The Song Of Arthur - Chapter V
by S. Fowler Wright
Return to Chapter IV
The Three Quests.
King Arthur spake to Merlin: "Yestermorn
My Barons met me with a single plea,
That I should chose a fitting bride to be
My loyal consort, and adorn my court.
This have I pledged to do, and seek thine aid
To bring it to a good end."
"Such end to see,
Must first disclose of thy heart be made,
"I am of will to wed
One who for four years space I have not seen;
The daughter of the king Leodegran,
Who holds his narrow rule where lake and plain
"Soothly," Merlin said,
"More in such bargain were to give than gain.
When wast thou there?"
"It was not there we met.
But when Sir Anton, by wandering chance,
I being of his train, benighted made
Halt at a hold on Severn side, the king
Of Brecon's hills was there, and there I set
On his fair daughter longing eyes, that yet
Each glance, each word recurs - remembering
With recent hope, where hope in previous years
There had not been; and with no hope to aid
I thrust the recollection down. But now
Revigoured yearning doth good hope allow;
And vivid as a recent dream appears
The scene that memory once refused to know."
Then, while they spake, those scenes returned, as though
The chamber's painted walls had left his sight.....
Ploughed fields, dull-purple to the failing light
Were round him now. Before, a downward way
Through the green depths of Severn's woodlands lay,
And sank in gloom.
Sir Anton, reining back
To judge the promise of a branching track,
His train had stayed. A bearded knight was he,
With youth behind, who yet with lance to knee
Stark part might bear. He ruled a slender train
Of hillmen on rough mounts, that not the plain,
Save for red strife, would often ride. He weighed
The hope of peaceful ways the ploughland gave;
For in the losing light the ford to take,
Or camping on the open sward to make
Caution his lord, he neither liked. He made
The bolder choice, took the side-path, and soon
Beneath them, laired in woods that not the noon
Of daylight wholly pierced, a tower there lay,
Long, deep, and low, a crouching beast of prey,
Hold of the Dame de Vance; in later day
The Castle of Maidens.
Here no parleying
Delayed them at the gates, for festival
Had flung them wide, where baron, prince, and king,
So many and so great the friends of her
Who ruled that tower, by their assembly made
A tenfold strength around her, so that she
Had short indifference of who else might be
Guest or intruder there, or friend or foe.
So from clear air, and twilight woods and cool,
The crowded hall they entered, long and low,
Now loud with voices and great names. Were few
To greet them or regard, where none they knew.
But those by chance near-seated, guests as they,
Though earlier entered, and of more degree,
Received them with fair words of courtesy:
Brecon's grey king, and at his further side,
His daughter, whom alone did Arthur see,
Yet knew her sundered by a space too wide
To cross, unless some grace of marvel be.
For sired of but a simple knight was he,
And she was heiress to a seated king.
Noble of place and ancient name.
When later in the jocund hall they met,
Her glance, indifferent to the taller Kay,
Lured him to venture speech, and fair reply
She gave in words sweet-toned, but clear and high,
Unawed of those high banqueters, for sure
Of her much fairness, and her known degree,
And confident in her bold youth was she,
Daughter of kings who ruled by steel and fire,
And little used to thwart the day's desire
For fear of evil past or yet to be.
So had he seen her, nor too fondly seen.
So in his memory stayed she, gold and green.
Regal she was, and bold and gracious. One
Who while she lived would take her fixed require
Even from the altar of God. There were but none
Loved knighthood, and swift and splendid deeds to know,
The more than she.... The gown close-drawn to show
The small green apples of her breasts.... He thought:
'All would I stake to gain her.'
"Now if I tell thee that this maid to wed
Would not be wholesome, wilt thou turn aside
Thy wayward thoughts to seek a chaster bride -
One of good omen for thy throne's support?"
"She is not maiden?"
"That I did not say.
Nor that I meant. But meek of mood to thee
And constant of her faith she will not be,
Though she may largely to thy needs comply.
There may be sorrows half a life away.
