The Song Of Arthur - Chapter III
by S. Fowler Wright
Return to Chapter II
When Uther died and left no certain heir,
Was none sufficient both of power and will
To make dominion of a throne left bare,
But lordless were the inferior kings, and they
Howled as wolves howl, and made the land a prey,
Vexed it with various rules that void to fill,
And wide confusions when they clashed. Alone
The Church of God around that empty throne
Sustained the concord of the land, and drew
Sharp boundary from the heathen north. Were few
Of peaceful men who did not sigh to see
Some end to this, but what that end might be,
Without worse strife, they saw not.
One night to Brise, the priest of Camelot.
"Lord Bishop," said he, "dost thou ponder not
The jeopard of this realm, which single lies
As Christ's strong bulwark from those heathenries
That round its weakened borders surge and fret?"
"Seer," said the priest, "the menace of heathenry
I sleepless fear. But who that rent's repair
Can soothly hope? For found we Uther's heir,
Would any twelve of twenty kings agree
To clip their rights and sink their jars, that he
Should overrule them? Would they not unite
More briskly to tread down the threatening light?"
"Yet this I counsel. On the Christmas day
That nearly cometh, six short weeks away,
Proclaim that Christian lords shall meet and pray
That God may guide them to a choice aright."
"What counsels claim ye with High God herein?"
"I bid ye call to prayer. Can prayer be sin?"
"Good is thy word, from whencesoe'er ye be;
And not for thy repute of wizardry
Will I reject it."
"Boldly look to see
Propitious fruit therefrom."
The careful priest
No whit delayed, but for the nearing feast
He called the noblest of the land to pray
In Stephen's minster on the Christmas day,
That Heaven might grant to open proof to bring
The heir of Uther, as their rightful king.
Came at that call to punctual time and place
Far kings and near, the noble and the base.
Came men devout, who cast their sins to plead
At once the church's and the nation's need,
In clean humility acceptable
To Him Who judgeth the heart: came greedful men
Their gains to hold, or seize a chance, or slay
Presumptuous rivals, should the pregnant day
Breed some bold violence, or pretence of right.
So in the winter days, when few men far
Rode the waste ways from sheltering hearth and hall,
And the snowed town within the ingirding wall
Slept in sure peace: when swollen fords would bar,
And wider marsh, chill rain, or changing snow,
Or keener cold prevent the camping foe,
A marvel came. For in that minster met,
The matins of the Christmas dawn to share,
The far-called congregation; and the while,
Though no man heard it on that pavement set,
The dim-dawn light showed in the outer yard,
Fixed on a stone, four-square, of marble hard,
An anvil that a sword transfixed. The blade
Clear through the iron its course had pierced, and yet
Unflawed, as though no force its path had stayed.
A scroll was round it: Who this sword shall draw
Is king of this great realm by right and law.
Then emulous kings, and men of worth or pride,
Stirred by strange hopes, their strengths or fortunes tried,
Watched by a crowd where all estates as one
Mingled in that suspense. Yet came there none
But vainly to his own defeat he tried.
"Behold," they said, "no man the sword may take.
What shall we?"
And the saint of God replied
"Here shall the stone be stayed, and watch be set
To guard it ever, from Feast to Feast, for yet,
Though no man of your best be worthy now,
Who cometh with cleaner heart may God allow,
Even of your selves, the stubborn sword to draw.
"And one thing first in sign of peace shall ye
Swear on the Rood, that round each Feast shall be
A seven weeks' truce of God, from sea to sea.
That not from fear of lawless might, nor law
Against him given for earlier wrongs, shall one
Of all in these wide realms or kindred land
Undareful, in his stronghold halt, but here
Without except our total count may stand,
None found too weak, and judged too evil none;
That who shall lord us may from Heaven appear,
Not frustrate by our preconcept.
Swear shall ye soothIy in the Sacred Name
That who shall draw that sword your king shall be."
Then to these oaths did all who heard agree.
Ten stainless knights they chose, and these were sworn
Never by night or noon, by eve or morn,
To leave that stone unwatched, nor hand of man
Permit to close upon it, except the ban
Were raised in session of the realm aright.
But not thereon the assembly broke, for Brise,
Anxious to end at once the evil days,
And thinking God might revelation give,
Contrived such tourney for the New Year's Day,
That few there were but chose that time to stay,
Themselves to venture, or to watch the play.
That knight whose dame King Uther's babe had fed,
Sir Anton, had wide lands where Avon's head
Turns through fair pastures southward to the sea,
And Severn's nearer flood. No thought had he
Of crown to seize, or realm to rule; but aim
His sons to nurture in desire of fame
Impelled him that he now to Camelot came,
The jousts to view.
His elder son, Sir Kay,
Though youthful knighted on the earlier day,
Rode at his side; and of an equal right,
Child of Igraine, Pendragon's doubtful heir,
In no way of high fate or birth aware,
Rode Arthur. Not cold wind, nor drifting snow,
Could cool his eager youth, elate to know
That round him for his choice the whole world lay,
As only youth at the dividing way
Can choose and take.
As the short day went down,
They reached their lodging in the crowded town,
Bargained before; and ere the sun was through
Rode out again the tourney strife to view.
They rode where all men moved a single way.
Silent behind, the city vacant lay.
Even those ten knights whose oaths the sword to guard
Should there have held them, found restraint too hard.
Where no man stayed, what shielding use were they?
Awhile they bickered, but was none would stay.
Each on his comrades set the moment's trust,
So that the sword stood guardless.
Who would see
How free-willed men are bound by destiny
May this regard. The new-made knight, Sir Kay,
It chanced his unaccustomed sword forgot.
Loth was he on so bold a tourney day,
As one in childhood yet, to wear it not.
"Arthur, thou hast a better horse than I.
Wilt bring it?"
Arthur gave a light assent.
Back to their lodging of the night he went.
But met barred doors, for all that tenantry
Had sought the tourney. As he turned, anigh
Rose the great minster. In its yard there stood
The anvil with the sword which none might draw.
Blithe to his chanceful heart his chance he saw.
"If Kay's I leave, I gain a sword as good.
Is none to question here, and ere they learn,
We can replace it at our own return."
As from a sheath of silk, the sword he drew,
And heard far off the tourney trumpets blow.
Naught meant the sword: but what they meant he knew,
And turned in haste, that not the opening show
His eyes should miss. A road left vacant now
He rode at speed, and at the barrier side
He reached Sir Kay.
"A reckless pace you ride.
But that - You bring a sword which is not mine!"
"Your own I might not reach."
"But whence is this?"
"The sword was in the stone, which none will miss,
For none to watch and none to guard was by."
His father heard Sir Kay's exultant cry:
"The sword is from the stone, and king am I!"
"That sword was taken from the stone?" He said.
"So was it."
Sir Anton spake no more, but led
Back to the minster yard an instant way,
Where swordless stood the stone.
"I charge thee say
How to thy hand it came. From knightly law
Deceit at this strange pass would cast thee far."
Kay answered with slow truth full craftfully:
"My brother brought it for my use," said he,
"And therefore king am I."
"What'er you are,
Put back the sword. To earn that blade a right,
It must avoid the stone in all men's sight."
"How, when no gap the iron's smooth surface shows,
Can the sword enter?"
"That shall Arthur try."
"Nay, for the elder, with more right, am I."
Hard thrust Sir Kay, but iron to steel replied.
On the hard surface slipped the sword aside,
Or jarred the arm that drave it. Ruthfully
Sir Kay resigned it. "Naught but sorcery
Could here prevail."
To be alike repelled
Thought Arthur as the heavy sword he held,
But thrust, lighthearted, with a laughing word,
And force he did not need, for sank the sword
As though it countered but the yielding air
"Canst draw it out?" Sir Anton asked.
That have I done before."
With ease no less
He drew it from the anvil's hold away.
As though within its native sheath it lay.
"Return it once again, and leave it there."
Again the sword within the anvil sank,
As though the stubborn iron but water were.
But yet, as founded in one piece, to Kay
Rock was it. So proved it at his twice essay.
Then knee to earth Sir Anton stooped, and said:
"Lord, and my king, whom Heaven hath found, no sire,
No father more, but of thy lieges see
One who would lowly on thy part remain,
As thou shalt swear me first of all thy train."
"Father," the child replied, with blinded eyes,
"I may not hold thee so. Except thou rise,
My word goes from me."
"Nay, for child of mine
(Save as one shielded in long bonds of love)
I may not claim thee more. Nor must I say
Of how you came. For such the oath I swore.
But for these ended years I ask no more
Than one boon only."
"That thou wouldst is thine,
If this be dreamless of the waking day.
Else were I shamed for ever."
