited, and hoped, and prayed for what would be.
Then, when Elaine, and none besides, was nigh
He spake his purpose: "Fair Elaine," he said,
"You will not soothly in your heart deny
That bitter travail and great wrong have I
Endured through thee. Nor would I stint to say
I wronged you once, when you at mercy lay,
With menace of the sword in wrath I drew.
Wrong had there been to me, but not from you.
But that a second time -!"
"You need not tell
The wrongs I did thee, which I know too well.
What wouldst thou?"
"Wilt thou to thy father go,
Reciting little of this count of woe,
Or urging largely, as thy suit may need.
And say that, through these haps, to Arthur's court
I may not further make mine old resort;
And hence his bounty with much cause I plead
To give me leave and space, that here I dwell
Lopped off from knowledge of my land and kind.
For should I Benoic seek, I know full well
My kin would follow, and the king would find
Such cleavage of the Table's strength as all
His foes would welcome. Not through me shall fall
So dark a shadow on a splendid day."
"Good lord," she answered, "wit ye well my sire
Will grant it gladly, with no hard require
Of reason or beseech. That here ye stay
Is our most hope. And all my life to thee
Is forfeit; and the largest joy for me
Were for thy gain to live, or else to die.
I think as lievely at this pass would I
By very loss of life my pardon buy,
If I might thus thy better life restore."
"It is beyond my worth such words to hear,"
He answered; and to one he held not dear
What better could be said?
She answered naught,
But in a place apart her sire she sought:
"Sir Lancelot would remain. He asks thy grace
To give him, for a long abiding place,
Some tower apart where he may nameless dwell."
"What is his wish to thee?"
"I like it well."
"You would go with him?"
"So I seek to do."
"So shall it be. For though his name be hid,
His presence at the last our praise shall be.
Bliat I grant him, with its seigniory.
And twenty chosen knights of good degree,
And thirty ladies of fair speech, that he
May soon be jocund in such company,
And turn belike his thoughts to none but thee."
So came it in few days that, garbed as though
Arrayed for festal or for tourney show,
A gay train from the gates of Carbonac
Rode outward in a clear pale dawn, and found
A frost of earliest autumn on the ground.
White were the furrowed fields, and fairer white,
With other blossoms than for spring's delight,
The hawthorn's leafless thickets bare and black.
So richly and so variously beseen
Were those bright ranks, they might in sooth have been
A train designed for grace of Arthur's queen,
And fair as dawn, though past her dawn was she,
Rode Pellam's loveless daughter, knee to knee
With him who sired her babe, her heart a song.
To whom but her did now his care belong?
Who but herself to serve his mood should be?
Would not insistent hours bring victory?
With their unchanging change of night and day
The love that may not by the love that may
Routed at last?... Far spread beneath them lay
A lowlier land, and where a water bent
Its circling arm, they saw the wide extent
Of Bliat, garth and tower.
Sir Lancelot said,
Gazing at that fair scene beneath him spread,
Frost-freed, and shining in the sun's low noon:
"King Pellam owed me not so large a boon.
Here surely may a life defeated dwell,
Thanking God's mercy, and contented well.
Though Joyous Garde again I may not see,
This shall be called the Joyous Isle for me,
Where I may rest me, with the past forgot."
So spake he to Elaine, but heeded not
Her eyes' glad answer. Like of mood was he
To one who takes a wound, before its pain
Throbs with hot impulse to its health regain.
"Fair lord," said Castor, to his side who came,
"Those towers they tell me shall be thine. Thy name
I fain would learn."
"I boast no name. To thee
I am the Knight Who Trespassed."
Thou art Sir Lancelot. Once I saw thee ride
In Camelot's lists."
"Fair sir, ye heard me say
My name to thee... But take this case: Suppose,
With privy cause enough, I seek to hide
My name from all. Suppose, as well ye may,
I am Sir Lancelot. Did thy vows profess
- Thy new-made knighthood's vows that gentlemen's
Or churlish ways should rule thy speech? Disclose
Of that which at the most thou canst but guess
Will bear no profit, nor will silence grieve.
Silence may serve thee well: but this believe,
Myself shall grieve thee, should thy speech betray."
"I seek thy pardon: more I will not say."
Fair faces, and soft speech, and bounteous ways
Were round Sir Lancelot through the winter days.
All sought his favour: all themselves deferred
To his least motion, or his casual word.
Elaine was servant to his moods, and he
Failed never in response of courtesy,
Nor ever answered in a warmer way.
But while long nights divided day from day,
And round those towers the siege of winter lay,
Whether the pale-gold dawn possessed the sky,
Or clouds rain-pregnant lowly drifted by,
Finding the turrets for their path too high,
Or loud winds ranged, or soft descending snow
Laid its white mantle on the courts below,
Sir Lancelot ever sought the tower which stood
Facing Logre, and to that distant realm
With longing gazed, as to his vacant mind
Old scenes assembled, till his eyes were blind
With tears unheeded.
One delight he had,
In his barred chamber, which intrude forbad,
A shield to paint. In vert and argent clad
A queen stood regnant, and a kneeling knight
Shone in bright steel thereon. All else was black.
So, for the arms a nameless knight must lack,
He made this fantasy, and showed thereby
That in his deepest heart the hope remained
Of love, of honour, and of life regained.
When the green land beneath a softer sky
Showed the bright triumph of expected spring,
Talk was there of a distant tourneying,
And Lancelot, longing that new shield to try,
Half thought to go, but put the purpose by.
How could he lodge among great knights, and not
Be seen of some, and known for Lancelot?
And sure it was that there such knights would be.
So for conceal a new device he tried.
Among the ladies there to mirth provide,
The youngest and the fairest and most fain
He asked: "Here would you through slow years remain,
Or some proved champion wouldst thou chose to wed?"
"I would in all things as thou wouldst," she said,
With brightening eyes, and wondering: Was it he?..
Nay, by that champion boast it could not be.
Then sent he trumpet to the tourney town
For loud proclaimed that who the road should ride
That passed the Joyous Isle at eventide,
Or at the prime of day, would find await
Such lance as likely would his pride abate.
But should he triumph through his greater might,
Were his, as ransom for a fallen knight
A trained ger-falcon; and for boon beyond
(If this he sought) a maiden fair and fond
For bride, not dowerless.
When this call was heard
Were many who for such fair game were stirred
A lance to break. The road to Joyous Isle
Soon lacked the silence of a lonely mile.
All came in buoyant hope: but soon were they
Who passed them on a more dejected way.
Rumour (but rumour lies) its total brought
To hundreds of good knights who came and went
To hope, and strive, and in full time repent
The bruises that they showed: the shame they bought.
But still (and here was wonder most) men said
No knight of all was maimed, and none was dead,
So were they cast to earth with tempered skill,
And she who was the tourney's prize remained
With fear unfronted, or with hope ungained.
Who through long years should seek Sir Lancelot still?
Most had long since returned their vacant way.
Not weak of will, nor faint of heart, were they.
But yet, their lives were theirs. Should all be spent
Because one knight was lost? And likeliest he
Wildered of wits, or dead, as well might be?
The courtly life of feast and tournament,
Of love's unlifting strife, of jape and play,
Resumed its fashion, as the smoothing sea
Closes above the lost wreck's mystery,
Till the last ripple sinks to rest.
Sought with no ceasing. One his vow to keep,
And one by love constrained. Far kingdoms through,
And lordless wilds they searched. No vale so deep,
No land so hostile, and no hill so high,
But these, Sir Ector and Sir Percival,
Who now together rode, the chance would try.
So came they to the Joyous Isle at last,
And might have passed it, being, as they were,
On the far margin of that water fair
Which round it curved a bridgeless arm, but there,
Across the stream, a damsel rode, who cast
A falcon loose to take some fancied prey.
It was their ever use to ask. They cried:
"Is there no ford to pass the water wide?
Wilt say who in those noble towers may dwell?"
She answered: "List ye not? I thought that all
Had heard our challenge. Come ye not to fall
As others daily do? Myself the prize,
Which none has thews, or maybe heart to win."
"Damsel," Sir Ector said, "such prize to gain
Should all be valiant. Surely dwells herein
A champion to surpass belief."
That he shall tame ye both, but leave unslain.
For such the strength he has; and such the whim."
"Damsel, it were our choice to speak with him,
But this broad stream withholds us."
"Would ye so?
The river curves three sides these towers around.
But somewhat leftward will a barge be found
To bear ye over to the tourney-ground,
With steeds and gear."
So to the gate they came.
"A single knight we cannot both oppose,
And by our count this bout belongs to me."
So said Sir Percival.
"And him to shame,"
Sir Ector answered, "should thy pastime be.
For I have learnt to more condole thy foes
Than doubt the sureness of thy victory."
"It is not of myself, but God in me."
"I doubt it naught. But when the bout is through,
What will ye with your captived damsel do?"
"I seek to loose her from such bonds."
She wears them lightly."
Now the porter spake:
"Ye seek to joust? There is a yard within
Which knights may enter who a lance would break
Against the castle's lord, and who shall win
Shall a ger-falcon and a maiden take.
But should they tumble, naught he asks, and they
Rise from the straw-strewn ground, and ride away."
"How many have there been such falls to meet?"
"I do not count so high. But sure defeat,
The while my master rides, each course will be."
"I will desire him of his courtesy
A single course to ride."
"He waiteth now."
Wide was the courtyard, and around it rose
High tiers of seats, with awnings roofed, for those
Whose mirth it was each fresh defeat to view.
Here came a knight whose shield was none that knew.
White was it only, with a cross of red.
"Is here a knight of bold approach," they said,
"A young knight surely, whom a gentle fall
Will harm not. Gentle is our lord to all,
As he is matchless in his strength and skill.
... Behold what pace they raise!"
They crashed, and lo!
Rolled steed and knights in one great overthrow,
For the strong spears had held.
Sir Lancelot rose
Wrothed at a fall he had not thought to meet.
Out came a sudden sword in ireful heat.
Should this young knight his hardened strength oppose?
One blow should bring him to a suppliant knee.
But rose Sir Percival as light as he.
Against the naked sword his own was bare.
Equal they countered in the whistling air,
And furious stroke by furious stroke was met.
Now foot to foot and shield to shield was set,
By those alike surprised such might to feel.
The murmuring galleries wondered to behold,
Such blows their shields sustain: such blows they deal.
But blows reiterate dealt on helm and shield
Will break their strength at last, and mail will yield.
Blood dimmed the brightness of their harness now.
The breathless tiers were silent, doubting how
Such strife its tragic end should find.
Sir Percival stept a pace. "Fair knight," he said,
"Never before so great a strength I met.
I would not slay thee while thy name I lack."
"I have no name. I am the Knight who Fell.
But, ere, I break thy pride, thy name to tell
I charge thee likely."
"That I lightly will.
I am a brother of Sir Aglovale.
Sir Percival de Galis."
"Woe is me!
Nameless I am, but of our Table still,
And I have wounded whom my care should be
To friend and succour, as our vows require.
But the red roses had I known."
The Cross for Christ: the white for chastity.
But I must charge thee by the vows we share,
Alike by things which are, and all things which were,
Thy rightful name to tell."
"So charged by thee,
I tell it. Leaning on thy courtesy
To hold it secret. Benoic's lord am I:
"Largelier I alas! May say.
For I have sought thee while four years went by,
And now was near the one I sought to slay,
..... Sir Ector waits without.... I lowly plead
"Rather I thy pardon need.
For I was first the needless sword to draw,
Wrothed by my fall."
Sir Ector came, and made
Such weeping joy when whom he sought he saw
That pity was it to behold.
Elaine that in short time such feast be laid
As not those towers had seen. Such mirth they had
Through the next days as words are weak to say,
As in good converse, and in jest and play
The swift hours passed; the while Sir Ector pled
That his true name, and rightful place, anew
Should Lancelot take. "Bethink the fame," he said,
"That once was thine. Bethink how great support
Thou wast to Arthur. None of all his court,
Even Sir Gawain and his ruthless kin,
But mourned thy loss. Thy queen's continual grief
Abates not with the years, and finds relief
Only in thought that we are searching still;
Now may new life with better hope begin,
For, in thy absence, all thy worth have weighed
As men will tale the great deeds of the dead;
And the high measure of the price she paid
For her false anger at a deed misread
Must tame the moods that irked thee. Should I so
Urge one whom most I love, except I know?"
"Brother, I thought not, till my time were through,
To thus return. Nor have I heart to do
That which thou wouldst. Yet will I not deny
The love which sought me these four years should give
Good counsel. Here I neither die nor live.
And if I live not there, I can but die."
This heard Elaine with sorrow-blinded eyes,
Though well she knew that naught she lost, for naught
Was hers to lose. "Dear lord," she said, "to me,
Through whom, beyond my fault, thy woes arise,
Thou hast been gracious ever. When the cost
Of our much travail from thy heart shall be
Belittled by the joys of days ahead,
Still shall its gain endure. I think to send,
At this next Pentecost, to Arthur's court,
Galahad, who is thy child as mine, for he
Nears to the age of knighthood."
"Do thy will.
And may God's grace sustain him."
"Doubt not that.
Foremost of all his kin, excepting thee,
He will be surely."
"If he be no less,
He will not shame us."
Through the lengthening days,
Southward they rode a rapid pace. Delays
For restful loitering in the woodland ways,
Or jocund feasting at some friendly tower,
Sir Lancelot would not dure. So much the hour
He longed the royal city's gates to see,
As oft from wild far ventures seen had he
Returning lone, of change and loss to hear,
And gains of honour, and to meet anew
Those who had scattered in the earlier year.
So much his heart recalled. But not the fear
That this occasion held. Yet half his dread
Was causeless. Swiftly though they rode, there spread
A swifter rumour. Wide the gates were flung.
Scarcely their chargers through the cheering press
Slow way could make to where, his knights among,
And queens and ladies in such festal dress
As royal banquet fits, King Arthur sate,
As for a monarch's greeting throned await.
This had the queen contrived, that all should be
Controlled and public at his first return,
And that in no way as ashamed should he
Rejoin her, or the court; or those should learn
Who knew not now, or guess, how deep the pit
That snared him, or herself the cause of it.
So as from wandering long in alien ways,
As oft he had - though less the length - before,
Hailed was he.
But King Arthur spake apart:
"I know thee and thy moods of silence well.
I would not urge for that thou wouldst not tell.
Yet may I, as our friendship prompts, surmise
That in Elaine's caprice thy torture lies,
Seeing that in past years thy babe she bore,
And that her coming, and abrupt depart
Were at the moment when we looked in vain
To find thee? This I know my queen believed,
And she so greatly for thy grief was grieved
That all she roused to seek thee."
"Lord and friend,
Whatever folly in my life hath lain,
A price which none may change and none may mend
I paid, and likely shall increase to pay.
Ask me no more."
"I ask no more than this:
By Ector's word you came from Carbonac.
Noise is there that thy son doth no way lack
Valour and grace and strength that none should miss,
Being so mothered and so sired."
He may in all excel me."
"Should he so,
No greater marvel would our Table know.
The Challenge Of The Grail.
Those long slow years that Lancelot's life had scarred
From blows abusive that the witless meet,
More swiftly in the peace of Joyous Garde
Fulfilled their course. And in that fair retreat
Could love and peace the shadows past forget:
The night which comes to all was distant yet.
All summer seasons end: all suns will set.
But when high noon the thought of night denies
Shall be no joyance for the golden skies?
Or wherefore should blind night their loss regret?
And quiet passed the days, with seldom word
Of peril, or great deed, or summoning
Of Arthur's lieges to his court, and they,
Iseult and Tristram, by Sir Lancelot's grace
Who dwelt in Joyous Garde secure, could play
In its fair woodlands, which no discord heard.
So passed the days that love made short, and night
Shorter by content of more deep delight
Found in some fair pavilion's sheltered rest
While yet reluctant sunset lit the west,
Till waked they to the morning's misty blue
Before the summer dawn had lit the dew.
For through those years of Lancelot's loss, the king,
Even when they who searched with weary dole,
One after one, from barren wandering
Rejoined the court, was heartless to control
Lethargic days to livelier ends. It seemed
As though they turned in drowsing sleep, and dreamed
Of great things past, but less of things to be.
For what remained? In Arthur's peace secure
Slept the wide realm. Of settled empire sure,
What trumpet roused him now? And those who still
Linked the strong circle of his might, could they
For ever the returning tourney day
Welcome afresh? Each knight, to deal or dure,
Knew all he could and all he could not do,
And if some knights excelled him, more or few,
Why should he lust to prove his loss anew?
But now that Lancelot had his place regained,
The king, as one who wakes from dreams too deep,
And looks around with wildered eyes, aware
Of life around him which he does not share,
Refreshed belike by that lethargic sleep
Was active to assert his throne anew.
Soon through the land the joyous trumpets blew
Which told of tourney in such style designed
That none so great but here he fame might find,
And none so naked in his own esteem
But there some prospect of applause might seem,
Joined in strong ranks. And in the after days
Should not such presence be a lasting praise?
Now when the word in Joyous Garde was said
Of that great tourney call that Arthur sent
Wide through the land; and how were there-ward bent
All knights in easeful peace too long that lay,
Rose Tristram lightly; fain of heart was he
Again from rest his garnered strength to try,
And friends rejoined of older days to see,
And various tales to change; and thought he there,
From that strong tower's secure, in Mark's despite,
And scorn of envious spears, in all men's sight,
Iseult, his lawless, peerless prize to bear,
Where all a kingdom showed of worth and fair
Should meet; and light he spake: "This tourney cry,
Comes as the fall of bars to captives held
At hindered ransom long. For joys whate'er
We here have proved, and thank Lord Lancelot's care,
These towers that lent, our larger mirth shall be
Once more clear skies and open wold to see,
Around us and before."
She answered: "Nay,
I go not there. For I have seen thereby
That larger burden on thy lance is laid
Than else had been. Marked art thou ever for me.
But ride thou single, and the envious glance
That deems me prize of any fortuned lance
Molests no more."
He answered: "Save with thee,
I will not there."
"Now God defend!" she said,
"What shame is here among all knights? For dead
Far liever were I, and my love forgot,
Than thou, when Percival shows, and Lancelot,
And his great kin foregathered, and Orkney's might,
Found absent, and the word be laughed: 'He lies
In idle dalliance, and his lady's eyes
More lure him than the tourney.' O my knight,
How should thine ease endure the emptier day?
What to my shame might queens and ladies say?"
And in some space he answered: "Well I wot,
Ye counsel nobly, and who loved me not,
Or loved me lightlier, had not willed as thou.
Loth am I to leave thy side, and loth that now
We should not blithe to this high feast repair,
As, in the unthinking chanceful days that were,
Where most we would, for all men's wrath, we went.
Nor think I yet my younger strength is spent
So far, I might not hold thee at ease. But lo!
Time changeth all, with ceaseless tide and slow,
And soundless in the night, that not we know
When the flood turns. Thyself shalt choose, and more
To serve thy peace, I will not ride as yore,
Armed at device, and in full steel arrayed,
As offering war; but shield and lance and blade
Bear only, that no mailed knight that sees me so
Shall strife intend, except more base he were
Than likely might to this great feast repair,
And that God wills shall chance me.
"Thus may rest
My strength untried for this high tourney test
The king hath called. But think not there I bide
More long than need, a lonely path who ride,
And all beside of dearer joys forgo."
Leaving the girth of Joyous Garde, as he
Who leaves restraints of youthful years to know
Full freedom, blithely did Sir Tristram go,
From those too-restful years again to see
Camelot's wide lists bethronged, and dazzling gay
With burnished steel, and feathered crests, and glow
Of blazoned shields that in their bright array
Were gules and or and argent, vert and blue.
Such vision filled his mind, the while he knew
The bare length of the sunlit road, and waved
Farewell to those who lined the wall, Iseult
Among them foremost. While around him drew
Four knights, full-armed, her care had sent to be
His escort. Truly though he laughed to see,
He spake not till the southward-bending road
Hid the high towers, but then he reined, and said:
"Return ye now, and tell my queen that I
May yet with safety on my lance rely
At any wayside chance; and should the need
For helm and mail arise, my squires are near
With all her care hath furnished. Be your heed
Herself to guard; for rather there than here
May hard occasion rise."
To this control
They bent, and to Iseult returned, while he
To laughter half, and half to wrath inclined:
'Thinks she the years have spent my strength? Perde!
Who cometh next my naked arm may find
Sufficient answer to his boast will be.'
So mooded, onward from the open plain
Through the deep woods he rode, which now the spring,
Ever reversed and ever lord again,
Made gaily loud with love's gay tourneying
Among the bud-green boughs.
But song was still,
And steel rang harshly, as they came to where
Two knights contended. One with strengthless skill,
Delaying that he could not change: and one
Down-raining tireless blows that would not spare
Until - but instant now the strife was done.
Down sank the weaker knight, and he that won
Advanced his sword against his throat; but loud
Sir Tristram hailed him: "Nay, thou Paynim proud!
It is not thine a Table knight to slay."
Sir Palomides turned: "Then must he plead
For mercy, or by knighthood's general law - "
But stopped he in midspeech at whom he saw.
"Sir Tristram -"
"Sir Tristram, nay.
Thy rescue of my life shall blows repay?
I do not lightly in two years forget."
"The times my mind recalls are longer yet.
We have so ancient and so large a score
That well may blows relieve it."
While he spake
He turned toward his squire, a lance to take,
Addressed his shield, and on the Paynim bore.
Sir Palomides well the onslaught met
With shield alone, and lance which turned away
From one unmailed, whose failure death should pay.
Nor was he thrown thereby, for Tristram's lance
In splinters leapt.
"Art mad?" The Paynim cried.
But hard on helm Sir Tristram's sword replied.
Sir Palomides thought: 'If all I dure,
Steel is not constant, and the end is sure.
Or should I all return the most I may,
What shame were mine a naked knight to slay?
Who should believe I had no choice?'
"Sir Tristram, ere this bitter strife we try,
Wilt thou, in God's name, give one true reply
To but one question?"
"Surely that will I."
"I ask thee: wert thou in thine armour clad,
And I nor helm, nor greaves, nor hawberk had,
Wouldst thou consent to slay me thus?"
So must my word condemn myself? Let be.
I was not knightly in my thought. But I
Planned it not thus, who did not count to die,
But prove my valour to thy likelier fall....
If the hurt knight will lend his arms, we yet
May deal full quittance, or in death forget."
Then looked he to Sir Gallison, who lay
Sore-bruised, hard-breathing, well content that they
In their new bicker turned their thoughts away
From one who else had failure's price to pay.
"Take all thou wilt," he said, "with only care
That gently are the laces loosed; for I
Am hurt most sorely."
With this free consent,
Sir Tristram's squires above the fallen bent,
And stripped him of his arms, and Tristram there
They dressed therein, who found, with good content,
That they were ample for his need. And so
Was strife resumed. Not oft did Tristram know
Such strong assail as he must counter now.
Nor ever did Sir Palomides meet
Other who faced him with no foot's retreat,
And would no moment's feinting pause allow.
But backward Palomides stepped at last.
His shield was cleft, his hawberk overcast
With dusky slurs; and Tristram moved with pain,
Side-wounded: "Do we fight to death?"
Till thou shalt yield thee as a recreant knight,
Or else to death."
The Paynim raised again
A weary sword; but Tristram's tireless might
Smote it from out his hand, at which they stood
Silent alike. For thought Sir Tristram: 'Nay,
No heart is mine a swordless knight to slay.'
And Palomides: "I were rightly slain
If I should motion to the sword regain."
Then Tristram stepped a backward pace, and said:
"I will not slay thee thus. The sword retrieve.
So may we fairly strive till one be sped."
But Palomides answered: "By thy leave,
I will not, till ye hear me. Not to thee
Was ever mine offence so great but yet
We might have friendship, and the past forget.
How have I wronged thee? That Iseult I love
I have not cloaked. But she is raised above
All other ladies in so great degree
That all should worship. If myself I won
Some meed of honour, other cause was none
But all through her. Yet never aught offence
Against her person have I made. Through me
No lessened tribute to her name shall be.
Her seldom friendly, ever distant eyes
Have never met mine own in carnal wise.
To give thee comfort, or thy safety guard,
For me no shame so low, no fall so hard,
But she had seen it with a sure content.
"To thee alone my past offence hath been,
And if thy failure or thy loss I meant,
Sore blows have paid it.... More than that, through thee
First was I brought the light of Christ to see,
When thou didst rescue who had wrought thee wrong.
I ask thy pardon, through whose grace I live."
"Yea, I forgive thee, as may God forgive."
Gone was the crocus-gold of earliest spring,
When came God's challenge. Gone from Arthur's heart
Its first high impulse? When he walked apart,
As oft he would, upon a weakened wing
Rose the old vision, which its dream had wrought,
Godlike, to splendid life from procreant thought?
The noon is not the morn. At noon to rest
May even zeal incline, to rise refresht
To lift the burden of the later day.
Droned the last years. But who from that could say
That those long-venturous knights would drouse unstirred
If the high trumpets of God's hosts were heard?
Ever at Pentecost had Arthur made
Good feast, and gathering of his knights, to see
The shining fullness of their ranks arrayed,
And others choose of good report, to be
Heirs to the seats that fatal chance had left
Claimless, since at the previous year they met.
And when the noon came, and the board was set,
He would the banquet in suspense delay
Till some high deed was heard, or marvel came
To lift from meaner thoughts that holiest day.
But now the fair concourse of knight and dame,
Princes and kings and lords and damsels bright,
Gathered around, and naught of song or sight
Or tale of wonder came; and asked Sir Kay,
Before he signalled that the feast be set:
"Dost thou the custom of past years forget?"
And the king answered: "Very truth to say,
Such joy in Lancelot's safe return I have
That other marvel had I failed to need."
Then spake Guenever: "Dost thou fail to heed
His place is vacant? Yestereve there came,
Hard-riding through the failing light, a dame
Who sought his aid. Her cause she would not name;
But when I asked him: 'Wilt thou leave us thus,
The feast so near?' She swore an oath to bind
That he should join us at this hour.
Sir Lancelot entered. "Hadst thy place with us
Again been vacant, such a loss to find
We must again abroad our best have sent."
So Arthur spake, and Lancelot answered: "Lord,
Such mission drew me as would none repent;
And soon occasion will this feast afford
For search diviner than for mortal knight."
For Lancelot, riding through the early night
With her who sought him in that secret way,
Was brought to halt where, in the moon's low light,
An abbey on a lake's dark margin lay.
Dame Brisen said: "In this retreat is he
Who must be knighted, and by only thee."
"I doubt it largely."
"Yet by God's decree
Must all be fashioned."
While they spake there came
Those who with reverence heard Sir Lancelot's name,
And led him inward to a chamber fair
Wherein the Abbess sate, and welcome there
She gave, with seemly words; and entered then
Twelve nuns, and in their midst a youth was seen
Not often equalled among earthly men
In strength, in beauty, or in gentle mien.
"Sir," said they all, "this child of thine should be
By thy hand knighted, and by none but thee;
For like in all he is, as all may see."
"That," said Sir Lancelot, "may high God forbid."
Yet here was likeness which no difference hid.
It was as though himself he saw: the same
From the clear mirror of the lake who came.
Without the weakness, and without the sin,
Galahad was there again: a name forgot
In the high fame and faults of Lancelot.
So separate were they, and so close akin.
He looked and loved. "To knighthood take from me
Is thy free choosing? Then it so shall be.
Watch through the night; and with the morn thy will
Shall be mine also, and may God fulfil
His purpose in thee."
"Wilt thou with me ride?"
Next morn Sir Lancelot asked his knighted son.
But Galahad answered: "Nay, I here abide
Some further hour with cause of weight."
Am pledged to stay not."
So, ere noon had won
Its regnant height, Sir Lancelot came again
Where through the crowded hall arose a cry:
"Behold a marvel!" For that single seat
Beside Sir Percival's, that long had lain
Vacant and feared through Merlin's warning, now
Bore a bright scroll that no man there had set.
'Behold,' it read, 'the tale of years complete.
Four hundred-fifty-four since Christ our debt
Cancelled, and rose triumphant. Such the day
Destined to see this siege possessed.'
Sir Lancelot said, "is as the scroll's protest.
The time, and closely God's elect, are here.
Yet, that no doubt on such occasion rest,
I counsel that silken pall be cast
To hide that scroll until the hour be past,
Or God's set purpose to all eyes be clear."
So was it done, the while the board asteam
Drew all toward their rightful seats, when loud
A squire, who hustled through the doorway crowd
Of servitors who came and went, and they
Who must the choice of lowlier seats delay
Till all of worth were placed, a marvel cried:
"Lord, past believing, at the waterside,
Anear to where thy royal barge is tied,
A huge stone floats, as though but ice it were.
And in the stone a sword is thrust, as though
It were but nature there for steel to go."
"This will I see," and all arose to share
The feast-day wonder. Crowding to the shore
They found that truth was told. Of marble red
The floating stone: the sword, bright-hilted, bore
A scroll that all who bent might read. It said:
'Let those who touch me for themselves beware.
The world's best knight my waiting sheath doth bear.
To others should I prove a wounding dread.'
To Lancelot said the king: "The sword is thine.
Heaven with us joins thy glad return to bless."
But Lancelot answered: "Nay, it is not mine.
His shall it rather be whose guilt is less;
Who see'th as the pure in heart may see
The Heavenward path. It is not meant for me."
"Wilt thou?" King Arthur next to Gawain said.
"Shall all be daunted by this proofless dread?"
Sir Gawain grasped it with good heart, and strove
Some while, and strongly, but he did not stir.
Slowly reluctant did he loose its hilt.
"Fair lord," Sir Lancelot said, "that sword hath spilt
Not only blood of those whose helms it clove
Or harness pierced; but words of worth aver
That who hath held it hath its curse sustained
Even to death. For while his end it gained
It ever turned it to a course perverse.
No man who wields it may avoid its curse,
Till to the hand it seeks at last it come."
"I did it only at our lord's desire,"
Sir Gawain answered, and the king replied:
"I much repent it. Yet to leave untried
So bold a challenge would the shame require
Of those around me who unequalled stand
In the wide circuit of the Christianed land.
My hope is in Sir Percival." And he
Gave seemly answer: "Though I think to be
Sir Gawain's comrade in a failing test,
I will not shrink to share his danger so."
Lightlier he grasped the shining hilt, as though
He knew no mortal strength that sword should wrest
Consentless from its sheath of stone; and then
As lightly loosed it. "Better knight than I
This sword shall win."
Was none had lust to try
Where Gawain failed and Percival; and all
Had Lancelot's warning heard. The vacant hall,
Where the meats cooled along the board, again
"Now may we eat in peace, Sir Kay,
For we have seen the wonder," said the king,
Not guessing what the coming hour should bring
Of larger portent. More he did not say,
For every casement there, and every door
Closed wholly of itself, and not as though
Violenced by gust of wind, but smooth and slow.
And yet the hall was lighted as before
By noonday's natural use; and when they raised
Their doubtful eyes this marvel to regard,
They saw two entered whom they did not know.
A man of reverend years, and whitely clad,
White bearded: at his side a youth he had
In arms of shining steel, but bare of head,
And with an ermined cloak of sendal red,
And swordless hung a sheath against his side.
"It is in peace we come," the old man said.
"King Pellam sent me, this young knight to guide
To that which waits him here. By him shall be
Great marvels in this realm, from sea to sea,
And in far lands accomplished."
While he spake,
The youth toward the vacant siege he led,
And raised the hiding cloth, and there was writ:
'Sir Galahad on this day this siege shall take.'
And when the young knight had accepted it,
He said full meekly: "Sir, your part is done.
Return ye to my grandsire's towers, and say
That I will do all as best I may,
Till the high moment when the goal be won.
But I shall see them on a sooner day."
Thereon the doors swung wide, and all men saw
Gathered without, but in no fier of war,
A score of mounted knights, and twice a score
Of squires and varlets who their harness bore,
With burnished steel and royal purple gay.
This troop the old man joined, and rode away
The while all eyes were turned on Galahad,
In doubt, in marvel, or in generous wise.
But he of friendly or of envious eyes
Regardless seemed, as one whose thoughts were far,
As the high dreamings of God's servants are.
When that fair feast was done, King Arthur said:
"Young knight, the sword you lack may not be far,
Come with me."
To the floating stone he led,
With knights and ladies in a following throng.
"This sword most noble knights have failed to win,
Yet shouldst thou venture."
Galahad answered: "Yea,
Was little marvel that they failed therein.
For this good sheath doth to the sword belong,
And till I found it must I all delay.
It once was Balyn's bane, to bring to naught
All good he purposed, till at last he fought
Whom most he cherished, to be slain and slay.
But that was when despair alone he knew,
So that the cover of God's shield withdrew."
Lightly he won it from the stone away.
"Thine is the sword; but yet a shield you lack."
"That also must I wait."
The queen nearby;
Who watched and heard, contently thought: 'By this
The truth of that old tale of gramarie,
Which I have doubted long, at last I see.
His child he is. But yet poor fool was I
To take it wrothly as a deed amiss.
It was my name that lured him; but the deed
Before Sir Balyn died had fate decreed.'
...... "Lancelot," she said, "I doubt it naught that he
Of Pellam's sacred line, and sired by thee,
Will be our greatest. All must change at last.
Yet that I live to see thy fame surpassed
I had not feared till now."
"To call it fear
Were to give hope a different name. And I,
Whatever to thy gracious thought appear,
Was never greatest."
Arthur said: "The year
With change is pregnant. Here at Pentecost
Each season meet we in full strength, or less
By those made captive, or in danger lost.
Most will be here; and any seats left bare
With younger knights alike in worthiness
We to full tale the broken ring repair.
But much I doubt of whom again I see,
Or that from now our gathered strength shall be
That which it hath been, and it is today.
And therefore will I that, while light shall last,
In one more tourney, in our customed way,
We break good spears, as never more we may."
So was it done. The sudden lists were set
In the near meadow. Orkney Orkney met,
And Benoic Benoic, in such friendly wise
As was high joyance to King Arthur's eyes,
Seeing their might, their valour, and their skill,
And their full number - numbering one the more
Than the full Table's count had taled before.
For Galahad, though as yet no shield he bore,
Entered among them, and his maiden spear
So well was guided that few knights were here
Who were not worsted. Foul Sir Ector fell,
Griflet, and Agravain, and Lionel;
And even Tristram, when a course he tried,
Felt his steed falter, and was wroth to rise
From ground seldom felt, though, sooth to say,
His own strong spear had turned its point away
From one no shield who showed. But Lancelot
And Percival Sir Galahad did not meet.
So that fair game was played till eventide,
And in the heart of Arthur fear and pride
Contended as he watched. For this bright scene
But for his vision not on earth had been,
And in the changing that doth all confound
Might not again be seen on earthly ground.
Yet were it for this hour by God designed?
To grow, to scatter, and the Grail to find,
And so redeem a world before that fell?
Or would black failure all his dreams dispel?
With seats left vacant, and the empty shell
Of his feared Table left for heathen feet
To trample? Doubting thus, the crowded street,
His queen beside him, and behind the press
Of kings and ladies and bold knights, he rode,
In the great minster to his fault confess,
And pray for that high faith by God bestowed
On those who serve Him with no thought that they
Rule the fair issue; but His Word obey.
Then from the minster to the court again,
Their even service done, the glittering train
Returned, and for the closing meal resumed
Their customed seats. The cresset torches lit
The loud thronged board, and all the length of it
Showed myriad-hued, the while the high roof gloomed,
And the tall-windowed walls, and all thereon
Of painted records and of garnishing,
Beyond the region of the torches bright.
Till with a sudden wave of thundering,
Such as no tempest of torn skies would bring,
Through that high-galleried gloom, toward the king,
Slant through the hall, a beam of blinding light
Intenser sevenfold than the sunlight shone.
Voiceless they gazed thereon, while king and knight,
Each to the seeming of his comrades' sight,
Showed godlier than themselves they were, as though
Revealed as God had meant them, or as though
Their baser selves that light denied.
Down the slant beam a vision of flame in flame,
Wing-folded. Down that shaft of light there slid,
Borne of no visible hands, the Grail unsought.
Nearby it passed them, but the close wings hid
The unendurable glory: thus they brought
The holy vessel, and veiled it. Twice it passed
Down the long hall, and was not; and the light
Not faded, but withdrawn. The hall remained
Silent awhile, till Arthur spake: "We well
Our Lord may thank of this revealing sight.
Witness of how He loosed the gates of Hell
With travail that our dear salvation gained."
Cool and unfearful, as a pilot heeds
The signs of tempest in a clouding sky,
Sir Gawain watched. Should Benoic only try
This strange adventure? That which Lancelot leads
Should Orkney follow? Nay, should all Logre?
Would they good counsel take, and all abide?
Or would they choose at Lancelot's call to ride,
Leaving him only? Or, for Orkney's name,
Would he, though laggard, make his choice the same,
As one, though last, by good example led?
Better it were to make the first protest,
And lead, not follow, on this scapeless quest.
"Now will I swear before High God," he said,
"That from next morn a twelve month save a day
The Grail I seek by any wild or way
That may dispose it to our sinful sight,
Or longer at good need. Yet if shall be
That such high sight I may not reach to see,
I will return as one who may not change
The will of Heaven therein."
Like oath to swear
Rose with one impulse all who heard. Arose
The Table knights as one that quest to share
In bold assertion. Only Tristram thought:
'Were I of worth so great a goal to dare,
Which well I know I am not, even so
My word is given, and I would not go.'
"Gawain," King Arthur said, "so strait a vow
May no man break, and therefore fallen now
Is all I live for, or I hoped to see.
God knoweth how ye all are dear to me.
For in fair fellowship and knightly ways
Not in the whole world's space your like can be.
Now must I for a year of silent days
Wait for I know not what, the while I gaze
On seats left empty, and my queen and I
Doubt of how many in strange wilds shall die;
For those who follow where the Grail shall lead
Must neither distance shrink, nor danger heed.
This is God's challenge, not of mortal kind,
And if beyond all hope the Grail ye find,
Will it return our common life to bless?
I know not, and ye know not. Yet for less
We might have called the road too steep to try.
There must our prayers be set."
The night went by
With little thought of sleep, so much to do,
So much to feel there was, so much to say,
Where ladies pleaded for their lords to stay,
Or showed not that they felt, because they knew
The code of honour. Some would plead to ride
Through any dangered ways their lords beside,
And when rejected from this hope (for none,
A holy hermit ruled, such quest who took,
Might so be solaced, or with longing look
For lewd occasions of strange ways, but shun
All earthly pleasure) bitter partings came.
Was loyal faith contemned? Was wedlock shame?
Was this the issue of the comrade years?
Some fell to open wrath, and some to tears.
And some, reproachless, showed how love can gain
Its fairest triumphs when its hopes are slain.
Morn came regardless of that night of woe,
A cloudless radiance from the east, as though
All heaven gladdened that such quest should be.
But Arthur wept so many knights to see
Drest in bright arms, though helmless yet, for they
Would first before the minster altar pray
God's guidance where they rode. "Oh, Lancelot,"
He said, "thy counsel was not wont to fail.
Can naught to save us from this loss avail?"
And Lancelot answered: "If our hearts forgot
The vows we uttered, wouldst thou praise us?"
I know not. But I have no heart to say
Aught but lament."
"Yet is thy comfort clear.
For honour's path is ours. And die we here
Or in some distant land, and die we now
Or when age finds us in some distant year,
All are we sure of death. It is but how
And where it meets us. And thy Table's name
May find in this fair quest its loftiest fame."
"Lancelot, regard not how I spake, for I
So well have loved thee and my knights: so long
Hath this old custom held, that round me throng
The truest, noblest, of our land: that now,
Seeing them lost by this dividing vow,
My sorrow wronged me."