But well beyond thy words thy thoughts I see,
Requiring counsel which thou wilt not take
Unless it please thee. Where thy heart is set,
Thy heaven to the falling dusk will be."
"I well believe thee, and thine aid I plead
To win my purpose. Wilt thou there with speed,
To Brecon's court, and ask its aged king
Guenever's hand to grant?"
The sage replied:
"That will I; nor I doubt thy bride to bring,
Whatever follow as the years divide."
Then by that swift and secret journeying
Which distance would confound, and days confuse,
He sought Leodegran. "Good lord, I use
Few words, for that I seek I may not hide.
I ask thy daughter as King Arthur's bride."
Answered the careworn king: "I have not heard
Since Uther died, a better-welcome word.
For I, grown weary of much strife, who here,
Since that great loss, have scantly, year by year,
Held the twain fords, and leagues of marsh and mere
That gird me from outnumbering foes - a bar
More strong than stone to turn the waves of war -
Have kept my land, if whole I kept it, whole
By ceaseless ward of sieged and staitened ways,
Should thus except me from that hard control,
And rest as one his frailer strength who stays
On him of youthful thews, and mightier far.
"Full gladly of my lands and public store
Gifts would I make my loyal will to show.
But more than mine the lands of Arthur are,
And more the wealth the halls of Camelot know.
Yet there is one thing mine shall please him more
Than tale of land and gold he doth not lack;
The Table Round Pendragon gave before,
And fitly to his heir I yield it back.
"When Uther gave it, for my sure defence
A hundred knights and fifty round me rode.
That owed I to his large munificence,
Who sent recruit for every seat it showed.
Now but a hundred nightly round it sit,
So many of my best are slain, but they
Are Arthur's at his choice. His charge of it
Shall lift its fame to light a loftier day."
Mage Merlin answered: "Wiser words than thine
I shall not hear. The Table's name shall be
Of wider fame, and more nobility
Than Uther dreamed it. From thy gift shall spring
Such high contentions, and so proud a ring
Of knights God-chosen, that its fame shall last
Till memories of our Land be overpast."
Then to Guenever spake the sage, and found
He met a bold but gracious maidenhood,
And ardent was she in assured assent.
Of Arthur thought she with enough content;
But separate from his side her forecast went
And rites of love, for brows with rubies crowned
And all the tributes of such eminence,
Her heart put by.
"I met him once," she said,
"When naught was visioned of the high pretence
To which so strangely and so young he came."
"It was that meeting in his heart remained,
With purpose at his time that this be gained
Which of all gain of ladies most he would."
"My thought recalls the day, and calls it good.
My gracious lord he will not fail to be."
"His generous faith will spare to doubt of thee."
"You doubt me?"
"Nay. I do not doubt. I know."
"And yet a course of ill you do not stay?"
"The end were dark by any different way.
And noon will rise before the night will fall."
"There may be noonday with no night at all.
Not Arthur loves high deeds the more than I."
So with bold heart she faced that destiny,
Who surely in the days not yet that were
Would grasp and lift in slender hands and fair
To its full height the horn of life entire,
And drain it at a kingdom's cost.
In royal wise, that often-leaguered tower
They left, where long its king's precarious power
Had ruled wild hills, and stubborn order made
Despite unlawful lords, and heathen raid.
High heart was hers to dream in youth's full flower
Of crescent splendours at King Arthur's side.
And Arthur, dreaming of so bright a bride,
Was in like mood to hers when first they met.
Who cares at sunrise that all suns will set?
The dawnlight grows: the noon is distant yet.
Who seeks high deeds to prove must dangered be.
The end too soon they should not seek to see,
Lest the heart fail them.
"Surely," Arthur said,
"Blest am I, one so queenly fair to wed;
And one I longed for, when it seemed too bold
To hope that I, a nameless squire, should hold
Consenting in mine arms that high princess,
Of rank assured, and like in loveliness.
This is no deed of state, fair love to wrong;
In privy memory I have loved her long.