"I ask that Kay
Be senechal of thy lands."
"That boon to give
Is lightly sworn. The while we both shall live
There is none else shall hold it."
"Kind my lord,
As must be - King thou art of Heaven's accord,
Shown by the verdict of that mystic sword -
Well were it that to Brise forthright we go."
So went they, and the priest this counsel gave:
"Say naught, nor do, until the conclave meet
On the twelvth day, when all our realm complete
Shall for the verdict of the sword compete.
And if this marvel then to all ye show,
There will be those of loyal hearts and brave
Thy part to hold, though some will find no joy
To yield their princedoms to a nameless boy."
Came the twelvth day. High lords and kings were there,
Barons of good name, and knights of large repute,
And meaner louts who came that chance to share,
With hearts that hungered for a kingdom's loot.
Some on wide rule, or princely birth, relied;
Some on plain worth, and some on emptier pride;
Some on brute strength the bedded sword to wrest,
And some, who deemed not that themselves were best,
Yet thought with loyal hearts the realm to bless,
If God's high wisdom should their worthlessness
Accept and use.
To this high test there came
Not only wealth and power and rank and fame,
Not only ermine white or golden vair,
And knights' gay tabards, scrolled and broidered fair,
But all in sendal, or inferior wear,
To homespun rude, were free that sword to try.
Ostler and host, and chapman wandering by,
Miller and wright, and churl and armourer,
Even the swineherd, if his heart allowed
To face the laughter of the jeering crowd.
Some hours the long slow files their fortunes tried,
And moved rejected from the stone aside,
And then came Anton with no eagerness
His turn to take; and Kay; who strove no less
For the last day's defeat; and Arthur then,
Amidst the deep breaths of astounded men,
Drew the sword out, and laughed, and raised it high,
And thrust it back, as though no mastery
Were in a natural act. The startled crowd
Was like a murmuring sea. One voice aloud
Led the long cry that rose, and would not still.
"A king! A king!" The voice of Brastias cried.
A thousand voices with that word replied.
But not from those of rank the voices rose.
Scornful, amazed, appalled, of evil will,
Envious of heart, the morn's untrustful foes
Looked in each other's eyes, and thoughts of ill
Made base accords before the evening fell.
And even those of cleaner hearts were slow
To welcome one whose birth they did not know,
A youth unnamed, unproved. And hence delay
Was urged, except where Merlin's word prevailed.
(For Merlin, from their consort long away,
Among them moved.) Yet even Merlin failed
To range such strength of front on Arthur's part
As might suffice those boisterous cries to still,
And gave delay consent. This word availed
With even those most urged of evil will;
For who, if to his loss the dice he threw,
Would not forget the cast, and dice anew?
All to the Feast of Candlemas was then
Deferred, new test to try, and simple men
Prayed that in peace it might determined be.
So lord and king each went his separate way,
But ever, five by night, and five by day,
Watched the ten knights that none the sword should free
By might, or by device, or sorcery.
And Arthur in like sort by Merlin's care
Was compassed by good knights of bold report,
Both in his riding and his rest, that ne'er
Should treason reach him; and good friends he gained
By frank response and light of prideless eyes -
The morning light that later storms may dim.
So much of childhood and of God remained
That all was glamour and high deeds to him.
And some there were who later favour sought;
And some were selfless in desire to see
The will of Heaven prevail; and some were led
By Merlin's counsel, or by Brise; and so
The cause of Arthur gathered strength; but yet
For one who called him friend was twice a foe.
And when at Candlemas again were met
Barons and kings the further test to try,
And only Arthur drew the sword once more,
Still was there discord, and hot words were said,
And swords half-drawn, and once again delay
Was urged, and all deferred to Easter day;
And then to Pentecost.
But Merlin drew
Such lords aside as, though of hostile sort,
Were yet of honour, and of fair report,
And asked: "What think ye at the last to do?
Will God be mocked? How many times anew
Must Arthur draw the sword, and all beside
Attempt and fail? Against the goad to kick,
- Of old they wrote it - prompts the harder prick.
The stubborn lastly by their deaths will pay."
With troubled mien they answered: "Sooth ye say.
We would not of our hearts averse our will
From Him who doth our ransomed lives fulfil.
But bitter dole were here, perverse and ill,
That child unbearded should our best obey,
Preferred before his natural lords; and they,
Strife-hardened, proved in many a sleight and wile
Of practised war, his lighter words defer."
Answered the sage: "If wiser these ye ween
Than He Who ruleth all, will now be seen
Whether his purpose or your wills prevail.
Think ye God's choosing will be changed of men?
Are ye so fond another end to plan?
Bethink ye whom ye are, and whom is He."
These words had weight to win a large consent,
And silence others of the malcontent;
But smouldering hates remained, for wroth were they,
The thwarted kings, and bitter strife had been,
Save that they might not in one aim unite
Their various greeds, and each of all suspect,
Bethought, if first his blade were naked seen,
Ill might his peers, in justice' name, requite
A causeless murder of their king elect,
Although the while their privy hearts were glad.
And more they hid the baffled wrath they had
Because that, dense their ordered spears around,
And clamorous in their joy, the general crowd,
So long by lawless bondage cursed, aloud,
Hailed as God's choice a king their hearts had crowned.
So Arthur on a troubled throne was set
By miracle of choice, and wondering yet
What meant that miracle, and why should be
The marvel of the sword, that only he
Could loose it.
To Sir Anton spake he: "Sire,
- For so I still would call thee - wilt thou say
Of whom my birth, and by what devious way
I came to call thee father?"
"All, my king,"
Sir Anton answered, "of thy just require
I tell thee that I know. At dusk of day
It was but few weeks from the birth of Kay -
A knight in secret wise arrived to bring
A babe that Merlin bargained months afore
That I should take. The straitest oath I swore
To guard it with my life, and naught to speak
Or ask thenceafter, nor its birth to seek.
The knight who brought it by such oaths alike
Was bound to lasting silence. Guessed I more
I might not speak it. But I do not guess.
Soothly, I know not whom thy sire may be,
Excepting only that I am not he."
Arthur to Merlin went: "Good friend to me,
And knowing as none else how these things be,
Wilt thou not freely in good faith declare
That which will cease my doubt?"
The sage replied:
"I may not tell thee all. The past I see
Inseparate from the fateful years to be.
But if thy destined course were turned aside,
Not even magic art should reach to tell
What would be other: but it were not well."
"It were my bane to know?"
"I say not that.
It were to break and change the future days
From what they will be."
"Which is fair?"
At least, not wholly. But the ills we know
However bitter to regard, may be
Less than the evils which we do not see.
As in a mirror may we dimly view
The destined end; but if in fear we turn
From that our hearts become too faint to learn,
It is as though the mirror breaks. To give
Clear vision of the cause alternative
It will not serve us. But we well may fear,
When for God's hand our own we stretch to steer,
We shall not better than His wisdom meant."
"I ask no longer "
"That ye ask shall be
Later disclosed, which now were bane to thee,
To stir confusion and unite thy foes.
For now thy thoughts to apter use were bent
To count the short tale of thy certain friends,
Ranging the strength on which thy throne depends
More swiftly than their league against thee grows
Who are repelled, but yet not reconciled,
Nor yet subjected to thy rule.
Whose hearts are hateful, most ye need, to dread
The Lothian Lot, whose might, since Emrys fell,
All storms have strengthened. Cautious, vengeful, bold;
Most craftful; when the sudden chance he saw,
Swift at the swoop, a ruthless hawk of war.
Such hath he proved him ever. Ware him well."
He heard and heeded. While a hostile crew,
More bold to flaunt him as their distance grew,
Rebellion ranged, he made his own expand
In narrower limits, thoroughly to subdue
The fertile vales and uplands of Logre,
And the two coasts of Severn's estuary
(Excepting Gore's strong-towered and naked land),
And Cornwall southward to the final sea.
But those who Uther's throne had buttressed well
Aforetime, though they now to treason fell,
Yet could not singly to one end unite,
Though Lot gave counsel. Jealous hates alight
Too fiercely burned to bargain, king with king,
What charges they should bear, what numbers bring,
Without dissent, and discord, and delay.
Yet at the last they joined a host that lay
Along the cliffs of Gore, and crossing thence
(After the guile of Lot; with short pretence,
Had feinted at Caerleon's walls to throw
A force they had not been of height to stem)
They landed where Tintagel faced the sea,
And then moved southward; while to counter them
Arthur, withheld by doubt of where would be
Their planned advance, now came with all his power
To meet them blithely, in no dreadful hour,
But of his star alertly confident.