While they spake, the queen
Had Galahad met. With searching eyes she scanned
One who much trouble to her life had been,
And whom, till then, she had not closely seen.
"You came," she asked him, "from a distant land?"
"Madam, from Corbin."
"Thou art Lancelot's son?"
He answered naught to that.
"God's life!" Said she,
"No shame is here. The goodliest knight is he
In all known realms, and in those realms is none
Of such high record, nor of ancestry
Nobler or knightlier. If thy deeds accord,
Are few men living but should call thee lord."
The while she spake he felt her glance explore
All that he was, with seeking wit to see
What there of Lancelot or Elaine might be,
For hate, or tolerance, or reluctant love.
Graceful and slender in his strength was he,
Fearless of aspect though demure as dove.
He felt the challenge that appraised him so,
And somewhat troubled and abashed thereby,
He answered: "Madam, if so much ye know,
Why ask me? Naught I said, and naught deny.
Born only for one single end was I,
As all have told me. That must surely be.
Nor aught beyond, nor aught beside I see."
She turned, and to her chamber went, and there
Found little comfort in such frenzied prayer
As Heaven impeached, and turned aside to blame
Consort and lover that this parting came.
Should Arthur thus consent his knights to lose?
More that her love this quest should Lancelot choose,
Having returned so few short days before?
Short joy, that ended in a change of woe!
Then Lancelot entered: "Sweet, I could not go
Without thy favour." Leapt her words thereat
In scourging fury: "Didst thou think of me,
When Gawain led thee to so wild a vow?
Four years apart! - and then one night! - and now
Again we sever! Dost thou care? Or grieve
That Arthur naked to his foes ye leave?
The whole Round Table empty? Death to me,
And Arthur's ruin shall thy treason be."
"My queen," he said, "for love's dear sake I pray
That with less bitter words I ride away.
Be not displeased that what I must I do.
Believe that ever shall my thoughts to you
Look back with longing till my steps I turn
Hereward again, the first glad hour I may
"Of thy love, forgive!
Oh, Lancelot, only in thy life I live.
Alas that ever in this world we met!
All but my sorrow - but my love - forget.
May He who for our sinful race was slain
Be thy good conduct, to return again
As late thou didst when nearly hope was dead.
So will I pray, and not alone for thee,
But all alike who wander.... Nay, let be!
Nay, leave me now, lest other words be said."
She heard of steel on stone the echoing tread
Receding down the stair. She sank her head
In cushions green as spring, and brightly gay
With braiding gold, and as she wept she thought:
'What hope remains? Few knights shall likelier win
The Grail of God. But would he here resort
Thereafter, or reject so dear a sin?
Shall love be traitor to itself, and pray
That alien triumph shall its rites betray?'
She sought for Arthur, where her comfort lay,
For half he guessed at that would neither say,
And half forgave, for both he loved, nor thought
They wronged him, as they did, in carnal sort;
And here was grief to share.
The king she met
Returning from the gate. "Such sight to see
- A hundred knights and fifty scattering wide -
Except at call of war, I had not thought.
Now must we hold," he said, "an empty court
Of ladies only, till at last we learn
What broken remnant to their seats return."
Thereat he wept, and common grief allied
Their separate hearts, for well she shared the pride
That in the concourse of his knights he had.
And in the outer streets, while this was said,
As the last knight on that far venture sped
Slowly dispersed a silent crowd and sad.
Four days Sir Galahad, whom no shield belonged,
Rode a straight way, and no man turned him. Then,
Unperilled, and of good heart adventurous,
When closing night his further pathway wronged,
An Abbey White he saw. Short halt was here
At parleying port. His name, with welcome cheer,
Swung the wide gate. To such fair room they led
As pleasured ease; until refection, spread
In the great hall, was due. And here he met
Two Table knights he had not known before -
King Baudemagus and Ewaine of Gore.
"Now come ye," asked Ewaine, "at random here?"
"I wander as my steed inclines."
Came here the marvel of a shield to see
Which none but he for whom it waits could bear,
Except that in three days he mischiefed were,
Or maybe maimed or dead."
"You think to try
A risk so large?"
King Baudemagus said:
"I will adventure."
"In God's name!"
Then mayst thou venture with more hope than I,
And with thy triumph for my loss atone."
"That would I gladly, for no shield I own."
Next morn the mass they heard, and then were led
To where a shield behind the altar hung -
A snow-white shield that bore a cross of red -
A priest disclosed it, as they asked, but said:
"Fair sirs, be warned, for those this shield who try
Repent it sorely ere three days go by."
"I will adventure; for my life is this:
To fail in all. Yet were it more amiss
If I should turn from any tests I meet,
And be defeated thus, without defeat,"
King Baudemagus said: "If here ye bide
Three days, ye then may learn what ills betide
To those unworthy with this shield who ride."
"We will await it here."
At this the king,
Taking a squire the backward word to bring,
Mounted, and round his neck the shield he drest.
"God knoweth," said Ewaine, "which knights are best
By His sure scales of judgement, but to me
Are few things better to His sight can be
Than still to strive, and fail, and strive anew
With heart unbroken."
"So I think: and so
I would not thwart him, though the shield, I know,
Without my proved desert, is meant for me."
Now from their sight King Baudemagus passed,
The road descending, till a vale he found
Fruit-blossomed, and the low green hills around
Shadowed by racing clouds, and there between
The sun made glory of the maytime green.
Through the fair vale a river wandered slow,
And on its bank a priory, long and low,
Lay in the sure peace of the Sacred Name.
Yet from its gate a swan-white warrior came
With levelled lance, and with no previous word
Up the straight road, against the king, he spurred.
This swift offence to meet, for choice was none,
King Baudemagus let his charger run.
His spear upon a strong shield broke; but he
Was backward flung, for, sliding past the rim
Of the charmed shield, which no defence would be,
The spear through mail and shoulder drave, and he
Felt the hard earth.
But not to capture him,
Nor injure more, the victor deigned. He said:
"King, thine own folly lays thee there. The shield
Will take no scratch from any earthly spear,
Except Sir Galahad's life it guard."
Was bold to answer: "Those who God require
All doors approach."
"Nor such shall God refuse.
Wherefore his jeopard life he will not lose....
But to Sir Galahad bear it."
"I would know
The name of him who doth direct me so."
"My name is not for ears of mortal men."
"Now, by the reverence that to Christ we owe,
Expound thy meaning, or I will not go."
"By that conjuring word I speak. Ye see
The arms of Christ on that fair shield, and they
Are potent of themselves to turn away
The points that might deface them. Only when
They guard the sinless will their virtue be
The adverse stroke to meet.... Ye need not fear
The king to leave, for better help is near,
And separate fortune thine."
As this was said,
A litter from the priory came, and they
Who brought it lifted, to a softer bed
Than the hard earth on which he bleeding lay,
The thwarted king.
To that charmed shield convey,
Back to Sir Galahad rode the squire, and told
All that had been, at which Sir Galahad,
Seeing the beckon of high deeds ahead,
Thanked him as one who comes with tidings glad.
He rose, and armed. So rose Ewaine, who said:
"I would go with you to the end."
Sir Galahad answered, "for I take a way
Which none may follow. Save the squire alone
I ride with no companion."
Then the squire
Was bold a boon to plead: "If that be so,
Wilt thou not grant me knighthood ere we go?"
"Who art thou?"
"Melias de Lisle am I.
The King of Denmark's son."
"Of rank so high
Thou shouldst be mirror where the best may see
Themselves excelled. Thy boon? I grant it thee.
What shall my favour with such knighthood be?"
"Only that to one path we keep, until
Some venture part us."
"As some venture will.
Till then I grant it thee."
The road they chose
Struck northward through Logre, where Arthur's foes
Came seldom, or in deep woods lurked; and they
Rode idly through the peace that round them lay
For seven long days, while converse made the twain
Good comrades as they journeyed rein to rein,
Being confirmed of equal knighthood now.
But at the eighth high noon they came to where
The forward road was forked, and there was set
A cross that bore a warning scroll: 'Beware
The road ye take, for those who rightward bear,
If knights of worth, shall find no hindrance there
Till the two roads again in one be met.
But that which leftward strikes, and bends away,
Hath larger danger, and shall soon assay
All who attempt it, to a hard degree.'
Then spake Sir Melias: "Of thy courtesy,
The freedom of this leftward road I pray;
For such hard test is rather meant for me."
"I would advise thee in a different way,
I deem I better might that test endure."
"Again I ask it."
"In God's name!"
They parted. Melias rode with eyes alert
For some strange danger that the woods should show
- Woods that grew denser as he rode, as though
They closed, defiant of their human foe,
Their uninvaded loneliness, which yet
No axe had felt.
Two days he rode, and found
The closing boughs were darker: more profound
The silence of their depths. But naught he heard
Of challenge, fiend's or man's. Against him stirred
No monster of the woods. What test was here?
Knighted, but with a yet unpractised spear,
He watched for that which came not.
When he saw
Occasion in his path his rein to draw,
Was still no menace, nor of life a cry.
But in close space beneath the branches high,
In sunlight brighter for the glooming wood,
And golden-hued, a broad pavilion stood,
Its curtains lifted. All was silk within,
Of scarlet sheen, and void of life it seemed.
But in the midst a damask table gleamed
With silver goblets and rich plate, that bore
A banquet laid. He had not thought it sin
Of that unguarded food to eat, but naught
Of hunger stirred him, for his quick regard
Was drawn to that which lust of seizure brought.
A circlet wrought of gold and ruby-starred,
Glowed on a great chair at the table's head.
"Now who will strive for that fair prize?" He said.
But in the stillness none an answer made:
None at the challenge rose from chair or bed.
And no man issued from the sombre shade
Of the dense woods around.
The crown he took
A natural spoil, but would not haste away.
Slow pace he rode. 'If one my path would stay
To rescue this fair gaud, I would not flee.'
So came he where the roads that branched apart
Again united. 'Here should Galahad be,
If he have traded in as fair a mart.'
Behind him, with the thought, arose a cry:
"Bold thief, defend thee! Either turn or die."
Around he reined in haste, a knight to see
Who spurred upon him, riding lance to knee.
'Now Heaven defend Thy newmade knight,' he prayed,
In youth's light confidence, of naught afraid.
Alike his lance he sank, but when they met
It splintered vainly, while his foeman's drave
Through shield and hawberk both; and overset
To friendless earth he fell.
As though disdain
Were his, who only would the crown regain,
The victor seized it, but to seize or save
The conquered naught he cared. And likely slain
He seemed, so lifeless on cold ground he lay.
But from the length of that long parted way
Sir Galahad came, and at his comrade's side
Alighting bent. Was here a wound so wide
That mortal aid should never life restore?
So looked it. But his patient aid he tried,
Kneeling beside him on the bloodwet ground
Till conscience waked.
"In this far wilderness,"
Sir Melias asked, "can any priest be found
To shrive me ere I die?"
"The loneliest ways
And wildest in the Christian lands are few
God doth not with some house of mercy bless.
Such will I seek. But say what chance and who
Have left thee thus?"
Before the tale was said,
By one whose words, controlled by halting pain,
Came hardly, from the boughs there rang a cry:
"Who aids God's outcast, guard thyself, or die."
Sir Galahad rose. The same stark knight was there
Who had Sir Melias cast.
He answered. "Not to swell thy pride am I."
And while he spake he turned, his steed to gain.
Now was that earlier bout reversed, for he
Who gave the wound must to the like degree
Its depth endure, for shield and shoulder through
Pierced the unbreaking lance, and then withdrew.
Then from the woods another knight outrode,
If knight he were, who broke the knightly code
Of equal chance. Against Sir Galahad's side,
As yet unware, a sudden thrust he tried,
Which backward glanced, unharming. Next he felt
More than he gave, for Galahad's sword was bare.
One blow - one only - with that sword he dealt,
Which did not fail him. Wholly shorn away,
The knight's left arm upon the greensward lay,
While fallen forward on his horse he fled
The life-blood leaping from the wound.
To fled or fallen Galahad gave his heed,
But to his comrade's rescue bent again,
Whose shoulder still the shaft transfixed. With pain
He raised, and held him on a patient steed.
And then, slow-pacing, found the hermitage
His hope foretold.
The hermit, sear and sage,
Who once had worn the belt of knighthood, now
Was Heaven's regent in his reverend age.
Seeing the need, he asked not whence or how,
But gave the sacrament of Christ to one
So near to death.
"And now," Sir Melias said,
"Draw forth the truncheon, for I am but dead."
And so the hot blood burst when this was done
That in a distant swoon from life he lay.
It seemed was only for his soul to pray
For more avail. But with exceeding care
The hermit searched the wound, supporting prayer,
And dressed it meetly. "By God's grace I deem
In seven weeks' time his present dole will seem
A doubtful memory as he rides away."
Three days Sir Galahad in that hermitage
Abode, his friend's recovered life to see.
"How goes it with thee?" Then he asked, and he,
Who moved but weakly, though his thoughts were clear,
Made answer: "God be thanked, though here I lie
Most drained of life, I do not think to die."
"Then must I leave thee, for the quest we hold
We may not loiter, while good knights and bold
Surpass us in pursuit."
"When strength is mine,
I will rejoin thee, if good fortune aid."
"If such high quest," the hermit said, "be thine,
It doth a lowlier than thy mood require,
Or thou art asking for a wound more dire,
A fall more abject, than thy last. For when
Requesting knighthood, didst thou aught confess
In clean humility to God? Or less
Or more our sins may be; but righteousness
Is never in the hearts of sinful men
So stablished that they can God's strength omit
To aid them.... When ye reached that forking way
Pride made thy choice. For that which rightward lay
Was the straight path that once our Lord had trod.
And that which twisted to the leftward led
The wicked way of those, renouncing God,
Whose earthlier pleasures by their lusts are bred.
"Some while high purpose held thee safe, but pride
Was ever with thee, and the equal sin
Of avarice entering next, to pride akin,
Betrayed thee to unknightly theft. These twain
Were the two horsemen whose assault was vain
On Galahad, blessed a better road to ride."
Long rode Sir Galahad, as those must ride
Who seek for that which in no place doth bide
Of mortal knowledge. Hope he would not lose.
But oft the turning would his charger choose.
Endlong and overthwart the land he ranged,
And doubted ever as his course he changed:
'Turn I perversely from a close success?
Shall I not trust in God to guide and bless
If I go blindly, as I needs must do?'
So came he to the towers of Ablasour
That stood where Severn still its eastward way
Pursues, far-wandering, and forgets the sea.
And found such harbour at the fall of day
As in a godless lawless hold should be.
There at the meal his host, a genial boor,
Gave friendly warning: "Shouldst thou eastward ride,
Keep the left bank, for all the further side
Is barred by those who have a boisterous play
That strangers to their land their sport shall be.
Their ladies to their common use they take,
And knights they slay; or menial serfs they make
Of those most noble. Great the change hath been
Since once the king and all his court were seen
The welcomed guests of those wide halls."
Have these high towers so sunk to evil fame?"
"The castle of Maidens is it called: the place
Where a great tourney once was held."
Make head to tame them?"
"Nay, what harm is done?
They irk us naught."
"Shall rapine thus deface
The Christian land, and no man move?"
Move if thou wilt, for man thou art, but we
Whole skins prefer." A rumbling laughter stirred
His ample paunch.
"I would acquit thy word,
And root them wholly in God's name, but I
Am vowed too straitly to one errantry."
More laughter waked. "You do not ask to hear
Their number or their strength? Good fortune steer
Thy different course!"
Next morn he rode away
Hearing no mass, for if no guilt were there,
Was there no nobleness. The northern bank
Of the slow stream, where many weeds were rank
Awhile he held, but when the treacherous ground
Sucked at his charger's hooves, a path he found
Which rose toward a barren wold whereon
A ruined chapel in the sunlight shone
- That light of God which makes destruction fair -
Pillaged and spoiled and desolate and bare.
He entered. Dust and windblown leaves were there.
But in the dust no mark of human tread.
And the void altar, where no pall was spread,
Showed that its holy use had ceased. He thought:
'Now see I why no morning mass was said.
Not only on one bank the godless dwell.
Yet here, though winds invade, and faith hath fled,
May still the angels of High God resort,
Still be the wings of His protection spread,
Still backward held the baffled powers of Hell
From ground made sacred. And I here may find
The peace that left me when my heart inclined
My quest to leave, a passing call to aid.'
Before the altar-rail he knelt in prayer,
But found nor peace nor consolation there,
Still vexed by longing to uproot the wrong
That lay so near him. 'Saviour Christ,' he prayed,
'Make me against this hard temptation strong!
Am I not chosen, vowed, and held apart
Thy quest to gain?'
Was surely no man there,
Yet came a voice clear-toned and close. It said:
"Be not thy heart by lust for God misled.
Shalt thou reject His work His Grail to see?
And think to find it by so lost a way?"
Then was he blithe of heart. His waiting steed
He soon bestrode. He thanked High God who gave
So clear a guidance where he else had erred
Too lightly to suppose, as virtue may,
The holier is the more reluctant way.
Towards the river now his course he spurred,
Until its winding vale before him spread,
And on the further bank a fortress lay
Which he looked down on; like a beast of prey
It crouched beneath him, long and dark. It stood
In a large clearance, holding back the wood.
Descending to the river's side he met
A man made feeble by great age, who said:
"Fair knight, if counsel may thy life prolong,
In other compass will thy steps be set.
For they who hold those towers may work thee wrong
Through greed, or malice, or such moods as they
Who idlesse of ungoverned lusts obey."
"I think to end them."
"Though thy comeliness
Be clear, it seemeth that thy wits are less."
"Gibe as thou wilt, I do not turn."
His shield, he felt each tightened brace to test.
He meant not by his own default to fail,
Nor yet his hostile purpose hide. He rode
Straight for the stream, a likely ford to find,
And down its bank pursued a watchful way.
Till, as he traced its turning course, it showed
A group of damsels bathing, boldly gay.
The lemans of the castle's knights were they.
They warned him with shrill cries: "Young knight, forbear.
We are not for thy use, to choose or share.
Fly while thou canst the danger looming high,
Or scarce thy treasure shall thy safety buy."
"Damsels," he said, "I for your rescue come."
At which their laughter waked. "Who asked thee that?"
One voice derisive called. But most were dumb
With doubtful wonder. Did he ride alone?
Had Arthur, stirring on his distant throne,
Reached out to end them? Were their lives of ease,
Bought by love's image on false coinage set,
So near to cease? Must meaner hours forget
The wanton pleasures of such days as these?
The obsequious serfs - the wealth of stolen store?
Across the reed-lined ford he rode: the shore
He lightly gained. An issuing squire he met,
As the dark towers he reached. "My lords desire
To know thy purpose, and what name ye bear.
Till these be shown, the castle rules require
That here, of peril warned, ye halt."
I had no thought a further mile to go.
Here is my halt designed. For bid them know
Their wicked customs have I come to cast."
"Fair lord, he answered, "if that purpose last,
Is here sufficient for one knight to do."
"In God's name I tell them, I their worst defy."
"Lord, if my warning pass thee, that must I."
"Hasten, and by that haste thy trust renew
For other days to be."
The squire thereto
No further answer gave, but went; and soon
To meet that challenge, not one knight, nor two,
But seven strong brethren through the portway came;
Their plumes, their harness, and their shields the same,
And with one clamour all their voices loud.
"Defend thee, if thou canst."
"Ye would not crowd
At once upon me?"
"That our mercy wills.
For kindest is the hand which swiftest kills
When doom is spoken, as it is for thee."
"Boast not too soon, for ever God will be
Most potent when the right is weakest seen."
Answered their laughter, and their charge aline.
But oft it would be shown in such combine
That each would each impede, from whence had been
Jostling confusion bred, and thrusts unsure.
So was it now. One lance, that broke in vain
On Galahad's shield, was all he need sustain
Of furious impact, while the rest aside,
Or from his harness glancing, passed him by.
One had he cast to earth, but yet must dure
Six knights at once, too closely round him now
For the long lances' use. From these secure,
Swords leapt to light, but Galahad's first was bare,
And dealt such blows as surely passed compare,
Unless with Lancelot's. Well would each allow
His brethren to be more advanced than he
To meet them. So, by Galahad's blows, but more
By their own craft's and craven hearts reversed -
Each from behind would strike, but none be first -
Increasing ground they gave, until they broke,
A rabble down the road, while, stroke on stroke,
The sword of Balyn on their rearmost rang.
Sir Galahad reined his steed. The recreants fled
Too nimbly for pursuit. Their victor drew
Reluctant rein. He could not more pursue
The wild recesses of the woodland through.
He entered gates unbarred, to those who quailed
Like curs left masterless, or else who hailed
Deliverance from a reign of hated wrong.
"To thee," the porter said, "these keys belong."
"These," said the seneschal, on bended knee.
"I render, as thy natural right, to thee.
And if my counsel to thine ears be good,
In the next hour, by road, and wild, and wood,
A horn of summons shall be blown to call
Knightly or base, the castle's liegemen all,
That they may swear a better use to hold,
As they most gladly will; for else with night,
If thou shouldst leave us, through thine absence told,
Will those who fled return, and all will be
Reversed, that now we gain."
With this consent,
Wide through the land a calling trumpet went.
For Galahad said: "I cannot hinder here.
And I would leave, with right and title clear,
A ruler of a better sort than they."
To which was answer made: "There could not be
More clear a title than, mere sooth to say,
Is hers who lingers in these towers, as one
Whose life is vanquished ere its dawn is won.
"For when those brethren came as guests to him
Who was the castle's gracious lord, and he
Received them with regard and courtesy,
They on his daughter looked with lustful eyes,
Devoid of honour. As their wanton prize
They thought to share her. With loose steel and threats
They laid their purpose to her father bare.
A sword too old he drew: his youthful heir
A sword too weak. Is none who saw forgets
Their piteous deaths. Who heard the piteous cries
Of her who to such hands so foully fell
Can hear them yet."
"At peace she lies
In welcome death. But one was left, too young
Their lust to tempt. The castle serfs among
She lurked, until they found her use - to stay
A claimant to these towers more strong than they,
Who else had heired them. With no right at all
They ruled, and vassals round obeyed their call,
Awed by their sevenfold strength. Yet what were they?
What had they done? An aging man to slay -
A youth not grown - and seven they to two!
Now what they would not, or they could not do
Thy single sword hath shown."
Sir Galahad said:
"God was my strength. Yet is it plain to see
How the haut front of evil knights may be
Built on their boasts alone."
The trumpet's sound,
From yeomen and from vassal knights around,
A swift obedience brought. Next noon of day
To her whose right it was their oaths were made
Of service and support; and blithe were they
For the new freedom of accepted law.
And ere they parted word was brought that laid
The shadows of past fear. For those who fled,
In numbers trusting, so the tale was said,
Meeting three knights, had thought to overbear
And spoil them. Fools, that knew not whom they were -
Gawain, and Gareth, and Ewaine. The three
Had slain the seven, as would likely be.
When Gawain took the quest, he thought to find
The bold attempts to which his heart inclined
Awaiting in wild lands, as oft before
He found them, and his valiant heart would bring
To such results as made his fame the more.
But now he found in much far wandering
Naught came his valour or his craft to prove.
For all was stagnant. In good time he rode
To where Sir Galahad found the shield, and then
To where Sir Melias lay, and Melias showed
The way that Galahad took.
"That way will I,"
Sir Gawain said, "for round his path will lie
The marvels that I seek. I shall not fail
To find them thus, and haply more prevail
Than his impetuous but unpractised spear."
"Sir," said a monk who chanced that boast to hear,
"He will not to thy course conform."
"Because thy ways are hateful. And his eyes
Look upward to the height where glory lies."
Hardly Sir Gawain heard, for riding by
He saw Sir Gareth, whom he loved, as they
Born of one blood to different purpose may.
"I follow Galahad's path."
"Alike will I,"
Sir Gareth answered, "for alone too long,
By no straight path, to no sure end, have I
Slow days endured."
Their chosen road they took
With following morn, and when the noon was high
A knight approached them with a shield that bore
The argent serpents of Ewaine of Gore.
Gladly they greeted. "Shall we ride as three?"
"Yea," said Ewaine, "for so again may we
Good fortune find, as when we twain, and he,
The Irish knight, the errant damsels met."
"Yea, could we so the changeful years forget,"
Sir Gawain answered, "blithe it were to be
Wandering as then, to light adventure find."
For now the shadows came, the light declined.
No damsels at no fount would meet them now.
But Gareth laughed assent! "I know not how
You fared afore. But nothing now betides
To stir indifferent days. Who loneliest rides
Hath the more silence; but no chance the more
A single feat to do."
By wild, by stream, by mountain, loft and low
They rode together, till at length they came
To Severn's northern bank, and there was said
How one who bore the symbols, white and red,
That anchor faith, the Castle of Maidens sought.
The seven brethren that one sword outfought
Two days had wandered, wroth for loss and shame,
Still boasting, bickering, each asserting loud
That had his brethren stood he had not fled.
They saw three knights approach. The boldest said:
"Now may we something of our loss redress.
Is here good spoil to take, and they but three.
For when our numbers and our mood they see,
Likeliest they will not strive. Or if they do
Our sleights will foil them. Here for each is two,
And one to succour where the need may be."
One only lance was theirs, for which they rode
Closely before a hostile front they showed.
They parted somewhat to each side the way,
As though of courteous use they would not stay
By their full width of front the knights they met,
Then pulled at once their swords: "While yet ye may,
Yield, and good ransom for your lives may pay.
But pause not, for our swords too soon forget
That grace we proffer."
Gareth's laugh replied.
"Who, by God's thunder, do ye think ye see?"
"Nay, but Arthur's knight's are we,"
Came from Ewaine, the while his sword he drew.
Short time those brigand knights their blunder knew.
They lacked the speed to flee, the heart to do.
Should vermin live, as by their words they were?
In flight to turn, or else in strife to dare
Were vain for safety now.
From slaughter done
With breath's light loss, the three resumed their way,
And at the darkening of the long June day
Came to the Castle of Maidens; but too late
To meet Sir Galahad. Nor was one could say
The road he chose. But question and dissent
Enlarged the doubt; and separate ways they went
To seek him.
Gawain, while the dawn was dim,
A southern pathway took the woodland through.
But as the long day passed he met but few,
And learned but naught. The great trees denser grew.
And when the shadowy eve encompassed him
Glad was he at a lowly hermitage
To halt; and pausing from the sacred page,
The hermit, in the midst of evensong,
Arose to greet him. "Gentle knight, declare
What wouldst thou, and of whom thou art, and where,
That I may serve thy need."
"I wander long
From Arthur's Court. I seek the Grail. My name
"Lord," the holy man replied,
"That I may do some service on thy side,
When at our Lady's feet I nightly pray,
Show me what virtues bind, or hindering shame
Divides thy heart from God."
"I am not loth
To tell thee. He to whom I last confest
Was hard of mood the common use to blame."
Thereon he told him fairly, worst and best.
Temperance and prudence, craft and lusting both,
Pride and sagacity and fortitude,
Were all apparent to the patient priest,
Who spake not till the whole long tale had ceased,
And then replied: "There is no life so lewd
But God may lift it. None so bold in sin
But Christ is at the door, to enter in
If it be opened. Penance long and dire
Thy sins, to fit thee for this quest, require
Wilt thou that I - "
"Good father, dost thou heed
That errant knights the weight of arms sustain?
That burdens of hard blows, and heat and rain
Are always theirs to dure? No more they need
Of penance than they are not like to miss."
"Well, may God keep thee! For I think in this
It is not mine to give thee aid."
He met Sir Griflet and Sir Aglovale.
His tale was theirs, and that was naught, to say.
With burnished spears, and bright unbroken mail
Lands had they ridden where no tumults stirred,
No lawless rule was told, no wrongs they heard.
What could they do for God, and how deserve
The Grail to gain?
"So hath it been with me,"
Sir Gawain said. "The whole wide land is free
From offering venture.... Separate ways are best
The widest range of this strange peace to test."
Sir Lancelot to a lowly hermitage
For shelter and for counsel came. He said:
"Resolve me this. Can all of sin's black wage
By tears be cancelled? By repentance sped?
There is no soul than mine more darkly stained.
That know I to my grief. I ask but this:
If I repent of that I wrought amiss,
Can yet God's favour and the Grail be gained?"
To which the hermit answered: "While we live,
The door of mercy doth not close. For thee
May be God's pardon. But the Grail to see
Is not man's right; and God that sight will give
To only those found worthy. Search thy heart,
As God shall search it. Dost thou now repent
So deeply that no later years relent
Could overcome thee? Wilt thy days be spent
Henceafter as thy lips protest today?
There rests God's verdict, Who alone can say
Which side will see the faltering scale's descent.
"But this I tell thee. Not thy hopes to blast,
But that thy strength augment to overcast
That which must wait thee in the days to be.
God gave thee valour, strength and comeliness,
In measure excellent. Such gifts to thee
For highest service call in equity.
Thine the ten talents. Thinkst thou God should be
Content to take one talent's usury?"
The dusk was round him, and the dark ahead,
And still the hopeless dole the hermit said,
With drear reiteration, like a bell,
Tolled in his thought. No hastened pace he rode,
Nor cared his end, but ere full darkness fell
A wayside shrine he reached, the where the road
Branched in the waste. A cross of mouldering stone
And near, a ruined chapel rose, as though
Long fired and plundered by some heathen foe;
And in the shadow of those charred walls he lit,
And left his steed, and entrance sought, but all
Was blank thereof, and round from wall to wall
He searched in vain. One gated porch alone
He found, and barred against him.
At this repulse, for seemed that God unfit
Had judged him, even that in such walls he prayed,
He turned at last, and in this more despair
Had ridden again to cease his thought, but where
He left his steed, the wayside cross he knew,
And hope thereat, though lowliest, waked anew.
'For,' thought he, 'though to this life's end I be
Refused of Heaven, who may not share may see
The festals given of kings, and I would be,
Though lastly from the outmost seat withsaid,
When comes God's bridal, and the feast is spread,
A lazer at the gates.'
He loosed his steed
For pasture where it would, and all unlaced
His arms, and close beside that cross he lay,
Couched on cold ground, and colder shield, and there,
Sunk in that shadow where no sin may dare,
Found comfort in the peace of wordless prayer.
And slept at last, and saw with wondering eyes
The Grail itself in vision, beyond surmise
Radiant in light. And near a lazer drew,
Fouled with great sores and filth, and reached a hand
Toward it, timorous, but did naught withstand;
And in that dream he saw the sick man rise,
Whole at the touch; and waked in peace, and knew
The last stars failing in the darkened blue,
Till heaven delayed no more its void desire,
But day, new risen, wing-lifting, fledged with fire,
Raptured o'er that wide plain its wider skies.
Two days beside the cross Sir Lancelot stayed,
'For only here,' he thought, 'with God to aid,
Can full rejection of my fault be made,
Which I have known before with partial eyes,
Seeing one sin, the while long years have I,
Content to all control, and all defy,
Been thence uplifted in mine inmost mind,
As though God blessed me, gain on gain to find
My portion, which my comrades' reach would miss.
For how could all be first? But here I seek
A higher proof to test, and find in this
My judgement and reverse: my faith too weak,
My heart too sinful for the sight divine.'
So mourned he while again the east was lit
With dawn's new conquest, and the birds began;
From which some comfort came. As night must cease
Its sombre shadows at the light's release,
So must the fears that darkness breeds admit
The challenge of returning light. For it
Is life's assertion. With faint hope he rose,
But firm resolve; and humbly sought again
The hermit's counsel. "Though my single prayer,"
He said, "to wrest with Heaven be weak and vain,
My son, who is God's knight, as am not I,
Doth also at His altar kneel; and there
His intercession shall this burden bear,
That I revert not to mine earlier sin."
"Nay," said he hermit, "though such boon to win
No prayer is fruitless at the feet of God,
And he doth surely with effectual prayer
Advance thy need, yet not in reason may
The father's burden of the son be borne.
Look thou to that; and on God's mercy lean:
Not all again need be that once hath been."
The Seeking Of The Grail.
Lone rode Sir Percival, but time would be
When some good knight his searching eyes would see
On the far sky line of a distant height;
Or, where dividing woods far prospect showed,
A lance flashed, as a knight across it rode,
A moment seen, next moment lost to sight.
Glad was he therefore when, beneath the boughs,
He came to where a humble cot was hid,
Where, in the strength of weakness, unforbid,
Unenvied, in that peace which God allows
To those who rank reject, and wealth contemn,
Dwelt a recluse. Before her casement low
He knelt, desiring harbour. Soon her hand
Loosened the bolt, and opened: "I would know
Who art thou?"
"From King Arthur's court I ride:
"In these poor walls to bide
Were none more welcome."
"Madam, speak you so
As one who knows me?"
"So of right I may.
I am your mother's sister, once the Queen
Of the Waste Lands. But what hath wealth to show,
Or power's high pride, or beauty's insolence,
To equal here the peace which leaves pretence
For the pure light where God is seen?"
Through quickly opened gates while this was said.
All service that she could, and all she had,
She gave him largely. For her heart was glad,
Though fixed on God, her goodly kin to see.
Yet was one sorrow to be told. She said:
"When of your mother heard ye last?" And he:
"Naught have I heard of late."
"Of late she died.
Being too lonely when you left her side."
"Grief is it this to hear, though grief the less
Because the doubt within my heart hath been
Since the last fall of summer leaves was seen,
So often to my thoughts she came, as they
Who are not held by mortal hindrance may;
And more in dreams than in the waking day."
Thereat he wept; but when his tears were done
He asked her: "Of all life there is but one
Whom I would welcome for my comrade now.
Hast heard of Galahad the where he rides?"
She answered: "Nay. But where his kindred be,
From such wide wandering, late or soon, will he
His steps return."
"Then I to Carbonac
Will straightly ride. For in this quest we lack
All guidance, choosing only, forth or back,
A random way."
In this resolve he went;
But soon had reason to his choice repent.
It was the full noon of a cloudless day.
A vale in summer peace beneath him lay.
Fair in its yet undarkened green, and still
In windless air it stretched from hill to hill.
But where beneath the boughs the highway ran,
A score of knights there came, and there among
They led the steed of one they lately slew,
And on it, bound asprawl, the murdered man,
For later spoiling.
Now their swords outswung:
Their voices rose. "Disclose us whence and who
And of what leigance art thou?"
"Knight am I
Of Arthur's court."
"A prey!" They cried. "A prey!
A second of that brood is ours to slay."
Was neither thought of flight nor pulse of fear,
The knight of Arthur dropped a cumbering spear,
And sword to many swords opposed. He thrust
The foremost through his bellowing throat. But close
They crowded. That he felt, his sword returned,
Hard, swift, and deadly. Who in numbers trust
Are seldom in front place such blows to bear;
But one who did not heed or had not learned
The rules of knightly strife, a stroke of shame
Made at the charger's side. To ground they came,
Charger and knight at once. But as they fell
A rescue neared. For Galahad, riding by,
Saw the wild bicker of the bright blades. He thought:
'What broil is here? And what the arms I see
Of him whose horse is down? As mine they be.
Like shield hath Percival, and only he.
Him will I rescue, as of right I ought.'
So, like a storm he came. His lance down-bore
The first he reached; and that craven score
A scattering rout he made.
Rose from the ground, and called him, and pursued
Some length on foot; but Galahad passed from sight,
Harrying the rearmost of that random flight.
Vain though it were, what better course to choose
Continued his? As thus he vainly ran,
To meet him down the path, a serving man
Came riding, mounted on a hackney grey,
And leading at his side a stallion black
-Blacker than any bier, and huge of limb -
To whom he cried: "Good fellow, see my lack!
Grant me that steed. I shall not stint to pay."
To which the man made answer: "Lord, thy need
I fain would succour. But a master grim
Who owns this stallion would not grant. From him
My death would be; except thy mastering deed - "
"That would I never, for my vows forbid.
But much I thank thee."
Where a branching oak
Narrowed the path and half the prospect hid,
On bare gnarled roots in frustrate mood he sate,
Until advancing hooves the silence broke.
By-riding came a knight of arms ornate,
On that black charger which had passed before.
No heed to Percival he gave. His gait
Was that of one who scorned to contemplate
His own high standing. As his hoof-beats died,
The man from whom the steed was reft arrived,
Spurring his hackney in pursuit. He cried,
At sight of Percival: "In mercy, lord,
For my life's safety, wilt thou aid afford?
Never my master will that loss forgive;
To lose the stallion thus, is not to live."
"Fellow, can one who hath no horse pursue?"
"Take thou my hackney."
"That I gladly do."
So mounted, at such pace he rode, that soon
The thieving knight he saw, and hailed. Whereat
Basely he turned, and thrust the hackney through,
Speaking no word the while, and rode away.
"Stay!" cried Sir Percival. "False traitor, stay!
Coward-hearted knave! Let sword to sword decide."
But no reproach would cause him speak or bide,
And in despair of heart, Sir Percival
Flung his sword from him as a worthless toy,
Unarmed, and by that gesture cast aside
His shield of faith, that else, impregnable,
Had foiled and flung the chiefest fiends' annoy.
But when black midnight came, from dreams of ill
Fitful and short, of snares and dangers full,
While in the east a rising moon was red,
He waked to find a woman fair and young,
Beside him. Naught of carnal lure she said,
But blamed his fault with bold reproachful tongue:
"Is this thy faith? Is this thy constant will?
What dost thou here?"
"I do nor good nor ill,
Being dismounted, as no knight should be."
"Nay, but a charger of no mean degree
I can provide, if thou wilt then for me
A knightly champion prove."
"And that will I."
Her place was vacant as he made reply;
But soon she came again, and now she led
A steed that well might seem had darkness bred,
For blacker than the noon of night was he.
And of such thews he was, and form, and fire,
That the wide land to search from sea to sea
Had been vain seeking for his like. The sight
Was joy to Percival. With heart alight,
He seized his arms, and with that lady's aid,
Himself again in martial sort arrayed;
And ere she might her urgent cause require
He leapt upon the restless steed, and he
Bounded thereat, and forward raced, as though
Elate such rider on his back to know.
And strong as never mortal steed shall be,
And fast as never mortal steed shall go,
The far goal of no mortal thought to find,
He left the moonlit forest paths behind.
The mountains were beneath his feet. He leapt
Their lonely tarns wherein the moonlight slept,
As though but pools they were. By wild and way,
Rejoicing in a strength that naught could stay,
In one swift hour a four-days' space he ran.
Naught thought his rider when that race began
Of where its end would be. He was but ware
Of motion, and the rushing joy to share
Of space devoured, and forests whirling by.
Next, wonder with elation strove; and next
Doubt neighbouring fear his wildered heart perplext
For how should mortal steed such tempest try?
Then fear exceeded. For a shadowy shore
They gained, and boiling was the boisterous roar
Of the wild flood to which they raced...... He made
The sign from which boldest fiend dismayed
Shrinks abject. From his flying seat he fell,
And the black imp, as to his native hell,
Leapt screeching to the floods which upward cast,
Not foam, but flakes of fire.
And then till day
The one so nearly lost lamenting lay:
"Thinking that God was mine, and all was well.
How soon, how steeply, from my faith I fell!"
Dawn came, a wild and naked shore to show
Where only now the far-brought knight could see,
For the hot flood, cold leagues of waveless sea.
But when he turned, a valley, green and low,
Struck inland, where high hills, that met the snow,
Were sundered. Here he went, for here to go
Gave the sole hope he had. But all he found
Were beasts, ayawn with hunger, lurking round;
And came a serpent, crawling swift and lithe
Bearing a lion cub, its captured prey,
Held by the neck. On its retreating track,
With cries and roars, a swifter lioness ran,
And leapt upon it. With a backward writhe,
Loosing the cub, her charge the reptile met.
A hissing, roaring, feinting strife began;
The lioness leaping in, or bounding back,
Dodging the venomed head, which each attack
Twisted to meet.