"And this fair Table that her father sends,
Grouped with strong knights, more sumptuous gifts transcends,
There were no riches should my choice prefer
Than this uncounted gift which comes with her,
As symbol of the greater days to be."
So with glad speed and lavish banqueting
These noble twain were wed for weal or woe,
And Merlin, at the urgence of the king,
Searched the wide realm for valiant knights, that so
Might the full circle of the Table show
A strength invincible; and heathenry
And jealous factions such assemble see
That no opposing front would dare to be.
So it was filled, except at Arthur's side
Two sieges were at Merlin's word denied
Even to the greatest names. "Await," said he,
"The far high beacon of their destiny."
While the high proffer of that Table Round
Drew strength to Arthur, and his courtyard rang
With noise of arms and chargers, tramp and clang
Of knights dismounting ever, and esquires who led
Strong steed to stall, as Merlin's chosen came,
Proved knights enough, and those of lowlier name
Who would be greatest, as his craft foreread,
Was revel and feast prolonged; and there, no less
Esteemed for king's blood than for loveliness,
Of those who at the bridal feasts were met,
Was Orkney's widowed queen not lowliest set.
And of her youthful sons the elder two
Beside her sate. Their kinship well they knew.
No less, their father was a foeman slain.
"I will discover how we lose or gain,"
Young Gawain said, "if here we more remain,"
And knelt at Arthur's feet: "I ask a gift."
"Ask what thou wilt and take."
"I ask that I
- So nearly to thine own mine ancestry -
Be knighted first at this high carnival."
"It shall be as thou wilt. I fain would lift
My sister's sons to such fair dignity
As they may of themselves, in field and hall,
Sustain and honour. Knight thou shalt be made.
Be naught too feeble for thy gentleness,
And naught for baring of thy sword too strong,
And in the days I have good hope to see
Shall none be nearer to my throne and me."
But now came inward from the outer throng
An old man, and a woman worn and thin,
A lifetime's toils behind them; and therewith
A youth large-framed and comely.
Way to win
Through the gay press that filled the hall of state,
Even to the further end where Arthur sate,
Their purpose failed not. Shine of silver there,
Shot samite's gleam, or pall of miniver,
Crimson or green or gold, or ermine rare,
Had passed unheeded in that hall. But they
In peasant garments clothed, bestained with clay,
And bleached of sunlight and of rain - their way
Cleared to the king, who asked: "What seek ye?"
The old man answered, "where I lowly dwell
Between the marshes and the wester ford,
Wherethrough must all from Camilard pass, men tell
That while in feast of bridal here ye sit,
May all, though meanest round thy gate, present
Their prayers before thee."
"Surely," said the king,
"Excepting of my realm or mine estate,
For which would only treason plead, I cried
Such word, nor lightly were thy boon denied.
What would ye?"
"Lord, thy gracious words allow
The boon unasked. I do but plead that now
My son be knighted by thy hand."
Answered the king, "it may be small to thee,
But great I count it. Speak thy name."
"A cowherd of the river meads am I,
"Then tell me if this bold design
Be wholly of thy son, or largely thine."
"It cometh wholly of his own desire.
Thirteen are all the sons who call me sire.
And twelve there are of toil who do not tire,
Nor murmur at the tasks I set. But he
Will turn aside, and while his toils delay
Will dream, or with a broken sword will play.
And ceaseless doth he plead, both noon and night,
For such good harness as pertains a knight."
And Arthur marked the man, toil-bent and thin,
And meagre-visaged. If high heart within
Such husk concealed were marvel: fathered thus
Should knight excel were not less marvellous,
And curious in his doubt he charged him: "Ere
Thy plaint I weigh, thyself must tell me where
This youth his thews and noble heart derived.
And first I will that all thy sons I see."
Then came the twelve. But none was formed as he;
The first one, Tor, and none with equal eyes
Met the king's glance. And Arthur said: "Thy plea
I grant, consistent to thy rightful claim.