Yet were they no mean foes, and when they met,
Six kings, with knights around them numberless,
Their banners flaunted. Garlot's sable fess
Led the bold van, and near beside were set,
Argent and gules, the twisted snakes of Gore,
And Ireland's emerald sign; and there behind,
Where Lot had rule, and cunning wile designed,
His fierce ger-falcon flew. The panthers four
Of Scotland's Caradoc, and the wolf await
Of the young king who owned no stablished state,
He of the Hundred who his kingdom were -
These flanked the ranks of Orkney.
Now was heard
The roar of conflict from the closing van;
And Lot no more his subtle ruse deferred
Than for assurance that the strife began
Firm-fronted to resist the most that lay
In Arthur's power to test it. Then he turned
His rearward ranks, and round low woodland led,
Curving to Arthur's rear. The sleights he learned
When at St Alban's, fifteen years before,
The heathen rear he smote with slaughter red,
He thought to practice on a hardier foe.
The Irish ranks, with Garlot and with Gore,
Had their short peril. Had they failed to show
Unbroken front to Arthur's greatest, then,
Left naked of support, their loss had been
Beyond remede. But no resistless strain
Swayed the locked lines, till Arthur paused to hear
The height of battle on his startled rear.
But not as once a heathen horde had fled
Replied the knights of Arthur. Facing round,
Orkney and Ireland in new front they found,
And met them boldly. Though surrounded now,
And in strait space confined, they knew not how,
Was none but held firm ground as knightly well
As though he losely rode: whose good blows fell
As hardly on his foeman's helm; and so
Having repelled design of overthrow
At the first impulse of confused surprise,
The solid core within that girdle raged,
Yieldless, and furious as a beast encaged
That strains its bars and feels them bend, that so
Hope rouses strength, and weights a deadlier blow
At that which yields the more; so valiantly
They met the compass of surrounding foes
That refluent were they flung, and bursting free
The knights of Arthur broke the ranks of those
Who thought to break them.
In no scattering rout
Some space his sullen foes retired, unsure
If strength were theirs that day for victory.
And then, when counsels clashed, as well might be
Where no true friendships were, to break their doubt,
King Lot his resolution spake, no more
Of Lothian lives to lose: "While light endure,
We may continue to be slain or slay,
Piling abortive loss. For fixed are they
Beyond uprooting. If we more contend,
It will remain we have not gained nor lost.
Why buy that verdict at a larger cost?"
Pleased or displeased thereat, alike they knew
They would be left too weak when Lot withdrew,
If more they challenged, at the last to meet
With the disaster of their full defeat.
Sullen and slow, in ordered ranks, without
Pursuit or harass, in no guise of rout,
They left a field they did not lose nor win.
For Merlin's wisdom the reluctant king
Heard and obeyed: "To that retreat molest
Would be vain slaughter. For a harder test,
That yet must come, thy strength conserve, and well
Regard thy preparation. Save ye heed
The voice of caution, may thy foes exceed
Thine utmost strength to drive them."
His barons of these warning words to tell.
To which they answered: "Have we seemed so weak?
Let the six kings their last supporters seek
And we may rack them."
"Friends," the king replied,
"Stout-hearted are ye, to my much content.
But ours is peril which I must not hide.
For our full strength we showed; and strengths allied
May join the six upon no distant day.
In the short pause of blows should counsel be.
And Merlin to good end hath counselled me
Not one time only. Let our prides allow
At least to hear him when he counsels now."
They sought the sage. He said: "Your foes will go,
As some far-drowning tide retires to fling
A further-forward wave. They think they know
The tale of all your strength; and if they bring
Allies united by the hope of prey
(As from the lands they neighbour well they may)
They will asses their strength to tread thee flat.
And therefore, in no craven mood, but clear
Of judgement, to discern, and then to steer
To better harbour of good peace than that
Which they would purpose, for their overthrow
I give this counsel: In the land of Gaul,
And far to south, where Benoic fronts the sea,
Two kings are cousins, and one enmity
Confronts them both. Kings Ban and Bors are they.
Stout-hearted both in war's debates, but he
Who to the mountains rules in Burgundy,
King Claudas, to their lower lands possess,
Each season irks them with some new distress.
Still they resist, but still his arms prevail
Some tower to storm, to grasp some fertile vale,
Making his lands the more, and theirs the less.
"To these two kings let proffer fair be sent
That if they bring sufficient aid to thee
To rout rebellion here, thine aid shall be
As potent to combine in strong aggress
Against King Claudas, till his chastened mood
Return his plunder, and good peace conclude.
This should be gain to them, and gain to thee,
And all of loyal sort, and equity."
The barons answered with one voice: "Is here
A project pregnant with success." The king
Praised it alike: Whatever force they bring
No niggard count shall equal. Every spear
Our strength augmenting victory brings more near
At lighter purchase. Nor should prudence weigh
Our foes too lightly. Stark of heart are they.
Violent of use, and wileful to devise
The fatal toils of war."
"Good sooth ye say,"
The sage replied. "Their heathen-neighboured lands
Such tutors both in blows and ruse have been
That those of warier sleights or hardier hands
The world contains not. Count them of such kind
That starker foes on live ye shall not find,
Who neither mercy ask nor mercy mean.
Ulfius and Brastias from the best of those
Who once were Uther's strength Mage Merlin chose
To do that errand. To the Benoic land
A fair wind took them. There King Bors they found,
And, by good chance, King Ban, whose needs had brought
Their meeting, to confer on how defence
Too long sustained might take offensive range
In such reversion as would all rely
On one last effort to prevail or die.
But here was solving of their doubt unthought,
As often, when the snare of circumstance
Invites despair, and those of feeble will
Would all resign, and wisdom's lips are dumb,
As from God's hand shall strange occasion come,
Beyond foreseeing or control of those
Its casual salvage; so the two kings heard
From Arthur's knights the unexpected word
That changed design and gave new confidence.
They saw short peril while their arms would be
So largely distanced by dividing sea,
Lessened if those they left the while should dwell
In compass of strong holds, and garnished well;
And cancelled at the worst when Arthur's spears
Beneath Pendragon should King Claudas see,
Portending loss; and in his startled ears
Should Britain's trumpets sound.
That all should be
Well ordered, now was bargain made that first
Should the two kings, in ceremonial wise,
Caerleon's court attend, while, still dispersed,
Their armies, from the winter days' release,
Routine assembly made, as though to bar
King Claudas' raiding bands, to then decrease
Their ranks by seaward movements in the night,
Leaving strong garrisons in town and tower
To hold their walls from storm, as well they might,
In expectation of the early hour
When the two kings, with Arthur's larger power
Would all reverse.
This plan in all prevailed.
The two kings from the port of Benoic sailed,
Garnished and favoured well, and of their train
Three hundred chosen knights. With seemly state
King Arthur met them at the eastern gate
Of Caerleon's Roman wall, and therewithin
He lodged their noblest well, the while without
Their following camped.
And now were treaties made
Of fair import, that equalled aid for aid,
Numbers, and times, and arms, and furnishings,
To which the seals of the contracting kings
Their honours staked.
Then in high rivalry
Against King Arthur's knights the hundreds three
In general tourney clashed. Was soon to see
That matched in valour and in might were they,
Preluding what in later years should be
A cancerous ill. But that was far away.
Now spurred they at the tourney-trumpet's peal
To wide promiscuous mimic strife that closed
In deafening tumult, while the gleam of steel
Shone through enveloping dust. As when contend
The lords of storm in ultimate air opposed,
When thunderous heaven to heaven, and deep to deep
Make answer, and the sudden lightnings leap,
So did that conflict's roar to heaven ascend:
So did the sudden blades the dust offend.
But Arthur watched the strife with eyes aware
That all who took their wounds or dealt them there
Were friends at need to him. As rose its heat
Beyond restraints that mortal harms should bar,
He bade the trumpets sound that called retreat
To rearward of the lists. "No single star
Excels," he said, "where all in heaven that are
Have their own place, and part, and excellence."
So with good words to joyous ease they passed,
To sojourn while the winter days should last
In Arthur's providence, while here they stayed
Until the lengthening days, Mage Merlin made
A secret journey to the Benoic land,
In the kings' names those movements to command
Which to the coast their mobile ranks withdrew,
And shipped to Britain; while remained the few
Chosen their passive praiseless part to do,
Captains discreet, on whom their lords relied
Behind the shelter of strong walls to bide;
A threat that Claudas could not pass, and leave
His land to foray, or his rear to grieve.
Fair spring, that dried the hollow ways, allowed
Beneath blue skies, or change of light and cloud,
Assembly of the host of Arthur's foes
In the far north, beyond his rule, which went
No further than the southern bank of Trent.