This strife Sir Percival
Approaching viewed, with pity natural
More for the beast than snake. His sword he set
To end it, trusting to his guarding mail
To foil the venom. Brief the dust that rose
In that quick bicker of illsorted foes.
Then with a ghastly wound the serpent shrank
To half its length, the while the hot soil drank
Its strange cold blood. A second stroke supplied
The cause by which it writhed, and stilled, and died.
So stood they, alien comrades, beast and man,
Of whom he doubted first, but she began
To purr and fawn around his feet; and then
She licked the frightened cub; and then returned
To fawn again, and when her mood he learned
He cast aside a shield the snake had marred,
And with no longer care his life to guard,
Disarmed and rested, while the kindly beast
Crouched like a spaniel at his feet, and he
Her neck and shoulders stroked, and thanks he paid
To God, Who thus their natural feud had stayed
By His great rule of service, which will free
All bonds, and every chasm of difference close.
Then, as noon came, the crouching beast arose,
And trussed her whelp across her neck, and so
She bore him to the place from whence he came.
Most lonely was Sir Percival, as though
His only friend had left him. All the shame
Of his faith's failure, in that loneliness,
Enlarged and darkened to his heart's distress,
Till came the dusk; and on her noiseless feet
The lioness came again, and side by side
They slept, and seemed it to his fallen pride,
That so God blessed him in a lowly way.
Proved worthless to the quest, in faith's defeat,
He served His purpose for a beast of prey,
And its strange friendship found. From this good peace
Came sleep, His wandering mind in that release
Waked to a vision. On a lioness rode
A lady gracious, and serene, and young;
And on a serpent one of wise aspect,
Older and graver.
First the younger spake:
"Young knight of God, nor least of God's elect,
I come to warn thee from my lord, to take
Good heed and caution. For the day to be
Thy conflict with no courtly foe will see,
But the most champion of the world, and thou
Shalt risk no common wound to hurt or maim,
But such a burden of relieveless shame
As should outlast the world."
"What lord is thine?"
"The greatest that the earth hath known."
Was vacant, even as the vaunt was said,
But she who on the serpent rode remained,
And spake reproach: "Young knight, that snake was mine,
Which for no cause, and to my grief, is dead.
- Dead by thy hand. What right was thine to slay?
The lioness was not thine, and naught to thee."
"Lady, the lioness was the gentler sort,
And her I succoured whom of right I ought.
So seemeth it to me. But grant me wrong.
The fact is changeless now. What equity
Is mine to give thee?"
"All thy years belong
To me henceforward. For my servant slain
Thy living service is but equal gain."
"Lady, who asks too much may gain the less."
"Boast not too soon, for I this debt will press
With all divisings both by night and day."
At that she went, and in such sleep he lay
As comes to those the powers of night assail,
And wakened at relief of dawn, to feel
Feeble and hungered, with no likely meal
In that stark wilderness.
But toward the shore
A barque came sailing. As the tide withdrew
It grounded, and Sir Percival thereto
Made hasteful way, in hope of rescuing.
But no barque timbered for the buffeting
Of winds averse, and ocean waves to fling,
Was here. White was it all; from bow to stem
Draped with white sendal. On the deck there stood
An old man, priestly garbed. Sir Percival
Leapt to the deck to greet him.
"Whom be ye?"
The old man asked.
"I am but one," said he,
"From Arthur's court, who would the Grail return
To sight and healing of our race; and so
We wander on a path we do not know,
To where we know not. Here, God's truth, am I
Through fault of faith, in this bare wilderness.
Nor think I to escape its black duress
Unless some rescue in thy hand may lie."
To this the priest returned no soft reply.
"Through lack of faith ye fell? And think ye now,
Despite that lack, some near escape to find?
What didst thou at the rites of knighthood vow?
Art thou to failure of thy quest resigned?
If thy heart lift as God's high knighthood ought,
Thou wilt not falter from a fight unfought."
"Who art thou?"
"One from strange far lands who came
To rouse thee, lest thou sink to final shame."
"I am beset by dreams I may not read."
"Then tell them."
Of his latest dream he told,
And heard it rendered: "She who younger showed
Was Christs' new law: upon the serpent rode
The older evil. Came the first to warn
How near, how strong, temptation's hour shall be:
And came the second with her subtler plea
Thy freedom to betray, thy faith suborn.
Hadst thou consented to her wile, for thee
What surety could remain, what rescue be?"
At that he bade him to the land return,
And seek God's comfort. More he might not learn.
But, of himself and all unconfident,
Yet humbly such short-falling to lament,
Back to the beast, his sole last friend, he went.
Fastworn, Sir Percival, in that wild land,
And faint with toil, had seven days sought, and found
Naught of the Grail, nor any sight nor sound
Of life; but in the empty night he heard
Sighing of great winds in spaces waste and bare;
Cries, as of men, that sank where no men were,
Nor any life, nor call of nighted bird
Rose ever, but desolation, drear of day,
With wailings in lone night for life's delay,
Had brooded from the birth of time, and bore
Sad winds, that wailed along a broken shore
Of hungered, frustrate, and insatiate sea.
But that seventh night upon the sterile sand
He sank, too weak for longer toil, and lay
Despairing life, nor left with hope to pray
For that High Vision he sought.
"Behold," he said,
"I am not surely in God's sight as they
That manna found at morn, or ravens fed,
But seems that in this demoned land and dead
My bones shall whiten till the final day."
But when the moon at her first dawn betrayed
Half heaven, and laid a path of silver flame
On the dim heaving of the waters dark,
A shadow down that path of light there came,
With sails full-breasted to the land, a barque
That grounded nearly where he slept, and made
Fast anchor from the falling tide, and soon
Came damsels thence, and by the rising moon
Pavilions there they raised, and banquet spread.
More late, their lady from the barque aland
Came with no haste, and passing near she knew
Where slept he yet, and closer stooped to view
A toil-worn knight and young, and softly spake,
His fast-born dreams of losing life to break:
"O gentle knight, what dost thou here, to press
A couch so cold in this stark wilderness,
Where naught but death goes with ye where ye go."
He answered, doubtful yet with dreams: "Not so,
But God's Grail seek I where it bides, and not
Turn we, so vowed, nor know what desolate spot
May hold it, hindered from the sight of man.
Nor were there land in this wide earth, God wot
Too deathly, so that there good hope might be
That sight in life beyond our worth to see.
But doubt I sore that not God's grace to me
Intends, but in this utter waste I die."
She answered: "Own ye not more hope that I,
Here driven in flight from bitter loss, may so
Thy spent life save, and then such quest supply
As shall advance thee in God's sight, and lead
To that High Vision that ye seek indeed,
Ere all be done? But rise ye first, and share
The feast my damsels for our ease prepare,
And I will tell such loss as leaves me bare
Of my world's wealth, except that here ye see.
Save I thy life, and will ye then my will,
Against the aggress of my most deadly foe
To attempt, and even to thy life's loss fulfil,
My most desire?"
He answered: "Yea, to me
At life's extreme ye came, and I should be
To all my knighthood false, and more to thee,
Except in thy devoir I serve or die."
Then softly to that moon-lit feast she led,
Of various meats and more delectable,
Him seemed, than erst in Arthur's halls were spread
At Yule, or Whitsun, or high banquet made
For bridal of great lord, his chiefest there.
And then, refreshed, his wearied limbs he laid
On no cold ground, to wind and tempest bare,
But silken-soft in that pavilion fair
His couch was dight. That damsel watched beside
While long he slept, and all his strength anew
Asserted in him, and noon to even grew,
And moon-rise came again, and falling tide,
Ere waked he, and again rich feast was spread
And wines perchance no earthly vintage knew
She poured, the while her woeful tale was said
From height once held of fate's reverse - "For I,
To this wild coast, and with no force, who fly,
Who own no train but these that here I bring,
Was child and heiress to a mighty king,
Whom served I fair, till more in pride I said
It may be than was meet, and he thereon
Renounced me wholly from his gates, and so,
In this denude of wealth, and open woe,
His servants, envious erst, and hateful now,
Pursue me, ruthless in their wrath; but thou
Shalt more requite for any loss foregone.
Art thou not found in these waste ways for me
To own my rescue and my lord in thee,
Noblest of all that search this quest, and fit
In might and valour to all my loss remit,
And seat me stablished where I first belong?"
And Percival gazed, and impulse swift and strong
Consumed him. Fair as any flower was she,
And in first youth, and in such garb that there
Man's work with Nature's mocked and lost compare.
For o'er one breast and shoulder mantling fair
Shot samite gleamed with gold, and one was bare,
That leaned towards him while she spake, and all
Her hair fell round him as a flame might fall,
Maddening his heart with most desire thereat.
Therewith he reached, but she some backward way
Leaned from him again, and spake, low-voiced: "Were that
Thine that ye would, and fain that grant would I,
Then wilt thou swear, to thy soul's doom, thy will
As I do now, so later mine shalt thou,
Nor aught of earth nor aught of heaven shall stay?"
He answered: "Till my latest pulse be still,
Without reluct of life, to right thy wrong
Thy knight am I, to thy most need, whom now
Beyond all gains of earth or heaven I long."
And she: "Without repent or change, ye swear
To serve and love me in that guise I wear
When walking in my land my purposed way?"
He answered, kindled to more fierce desire
By her consenting words, and act's delay:
"What might I further for thy surance say?
What more may knighthood grant, or faith require?"
And lifting eyes that shone with tears unshed,
She answered: "Nay, I doubt thee naught, and though
Ye more regard my present love to know
Than think to aid the harder need I said,
Am I not weaker in the like delight,
And spoiled of love, who know thee, O my knight,
For all thou art? But thou shalt pledge me true
Hence on to work my will, and that thing do
I treat thee ever. That in this faith content,
That thou shalt naught renounce, and naught repent,
Myself for guerdon in thine arms be laid."
Thereat, by chance, or grace of Heaven, he eyed
The cross-hilt sword her hands had laid aside,
And all his vows recalled his heart, and though
No strength he held to then that goal forgo,
"Lord, help me!" In his heart he breathed, and made
The sign of Christ with hand half-ware - and knew
That round him were bare wastes, and open blue,
And clean blown airs of heaven.
From lift of spring to autumn's long decline
Rode Gawain on the quest. Through shade and shine,
Through dark and dawn he rode, for not was he
Light-turned from any taken path to be,
Importunate of purpose, wont to win.
Unswerving course through hostile lands or kind
He held, but naught of venture met therein,
Nor vision nor rumour of the Grail might find.
And wearying of the quest at last, and wroth
At those eventless days that dawned and died
Unreal, where seemed a knight might dreaming ride
Beyond the known earth and the steps of men,
Vacant at heart, and in the loneliest glen
His wandering life had known, unthought, he met
Sir Ector, faltering on that weariest way.
Well pleased, he hailed him: "Sure some friending fey
Across this desolate waste thy course hath set,
To break the silence of the strange still days
That numbs the blood-beat in our hearts, foredoomed
To failure, ere we rose this quest to try."
And Ector answered in like mood: "Not I
For listless care can ease of heart supply;
Vext by vain dreams, and lost in wildering ways,
Or mazed in mists where noon as night hath gloomed,
Far from the coming of men my course hath been;
Save that will chance to break the silent days
That most my comrades on this quest, as thou,
Ride past. But Percival I have not seen;
Nor Bors, nor Galahad of our house; nor him,
Our greatest, save in dreams. For while I ride,
Oft from my sight, a vaporous veil and dim,
Firm earth recedes and in its place I see
Our Lancelot kneeling at a low pool's side
His thirst to slake, the while the sinking brim
Avoids his lips. The more he stoops, the more
The mocking wave retires its arc, and he
Rises at last, and leaves it.
Once it seemed
He entered in a rich man's house, who held
High feast of bridal, but the rich man said:
"Is no place here for thee," and he forbore
A seat beside that feast to take.
Or visioned of truth, I know not. Naught dispelled
These sights unreal until they closed. Unled
My charger chose his way. Unseen had sped
My worst foe past me. Even the Grail forgot
My mind retires; this vision of Lancelot
So chases all my ways. I little deem
Of joy to prove, until, to break this dream,
Himself in better heart I meet."
Said Gawain, "light I count thy dreams, that rise
From length of these eventless days. But near
Where the rough vale the crowding boulders end,
If rightly by the signs I rede, there lies
A hermit's hut. Wilt there, thy doubts to cease,
And mine alike? The holy man may hear
Some voice of wind to guide us. Fair release
From this vain chase well would I, where naught appears
To call contest, the while our idle spears
Rust in the thong; and in the dead still air
We breathe with pain, and scarce our drowsing wills
Control our paths, to no sure ends that lead.
The streams lack life of lifting wave: the hills
Seem bare of all that change or seasons show.
Death is it in life. Shall all our natural need
Be weighed as naught, or longer here forego
All worth, except some likelier gain we see?"
So turned they to that lone retreat, and there
Found a green hollow in bare waste that lay,
And in the midst a wattled hermitage.
And near, stone-fashioned, but gapped and mossed with age,
A shrine that earlier days had built, and where
A birch tree drooped above the place of prayer,
Leant lance, and entered.
Rose that hermit old,
With toil; and gazed Lord Gawain, hard and cold,
Down on him: apart as alien worlds were they.
"Fair lords, what would ye at my hands? My store,
Though scant, is thine to take or use, or more
Desire ye counsel from weak age that knew
Life once as thine?"
And answered Gawain: "Nay,
Were deep our need thy meagre herbs to long.
The Grail we seek, the Sacred Grail, that lay
On Joseph's altar, till some earlier wrong
Removed it thence, where no man knoweth; but through
Long months we have ridden, and searched far lands, and now
With all our Table's strength that joined this vow,
Having sought so long in vain, would learn of thee
If those who seek may somewhere hope to see,
Or all be loss."
He answered: "Ask ye me
For all thy Table, or thyself? But nay,
Well know I thy heart, that who should else attain
Were more thy grief than pride, if given in vain
Thine own devoir. There are shall win it. But thou,
Thy mind a boast of murders cunningly wrought,
Thy lance stained with the dried blood of the dead,
That died offenceless in thy wrath - for naught
Ye seek. Not violence here thine hope should be;
Nor guile nor craft nor valour avails thee now.
But that your faith to seek is faint, because
You left for narrower ends and lewder laws,
For baser dreams, the once belief you had,
Twofold you fail, in truth and chastity.
God from such eyes the Sacred Grail forbad,
When first he snatched it from the world away."
Answered Sir Gawain: "Not our lives deny,
Nor may we cast the hard rebuke you say.
The Grail goes by us, too old to change in grain
The stubborn wood we be. But tell me sooth
Why on our hearts the woeful hours have lain
A burden wearying with the chanceless day;
That if were truth in dream, or dream in truth,
We knew not, wildered, nor could shake away
These bonds in any bout of arms; for lay
A land unreal around us, and a peace
Long stranger to our earlier wont confined
The restless wrath we knew?"
He answered: "Nay,
Not thus, to those God-chosen, should impulse cease,
Or fail of ventures in His cause to find.
Deemed ye the avoiding Sacred Grail to be
Spoil of strong arm or practised craft, as though
Should earth with Heaven contend for overthrow?
Not Galahad, nay nor Bors, nor Lancelot, so
Seeks on this quest, nor counts his days in vain
That violence naught he meets, nor foemen slain
Reveal him victor in fierce strife, but they
Toil to cast off the earthlier lusts ye say,
As cloud, that blinds them from the light they would.
Hadst thou not ever with stubborn heart withstood,
Were no tree nobler in God's woods than thou.
Yet how shall He for thy last doom allow
The boast of mighty girth or goodly bough
With all thy branches lean as winter now?
The fruit is naught, the tender green is gone,
Yet mightst thou of the naked rind thereon
Make such scant offering of thy late amend
That God should save thee in the night of fear -"
"Good sir," said Gawain, "had I space to hear,
Much were I in thy wisdom held; but see,
My comrade mounts already, and waiteth me,
I may not longer on thy words attend."
Lonely Sir Bors, who neither thought to ride
With those most favoured, nor to swerve aside,
With those of little heart the quest to take,
But rather service as he might to make
Accordant to his vows, with God to aid,
Of naught expectant, and by naught dismayed.
As the light failed along the evening sky,
To a dark tower he came that strong and high
Gloomed all the land, and there he lodged, and there
Found welcome of a lady young and fair
Who owned it. Cleft in that close hold was she
By threatening dreads, and glad at heart to see
The coming to her lonely land of one
Who rode the abandoned ways so lordfully.
Therefore her gates were wide, her welcome free,
Her banquet lavish for his choice, but he
Thinking of penance, and of recent sin,
A bowl of water asked and dipped therein
Bread for his need, at which the lady said:
"Doubt ye my meals?"
"I nothing doubt; but I
Have vows to hold me."
Naught she made reply,
Who would not ire him. On good meat she fed,
And drank red wine, and seemed no more to see
Platter and goblet of her guest were dry
And vacant. How, she ever thought, could he
Be servant to her need?
The meal away,
She called not forward those who sing and play,
But talked of various haps, and wilefully
An offering mood she showed, for she was young,
Comely and lusty, made for man's desire,
And that she roused to ease; until that he,
Adroit to turn aside with courtesy
That which she offered and he would not see,
Spake of her lands.
"My lands!" She said. "My sire
Left me great woods, and fields extending far.
But all in peril of near loss they are.
A sister have I of such greed that she,
Maugre her wealth, would seize so much from me
That I shall scarce a landless tower sustain."
"Yet if your right be good - "
"Good right is vain
When in the trembling scale the sword is flung."
"What sword is that?"
"My sister, fair and young,
- Yea, fairer than myself - a paramour
Hath at her bidding, all her hest to do.
Priden le Noire his name. Though naught be true,
His owning of her claim its fault doth cure,
For none in all this land could bring him low."
"Hast thou a squire who to this knight would go
With challenge to decide thy right?"
So greatly aid me?"
"By our Table's vow,
I can no other."
Glad at heart was she.
Good cheer she gave him. At the midnight hour,
When all was silent, from her couch she rose,
Round her bare shoulders cast a cloak of vair,
And sought Sir Bors in his appointed bower.
Cautious, with slow and silent feet she stept
Down the long hall, where squires and servants slept,
Felt for his door, and pulled a noiseless pin.
But naught was hers thereby, to lose or win.
Cold was his pallet, and he was not there.
For he had chosen, where the stones were bare,
In the great hall the night to pass. To him
Came no warm lover, but such dreams as leave
A solveless doubt to vex the waking day.
A lake there was, and at its reeded brim
A great swan floated, flawless white as they,
God's angels, who his radiant light receive
On lifted wings. Its own fair plumes it spread
In shining sunlight. Human words it said:
"If thou wouldst serve my need, and none but me,
The world's most riches were my gift to thee,
And thou shouldst be as shining-white as I."
But ere the time was his to make reply,
A bird from backward at his side alit.
A raven black as any fiend was it,
And at its side the swan, with no delay,
Lifted white wings, and rose, and soared away.
"Although that bird was white," the raven said,
"And I am other, be not thus misled,
For my worst feather, I would have thee know,
Would more avail thee than her plumes of snow."
With that he vanished, and the lake; and there
A chapel showed, wherein a vacant chair
Worm-eaten, feeble, on one side was seen,
And on the other two white flowers were sheen
With mingling petals. But a holy man
Pulled them apart, at which they both began
To fruit in plenty. "Fault it were," said he,
"That they should perish for the rotten tree
From which that chair is made."
Sir Bors awoke.
Those dreams he might not rede, nor time was fit
To seek their meaning. For Sir Pridan came.
A valiant knight he proved, and hard to tame.
For when the trumpets called, the lists were set.
Sir Bors so stoutly in the midst he met,
That for two hours the heavy swords were swung
Before hard earth he felt, and faltering tongue
By full surrender of that lady's right,
Won the poor freedom of a recreant knight;
While he who broke that lawless lord's duress
Resumed his path, content and guerdonless.
As one whose valours by high God were blest,
With peace at heart, nor therefor arrogant,
Sir Bors rode on, but soon a different test
Would toil him.
Where two separate ways aslant
Branched from his path, two evil sights he met,
As with one glance. Upon the leftward way,
A naked captive on his charger set,
He saw Sir Lionel. Two knights, who rode
On either side, controlled his rein, and they
So scourged, that downward from his shoulders flowed
A garment of red blood, the while that he
Proved that in bonds and stripes no shame may be
By silent lips, and in blood-blinded eyes
The scorn that courage to strong hearts supplies.
This to left-hand: to rightward shrilled a cry
Of keenest fear, for through the opposing glade
Fast rode a knight, and in his arms a maid
Who strove and wailed. He to the deepest shade
Of that great wood pursued his urgent way.
But she Sir Bors had seen, and charged him now,
By hope of Heaven, by valour, faith, and vow,
Her need to aid. Then thought he: 'What shall I?
If I regard her naught, I do not well.
Yet is it else sure death for Lionel.
For all goodly sort beneath the sky
I would not leave him thus, dear life to lose.
And should he rape her, while to God she cry,
Or loth or fain, she will not likely die.'
And thought again in anguish: 'Vowed am I,
By Christ His cross, the weaker need to choose.'
Yet while this hard debate his reason swayed,
His hand resolved it. Round his charger swung.
Loudly to him who bore that captured maid
He cried high challenge: "Let her loose, or die."
"What wouldst thou?" asked the knight. She is not thine.
Are there not others for thy lust to win
At lighter jeopard, who will twist as she,
And learn their use as lightly? Nay, perde!
If thus thou wilt -" He dropped the maid. He turned.
In one crashed bout he took the wage he earned.
Thrust through the shoulder, dead or swooned he lay.
The damsel at the fallen looked. She said:
"Wilt thou not slay him? He were good to slay.
Well, as thou wilt! I thank a valiant spear.
Yet would I thank thee more to bring me clear
Of these strange woods, for many foes are here,
And my safe manor lies a league away.
This further courtesy I charge thee show,
Till surety in familiar paths I know."
"Damsel, I would not leave thee dangered still,
Though other need to serve a deadlier ill
Awaits the while I pause - "
"I thank thy care.
Find but the bridge, and pass the stream, and there
Is safety where no hostile hoof would dare.
And well for Christ and peace thy spear hath sped;
For surely, had I lost my maidenhed,
Not strife had ended with a hundred dead."
As thus they spake, the woodland boskage through
Came cries, and crashing steeds, and lances shone.
Twelve knights asearch in loud approach they knew.
Shields could be seen of vert and gold, whereon,
With other blazons was an oak tree wide,
That vainly at its roots an axe defied.
That lady with glad cries, and crowding round
They greeted. Praise and thanks to him they gave
Whose lance was equal whom they sought to save;
Whom they too late for most avail had found,
Or else not found her. "A great lord, her sire,
Will give thee welcome, and thy needs require
That he may grant them with most open hand."
"I thank ye," said Sir Bors, "but here I stand
Delayed by this sharp need from need as dire.
May God be with ye all."
"May God at need
Be with thee also, and thy venture speed."
So with good words they left him. Vacant lay
The long straight vista of the left-hand way.
But bracken crushed, and fallen leaves bebled,
Pursuit too surely to its failure led.
He reached at length a castle, dark and grim,
And silent of all life. But not to him
Too huge its challenge, in the mood he knew.
But as his helm he closed, his sword he drew,
Leaving his charger as he turned thereto,
A horseman, from a sideward path who came,
Delayed him. On a mighty steed he rode,
Black as a bear, that such an aspect showed
As in compare had made that charger tame
Which once had borne Sir Percival. But he
Who rode it in no friendly garb was clad,
But priestly vestments told the faith he had.
"My son, what wouldst thou?"
"For my closest kin
I seek, on rescue bent, if that may be;
Or else for vengeance."
"Son, too late thou art.
I grieve to tell thee. Break those boughs apart
That grow most thickly. Thou shalt find therein
Him whom thou seekest slain and cast away.
But those who practised in such sort to slay,
Are distant now beyond thy reach."
The briars apart. A scourged and broken corse
They lifted. Near that silent tower they found
A lowly chapel. In its holy ground
They laid him. Weeping for so dear a loss
And seeking guidance in most doubt. (For who
Should point him surely, wrong or right to do?
Or that he had done at its worth assess?)
Was it God's truth that Lionel's death was less
Than that a maid full loth should force subdue?
"Father," he said, "I walk in doubt. Construe,
I pray thee for my peace, a dream I had."
"To aid thee in thy doubt my heart were glad.
The last night's dream of birds he told,
And of the white flowers, and the cankered tree.
"Strange are thy dreams," the priest replied, "nor all
The warnings for thee that its symbols hold
Is time to tell thee now. But this to know
Is instant for thy peace, lest worse befall
Than that which blinds thine eyes with weeping now.
"The snow-white bird is one who loves thee well.
The smaller fowl a loathly fiend of hell,
Who would prevent what might most fairly be.
Of his black malice and despite for thee
He plots to snare thee through thy pride. For thou
Art so enamoured of thy chastity
That though a maiden for thy love should die
Thou wouldst not ease her."
"Should I break the vow
Which holds me on this quest?"
"Should vows prevail
To hinder mercy? Shouldst thy purpose fail
Through carnal lust, thou wert God's outcast then.
But motives only for the acts of men
Are weighed in Heaven. At thy feet doth lie
One who were living hadst thou judged aright.
What was that maid to thee? Not last to die,
Nay, nor thy dearest, will Sir Lionel be.
Who is there closer to thy heart? For he
Sir Lancelot, is the next thou wilt betray,
Except thou learn that God's elect are they
Who by soft ways or hard perform His will,
And are not stubborn for the harder way,
As therefore godlier. If so much ye learn,
More will I show thee at my soon return."
With that he left him, and that silent hold
Waked to glad life, as though a binding spell
Were lifted. From its gates bright damsels came.
"Hail, gentle knight," they said. "No gain of gold,
No gift of costliest gems should serve as well
For our fair mistress as to hear thy name."
Wondering, he followed to a chamber dight
Full richly, where he cast his arms, and where
The signs of toil he lost, and garments fair
Were tendered on bent knees, as though were he
Liege lord of all who served that seigneury.
Then in an ermine robe arrayed aright,
More fit for monarch than for simple knight,
He went to banquet, and their lady's sight.
Not ever damsel that his eyes had seen,
Spirit or mortal, paramour or queen,
Had stood beside her in content compare.
For not one beauty in extreme was there,
Lure of sweet eyes, or wealth of shining hair,
But all was excellent.
She raised her head,
And showed glad eyes to greet him. "Lord," she said,
"Long have I waited for this hour, for I
Was born to prove it, and thy name to me,
And all thy deeds, have been a rising song."
He answered: "Fairest, of thy courtesy,
Praise not beyond my worth, to do me wrong,
Nor mock my service with too loud a lie."
"I lie not here. As she of Carbonac
Lived for one hour, is kindred fate for me,
Destined to save thee from thy single lack.
For only by thy prideful chastity
Dost thou fall short of virtue. Hence my need
Is nurtured to refusals all exceed;
And thou must own me now, or else I die."
Abashed at this, Sir Bors, without reply
Took at the board his seat. Such cates were there
As matched herself. Was more of choice and rare
Than in a lifetime he had known before.
Then, as the wine was poured, her maids withdrew,
And those who waited, till they were but two,
And while he drank she loosed the belt she wore,
And wooed him ever with awaiting eyes.
And he remembered what the priest had said,
But could not lightly from his heart excise
The vows that held him.
"Fair my lord," she pled,
"To do thy pleasure at this time have I
Dreamed through long years."
"Thou hast not known," he said,
"One closely of my blood is lately dead.
How can I in an hour of grief put by?"
"Can grief his life restore? But else I die."
"Nay, for why shouldst thou?"
Then his hand she took.
"Hast thou no manhood? Canst thou downward look
On all I bare thee, and jest my plea?
What were it to thyself? But death to me
Is else assured. Wilt thou not long repent,
When fallen from this hold's high battlement,
Not only I, but all the ladies mine,
A common end shall seek? For further days
From thy rejection would I shrink to see.
And they, who share good days or worse with me,
Would not live longer."
Yet his eyes were cold,
His heart was doubtful of her truth. Her hold
He loosed, and constant to his faith, replied:
"I pray thee for this time excuse me well."
"Then is my death the price that buys thy pride.
See that I do, and weep too late."
She climbed to those high battlements, and there
Her ladies, wailing, joined her. "Lord," they cried,
"Save us, for with our lady else we die.
Are all our lives against thy chastity
So light a weight? Is other virtue none?"
He saw them, beauteous all, and well beseen,
Poised for that giddy death which most would shun.
Should woes be theirs for joy which else had been
Through that sweet solace which his vows denied?
Surely his guardian angel's wings were wide
At that high moment to obstruct his way.
One forward step was his, and then delay
Strengthened his will to hard resolve; and they
Who lured him knew defeat, and leapt.....
On the green outskirt of the lonely wood.
There was no chapel where he laid the dead:
No walls of silent strength were overhead:
Naught was there but the peace the woodlands know.
Then thanked he God with lifted hands, Who so
Had saved him from that subtle lure. He rode
Through the green peace where seemed that no man bode,
Until, at twilight, at near hand he heard
A clock's slow striking. Turning to the sound,
A high-walled abbey with such gates he found
As would not yield if random violence stirred
Too quickly for relief of Christian men
Without their first reserve. But wide they swung
To give him entrance, when his name was said.
"Few are there greater Arthur's knights among:
A knight who quests the Grail: Sir Bors is he."
They brought fair water for his need; and then
Garments of ease, and to such meal they led
As best their stores could yield. "In courtesy,"
He said, "one further boon I ask. To see
A priest of wisdom who can marvels rede."
They said: "Our ablest will fulfil thy need
As would but few. Within the chantry now
Alone he prays, as oft at eve he may,
For he would ever be alone to pray."
They led him then to one of high degree,
Perfect in gentleness. He told him how,
By God's strong grace, he hardly held his vow,
Being so tempted, and so wiled. "I see
Such trammels round me," at the last said he,
"That much I fear another bout to win."
The priest made answer: "From such snares of sin
Are few knights-errant who release would gain.
But as thy faith so must thy testing be,
For Satan still to take the best is fain.
Thy dreams? Our talk is long: the midnight near.
Tomorrow shall I make their meaning clear."
"Thy dreams," the abbot said, "might well confound
The carnal mind, and holy thoughts confuse.
For godlier might it seem the white to choose
And the black bird reject. But judgement sound
Will seek more deeply than the outward show.
"The raven was the Church. For innocence
Is the more conscious of its sins' offence.
White raiment, till God's time, it will not know.
The swan was Satan, in his bold pretence.
His words betrayed him, when the wage of sin
He offered: "Serve me, and thy deeds shall win
The whole world's riches..... Doth a Christian knight
For pride, for riches, or for glory fight?.....
So came he after as a holy man,
Though blackly mounted on a steed of hell.
He counselled subtly as such demons can,
But falsely of thy brother's death to tell,
Who yet is living. By his wizardry,
Knowing thy manhood and thy gentleness,
He thought to snare thee in such lechery
As had exclusion been, beyond redress,
From the high vision thou art seeking still...
In the two flowers and chair of rotten tree
A simple meaning lay. The chair was he
Thy brother. Evil words and evil will
Proclaimed him cankered. The two flowers are they
Whom thou didst part save. A later day
Will see them in good faith and chastely wed,
Who else on sorrow and on shame had fed,
And he had met damnation. Now to thee
God's favour leans, who left the rotten tree,
Salvation to those periled souls to be."
Came to Sir Bors a talk of tournament.
The land was strange: the names scarce known of they
Who called their fellows for the joyful play.
But thought he: "Where good knights assemble so,
There may be comrades of the quest to greet,
Or haply with Sir Lionel might I meet,
And seek his pardon; though he needs must know
I did not leave him with light cause."
Few miles before a chapel courtyard showed,
Where the fair woodlands left an opening wide.
And there, to expectation all exceed,
Sir Lionel halted at his charger's side.
Sir Bors leapt down. With words of breathless joy,
And with embracing arms outstretched, he ran.
"Brother," he cried, "forgive my late misdeed,
If such it were, for not to mortal man
Can oft such conflicts of temptation press
Than have beset me, who would count it less
Myself to perish than that thou shouldst die."
"Then," said Sir Lionel, "our wills agree.
For here, the while I live, thy death shall be.
Vain are thy words to charm me, false and vain,
Who would with idle hands have seen me slain."
As thus he spake, his horse he gained: "For I
Am vowed to slay thee. If thou canst," he said,
"Defend thee from me. Had our father known
Such traitor that our noble house had bred,
Himself had marked thee with the brand of Cain."
But nothing did Sir Bors his horse to gain.
Low in the dust he knelt: "If wrong I did,
I seek thy pardon. But may God forbid
That we should both our common blood forget."
"Nay, but defend thee, or thy life I let."
"That will I never."
"Wilt thou whining die?"
"I pray thee for God's love thy wrath put by."
Sir Lionel answered with spurred heels. As though
He trampled to the dust a recreant foe
He rode across him. Beaten thus to ground,
Sore bruised, Sir Bors, from conscious life betrayed,
Lay swooning. Lionel from his horse alit.
His brother's helm he seized, and motion made
To loose it, still in savage lust to slay.
But from the chapel gate in haste there ran
A hermit, who had come that morn to pray,
And watched, and heard.
"Fair lord," he cried, "remit
A deed so dreadful, lest, for God unfit,
By His relentless doom for sinful man,
Thy soul be carrion at the judgement day
For fiends to mangle."
"Priest, if such ye be,
Come not between us, which were death for thee,
And scarce one moment would his life acquit.....
Then take the meddler's wage."
The hoary head
Fell backward as the great sword swept its way,
And Lionel bent again the helm to loose.
But came a voice: "What! Would ye all men slay?"
At which he turned a mounted knight to see
Close at his side.
"Who art thou?"
"One who knows
Who both ye are too well to let thee use
Upon thy brother's life thy violence.
I am thy comrade on our sacred quest,
"Then good speed to get thee hence
Will show thy wisdom."
"That I will not do
Except Sir Bors in better safety rest."
To earth he came, the while Sir Lionel threw
The severed helm aside, and raised his blade
The fatal stroke to deal, but felt his arms
Grasped from behind. To earth they wrestling fell.
Sir Bors, arousing at their loud alarms,
Attempt to rise, with dizzy failure, made.
Well did Colgrevance strive, but Lionel
In his fierce wrath the hardier proved. He rose,
And ere Colgrevance could his sword oppose,
He smote the helmet of the weaker knight.
Dazed was he as with pain he rose upright;
Yet with his shield the next hard stroke he met.
Somewhat retreating, sword to sword he set,
And soon Sir Bors, upon his hand who leaned,
A strife more equal viewed. His champion
Smote with full might, and traced and feinted well.
Yet of the finer skill was Lionel,
And as from stroke to stroke the fight went on
Clearer it was for one who watched to see
That his should be the final mastery.
Colgrevance knew it, and his startled eyes
Saw death's black shadow, for no hope was there
Of Lionel's mercy. To Sir Bors he cried:
"Canst thou not aid me? Thou, who hadst but died
Without my rescue, wilt thou naught for me?"
Sir Bors arose. Though dazed and weak of knee,
His sword he drew. But that infirmity
Which held him back before was potent still,
More than the hurt he felt. To maim or kill
Whom he from birth had loved? It could not be.
Sundered by doubt and pressed by shame was he,
The while Colgrevance with more sharp appeal
His aid required... And then too late it were.
He saw his rescuer blindly backward reel,
Blood spurting through his battered helm, until
Beneath a further blow most merciless,
To ground he sank, the hermit's death to share.
Then to Sir Bors Sir Lionel turned: "At last
I have thee!"
"Brother, for those seasons past
In which we loved - "
"A nearer thought is mine
Of one who left me to my death."
He dealt so hard the lifted shield it broke.
Sir Bors at need a sword reluctant drew.
"Only I guard my life to save thy sin."
"It boots not what ye mean, not what ye do.
For futile were thy best thy life to win."
Sword countered sword, and as good strokes he dealt
New life asserting through his veins he felt.
But then a voice he heard: "Sir Bors, forbear.
For shouldst thou strive thou wilt most surely slay."
And with the voice a rushing wind was there,
And flame between them roared their wraths to stay.
It scorched their painted shields. It cast them down
Swooning alike; and as it roared away
Lifeless together on the ground they lay.
Sir Bors was first to rise. He thought with dread
That God's swift bolt has left Sir Lionel dead.
But soon he wakened, and his ruthless mood
The swoon had ended. Now for peace he sued
With words of sorrow for his fault before.
And Bors made answer: "Nay, recall no more
That which to recollection dreamlike grows.
For here is marvel that alone are we.
No slain knight is here, no slaughtered priest we see.
What hath been is no simple thing to say."
He spake but sooth, for what had surely been
They well might doubt; for this is truth to tell
Colgrevance after at the court was seen
So doth not seem to Lionel's sword he fell.
But northward rode Sir Bors, as one will ride
Who seeketh no set place, but, God to guide,
Doth but desire to make the distance wide
Between him and the place he leaves. He came
At eve to abbey walls. The virgin's name
Was surance of the peace he sought; and there
He found good tendance. Though the food was spare,
The couch was soft they gave him. Slept he well
For two short hours, and then the midnight bell
That called the monks to wakeful prayer recalled
His mind to conscious life; or if there be
Such life in sleep, to be again aware
Of earthly circumstance. And waking so
It seemed, that with a voice he did not know,
The darkness called him as a child is bid;
And thus obedient, as it told he did,
Arming, and seeking where his steed was stalled,
And riding forth by night. A space he found
Where the grey wall which was outer bound
Of the lone priory's uncoultered ground
Was tumbled outward, and he rode therethrough
To where on shifting dunes a cold wind blew,
And the sea broke beneath them.
There he knew
Beside the shore, unanchored, motionless,
A ship that seemed not in the wind's control.
Its decks were draped in silken loveliness,
Its sides were sendal-sheathed.
No earthly goal
Would have such preface. So he thought; and so
It seemed the calling of his quest to go
By that strange passage. As he entered in,
The barque to open ocean turned its head.
The sails, like wings self-lifting, outward spread;
And leaping, as to sentient life akin,
More swift across the night-dark waves it fled
Than ever mortal-builded barque shall do.
The night grew darker round it. Naught could he
Of moon or cloud or traversed waters see.
Only the swiftness of her flight he knew
By the strong buffet of the broken air.
But being ever more of God aware
Than of the dangers that to earth belong,
Of that blind path he had no wakeful care,
No doubt of heart his settled faith to wrong.
Upon the silk-soft deck unvexed he lay,
And through the darkness slept, until the day
With bright invasion chased the night away.
He waked to sunlight, and a knight to see
Appearing from beneath, whom joyfully
He hailed, and in that wise was greeted well.
"There are but two," he said, "who like to thee
My heart would welcome."
"That were ease to tell,"
Replied Sir Percival, "for here should be
Sir Galahad to confirm that where we go
The Grail will meet us; and thy thought is set
On Lancelot ever..... How, since late we met,
Hath faith availed, by hell's defeat, to show
The might of God upon thee?"
Then they told
How, by God's grace sustained, they each had fared,
Marvelling, and thanking Heaven, that feet unsnared
Had passed the cunning nets, by fiends controlled.
And as they talked, the barque, that no man steered,
Of currents heedless, or of winds that veered,
Of tides, of tempests, or of waters shoaled,
Careered its swift, undeviating way.
The Vision Of The Grail.
Sir Galahad wandered long, and wandered far
In those wild lands where ever ventures are,
Beyond belief of men whose hearts prefer
Warm beds at night, and peace of fold and garth,
The autumn harvest and the winter hearth,
And will not from known roads and dealings stir.
Strange were the toils he dured, the sights he saw.