I deem the lowliest born may loftiest rise."
Then to the youth: "Behold, no sword is thine!"
"Lord, there is this." He showed a broken sword.
Not oft did war-hacked blade so brightly shine.
"What wouldst thou? Of thyself the prayer must be."
"I would be knight. I would be knight of thine.
Knight of the Table."
Arthur bade him kneel,
And touched him with the broken sword, and said:
"I make thee knight. To thine own thoughts belong
To make thee knightly: valiant hope and strong
Thy prayer implies. Be thine to break the wrong,
To build the right, being in thyself no less
Made noble by desire of nobleness
Than they who, nobly born, by base desires
Betray themselves ignoble. More requires
Of thee, thus risen by thine own plaint, than they
Who not their choice, but laws of birth, obey,
The Table Round may wait thee."
Thus he said:
And then to Merlin: "Seer, I charge thee rede
If knight so sired may prove high knight indeed."
And Merlin: "If king's blood suffice, meseems
This nameless, knight may prove his loftiest dreams."
"Me thought but little kinghood," said the king,
"Went to the sum of this man's fathering."
But Merlin answered: "Lord, would Pellinor tell
The secret of a winter dawn, were well
Thy doubting done. . . A friendless land he rode
No hope of hostel held, or known abode,
Where might he rest in surety, treason-free,
When winter darkness closed his path; and he
Sought shelter in a foddered byre, that lay
Lone in the wold. There came, before the day,
A maiden there the kine to tend: and now
We see the fruit-graft of the wilder bough.
"Seer," boldly, though abashed, Sir Tor replied,
"If knight shall speak it, that that knight hath lied
I count to prove upon him."
But Arthur: "Nay,
Fair truth we seek, and truth is hers to say."
Then to the woman: "Heed nor praise nor blame,
But, for thy dear son's love, reveal to me
By whom was he begotten in truth."
Gave answer: "Lord, it chanced, long years away,
Before the winter dawn, when all was grey,
I moved among the kine in byre, to do
Morn-toils, and lonely there of all, and knew,
High-plumed and fearful to the misty light,
Beside me in the gloom a waiting knight,
And dealt he death or any different ill,
Who was I, byremaid, to reject his will?
Hence is it that this my son, whom here ye see,
Seeks as his sire in use of life to be.
Of this none knoweth till now. Next moon I wed
The man who standeth here, as liking led."
Then the dark king gazed on her: "What gave I when
I rode away?"
The woman answered: "Then,
In light return to her thy violence stained,
A small white bracket of thy gift remained "
"Lord, she speaks truth," said Pellinor.
But the hind
Turned to the woman: "Hast thou lain so long
Beside me, silent of so deep a wrong,
Or that thy son was nowise son to me?"
"I would not vex thee with so vain a word.
Shamed was I wholly at the first," said she;
"And feared to lose thee if I spake more late.
Oft with a peaceless heart I held debate,
And harder with the passing days it grew.
The thing which no man guessed, and only two
Who sinned of will or of compulsion knew,
Seemed smaller left in silence."
"Regard thou fairly that she was not wed
When Pellinor came, nor of her own intent
She did it. Naught but good her silence meant:
For thee, and for the kindless seed she bore.
All things by larger speech have life the more.
And of our own, as of our neighbours' deeds,
The wit of silence that of speech exceeds."
Now in the great hall was the Table set;
And when the knights whom Merlin chose were all
In each his place that ample board around,
Questioned the king the needful cause that yet
Those seats the next his own were vacant found.
Thereat the seer: "These sieges long shall stand
Silent and void on feast and festal day.
There is none worth on live in Christian land
To hold them now. And these shall take who may
At hazard dire. For this Siege Perilous
Close to thy right shall be, and he who thus
Unworthy ventures with his death shall pay."
But next to these the dark king Pellinor,
The slayer of Lot, had Merlin placed, for more
Than all beside, in that great strife, had he
For Arthur's cause beside the Cornish sea
His worth advanced; for save his strength excelled,
When Lot's fierce ranks the rout of Neros swelled,
The power of Arthur had not dured the day.