Near where the widening Humber seaward flows
They fixed their meeting-place. The six were now
By five augmented. Mark of Cornwall chose,
After long doubt, the part he thought would win,
But pleaded distance, which would scarce allow
A large contingent. "That," he wrote, "wherein
I most may aid is here await to lie
And menace Arthur's rear."
"He will not that,"
King Lot, who scorned him, said, "but there await
Will seek to profit from our hard debate
At little cost. Before our swords are dry,
He may repent it."
He of Camberet,
Duke Eustace, brought strong spears; and Brandigore
Was bought his feud with Scotland to forget
By lust of plunder. From Northumberland
King Clarence with his moorland horsemen came;
And came King Credimont, from isle and strand
With those whom neither seas nor winds could tame.
Southward they marched, the while King Arthur lay
East of the forests of Bedgraine; but they
Found barren leagues to pass, for Merlin's care
Wasted the land. The scouts of Arthur spread
Forward and far, till those who foremost led
The rebel host they touched, and then retired,
Reducing all. The barns they cleared. They fired
That which they might not move. From field and wood
The herds and swine they drave. To silent stead
And emptied byre the invaders came; the while
The host of Arthur's part in plenty fed.
It was two nights before the dawn that saw
The hard encounter of the ruthless war
That the bold king the Hundred knights who led
Dreamed a great dream. Though in his waking days
No land was his, who rode regardless ways
(His camp his home, his knights his subjects were),
He dreamed that in great towers he dwelt. They rose
Immense to heaven, the while aborted foes
Around them ranged and died. Impregnable
He with content, and they with raging, knew
They must be ever. But a tempest blew
Their massive girth around. The winds a shriek
Grasped the great walls, that shook like canvas weak,
And like a blown pavilion inward fell.
Then the wind died, and where those towers had been
A great flood swept, and bore their wrecks away.
At which he waked to wonder, and to tell
So strange a dream; and that his mind had seen
Remained so vivid, and so feared to say,
That those who heard as words of doom received,
Till Lot, who starkly in good steel believed,
Mocked their unsubstanced fears.
"Behold," he said,
"How rashly are vain dreams interpreted!
The dreamer hath no tower: he hath no land.
Should that which is not built be strong to stand?
Nothing the dream (or any dream) implies
Beyond the turmoil in our minds that lies."
But men about to slay, or else to die,
Brace their strong harness, and their dreams put by.
Eleven armies now their ranks arrayed
(For Mark his meagre contribution made,
Though holding absent) and their bold advance
Was dazzling with bright arms, and shields aglance.
Lot stretched his front the most he might, but here
The river flanked them, and the woods anear
Narrowed their march. Upon their leftward flank,
Low-built beside the river's nearer bank,
Were Bedgraine's walls, for Arthur held. Was need
Half Garlot to detach, its gates to heed,
Lest their loose rear should feel an issuing foe.
Before them lay King Arthur's host, but so
That as their van should leave the woods behind,
And the uncertain stream should eastward wind,
On front and flanks the curved attack should be.
Yet for this wide attempt must Arthur spread
Thin ranks reliant more on hardihed
Than on close front and push of crowding spear.
For only Arthur's dragon led Logre:
The arms of Benoic were not here to see.
By Merlin's ruse in Bedgraine woods they lay,
Waiting their time. For Lot was meeting here
His own device, against a formless rear,
When the strife roared, a serried force to fling.
So, as the rebel armies, king by king,
Extended on the wider plain, they found
Three sides their interrupted ranks around
A fierce assault drive in, where half arrayed
Each knight must meet who fronts him, blade for blade.
Unordered ranks the sudden onset gored,
And broken both, a wild confusion roared,
Congesting those who first deployed, and then
Obstructing who behind them pressed. The strife
Raged for long hours, while Ban and Bors withheld
Their Benoic spears, that Arthur's knights alone
Should prove their might.
But when this might was shown
Equal to hold, but not to rout, the word
Was sent to loose them. Benoic's green and gold,
And Gaul's gay silken lilies, azure-scrolled,
From the dark woods in ranks impatient spurred.
Came riot that far off King Arthur heard,
As Lot with hasteful regiment opposed
The sudden peril that the woods disclosed,
With fiercer strife than had been, flank and rear.
But what of front or flank had meaning here?
One side the river made a partial screen.
One side the woods that had protection been
Were live with foes, the while, behind, before,
Foes of the earlier day, and foes the more
Which noonday brought, their pressure urged, that so
That which before he taught was his to know.
And as before had Arthur's knights endured,
So did these others, being, as they were,
Of the like blood, and in like mood aware
That only in themselves their safety lay.
So were they constant with good blows to pay
For those they felt.
But Arthur's heart was glad,
Seeing the battle that before he had
Reversed in process, and assured that now
He ruled such ranks as would not break nor bow,
But hold the taken in too hard a net
For any outward burst its sides to fret.
While Lot, from when the Benoic arms he saw,
Knew that not ever in a world of war
Had been such hazard to his life and fame.
"Good friends," he said, "our straitened space to bar,
Three sides our foes, and one the waters are.
Loose we our footmen through the woods to flee,
As by good chance through closing boughs they may,
Each for himself; and with firm front will we
Resist them till of deaths they tire. For here
What flight remains? We must their fury stay,
Or all be lost."
In this resolve combined
They dressed their lines anew. Before, behind,
(Though now was little choice of front or rear,
Excepting that the river's fordless screen
Gave cover where their leftward flank had been)
No vacant space was left, but spear by spear
And steed by steed they stood, while round them surged
Arthur's exultant ranks, whose spears converged
On their defensive front. No harder strife
Than the next hour's the long encounter saw.
With wound for wound they paid, with life for life,
Till, wearied by the heavy toll of war,
They slackened as the light of evening
Left the high skies, and failed along the west.
Then where they stood the rebel kings must make
Their compassed camp, with here no junketing,
No mood of song to hold the night awake.
But cold at heart for many a good knight's fall,
And weary past desire for aught but rest,
And cumbered with the slain, and wounded all,
And thoughtful that return of light would bring
Resumption of such strife as deathward led.
But round them lay their foes, alike distrest,
With wounds as deep, with equal deaths to mourn.
Yet knowing that their purpose fairly sped,
And thinking to conclude with following morn
The full destruction of a taken prey.
But when morn came, and Arthur's strong array
Advanced for end of those its toils within,
Mage Merlin spake: "Lord king, thy wrath delay
Awhile to hear me. Those who will, not fly,
Preferring midst their victors' deaths to die,
Who will thy most endure, thy worst defy,
If now thy clement hand neglect to slay,
May be the bulwark at a later day
Of this thy realm when heathen swords are bare.
Will not thy best be slain the while they slay?
I charge thee now a further loss to spare,
Lest God's long patience tire. Thy part were best
To leave them standing with no more molest:
Leave them to lick their wounds, and list their slain.
"Believe that here they will not long remain,
For evil tidings to their counsel speed.
Their lands, left lordless, with rebellions bleed:
Their seaward borders from the heathen breed
The North lets loose when Christian discords rise.
Thou shouldst not now to further weakness fret
Swords that may soon with Christless blood be wet.
By the far sight that Heaven allows, I vow
They will not vex thee for three years from now,
When thou shalt meet them with more strength than here,
And win, and weld them to one conquering blade,
And find them faithful to thy throne and thee,
When those wild heathen of the colder sea
Shall press thy bounds till every sword be dear."
Answered the king: "Against my mortal foes
My sword is bare, and ere the day goes
I count to break them."
"Yet my word believe
Thyself at last thy further wrath shouldst grieve."
Then Arthur reined impetuous mood to heed
A cooler counsel.
From the northward road
His ranks, to wood and heath retiring, showed
Clear exit. Ware at first, and then with speed,
The rebels, to a beaten field agreed,
But doubtful of some deadly ruse, defiled
To flight and freedom.
With his foes dispersed,
Dejected, and conscious of the wounds they nursed,
And soon of bold barbarian hosts aware,
Their general absence had aroused to raid
Rich lands left vacant of their former care,
That they must form new fronts to overbear,
Or be themselves reversed, King Arthur saw
The wisdom of the word his wrath had stayed.
Not treatied peace, but mutual pause of war
Three years would last, the while the strength he spared
The outer ramparts of his realm repaired
From heathen inroads, lacking sight to see
Their travail at the last his gain would be.
So, to a peace they had not known before,
Logre far northward to the line of Trent,
The Severn vale, and Devon's broad extent,
He brought, and westward to the bounds of Gore
Beyond Caerleon, and the wilder ways
That were the landward route to Listonaise.