Wondrous and strange beyond those weirds which came
To Bors and Percival. For Heavenly law
Tempers to each the test, and deals the blame
On those who may not to their most adjust
Resistance to the snares of doubt or lust,
Of hate, or greed, or envy.
No man knew
The pits he passed, or broke what barriers through,
Until a damsel of such kind he met
As seldom, on whatever quest he ride,
A knight may counter. In his path she set
Her side-reined palfrey.
"Fair my lord," she said,
"Meseemeth that our further paths agree."
"That may be plain to you, but less to me.
What is thine aim herein, and what may be
The destination thine?"
"Long leagues I bring
A girdle that I twined for only thee.
Soon shalt thou take it as a seemly thing,
Finding no fault in my companionship."
"Who art thou, of such gentle mien, and yet
In words so confident?"
False guise to strip
From hell's fair agents, who with lustful net
Of subtle weavings would contrive his fall,
He had been practised; and the sword of prayer
Was ever sheathless to his thoughts recall
From wanderings of desire. But more aware
Of carnal longing in his heart was he
Than had been from the fiend's most potent snare,
And thus he asked her. Yet her prudency
Neither her aspect nor her garb denied:
For greed too gentle, too assured for pride,
Doubtless of evil, of the mood to dwell
With quiet coolness in the heart of hell.
"I am," she said, "a sister of thy friend,
"God's knight, Sir Percival. To equal end
Him may we seek as one."
"I seek the Grail."
"There is no difference in the path thereto.
Come with me therefore."
"Should thy guidance fail - "
"It shall not, truly."
As the path she knew
She led him, and as one by spells constrained
He followed, till a wild seashore they gained,
And by the shore a waiting barque, and there
Sir Bors they greeted, and Sir Percival,
And went aboard; at which the barque, as though
It had but waited for that freightage fair,
Turned seaward, on such flying course to go
As Heaven alone should lead, or faith should dare.
For Faith its name, and had themselves been less
Than confident of God in righteousness,
They had been wreckage for the winds to tear.
But to a shore they came, they knew not where,
On which they landed. Here a squire they met
Who charged them to their names and race declare,
And warned them, when he heard: "Our lord is set
In changeless malice, all thy Table's pride
In mire to trample. Sixty champions ride
Behind his pennon."
"Though we fear," they said,
"His malice naught, yet any blood to shed
Is not our purpose. In God's peace we go.
Need we this hostile tower to pass?"
The lower road avails. But heed ye well
That those within a seaward hold who dwell
May claim a custom which they will not miss."
"That shall be answered at its worth."
A road along the sounding shore. Ahead
Were walls of strength nor tide nor tempest shook,
So were they founded, though their stretched extent
Countered the waves for half their round, and sank
Their hard foundations where the seas were high.
Leaving the road, their course they inward bent,
Thinking in quiet peace to pass it by.
But those had seen them from the wall who sent
A knight to cross their way. "Fair lords," he said,
"The lady with you - is she wife or maid?"
She answered ere they spake: "A maid am I.
Why dost thou ask?"
He caught her rein: "For thee
Our custom calls."
"Withhold," Sir Galahad said,
"She rides molestless, as a maid unwed."
"We have a custom which she must not miss."
"Ye do not honour yourself in this.
I charge thee leave her."
"That I will not do.
Let prudence rule thy speech. Regard that we
(Not all have come) are thirty knights to three."
Soothly he spake, for on this sharp debate
A score of castle knights intruded now,
By violence or consent, they cared not how,
Their will to have. The hand importunate
Upon her rein, to draw her forward strove.
At which the swift sword of Sir Percival
Came down, to cleave it from its arm.
Was signal of such strife as none will know
Save those who in their faith are confident,
And think not those who make of God their foe
Can be too many for good knights to slay.
Against them like a rushing wind they went,
Three against thirty, and as corn is bent
So quailed they from them. Full a score were slain
Before the jostling remnant could regain
The safety of the gate.
The three rode on
With her they guarded well, but had not gone
A five-score yards, before a single knight
Came from the gate, and hailed them.
"Dost thou regard not where a score are slain?
And would ye singly lose your life in vain
Some monstrous custom to assert anew?"
"Nay, surely, for I come in peace. Behold,
Neither for strength of steel nor gift of gold,
But that good reason should your hearts control,
My lady sent me. Much her thoughts lament
Her knights' rash violence which you well prevent.
And now she asks that for no further dole,
But in fair amity of heart and hand,
You should remain to find your knightly needs
In all assured, and on the sworn accord
That not by sleight or wile, or bout of sword,
We shall your ease or morning leave withstand."
To this consent they came, and good repast
Was theirs, and all things as should rightly be,
Conforming not to that discourtesy
Which was so largely paid; and at the last
Sir Galahad asked them why the first had stayed
A peaceful passage. "I would wit," said he,
"What is this custom that rude hands are laid
On ladies' bridles."
"That," they said, "to thee
We tell with freedom, as we meant to do.
Not without hope that willing aid from you
May yet be rendered.
"Here a lady dwells,
Who owns not this great tower alone, but wide
Her rule extendeth from the ocean-side
To the far hills. But that dominion
Gives her no joy. For ten long years hath she
Been rotting to slow death from leprosy,
Physicians failing to relieve her woe.
But said one charm-wise crone long years ago
That could the blood of one in deed and will
Clean maid be used to cleanse her, then would she
Be quickly whole; but else it could not be.
"Therefore in loyal service have we sought
Such cure to find, and many maids have bled
- Maids of clean life were they, or so they said -
And some have waned, but most unharmed have shed
Blood they could plainly spare, but none thereby
Have given healing. So we seek her still,
Not only clean of life but clean of will."
To this the sister of Sir Percival
Was first to answer: "This is clear to see:
Death must be hers except my rescue be."
"That," said Sir Galahad, "might thy life require.
It is not reason."
"Should my choice retire
From such high challenge, much my shame. But fair
Mine earthly praise, with Heaven's approval, were
If I should heal her, though I lost thereby
God's loan of life. But deaths there shall not be
Continuing here, if my one jeopardy
Can lift the shadow that this curse hath cast."
Then jocund were the castle knights to see
Good hope of end to their iniquity
Which long had bound them, for their lady's gain,
To such foul use. And on the following day
That damsel who was clean in act and will
Gave freely of her blood, which flowed until
A measured bowl was brimmed. And then, full fain
To save her, Percival and Galahad
Laboured to staunch it, but too late were they
More than for some short hours to death delay.
Earth was her loss, she said, and God her gain,
In quiet words that died to silence soon.
But not in vain she died. For now was seen
She who was leprous whole and fair and clean,
Though to what end a doubt is left; for they
By whom this tale is told are clear to say
That when the knights of Arthur left there came
God's wrath in tempest, and the lightning's flame
Shattered that hold, and left its ramparts low,
Avoiding only where they laid the dead
Who vainly for its dame's relief had bled
In previous days. And yet, if this be so,
And those who used this custom all were slain
By God's swift judgement, must this doubt remain:
Why for those others who had died in vain
No thunder sounded? This at least is sure,
She who in act and thought alike was pure
At her life's price that foul disease repelled,
And this shall wholly for her praise be held
Though righteous judgement may its cause condemn.
There came to Galahad, in that night of woe,
A dream of God. The sister of Percival
Came to him. In moonlight at his couch she stood.
Her lifted arms, but in no amorous war,
Were strained to Heaven, and small, and wide apart,
As from the upward beating of the heart
Cast off, but very fair, her breasts he saw,
And all beside in shadow.
And he thereat
The thirst that warred with all his vows forgat,
The love that lured him. and the fear that fled,
And seeking for his own her faith to know,
"Lo, I will follow the where you lead," he said.
But not she answered, nor with downward eyes
Looked on him at all, and in that dream's surmise
More distant seemed she than in life, although
Remote in life as God from love's fierce woe.
But when he arose, and bent, and kissed her feet,
She spake: "O Galahad, here no more we meet,
Till God's great angel sound, and heaven be rent.
Yet know ye for that loss I naught repent,
Nor that for one not worth my life I gave,
Gave to no gain, and might in nowise save.
Seek ye the quest ye vowed; for naught beside
Is here of earth shall long the hands abide
That reach it: naught suffice, and naught endure:
The shadows only, and the night are sure."
And the moon clouded, and the darkness came.
And waking from that dream he rose, and knelt
Before the shadowed shrine of her, to whom
All woes are less than those she dured; that she
Can heed no pain but first herself she felt,
From the first birth-pang, till the broken tomb
Showed triumph at last; and sought her aid to free
His heart from that which all he vowed with-stood.
"O Queen of Peace, O sorrow unsearchable,
O thou that sinless in our ways hath trod,
O heart shown vermeil on the shield of God,
Pale lips, and eyes of deep and deathless joy,
Grant me this gain, that not to turn my feet
From this high quest, shall aught of earth I meet
Prevail, but single, till God's Grail I see
My heart intend, and that which more shall be
I ask not."
Thence with strengthened hope he rose,
And armed, and forth, and under skies that showed
Stars only, through the shadowy courtyard rode,
And outward through a ruined wall, and chose
The desolate way that led by drift and dune,
And then but sand and sea; and saw the moon
Silvering the waters where it sank, the while
From that weird sea no mortal barque had sailed
Surf sounded, and a sea-born wind prevailed.
Now separate rode the three. A wayside chance
That called the service of a single lance
Engaged Sir Bors; and Galahad sought apart
To mourn her who in life had held his heart,
It might be doubted, from his destined way,
So had he loved her, who no word had said,
Nor she to him, beyond what comrades say.
From golden dawn he rode till eve was red,
From eve's red fault to golden dawn he rode,
Save for good care upon his steed bestowed
Regarding naught, and none his course withsaid,
Until a knight at crossing ways he met
By whom a ready spear to rest was set
In instant challenge, as the screening trees
Gave sight of what, though less of whom, they were.
But Galahad, of the blue shielded-lions aware,
Declined that challenge, and apart again
Swerved through the thickness of the woods; for he
Lonely with God to guard his grief would be:
While Lancelot, careless of a knight unknown,
Pursued a different path as wild and lone.
No sheltering roof he sought, no highway held,
Nor purposed path, nor turned for wild or way,
Nor height of crag, nor depth of stream repelled,
Nor threats of hostile lands his course could stay.
Naught found he of the Grail, but reached at last
A forest virgin, pathless, wild and vast,
Wherein he wandered long a weariest way.
Hard fared he in those wilds, and scant he fed,
And dimly faded from his mind as dead
The thoughts of honour and strife that once had sway,
Cold was the pulse and slow, and ash the fire,
And lost were old delight and old desire,
And all that once his errant fancy led.
But outward came he from long toils to where
He found wide plains beneath him, salt and bare,
Sand-wastes amid the waters, and the day
Sank downward, reddening all the west. There through
To pass he sought, nor yet for night to stay
Enforcing to his will the western way,
Till storm with night a doubled darkness drew,
And cold rain came; but while one westward star
Showed through the wrack, a beacon faint and far,
His course he held, till heavier tempest swept
The darkened heaven, and waters washed his way,
And the faint light failed of that single star
To blackness of the abhorred: and where he stept
Against his feet the sounding waters leapt,
And where he turned alike.
At this (content
That not God's will shall any toil relent,
And rest is meet when all is tried that may),
Being wearied, on the wet sand couched, he slept.
Then came there to Sir Lancelot where he lay
A dream of good. To that wild beach there came,
Through the great deep, and on the dawn aflame
A darkness lifted by the heaving sea,
A ship; but all rose-light to closer view,
And like the calyx of a flower half spread
It shaped. Nor sail nor oar its motions led,
But toward him seeking like a sentient thing
Its course it chose; and in this surance grew
Joy beyond aught of seeming cause, and past
All joys before, its shoreward course to know.
But when it grounded on that beach, and low
The falling tide lapped round it, while he sought,
Advancing toward its shining side, to see
The inward meaning of that mystery,
No more the thunderous floods upcast;
Of darkness, and wild strife of storm was naught,
But wide quiet sands, and ever lessening sea;
And dawn was on the waters. Dawn aflame
Devoured half heaven, and midst its burning core,
A blackness on the heaving seas, there bore
Down on the land - but like an opening flower
Of shining pearl, rose-flushed, to nearer view -
A ship that mast nor sail nor oar controlled;
But sentient-seeming toward the land it came,
Though tide nor wind allied it. In that hour
Joy, beyond aught of seeming cause, he knew,
As inward to that barren beach it drew,
And round it lapped the falling tide; and bold
In that belief of joy, he sought its side,
And clomb, and no man hailed him. Undenied,
Crossed the still decks, and past his dream there grew
Joy beyond cause, before its cause he knew.
For midmost in that windflower's heart was laid,
As flower in flower, as noon in heaven, a maid,
The sister of Percival. As when she died,
Ere from her heart the vain-shed life had dried,
More fair than sinful thought may dream or say,
Corruptless as the eternal skies she lay;
And Lancelot, nearing, felt such peace as ne'er
Afore he knew. For here might no sin dare,
Nor pain, nor grievance of remembered wrong,
Nor thirst of human need, nor hunger here,
Nor misery of regret, nor future fear.
But that great peace a cloak around her lay,
God's peace, that here to rede is no man may.
Tranced on that sight he gazed, the while unware
The land fast failed, as that strange barque anew
Its course along the pathless waters flew.
Seven days with Lancelot and that damsel dead,
Unoared, across the windless seas it fled
Westward; but when the last quiet dusk was red,
It grounded softly on an open shore
Of wide salt wastes; and as full night was nigh,
And first faint stars attained an empty sky,
Was nearly there, the lapping bows before,
The sound of hooves in heavy sand that trode.
For there came Galahad. In lone quest had he
Seen from far off, across that waveless sea,
The flying barque's approach, and fain he rode
Its cause to search, and when that freight he knew
Of her who in his sight had died, and who
Alone in life had haply drawn aside
His thoughts from Heaven, but in that dole she died,
Leaving his steed to wander where it would,
He entered, and the live barque loosed its stay,
Down-gliding to the rising tide anew,
And winged again o'er open seas its way.
From fall of autumn, through the darker days,
Moved that strange barque that no man steered and led
Where no man since hath followed, by wild sea-ways,
And isles of wonder and strange chance, that they
Gazed oft such sights as not man's speech may say,
And perils theirs of which no tale is said.
At last, with dawn, beneath their bows, they saw
A wide white beach, and thence a rising land
Clothed in great woods, and down that shining strand
An armed knight rode from out the trees, and led
A mighty steed unridered. White was he,
Unspecked, and housed in white from neck to knee.
Then that strong knight, but in no feir of war,
Approached them, grounding on wet sands, and said
"The good knight Galahad seek I. Here I bring
Fit steed to bear him to the wounded King."
Well knew they then that separate ways must be.
Yet both they landed, as the falling sea
Receded from them, and in converse dear
Lost the long hours, until, when night was near,
Sir Galahad mounted, that last quest to ride.
"Father," he said, "God keep us, for we meet
No more from various ways, by wild or street,
Till the last trumpet tear the night aside."
Thereat he answered: "Son, the when we may,
I will that at the Father's feet we pray
To hold us in His keeping."
"No prayer than thine (nor any prayer more fain
Than mine for thee), I would that Heaven might gain
To plead the weakness of my need." And so
Turned the great steed, and took the path that led
Through the green shadows, toward the sunset's glow,
And the boughs hid him.
With night, the winds of God
Swept the wide heavens, and in that barque returned,
Wild driven and far, a path by no man learned,
While the threshed waves the echoing tempest trod,
Drave Lancelot ever. But when two nights had been
Peace came, and quiet waters, and nearly seen,
Clear in the still light of the cloudless moon,
That in the arc of heaven had climbed its noon,
A castled strand. On that slope beach aground
Stayed the strange barque, and Lancelot leapt ashore,
And climbed toward the castle, but felt no more
The joy that held him in it. The seaward side
Of that great tower, a buttressed wall and wide,
Rose sheer and gate-less for all its length. He found
In the far angle, where the shadows lay,
A postern at the last. But crouching grim
There were two lions that held it. To break his way,
His sword came sheath-less to his hand unthought,
His shield he dressed unknowing. But on the stone,
Smitten from his grasp, the cast blade rang.
His sight beheld that did it. There came to him
A voice of waters, or the seawinds' moan,
Unbodied, of the darkness, "Wilt thou yet,
O faithless, ever on the flesh depend,
Even at the goal of all thy hope?" He left
The sword unheeded on the path. He strode
Straight forward, where that baleful guard were set.
From either side they leapt upon him. They reft
His shield, and trampled on it. They turned to rend
A foe prove fenceless in their wrath, but he
Already their straitened right had passed. His road
Was open now. The moonlit court he crossed.
None stirred to stay him. The silent mystery
Of the great keep received him. Across his way
The patterned moonlight of the casements lay,
Down the long hall. In echoing darkness lost,
By narrower ways, to frequent doors he came,
But open all; and faint before him grew,
And gaining ever, clear-toned, a choral hymn,
That voices seeming not of earth, or through
The ardent heating of devotion's flame
Informed of Heaven, at some great altar sung,
In lauding of the Highest. And there among
To meet, and worship in like mood, to him
Seemed bliss to strive and die for. Onward still
At hastening pace he strode, and found the door
He sought, and opened to a room forthright
Filled of such wonder of sufficing light,
That all things else as shades of darkness seemed,
Unreal to that intense and searching fire.
In such concentrate light might no sin be,
That shrinks its sight as scorching flame, but he,
So sought he God, and in such strong desire,
Fear was not. Toward the exceeding light he strove.
But from that core a fierce heat burst, and cast
Outward, and closed that opened door more fast,
And a voice warned him: "Tempt ye not too far
His grace to wrath Who knows ye that ye are."
And he shrank backward, shamed, and all forebore.
But anguished more from that repulse he cried:
"O Lord, if ever in all of aught I served,
However later from Thy laws I swerved,
If ever in all I served, to that degree,
Grant in Thy grace that here Thy light I see."
And the door opened while he prayed, and through
The outshining light, beyond all hope, he knew
The Grail itself, but covered. From sinful sight
Not veiled in darkness, but extreme of light
Was round it, blinding, that its shape was dim.
Thereat he would have entered again, but found
As by strong cords his palsied feet were bound,
Beyond his strength to break, and on his breast,
Beyond his strength, a seeming hand was pressed,
And came again the voice: "Tempt not too far
His grace to wrath Who knows ye that ye are,
Thus God's mercy came to him.
To Camelot Lancelot turned his charger's head,
Having no joy, though better peace he knew.
"It was God's largesse, not my worth," he said,
"So much that showed me. Now to strive anew
Must I, with clean intent, His will to do,
Who have been blessed so largely."
But the while,
Afar the helmless barque that held the dead
A backward course for other freight had fled.
Upon the further coast of Carbonac
Galahad it found, and Bors, and Percival,
Assembled from their devious ways, and they
Entered where yet the dead unaltered lay.
To those who sail the utmost wastes of sea,
Except they founder, or as wrecks are cast
On some bleak shore, it must be at the last
From their long wandering that some port will be.
So should it be for Faith's self-guided barque.
They watched and waited. Did they think to see
Some heavenly splendour when the leagues of sea
At last were ended? Did they hope to find
Some spiritual city, where men's thoughts inclined
Ever to God?
To marble quays they came,
Round a wide bay where dome and temple rose
In dazzling whiteness to the sunlit blue.
Sarras men called it, and the heathen name
Through the vast East, that Pagan usage knew,
Was like a sound of evil. Estronore
Was tyrant of the land. Before his throne
The Christian knights were brought, Their captors said:
"These three have landed from a barque which lay
A moment at the quay, but since hath flown
So swiftly seaward that we might not stay
Its crew for question. Strange their speech; but by
The barbarous arms they wear, we deem that they
From some far land beyond thy rule have fled,
And bring them here for judgement."
One skilled in tongues."
A slave interpreter
Was brought, and bidden in their speech enquire:
Who were they?
"Here as God's adventurer
I come, as come my comrades," Galahad said,
"Being three knights of Christ, whose sole desire
Is one thing sacred to ourselves to find,
Doing no evil."
"Christian knights are they?"
The tyrant said. "For their repugnant kind
Can be no mercy. Lest their swords oppose
Our judgement, let them with bland words be led
To the great dungeon which we keep for those
Who shall be slaughtered on our festal day."
So was it done. As men with forward feet
Will move a feast to find, a bride to meet,
So to the dungeon of their doom conveyed,
The three by ignorance and guile betrayed
Went blithely, for the words around them said
Were void of meaning, and their steps were led
By signs that had no breach of courtesy.
But when the keys were turned, the great bolts fell,
They saw the standard of that perfidy,
Omen of tortures and of deaths to be;
Yet for despondence had no cause, for while
They leant on Heaven, the snares of human guile
Were fearless to them as the snares of Hell.
Walls may be hard to breach by human kind,
But God, who all forethought, and all designed,
And the thin substance of our days hath wrought
As on a mirror cast by procreant thought,
Can put the fabric of strong walls aside
For larger vision.
Thus did Heaven provide
Triumphant answer to the Pagan pride
That captured those good knights; for came a day
When seemed their dungeon walls were rapt away:
A marvel of translucent skies they knew,
In which the utmost heavenward heights displayed
Their white-winged angels. Midst that shining host,
And shapen like the chalice flower that most
Belongs the spring, its inward heart afire
And glorious with a rosier gold than shows
That inmost flower, as ruddy with God's own rose,
Implicit of deeper gold than earth's, they knew
The Grail divine. And then a wind they felt
That downward swept, and swanlike wings were wide,
That hid Sir Galahad the where he knelt;
And when they rose, his earthly bonds aside
His soaring soul had cast.
Gazed on that loss, and by his own desire
The same high course had held; but not for him
God's trumpets sounded then.
To Bors he said,
With sorrow-blinded eyes who wept the dead:
"Now wilt thou with me these brief years remain,
With naught but earth to lose, and Heaven to gain?"
But answer made Sir Bors: "I know not why
The vision blessed me. Had it passed me by
I less had wondered. But (and this may be
My condemnation to such eyes as see
God's truth unblinded) while this life persist,
Even those whose lips the feet of Christ have kist
Meseems should rather to its labours turn
Than thus renounce them. Is it praise to spurn
The obligations that our births imply?
Yet will I constant at thy side be found
While friendship's bonds require."
The while they spake,
The walls returned around them; but the sound
Of feet approaching came their bonds to break,
For Estronore to mortal sickness fell,
And ere he died, his periled soul to save,
An urgent charge to those around he gave
Those Christian knights to loose, and serve them well.
Free were their steps to leave, or free to stay,
In all things honoured; but alike were they
In one care only: in one grave to lay
The mortal part that Galahad cast, and who
The nearest in his heart to God he knew.
Three months Sir Bors in steady friendship stayed
Beside his comrade, who, the while he prayed,
Slackened each day the bond of earth, until
One morn, while the long winter lingered still,
Though snowdrops showed beneath the melting snow,
They found him lifeless.
When his corse was laid
In God's blest earth, Sir Bors his journey made
Across the desert land and sundering sea,
Till the fair vales and meadows of Logre
Repaid his toils. So he the years had lost
Came homeward at the eve of Pentecost,
Last of the remnant who that quest survived.
A full year was it since had those arrived
With whom hope ended.
Silence held the hall
The while his tale was told.
King Arthur said:
"We may not sorrow. For we thought them dead.
Nor surely knew that they had vanquished all
Retarding gins by Hell's dark angels spread."
And Lancelot: "Joy is mine thy tale to hear;
And know that sight to which I came so near
To cleaner hearts and humbler eyes was clear...
Bring you no word from Galahad?"
"This he said:
Greet well my father. For his lasting gain
Charge him regard the snares that demons spread
For those who in our mortal toils remain;
And most for those whom God regards, for they
Are noised through Hell's black depths a boasted prey."
"I will regard it well. Though grief to me
The Grail's full glory was not mine to see,
Yet is it triumph that my closest kin
Were chosen by God's grace that bliss to win.
But now I would that we, and only we,
Having been blessed that sight of God to see,
And here returned to common life, shall dwell
Together always; till the night shall be."
"To that good thought my heart assenteth well."
"But Arthur asked him: "Canst thou doubtless tell
That from the Earth the Grail hath passed? And we
Are hopeless of its healing light to see?
Hopeless that it shall spread redemption now?"
"We saw it," said Sir Bors, "from Earth retire
Far and far upward. Angels, quire on quire,
Remote in distance, through their lifted wings
Accepting and concealing."
So the dream
Of Arthur ended. So God's verdict came,
That few might see, and none of all reclaim,
That which sin sundered.
From that distant day
There is no man hath soothly dared to say
The Grail hath blessed him. Yet may faith remain,
Though God from sinful sight retire the Grail,
Yet evil shall not to the last prevail,
But righteousness and peace assertive show
That He Who reigns above shall rule below.
Elaine of Astolat.
Slow peace that watched the warlike days recede
Droused in the land. With tale of warrior deed,
With song of warrior toil, and warrior need,
The halls were loud, the while the rusting blade
Slept in the sheath.
Now Arthur held his court
In London's ancient walls. But oft resort
To Camelot made, with aim to bring recall
Of former splendours when the realm was young.
So came it that he spake in middle May
To those around him: "Lords, we rest too long.
And therefore, on the near Assumption day,
I will proclaim so large a tourney-test
As well may draw the boldest and the best
From all the lands that hear it. Caradoc
And I will jointly all the world oppose.
Those from the furthest lands allied with those
Of Gales, and Ireland, and Northumbria,
Surluse, and Listonaise, our ranks to shock
May freely on a common front combine,
And break us if their many spears outshine
Our narrower ranks. It was not boast too high
One time to thus the gathered world defy.
Who could the Table shake? And I would not stand
On height of reputation insecure.
"The turmoil and the flashing chance of war
This five years past we have not known. But though
The pulse that nears shunned age may beat more slow,
Controlled to ordered course of use and law,
And restful in accomplished ends, we yet
Have neither wholly lost, nor all forget
Valour and strength, and skill and fortitude.
And still of those our present ranks include
The noblest may prevail, the least endure."
Therefrom his heart was glad, for those who heard,
As by the summons of a trumpet stirred,
Had shown no slackness in response. But soon,
Like a black cloud across the light of noon,
Came other causes for despondency.
For when from London in due time, with press
Of knights and earls and barons numberless
And many ladies and their trains (for they
Were mindful to regard the gentle play,
The inspirations of their lords to be,
Rewards or consolations) forth he set,
The queen was absent: "Dear my lord," said she,
"I am too sick to ride. I may not go.
I have no heart for tourneys."
Made over-late excuse: "Last night I felt
A stirring in that wound that Mador dealt,
Which warned me I would wiselier resting bide
Than join these jousts, to stand perforce aside
When strong spears enter, and to hear men say:
"Sir Lancelot is a knight of yesterday:
He dares no longer where the first contend!
I needs must plead thy pardon, king and friend."
Full woe'd was Arthur, who with large intent
To please these twain had made that tournament,
And thinking for his own delight to view
His mightiest in the world-known lists renew
The deeds of old; and hear his queen acclaimed
Again by shouting thousands: fairest named,
Noblest and kindliest, while the mortal slur
That nearly stained her fame, removed from her,
Left those who slandered or who doubted shamed.
But angered was the queen. With sharp demur
She spake to Lancelot when she heard: "Hast thou
No thought for what our watchful foes will say,
That we controlled by common purpose stay
To take our pleasure while the king is far?"
He answered, vext beyond his wont: "Too late
You talk of caution. Who but taketh now
The count of what we do, and what we are?
Nor did I feign. I am not fit to go.
Yet will I, as thou wilt; but secretly,
And as I find at last my strength to be
I will adventure, or the chance forgo."
Beyond the stream, beyond the town, there stood
Closed in the deep heart of the hiding wood
The tower of Astolat.
Sir Lancelot rode
Aside the town to seek more quiet abode
Than there should be; and late, as even sped,
Found the woodpath to the lone tower which led,
And there arrived, and was of none withstood.
Some space of tilth he passed: some gateways through:
Finding free course where no man stirred.
Fell somewhat toward a shining moat that lay
Round a gaunt tower.
Its open gate within,
The daughter of the knight of Astolat,
Elaine, looked out through wide lit doors which showed
The darkness of the wood. The sky behind
Crimsoned the gloom; and where the path inclined
To meet the junction of the wider road,
Dark on the light of that red dusk she saw
So fair a knight, as meeting fates befell,
(With back-slung shield he rode, and helm at selle)
That love she might not at her need withdraw
She gave. And well might any knight forget
All else, when tangled in that offering net
When summer ways were kind. So fair was she;
And formed of God that none but Nimue
Such grace of love to whom she loved could pay.
"Fair one," he asked, "is any knight within?"
"Why dost thou ask?"
"I seek a boon."
And my two brothers at this hour are due.
From Guildford should they make return, wherethrough
The king's long train since morn hath moved; for he
Made there his halt to range it."
This to say
The time was short before they came. The three,
In peaceful furnish of festivity,
Gave friendly greeting to the armoured knight
Who at their gates had halted. Would he rest
In their poor walls? Sir Bernard asked. Or how
Were it their grace to serve him?
"That I seek,"
Sir Lancelot answered, "would I well requite,
Beyond its value. If a shield unshown
Be on thy walls, or one of such device
That all may bear it in this land, its loan
Would do me service."
"Such a shield to lend,"
Sir Bernard answered, "to a knight unknown
Might well a treason cloak, or shame a friend.
Yet would I trust thee... No such shield have I.
My years of saddle and lance are past. In far
Spent days I fought, a knight in Uther's war,
When round his bier be broke his foes. But now
My shield is rust and worn: would none rely
On its cracked shelter. This my son ye see,
Sir Tirre, may be thy better aid, for he
In his first bout was maimed, and may not ride
In turmoil of the lists. His shield to spare
Would be no forfeit, and its front is bare....
But if this shifting of thy shield be meant
For baffling at the coming tournament,
I ask a boon in turn. That at thy side,
Lavaine, my younger son, with license ride.
Age hath not dulled my wit, nor dimmed mine eyes
So greatly that I fail thy worth to see.
He would have guidance and support in thee,
Whatever night should fall, or dawn should rise."
To which Sir Lancelot answered: "For my need
Sir Tirre's good shield will well suffice. For I
Ride to thy guess, a nameless lance to try
At the great tourney. Should I fairly speed,
I will return and tell it. Where I ride
I thank thee that thy son shall keep my side;
As also that his brother's shield shall be
My charge to keep. Nor may it fail with me
Some reputation for itself to gain,
If God's good favour aid."
This treaty made,
Within that kindly tower Sir Lancelot stayed
The next three days, while in the town the king
The Table's total strength was marshalling
Before he moved on Camelot. Naught was said
Of Lancelot's name, nor those who dwelt therein
(At life's first threshold, or whose youth was fled)
Or knew or guessed it.
When, at prime of day,
He rose to leave, Elaine, with all to win,
And naught to lose, who those three days had spent
To woo his favour, asked him ere he went:
"Fair knight, I pray thee of thy grace, declare
If damsel's favour in love's lists you wear?"
He answered: "Nay, God witness, none wear I."
She said: "I might not this red sleeve deny
To whom should ask, found worthy."
"Not to me,"
He answered, "should so great thy favour be."
But then he thought: "The thing I have not done
In these long years would be such cloak that none
Would know me... Damsel, if that sleeve I show
It will conceal me well. For those who know
My use and guise in tourney strife will so
Be most confounded, whom no stranger's shield,
Or change of arms had past one course concealed.
And fair I hope that not thy grace shall be
So much unguerdoned that thy sleeve shall fail
To float unfallen where strong knights prevail.
And this I ask thee, of thy courtesy,
To guard the shield I leave, for, speed I well,
I shall return to claim it."
"That will I,"
She answered gladly, and he rode away,
Lavaine beside him.
Well, it showed to her,
Her three days' suit had sped. Her scarf he wore:
His shield she guarded. At a short delay
He must return to claim it. So she dreamed
Through summer days, and so she dreamed in vain,
For divorce to that lonely tower again
Should Lancelot enter.
Now to Camelot
The byway paths he chose, and entering there
When dusk had fallen made unmarked repair,
Lavaine his guide, to one Sir Bernard knew,
A burgess of the town; and there he lay
Till the near dawning of the tourney day.
"Lancelot will come disguised," so thought the king,
- The guess was right, though not the reasoning -
"For so he purposed when excuse he made.
He will hold back, the weaker side to aid,
And thus is likelier on their part to be
Who face the Table. Joy it were to see
Our mightiest meet him, as they seldom do;
So much his might in younger days they knew....
Yet would I not that he in such misguise
Should meet with Gawain, lest new wraths should rise;
For never yet hath Gawain worship won
From such encounter."
Hence he sought to keep
Lord Gawain from the lists, and charged him bide
At his right hand: "For surely at my side
I need thy judgement when the lances leap,
And I must rule the tourney's fluctuant tide."
To which Sir Gawain, inly well content,
Made answer: "Lord, I hold my strength unbent
For call of war, but not as once I seek
By tourney-test to prove it. As thou wilt
I will abide thee."
Now the lists were set.
High called the trumpets as the Table met
The outer realms. Could Arthur's might withstand
North Gales, and Scotland, and Northumberland,
Ireland, and Listonaise, and Brittany,
The Hundred knights behind their landless king,
And paladins from round the Southland sea,
Iberia, and its isles, and Italy,
And Paynims from the east far-wandering?
So did it surely. As stout boars may meet
A scattering hound-pack that from each retreat
Rallies, and rushes, breaks, and forms anew,
So did the Table, in close order due
Break and remain unbroken; flinging back
Their various foes from each combined attack;
Or knight with knight alone encountering
In the midfield, while either rank withdrew
To give them space to prove their worth.
Watched with content, for Palomides threw
North Gales; and he the Hundred knights who led
Sir Galahalt by fine force discomfited.
But then, from out a little wood thereby,
Two knights advanced their twofold strength to try
Against the Table. Side by side they drew
To the torn front which lightly let them through.
All eyes were on them: if the best they sought,
Such were the spears that on themselves they brought.
Well with his greater comrade rode Lavaine,
Equal the course he matched with Agravain,
Lucas he cast, and with a single spear
Foiled the war-hardened might of Bedivere,
And flung Ozanna of the Hardy Heart.
Lancelot the while sustained his harder part,
Who now with one unbroken lance downbore
The Table's loftiest names. They sank as corn
At the wind's impulse. Down was Sagramore,
Dodinas was down, and Griflet Fils de Dieu;
And Kay, shorn crestless, from the lists withdrew,
Orkney's three brethren from that strife no less,
Brandiles, wounded struggling through the press,
And Melliot's limping gait his might allowed.
Hard on the barriers swayed the cheering crowd,
Amazed, for seemed it by such deeds as though
The knights of most repute, by treason slain,
Tristram or Lamorack, had returned again.
"Who is he?" Asked Sir Gawain.
"Well I know,"
Answered the king, "but now I will not say."
Marvelled Sir Gawain: "Much in Lancelot's way
He rides, and like in stature, strength and skill;
Yet is not he, who neither would nor will
Bear lady's favour in the tourney throng."
"Let be," said Arthur, "you shall learn ere long."
But not so feeble nor so few were they
Who held the Table's front that cold dismay
Should daunt them for such falls. Sir Bors was first
The Benoic knights to call. Around him were
Ector, and Aliduke, and Bellengere;
And Lionel joined them; and his closer kin,
Blamor and Bleoberis; and thereto
When Galihud and Galihodin drew,
With ninefold strength they forward thrust. They met
Sir Lancelot on their broken front. As one
Three lances smote him: Bors' and Lionel's
And Ector's. Onward slid Sir Bors', bloodwet
But pointless; for the point its goal had won
In Lancelot's hawberk ere it snapt. Fordone,
His charger rolled; and as he rose he felt
The wounds sharp pain. That mortal hurt was dealt
Well might he fear; but with the fear arose
Resolve before he failed to break his foes.
That moment at his side Lavaine he knew,
And ere how wounded were they, or how few,
Had Benoic learned, in mounted strength anew
They forward charged; and there Sir Blamor fell
Before Lavaine; and Bors Sir Lancelot threw,
And Ector overrode, and Lionel,
And Bleoberis ere a good lance broke.
And then with sword he smote them, stroke on stroke,
Till those nine knights were chased, or laid full low,
And still Lavaine beside him, blow for blow,
With honour held his place.
Sir Gawain said:
"I marvel who may bear that sleeve of red."
King Arthur answered: "We shall shortly know
Before he leave us."
Were they like to guess
He was so angered by his wound's distress
That life's high values left his mind? For who
But he, with death in doubt, such deeds would do?
Now for the close of strife the trumpets blew,
And those bold knights who met the Table drew
Around Sir Lancelot: "By thy strength," they said,
"Our front was worshipped; and the prize to claim
Will none impede thee. Let us call thy name
At Arthur's feet."
"Nay, for I am but dead,"
He answered, conscious in that pause how sore
His hurt had been. "I pray ye ask no more
My gain is naught to that my loss may be."
And as he spake he turned, and hastefully
Rode for the wood, and when its boskage hid
Those who had watched his course, as most men did,
He halted, and Lavaine, who kept his side,
He called, and weakly from his seat he slid.
His arms they loosed, and when his side was bare
The broken truncheon of the spear was there,
Protruding somewhat, and so deeply set
That well Lavaine might doubt his life would let
If it were altered from its place.
Sir Lancelot said, "my life, by more delay
Is less to hope. Draw - as you love me - draw."
So urged, he drew; and when the length he saw
Of that snapt point, he marvelled mortal man
Could so have dured. But as the hot blood ran,
Sir Lancelot, with a loud lamenting cry,
Sank to the earth, and sinking swooned.
Lavaine remained, in doubt of what thereby would be.
Sadly on one who showed no life he gazed.
He turned him to the wind, but long was he
Awareless, nigh to death.
At length he raised
Dim-sighted eyes. "Oh, gentle friend," he said,
"One hope remains. Sir Baudwin's hermitage
Is but two miles away. I am but dead
Except I reach it. Give me aid to mount,
I am not willing of this wound to die."
Then was it seen how valiant heart will make
Conquest of weakness. With dear life at stake
He did not stay the adverse odds to count,
But with his comrade's willing help he gained
A seat unsure, the while the red blood rained
A second torrent from the wound astrained.
Then with Lavaine's supporting arm he rode
Until they reached the hermitage, and there
Dismounted feebly, while his comrade's care
Must leave his side a silent gate to wake.
Softly Lavaine upon the grassy sward
Laid him whom most he loved as friend and lord.
Then with his spear-butt on the gate he beat.
"Hasten!" He loudly cried, "for Christ His sake."
A fair page answered: "Now by God's entreat,
Be swift to call thy lord. For here is set
A knight who did such deeds as can but few
At Arthur's tourney, and his life is let
Except that with good speed your part ye do."
Swift at that urgence were the page's feet
His lord to find, and forth the good man came.
"You ask me succour for a knight of name?"
"His name I know not. But for these two days
Of the great tourney, none an equal praise
Hath won by marvellous deeds."
"Which side was he?"
"Against the full might of the Table Round
His worth was shown."
"Fair knight," the hermit said,
"Days were there when such words would coldly sound
To one who in that Table's hardihed
Took pride and place. But, God I thank, today
My feet have learned to walk a Christlier way.
Where is this knight?"
"He hoveth here."
To where Sir Lancelot faint and bloodless lay,
"Now, by the tomb of God," the hermit thought,
I know him, or in other days I did."
Yet of that death-white face recalled he naught
With certain memory, so had anguish wrought,
With change of years, to change it.
"Knight," said he,
"I grieve thy wound, but tell me who ye be,
And from what land?"
"A stranger knight am I,
Who many realms have known in wandering far,
That in God's name where any ventures are
I may win worship."