But one who naught forgave, and naught forgot,
But naught would spoil in youth's too hasteful way,
Designed a woe that should no wisdom stay.
What thought they, were they watched, the sons of Lot,
To see him nearest to the king's right hand,
Whose wits their father's subtler course outplanned,
Whose sword their father's life had reft away?
Fierce to his brother's ear did Gawain say:
"Behold his pride who to that regence came
On the spilt honour of our father's name!
Be mine the trenchant sword that pride to slay."
Answered Gaheris: "Very sooth ye say;
Yet must we turn us from such thoughts away...
Bethink thee, and thy wrath shall reason curb.
It were not to our gain to thus disturb
The king's high feast with private broils; nor thus
Should Arthur's praise be ours, for all men know
Our father died in arms his open foe;
And for thy rancour therefore shown, on us
His heavy frown would fall."
A cold reply
Sir Gawain gave: "Your words are sooth, nor I
Meant rashly. Wait ye till the event appear."
"I would naught else. In other place than here
My sword were first to reach him."
So they said.
And Pellinor, had he heard, had heeded not.
Warred he with boys? Or were the sons of Lot
More than their mighty sire? And Lot was dead.
Yet had more wisdom feared a further end:
As sires with sires may sons with sons contend.
It was the last morn of the festival,
A morn of driving rain and changing blue.
The deep woods answered to the sea-wind's call:
Chased the chased light the cloud, and chasing slew.
Back the clear east was driven, and spring delayed
With violence entered.
On this morn there came
Full throng of warriors to the king's great hall,
Leave-grace to take; and damsel there and dame,
A kingdom's choice, ere separate ways they turned,
Glowed at the feast.
A word of Merlin stayed
The rising board: "A marvel comes," said he,
"Burdened with portents of the years to be,
Which, more than all high memories hold, shall take
A shape of glamorous dreams."
The while he spake,
There rose an outcry at the outer gate.
Burst through mid-hall a flying hart which burned
With eyes of fire, a wondrous sight to see.
Milkwhite it showed; and close, with toiling hate,
A bracket chased, milkwhite; and more behind,
Black hounds, deep baying.
As that wild hart appeared,
The eager bracket, that its chase had neared,
Snapt at the haunch. Wild leapt the hart, and cleared
The board and those on either side who sate,
Save that one knight was sidelong hurled, and he
Snatched at the bracket while he rose, nor mind,
Though hard it strove, to lose his prize he showed,
But held it in strong grasp as forth he strode,
Found horse without, and turned his homeward road.
Then reined a damsel at King Arthur's seat.
From her blown palfrey light to ground she slid.
Milkwhite that palfrey, speckless, mane to feet;
And fairest she that fairest throng amid.
Silent awhile, with quiet and equal eyes,
The scene she gazed: "O King, of right," said she,
"I pray thee grant that who this chase fordid,
And seized my bracket in thy hall, shall be
Enforced return. If aid thy grace denies,
Much wrong may fall."
The king gave answer cold:
"What right hath wrong? What right assert ye now
To burst offenceful through my halls? Do thou
Thine own reclaim."
"It may be lord," she said,
Not roused or wavering at repulse, "that glad
My rendered aid in larger needs shall be
Thy thanking ere the last, who not thy birth
"Damsel, my Table's mirth
Was broken by thy forced intrude, and now
You seek to rule me by a bold assert
Of favours from thy hand. What part ye had
In births of those of greater eld than thou
Requires me not to rede; or truth is hid
Beyond my wits to seek it. Right ye plead,
And plead it proofless."
Even as this was said,
A knight on a great horse, and warrior-clad,
Rode up the hall; and when that maid he saw,
Slender and young and more than mortal fair,
He dealt as in the random days that were
Before the coming of Arthur, when in sooth
Strength raped, and cunning snared, and neither ruth
Regarded, nor the broken yoke of law.