All these he ruled, and in his strength secure
Such comfort of strong spears to Benoic sent
That Claudas could not in set field endure
Those whom he drave before. And when the knights
Of Arthur's sending left the Benoic land
Where peace would be, from lust of war's delights,
Desires of fames, or friendships' calls, there went
Therewith a score of Benoic's best, to be
In later, greater days at Arthur's court,
Not least in splendour for his throne's support,
And pregnant to decide its last event.
Now from the caution and the craft of Lot
Came a strange seed to bear a distant woe,
Which not a thousand further years forgot;
A tale at this late day that all men know.
Long while he pondered Arthur's power, and weighed
The wisdom to oppose or else to aid
His crescent strength. 'It hangs at last,' he thought,
'Most on himself, who is young, unproved, untaught
In rules of kinghood, and the needful guile
That hides its purpose till the pointing prow
Is close to ram. Audacious first success
Will hold him in his place, no lengthened while,
Except with thriftful care he use it now
To form his friendships and his bounds to dress....
More must I learn before I chose.'
To seek Morgause: "Fair wife, attend," he said,
To one who all in awe and half in dread
Looked to her older lord, whose forceful hand
Had rent her girdle when from Cornish land
He bore her as the wage of conquering war,
The gift of Uther for the aid he gave,
"I need thee for a task none else could do,
And none could bring to better fruit than you.
For either must I join to Arthur's power,
If he be stablished in a rule secure,
Or take the chance of his disastrous hour,
If he be found unfit to long endure
The adverse gales on such a course that blow.
Therefore I send you to his court in sign
Of peace and friendship, and your part shall be
To use the sensuous arts you lightly know
To find his weakness and his strength. For so
Thy sons shall prosper at his side; or we
Take the high place where Merlin's craft hath set
A youth unsinewed for such destiny.
"I will that to Caerleon court you ride,
Your ladies and your children at your side,
With knights of honour, but in festal guise
For proof of friendship. That I thus devise,
The sullen beaten kings that round him lie
Will warn, no further test too soon to try;
Deeming, as surely he will deem thereby,
I seek alliance, and no more would be
In league against him. But yourself will know
I am not certain friend nor certain foe,
But watch the scale, that as it rise or fall
I may the more incline it. All thine art,
As well thou canst, to subtle purpose bend,
To bind him to thee. Make him much thy friend.
Yet do it briefly. Lag not to depart.
Ourselves are royal."
So to Arthur's court
She who was half his sister came. But naught
Knew either of the bond of blood. She brought
Her four young sons. The first, nigh grown
Gawain; Gaheris, keen and hard; and Agravain,
Sullen and strong; and youngest and most dear,
The laughing Gareth.
While the year was young
They journeyed southward. Still cold winter hung
Its shield's white challenge on the leafless bough.
But not for swollen ford or frozen way
Less gaily rode Morgause. Nor turn nor stay
Was hers for wild March winds, or those who lay
Across her transit. For the name of Lot
More than her escort of strong spears availed
To guard her. Where his fierce gyr-falcon flew,
Not often in remotest hills it failed
An open path to gain from all who knew
His mode of war. So through the whole land's length
She moved secure. The winter's lessening strength
Her sole restraint, she rode with ranks entire
Caerleon's gates of open welcome through.
Gay with hued silks those ranks, and bright with gold,
And brave with front of proven knights who led
The lengthened line of spears in which was set
The silken litter that her ease allowed.
But now she chose a fair white palfrey, thus
To grant her presence to the cheering crowd.
Gracious to all, their curious looks she met
With smiling eyes, the while her spearmen gazed
As men by naught allured, by naught amazed,
Straight forward. Thoughtless were they trained for war.
Lot's iron hand formed them.
Royal alike in wise,
Rode Arthur outward in midstreet to show
Meet honour to a queen in friendship's guise
Who offered concord from a pausing foe.
A seawind was there from the south, that back
The ladies' scarves, the knights long pensels blew,
And from the bleak March skies their drifting rack
Swept north, till naked heaven was coldly blue.
So met they, strangers in the open street,
Knowing not the bond of blood which both forbad
The falsehood that she wrought, and that they had
Of other sort in the near days. She saw
No stern-browed king, no hardened hawk of war,
Such as at Orkney's royal board would meet;
But frank-eyed youth, and grace, and comeliness,
That expectation and report were less
Than whom with smiling lips she bent to greet.
Nor Arthur's greeting was of colder kind,
Nor feigned of craft. For here high polity
With youth's keen impulse joined. So fair was she
In her full womanhood, his heart inclined
In swift desire toward her, instant, blind,
Untested in the doubtful lists of love.
Had she been distant on her part, as one
Assured and elder in her place and name,
Naught might have been of larger evil done,
But longing, barren of all hope to claim,
Had been the sport of time to change, or tame
To ever fainter though more dear regret,
Only to be recalled in empty hours.
Or, had he loved her not, it had not been.
For she from fault of random lusts was clean,
Unlike to Morgan, whose unlikely powers
Were servants to a lust incontinent.
True had she been to one unloved, whom yet
In his stern habit had been justly kind.
But now, obedient to his word, she bent
All her sweet ways a king's regard to gain
Who in swift passion for herself was fain.
Weak was her fence such keen response to find,
Such love, such worship, and such gentleness.
Was wonder here that one so lured forgot
The cunning purpose which the craft of Lot
Had laid upon her? If her heart were less
Held by that alien thought than drawn to yield
Love's favour, caught on that unequal field?
Sweet converse soon to sweeter usage grew.
The severing bond of blood that neither knew,
Its barriers down, was in that ignorance
Traitor to their integrities, for they
Were kindred largely in those thoughts which lie
Within the backward mind. Herself she showed,
As Lot had counselled. By that open road
Came Arthur to the door of mortal sin,
Asked not its price, but pressed, and entered in.
One month was all before she backward went
To her bleak northern home. One month was all.
Yet in those days was wrought, beyond repent,
The deaths of myriads, with an empire's fall.
Backward she went the fruit of sin to bear,
Ware of her fault, and yet not all aware,
Who knew not Arthur for her closest kin.
No thought of sorrow for so dear a sin
Was Arthur's as he watched her pensels go,
Till the far flashes of the sunlit spears
Died out, and left him to a lonely woe.
But in the watches of the sleepless night
A bitter conflict in his heart he knew:
'Her will I gain in very Heaven's despite.'...
'Unknightly were it from a cause untrue
To war on Lot, his wife to gain anew,
Whom sent he in good faith and friendly will.'...
'How know I but he plots his treason still?'...
'I know not that he doth.'.... 'If thus I do,
Will she consent her lord's reverse to see,
And join her life to whom his bane hath been?...
Whom loves she surely if she loves not me?
Lot's widow were her choice, or Camelot's queen?'
There was his doubt the most. If strife should be,
Lot's ruin or his death to work, would she
Witness that wrack, and then in full consent
Accept a seat beside the conqueror's throne?
Much surely had she in love's weakness shown,
But less than told him that. In thought he went
Backward to search for any certain sign,
And did not find it. Torn by doubt he lay.
Too noble-natured to his lust obey:
Too lustful for her to his hope decline.
He knew not to such deeds his birth he owed,
Yet half was bent to take Pendragon's road,
And half his mother's juster blood forbad;
And in this doubt he slept at last, and knew
His mind disordered still. Such dreams he had
That waking discords were but peace thereto.
For now a vision dread his thoughts possessed,
Not of kind ease, and love's soft comforting,
But in his land he was a lonely king,
Beset by entering foes that darkness bred.
From earth's deep entrails, and from fields of air
Black with low storm, their hateful onsets were.
With claws to tear, with venomed deaths to spew,
Snakes upward writhed, and dragons downward flew.
Through all the pested land the folk they slew,
And he fought only. Now he smote below,
And now thrust upward at a swooping foe.
Wounded he was, and dazed with strife, but still
Were more to chase aside, and more to kill.
Till faint from toil, and weak from wounds that bled,
He stood alive amidst the countless dead,
And waked, but was at heart uncomforted.
Again he slept: again he chased and slew.
But ever as he turned they came anew,
And still he smote, although most wearily,
Till the last writhing ceased, and he could know
He lived among the slain. But even so
He felt no triumph victoring thus to stand,
For they had left him in an empty land,
And empty also in his heart was he.
Thereat he waked, and looked abroad to see
The pause of dawn, while yet wide heaven was flecked
With failing stars. The deep immensity,
Dawn-pregnant, did not wholly yet conceal
That space unbound which never daylight shows
Where the stars wander on their loneliest ways.
Now Arthur felt its power to cease and heal
The short disturbance of the transient days
Of mortal being. 'Here is need,' he thought,
'Of better counsel than my heart can give;
For all my later days to lose or live
Must here depend.'