As he answered thus,
The hermit closelier looked, and marked a scar
That crossed his cheek, and memory, waked thereby,
To surance grew.
"Alas, my lord," he cried,
"Thou art no nameless knight adventurous,
But most occasion of our Table's pride.
Thou art our Lancelot!"
"If my name ye know,
I charge thee in Christ's name to treat me so
That ease be mine to either last or die."
"Have ye no doubt thereof."
They bore him in, and matched his deathly need
With leechcraft, and rich wines, and service good,
Dealing in all things as a hermit would.
For hermits in those greater days than now
Were not drawn separate by a Godward vow
From conversation and resort of men;
But knights of prowess and of large estate
Gave in God's name a lavish service then
To those whose means were small, or needs were great.
For penury or peril or distress
Their equal gates stood wide and questionless,
The very ways of Christ to emulate.
When at the trumpet's call the lists were stilled,
And all the crowding knights its ranks who filled
Dispersed, the king, whose place required that he
Of all around should think, and all should see,
With searching glance throughout their movement sought
For him who that red favour bore so well.
"Let him," he cried, "before my seat be brought,
That I may name him first." But none could tell
Of where he went, until Sir Galahalt
Gave answer: "Lord, by our reluctant fault
He left sore-wounded, and avoided all."
"Sore-wounded?" said the king. "I would not that
For half my realm."
"Then is he known to thee,"
Lord Gawain said.
"It may or may not be.
But lest that ill beyond remede befall,
I charge thee seek him."
"That I lightly will.
For never in glad game or mortal war
Lancecraft or swordplay of more vaunt I saw
For either forceful strength or finer skill.
And short the search should be, for wounded so
How could he life sustain long road to go?"
There was good reason; and for such report
All sides from Camelot's circling walls he sought
Six miles around; but yet mischancefully
Passed the lone hermitage, in oakwoods hid;
And as the king to London moved his court
In the next days, he followed. Had not he
Sought with sufficient zeal and tiringly
For one who might be dead, or might be far?
A day behind the king his household rode,
And so it chanced, that where Sir Bernard bode
They passed beneath the tower of Astolat
When dusk had blurred the sunset's purple bar.
Then urgent from the gate a trumpet came,
And sued Sir Gawain, in Sir Bernard's name,
Of his fair grace that night to rest him there.
Sir Gawain halted with good heart thereat,
And found fair maintenance.
No word was said
Of whence he came the while the meal was spread,
Nor in the hospitable hour beyond
Of talk and song was conversation led
To Arthur's tourney; but when all withdrew
To welcome rest, before the midnight hour,
To Gawain, private in his separate bower,
Sir Bernard and Elaine, in secret wise,
His audience sought.
"We plead thy courtesy,"
The baron asked, "of what hath been to tell
At the great tourney. Who did most excel
Of names foreknown, or those of less degree
Sometimes who gain?"
Before his answering,
Elaine spake quickly: "Saw ye there," she said,
"A tall knight with a trailing scarf of red
Blown from his helm? In the front rank? - a king
Of knights and men. And likely him beside
A younger knight content his aid to ride?
Fell they, as must be when the lances break,
Or rode he lording through the tourney press,
As of good right he should?"
In haste she spake,
And paused in breathless doubt as one who heard
Hoof-beats on stone, and sees the approaching spears
Thronging the narrow street, and looks alone
To mark that scarf on lance, so late her own,
Her favour for the field - and looks in vain
For one too likely in the sortie slain,
While through the throng the rumoured tale is spread:
" - were overmatched and scattered: half are dead:
Half gained the gate."
"Was one such knight," he said,
"Who in design and deed was excellent.
But where he came from, or to where he went
I know not; though he did such deeds as few
Of Arthur's mightiest names can boast to do."
"Now God be lauded for that grace! For he
Is first my love and very last to me.
Surely the sleeve was mine."
"If that be so,
I came well-guided, for the king would know
This champion's name, which must be known to thee."
"Truly I know not."
"That is hard to hear.
How met ye first?"
"With privy purpose here
He came, my brother's naked shield to sue,
Saying that men his own too quickly knew:
Wherefore he left it in my charge."
View that fair shield?"
"It in my chamber lies,
Hid in a case I made from curious eyes.
Yet will I not from thee that sight deny.
Come with me therefor."
"Nay," Sir Bernard said,
"Let others bring it here."
The shield was brought,
Whereon the azure lions ramped and fought.
"Belike," she said, "these noble arms ye know?"
"Yea," said Sir Gawain, "and my heart is woe.
Is he in faith thy love, and loved by thee?"
"I love him surely. But in that may be
No cause for dolour."
"Cause for grief is naught
In that regard, but rather boast, for he
Is of most honour and most worship held
Among the knights of Arthur."
"Thus I thought.
Is here no grief, but little doubt dispelled,
Or fact for faith; for did I doubt at all?
I doubt it surely."
"Yet must grief be mine
His name to learn, for from that tournament
When with one comrade to the woods he went,
He rode as one who would his death forestall.
A breaking spear, men said, had pierced his side.
And this is truth, that one which went not wide
Was red and pointless. More will now repent
The hand that drave it. For Sir Lancelot
Owns this good shield; and he the wound who gave
Was Bors, his nephew. But we guessed him not,
For never yet through twenty years before,
A lady's favour in the lists he wore....
Fair one, if kindly fate his life allow,
May God have called thee to rejoice him now.
So of good counsel will his friends agree."
"Father, that whom I love I yet may save,
I pray thee, let me seek him! Else shall be,
If thus I stint before his fate I show,
My mind will leave me."
"Be thy heart thy guide.
For sore my grief that noble knight to know
So hurt and lost."
With morn she rose to ride
A quest more urgent than had Gawain's been;
And he to London made a hastened way,
Having such tale to bear. But Arthur said:
"I largely knew it. Hence I bade thee stay
Beside my seat, lest, by his guise misled,
And for our Table's honour roused, should clash
Benoic and Orkney in a bout too rash.
"But of this maid I knew not. Sooth I pray
That she may find him, and that sleeve portend
That he, so long to every damsel friend,
And yet so friendless, shall at last arrive
At love's fair harbour. May their meeting thrive."
Lord Gawain told the queen: "The maid is fair,
And gently fearless all to stake or dare
At love's high summons. If his life remain,
And by her hands be healed, it were but vain
To think she will not for herself require
Her natural guerdon. Well for all it were
That he should grant it. Of such grace is she
Belike no damsel live but Nimue
At bed or board could pass her lord's desire
Answer made the queen: "To me
This faithless shame ye tell!" Her anger leapt
Beyond regard of grief. No ruth she showed
For Lancelot's wound. If any tears she wept
They were such tempest as with lightning glowed.
Lord Gawain left her with a mind content.
Her raging irked him naught; nor care he felt
That she her wedlock vows should break. But why
Be wroth with Lancelot, if the wrong she dealt
Himself should use alike, incontinent
With better cause than hers?
For Bors she sent,
Who came, but in no mood to hear complaint,
Or give it solace.
"Have ye heard," she cried,
"How falsely Lancelot hath my trust betrayed?"
"He hath betrayed us all," Sir Bors replied.
"Nor least himself."
"He hath too base a taint
For more regard, and if he last or die
I take no force."
Sir Bors short answer made:
"Ye speak a language which I will not hear
From even thee."
"Why Bors, the sleeve ye saw!
Is he not traitor? Must the word therefor
Be left unspoken?"
"Madam, most I grieve
It was his choice to wear it. By that sleeve
He thought, as well I rede, to most deceive
Those of his blood, and all who nearly knew
His different use."
"But that he thought to do,
For all the boldness of his vaunting pride,
Thy better riding and good aim denied.
Late hath he learnt his lower place to know."
"Madam, I charge thee that ye say not so.
It were but falsehood. In his wounded might
Yet could he all resist and all requite."
"Say what thou wilt. I heard Sir Gawain say
That which no words of thine can cleanse away.
Their loves are screenless for the world to see.
He wore her sleeve! To passing strangers she
Proclaims and boasts the bond. What more could be?"
"Madam, Sir Gawain is not warned by me
For speech or silence. That he wills to say
I may not hinder. If ye Lancelot knew,
As do his kinsmen, with a faith more true,
Well would ye know that all he serves alike:
For any damsel's service swift to strike:
From all rewardless of their grace to go.
I haste to seek him, and to God I plead
I find him from that wound's most danger freed."
Down the green aisles in constant search, Elaine
Rode through the woods, with fearful heart more fain
Than had been Gawain's for her quest's success.
Yet was it more by chance than love's duress
She found Sir Lancelot.
From a path aside
Came one unarmed, a restive steed who rode.
A moment only had she watched him ride
When in glad tones: "Lavaine! Lavaine!" she cried.
And he who that impatient steed bestrode
Subdued and reined it; and most eagerly
And wondering came, his sister there to see.
"How fares Sir Lancelot?"
"Who hath told his name?"
"It chanced to Astolat Lord Gawain came,
And viewed his shield... But in what plight is he?"
"He gains from weakness, as yourself shall see."
"Then let us haste."
"I may not loosely rein
This steed, that kept too long an idle stall."
"Lead as thou wilt."
A rearing steed again
He turned, and led the narrow path along
By which he came. At hour of evenfall
They reached the hermitage.
Sir Lancelot lay
Fleshless, and worn with pain, and bleakly grey;
Unconscious that she entered. At the sight
Of him who filled her thought so changed of plight,
Her blood turned backward to its source. She lay
Swooning beside him for a time. She grew
Aware again as his loved voice she knew
Weak but strong-hearted: "Fair one, sooth to say,
I prosper well. This little hurt? It heals.
Surely thou art right welcome. Thou shalt be
My comfort, if thou wilt. I well believe
Thy father sent thee. When did knight receive
Such kindness, fallen through his own conceals,
As from thy brother and thyself to me?"
"My lord, Sir Lancelot, at thy need - "
Heard ye that name? I had not thought till now
That any guessed it."
"Lord, to Astolat
Sir Gawain came, and saw thy shield."
May evil come in likely ways."
Thinking of much it were not wise to say.
Sir Lancelot prayed Lavaine: "Of courtesy
I charge thee that a careful watch be set
On Camelot's streets and gates, for surely he
Who gave this hurt, until we here be met,
Will seek me, now my name be known. His shield
Is the blue heaven: on its azure field
A white dove soars. At closer sight, a scar
Divides his brow."
Light labour took Lavaine,
For neither sought he long nor sought he far
Before one told him of Sir Bors: "He came
Last eve: he halted at the ploughshare sign."
There Lavaine found him. At Sir Lancelot's name
He rose regardless of a waiting meal.
"Fair knight, wilt lead me to him?"
"Much he longs
To plead thy pardon."
"Mine? His grace to me
Were much to ask."
"He rather counts the wrongs
He to his kinsmen dealt, nor least to thee,
When stranger arms against thy part he bore."
"It was not those: it was the sleeve he wore.
Of which men say - "
"It was my sister's."
Thou art Lavaine?"
The while these words were said,
Sir Bors had found his steed, and short the while
Before, by city gate and woodland way,
They reached the hermitage.
Sir Lancelot lay
With eyes indifferent to the light of day
Through pain and weakness; but he knew the tread
Of him who with good cause he thought to see.
With outstretched hand he sought to rise to greet
One whom, save Ector, and to like degree,
He loved and trusted most.
But when Sir Bors
Saw him so gaunt, and felt himself the cause,
In such contrition at Sir Lancelot's feet
He knelt, that scarce for grief his words had way.
But Lancelot answered: "That may kindness say
Which reason knows not. That to hurt I came
Was of my pride, and only mine the blame.
I thought to all contest, and all excel,
And humbled justly, by thy lance I fell,
Who might have told thee.... Let us leave of this
For God to judge, Who weighs our acts amiss
In better scales than ours; and turn we now
To take good counsel for the days to be.
What knows the queen?"
"A tale Sir Gawain brought
From Astolat hath wrothed her."
"Then for naught
Her anger burns; the sleeve I did but wear
To foil surmise."
"It was the likely guess
Which she would no way in her mood allow,
Although I urged it. In her wild distress
More than I say she said.... But who was she
Who left thy couch but now?"
"She is the same
The sleeve who lent. Unless discourteously,
I cannot part her from my side."
Such parting seek? It were short tale to name
The lovelier in the land. And tale as short
Might all the ladies name of Arthur's court
Of mien as gracious, or as gently taught,
If Gawain spake aright. And who but he
Censor of beauty or of grace should be?
To counsel or to urge I would not dare,
Yet would I thank High God thy life to see
To peaceful bliss compelled by one so fair,
Who by her service to thy weakness now
Her love protests."
"If so of truth it be,
I much repent it."
"Not the first is she
To waste her labour on thee."
"Bors, my sin
Will nothing of inconstant loves allow,
Which only could excess its guilt to me.
Never for me will better life begin,
Of open love and common trust to learn....
But hearken. Wilt thou to the queen return,
And give her surance that my faith to her
Unshaken stands?.... And tell my lord that I
For his forgiveness on his grace rely
That I against our Table strove?"
The king accounteth naught. But joy will stir
In all who hear me, when the tale I bear
Of thy returning strength."
Sir Lancelot thought:
'With joy to all?' He did not doubt the king.
But one whom most he loved, and trusted less -
Would aught placate her?
To the court Sir Bors
Rode a good pace. He said: "With joyful cause
I hastened. Lancelot lives. His heart outfought
The weakness that to death's dark entrance led."
Guenever spake apart: "In truth," she said,
"Is he undangered? Will he surely thrive?"
"Yea, by my faith."
"I would he were but dead.
False recreant knight!"
"If any else alive,
Except thyself, such evil words shouldst say,
We of his blood their lives would shorter shear.
But, madam, when those bitter thoughts I hear,
My mind recalls that thou hast railed before,
And then repented. Ever yet to you
Hath Lancelot been, and hast thou found him, true."
Whole was Sir Lancelot of his wound. The day
Was reddening autumn when they rode away,
Thanking Sir Baudwin, from that hermitage.
As blithe as linnets from an opened cage
They rode to Astolat. A night's delay
Sir Lancelot granted, both of courtesy
And that the distance to the court required
A midway halt. But with the dawn, he said,
His speed must overtake the London way.
And ere with thought of storm that dawn was red
He rose, to reach the court impatient.
Yet earlier rose Elaine, with fixed intent
Either for life or loss, for weal or woe,
The flower or fading of her love to know.
To Lancelot's chamber with her sire she went,
And her two brethren. "Dear my lord," she said,
"Let words be plain between us. Thee to wed
Is my most longing, and thy courtesy
Draws me so nearly, while it holds me back,
That hope at heart I may not wholly lack,
However faint it be."
"But, fair one, I
Had never mind to wed."
"I well believe
That those who live the foes of God to grieve
Would choose no bond of wife or babe to tie
Their feet from venturous ways. But I would be
Thy paramour in all, to all allow:
In all things to support: in all submit.
I would at naught protest, but separately
Thou shouldst in all be single-souled as now.
To do thee service in unheeded ways:
To do thy pleasure in thine hours of ease
Mine only part. And I will speak thy praise
Though with the passage of the changeful days
Another than myself thy choice I see."
"Nay, fairest, for a better fate for thee
Lies in a bond more constant. I should be
Foe to thyself and thy noble kin
If I should grant it thus."
"Except I win
This little, which to one less fair than I
Would few unwed of Arthur's knights deny,
Then must I turn to my last friend, for life
Hath closed its prospect."
"Nay, its gate is wide;
And thou shalt thank me for thy suit denied
In days not distant, when a knight more fit
Shall give thee joyance; and to stablish it
I will endow thee with such wealth as may
Observe a debt too large for gold to pay."
"That will not be. A single boon I seek:
To be the leman of thy choice until
Its season tires thee. Then in all my will
Were thy will only. Still were thine to speak
The words to part us."
Pausing ere he spake,
Sir Lancelot, kindlier than his words, replied:
"Dear temptress - sweet Elaine - I may not take
That which is seldom to such sum denied.
Cause is there, though the cause I will not say,
Nor were it to thy comfort. This I may:
I am not what you dream, nor could there be
Clear joy between us.
"I am worn and scarred
In body and heart: of saddened thought: and marred
By much mischance of living. Much in me
Men envy; but the truth they do not see.....
My youth is dead: my life is past. To thee
The dawn is of the year as of the day;
I the near darkness meet, and would not stay."
"Then," said she, "are my dawn and darkness one
By this rebuke," and as she spake her heart
Paused at the warning that its use was done,
And swooning fell she to the ground; and so
They bore her to her chamber.
"Believe, I have not bought so large a woe
By any practice; nor her maidenhed
Assaulted subtly, nor by violence.
But she hath sought me with a fixed regard
That hath not faltered for soft ways or hard.
Except by sharp rebuke or rude offence
(And I was heartless such a course to try)
I might not turn her."
Likely said Lavaine:
"It is but truth that naught Sir Lancelot did
For her persuasion. But she feels as I.
For evil nor for good, for loss nor gain,
Can we who know thee leave thy side."
Sir Bernard answered, "all ye speak may be.
Yet much I fear me will my daughter die
Of love unsatisfied."
In more to say
Of grief or of regret what boot could be?
Heavy of heart, Sir Lancelot rode away.
Never to rise again from where she lay,
Ten days, with no regard of night or day,
Careless of aught but grief, with sleepless eyes,
Waited Elaine for death's dark door to rise,
Which would not fail her in its hasteless way.
Yet those around her said what love could say,
With recollections of her life before.
But who from ruin can the past restore?
Who can excise the intervening day?
"Leave me," she said, "your better lives remain.
I lose too largely. Hope and purpose slain.
What worth continues? Leave, and let me be."
A priest of God, who from her birth had known
And loved her as she grew, against her moan
With holy counsel strove, and reasoned plea.
"Cease such laments," he said, "such moanings shame
The simple honour of your father's name.
With Godward thoughts against this thirst contend.
For wiselier live they to more blissful end
Who make of earth's delights good husbandry;
The peace of God to gain, all else to flee."
"Now soothly, by that peace of God," said she,
"I am not shamed, and shamed I shall not be,
Nor leave such thoughts; though close to death my woe,
My heart is sure that shame I shall not know.
Shamed that I love him? That is God's grace in me.
Shamed that love slay me? Nay, God's truth, not I.
Behold if gladly of my grief I die!
"Clean maiden shall I stand at God His throne,
Who, save by sorrow, naught in life have known
Of love's design; and God, since time began,
Hath willed that earthly maid to earthly man
Shall turn, desirous of what love can give.
Not damned for this, not shamed, not fugitive,
Shall I stand there, but rather bold to plead
What sins were mine doth sorrow's weight exceed -
What earlier sins, for here no sins I see."
Then to her father and Sir Tirre she pled
That a fair letter be indited well.
With nothing altered of the words she said,
Though it were instant of her death to tell:
"And when I die, as I am fain to do,
And that I now forewrite is straightly true,
Then shall it shortly in my hand be laid,
That the cold fingers grasp it. Next thy care
Shall a black litter richly draped prepare,
Whereon, in all I own of worth arrayed,
I shall be borne to Thames' green bank, that so
A barge may take me down the stream. I go
Defeatless, scornless, thus, and undismayed
To him who cast my suit aside: secure
That nameless from his life I shall not fade...
There is no shadow more, if this be sure."
They swore it, weeping; and at this content,
Laying life's burden like a cloak aside,
Down death's so lone, so crowded road she went;
So stilled they knew not surely when she died.
Thereon the letter in her hand was set,
And she, in sendal and bright gems arrayed,
To the Thames bank was borne, and there was laid
In a fair barge, bedraped with cloth of jet,
Which no man oared, but one whose hand was sure
Helmed as it followed down the falling tide,
Avoiding shallows till the stream was wide
And ample in its unobstructed flow.
And thus, at even, when the tide was low,
Beneath the tower of London's citadel,
Where Arthur held his court, it grounded well
Aside the quay that flanked the water-gate.
Forth from a high-set window gazed the king,
And to the queen he spake: "Against the quay,
A barge is grounded, draped as though to bring
A freight of death; yet in the midst a bed
Holds one who is not as we drape the dead,
But more for bridal or festal fit."
And then, in haste to learn the truth of it,
He bade Brandiles, Agravain, and Kay
Descend to search it. Soon the tale they brought.
Sir Kay, with babbling wonder. Agravain,
With talk of treason or of violence,
Proposing evil as his natural thought.
To which Brandiles said: "She had not lain
As though she slept had poison's torturing pain
Procured her end; and one by violence slain
Would show more likeless of its rude offence.
Yet how she died is past my wit to say,
Or why she cometh in so strange array."
"Here," said the king, "is more to learn." He went
Forthright to search it. To the like descent
Followed the queen; and damsel, knight, and dame,
Quickened by curious doubt, behind her came.
"Moor well the barge," King Arthur bade; and fast
The hawsers bound it, and a plank was cast
From quay to deck, by which they crossed. They saw
That maiden, stilled by death's relentless law;
Yet still, by death's forbearance, fair to see,
Serene as though in smiling sleep was she.
Guenever was the first the scroll to spy.
"There," said she, "surely will her secret lie."
And Arthur took it, and unopened bore
Back to his chamber. "All alike shall hear
That which hath turned her to the silent shore."
And when were many knights assembled near,
With queens and ladies at their sides, he bade
A clerk to read it.
"Noble knight," he read,
"My lord, Sir Lancelot, I, to death betrayed
By loss of love's debate with only thee,
Returning now to God clean maidenhead,
Make moan to all of gentle sort. Wilt thou
Do this I ask, who will not ask thee more,
Nor vex again with my rejected plea;
In love's default do only this for me,
To lay me in God's earth, nor stint to pray
For one who stumbled on too hard a way."
The reader ceased, and those around who heard
A space were silent. Some to wonder stirred,
And some to tearful grief that plaint to hear.
Then Arthur spake: "This scroll is firstly writ
To whom it names, and were Sir Lancelot here
He might resolve it in a fairer way
Than judgement else would reach. Let him be sought
In garth and chamber."
In his known resort,
The garth along the river bank that lay,
They found him musing. Through his sombre thought
Moved the past splendours of the realm, as they
From Arthur, and not least himself, had shone,
To rout the heathen darkness. Were they dead?
Firm stood the throne, and yet the light it shed
Flickered and dimmed, as from a weary fire.
What strength availeth if the heart shall tire,
Or bright faith falter? Here what faith could be,
While, in the centre, like a canker grew
The falsehood of the queen that all men knew
- That all men knew but Arthur... (Only he,
Burdened and saddened by a shapeless woe,
A shadow that aside he might not throw,
Yet knew not that which cast it)... Life's release
Should be, and only be, when life should cease;
For the high purpose of the king he knew
By God rejected when the Grail withdrew.
"Lord," said the page, "the king desires thine aid
In the high chamber to the south."
With distant mind, as one whose feet obeyed
A witless impulse with no formed intent;
But ware he wakened when that script was read,
And all men waited for the word he said.
"Sire," said he, "with a heavy heart I hear
That one so blameless and so fair as she
Should find her friend in death, and that through me,
Though, as God knoweth, never act of mine
Conduced thereto, of which good witness near
Is her own brother, who will bear me clear
From such aspersion.... Though I freely say
She did me service, as all maidens may
To one distressed by weakness. But she sought
That which I had not, and I could not feign."
Guenever answered: "For so fair a sin,
God's solace had it been her life to win."
"Queen, it repents me sore she doth not live,
But that she asked, it was not mine to give.
She would my leman be, or else to wed.
But how by such constraint can love be led?
To grant such mercy were most merciless."
"Yea," said the king. "For who should love distress
With reason's bondage? Love so bound would be
Its own destruction. No reproach is thine.
Yet to thy worship will it prove to see
That naught be lacking or of prayer or shrine
For her disposal. Of such sort was she,
I count most surely, that no lord's degree
Were lessened that his tomb than hers should be
Of lowlier presence."
Lancelot answered: "Yea.
To do her honour to the best I may
Is my least service and my most; and yet
Will leave it mine the loss, and mine the debt."
The Queen's Supper.
While June was regnant, and the season bore
Its burden of full life, before decay
Split the full pods, and cast the seeds astray,
Was joyance at the court, that mounted more
For those returned, than mourned for those who lay
Slain in far lands. So few short weeks before
Its silent halls and vacant seats had shown
A loss so fatal that its contrast seemed
As though that Pentecost had all redeemed
That the last Feast-day from its splendour shore.
But now the issue of the Quest was known,
For evil or for good, for loss or gain,
Could those who sought and found not, faint or fain,
The first high impulse in their hearts sustain?
The star clear-heavened of that great quest and high
Paled into shadow. Its lure no longer burned
Itself and seeking in one darkness hid.
Nor clearly what they dreamed from what they did
Could memory sever; but the waking day
As from a troubled wondrous night returned.
Yet still, by some chance happenings stirred, would they
For one full instant in clear mind recall
Memory of shining deed or dream agone.
Though few would speak of how God's light had shone
Behind him: fallen to a smaller day.
Thus life resumed. Its earlier orbit ran
In rules of use; in feast and tourney play,
And all that royal courts provide. And they
Full-fruited found the further years; although
Life's aspects changed, as other lives began
To take the seats of those who rose to go.
What was there for Sir Lancelot now? For none
Was Arthur's joy the more: nor less was he
Rejoiced in converse with so kind a king.
Nor was he loth again his queen to see,
Though vowed to separate life. But not would she
That difference grant, but all her wiles she bent,
Reproachings, doubts, and dear remembering,
Imperious moods and pleas incontinent,
To lure him to that dear and frequent sin
Which shamed their lives before. So fixed a mood
Might well prevail his changing moods to snare,
While memories and desires his traitors were,
And he athirst for that she worked to win.
From long obstruction, when the barrier broke,
Love's tide insurgent flung reserve away.
Lovers to all, except the king, were they
Restraintless seen. And lewder talk awoke
Than erst had been. Sir Modred's whispered word
Was tireless, and in different sort was heard
The loud-voiced Agravain: "Shall such things be
Unchastened? Shall the throne be all men's jest?
Is not contrivance that the king must see
A subject's duty? Here is proof to test
Who stands for treason."
Gawain's cooler mood
Restrained him only: "That hath been can be.
What in his privy heart the king may guess
Who knoweth? Haply may his queen be less
Than is this realm, which must confusion split
If he with Lancelot strive, or Lancelot's fall
Should cause that Benoic all its spears recall,
As friend no more, if not an open foe."
This counsel ruled: but Bors to Lancelot came
With the plain words he used of wont, and all
Licensed by love: "Except an open shame
Shall both her honour and her life confound,
She must more wisdom of occasion show,
Or thou must curb her."
Lancelot answered: "Yea,
I know it. Yet, the very truth to say,
At one slight word her anger leaps alive,
No reason equals to an hour's delay."
What could be said to that? He knew too well
Sir Lancelot's weakness. Yet the warning fell
On ears not heedless. Like a hostile hive
They heard the murmurs which would stings foretell
For those regardless. To the queen he went
With words unwelcome. For himself he sought
Such quests as from the idlesse of the court
Would lead him long and far.
From such return
Scarce had he entered when the wroth queen sent
Her urgent secret call, and when they met
Not to his own her eager lips were set,
By natural impulse when divided days
Had lengthened search for love; but angry eyes,
And bitter words were hers, and sundering hands
His first embrace repelled: "From whose regard,
Audacious of my favour, come you now?"
"My thoughts to thee no meaner loves allow.
You know it ever."
"That I do not know.
Nor need I ask. Too well thine actions show
How many can thy hereward steps retard,
Evasive to return and swift to go.
What damsel but thy ready spear commands?
What wailed complaint but draws thee from my side?"
"Queen," he replied, "mine ever faith to thee
Is known too widely, and too well withstands
A doubt that few besides thyself would share.
But think thee, if too bold our meetings were,
Too frequent, as they ever tend to be,
The noise might pass restraint. For those there are
Who hold us in await too closely now.
Fear I Sir Modred or Sir Agravain?
Not for myself. I might their worst sustain.
But where thy rescue if we go too far
On folly's wilful road? Except in me,
And in my kin (whose care is not for thee
Except to serve my will) what help were thine?
Or who should turn the slander and the shame
Which for a thousand years should vex thy name,
Being the consort of so great a king?......
"Bethink thee also that but late I came
From such high quest that never sinful man
Had come more nearly to accomplishing.
That which my son, and Bors, and Percival
Saw wholly, surely had I wholly seen
Had from one fault my soul been wholly clean,
As I believed it cleansed. But when once more
I found thee pliant, all to God I swore
Was like a dream the daylight leaves behind.
So am I snared, that neither peace I find
In thy dear arms, nor in the hope I had
When God's pure light was round me... While I fall,
If heaven itself be lost, and love be all,
Let us at least our love in peace contain,
Lest, being bought so dear, we waste our gain."
She heard in silence, till he ceased, and then
With bitter words assailed him: "Thinkest thou thus
To mock me? Where thou wilt to wander free,
And whom thou wilt to love, and then to me
Resorting at thy next caprice, to find
Thy queen thy mistress, meek, and fain, and kind?
Nay, by God's wrath! Go where thou wilt! Can I,
Being held here, restrain thee? This I can.
I can forbid thee from my sight. Be thine
Thy dreams and visions! Let thy heart incline
To Heaven's favours, with no doubt of mine.
It can reward thee as I could not do!
Go where thou wilt, but come not here again.
Dost thou disdain me? Then I more disdain
To be accounted as of price too high."
At that she wept, and with a worse reply
Each further plea refused, and while he knew
How jealous anger would her reason rule
He took dismissal from her words awry.
Then to Sir Bors he went, and spake aside,
Telling him all. "I will no longer stay
Here in this realm, but take a wiser way
To mine own land."
"If ye my counsel heed,
Ye will not leave us at so slight a need.
Recall thine honour, and thy large concerns
In this thy land so long; and wisdom learns
A woman's wrathful words too lightly weigh,
So void, so witless, and so wild are they.
The jibe quick-spoken will they soon repent:
And those who most abuse may first relent.
"Let her believe thee gone. Let none but I
Its falsehood know. But make thy private way
To where Sir Brastias holds his hermitage
In Windsor's ancient woods. In that retreat
May rest be thine; and when she lose her heat
I will advise thee with no slack delay."
Thus was it counselled and agreed. He went
In the night's silence from a sleeping town,
And for a score of miles a westward way
Rode the lone marches, till the rising land
Dense oakwoods clothed, and closed on either hand
The narrow swarded paths he chose, that bent,
And rose awhile, and then with less descent
Made gentle hollows till they rose anew.
So to that hidden hermitage he drew,
And there remained impatient days, that yet
Had been more tortured had he guessed at all,
How, when he passed beyond his queen's recall,
She for herself a trap so deadly set
(Or fortune sprang it) that the most she had
Had been a price she had not paused to pay
To bring him to her.
Thus he held away
From one whose pride so ruled her heart's distress
That naught of grief to those who watched was seen.
But she was gracious both of word and mien
To Orkney's silenced knights, nor deigned she less
To those of Benoic. Where she feigned so long
She did but custom. Arthur found his queen
His loving consort still. But hours apart
Were wild with jealous grief that broke control.
Love, to her pride's resolve, had left her heart.
Yet why the sleepless hours? The aching dole?
Through hate of leisure, or by set design
To make accord of those who held apart,
Or else to show she was of equal heart
To joining in good mirth, without decline
For Lancelot's absence, on a luckless day
The queen a privy dinner made for those
Who might be doubtful friends, or surer foes,
But of the Table in one bond were they
Of leigance to the king.
She chose with care
Those in high place of either part, and some
Who from their rival factions separate were.
The five of Orkney's regal line were there:
Sir Galihodin and Sir Galihud, Ector and Bleoberis: Lionel:
Blamor and Bors: Persuant and Ironside:
Brandiles, Mador de la Port, and Kay:
Sir Mador's cousin, Patrice: and Pinell
(Sir Lamorack's cousin he, as some men say,
But others that he brought a lawless spear
From the wild lands to Orkney's eyrie near):
And Brewnor, twenty knights in all.
No over-sumptuous feast, but there were laid
What most her guests preferred, which well she knew,
So long who knew them. All was blithely well
Until Sir Patrice groaned, and forward fell.
Clattering the board, his arms abroad he threw.
In torment on the floor they watched him writhe
Till death's quick silence came.
Who now was blithe?
Confusion rose. The cause of death was clear,
Though not the hand that dealt it. Scarcely bit,
A poisoned apple that his knife had slit
Was damning witness.
"Lay his seat too near
To mine?" Lord Gawain asked, and those around
Allowed his meaning. To the queen he turned
In accusation. "Madam, this to thee
Is shame to answer. Was it meant for me?
I needs must think it. All who know me know
The fruit I choose, and ever where I go
Provide it for me, as thy courtesy
Had done tonight; and that he reached it first
Was chance unlikely."
"Yea," Sir Mador said,
"So doth it seem. But he whose life is sped
Was my near cousin, and I warn thee well
I will not stint for vengeance."
Came from the queen, nor any voice arose
To meet that challenge. Sore abashed was she,
Conscious of alien eyes, where enmity
She had not known till now. Were all her foes?
Tears were her answer, which no answer were.
Meantime the king, who heard the noise upflare,
From his near chamber, where alone he sate,
Musing how time will all high hopes abate,
Came to its cause enquire, and mazed was he
The weeping queen, the glooming knights to see,
The dead contorted on the floor.
Sir Mador spake in heat: "My lord, to me
Dear cousin was the dead, and here I say
Who wrought it, high or low, its price shall pay."
And the king answered: "One of worth is dead,
One of good worth, who had not wronged, I wot,
Or knight or damsel of my court. But not
For wrath or grief should sudden judgement fall
On first or last. Tomorrow in full hall,
When all is searched and weighed, shall more be said."
Next morn, when Arthur in his place was set,
And all the concourse of the court had met
Expectant Mador, standing from his place,
Appealed the queen of treason; and the king
Answered: "Bold are you, and you trust my grace!
Yet is there none shall accusation bring,
Against my throne, and hear his plaint denied.
But though, being judge, I may not take her side
With sword's reply when slanderous words are said,
Ye may not find her friendless. God the right
Will stablish, fall who may."
"My gracious lord,"
Sir Mador answered, "mine excuse must be
I am not single in this charge: accord
The twenty knights who shared that feast hereto.
And thou in knighthood art no more than knight,
Although as king obeyed in full degree,
Bound by like oaths and to like laws are we.
What say ye all?"
The knights gave answer: "Nay,
What else can justice or can reason say?
The queen the banquet called, and either they,
Her servants, or herself, the death contrived."
And answer gave the king: "The right ye claim
I may not hinder, lest a lasting shame
Be hers and mine. Nor may I rise to take
Myself the battle for my consort's sake,
Who needs must judge it. But I tell ye yet,
We may not stand so friendless but shall be
One knight sufficient all thy wrath to let,
And prove thee perjured."
"That the end will see,"
Sir Mador answered. "As a righteous king,
I ask thee to appoint the judgement day."
"That will I, as I must. Two weeks from now
At Westminster, in the long mead, do thou
Be armed and horsed; and I the queen will bring
For vindication, or her death to meet
If none of all my knights her friend shall be,
Art thou well answered?"
"I am answered well."
Then each knight went his way, and with the queen
King Arthur sought a privy room. He said:
"Now tell me surely how this thing befell,
That we may find the truth, and leave thee clear
Of this so foul impute."
"As God I dread,
Naught I contrived at all, and naught I wot.
Alas!" She wept, "that ever knights of mine
Should so miscall me! Here were Lancelot
They soon were answered! Never wrong I meant.
I called the banquet with a clean intent.
- So God maintain me in my right! - nor I
Have ever practiced that a knight should die.
I know not how it came. But all my life
Is witness for me. Lover of my good knights
I have been ever."
"Where is Lancelot?
He would not grudge to aid thee."
"Where he be
I know not. Ector says beyond the sea.
His kinsmen either to that word agree,
Or say they know not."
"That repents me sore.
For lightly would his sword your fame restore,
And stint their malice. Now Sir Bors must be
Your best resort. He will not flinch to take
The battle on him for Sir Lancelot's sake."
"I do not love Sir Bors, nor loves he me."
"Yet must we urge him; for I wot too well
There is none other of the twenty there
Who will believe for any oath you swear;
Nor one of Gawain's part your friend will be."
"Alas that Lancelot is not here! For he
At narrower straits would yet my safety see."
"I cannot tell what ails you," said the king,
"That through the working of your fretful pride
You cannot keep Sir Lancelot at your side,
Who were your champion or for right or wrong.
Now must we Bors to take your part persuade,
Nor stake your honour on a weaker aid."
The queen a message to Sir Bors conveyed
To meet her in her chamber. There came he
Neither at haste nor yet reluctfully.
Coldly he heard and then refused her plea:
"Madam, you ask too much. Recall that I
Was one among the twenty. Men would say
I counselled with the other knights to slay
One of no friendship with Sir Lancelot's kin. -
He would have served thy part in right or wrong.
His friends too well his noble weakness know.
But other issues to my choice belong.
Hadst thou not caused him from the court to go,
He had not failed thee now."
"Alas, fair knight!
Wrong have I done, but I that wrong will right.
Wrong to Sir Lancelot, as I own; but not
The wrong they charge me, neither last nor first,
No part, and no consenting. Counsel me
How I may best amend discourtesy
I showed with no just cause to Lancelot,
And I will do it to thine utmost will."
But Bors replied not, and the queen's restraint
Broke, and on suppliant knees she forward fell,
Clasping his hand: "Unless you prove my friend
You doom me surely to this shameful death,
Whereto I did not, as I swear, offend."
The king had entered as she spake. Her plaint,
Her posture, and Sir Bors' cold words the while
He raised her: "Madam, would you shame me so?"
Forecast the failure that he feared to know.
If Bors refused them, had they hope to go
To others, being so told?
"Fair knight," he said,
"I pray thee as thy liege this strife to take,
If not for knighthood, then for Lancelot's sake.
Of either murderous act or wrong intent,
I am most sure my queen was innocent."
"Lord, that you ask the most that mortal man
May ask of mortal fellow, both we know.
For life and honour to a strife belong
That God resolves. But yet, for right or wrong,
Alike for your sake and Sir Lancelot's sake,
I will this strife on one conclusion take,
That if there come another knight than I
Her truth to fortress, you shall pass me by.
And wit you well, when thus her cause I friend,
I shall the most part of thy knights offend."
"This by your faith you pledge?"
"You need not doubt
If other knight be none to take this bout,
I shall not fail you, nor the queen."
They thanked him well, with hearts that rose more glad
Contrasting to the former fear they had.
Before the full dawn of the following day
Sir Bors to Windsor rode a lonely way,
And at Sir Brastias' hermitage he lit.
Here found he Lancelot, telling all, and he
Laughed gladly as he heard: "Now what should be
Occasion fashioned for my use more fit?
Do thou be ready on the chosen day,
Yet somewhat laggard, drawling out delay.
I know Sir Mador, and his heat. Thereby
Chafed will he be a random strife to try."
"Yea, be content. I shall not fail your will."
Sir Bors rode backward to the court. He found
Cold looks and murmurs, and he passed them by,
But gave the plainer word a plain reply.
"Fellows," he said, "there is on earthly ground
No nobler concourse than our Table; nor
A king more noble of heart and deeds than he
Who formed it, and sustains. Shall we therefore
Return him shame that all the lands shall see,
Out to the furthest bounds of heathenry?
Leaving his queen without our swords to die,
Condemned unproved but by our backwardness?
So may ye if ye will; but will not I."
And many voices answered: "For the king
We need no witness, nor we serve him less
Because the queen we love not. Shall we praise
One who our comrade to his death betrays?"
"Fair lords, I hear such words as none should say.
Long years have known her well, and till today
What heart has failed to own her gracious ways?
What voice been silent to increase her praise?