The maid athwart the saddle-peak to draw,
To turn, to spur toward the open gate,
Were all a moment's act, the while debate
Anger and threats resounded through the hall.
The sudden riot, and the maiden's call
Aloud for rescue, had but wrothed the king,
As part of that unseemly trespassing
That made denial of his dignity.
But Merlin counselled: "Shouldst thou leave it be
Devoid of judgement, then the affront remains."
"I care not," said the king; "the way they came
Denied my worship. Those who judgement claim
Must grant respect to whom they supplicate."
Answered the seer: "The dawn of thy new day
Stirs to strange births the powers that night belong,
Portentous of the full noon-light to be.
And largely shall thy Table's fame extend
If thou shalt rule, to reach a juster end,
Pursuit of those who have thy peace defied."
"Then who upon such wildering quests should ride?"
"Grant to King Pellinor the part to bring
The damsel of that bold knight's ravishing
Scatheless, her captor vanquished. Give to Tor
The finding of the hound. Be Gawain's part
To seek and here return the wondrous hart."
"It shall be as thou wilt," the king replied.
To Gawain gave the king his first request
The hart to bring, and he with hastened zest
His earliest venture took. In place of squire
Gaheris rode attendant.
Fierce as fire,
In counsel cautious, and in action dire,
Born of Morgause, but to their harder sire
More nearly natured, in the days to be
So should the court these sons of Orkney see.
Short mile they rode before the clang of blows
Sounded ahead, and as the pathway rose
Two striving knights they saw. Beside them lay
Their yet unbroken lances, cast away
As toys for friendlier joust more meet, and they
Though mounted, yet the deadlier swords preferred.
Said Gawain: "Here is that we aid or stay,"
And rode between them.
"Hold," he cried, "and say
Why thus ye bicker, and what names ye bear."
One answered: "Nay, a single name we share,
And discords hence to fiercer angers flare.
The brethren of the Woods are we. God wot,
One woman bore us, and one man begot."
"Alas!" Sir Gawain said, "why strive ye so?
Such bonds of blood to break is bootless woe."
"Sir," said the other, "in this earlier day
A rare white hart, wide-antlered, fled the way
Where now ye ride, and after, in full cry,
Black hounds, but wearying in pursuit, went by.
And these we would pursue, and first I said
The elder's part was mine, and he replied
As better knight he claimed it: hence we tried
That boast to prove."
"And now, forfoughten thus,
And wounded through your vain wraths orgulous,
How stand ye to sustain a strife anew?"
And either answered: "What ye charge us do,
That will we."
And he thereat: "This charge is mine,
To make straight way to the king's court, and there
To yield ye to him, and when he asks declare
The tale of this unholy strife I stay.
And add: the knight who rides the white hart's way
Hath sent ye."
This they swore, and faith to show,
Their names they gave. Surlouse and Brian were they,
Who after proved their worth, and strongly held
To Gawain, even to that last war which rent
So many trusts apart. Now onward went
Sir Gawain and Gaheris. Distant belled
A flying pack before them. Soon they saw
A river broad beneath. But hounds and hart
Swam stoutly to the further bank, and there
A knight was halted, horsed and armed for war.
"Come ye no further, or for death prepare,"
He called, and Gawain answered: "Ere we part
Deaths may be ours, but not the quest I leave
Before my lance thy lofty vaunt shall grieve."
Thereat he shortened rein, and downward rode,
Taking the flood, although no fordway showed.
And on dry ground again, his spear he sank.
More low and level was this further bank,
So that at once an equal course they ran;
And Gawain's lance prevailed, and horse and man
Rolled down before it.
Up the cast knight leapt:
"Another end than that our swords shall see."
"More would ye yet? Then tell me who ye be."
"Allardin of the Western Isles am I."
To earth Sir Gawain sprang. His sword down-swept
In one great stroke that through the helmet bit.
Short was the hurt Allardin felt of it.
Short space he stumbled blindly ere he kept
His tryst with death, that found him where he fell.