Mage Merlin's aid he sought,
The tumult of his tortured thoughts to still,
But gained he naught thereby, for Merlin's will
Was not to aid him, as, at Uther's call,
He once had aided. "Now shall truth be told,"
He answered, "haply on too late a day;
Though that be more than mortal men can say,
Who see a babe's birth, or a kingdom's fall,
Not as God sees it, in its place with all,
That thus the coloured pattern fitly glow."
"But this thou must to halt thy purpose know:
Thou art the child of Uther and Igraine,
Begotten ere they wed, and placed away
In wise most secret, lest the doubt that lay
Around thy coming were thy childhood's bane,
With such contention when Pendragon died
As might have slain thee. Here is certain cause
To hold thee separate, for the Queen Morgause
Is half thy sister."
"That I hold too ill
For light believing."
"That I speak I know.
And more I tell thee. From thy sin shall grow
A monstrous evil. For Morgause shall bear
A son to thee, whose base and envious will,
Through tortuous plots, and deeds iniquitous,
Shall wreck thy realm at last. For this prepare
Thy soul through prosperous years."
"This tale of ill,
If surely to thy proof the past be thus,
And such black sequel in the future lie,
Why tell me not before, or now too late?"
"I would that heart be thine to counter fate,
Which was not mine to alter. Even I,
For mine own self, a coming doom may fear,
And yet more fear to change it."
"As thou wilt.
Yet to the burden of incestuous guilt,
Unweening though it were, I will not bend
Without the baring of full proof."
Such proof is simple. Hear Sir Anton's tale,
When I release him from the oath he swore,
Or call thy mother from the heights of Gore,
- Those crag-built towers which never foe shall scale -
Where, with her youngest born (excepting thee),
Queen Morgan, doth she pensive bide, as one
Who stands aside from life; whose life is done."
Sir Anton came, and Merlin charged him: "Once
I tied thee straitly by an oath which bound
Thy lips to silence. Now I bid thee tell."
"That will I freely. Uther bade me take
A babe not mine beneath my roof to dwell,
That thus should be a nameless safety found
For one who else might die by violence,
If left uncovered in rebellious days."
"That child perchance was I, perchance was Kay."
"Then, by God's verdict, had the sword been Kay's!"
Believing, yet the smallest doubt to stay,
He sent such missive to Igraine as bought
Her soon appearance. At her side there came
Queen Morgan, who the powers of Hell could tame
To work her bidding. So the fearful said.
And none could doubt that to her use she bent
The viewless virtues earth and air have bred,
As neither men require, nor God had meant.
Loyal was she not to her lord, nor he
Believed it ever. Lover none was hers
Of constant faith, nor such she sought, for she
Was lustful, changeful, and incontinent.
Heedless of all, her wanton ways she went
As one no ruths restrained, no laws compelled.
And if, through all the evil course she held
She yet her bond with Urience half sustained,
Light was the price she gave for that she gained
In name, and refuge of the towers of Gore.
And if King Urience took and asked no more,
What loss was his her lustful moods to share?
What gain to seek for that which was not there?
On Arthur now, with glances darkly bright
She gazed, and heard a tale that long she knew.
Eyes with no sister's love but hate alight
Were hers, Pendragon's wile-born child to view.
'His father,' so she thought. 'My father slew.
Mine shall be vengeance wrought by devious ways
He shall not guess.' And those sweet-seeming eyes
Were lifted to him, as fair dawn may rise
While the near storm its gathered clouds delays.
Then hardly Ulfius spake: "So strait a vow
Hath held me these long years, that naught I said
Of all I knew. But that is ended now.
And this, that bitter silence long hath bred,
Must now be spoken. All our crowding woes
Had been averted, and King Arthur's right
Allowed and stablished in the whole world's sight,
Had Queen Igraine his birth declared."
The king made answer, "of your wrath beware.
Few of there of my court such words would dare;
And none who shall with light impunity
Traduce her. With a mother's claim on me
Thine own words dower her."
"Lord, my liege, I say
No more than truth requires and knighthood may.
Through all thy years with hopeless eyes I saw
The land disordered; and the mortal war
Thy proclamation made. Had true men known
Thou wert Pendragon's heir, their strength had grown
So largely round thee that the sound of strife
We had not heard, or else the factious few
Were wind-blown leaves upon the gale of war.
But while men faltered on a doubt unsure,
Either they lagged a loyal sword to draw,
Or joined the rabble of thy foes.... For me,
I speak the things I knew, the fault I see,
And will for naught abate it."
Answered Igraine, "a woman's strength is mine,
Unfit the temper of thy sword to try.
Yet not so friendless nor so false am I
That all of Urience' or of Arthur's court
Should let thy gage for long unlifted lie.
"But I would answer in a gentler way.
Thou art indignant for a kingdom's woe,
Not causeless, yet, if more than most you know,
You know not all. You know that Merlin's wile
Betrayed my honour, that a babe I bore,
Perchance to Uther, but I know no more
Than that by night in unsuspected guile
Of magic caught, I as my lord received
Another, and Duke Gorlois lay the while
Slain in strong battle, eight sure leagues away.
"So much we know; and likely more you may
Of who that babe concealed, as did not I.
But this you know not, that my word I plight
To Uther, not to ask or seek or say
Aught of it; for its larger safety lay
In that conceal had Merlin urged. Whereby
I could not surely solve, though hope I might,
What meant the advent of a nameless king."
And Ulfius answered: "Reasoned words are thine.
I spake too rashly; and thy pardoning
I can but sue. More blame with Merlin lies,
Who on his subtle-working arts relies
Too greatly. Devil though he may not be,
He is not God, and that he doth not see.
He makes three woes for one his craft allays."
To which Mage Merlin: "That we are we do.
And great occasion, for the world's amaze,
Beyond thy thought, my cunning arts could view."
Then turned he to the king: "My liege, believe
She is thy mother. To thyself receive
One who was sinless and misfortunate."
"I all believe," and as he spake, the king
With tearful joy his mother clasped, and she
In the likewise embraced him joyfully,
Long winter ending in so fair a spring.
So came clear truth to light from vain surmise,
By which was Arthur owned Pendragon's heir,
His throne made firmer, and his hopes more fair
To those who knew not all. But only he,
And Merlin whom he told the whole, could weigh:
What fruit would incest bear? What price to pay
Would be his part who in that incest lay?
'Heavy,' he thought, 'the price, and hard the way;
Yet not the shadow of a distant wrack,
Nor sorrow for short love so curstly sped,
Shall break high dreams; and what at last may lack
Shall not dissolve the things that first I do,
Which shall be changeless when their form hath fled,
As all things past are changeless. Deep I rue
That which is changeless now to mould anew.
Yet while earth stands, and while endures the sky,
At here my place my given part will I,
Till the full tempest break, whate'er it be.'
In this resolve his peace he found. He set
Far from him vain remorse and vain regret.
The thin-veiled hate in Morgan's eyes he met
- What knew she surely? - with such glance as gave
Full friendship's offer from her king and kin.
But Morgan was Duke Gorlois' child. To her
He was no brother, but the fruit of rape
Of whom she loved. He was an alien seed
Sown with no right, and now a monstrous weed,
Which she by magic art, and only she,
Might humble. Those dark eyes had depths wherein
Lay hell-born menace for the days to be.
'What sleight,' she thought, 'shall void, what strength shall save
His life from my set snares of sorcery?
Shall shield of God, shall ruth in me,
Exempt him from the bitter price of sin?
Conceived in craft, and now by lechery
Sire to such monster as not earth should see.'
One morn a squire to Arthur's justice came,
His master's corse who bore with sore lament.
"Grant me," he pled, "a knight of bold intent
This death to venge. It was but yesterday
My noble master here (Sir Miles his name)
A strong knight, hoving at a fountain's fall,
Waiting for some strange beast to pass that way,
And idle in his long quest's long interval,
For no just cause opposed. He barred his way,
Demanding strife; and, ruthless, smote to slay,
As this wide wound gives witness."
"Was it so?"
Answered the king. "A forest fountain? Nay,
It may be that this knight myself I know."
Then through the talk that rose, and while the king
That which good rule required was pondering,
Another squire approached him, Griflet named,
Of beardless youth, but who with reverence claimed
The boon of knighthood from his lord.
Gave dubious answer: "Much of hope I see,
But not the strength that further years will show;
And those who aim too high may fall too low.
Who art thou?"
And the suppliant youth replied:
His name was Griflet, called le Fils de Dieu,
For of his birth there was not man that knew.
Sir Blamor's squire.
"Why ask this boon?"