Hath she not held her goods in bounteous hands
Freely to use her rights of wealth or lands
For maintenance of knighthood?.... Of the king
Less than you say you could not. Owned is he
First in all Christianed lands, that heathenry
Cowers backward from his shield's bright burnishing.
And next to Arthur's self is Arthur's queen,
And like a shining light her name hath been.
Faultless in all regards she may not be.
But faultless wholly in ourselves are we?
And in Sir Patrice's death, I well believe,
She had no privity. For not to cleave
Our discords further, but to more unite
Our factious parts, she made, of gracious thought,
That feast, so fatal in its end. I ween
That when God's justice brings the truth to light,
In happier hour than this, will well be seen
Her innocent will; and in that last report
Not only hers, but our acquitment brought.
For we, the twenty knights that board who deckt,
Are snared and sullied in the same suspect,
If doubt be condemnation."
"What ye say
Is reason past retort," Sir Tor replied.
And so said others, and no voice denied.
But some in silent anger turned away.
As one unshaken, and of naught aware
Her name that tarnished, hautly moved the queen
Through the short passage of the days between
(So short the days, so long their moments were)
Till came the eve of that which must put by
Her inward fear, or else death's infamy
Would end her, leaving but a murderess' name
Of all that had been hers of yesterday.
She went to Bors: "Fair lord, you will not shame
The pledge you gave me?"
"More I did not say
Then that, except a better knight be there,
I will not fail thee: less thou needst not dread."
"Then soothly to the king may this be said?"
"All as thou wilt."
She passed to Arthur: "Bors
Maintains his word."
"Then rest thy heart content.
None better might there be to hold thy cause.
Though seldom in loose strife his strength is spent,
Who knew him worsted when his sword was bare?"
With morn was movement; from the London tower
Where then the king held court, outstreaming came
Procession long of lord and knight and dame
And damsel, brightly clad, for though the hour
Had tragic purpose, yet a garb of woe
Would seem no faith in Arthur's queen to show.
Should they foredoom her? Should their mien condemn
Before the judgement that awaited them?
It was God's verdict that they sought, and He
Would make no blunder. Nor should mourning be
For guilt made public, or the cost of it.
For vindication, or dear life to quit,
Guenever in her favoured green was clad;
And on her head a jewelled crown she had
That flashed defiance. If to death she went,
Or cleanly of God's judgement confident,
As though bold front would turn reverse away,
She rode as to the jocund sports of May:
Her lips were jesting, and her eyes were gay.
So came they to the meadow wide that lay
Beside the Minster which a heathen horde
Had plundered in the days when Arthur's sword
Lacked length to reach it. Now the close-mown field
Was barriered round, and at one side arose
High tiers of seats of sumptuous ease for those
Of royal sort; but on the further side
An iron stake with faggots girt supplied
Grim witness of the cause for which they came.
For there, at height of noon the torturing flame
The queen must feel except her champion's shield
Could interpose her rescue. There she rode
In the law's ward to bide, and there she sate
Through the next hours unmoved, ignoring shame,
While on each side the sheriffs held her rein.
So came it that, his law to vindicate,
Must Arthur stake his queen. For all men knew
How oft he said that not, for loss or gain,
For love, for favour, or affinity,
Should aught for all but equal justice be.
Now boldly to his feet in all men's view
Sir Mador came, and there his oath he made
That the queen's treason had Sir Patrice slain,
Which would he truly prove, with God to aid,
With lance to lance opposed, or blade to blade,
On who should falsely for her part contend.
To which Sir Bors de Ganis made reply:
"That charge of treason doth the queen deny,
And that denial will my sword defend."
"Then make thee ready, that the truth be seen."
"Sir Mador," he replied, "I bid ye wit
The queen is guiltless of all fault; and I
Will prove it on thee, save a knight more fit
My place acquire."
"Enough of words hath been.
For though a score deny, I say the queen
Is murderess of design and perfidy."
"Say what thou wilt, but men its proof will see
In the next hour."
"Except with present speed
Thou leavest change of words for lance and steed,
I ask my verdict."
"Dost thou call me slack?
I have but heard thy boasts, and thrown thee back
The defamation of a guiltless name."
"Arm then; or say no more - nor more will I."
Then to the far ends of the lists the two
To arm them in their separate tents withdrew,
From which Sir Mador first appeared. He reined
Before the king with lifted spear. He cried:
"Why doth he linger, in his tent to hide?
Hath God the infatuate from his death restrained?
If twice unchecked around the lists I ride,
I claim thy verdict."
Shamed was Bors to hear
The murmur of the crowd's impatience rise,
And loth Sir Lancelot's promised place to take,
Who might each moment as he pledged appear.
What could have hindered at this mortal stake?
How could he still ignore those clamorous cries?
Reluctant, forth he rode. And then to sight,
As by his advent summoned, broke a knight
From the near border of the woods. He came
Impetuous. Scarce he paused to grant his name,
As must be, to the guards who held control
Heraldic; and the entrance gates denied
To all but those who rightful cause supplied.
Men saw a warrior on a charger white,
Clad whitely in strange arms, whose urgent pace
Thrust him before Sir Bors. Aloud he cried,
From the mid-field, before the king's high place:
"Shamed are ye all your gracious queen to see
So basely used, nor every sword be bare
To prove her honour."
"Say what knight ye be,"
King Arthur charged him.
"I am naught to thee.
I stay not here beyond the hour it needs
Thy queen to vindicate, and those thereby
To shame who failed her."
"Talk," Sir Mador said,
"Is plenteous here, and more the talk it breeds,
While the last hour for her defence is sped.
I ask but justice."
"That," Sir Bors replied,
"Will soon be thine. The king will witness bear
That when this charge I took I did not hide
That other than myself the course might ride."
"Then stand thou back. If this new knight shall dare
So false a quarrel, and her death to share,
Him will I overcast as lief as thee."
No more was said. The champion knights withdrew
To the far confines of the lists, and hard
They charged together. Mador's spear upleapt.
But Lancelot, while unshaken seat he kept,
Bore Mador to the ground.
With scant regard
For wound or bruise, the fallen rose, and drest
His shield before him for the harder test
That swords would furnish. Clash of blade on blade
Made clangour loud, while shield and helmet stayed
Such strokes as weaker knights had more dismayed.
But who should Lancelot in such strife excel?
Dazed by swift blows, to earth Sir Mador fell.
"Deny thy slander, or thou art but dead."
The sword-point at his throat, Sir Mador said:
"I all recant. For by this end is seen
I charged her wrongly. Humbly to the queen
I sue for pardon."
"Rise," Sir Lancelot said,
"By that surrender from thy death released."
But rise he could not till the porters sped
Across the lists to aid him. Faint he leant
Against their arms, and hardly gained his tent.
Meanwhile Sir Lancelot to King Arthur's feet
Approached, but swifter than himself the queen
Had left her guard, and crossed the space between,
And Arthur's arms were round her. Passing sweet
Were life and honour, and her eyes were wet
As to his own her faithless lips were set,
While all men shouted and rejoiced to see
Her place regained.
But Arthur's glance was bent
On him who saved her: "Of thy courtesy,"
He asked, "I pray thee lift thine helm and show
To whom so gladly and so much we owe."
And Lancelot raised his helm, a cup to drain.
"Lord," said he, "had I thought such need could rise,
And not a hundred knights your queen maintain,
I had not left thee."
"Lancelot," said the queen,
With tears that faster fell, "my debt to thee
Is past all payment."
"Queen, my sword I took
From thee when from the king my knighthood came,
And not to guard thee from so great a shame
Had been my shame alike. Nor God had let
Such evil triumph."
"Mine alike the debt,"
King Arthur said, "and never hence shall be
Discordance in our close fraternity."
Sir Mador de la Port, by force constrained,
And by the verdict of his own appeal,
Held silence. But the doubt that yet remained
Men could not wholly in their hearts conceal.
Intangible, a mist of difference grew
Between the queen and those good knights she knew
As friends before.
'Sir Lancelot, in the field,'
Such was their thought, 'may prove whate'er he will;
But yet was murder to our eyes revealed:
One was there surely of the mind to kill;
If not the queen, he moves among us still.
Yet none we well suspect, and who but she
Contrived that feast and all its furnishings?'
Angered and grieved, she vainly sought the king,
Who knew no comfort. Eyes that glanced aside
Were shameful humbling to her regnant pride
In her great place. The loftier pride she had
In her good knights who loved her felt the sting
Of cold short answer or averted eyes.
But on a day when autumn looked aside,
A day of wind and sun and changing skies
Recalling summer and the moods of spring,
So warm that at the meal the doors were wide,
A sound of welcome turned men's eyes to see,
On cream-white steeds, Pelleas and Nimue,
Gay-crowned with garlands of such flowers as grow
In faery lands, and in their looks the light
Of love's content that knows no earthly night,
So distanced from our middle earth were they.
Warm greeting gave the king, for Nimue
Came ever at sharp need his friend to be,
As now was shown; for when the tale was said
Of how Sir Patrice by mischance was dead,
Or likelier malice (though was none could say
Who wrought, or how contrived, his life to slay,
And most agreed a shaft that slantly sped
Was aimed at Gawain), then she answer made:
"Sure was it meant for him. It proveth still
Who killeth others, others seek to kill.
Lord Gawain murders in his own good way,
And needs no poisons. Think on Lamorack's end.
And ask Sir Pinell whom he sought to slay."
Her meaning was not dark to those who heard,
And Pinell of near blood to Lamorack knew.
For cousins were they, and had closer been
Than cousins often are. They looked to where
Sir Pinell sate, but saw a vacant chair.
Her judgement had his conscious guilt foreseen
Before she gave it.
"Lady," said Gawain,
"If by murderous hands my foes are slain,
I marvel that you thus my fame offend,
And trust my mercy."
"Lord," said Nimue,
"I trust thy wisdom only. Not to me
Wilt thou be menace till I call thee friend."
May light, May song, May verdure, warmth of May,
And the green boughs' full shade again that lay
A quivering coolness through the copse, proclaimed
That procreant life awaked, its strength untamed,
Which ever deathless through the winter day
Beat in the live heart of the leafless tree,
Where spring with blind birth-motions sought to be.
Love is of summer, where he finds delight
Not often equalled in the wintry night,
And springtime joyance is his welcoming.
So rose Guenever in the mood of spring,
And called assembly of her knights, that they
Should wanton with her mid the flowers of May.
These were the ten she named for that fair play:
Persuant and Pelleas, Agravain and Kay,
Griflet, Ozanna, and that constant pair
Dodinas and Sagramore, and of her whim
Brandiles, though the Mayday game to him
Was naught. Young Ladinas was last.
Sparely of Benoic knights, for private foes
Were most of Orkney and of Benoic now.
Nor would the prudence of her choice allow
To favour Orkney. Only Agravain
Bore the bright falcon of the North. She bade
That all should ride in Mayday garb arrayed,
With each his lady and with each his squire,
And yeomen twain with each, in spring's attire;
With woodland banquet and with junketing
To hail the lustful purpose of the spring,
Which to the sun's compulsion waked. And so
Gaily with dawn they rose, and greenly clad,
Where shadowy woods were green, and green the fields,
And fragrant with the scent the hawthorn yields.
No thought was theirs of any front of feir,
No arms beyond their constant swords they had,
For who should in those peaceful woods appear,
To Arthur's court so close, from foes so far,
The jocund frolic of the spring to mar
With discord of offence? When skies are clear,
Who thinks of thunder? Thus they mazed; and so
Gathered at nearing dusk to homeward go.
Who thought of Meliagraunt? A tower he held
Which Arthur's bounty to his father gave
When Baudemagus stronger knights excelled
Through constant valour that fatigue defied,
What time the king the heathen legions drave,
When the father died,
The son, of lowlier worth but larger pride,
Made there his dwelling, with such state and court
As Arthur to his lesser kings allowed.
But not the service of his liege he sought,
Not Arthur held him from his land away,
But ever schemed he in audacious thought
To win the queen. No constant wife was she!
No cold Lucretia, no Penelope.
Was she not Lancelot's leman? Was not he
Younger and comelier, and of like degree
To Benoic's lord? To his infatuate thought,
Though call of word or glance she gave him naught,
Only occasion would she need to show
A full complaisance. Now he thought to take
The chance long-waited. Was it much to dare?
Her knights unarmed! - and Lancelot was not there.
In this resolve, a troop of mounted men,
Outcounting those he snared by one to ten,
He ambushed where the queen would backward ride,
To where, with vantage of a fallen tide,
Her train must take the ford at Westminster.
Awhile he watched them from the boughs' retreat
Approaching guardless, and of harness bare;
Save for the sword that knights of rank will wear,
Unweaponed, thinking of no guile to meet.
Caught in the queen's uncaring mood were they,
And burdened with the flowery spoils of May.
To these, full-armed, showed Meliagraunt, astride
A warhorse equalled to his weight. On high
And silent sate he, where the paths they tried
Climbed through the thorns to find an opening wide
And smooth, but closed against the windier sky
By girth of oaks, and yet full-leaved to hide
Blue heaven above them.
Ranged their course to stay,
Out-issuing from the trees, and closing in
Left-hand and right, were armed and mounted men
Arrayed in files of five and ranks of ten,
Full fifty spears on either side their way;
To these a dense and deadly thrust, who stood,
The queen amidst them, and the shadowing wood
Alive with lances round them.
Cried from his place above them: "Knights, abide.
For here is force you have no strength to stay.
To mine own castle must I bid you ride.
The queen and I must share the flaunt of May."
And answered, fearless in great wrath, the queen:
"What would you, Meliagraunt? Dost think that I
Am one whom fear can bend or violence use?
Wouldst cast thy life so vainly? Loose and seen
Thy madness here to all men. Wouldst thou try
A bout so fruitful of thy shame, and else
So fruitless? Count not on thy strength, for I,
Before I gave me to thy gain would die
By this weak hand to foil thee; likelier live
To watch the ravens clean thy bones aswing,
Feloned, with thy fouled shield reversed below.
"Dost think that one knight mine, and least the king,
Would leave thee harboured in thy hold to blow
Boast of such wrong? Or thou so far couldst flee
That any height of hills or waste of sea
Should hide thee from that fate accursed and sure?"
"Be all these things," he answered, "as they may.
One thought is mine: for many a hopeless day
I have endured the burden of thy scorn;
And for thy rape will rise no likelier morn
Sir Pelleas answered: "Would ye slay,
Unhelmed, unarmed, and in this peace of May,
Thy comrades here? For in no easier way,
Except this thing she willed, as well ye wit,
Could she go from us, and our lives permit
Such outrage on the kingdom and the king."
"They be spent fools," said Meliagraunt, "who stay
The hungered leopard from his taken prey,
Being bare of force; and when this rape he know,
Think ye the king will heed that live or low
I left ye here, or in his vengeance weigh
The fates I deal ye? Take your lives, and go."
Brandiles answered: "Hadst thou weighed the shame
That must pursue thy life, and make thy name
A lasting scorn, if thou, a Table knight,
Shouldst take by capture for thy lewd delight
Thy liege's lady and thy queen? For thee
There would not refuge nor forgiveness be;
But Arthur's vengeance would thine end procure,
Disknighted, for a felon's death made fit,
Quartered and drawn, while at the sight of it
Would all men revel."
"Then if blood be shed
The cause is thine."
His boldest score he bade
Advance their spears, the while their comrades made,
Around the halted group, a breachless ring.
"Seek not to slay; but seize the queen," he said.
"They cannot foil ye, being all foredone.
And guard the rabble at their rear, that none
Slip through to warn Sir Lancelot or the king."
A page there was Guenever's rein beside
To do her service. Now to him she spake:
"Anton, fall back. And when their ranks shall break
Be instant with thy spurs to leap aside.
Neither for water nor for land delay
Until ye tell this peril to the king,
Or else Sir Lancelot. Show this signet ring."
He, who to spare her dole had lightly died,
Being where love and worship scare divide
In his young contact with her loveliness -
Devotion at her feet could not be more:
Hope of response thereto could not be less:
So was it perfect and entire - He bent
His head to one who did not doubt assent.
He faltered from her side, as one unarmed
By threatening steel, and fenceless all. He swung
With sudden swerve their crowding foes among,
And jostled through them ere they closed. A hand
Snatched at his rein: a lifted sword was bare.
But neither stayed him. Had he cause to care
For chase of heavier and worse-mounted men?
Awhile upon his horse's neck, and then
Upright, exultant, past a shaft's pursuit,
North rode he as the paths allowed, and they
Led, as he would, to where, at fall of tide
When rain had tarried, with good stakes to guide,
The Thames was forded at that distant day.
This ford he passed, and came, at night's descent,
To where Sir Lancelot lodged. To seek the king
At such sharp need had been a vain delay.
Wood wrath was Lancelot at the tale. He sent
Hot word his charger and his arms to bring.
He bade the page Lavaine to seek, and say
That he should follow one who would not wait:
"For if mischance be mine, I trust him well
To do what rescue needs, or vengeance may."
Angered at Anton's shrewd escape, and ware
His time was shortened, Meliagraunt thereat
Gave signal of assault, but no man there
Guarding the queen, although his breast was bare,
Blenched from the charge of hirling spears, and they
Who aimed to seize the queen, but none to slay,
Fought not forgetful of themselves, as who
For land or life, for hate or rescue do.
And those ten knights, of known and tested skill,
And hearts indignant of such deaths to die,
Prevailed awhile to prove their mastery.
They hewed the points from off the spears: they smote
With fiercer purpose and resolve to kill,
The while their practised use sufficed to slide
Opposing points from mortal hurt aside.
So was there flurry round the queen the while
Murmured and scowled her train in vain complaint,
Being offenceless in their festal style;
And ladies, stilled by honour's hard constraint,
Watched those whom most they loved avoid to die.
Guenever straitly viewed the strife. She saw,
With heart that seldom quailed to loss or law,
Its certain end. Already wounded lay
Dodinas and Griflet, Agravain and Kay,
Too hurt to more endure; and those who stood,
Though all they did that noble venture could,
Must fail at last. What hope was left her then?
'When swords are vain,' she thought, 'remaineth wit.'
"Sir Meliagraunt," she cried, "this strife remit.
We yet may parley. Backward call thy men,
And hear my proffer. Let my knights foredone
Come with me, and upon thine oath that none
Be further hurt; and we, of free consent,
Will with thee to thy towers."
Sir Pelleas said:
(No stance as his so bold: no sword so red.)
"Madam, bethink ye that we are not sped.
Regard the slain. Though do they all they may,
The more they be is but the more to slay."
"Pelleas, our valour and our wounds I see.
Not all my knights are blessed by Nimue.
Nor art thou hurtless."
"What thou wilt we will.
..... Sir Meliagraunt, to this accord we may.
To hold us with the queen, and walk her way.
In like constraint; and if her safe release
Thy wiser mood or nobler mercy give,
We may desire the king to let thee live."
"To let me live? Belike, a different peace
Would other judgement than thine own foretell.
Who holds the queen may treat and bargain well.
Nor Arthur's word would fail: no trickster he.
I am not dangered as yourselves will be
Except ye yield her in a peaceful way."
"I reck not. Strife or peace is hers to say.
But I will call thee caitiff, as thou art,
Until the dogs that pull thy bones apart
Lick their greased jaws, and lie."
"I pray thee cease,"
Guenever said. "For in this treatied peace
Should words be reined."
To this brief concord brought,
Their blood-wiped swords were sheathed. To each it seemed
More than they staked they gained. Guenever thought:
"I bring the wounded, or I leave the dead."
And Meliagraunt, with good occasion, deemed
That Anton would such rescue rouse that he
Were better in his battled walls to be.
At higher tide the river deeper ran,
But Lancelot weighed it naught, though horse and man
Were whelmed at once, and soon the burdened steed,
Groundless at times, must common strength exceed
To bear him through the flood. His hard intent
Paused not his path to choose, or pace relent:
Here was the truest thrift, that all be spent.
So shortly to the trampled place he came
Where yet the random signs of conflict lay.
Seen in the pale light of the moon of May,
Its tale was clear; but to the path ahead
The woods gave shadow. From the darkness cried
A voice of warning: "Turn thy course aside.
We loose one volley, and thou art but dead."
"Who are ye in this peaceful realm," he said,
"Such murderous threat to dare? A Table knight
Asks not the freedom of the public way."
"We the strait orders of our lord obey.
What should restore thy life? Be wise, and go."
Sir Lancelot saw the woods to left and right
Were dense and tangled. In that loss of light
How should he break his way? Or rightly know
His course to hold? No passing thought he had
To halt; and if the crowding woods forbad
Alternate passage then he needs must ride
Through where the ambushed archers lurked aside.
Fast flew the shafts thereat: the furious hail
Glanced or rebounded from the tested mail
Sir Lancelot wore, but not the steed he rode
Was likely guarded. Through its sides there drove
The deathly shafts, and to its knees it fell,
Screaming in death.
Sir Lancelot rose. He strode
Some forward paces, with his sword athrust;
But reined his wrath, for reason saw too well
He could not reach them in the night.
That good men dure is still from cowards," he said.
His thoughts on Meliagraunt. But onward still,
Dragging the lance he could not leave, he went,
However slowly, till a cart he met,
Log-ladden, which two woodsmen homeward led.
"I pray thee let me ride. My horse is dead."
They answered with rude jests. But swift repent
Was theirs. They jeered at one whose mind was set
On one thing only. Scarce he heard, but hard
His buffet senseless felled the nearer knave;
At which the second made no more retard,
But spilled the logs, in haste his skull to save.
Are many who design but do not dare;
Of their own weakness and their fears aware.
Are fewer who design to act construe;
And that before they dreamed today they do.
Frustrate may both at last be found to be:
One by himself, and one by destiny.
But worst and weakest those who all contrive,
And half perform, and prove too weak to thrive,
Daunted by presage of adversity.
Of such was Meliagraunt. From when the page
Broke through the crowding horsemen, bird from cage,
His purpose faltered, and his thoughts were less
On his dreamed profit from the queen's duress,
Than dread of that which Lancelot's wrath would bring;
For more he feared him than he feared the king.
When would his rescue reach? How soon and how?
Had the bows stayed him? Was he nearing now?
The queen, with cold contempting eyes could see
The weakness bred from that infirmity.
Neither as captive nor as guest she spake,
But with directing words she bade them make
Soft couches for her wounded knights. They lay
So placed that still her constant guards were they,
An outer chamber being theirs, and she
Inward among her ladies. Wistfully,
A damsel whom that hard restraint delayed
From her pledged love-tryst in the moon-lit hour,
Looked from a casement of the central tower
Where lodged the queen. She cried: "St James to aid!
Here comes a noble knight to hanging led!
Out from the trees, across the lighted lawn,
Here to the gate, the gallows-cart is drawn."
Forth looked they all thereat, and plain to see
Was the bright armour, and the helmet plumed,
And the huge lance projecting lengthily
From the high freeboard of the cart.
Another spake, "a knight so basely doomed,
Must have offended in no frequent way."
The queen stood by them. With more anxious eyes
She looked, and Lancelot's shield to recognise
Found the faint light suffice. Her quick rebuke
Brought silence: "Now such ribald words to say
Is evil natured and foul-mouthed! For he
To our deliverance comes. Dost fail to see
The greatest knight of Arthur? God I bless,
Who made him in his worth companionless,
That those who trust him have no fault to fear....
Jesus from any shame protect him here!"
While thus they spake, the carter turned, and stayed
At the main gate. A burly porter there
Saw the blue shield with frightened eyes astare,
As down Sir Lancelot lit.
He faltered, "none - "
"I have no time to stay."
A buffet felled him. To the outer guard
He entered, but his further course was barred,
Though all had fled. The grill was down. He cried:
"Come forth, thou traitor! Wilt thou lurk, defied
Thus by one only? Art thou Arthur's knight?
Confront me, and clean death may yet forestall
The final shame which should be thine aright,
To hang head-downward from a captured wall."
But Meliagraunt replied not. Prone he lay
At the queen's feet. His hurried words outran
Coherent meaning, as his life he pled:
"I meant it naught.... I yield... it all began
A Mayday frolic... in the mood of May...
I yield me wholly.... if no more were said...
To thy good grace... it was a Mayday dream."
The queen's foot spurned him. "Groveller, didst thou dream
There were no sword to save me? Even though
It were in absence of my lord the king?
Do ladies born of royal sort belong
To knavish weaklings, whose bold lusts will bring
Their lips to meek surrender?"
"All of wrong
Shall be amended well."
"By what device?
Shalt thou do evil and avoid the price?"
"It shall be largely paid. I ask thee not
For more than this. To rule Sir Lancelot.
My life be in thy hands to save or slay.
Use my poor towers, and with morn depart.
Command in all. I am thy servant. Nay,
I am thy slave hence forth."
"For what thou art
I know thee, nor such service need. But still
Is better peace than war. That men forget
Would serve my worship."
To the court she led,
Where Lancelot clamoured: "Hoist the grill," she said.
"Is this good welcome for my friend?" She stept
Foremost to meet him. "Good my lord, thy heat
Hath small occasion. What hath moved thee so?"
"Madam, none better than yourself should know."
"I know ye would my wiser end defeat
By any violence here. Where all of ill
Is taled and ended. Sworn to serve my will
Is he who ruleth here."
"It well may be;
Nor would I counter aught required by thee,
Though less my haste and less my loss had been
Had I forecast it so."
"I that believe,
And thank thee truly"... Then she spake apart:
"Lancelot, he all retracts and all amends.
Think not I pardon. Nay, his life to grieve
Would give me solace. But bethink thee well.
Were this a tale through distant lands to tell
Varied and jibed in every minstrel's song?
I have but bargained lying tongues to still."
Answered Sir Lancelot: "As thou wilt I will;
Nor doubt thy prudence. Else I had not slacked
Till his foul heart were cold. Not all the wrong
Was thine. His trespass to myself you see.
With caitiff arrows was my charger slain.
Only contrivance, not the heart, he lacked
To slay me likewise. That my life remain
I thank good harness."
With these words they went
To where her wounded knights were laid, and he
Approved their valour and their constancy,
Which had not faltered to their strife sustain
When to cold reason it was lost and vain.
By which they showed, as oft in life will be,
That reason yields to importunity,
Being so challenged in a nobler way.
For had they at the first the queen resigned,
Her chance were lost the low-voiced word to say
That prompted Anton, or the last delay
Her wit contrived. But now was ease of mind
Even for those whose stiffening wounds were sore;
Which is not theirs, though cometh stint or store,
Who flinch or flee where counsel calls 'despair'.
Now came fresh clamour at the gate, for there
Lavaine sought entrance, of ill hap made ware
By the dead witness that the pathway bore.
"Where is my lord, Sir Lancelot?" Loud he cried.
But soon was welcome, and the gate was wide,
And all was peace; and at a later hour,
Chambered with Lancelot in the southward tower,
The whole he heard, with Lancelot's grudged consent
To make no quarrel; and a further word
The queen had whispered to his lord he heard,
Which called him to her window in the night
For private converse.
"There I would not go,"
Answered Lavaine, "for not a noble foe
Besets thee now. The shaft thy horse that slew
Might be a dagger in thy side."
My word is pledged. Nor would I lurk afraid
Of coward malice. That were but to be
As futile and as craven-souled as he."
"Then God go with thee."
"And abide with thee."
No steel, for silence as he strode, he wore,
Nor weapon, save beneath his cloak he bore
His sword unbelted in his hand, and so
Crossed the wide lawn.
The sinking moon, too low
The shadowed forest or the wall to show,
Gave the high outline of her tower to guide
His path, that sought beneath its western side
A ladder that his watchful glance before
Had memoried well; and this, being found, he bore
With careful silence through the garth that lay
Round the main keep, and found at last his way
To where her window took the light; and then
He paused till moonset closed both light and shade
In common darkness, when advance he made,
And raised the ladder lightly to the sill.
The casement opened inward, but the queen,
Await to greet him, could not outward lean,
Being forbidden by a thwarting bar.
They talked, so sundered, till her wayward will
Awaked incontinent: "I would," she said,
"That something better than a lonely bed
Were solace for the day's indignity."
"Now in God's truth?" asked Lancelot.
"Yea," said she.
Thereat the bar with passing strength he rent
Clear of the morticed stone, and outward bent,
Unheeding that his hand he tore thereby.
Inward he leapt, and followed where she led.
"Now, for thy life, be silent." for his tread
Than hers was louder on the boards: his blade
Rang somewhat as he laid it. "Couched anear,
Without the wicket, there to guard me lie
Thy wounded comrades. Should they chance to hear
More stir than would my ladies make, would they
Its cause too surely guess; or else surmise
That rescue were my need."
And thus they made
Their cautious passage to her curtained bed,
Where in delight of common love they played,
Until she slept, the while his wakeful eyes
Watched lest the dim light of the dawn should rise;
And timely left her.
None his noiseless tread
Heard as he passed them. Soon he backward bent
The outwrenched bar, and smoothed the stone, and so
Descended to the silent garth below,
Returned the ladder, and the room regained
Where Lavaine in anxious doubt remained,
Sleepless for dread of that which would not be.
For oft will fears a different ill foresee
Than that which snares those fears' unwariness.
Rose the queen's ladies with the rise of day,
Aware of sunshine, and the mood of May
Returned, and eager for release, and glad
That rescued wholly from the threat she had
She could rejoin her lord unscathed, with naught
That shame must cover with concealing thought.
Only the wounded knights - and none was dead
Or deadly hurt - had come to loss; and these
With comfort of good salves and ungeants spread,
They tended; and rich cates and wines were brought;
And litters called for those who not with ease
Had climbed a charger's side.
To take the road
They had not more delayed, except that still
The queen's close curtains screened a silent bed.
To rouse her ever was against her will
Unless pre-ordered. And perchance they said
That those who wake by night will sleep by day,
With thought on that they knew, but did not say
In words more closely aimed.
But while debate
Was made to wake her at an hour so late,
Came Meliagraunt to seek what meaning lay
In the confusion of that long delay.
He came from sleepless hours of grief and shame:
From night-long fears of Arthur's wrath he came:
From mean devisings of some ill to do
To whom he blamed for that reverse, unware
That in his own defaults its failures were.
What might this loitering mean? His anxious mind,
Alert for evil, chafed its cause to find.
Therefore he sought her rooms... "This long delay?
She sleeps! God's wounds! It is not sense to say"...
He pulled the curtain wide, and there she lay.
Neither her startled wrath, not shoulders bare
He heeded, but the pillow whence she raised
Engaged his eyes, which saw it first amazed,
And then with exaltation. "Now I see
Why those hurt knights must near thy chamber be.
False traitress art thou to thy lord, to share
Thy bed so freely. One or more hath been
A leman of the hour to Arthur's queen."
With bold contempt the queen replied: "Thy spite
Betrays thee wholly. Ask them, knight by knight.
I will report me of them all, that none
Such shame hath proffered, or such deed hath done."
The knights gave answer with one voice. They said:
"Thy charge is false, and of thy baseness bred.
Choose whom thou wilt, and when our wounds are whole,
We will that slander by thy death control."
"Nay, think ye not," they heard his harsh reply,
"Proud words shall put the accusation by...
Behold the witness here, too dumb to lie."
Then to the bed they drew, abashed to see
The pillow bloodied, as it well might be,
Where Lancelot's hand without regard had bled.
Yet still they put the accusation by.
With guiltless confidence alike they said:
"God is my witness that it was not I."
Through this much discord, and averse contends
Sir Lancelot entered.
"Here is strange array,"
He said. "What means it?"
"It means that here be proof too plain to hide
Of the queen's treason to our lord the king.
See where in shame she lies, and all the bed
By one or other of these knights bebled."
Sir Lancelot answered: "Thine the surer shame.
To thus expose the queen. You know not how
Those stains were made, nor what their meaning be.
But thy bold treason is more plain to see,
For scorn of all good knights. I dare to say
That not her lord himself had where she lay
Intruded in such sort except he came
In different mood than thine is."
"What you mean
I know not; but I say that here is seen
That she with one of these hurt knights hath lain.
That will I surely with my hands maintain
If one be bold to doubt it."
"That I dare,
And will most surely. Therefore be thou ware,
While yet thy life is whole."
"I know thy might.
Yet though he be the whole world's greatest knight,
My lord Sir Lancelot should himself beware
A wrongful quarrel. Hath not God a share
In such resolve?" And as he spake he drew
The gauntlet from his hand, and downward threw
At Lancelot's feet, who answered: "God I dread;
Yet surely in God's name shall this be said.
These knights are guiltless of thy charge, and you,
Who seek confusion of the wrong you did,
With no clean thought assail them. What you do,
Casting this glove, God knoweth; and God forbid
That I should pause to lift it."
With the word,
While no man spake, nor any motion stirred
In those who watched, and maybe thought or knew
Where lay the truth, two forward steps he strode,
And raised the gage.
"God ruleth at the last,
But I this cause will take; and if you may
Right shall you prove upon me. Name the day,
And I will meet thee where thou wilt."
In Westminster's broad field, a week away.
There shall be seen if God is mocked."
Guenever said, "may God's high counsels be
Foretold in all!.... But this I warn thee well.
Thy charge is false, as these ten knights can swear;
And though beyond belief it substanced were,
God would requite thee with a broken spear,
Knowing thy foul design, which brought me here."
"Madam, messeems I thought no more to do
Than these were licensed by your lusts; and you
Pretence of virtue made for public view,
Which at a privy time you would not wear.
God will decide it..... But, Sir Lancelot, thee
I do beseech and charge to leave me free
Till the set day; and not by villainy
Await or snare."
Lancelot answered: "Who,
In all my knighthood's days hath known me do
A deed of treason? Or hath made consort
With those so practised?"
"I will doubt thee naught
Until the hour of ordeal. In that grace
I pray thee make this hold thy resting-place
For such short hour as shall suffice to view
The structure of its ancient towers, wherethrough
Rang heathen songs before the Romans came."
And Lancelot thought no guile, and made reply
Assenting lightly.... Let those knights declare
Their guiltless honour while he was not there.
And that gloved hand - he had no wish to lie.
Still in the green, though not the mood, of May,
As from an evil dream to waking day,
Moved, at a litter's pace, the homeward train.
Ranged at Guenever's bridle rode Lavaine,
Each with enough of thoughts, but words were few.
For the dream went not as a dream should do,
But still was live to deadly ends. Relief
Had seemed assured when Lancelot came. But now
What must be told? What thought? And what belief
Would Arthur's be? And, came that ordeal, how,
Dividing wrong from wrong, would Heaven decide?
With wonted courage, and cold fears to hide,
To Arthur came the queen. The tale he heard.
Most at the base assault his anger stirred
By which his knights were hurt. Amazed was he
That Meliagraunt should Lancelot dare: "Perde,
I had not thought him of so bold a cast.
Mador is more than he. Did Mador last?
..... But where is Lancelot?"
"Lancelot stayed awhile.
He will be shortly here."
No thought of guile
Or treason vexed the king: "I doubt it naught.
He would not fail my queen at need, for aught
The world could yield."
He turned a later thought
To how the charge arose. So foul a lie
Would Meliagraunt without some substance try?
Yet was he at a desperate pass. He stood
Convict and foiled of treason. Might he not
Have coined this tale himself to save? God wot,
It were shrewd wit; and but for Lancelot
Her peril were not light, except that He
Would potent on the side of justice be.
No less, the charge, made and defended so,
With gage of life by him who made it, meant
That once again the queen's integrity,
Her public honour, and her life, must be
At jeopard of good blows. What curse malign
So chased her? Yet, by Nimue's word, had been
Her honour proved before. It might be seen
In the same light again. He would not doubt.
He asked Guenever: "Had you wit to guess
Whence came the blood?"
She answered: "Weariness
Was mine, when in poor light to sleep I sought.
Who would be wary lest a trick be wrought
So base of concept? Nay, I heeded naught....
Surely with none of those ten knights I lay.
You cannot think it."
Arthur answered: "Nay,"
And paused on further words he did not say:
And silence lasted.
In her heart was fear
Not only that the king might doubt. For near,
Slow hour by hour, the day of ordeal drew
Which Heaven would rule. To God's completer sight
Where lay the wrong indeed and where the right?
"This dungeon," said Sir Meliagraunt, "remains
Of the most ancient part. These broken chains
Round a doomed king were welded once, before
The first invasion of the Romans came."
Sir Lancelot looked, and heard the closing door
Behind him jar. He heard a grating key.
Round turned he swiftly, yet too late was he
To win that exit. Ever thus we see
The noblest-natured caught by perfidy
In snares most simple. Those who guile reject
In their live's conduct will the last suspect
Its use by others.
There long hours he raged;
Till at the fall of dusk a damsel came
With food and counsel.
"Little strength have I
To hold thee, yet it were but vain to try
For freedom, though the door be wide. The guard
Who close the entrance to this ward are ware
Of all approach. Their ready swords are bare:
Their hands alert. The heavy gates were barred
Before thy nearing; or thy life were spilt."
"Damsel," he said, "I well believe. But thou
Shouldst think thyself that all who share the guilt
Of this lewd treason to that doom may bow
Which treason earns."
"I bring thee food and wine.
Is that so evil?"
"More ye well might do.
Contrive my freedom, and much gain were thine."
"I lack contrivance."
More she would not say.
Yet came to Lancelot, as she went away,
Hope from her silence. Had she much to lose
By failing Meliagraunt? He could not know.
Much could he make her gain. Was hers to choose!
So, in succeeding days, he spake anew,
To which she answered neither yes nor no;
But on his need for freedom dwelt, as though
She raised the price of that she yet might do,
The while he urged her: "I with gold will pay
Largely - uncounting - to the most I may.
What would ye else?"
"The warder's aid to buy,
Gold is but vain. I must myself supply
His lust's full price."
"Then honour bars the way.
I could not ask it."
"Even that might be,
If I should also have delight with thee."
"Fair one, bethink thee. Count that word unsaid.
For else thine honour would alike be shed,
By bought consent, or should I still deny."
"Bethink thee rather that thy queen may die
Without thy rescue."
"That may God defend!
I will not fear it. If I am not there,
She will not be without some nearer friend.
For all my record will the truth declare
That dungeoned must I be, or maimed, or dead,
To fail my gage."
"If that I ask," she said,
"Be worse than durance, other aid from me
You will not hope."
"Nay, fair one, think not so.
No penance were it in thy grace to be.
But honour weighs not or delight or woe;
Love must be priceless, and its gifts are free."
"It is thy freedom that I price, and thou
Wilt rather here - perchance to death - remain
Than grant me favour."
"For no mortal gain
Would I so barter."
"Then I leave thee now,
To count the cost of pride."
At that she went.
Must he not surely of such pride repent
As neared the ordeal hour? And should she not
Win the high boast that once with Lancelot
She, only she, while others longed, had lain?
Had she made error in that likely lie
That she must thus a lustful warder buy,
Though joyless were it for his only gain?
Sir Meliagraunt to great occasion came
Less of himself than through his father's name.
Now, by himself, and circumstance betrayed,
Neither obeying nor himself obeyed,
A craven progress through the storm he made,
Heartless to hope, and lacking strength to steer.
Yet were two causes left for confidence:
Her guilt was naked! Heaven's strong defence
Was shield impregnable to those who stood
For justice in such strife. And Lancelot's spear,
Of which no faith in Heaven could quail his fear,
Would not confront him. Could her death defer
If Lancelot came not? Did he wish for her
The flame's sharp penance? Yea! God's judgement! Yea!
Had she not scorned him while she lewdly lay
With those chance-neighboured?
Thus he basely thought,
The while his arms were laced and linked. But naught
Clothed him with courage, nor conviction brought
Of triumph rising from his foe's default.
Soon was he horsed, and forward rode, to halt
At the high seat of Arthur.
"Lord," he cried,
"Where stands her champion? Of her guilt aware,
He doubts the wrath of Heaven too much to dare."