The venture of this fountain strife may try.
Who aims too low has little hope to rise,
I do beseech thy grace to hear my plea."
But Merlin counselled: "Let thy heart deny
Too soon a prayer. This youth in days to be,
Strong for himself, and stronger yet for thee,
Shall be a bulwark to thy throne. But now
He knows too little of stern jousts, or how
The spear-point shivers on the slanted shield."
But Arthur, whose high dreams interpreted
That which he heard, denied not: "If," he said,
"I grant thy prayer, while wisdom halts, to me
It is but seemly that thy gift shall be,
Even as I ask. "
"Lord, all thou wilt. "
This pledge require, that when thy bout is done,
From mounted strife or foot, or lost or won,
Thou dost not fail to here return, and tell
Of triumph gained, or if defeat befell;
Returning though for praise, or though for shame."
"Lord, by my body's faith, that word I swear."
And so Sir Griflet, come to knighthood's name,
In boyhood's haste his saddled steed bestrode
- A strong-limbed steed, of little weight aware -
And spurred a wallop down the woodland road.
Then came he to a rich pavilion pight
Beside a fountain, through its ferns that fell
From hanging rock, to find a slaty bed
So narrow that the forest boughs from sight
Its course concealed, though further down it spread
A turbulent breadth.
A steed accoutred well
Stood waiting, and a shield of blazons gay
Hung from a larch, beside a leaning spear.
Then with his own spear's butt the shield he smote
With such brusque vigour that to ground it fell,
Cord-sundered. Outward at the clamorous note
There came unarmed a haut and kingly knight.
"Why hast thou served my shield in such despite?"
"For I would joust."
"Thou art but young," he said.
"Unarmed I stand. Restore the shield and go."
"I will not that."
"Thy strength is yet to be.
No lust is mine to be thine overthrow."
"Yet strike I for that knight ye lately sped."
"Then tell me whence thou comest."
"From Arthur's court."
"Bold are ye all who ride from that resort;
Yet tame thy bold presume I lightly may.
Loth, I will joust thee."
"Less or more to say,
The end is one."
"The choice is thine,
The strong knight armed him, and his spear he gat,
And gained his horse. On level ground they met.
That bout sufficed, for Griflet, overset,
More backward than his rolling charger lay.
With flash of sparks from strenuous hooves, the steed
Regained his feet, the while the victor knight,
Firm-seated still, upon Sir Griflet gazed.
He saw the broken shield. The torn side bled.
'Dead is he,' he thought, and for a nearer sight
Dismounted at his side. His helm he raised.
With freer air the fallen knight revived.
"How dost thou?"
"In my side a splinter lies.
Yet must I - "
With the word he strove to rise,
But could not.
"Let that arm of strength deprived
On mine depend."
Dizzily Sir Griflet thus
Refound his feet. With effort arduous,
In pain's contempt, and dear blood's loss, he gained
His seat once more.
"I must return," he said,
"If that your grace allow me. Live or dead,
My knighthood's faith is straitly pledged thereto."
"God," said the victor, "be thine aid to do
What few so mortal-hurt would rise to try.
A mighty heart is thine. Should life endure,
With fuller strength to be, with seat more sure,
With lance more practised to its goal, I ween,
A knight to match thee were but seldom seen."
Wood wrath was Arthur while Sir Griflet lay
Avoiding death. 'I would not heed,' he thought,
'The counsel Merlin gave. I would not stay
A boy's vain dream, but cast his life away,
Too avid where myself I ventured naught.'
To heralds of far kings, who reached his court
With tribute claims, and threats of war's retort,
He gave short hearing, and a sharp reply.
'One course remains,' he thought, 'and that will I.'
A chamberlain he called, and spake aside:
"Voice this to none, but ere the dawn provide
Of all the goodly steeds I own the best;
And of mine arms the mail of surest test;
And lance that shall not fail. Have these conveyed
Without the walls in secret wise. I ride
As honour calls, and at the eventide
Expect my safe return, with God to aid,"
So came it, as the routed stars withdrew,
Through the clear coldness of the morning dew
That Arthur rode in no man's company,
As a poor knight rides squireless. Naught had he
His royal person or his rank to show.
Soft pace he rode the while encroaching light
Chased the last shadows of the woodland night,
But pricked his steed at widening dawn, for near
Were sounds of chase and flight; and cries of fear
Were lost in those of churls who roused a prey.
Out from the woods, across the open way,
Stumbled a man who ran with failing breath,
While three stout villains who desired his death
Made swift pursuit with naked knives to slay.
But on the lance-point now the dawn's low light
Gave flashing signal, and the quickening beat
Of horse-hooves sounded in their ears. Retreat
Was instant then. High ferns and brambles hid
Their worming course. The low-grown brake forbid
A further search. In Arthur's wondering sight
Stood Merlin breathless on the path.
Not all thy craft nor all thy wizardry
It seems had saved thee from their thieving clutch
Except I came," in open mirth laughed he.
"My danger at their hands was not so much
I had not foiled it in good time. But more
Is that to which thou goest. Thy likely end
Thy rashness asks, and only Heaven's defend
Can save thee."
"Yet I dread me not so sore
That I will falter at thy word.... And see!
The fountain and the shield. And there is he,
The knight I seek."
Truly he spake, for near
Lay the strewn shards of Griflet's splintered spear,
And there the fountain where the strange beast drank,
And there the steed which once with little thank
The bold knight seized who now, in morning ease,
Sate at his meal beneath the meeting trees.
"Knight," said the king, to one who knew not him,
Why dost thou bide in this wild place, and why
Free passage on the open path deny?
Who ride in peace should jeopard life nor limb,
Except of free desire their strength they try."
To this the seated knight gave sharp reply:
"I wait a beast that here resorts, and while
I wait I will the laggard hours beguile
As pleasure calls."
"And died Sir Miles thereby."
"Ill fortune his."
"And very near to die
A youth unequalled to such sports."
Desired the fall he sought."
"I charge thee leave
A custom which King Arthur's peace doth grieve."
"If my pursuits thy better wits offend,
Freedom is knightly thine to force amend."
"That will I in short course with God to friend."
"Well, as thou wilt."
The nameless knight arose,
As one whose daily count of carnal foes
Was yet to tale; and armoured soon he came
So bold a challenge to his might to tame.
But equal-fortune was the course they ran.
The strong spears broke. But neither horse nor man
Quailed from the shocks.
Then Arthur's sword outshone.
But said the knight: "Another bout should we
Try with sharp spears."
"My only spear is gone."
"But I can furnish for myself and thee."
Then by his squire were two stout spears supplied.
And once again that course did Arthur ride,
And held his seat: "Then now must swords debate."
"Nay, for I have not found a knight of late
So hardily to meet me. Once again
For joy of combat shall the course be run."
"So be it for me," replied the careless king,
More joyed of hazards than of safety fain,
But fate defied too far may no man shun.
Against the opposing spear his skill was vain.
Angered he rose from ignominious fall.
"That the lance loses shall the sword regain."
So said he, as his own he drew. The knight,
Who sought no vantage, must to earth alight
To meet him equal. "Must thou more?" he said.
"Bethink, that shouldst thou fail thou art but dead.
My mood is mercy now. Be wise, and go."
But Arthur answered, still in wrath: "Not so,
A lance may fail, but therefore fail not I."
Clashed in mid-air the meeting swords, and swept
Backward a circling course to clang again.
Against such strokes the shifting shields were vain.
The shredded cantals leapt: the red blood spread.
Scantly awhile the king his dear life kept.
"Now may we pause," he cried, and breathless both
Rested apart, and then, alike unloth,
Together rushed as savage rams contend,
The empire of the grazing ewes to gain.
High heart delayed awhile relentless end,
But valour and resolve alike were vain
When the swords clashed, and Arthur's broke.
The victor swore, "more stubborn foe to me
Either of sword or word I have not met.
But vantage here is mine to close the debt.
Yield shalt thou recreant to my rule, or I
The strife resume by which thou canst but die."
"Death comes to all; and those of noble parts
Account it welcome to accepting hearts.
But recreant to thy rule I will not be."
So Arthur spake, and with the word he leapt
To reach his foeman's throat, too late who swept
A hindering stroke. To common earth they fell.
With honour there to buy, and life to sell,
Savagely they strove; but greater strength at last
Assertion made: the king, with helm off-cast,
Saw the bright dagger raised his life to slay.
Then death had been, but Merlin on the way
Suddenly appeared, and cried: "Oh, knight too bold,
From that disastrous deed thy hand withhold!
A bane to all this land that stroke should be,
Fair hopes to fade; nor least its loss to thee."
"Now, be ye devil or man, what knight is he?"
"It is the king is held beneath thy knee.
Even Arthur's self."
"Not only king is he.
King am I also in my land."
Resolving mind King Pellinor thought: "Too far
My fault hath outraged for its cloud to lift.
My safety lies in this descending blow."
But with the thought the nerveless hand sank low,
For Merlin on him cast so strong a spell
That swooning as to death, he forward fell.
Slow rose King Arthur, and the thanks he gave
To whom had come his forfeit life to save
Were halt and poor. "A better knight alive
I have not met. And do I meanly thrive
Because thy sorcerous arts contrive his death?"
But Merlin laughed upon him: "Too scant of breath
Thou art to waste it in such wail. Believe
His harm is naught. Before returning eve
His life resumes. King of Mid-Wales is he,
And his two sons, Lamorack and Percival,
In the strange hazards of far days to be,
Shall honour well thy throne; nor largely less
His loyal service to thee. But thy need
Is sharp for some good leech thy wounds to dress.
Mount by mine aid. King Pellinor's stolen steed
Will bear me."
To a hidden hermitage
Near in the woods they went as Merlin led,
Where the good hermit did his hurts assuage
With cunning salves. But three short days were sped
Before the king from that impatient bed
Was active to the court to ride again.
Merlin with Arthur westward rode. The king,
Grateful for rescue at his need, was still
Vexed by the issue of that strife. He said:
"I fought and failed. I would not yield. To bring
My loss to bold reverse of victoring
Even life I gaged. It was not of my will
That he who triumphed should be falsely sped
By arts beyond our mortal use. I live,
Yet ride I swordless, as is right; for I
Am one dis-weaponed, who should yield or die."
But Merlin laughed. "Not thine the right to give
Thy life, which to thy kingdom's needs belongs.
Thou wilt not yield while life remains. In thee
Is that high heart which makes its sovranty
Through all disaster or reverse secure.
For thy lost sword we near the destined cure.
Await a wonder."
Now the woodland way
Opened, and wide upon their left there lay
A water great and fair, that smoothly shone
Beneath a noon-lit sky. Far out thereon
An arm they saw that from the waters rose
In gleaming samite, that a sword upheld,
And brandished, sheathed.
"That sword is thine to take."
"Who," Arthur asked, "is she who walks the lake
As one who on firm earth unheedful goes?"
"She whom thou seest though her grace to thee
Is of the Water Spirits, Nimue.
Beneath the floods their homes are built, and there
Are palace halls as fine, and garths as fair,
As any monarch of high pride should dare
To round him build in overbold compare
Of bright celestial domes. Her aid to thee
Is largely pledged. There is no cause to fear.
Speak fairly to her when she comes more near."
"I fear her naught.... Oh, lady, dost thou see
I am a swordless knight? Can grace or gold
Win the fair sword that lifted hand doth hold,
Or doth it mock my need?"
"Lord king," she said,
"That sword is thine. The price is yet to pay.
Swear that a gift I will not name today
Is mine when I shall ask, and what thou wilt
Thine hand shall reach."
"I swear it soothly."
The secret of its name, Excalibar:
That which cleaves all and naught shall cleave. But though
Thy hand shall take it, be not thus content.
Not single to thyself its virtues are.
Except thou guard it well, thou mayst repent
"Closely shall I guard it."
That barge close-moored against a leaning tree?
Thy use it waits."
He saw the barge the where
Naught but green boughs had been and empty air
To previous sight.
The king and seer alit,
Tied their good steeds, and rowed the sword to win.
It was a lady's hand that brandished it.
She loosed it to the king; and deep within
The lake's green depths the arm no waters wet
From baffled eyes withdrew.
"If fair was she
As one with such flawless hand should be,
I would have seen her gladly," said the king.
"Nay," said the seer, "what need we else to see?"
His half-immortal eyes on Nimue,
With power to view beyond her vanquishing,
Though from the king she now withheld.
The land regained, they sought their steeds, and rode
Till by the path a rich pavilion showed,
But vacant. "What," said Arthur, "hath been here?"
"It is that king's pavilion," said the seer,
"With whom you fought. But since it here was pight,
He bickered stoutly with a Table knight,
Sir Eglam, who before his fury fled.
Save for his swifter steed, he were but dead.
But now Caerleon hath he reached. The king
From baffled chase returns, it is but now."
"Then shall I meet him with no swordless hand,
And all redress."
"Sire, if my counsel stand,
Ye shall not do so, worn with strife is he.
And with long chasing. Should thy sword excel
Were honour scarce to find; and rested well
Few knights were harder for thy mastery.
Bethink that strongly for thy throne's support
Such kings as he thy choicest words should woo,
Not thinking rather what thy lance couldst do,
Like to a landless knight's more random thought."
"A just rebuke I may not heedless hear.
And this good sword hath left too dear a debt
For short refusal of thy most request."
"Which, of the sword or scabbard, like'st thou best?"
"The sword were simple choice."
"The choice were wrong.
For though high virtues to the sword belong,
The scabard hath the greater. While ye wear
Its comfort at thy side, no blood shall flow
From any wounds, however deep they feel,
But it shall harden as it meets the air,
So that such hurts as else were life's despair
Shall irk thee little, and shall lightly heal.
Regard it as thy life, and keep it so
That never hand of any secret foe
Shall reive it from thee."
"That, good sooth, will I.
.... But mark who cometh."
"Yea, - and rideth by."
So it was. For the craft of Merlin cast
Such spell on Pellinor that naught he saw
But train of chapmen on the road who passed,
Urging their mules, unsure that Arthur's law
Would guard them. So he thought, and gave them way,
To salve their fears.
And Arthur said: "Perde,
Of less aggress, and different mien is he
From when before we met."
"So God thee save,
He did not shrink from that he did not see."
So to Caerleon they came, where knights were glad
To learn his safety. Marvelled much were they
That one such honour and such power who had
Should wager life and fame in private play.
Yet men of worship spake him praise. They said:
"What other lord so high, alive or dead,
Hath ever ventured as a landless knight
In honour's hard pursuit? Well blest are we
The subjects of so graced a prince to be."
Wide now was Arthur's realm to Orkney's bound,
And Cornwall owned him, and beyond Logre
His rule went onward to the eastern sea;
But yet were kings who held their mountain ground,
And sea-divided lands where chiefs were found
Hostile, and active to reduce his power.
Foremost of these, within his cloudy tower,
North Gales' fierce lord, Rience, his strong allies
And subject kings would count, till came a day
When to Caerleon came a strong array
That bore his message in no peaceful wise,
Though but a herald's train of pomp were they.
"Arthur," he said, "thy lord, Rience, by me
A summons sends. As rightful king is he
Of all North Gales, and all North Ireland, far
To where the wastes of shoreless ocean are,
And further north of many isles that breed
Warriors who far thine utmost strength exceed,
So of thy tribute and thy fealty
His natural claim he makes, and for its sign
He will have shaving of that beard of thine
To fringe his mantle where a gap remains,
Requiring that completion. He hath made
A robe so royal that its hem sustains
Eleven beards of kings discomfited,
And lacks but thine to close that lordly braid."
And Arthur answered: "Little beard have I;
And older growths would shame it. Tell thy lord
I owe no homage, and a naked sword
To his lewd message is the fit reply.
Say further that my beard is his to fetch,
If mountain vulture dare his neck to stretch
So far to the southward for so dear a prey.
If here he cometh let him clothe his knees
The gravelled dirt to meet, for doomed are they
To bear him grovelling at my feet. His head
Upon my footstool laid, with worships pled
Of subject homage, are the courtesies
Which will absolve the taunts so basely said
By the boor's hirling that thou art. Reply:
I charge him here to come, to gain or die,
Or through the world I will his mockery wake,
As one who bayed for that he dared not take."
With purpose Arthur spake, who surely knew
How little all his utmost force could do
That evil to uproot the where it grew;
And saw how brittle were his peace the while
North Gales' fierce hills, with many an outland isle,
Were hostile to his rule. And hence he sent
A word to sting him from his fortressed heights
To where the marshalled strength of mounted knights
Could break him on the plains.
With poor content
Withdrew that messenger; and Arthur asked:
"Who knoweth this Rience?" A Gore-bred knight
Sir Naram, answered: "Lord, two years ago,
I saw him nearly. Of a kingly height,
And fairly formed is he. But lust and pride
Have that befouled which Nature formed aright;
His body gross hath grown: his words deride
All gracious freedoms. As of natural right
He seizes, tortures, plunders, rapes and slays."
"Then rest we in good heart," replied the king.
"That here he cometh is a likely thing;
And here, by God's good grace, perchance he stays."
End of Chapter III