"Nay," said the careful king, "you vaunt too soon.
The shadow falters at the point of noon.
Sir Lancelot hath thy gage, who doth not fail.
Regard thy weapons, and thine own avail."
Kingly he spake, as putting doubt aside,
Yet was his heart abashed, and fears arose.
Was his queen friendless? Had she only foes?
What thought the silent knights who watched around?
Was there no sword, if Lancelot were not found,
To take this challenge? Could it surely be
That all men knew the truth but only he?
He looked toward the queen, whose place was set
Anear the stake where must her doom be met,
Unless some champion to her rescue came.
Courage and pride controlling fear he saw,
And high contempt of that unlikely shame.
Clearly she spake: "If Lancelot is not here,
I make appeal to all. Full well ye know
Save of duress he would not fail me so.
But either wounded by a wayside spear,
Or hindered by mischance beyond control,
Or couched by mortal sickness must he be,
To be so absent. Those ten knights who know
The falsehood of this charge may not be slow
His place to take, as honour calls."
She had not asked in vain; but sooth to say
They spake not quickly. Haply short delay,
A moment's only, was for each to see
If his nine comrades were more swift than he;
And some were still of laming wounds aware.
But forward stepped Lavaine. "Lord king," he said,
"Good reason gives the queen. Full well we know
Sir Lancelot fails not. Some extreme mischance
Hath mired him surely. If a weaker lance
She will accept the will of God to show,
By His high favour shall I cast him low
In whom is neither truth nor courtesy."
So spake he, while he thought: "Alone I know
Where rests the truth in Heaven's sight, and so
It were more just that mine the strife should be
Than that a knight who knows not certainly
Should peril blindly."
Answer gave the king:
"I grant it with a doubtless mind. For who
Knows not Sir Lancelot? Would he fail, unless
By treason trapped, or some extreme duress?
And all we know that when no craven cause
Witholds a champion, by the ordeal laws
Another may his vacant place supply.
Take thou her rescue, and on God rely,
For I have talked with those ten knights, and they
Assure me largely."
So to horse he got,
The while the queen still watched for Lancelot
As those in wilds benighted watch for day.
For in his absence was her fear, that thus
Had Heaven, for her guilt adulterous,
Contrived to doom her by his forced delay.
But ere the heralds gave their loosing cry:
'Laiser les aller', from the woods nearby
Burst a white charger at its utmost speed.
So was it urged that all men turned to heed,
And heard Sir Lancelot: "Bide, I charge thee, bide!
Await the tale I bring." The king allowed
That all should pause, while through the parting crowd
Sir Lancelot to his seat advanced. "Lord king,
A tale of shame to strain belief I bring,
That one by birth to princely fame allied,
And by our Table's oaths, should so put by
The garb of honour." All his tale he told -
"And thus I fretted in the traitor's hold
Till this fair morn that damsel's mood amiss
Relaxed, and of her better courtesy
She gave me freedom for an only kiss,
And this good charger found, my speed to be."
Said Arthur: "Foul the tale. Shall God decide
The hidden truth of all." At which they ran
A thunderous course, and earthward, horse and man,
Sir Lancelot bore Sir Meliagraunt; but he,
Large-limbed and strong, though base his heart might be,
Rose, and awhile for life he strove, but met
Such hail of furious whirling blows, which yet
Were no way random of their aim, that few
Had long sustained them. One that circling came,
Down-cast him sideward, when, rejecting shame,
He clamoured: "Mercy! For I yield - I yield.
I yield me recreant. At thy grace am I.
- Thine and the kings - to pardon or to die -
Thou canst not slay me, if I yield."
Sir Lancelot stood in doubt. On mortal field
No foe at mercy of his mood had lain
Whom he less purposed to arise unslain.
Toward the queen he turned his eyes, and she
Signalled for death. What lesser doom should be
For him who sought her own? What caution lay
In loosing him, in open hall to say
The bloodied sheet he saw?
The thing she would
Like willed Sir Lancelot. Nor can truth deny
That wisdom ruled her, and good right; but how
Slay one so abject in his fall, who now
Guilty and recreant pled?
Some paces stood
Sir Lancelot backward, yielding space, and said:
"I give you ground to rise, and if you may
Your cause achieve. Wouldst else, for short delay
Of death's sharp passage yield, who can but claim
A doom as certain and a darker shame? -
Nay, but for knighthood and thy father's name
Arise, nor this last hope of life betray
By recreance thus!"
"I will not rise," he said,
"Save only vanquished, and my cause submit
As recreant to the king."
"But I will make
Large proffers," said Sir Lancelot. "I will stand
To meet thine utmost strength with my left hand
Bound as thou wilt, and my left side made bare
Of mail or plate to ward me, offering it
Not in my own, but in all knighthood's name,
To save thee from a depth of open shame
Which hath no like at all."
The fallen knight
Made answer, with a hope revived: "Dost swear
That thou wilt meet me with thy side laid bare?"
And Arthur, troubled: "Was it wisely said?
He lieth vanquished. God's high doom is read."
"I stand by that which once I speak."
Sir Meliagraunt arose, and those who wait
The needs of warriors in such conflicts came,
And half disarmed Sir Lancelot. Bare was he
On the left side, and helmless. What could be
But swift disaster when the great blades swung?
So thought Sir Meliagraunt. And most among
The watchful crowd were doubtful. All men knew
The might of Lancelot, and his great repute.
But had he now presumed that might too far?
Beyond control of men God's judgements are.
Had he so ruled a scale that else might dip
Against the weight of justice? Darkly came
This chilling doubt to Arthur's heart. But she
Whose life was staked on that great jeopardy
Looked with unfaltering eyes, in which the flame
Of hate and scorn and triumph fearless glowed.
She had no doubt of Lancelot! Nor to him
Did any doubt intrude. He watched his foe,
Now sure and eager for his overthrow,
Advance swift-striding, confident to meet
A feigning blade, and wary, wiled retreat.
But Lancelot forward stepped, as one might do
Who thought no danger. In his single hand
He raised his sword. Should shield or helm withstand
That stroke's descent, his certain end he knew.
But naught withstood it. Crest and helm and head
Split to the neck.
"Behold a traitor dead."
King Arthur's voice the wonder-silence broke.
"God is not mocked." And then as thunder woke
The crowd's applause.
Who now as Lancelot
Was praised and cherished? Whose repute so high?
Even the queen her jealous moods forgot
For humbler and more trustful amity.
Only in Lancelot's heart a pain endured.
A torture in the lonely night: a cloud
That hid God's sunshine in the bustling day.
He left the court, but found no absence cured
The sin that held him, nor forgave its shame.
It was no comfort that his sword prevailed
Against Sir Meliagraunt. God's verdict lay
Between two evils. Meliagraunt had failed,
Being unclean of purpose. Should he thence
Assume God's pardon, or His impotence?
King Arthur, for the feast of Pentecost,
Moved to Carlisle; and there his Table drew,
As was their annual wont, to all renew
Of shortened strength. For those in dangers lost,
Or maimed, or sick beyond remede, would be
Replaced by later knights, until the tale
Regained full circle, seven score and ten.
There was a noble knight of Hungary,
That stubborn outpost of the Christian pale,
Who had been favoured once of God and men
Beyond compare of most. High prince was he,
The kingdom's heir, and of such haut regard
No venture seemed too bold, no quest too hard,
For him to bring it to good end.
Sir Urra, wandering through the wilds of Spain,
In strife from dawn's grey lift to noon's full height,
Another of no common worth had slain,
Sir Alpheus; but himself was wounded sore.
And these wounds healed not, for a curse was theirs
From Alpheus' mother. Not the Queen of Gore
More craft of evil witching knew than she.
No skill of leech, nor all the church's prayers,
Availed against her. Still they healthier grew,
Or into festering sores they broke anew,
Alternate. This, the curse declared, would be
Until the best knight that the world contained
Had searched them, and their blood his hands had stained.
So for long years in this vain search had he
Been borne from hold to hold, from court to court,
His mother, and his sister Fisole,
Beside him ever. Now their last resort
They made to Arthur.
"If I fail again,"
He said, "you shall not in a search so vain
Exhaust the purpose of your lives, but I
Will gladly rather take my doom and die."
This tale was told to Arthur. "Here," he said,
"Although I would not boast when proof is near,
Are knights of valour and of hardihed
Who would not likely meet an earthly peer...
I am not first of these, as all men know,
But I will first this test accept, that so
May none be shamed by failure more than I."
Sir Urra thanked him with faint words, and he
Searched the foul wounds with naught of gain thereby,
And after came the table.
First the kings:
Ireland and Scotland and Northumberland;
Carlot and Listonaise and Gore; and he
Berrault, the Hundred landless knights who led.
And those great princes of repute as high,
Galahalt and Clarence; and Duke Cador's son,
Who, when the tale of nobler days was done,
Would rule the land not basely. Vainly they
Touched the foul sores; and vainly Gawain's kin;
And vainly Benoic's best; and vainly Kay,
Lucas and Morganore and Bedivere:
The brethren Gautier, Reynold, Gillimere,
Whom Lancelot in Sir Kay's gay armour won;
Colgrevance, Darras, Harry fils de Lake,
And Lamiel, who for any damsel's sake
Would all beside of worth or wealth forget;
And Pelleas, who his love so hardly set
On false Ettard that, but for Nimue,
Died had he surely; and Epinogris,
That was the king's son of Northumberland:
Sadoc, and Melion of the Mount, and he
Degraine, of all men called sans villainy,
Who slew the monster of the dismal low;
Durnore, Brandiles, Arrock, Sagramore:
Dinas, Lambegus from the Cornish shore:
Driant and Fergus: Hebes and Sentraille:
Claras of Claremont, Clegas, Aglovale:
Ewaine, whose mother was the false Le Fey:
Helaine of the White Shield, whom Bors begot
When he with Brandegoris' daughter lay:
Servanse, who might not strive with Lancelot,
(They being both so pledged to Nimue)
But only fain to counter beasts was he,
Dragons and monsters that he sought and slew.
Men could but wonder what his sword might to
Had it been turned against his kind: the three
Whom Gareth won, Persuant, and Pertolope
And Perimones: and Sir Ironside
Whom Gareth also fought, and broke his pride:
Sir Maroc, whom an evil wife beguiled, -
Seven years a were-wolf through her arts was he:
Sir Plaine de Fors: Sir Heroe of the Wild:
Brewnor le Noir, and Meliot of Logre:
Sir Tor: Sir Petipace of Winchelsea:
Selise, to whose good rule the Dolorous Tower
Sir Lancelot gave: Grumore and Astamore:
Gyllenere: Ozanna of the Hardy Heart:
Melius de Lile: Brian of Listonaise:
And Alisander's son, Bellangre, who,
In the wild riot of one vengeful hour,
King Mark, and Andret, and their hirlings slew.
For Mark had slain Sir Tristram. Foully slain
As he sate harping with Iseult. A glaive,
In secret sharpened, from behind he drave
To spill the heart's blood of the noblest knight
Who bore the shield of Cornwall. Naught of woe
Beyond that moment was Iseult to know;
For she sank swooning at his side, and so
Died as he died. What better fate could be?
Such were the knights who touched the wounds, in all
Five score and ten. For some were absent yet;
And some would never come, their venture's debt
Taking the heavy price of life to pay.
But vainly to that task their hands they set
And in unaltered pain Sir Urra lay.
"Sister," the sick man said, with sore lament,
"I seek no rescue more. I much repent
That I have marred thy passing youth so long."
"Nay," said she, "let thy heart be blithe and strong.
We are not ended yet. A knight I see,
Where the wide doors stand open to the light,
Against the long west smouldering into night,
Approaching fast, and still is hope that he
The sudden rescue of long grief may be."
So Lancelot came, with little heart thereto.
He would not fail the king's expectancy
That all the Table in their seats should be,
Nor the high festal morn; but deep he knew
That hope and purpose from his heart withdrew.
Late and reluctant, though in haste, was he.
Heavy and slow the turning charger's tread
Rang on the pavement, and the sick man said,
Feebly, half raising from the bier his head:
"Meseems, my heart more yearneth unto thee,
Whom last with dimmed and dying eyes I see,
Than all that late have touched me."
Then the king
Told that had been, and Lancelot, marvelling
That none could save of all men there, replied:
"God knoweth, I had not deemed the world so wide
The better knights to hold than here there be."
And the king answered: "Not the whole were we,
Some still ride absent. Yet remains to try
That which thou canst."
But Lancelot answered: "Nay,
Where all have failed, I may not. God defend
That I were first among you."
Said the king:
"Thou shalt not choose, for I will charge ye do
This thing that all without respect have tried.
Wilt thou for doubt his dying hope delay?
Were meekness here the false assume of pride
Is none but God of who be best shall say."
"Oh, my liege lord," said Lancelot, "and my friend,
You would not urge if that at heart you knew
Which bear I ever. But since thy strait command
Controls my choice, I do it. The while I know
Hell laughs that in the scales of God be weighed
Light worth as mine."
But he for life who prayed,
Striving to raise a hand that lifeless fell,
Pled with weak lips: "Oh courteous knight! That so
My life be rescued, do this grace, for lo!
Since here you came, my aching wounds could tell
By their less grieving that good help is near."
Then knelt Sir Lancelot by the sick man's bier.
"Fair lord," he said, "for very ruth I would
That I might help thee."
In his heart he prayed:
"Not for myself, O lord, by sin betrayed
Too dark for pardon; not, O lord, for me,
But here that all men shall Thy mercy see,
And learn Thy wonders, and this knight opprest
Find comfort at the last, I pray Thee now
Reveal Thy rescuing power."
The while he prayed:
His hands were on the fetid wounds, to test
Their ulcered depths, and as his touch they knew
The sorcerous evil from the flesh withdrew.
Whole was Sir Urra by that instant's aid.
Lightly he rose, as one from bonds released,
Joyous of strength returned, and anguish ceased,
Grateful to God, nor less, as well should be,
To him who healed him from that sorcery.
But Lancelot in another mood arose,
Unware of plaudits, or the hands of those
Who reached to greet him, or the glance malign
Of Modred's hate. He was the greatest there.
He, with the burden of long sin to bear,
- Of unrejected sin - the greatest there.
So the high dream of Arthur sank from sight.
Failed the short day, and night succeeded night.
While all men wondered, Arthur's greatest knight
Went from them, weeping like a beaten child
For woe that he was greatest.
"Give we to God the praise." Himself he led
To the near altar, where they knelt in prayer,
And adoration of the mystery
Which is the garment of the lives of men.
Was much high revel of rejoicing then,
And Arthur sued the Queen of Hungary,
After long wandering, to continue there
A restful while; and Urra named to be
A Table knight, who thought with Fisole
To make Carlisle a lasting home, unware
Of discords that would soon the Table tear,
And break the realm. And hence it came that she,
Drawing the swift love of Lavaine, was wed
Before the hawthorn's scented blooms were shed.
Lancelot And The Queen.
Not in close counsel, but in open hall,
Careless of who might hear, Sir Agravain
Reviled Sir Lancelot and the queen: "We shame
Ourselves by silence, and the realm. What gain
Demands a price so high? Would Arthur fall
Without the Benoic spears? What boasted name
Through the wide Christian pale with his compares?
And fling he off the shameful cloak he wears
He were in all the greater."
"What would ye now? We can but scantly guess
That Arthur knows or knows not. This we know:
That Lancelot's fall would leave us all the less,
Though we ourselves were lossless. Likelier far
The throne would shake with almost equal war.
I charge thee leave it."
"That I will not do."
Gaheris said: "I take no part in this,
Brother Sir Agravain. You think amiss,
Thinking that envy leads an easy way."
Gareth, who seldom of their part would be,
Either in counsel or in company,
Since Lamorack died, said likewise: "Not by me
Shall ever sword be drawn, or word be said,
Against Sir Lancelot."
Modred's watchful eyes
Contemned him: "In our hands the traitor lies.
We may sustain or end. But were the king
Constrained the falsehood of his queen to see,
He needs must meet it with such mastery
As should our vantage and our surety bring.
I stand with Agravain."
"That so ye would,
Brother Sir Modred," Gawain answered, "few
Who know ye would not well believe. To do
That which confusion breeds, and thwarts success,
Discords to rouse, and all unfriendliness,
Hath ever been thy part. But this begun
Could no man cease at will.... I charge ye all
To leave Sir Lancelot, lest such dole befall
As should this kingdom to its roots distress."
"Nay, but in our control will all things be,"
Answered Sir Agravain. "An hour will see
This shame resolved."
"It were a likelier thing
That war should follow, thundering loud and long.
Strong is Logre. But is not Benoic strong?
Bethink how many, knight and prince and king,
Would hold with Lancelot, if choice must be.
"And think ye also in what sort were we
Beholden to him in past days. As when
He freed me from the Dolorous Tower; and freed
Ye both from Turquin. Had he left us then,
Ye had not here against his life agreed."
"Ye will not move us with such words."
King Arthur entered.
"Stint ye," Gawain said,
Urgent and low. But Modred loud replied:
"Why should we stint of what we would not hide?"
"Then must I leave ye, for I will not be,
Even though silent, of thy company."
"Nor I," Gaheris said.
"Nor surely I,"
Sir Gareth spake alike, "who own a debt
Of friendship and good deeds."
The king stood by:
"What means this bicker?" As the three withdrew,
He wondering asked. And answer gave the two:
"We are thy sister's sons, and that we know
We needs must tell thee. Lancelot holds thy queen.
Too long and boldly hath he shamed thee so.
We call him traitor to thy throne and thee,
And so will prove it."
Arthur's words were slow:
"Bethink ye lest a proofless charge ye show,
For Lancelot is a better knight than we.
Better than all. And ye such end should know
As Mador or as Meliagraunt. Unless
He were so taken that the fact confess
A certain treason, so our best would fare
Who should the height of such assertion dare.
What saith Sir Gawain?"
"Gawain weighs and weighs.
But well he knows it."
"Where Sir Gawain stays
They walk at hazard who the path pursue."
"Yet is it simple that we think to do.
Thyself at break of morn shall outward ride
To hunt the further woods on Solway side,
And later send a courier back to say
Your cooks must join you, for you camp away.
But come ye in the night in privity;
And doubt not all we tell thyself shalt see."
"That would I never. By so base a plot
Far likelier than the queen and Lancelot
Myself were shamed."
"Then only there remain.
Ourselves will take them in the act."
Ye deem that in their deeds adulterous
They will be snared, I must the proof allow.
But for your own avail I warn ye now
You are not casting for a frightened hare."
"Nay, for we better know the beast we snare.
Twelve of the Table will we take."
May need them if a substanced tale ye tell.
But I will naught believe."
In this consent
They parted. Agravain his friends to call,
As Modred prompted, who contrived in all,
While holding backward in his craftful way.
But Arthur that long night in anguish spent.
He half believed, and yet belief denied.
Long had he half believed, and thrust aside
A thought unwelcome. If it were, he knew
It had been better that he should not know
- Should not know surely. If it were not true,
Would this resolve it in a final way?
Surely it could not. Still would slander say
That which it said before. And were it true
What would exposure now avert or do?
Evil and vengeance only! Did he seek
The fruits of vengeance? For his queen must be
The death that treason earns, except she flee
- Except she flee with Lancelot. So to flee
Would mean twelve good knights proved too weak
Against him singly. Would he that prefer?
Nay; but the doubt was strange. Was doubt of her
The lesser grief that moved him? Was it not
He had himself most love for Lancelot?
Did he condemn her for his own defect?
Nay, but the kingdom! All the years had gained,
By Benoic and by Benoic's spears sustained,
To be by such contrived confusion wrecked!
Who could divide them? Realm and queen and friend.
Gain else who might, for him the certain end
Was loss beyond computing. Had he not
Been warned by Merlin in the long-forgot
Buoyant adventurous days when first he thought
To take a consort from the mountain court,
Where he in boyhood had unheeded seen
One in herself and birth a natural queen,
Regal in courage, and in form and mien?
So had she proved. In all ways excellent
As public consort; nor in private ways
Too cold of conduct. Yet had Merlin seen
She was not wholesome. This his words had meant,
Or had no meaning, and by that consent
Her guilt was certain.
So the short June night
Passed in a turmoil of contending thought,
Till rose he with the dawn's advancing light,
Impatient of the silence. Was there naught
To do - to hasten - to resolve? He sought
From the eventless hours to break away
Whatever lay beyond. To pass the door.
Yet still as one who must a weird obey:
As one who acts a part rehearsed before,
Outside himself, and cannot change the play.
"The king," she wrote, "camps in the woods away.
I have with thee a private word to say.
Come when the moonlight falls across the stair."
"That," said Sir Bors, who had perforce to share
Sir Lancelot's lodging in the crowded town,
"Is near the midnight hour. I would not go.
Let prudence rule thee. Those who seek thy bane
Whisper together, and their aim we know.
The sullen envious eyes of Agravain
Are lit with smouldering purpose. Think ye not
That Arthur's absence shows an active plot?"
"Nay, for would Arthur plot with Agravain?
Surely he would not! Fear ye naught. For I
Will go for few words only. Not to fail
The queen through cowardice, nor that plots prevail,
I shall be with thee ere the midnight bell,
And treason would but test an empty shell."
"Well, may God keep thee."
Loose Sir Lancelot shook
His cloak around him, and his sword he took
Sheathed in his hand. Along the moonlit street
Alert he passed, but all was silent there,
And as the pale light crossed the private stair
He reached the chamber of the queen, and she,
Among her ladies, stretched glad hands to greet
His safe arrival.
"Were ye seen?"
Unless the shadows - But Sir Bors believes - "
"Sir Bors! He ever hates me. All foredone
Would be our joys if he might rule. He grieves
For every kiss we change. Forget! Forget!"
Her arms were round him now, her lips were set
In love's fierce hunger to his own. But he
Responded to her mood, and then withdrew.
"Nay, but they are not idle words," he said.
"Sir Modred plots, and his designs to dread
Is prudence while in this close town we be,
Where none may pass or leave but all men see."
"Nay, if another waits thee, not would I
Retard thy pleasure - "
As she spake, there came
A rush of feet without, and Lancelot's name
Was shouted. Blows upon the door were loud.
But to the ladies of the queen Linette
Had joined herself that night. The noise allowed
The instant's warning that she used. She set
Her hand to the great bolt, and down it slid
As the door trembled. Iron and stone defied
The clamour, and their eager foes forbid;
Till others joined her, and the bars were shot,
While those without still roared for Lancelot:
"Come forth, thou traitor, to thy doom; for thou
Beyond thy vaunting boasts art cornered now."
These were the twelve who held with Agravain:
Colgrevance; Mador; Meliot of Logre;
Galleron; Petipace of Winchelsea;
Curselaine; Melion; Grumore; Astamore;
Florence and Lovell, Gawain's sons; and he
Who with them in their wildest bouts would be,
Sir Gringaline. With Modred had they lain
In a near chamber, while Sir Agravain,
Deep in a shadowed alcove, watched the stair.
By him of Lancelot's entrance made aware,
They waited naught, but rushed incontinent
To break the door, and being foiled they beat
Its solid strength, and clamorous cried: "Come out,
Traitor! Adulterer! Come thy doom to meet.
Thou hast no rescue. What avails delay?"
Sir Lancelot gazed the narrow space about
Of his short safety. Though the door was strong,
It could not serve him for protection long.
High was the chamber in the eastern tower,
Unwindowed save for arrow-slits. To try
For other exit than the door were vain.
The bolts unproven strength might gain an hour,
With shameful issue for so slight a gain.
Was else no sleight to put the danger by?
Oh for the fence of shield, the clothing steel!
Enraged he thought, but knew one joy, to feel
The sword-hilt to his hand ungauntleted.
"Still is there hope of one good chance," he said,
And somewhat backward from the door he bade
That all should stand, but yet alert to aid
His instant call; and then the bars he drew,
Upwrenched the bolt, and cried those without:
"Abate that clamour! What ye think to do
Prove on me, if your hands suffice thereto."
He wrapped his mantle his left arm about,
And in his right his ready sword was bare.
A little space he let the door unclose,
At which the nearest of his eager foes,
Colgrevance, inward thrust, too late aware
Of that which waited. Sword to sword was set.
Colgrevance' blade the twisted mantle met,
While through his throat the point of Lancelot's bore.
Grovelling he fell, choked by his spurting gore,
The while the queen, and all her ladies there,
Clanged back the door, and dropped the bolt anew.
Loud railed the foiled besiegers. But the queen
Laughed out, her fears released, the while she stripped
With firm cool hands the dead man's arms. She said:
"Now have I little need for doubt or dread,
For not the voice of any knight is there
Who change of buffets from thy sword will dare;
And well I wot that while thy heart is whole
My fault will ever find a lighter dole
Than is for those who wrong me."
"Though the next hour should leave me live or dead,
Your safety would not fail. For those my kin
Who love me, would not dure that harm to thee
Should be their failure. Bors and Lionel,
With Ector, and a score of less degree,
Would venge me surely, and thy life would win
By speedy rescue."
"Nay, would Bors forgive?
Poor gain were mine at such a price to live.
I would go with thee, better tale to tell
At God's great judgement..... But thou wilt not fail.
Too well I know thee."
"That with God must be."
He called to those without: "I charge ye now
Abate this clamour. With the morn I vow
I will at Arthur's seat appear, and there
Ye may the malice of your hearts declare.
And I will answer as a knight should do."
"Nay, but come forth, and yield thee. Ours must be
To save or slay thee as we list."
Flung the door wide, and out, as bolt from bow,
He leapt upon them. First was Agravain
Caught on the point upthrust through throat and brain,
That down he rolled, his comrades' feet below.
And scarce the blade slipped backward from the slain
Ere with infuriate wrath it thrust again.
Backward they jostled, with no thought at all
Of seizing Lancelot, but to find the screen
Of bolder comrades. So they half withdrew,
Thinking that safety in their rear must be,
Being among themselves so numerous.
But Lancelot on their front so swiftly slew
That no safe rear could be. He drave them thus
Till Meliot tumbled backward on the stair,
Slain ere he fell neck-broken.
Scaped there none?
That takes not Modred in the count, for he
First for intrigue, and last when good blows fell,
After one thrust beneath a comrade's arm,
For all its venomed hate too weak to harm,
Held backward till, as Meliot's frantic blade
The moment of his certain death delayed,
He turned in flight; but struck by Meliot's corse,
On the mid-stair, he rolled ignobly down,
Battered and bleeding rose, and found his horse,
And from the silence of the sleeping town,
The while from darkening clouds a cold rain fell,
Rode out to seek the king.
The queen beheld
A blood-drenched passage, where the slain asprawl
Lay corse on corse. She looked, and liked it well.
"The basest of my foes thy sword hath felled,
And less remain. Yet had I bartered all
Sir Modred writhing in his death to see."
Sir Lancelot answered: "Of such sort is he
That wisdom were it. Yet what difference now
Could Modred make? Death hath digged too deep
The gulf of separation. Will the king
Such loss excuse? Will Gawain's heat allow
I had good reason to such end to bring
His sons, his brother? Now our lives to keep
Is one way only. Through the night to ride
To Joyous Garde. In safety at my side
I might not fail to hold thee."
That were to prove me in the shame they say.
But be thou swift, for while they know thee free,
Naught will they dare of open wrong to me
So dire thou shouldst not in my rescue show.
And this may doubt the king past all. To know
I fled not with thee from this overthrow."
He answered, doubtful: "Thine the bolder choice,
And leaving such faint hope as yet may spring
In cooler moments to persuade the king
I slew them justly... Rather far would I
We were together now, to gain or die.
But that thou wilt I will. And this believe:
Is none thine honour or thy life shall grieve
The while my freedom and my strength remain."
At that, he kissed and left her. None could say
That they would meet again on earthly day;
But confident of heart she summed the slain.
"What meaneth this?" Sir Lancelot asked. He saw
Ector and Bors full armed, in guise of war.
But Bors, who saw that Lancelot likely came
Full-armed, who in his cloak had left, replied:
"Before we answer, we may ask the same,
Being more urgent, as I deem."
Sir Ector added: "Through a whispered word
That by a random chance I overheard
My mind was vexed; and such a dream I knew
That here I came, prepared my part to do
As need might be, and found Sir Bors awake,
Awaiting evil, sheathed and armed as I."
Sir Lancelot answered: "By my warned mistake
Our lofty days are done. In blood they lie,
So many Table knights who barred my way,
That Gawain's vengeance will not halt, nor less
May be the anger of the king."
All that had been, and Ector answered: "Yea,
I dreamed not rashly. Now hath Orkney sold
The kingdom to thee by its own duress.
All, if thou wilt, is thine."
But Bors replied:
"Is none of all thy kin will leave thy side.
For we who took the wealth should take the woe
With thanks alike to God for that we share.
But not for triumph will our swords be bare.
Thou art not Britain's, nay, nor Arthur's foe."
"Never," Sir Lancelot said, "but should they dare
The queen to jeopard, what were then to do?"
"What hast thou done at lesser need afore
Her life to rescue, and her name restore?
Not asking if the cause were clean or bad,
Your sword she needed, and your sword she had.
And now - what cause is wrong or right? Through thee
Her honour falls except her rescue be....
Remain thou here the while we rouse our kin
For counsel and accord."
Sir Lancelot said:
"Ye give me comfort, though ye know the sin
That brings this evil."
Bors, without reply,
Went forth with Ector, such a tale to spread
As loyal faiths must break, and friendships try,
With hard divisions and resolves. They left
Sir Lancelot shaken by so swift a fall,
Seeing reverse of fame, and loss of all
His life had garnered, king and realm and friends,
Now to confusions sunk, by discords reft,
An ill avoidless if the king and he
Should counter, might to might.
Short time was his
Of single vigil, for in haste there came
A score of Benoic knights of greatest name,
With others who, at such a choice, would be
Ranged at his side. Came Ufra. Came Lavaine.
Came Harry Fils du Lac. And came the two
Whom Lancelot met long since, and overthrew
On the strait bridge: Bellangre and de Lisle
Came with Selise of the Dolorous Tower.
Dinas and Sadoc in this fatal hour
Their hard election made, and with them brought
Clarias and Clegis. With no native zeal
Either for Britain or for Arthur's weal,
Sir Palomides lightly came - his thought
To choose the part where periled venture lay.
These were the first who came by night, and they,
Four score in all, with Benoic's spears, were such
That Arthur's mightiest might not seem too much
For durance at the need.
To these he said:
"Believe it only, which to God I swear,
Neither myself I purposed to be there,
Nor, being summoned, had I meant to stay.
And this is truth beyond refute, that they,
Her ladies with her, can confirm, that I
Had scantly entered when there rose a cry,
Clamorous, from those who must await have lain -
Now solely by their own presumption slain.
But slain they are beyond recall, and those
Who yet sustain the king are not my foes.
My foes and hers - and bitter foes they were -
Fallen, save Modred, now on hall and stair,
Have paid the purchase of their enmity.
I would not now that further deaths should be.
Yet, if the king be fixed in evil will,
What burden have we?"
Bors gave answer: "Still
Thy mind rejects the single path to see.
If the king choose, with naught of choice for thee,
Deaths will be. Therefore should thy doubts delay?
Death is the smallest of the debts we pay
To Him who made us. Must the king decide.
And that which cometh must we boldly bide."
Sir Lancelot answered: "Simple choice to thee,
Who hast no part in this, may different be
For one whose error hath its course inclined.
And though this night its certain fruit must bear
Dividing what we are from what we were,
My sword, which never shall again be clean
From blood of comrades in one oath confined,
I would not further in such conflict bare."
To which Bors answered: "What of wrong hath been
Is changeless. But of further wrong to be
Must separate judgement weigh. This deed was planned
By those of traitorous mind, and now we stand
Assured of naught but treason. Not desire
For Arthur's honour, or to vindicate
His kinghood was the brand which lit this fire.
But emulous malice are its ulcered way
Through the fair promise of our Christian day.
Thy sword was cleaner than their thoughts; and still
Is clean from blood outpoured from evil will.
And did you right before, or did you wrong,
Our swords of rescue to the queen belong,
If she be dangered of her life by thee."
"Yea," said Sir Lancelot, "so it well may be.
May God defend that any sun should see
The queen in jeopard of her life through me,
And I stand backward. Therefore, friends and kin,
I ask your counsel first. What would ye do?"
And in one voice they answered: "Like as you."
"Good friends, what should I? If the king in heat
Condemn the queen a felon's fate to meet?
I ask your counsel."
With one voice again
They answered: "Should she in that danger lie,
We must make rescue though a hundred die,
Surely you would yourself alike be slain
Could Arthur hold you. In the fairer days
That now are ended, oft thy sword was bare
To prove her quarrels which you did not share;
More urgent is it for your final praise
Her part at any present need to take,
She being periled for thine only sake."
But Lancelot paced the room, and turned about
Again its length, as in dividing doubt,
Which no way would resolve.
"Fair lords," he said,
"I have no lust for shame: no lust to see
The queen in question of her life through me.
That may ye well believe. But have ye thought
That if her rescue at such pass we wrought
A tale of wounds, a tale of deaths must be,
Not of our foes, but those who yesterday
We called our friends; and some, good sooth to say,
Are friends indeed, and if their choice were free,
Would Arthur's part defer, and hold with me.
To do them hurt would be a grievous thing
Who were but loyal to their natural king,
Their hearts from malice and contention free.
And if the queen from out their hands we bring,
Where should we hold her?"
"That," Sir Bors replied,
"Should be the least of all our cares. Recall
How Tristram wile and force alike defied
In thy high towers of Joyous Garde: a wall
Is there that none may scale and none may mine.
And harboured surely in that hold of thine
Secure she were till Arthur's heat be past.
Then might she well return, and at the last
Might Arthur and thyself be reconciled
By that so free surrender."
"Thus to do,"
Sir Lancelot answered, "were our deaths to woo;
And Tristram's surely is a warning name.
For when such treaty with King Mark he made
Its end was evil. Of that deed of shame
Is speech reluctant. When Sir Tristram died
He left none equal in our land."
Sir Bors made answer, "what for truth we know.
But one thing further may be said. The way
Of Mark is not as Arthur's. When the king,
In either great or any meaner thing,
Hath pledged his word, that plight is sure. And so
We may find courage that he would not do
Aught to betray his treaty's faith."
Gave all who heard, and with no more debate
Accorded were they that the queen should be
Rescued at need, whatever lives be spent.
Then separate through the rain-dark streets they went
For finding of their squires and steeds and gear,
To all assemble at the eastern gate,
Where came they ere the dawn.
As those unsure
Of whether or of when return might be,
They brought such ladies as would more endure
Couch of cold ground than colder chastity.
They left as some defeated force might fly,
With carts and sumpter horses loaded high.
But not at heart as those outfought, they went
In strength and resolution confident,
Being so many, and so great of name.
Surely, should Arthur with their strength contend,
Were then the sombre and most certain end
Of the wide realm he made.
So, many a shield
Of famous symbols, many a deadly spear,
Shone as the torches tossed, or rose aloft
Lost in the darkness of the night; for here
Was Benoic's boasted strength, that list and field
Had proved so oft afore; and those beside
Who Lancelot more than Orkney's harder pride
Preferred of choice.
Through opened gates they rode
Some miles at speed along a northward road,
As men who fled, the strength of walls to win;
But as the eastern clouds with dawn were red
Sir Lancelot through a shadowed byway led,
To where the hollow-hearted hills contained
A wooded vale; and being camped therein,
Beneath the storm-wet boughs, sure scouts he sent
To bring him tidings to that ambushment
Of Gawain's counsel, and the king's intent.
Wounded and bruised and soiled and all bebled,
Fast through the falling rain Sir Modred fled,
Seeking the king; and while the eastern cloud
Rosed to the dawn, and drenched woods waked aloud
To song contempting rain and gale, he found
The woodland tents where Arthur sleepless lay,
By hopes and fears controlled alternately.
'I fret for naught,' he hoped, 'for naught will be...
I go not by my own, but Modred's way.
Ruin and grief,' he feared, 'are mine to pay.'
So vexed, he heard the thudding hooves. A gown
He cast around him, and in haste he went
To where Sir Modred, from his steed set down,
Demanded of the guard that word be sent
To wake him in the dawn.
"What means," he said,
"This bicker, and this steaming steed? Perde,
Sir Modred, soiled thou art, and much bebled.
What rough collision hast thou found, to be
So tumbled? Come thou to my tent with me,
The hard occasion of thy state to tell."
So Arthur heard the tale. He saw the end
At once of public and of private weal,
Sunk in one wreck. He said: "I warned thee well.
Thou shouldst not through the world thy search extend
To find the peer of Lancelot. What can heal
The wound this night against my realm hath dealt?
The noble fellowship of knights I had
Is broken now, and tides of strife may whelm
The peace I built so hardly. Dost thou wit
Thou hast in equal parts my Table split? -
Or less than equal mine. For knights and kings
From whose according front our greatness springs,
Will now their valour and their might divide,
And those who range themselves at Lancelot's side,
With all the strength of Benoic's spears allied,
May thwart the utmost that ourselves may do."
Sir Modred had no answer here. He knew,
And feared, and hated, though his secret thought
Went further than the king's. He answered naught.
But Arthur mused: "I must to Gawain go.
However black his mood with wrath and woe
For those, his nearest, by Sir Lancelot slain,
Yet prudence will his utmost hate restrain
To counsel that our common end we reach
By such contrivance as may compass best
His vengeance and maintain my regnancy."
Lord Gawain met the king with temperate speech:
"King, ere you strike in blinded wrath, and so
That half thy throne's support shall break, and lest
To lasting shame a random judgement fall,
Weigh the full facts in equal scale, for he
Was not as others to her.... Lord, recall,
When all the court refused her, and she stood
In mortal doubt of death; when perfidy
Seemed truth, and truth seemed treason, who but he
Was then thy hope and hers? And all men know
Later she was confirmed most innocent.
Suppose that of her grateful thought she sent
Her thanks to pay; and lonely, in the fear
Of evil tongues, it may be. Certain, oft
Our caution brings to birth the doubt we dread.
The truth is not the tale that Modred said,
Rousing thy wrath to rash resolve, but so -
Her ladies there, and while no space had sped
Was outcry raised - that none shall surely know
What else had been."
The king gave answer: "Thou,
Whose sons lie slaughtered, should be well content
That to reduce his pride my wrath is bent."
"Lord, grief is mine; but yet, the while I grieve,
Must I persuade thee what I less believe?
They knew that what they did I naught agreed.
I gave them warning which they would not heed.
Now should we wreck the realm for vengeance? Nay,
Their deaths be only on their heads, for they
Contemned my counsel. Shall our friends despair,
Our foes make triumph, that the strength we were
In discord shatters?"
More in craft he spake
Than true conviction. Well and long he knew
The queen was largely to her lord untrue.
Yet saw he that the haste of Agravain
Had left it proofless, and the chance it gave
The truth to cover, and the realm to save.
But Arthur answered: "All hath gone too far
For simple cover. I a court will call
Where shall the queen appear, to stand or fall.
Impartial justice shall her faith acquit
Or else condemn, and all may yet be well.
But longer in the public doubt to dwell,
Or to condone so many deaths, without
A resolution of their cause, would be
To close a wound uncleansed, from which would grow
More deadly evil than the lifeblood's flow."
"Yet were it wiser choice that less were done."
"Those who believe the guilt the proof may shun.
So shall I judge thee?"
Gawain said no more.
King Arthur sought a lonely room. He went
Through streets of curious eyes, where some would cheer,
And some were silent. Was the end so near?
Were some who passed him with averted eyes...
He saw the chantry where the dead men lay.
Was that God's answer?.... Was he base as they?
Let others judge it! One of trust he sent
The Scottish king to find. In Caradoc
Was friendship certain, and integrity
Of word and act.
"How fares the queen?"
Her boldest mood. She makes her boast of those
Whom Lancelot slew. She says thy choice must be
Between herself and Gawain."
"Doth she so?
Gawain is less than friend, and less than foe.
He would compose with Lancelot."
"That to do
The day may be too late, for Lancelot slew
So many, and their friends will not be still."
"You speak a likely word, but of my will
It shall not so be closed. So deep a sore
No leech would seek to salve, but first explore
It's poison's source. I will the queen be tried
This charge of treason to decide; and thou
Shalt all control."
"Lord king, I would not that.
I am not of a mind opinionless,
As those who judge should be."
"Such judge to find
I might not hope. But I can trust thee now,
As few I could, and one I must, to weigh
With careful scales. I would not aught should go
Against the level course of justice; though
For her acquittal, and this strife to stay
The half my realm were little price to pay."
So was it done. With only brief delay,
As must be needful for the right array
Of accusation, and defence thereto,
A court was called, at which the queen must stand
Arraigned of treason to her lord and land;
To which she answered, as she best might do,
By strong denial, and assertion made
Of envious malice: "For it was not I
Whose life they sought. For him their nets were laid
Whose shining honour is a star too high
For their ascension."
Thus, with truth to aid,
She smote her foes, yet even here supplied
The damning witness which her words denied.
Truth was her shield, and then her guard betrayed.
For when she spake of Lancelot all could see
That first and only in her heart was he.
Of him her vaunt: in him her confidence.
But next Linette's bold witness brought offence
That in a moment changed her front of war
To forward motion: "Here is truth," said she,
"I only speak of that myself I saw.
The door was open, and her ladies there.
Only when riot sounded from the stair
Myself I closed it. There was cause to hear!...
Whoever by their own defect have died,
Yet will the name of Orkney stand aside.
Gaheris was not there. Is Gawain here?
Hath Gareth part herein? But those misled
By Modred, of their own misdeeds are dead."
The moments that she spake reversed the tide
That swept against the queen, but soon again
Its strength resumed, and when the judgement came,
Though doubtful justice weighed, and placed aside,
Her scroll to Lancelot (in his chamber found),
Straining no proof from that; nor that brief while
They were together proof of guilt supplied
- Rather disproof, for there her ladies were -
Yet was there one in that thronged court unware
Of what for twenty years scarce masked had been?
The adulterous intercourse by which the queen
Dishonoured Arthur, and herself, and realm,
Was known too widely, and was known too long,
For the three kings who sate with Caradoc
To join consenting tongues to loose her free,
And make a jest of justice. Nor could be
A choice of sentence, for the legal wrong
Was treason to the state, for which the doom
Was pardonless, that cleansing fire consume
The tainted flesh. Nor was there hope to hear
In Caradoc's words: "Think not of aid from him
Who raised thee to the place thy lust hath soiled.
It is not his to pardon; for thy wrong
Strikes at the kingdom, of good name dispoiled,
Which thy removal best can rectify."
Freed by the voice of the deciding law,
Men spake aloud of all they thought or saw
Through earlier years, and Arthur heard the tale,
With all its circumstance of practised guile,
Told haply with intent to reconcile
His heart to that which must be. But therein
Neither relief nor consolation lay.
Better the planned deceit of yesterday.
His world was broken. Not the carnal sin
Of those he trusted stirred his heart, as ire
For that disclosure. Hate of Modred more
Possessed him than good hope to yet restore
His fallen honour.... What would Lancelot do?
Where was he?... Half he guessed, though naught he knew.
He went to Gawain: "If this doom must be,
Wilt thou be there, its seemly end to see?
Men wonder thou shouldst stand apart."
Nay, for I call the charge disproved, and though
Its proof were better, still I would not go.
Think ye the queen will there unrescued die?
I watch a folly that sane wits would seek
Even now to mend." (For surely all men knew
That women, loosely to their lords untrue,
Erred in such sort. And were not queens the same?
Only the evil from exposure came.
And but one lover all her life had she!)
"It is too late for better end to be.
But I would show a front of unity
Among us who remain. At least do thou
Thy brethren for the law's support allow,
Without persuasion that they stand aside."
"My lord," Sir Gawain to the king replied,
"I will not speak to urge, nor yet to stay.
Not used to question thy commands are they,
And may be pliant. But I warn thee yet
That Gareth will not all the past forget.
And more Gaheris to his way inclines
Than once he would."
"Have I no friends at all?
Is there no difference that the heart divines
Between who bears and who contrives the wrong?"
"Yea, by God's wounds! But is thy grief the less
For flames of judgement? Be she right or wrong,
She is most royal; and our queen too long
To welcome vengeance in such large excess
For dubious guilt unproved.... Of what will be
I know not. But I do not think to see
A death so shameful."
"In her life was shame
More than her death will bring."
With no content
Arthur ceased vain-bartering words. He sent
For Gawain's brothers with the same intent,
If to himself his real intent were bare,
And Gareth answered: "Lord, if we be there,
Your justice to support (and not will I,
For any grief, thy injured right deny),
It will be lothly, through thy strait command.
Nor would I ever with bare sword withstand
My lord, Sir Lancelot. What at last will be
I know not, as I know not where is he.
What can we hope beyond a different woe?...
But only in a garb of peace I go."
So said Gaheris; and the king replied:
"I ask no more." Could mortal wit foresee
That the last hope of peace that word denied?
Knew Arthur what he hoped or feared? Was he
Desiring rescue? Was his injured pride
More than his love for her, who long had been
His trusted consort, and reputed queen?
No more was said. They knew not what would be.
In a fair meadow, Carlisle walls without
The stake of death was set, and thereabout
Gathered the knights who yet to Arthur's name
Gave reverence and regard. Full armed they came,
And all approaches closed, the while the queen,
Stripped to her smock (to be her further shame
When it should shrivel to the rising flame,
And give the adulterous writhing flesh to view),
Was guided to the stake, and bound thereto.
Only remained her ghostly peace to make,
To find God's mercy for her Saviour's sake,
Before the smoke should creep from foot to knee;
And the ill stench of burning flesh should be.
But pride was in her heart, to fear's disdain.
And when for succour had she looked in vain
To him she served but ill in easier days?
Yet when had any gazed on vacant ways
As now she looked for Lancelot? Surely he,
Who failed her never at less needs, would be
Her potent champion now. But densely met
The ring of spears around her. Densely set
Were guards at all approaches. Knights of fame
Sate their great steeds with rising spears arow,
And visors down, that none their thoughts could know,
But well she judged it that her friends were few.
Only unarmed of all those knights were two,
Gaheris and Gareth, and they looked as though
They stood regardless at an alien show.
Where then Lancelot? Not too soon he came
To make her rescue, lest strong walls reclaim
A victim not full-distanced. But report
Was signalled backward to the close resort
The where, with eighty knights of victoring fame,
He fretted, hardly by Sir Bors restrained:
"All may be lost by haste, but naught be gained.
Deliberate ritual is the rule of law.
They will not hasten, lest some final flaw
Reverse their orders."
But, as this was said,
A lance-point from the roadside haws ahead,
Three times up-thrust, the sunlight caught, and he
Who outward watched, a white scarf waved, whereon
Sir Lancelot tightened rein, and instantly
Four-score impatient steeds one impulse knew.
Heavy and strong they crashed the boskage through,
Till on the road four-score the lances shone.
Hard was their pace, where none the last would be.
And as swift tempest smites the waiting sea
They clashed with those as armed, as bold, as they.
So charged, so challenged, who would yield them way?
All fought of instinct now, the cause forgot,
With death to take or give. But Lancelot
So raged, the strongest must their ranks divide.
Yet when he ranged the unlit pile beside
Still rang the conflict, and the maimed and dead
Had priced her life beyond its worth, for here
Brandiles fell; and here Perimones
And Pertelope, the green knight and the red;
Griflet; and Gautier; and Guillimere;
Belias le Orgulous; Segwarides;
And, princelier far, the sons of Pellinor,
Last of their household, Aglovale and Tor;
Herminde and Damas; Priamus and Driant;
Lambegus; and Sir Kay the Stranger fell.
So died they from a traitor's doom to wrest
Her who was treasoned for long years. The cord
That bound her, from the point of Lancelot's sword
Curled backward. In the blood of Arthur's best,
Who might have been her bulwark at her need
Against the leagued might of a world at war,
She stept, and looked to Lancelot. Neither saw
That nobler than the best that strife had slain,
And more of portent for the kingdom's bane,
Dolorous for pen to write, or song to say,
Stretched with the dead, the sons of Orkney lay.
For midst that throng who strove, and smote and died,
Blind with desire to gain Guenever's side,
As Lancelot raged, across his path of woe,
Stood Gareth and Gaheris. Neither a knight
For any turmoil to retreat his right.
Resolved they would not fight and would not fly,
Helmless to Lancelot's blind broad-sweeping blade,
What choice was theirs? - What choice, except to die?
Dawnward they rode, the while the north-eastern skies
Foretold with lengthening rose that dawn would rise,
Asserting God to man.
Full weary they.
Weary their twice-changed steeds. But not for day
Would pause be lengthened, till before them showed
Their walls of safety from the moorland road.
For so had Lancelot planned, more strife to stay,
The queen to save, and instant bear away
To Joyous Garde's attemptless walls, and there
His purpose to recover peace declare.
Beside his rein Guenever rode. Fatigue
She knew not, while the long road, league by league,
Went backward through the night. Such joy she had
For this sure freedom. So her heart was glad
That Lancelot now was hers, and only he.
Gaily she spake: "When Benoic's force is here,
Our count should tale with Arthur's, spear for spear;
And only Gawain on his part remains
With craft of warfare like to thine, and we
Are stronger in knights of name. I think to see
A bloodier flight, and from repulse more dire,
Than ours is now."
But Lancelot's sombre eyes
Lit not to hear her: "Yet I trust," said he,
"Some better issue of this grief to see
Than war's disaster, where our swords must let
The blood of comrades. That of need I did
To save thee, by that need denies regret.
But that more strife should be may God forbid!
Some bridge of concord yet - "
"What bridge could be?"
"Doth not thy freedom such a hope admit?
If still we urge the charge is false - as it
Was false in fact the night that snared us - then
Do we not prove it to the sight of men,
If, in the strength of Joyous Garde contained,
We make fair proffer that, with surance gained
Of life and honour, thou couldst straight return,
In free forgiveness of a king misled,
Now that thy foes are in their treason dead,
Were Modred exiled?"
"He had let me burn!
Shall I go back to that reluctant bed?
Surely it is a mocking word I hear!"
"It is his right, and never right had I."
"Than such forgiveness, I had liever die."
"It is thy honour that I hold so dear."
"Nay, it is naught of mine, and naught of me!
It is with Arthur, and alike with thee,
That Britain only is thy thought and care.
Logre and Benoic are a regal pair,
And I a chattel of such worth as serves
To burn or barter!"
So she railed, and he
Was silent in his frequent mode, until
The torrent of her scornful wrath was still,
Meeting no challenge.
Hard they rode, the while,
Borne inward through the grey walls of Carlisle,
The dead, in church and chantry laid, supplied
Sad witness that the strength so long allied
Would now with vain contention all confound,
At which men mourned or marvelled.
When others faltered, bore to Arthur's ear
The changeless names and total of the dead,
Which much he wept to learn. "Alas!" he said,
"Alas! That to this lonely height I came.
For now the noblest who advanced my fame
Are slain away. In such short days are gone
Full forty of the fairest names that shone
The first amidst the chosen. Lancelot too,
With all his valiant kin, no more shall do
The deeds by which our height more glorious grew.
I mourn my queen's unfaith, who ne'er from me
Had aught but honour to a queen's degree.
But most I sorrow for my knights undone.
For there be many queens, but kingdoms none
The like this realm I founded. Agravain,
May God forgive thy soul! A nation's bane
Hath been the hate that unprovoked you bore,
And Modred bore, to Lancelot."
Soon there came
The tale to Gawain. "Lancelot raged," they said,
"So hotly, more than twenty knights are dead
Of the strong band who held her."
"I blame him not for that. But where are they,
My brethren? Straitly did I warn the king
That Lancelot would not leave the queen to die
The while a sword-hilt in his hand would lie,
And he with life to lift it. That he did
I had done surely in like case, and so
Even all their deaths no wider breech should bring
Than patience yet may close. But I would know
How fared my brethren in that heat?"
That Lancelot slew them."
Gawain answered: "Nay,
Give not such falsehood words. It could not be.
For more than Gareth loved the king or me
He loved Sir Lancelot. Were that slander true,
Is naught for justice that I would not do.
There were no shelter in the world's extent
Would save him from me."
While that mood he knew,
The sad king entered.
"Can this tale be true?"
Sir Gawain asked.
"It is," the king replied,
"Beyond denial that thy brethren died.
Men say that in the thickest press they fell
To Lancelot's sword."
"He loved Sir Lancelot well.
Lancelot would never Gareth's death pursue."
"But rumour saith that that he did not do.
He slew them: but he saw not whom he slew."
"I needs must doubt it. All my house is down,
Save Modred only. Would he leave me bare?
Thinks he not only in thy queen to share?
Now would he take, or only halve, thy crown?"
"Yet, by mischance - "
"Mischance it would not be!
He thinks to end my house. But hear me swear,
For Gareth's death, I will his death contrive.
Earth is too small to hold us twain alive.
Now let us count our friends.... Will friends remain
To Lancelot, who so dear a friend hath slain?"
Joined in one purpose now, without relent,
The king and Gawain near and distant sent,
Making strait summons through the realm, that all
Who owed allegiance, at the trumpet-call,
Should armed assembly make around Carlisle.
So came they in the long June days, the while
Sir Lancelot, in the girth of Joyous Garde,
Confined his force, and in such sort supplied,
That though the summer days to winter died,
And Arthur should a constant siege sustain,
Through failure of good store he should not gain.
The vats with oxen filled, the pits with grain,
Denied the sharpest fear that those must feel
Whose safety trusteth more in stone than steel.
Grim was the host of those from near and wide
Who came to range their strength at Arthur's side:
Kings and great earls, and champion knights who bore
World-envied blazons. Listonaise and Gore,
Garlot and Reged, Cornwall and Logre,
Scotland and Orkney, and the isles that lie
Midst, tides and tempests of the western sea,
With Ireland and North Gales and Brittany,
Sent their bold levies of supporting spears.
So the ripe harvest of the splendid years
Was gathered on itself itself to fling.
But the rich grain of that false harvesting
Fell slowly from the stalk, for Lancelot
Held in restraint his restless knights. There rode
No outrage from his gates to meet the king:
No arrows from those leaguered walls were shot.
Castle and town, of that great host aware,
No wareness showed. Their silent walls alone
Refused its menace with the strength of stone.
So, through the summer days, the siege was made:
Stubborn but bloodless. Time, it seemed, delayed,
Reluctant of the end which yet must be.
The high grey walls' impregnability,
Dividing those strong lances which so oft,
When linked invincible, had thronged aloft
Around Pendragon's sign, to make the name
Of Arthur deathless as the voice of fame,
Till summer went, and autumn turned to go,
Its fruitage fallen, but its leaves aglow,
When came a day that Lancelot from the wall
Looked outward, and he bade his trumpets call
For parley, till himself King Arthur came,
With Gawain at his side. And Lancelot said:
"My gracious lord, the things in heat we do
We oft repent in cooler hours; and blame
- Blame in the whole world's sight - is ours to dread,
If we the path of lasting wrath pursue,
And heed not counsel. By my long withhold
Of knights most eager, I have kept them back
From such a field of death as might not slack
Before the venom of their hearts were cold
Who seek to break me."
"Were ye once so bold,
We might resolve it in a juster way."
"Lord, to be slain by those we would not slay
Hath less of virtue than a worse regard.
Is mercy and accord a choice too hard
For thee, to whom our vows are sworn, that we
Would practice mercy, to thy Table's praise?"
But Arthur answered: "Fair thy words may be,
But can fair words again to life upraise
My knights, who on thy sword have died? Or change
The years of falsehood, when my trust in thee
Made treason simple? Or again arrange
The front of honour which she broke, to flee
To this protection?"
"Nay, most gracious lord,
There lies thine error, which restrains my sword
From sharp resistance. Had she loosely fled
In lewd rejection of her natural bed,
Then were thy wrath well reasoned. But she came
In needly refuge from the stake of shame,
Which those had lit who had no care for thee,
But only to divide us. Had I not
That rescue made, there were no proof to show
That she perforce who came would lightly go.
I held her here from death, but not from thee.
.... Recall, my liege, those days thy wrath forgot
When she was falsely charged before, to be
Restored to honour by my sword. To me
Thy thanks were paid. Did honour less require,
When by ill doom she faced the fatal fire,
And I was named therewith? No choice was mine;
But if thy word in common faith were plight,
In honour and regard, in all men's sight,
Again to take her to her past estate,
Then, by the knighthood that I took from thee,
I swear that never any right of thine
By me should be confounded.... Lord, too late
At even this last hour it may not be
For peace, if we desire it."
Looked to the king, but he no answer found
Immediate to his mind, though leapt his heart
Like a loosed captive, as the hope he heard
Of peace restored, and friendship joined anew.
But while his answer paused, a fiercer word
From Gawain broke, that wider clove apart
The narrowing space.
"And dost thou think to sue
So light a pardon? And the king forget
His closer kindred that thine outrage slew?
Nay! For thy death ten times to pay the debt
Would not be equal, though I wait the day
When waiting with thy blood that debt to pay
Ye shrink in abject bonds. I count the king
Thy downfall at his proper time will bring,
"It well may be," said Lancelot, "though
Ye know me somewhat, and my knights ye know,
Nor nobler names than theirs, and wit ye well
I nothing dread ye."
Gawain's wrath replied:
"False-hearted knight, I let thee wit the king
Shall win the queen and thee, to save or slay,
Despite thy head, and all thy kin that cling
So close to thy dishonour, as well they may.
Hast thou not mocked and overlaid us long -
The kindred of the king? Were ever wrong
Thy treasons, or thy violence lacked pretence?"
And Lancelot, quietlier than his foe, replied:
"Lord Gawain, both thy prowess and thy pride
Long since I knew; but left I this strong fence,
Impregnable of walls and virgin towers,
And met thee in mid-field, with all the powers
I lead, to hold the queen against thee, then
I warn thee, never in sight or tale of men
Were hardier battle for thy strength to win."
Sir Gawain answered: "Never shame or sin
Have charged I to the queen, but as for thee,
Recreant and false, and all thy murderous kin,
I would not live, except thy death to see,
As shall I at last. Why slew ye Gareth? For he
More than he loved his own, or thy kin thee,
Most loved thee, who made him knight. He would bear
Not even shield against thee."
"With no heart I use
Vain words, for not to thee shall words excuse
That deed of woe, though here by Christ I swear,
And by my knightly faith - in days that were
Not lightly scorned - that by my hand as lieve
Should Bors his deathwound from my sword receive
As Gareth scathe from me. Alas the day
That whom I saw not, those my hands should slay!"
"To call thy perjures vain ye speak aright,
Fenceless ye slew him, in thy fixed despite
Of all my House thy ruthless blade hath wronged
Too long impune; and not in life I longed
For aught found fair of men, as long I now
Thy vaunting pride in bitter dust to bow."
But answered Lancelot: "What in wrath you may
You speak, and men may prove it. This I say,
That never from all my days may one recall
That ambushed comrade from my spear should fall."
"Speak not of Lamorack! Where is Agravain?
And where Gaheris? Canst thou bring again
When I lead forth the valour of my kin,
These knights, who were the glory of my train?
And where is Gareth? Slain, and by thy sin,
And by thy hand, without a sheltering shield!
"Thy meekness ever wore a sword concealed.
Didst thou not dread the issue of the field,
Not those strong walls would hold thee."
"More I dread
To slay my friends."
"A simple boast is said
Behind such walls as thine. But thou shouldst know
By Lamorack's fate who wronged me, even so,
And worse, thy fate for Gareth's death shall be."
"I well believe that in thy hands to fall
Would mean no mercy."
Then he left the wall;
And to his tent returned the careful king.
Winter he saw, with no returning spring.
Why should Sir Gawain's hate remorseless glow?
So prudent at the first, for strife so slow,
Had been his counsel. Had he not foreseen
That Lancelot must strike in to save the queen,
And that condoned? But when Sir Gareth died
All counsel, all restraint, he cast aside,
Relentless in pursuant enmity.
And yet long years had Gareth held apart,
Since Lamorack's death, from Gawain's company,
And all his brethren, save at times would he
Ride with Gaheris... Gladly Arthur now
Had made accord with Lancelot, but he knew
To turn Sir Gawain from his vengeance-vow
Would be beyond his utmost rule, and who
Could loyal faith reject, to more prefer
A treasoned friend?... Would never strife subside
While Gawain held the gulf of hatred wide.
So Arthur sorrowed, while in Joyous Garde
Was louder discord. There Sir Lionel
Rebuked Sir Lancelot: "Here is rule too hard!
We may not dure it more. So mured to dwell
Inactive, compassed by deriding foes.
Think not that as thou wouldst the rumour goes
Of proud forbearance. But the world will hear
Of Benoic cowed, that not a single spear
Ventures without. And what the likely end
For thee, who still wouldst talk as Arthur's friend,
Mocked and reviled and scorned and hated so?
They may not reach thee; but they will not go."
This in the midst of many knights he said,
Whose voices joined him. "Were we loosely led,
We would so scourge them that their best would learn
The prudence that would urge a swift return;
Or likelier for a moonless night delay
For separate flight."
And then the murmur spread:
"We should be bold to break them, as we may,
And once we did to bear the queen away."
Till Blamor spake for all: "If this ye dare,
Go outward to the walls, and meet them there;
Or else reject us from thy part, for we
No longer in this craven guise will bide.
What think ye at the last to gain? To be
At peace with Arthur? Gawain doth not hide
His set resolve to thwart thee. Would thy flight
To thine own land obtain it? Or incite
Pursuit most certain? Would the king endure
That Benoic should his errant queen insure
Against his justice?... For thy life and right
Wilt thou not strike? Nay, if thou wilt not, we
No more the jest of Arthur's host will be.
Choose our desertion, or a front array
Of martial purpose now."
A last appeal
To Ector and to Bors Sir Lancelot made,
But heard like answer: "While our swords delay,
We watch beside a wound which doth not heal.
Nor is thy scruple in good coin repaid,
For Gawain's ruthless mood controls the king.
Whatever wrong the past hath held, we stand
With here one choice, a common shame to bring
On all thy friends, or else our force to fling
On those who now deride us."
"Say ye so?
Then shall the gates be wide, but ere we go
To bicker thus, with deaths which would not be
By Arthur's will, or had ye heed of me,
I will send message to implore the king
That he nor Gawain to such strife intrude,
Lest larger mischief than hath been should bring
This Christian empire down."
But answer rude,
And burdened with contempt, he gained thereby,
That Gawain framed: "For Gareth's death to die
Is thine, but not to choose by whom shall be
That stroke of justice dealt."
No more he tried
The course of fate to change: "Must God decide.
Tomorrow shall our marshalled outrage see."
Not craven were the thousand knights who flew
Bright pensels on the front of Arthur's war.
Their comrades' valour as their own they knew
Of tenfold proof. But when the ranks they saw
Outriding from the gates of Joyous Garde,
Well might they doubt their vigour to retard
The mightiest names that once were Arthur's. Who
Should match with Lancelot? Were there more than few
Who with his closest kin could hold debate?
And Palomides was a name of weight:
And Persuant's Indian pennon, mauve and white;
The white wide-pinioned swans of Persides:
Urra's black gryphon, open-beaked to seize
Its weaker prey; were warnings that the might
That once was Arthur's, now in sunder split,
Would on itself its refluent rampage fling
To dubious issue, and the pride of it
Would its own pride to dust and darkness bring.
Out rode Sir Gawain to the front. He sought
To meet Sir Lancelot, and to bring to naught
That difference in one bout. But Lionel
Led the confronting line, as keen as he.
Crouched to a shield well-dressed, with lance at knee,
On Orkney's lord he rode. They matched too well
For either's gain. In one flung heap they fell,
Midst flashing hooves and rolling steeds. Men bore
Sir Lionel backward through the gates, no more
A steed to mount till winter's months were done;
While Gawain, bleeding from a wound as sore,
Was to his tent conveyed. High boasts to tame
On either side, while scarce had strife begun
Should such quick falls suffice; but widely now
Roared the fierce front of war, where tide by tide
Was thwarted, and its own advance denied
By that which felt denial.
Now was all
The town's wide compass, save the seaward wall,
Circled with clamour of contending foes.
High in the sunlit air the dust arose,
Dimming the gaudy flaunts of plume and crest,
And windblown pennons, in its dark arrest,
And deadly flurries that arose, as though
The tides were eddied by the rocks below.
So strove they, while the voice of Lancelot
Restrained and weakened those who else had been
More valiant than they were, more bold of mien.
"Heed ye the king," he cried, "to harm him not."
So, by this license, and his eager will,
Came Arthur through consenting ranks, until
He faced Sir Lancelot, with one thought, to end
That fatal strife, and with no heed that he
Never as Lancelot in such bout could be,
He rode upon him. Sword by sword was met.
But though Sir Lancelot did not blench nor bend,
Nor ground he gave, did never sword descend
More lightly on a foeman's helm, the while
The king assailed with swerve and feint and blow
Of deathly purpose, thrusting loft and low,
Sir Lancelot with such ready craft replied
As broke the blow, or turned the thrust aside,
But never with his customed fury fought,
With swift deluding sleight, or sharp retort.
This saw Sir Bors, and to his thought it seemed
A treason to all those who dared to die
To hold the part of Lancelot. Were they deemed
Of less regard than those whose gain would be
The loss of that for which they staked so high?
He pushed between them. Of no mood was he
For subtle swordplay. With one downward blow
He clave Pendragon's crest, and humbled so,
To earth King Arthur at their mercy fell.
Down leapt Sir Bors. "Now if he yield or die,
Alike this moment will our grief dispel."
But Lancelot leapt alike, and cried on high:
"I charge thee, by God's love, no more to do.
For either shamed or slain he shall not be,
From whom my knighthood came."
He raised the king,
And caught his horse's rein. "My liege," he said,
"I pray thee, for past days, thy mind to free
From rancorous counsels, nor a path pursue
Which will not honour nor contentment bring.
Recall my service at sharp need afore,
Not only to thyself, but largely more
To her who now divides us. Stint this strife,
And yet some haven of accord may be."
But Arthur answered naught. His eyes were blind
With tears that recollection brought, and woe
That the high summer of succeeded life
Should meet the autumn of this overthrow.
With heart to find some path of peace inclined,
He bade the trumpets of retreat to blow
Along a slackening line, and either side,
Unloth their wearying bicker to divide,
To camp or gate withdrew.
But Gawain rose,
At the next morn, despite his wound, aware
That Arthur faltered in his wrath, and bent
The more on vengeance. As his lance he chose,
He thought: 'This hour may make my heart content.
The while I ride, my laming wound is naught.
May all the lance-craft that the years have taught
Avail me now, for Gareth's life to take
A fatal price.'
But while his mind was set
To find Sir Lancelot, one alike he met
Of fixed resolve to end that strife. Sir Bors,
Regarding Gawain as its source and cause,
From when the Benoic knights he outward led,
Whose way was from the northern gateway, sought
The white ger-falcon as an only prey,
Ranging therefor as Gawain ranged, and they
Met ere Sir Lancelot from the central port,
With Urra and Lavaine and Persides,
Extended a continuous front.
Sir Lancelot only," as he turned away
Sir Gawain said.
"But here I bid thee stay,"
Sir Bors replied. "My brother's hurt decrees
Our meeting now."
As rival bulls contend
Amidst the passive herd, that waits to see
Which shall have death, and which its master be,
So, while the general strife delayed to close,
Did these strong champion knights their spears oppose,
And hurtled forward in the sight of all,
So grim of mind alike, so set to slay,
That when their lances held, not only they,
But their great chargers were alike to fall.
As thus they foundered, forward, tide to tide,
Closed the contentious ranks from either side,
And rescuing hands the fallen raised, and gave
Such comfort as availed their lives to save.
But Bors long weeks to heal his hurt would lie,
And Gawain, wounded twice, must now put by
Immediate vengeance from his own devoir.
Deep hurts were his that time and care would cure,
But longer sojourn at that siege to make
Were loss unbalanced.
Soon his train would take
The Carlisle road, while those who watched to see
From the high wall, of blither heart would be
As the ger-falcon left untaken prey,
And slow the mule-drawn litter moved away.
When with a second wound Lord Gawain fell,
The battle-front, which scarce had joined, became
Less eager, burning with a shorter flame,
Less deadly, conscious whence its impulse grew,
And ware that Gawain from the field withdrew
With no light cause therefor. Contention changed,
Not thinking to be slain unless to slay,
But more for feats of skill, as good knights may,
And honour's fragile wreath, the field they ranged,
Till thinner grew the lines, as either side,
Wearied, retired, and none their gaps supplied.
On the next morn, the sieging host was still,
And closed the wide-walled girth of Joyous Garde.
No marshalled ranks advanced of Arthur's will,
Nor Lancelot's word the triple gates unbarred.
The winds of autumn in that bleaker land
Caused those who in the chill pavilions lay
To warmer homes to turn their thoughts astray,
As Arthur heard. No winter siege he planned.
The great host struck their tents, and moved away.
Scattering throughout the Christian pale. But he,
Having no heart his vacant halls to see,
Once Camelot's crowded pride, remained awhile
Within the straiter compass of Carlisle,
While Gawain mended of his wound, and there,
As men with jocund hearts, of Yule aware,
Piled the log-fires, and slew the beeves, and made
Large garnish for the feast of God's goodwill,
There came to Arthur one whose life obeyed
The easy yoke of Christ. A priest was he
Of Rochester, who ruled the Kentish see,
And who to Rome had made a pilgrimage,
And journeyed back in haste, enjoined to bring
A bull of stern import, that charged the king
A war of Christless kind no more to wage,
Lest heathen inroads should the realm confound.
"Good father," said the king, when this was read,
"Is it on only me doth blame abound?
Where is my queen? Would any king allow
A subject's license of her use and bed?
Leave her alone awhile, and ask not how
She spent her leisure, when twelve knights were slain,
That one found with her should his freedom gain?
Or rest in peace while rebel walls contain
The adulteress, and him with whom she fled?
This sharp rebuke should find more just resort,
Not to the wronged, but they the wrong who wrought."
Answered the priest: "To save her life she fled,
As most, however it were forfeited,
Would choose to do. But should she make return,
Were there good warrant that she should not burn?
Would she her place and honoured state resume?"
To which the king: "If freely back she came,
It were her strong defence. No earlier blame
Would harm her, nor her regal place prevent."
Forthright to Joyous Garde, with this consent,
Journeyed the priest, and, being welcomed well,
Was bold his mission and command to tell,
With warning that the Church's curse might fall
On who should flout it.
Lancelot made reply:
"Nay, but my mind is like to thine, for I
Would the same end. It is my foes can stay
That which they brought to birth, and only they.
Seek ye the king."
"I come from Arthur. He
Will heed the Church's rule, and take the queen
Back to the honour of her sovranty.
I charge thee therefore - "
"Nay, thy words restrain,
Lest that I gladly do be falsely seen
As compassed by duress. I was not fain
To snatch the queen, nor do I hold her here.
She is prevented by her natural fear."
"But Arthur's hand and seal are here below
His written pledge, and all his kingdom know
He doth not lie."
"The written word is clear
In quittance of the queen, and none would doubt
The faith of Arthur. But it leaveth out
Mine own attachment to his throne and him."
"I will be plain in that. King Arthur said
That Gawain, rising from his wounds, had sworn
For Gareth's death, until himself be dead,
He will pursue thee, that thy pride be shorn
Of all its previous boast. Companioned so
By one the buttress of his throne, can he
Restore the concord and integrity
Of his great Table? Only time will show
What peace can follow from prevented war."
"That must we rest with God. But this believe.
Not by my license shall dissension grieve
Our Christian realm. But in good hour the queen
Shall join her lord. For here she had not been
Except that from the fear of death she fled."
Unloth, Guenever knew the treaty made
Which gave again her interrupted place
As queen and consort. When the choice she weighed
With bold presumption that her life would be
Licentious as before, and likely free,
She saw such vantage that her heart took grace
And joyance at the thought.
A day was set
When Arthur at Carlisle would wait his queen
In formal expectation to be met.
And when Sir Lancelot asked: "Our part to do,
How ride we fitly, and most fair beseen?"
As light on leaves she willed it, gold on green,
Dawn-light on leaves of spring, new hope to show,
Raising all hearts as rose her own, and so
The long gay process to Carlisle that drew
Rode bare of steel or any shine of spears,
Lady and knight and following train alike
Clothed in the colours of the youth of years,
That haply might its joyous portent strike
All gazers, and belike in concord close
A strife that made of friends unnatured foes.
Wan eve had faded from the winter sky
When outward from the strong integrity
Of Joyous Garde they rode, that through the night
Their course should be, and with the morning light
Carlisle be reached. Through rain-wet woods, they went,
Sad woods, that only through the night-bird's cry
Were vocal: where the noiseless winds went by
Lost in the dark; until the hooves aloud
Of the thin process of the mounted train
(By such strait paths as wooded wastes contain
Lengthened perforce) with clang regardless drowned
The sounds that love the silence.
Sight nor sound -
Night silence, nor the woods' black depths - could awe
The queen's blithe mood exultant, as she saw
How many famous knights were round her now,
Assumptive of her previous right, who bore
No front of spears, nor any harness wore,
Re-entering Arthur's peace. What more to dread
Should vex? To Lancelot at her rein she said:
"As David from the fear of Absolom
Last year we fled to Joyous Garde. Today
Should Modred ponder on Ahithophel:
Not longer should his hanging hour delay."
But Lancelot rose not to her mood. He thought:
'Lord Gawain's hate will bring accord to naught.
We face the darkness of an ended day.'
Yet when they rode through Carlisle gates, and through
The narrow streets, where flags of welcome flew,
And slowly through the cheering crowds they pressed,
That eager greetings gave, Sir Lancelot's heart
Was somewhat raised, until they reached the seat
Where Arthur waited, with his noble knights
Arrayed around him. many a weeping eye
Saw that fair sight, and deemed a clearing sky
Portended, whence the flailing storm had beat
But the king no motion made
Of greeting, and before his seat they stayed
Till Lancelot, as King Arthur's cold regard
He marked, and Gawain's hostile glance and hard,
At length, and breaking that deep silence, spake:
"Lord, and my king! By Christ's command and thine,
As right requireth, and my heart accords,
I bring thy queen, who never hand of mine
Had held, except against those treacherous lords
Who urged her death, and moved thee to it, and then
What choice was mine?... I had not stirred, except
Through clamour of false tongues thy justice slept.
For had their thoughts been clean, their purpose true,
I had not triumphed in that hard ado,
Who was not armed nor purposed. Cold they lie
Who made their clamour and their boast so high.
Hath not God judged between us?... Naught I knew
Of what the queen required. To speak or do
There was no time before the noise arose
Of those so long my almost-open foes,
Who called me traitor with such threats as showed - "
"They called thee right," said Gawain.
"By thy leave,
Their end was proof... Lord king, ye heeded men
Careless of honour and of faith, and through
Vain hate imputing that they nowise knew,
And hence came treasons, and such thoughts stirred
As change the casual glance, the heedless word,
To proof of that they looked for. These you heard.
And so came hate between us. Lord, remind
Thy nobler thoughts how oft, in times behind
These discords, while the common voice of men
Impeached her falsely, at thy treaty then,
I staked my life to clear her. Could I less,
Her need appealing in that worst distress
From condemnation with my name allied?
Isled on my faith, whereother might she flee
The rising tide of that surrounding sea
Had I held backward then?"
Sir Gawain said:
"The queen is guiltless, and her name is clear.
But thou art recreant judged, to come not here
Henceafter. By thy hands our best are dead
Through envious malice. Even those who bare
No arms against thee. None thy sword would spare,
But those who rather to thyself would cling
Than give full leigance to their land and king."
Answered Sir Lancelot: "Am I held so meek
To meet this weight of charge, but I should speak
Once mine avaunt? Not Arthur's self alone,
Since first my father stayed a shaking throne,
Hath made this realm and loved it. Stand I here
Resting my strength upon a lonely spear -
Repute of old adventures? Those who drew
Around me when this rending feud they knew,
Are they less noble than Pendragon's kin?
Have they had less to lose, or more to win?
Am I not king in Benoic? Might I not,
Were equal hatred mine, were love forgot,
Call thousands clamouring to the field of death?
"I speak not humbly of my friends, nor think
They would be fearful on the dangerous brink
Of harder battle than thy best could show.
"But for those deaths that brought unpurposed woe,
To all good knights who hear I make appeal,
The while God's treaty sheathes our swords, to say
If ever wrought I by false craft to deal,
Or ever for my foes in ambush lay.
"I would the dead might judge me! He was still
Too noble-natured to account of ill,
Though ill were wrought against him. Could he now,
With living lips his open choice avow,
There were no feud with Gareth. Nor would he,
Gaheris, so misdeem; for whom I slew,
By most mischance, from Turquin's mastery
I saved afore. To turn those strokes aside,
I, by the truth of God, had gladly died,
So that the queen were rescued... Yet to do
That which I can, and that my most demands,
Right have ye to require it at my hands,
And that I may I proffer... Please the king,
I will full penance serve in journeying
From Sandwich to Carlisle with feet unshod,
And resting each ten mile beside the way,
There will I found and dower a house of God,
A home of mercy and prayer: a sanctuary
For weakness worsted. That methinks would be
A nobler issue, thus our feud to stay,
Than waste the land with unavailing war."
He ceased. His eyes from Gawain turned away,
Seeking the king's, who gave no sign, but they
Gazed as would friends across a sundering sea,
That both would cross, but may not. Those who saw,
Except ill profit from that strife who made,
Bent heads for ruth that wept, or peace that prayed.
For those who loved their land, and noble life,
Were heavy of heart, and those who sought in strife
Their meaner gains were glad, as once again
Sir Gawain answered: "Must the king decide,
Between us twain resolving who shall ride
Henceafter as the buckler at his side,
The faithful or the faithless. While I live,
Till strength to strive, till power of utterance end,
The names of traitor in thy throat I give:
Adulterer: murderer of a fenceless friend."
And Lancelot: "Nay, my lord Sir Gawain, nay!
For scorns there be that wrath and grief may say,
And patience pass them. But to cast at large
So false, so heavy, and so foul a charge -
Now must I pray ye pardon me that now
Must swords resolve it."
Gawain answered cold:
"Full loud and lately hath thy vaunt been told.
Why challenge while our common oaths allow
No strife to follow? Ere you came, the king
Took counsel of those knights whose truth is shown
By other ways than thine. I tell thee now
That all who heard have straitly sworn that thou
No more dissension to the realm shalt bring.
For thou art exiled from this hour. A grace
Of fifteen days shall be thy breathing space;
But shouldst thou tarry for a further day
Thou shalt be outlawed for who will to slay,
Awake or sleeping, or at board or bed."
"It were not from such fear," Sir Lancelot said,
"That I would leave this land, but wit ye well
There like had been another tale to tell
Had I been that ye call me. Think ye so
That I had brought the queen, or held her yet?
Let all men judge by that which all men know."
But to the king another doubt was woe,
Of how his queen that exile heard, whereat
He looked toward her with straight glance, and met
The dread-waked hatred of her eyes, and knew
That all his heart had feared was less than true.
So that fair morn to sombre evening drew.
Beneath resuming rain, with short delay,
Some gear to seek, some parting word to say,
The knights of Lancelot and their dames, anew
Grouped at the eastern gate, and rode away.
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 last part, part 4