"Hell's night!" Gaheris swore, "you smote him well.
If this be on your knighthood's earliest day,
Who is there but thy fuller strength should slay?"
"He took the wage he asked," Sir Gawain said,
And caught his horse again, and left the dead
With no more thought, the flying hart to chase,
Which now the weary tailing hounds outran.
There were six greyhounds in Gaheris' care,
Which now he loosed, and set them, brace by brace,
To hold the chase from which those hounds withdrew.
Freshly they did the weary hart pursue,
Until a castle's wide opposing wall
Confronted, and he tried unlikely way
Through gate and guard, and in the central hall
Heard the close hounds behind, and turned to bay.
In vain defence the wide-grown antlers swept.
For sixfold here at once the swift deaths leapt,
And found his throat and slew him.
The while he died,
A knight who from a nearby chamber ran,
Roused by the tumult, with a naked sword
Struck at the hounds, of which the foremost two,
As one inflamed by causeful wrath he slew.
He chased the remnant through the gates away,
And then returned to where the slaughtered lay,
Complaining: "Oh, my hart! Ill care was mine
To let thee wander whom my lady gave.
Dear to the value of his life shall pay
Who chased thee thus," and in this loud lament
Back to his chamber for his arms he went,
And came again where Gawain, mounted still
Gazed at the hounds he came too late to save.
His wrath, that seldom from the leash ran free,
With vengeful purpose stirred, the sight to see
Of those slain hounds he loved. "What madness thine
Hath spent its violence on these hounds of mine,
Who did but of their noble kind?" He said.
"They did but follow where the quarry fled.
We meant thee no despite. But if we had,
Reason and knighthood with one voice forbad
That they should feel an anger meant for us."
"Doubt not for that. When my full wrath I deal,
The deaths your hounds have felt yourselves shall feel."
Then Gawain to the stone floor leapt. Their shields
Reflecting steel to steel a moment glow,
Then dull to battering blows. Though neither yields,
Neither awhile back-bears a quailing foe.
The swords the chain-weaved mail asunder tear:
The stunned helms dent the heavy strokes to bear:
Blood from stained hawberks to the ground is shed.
But Gawain for hard blows the harder gave,
Till to its midst the lifted shield he clave
With one fierce stroke of wounded fury bred.
Thus to the ground he brought a fenceless foe
Who cried: "I yield. My life to ransom, lo!
I will all wrongs requite thee."
Shall be thy death, which all reproaching ends."
"Nay, for I yield me to thy grace. Do thou,
For knighthood's gentle vows, my life allow."
"Allow thy life? Bethink thy threats before.
Canst thou the lives of my good hounds restore?"
Fixed in his wrath, the downward thrust he drave.
Unheeded through the strife, its end to know,
With breath short-drawn at every bartered blow,
Stood that knight's lady at his chamber door;
And now, as near his loss of life she knew,
Beneath the lifted sword herself she threw,
An act too late to pause its swift descent.
Through her own neck unstayed the keen blade went.
Too late Sir Gawain learned the life he shore.
Her head fell severed, and sank his sword, and he
Stood stonied. But loud his brother's voice arose,
In hard reproach: "An evil stroke, perde,
Thy sword hath dealt, that not thy life's far close
Shall distance, nor thy further wandering wide.
This shame shall ever on thy name abide.
For though ye smote not at her life aware,
Thy wrath impelled her impulse of despair
Beneath the sweep of that descending blade,
Unknightly, pitiless. Being sworn to aid
All weakness, weakness on thy sword hath died."
Sir Gawain answered naught. He gazed as though
His wits were faltered by a dazing blow.
"Rise," said he to the knight. "Thy life is thine."
"Nay," he replied. "I give no price for mine,
For thou hast slain her whom I loved more dear
Than aught beside of earth that hold us here."
"I sore repent it. This remorse to show
I grant thee life. Thou shalt to Arthur go,
And yield to him. And say the knight who sought
The white hart sent thee, making true report
Of all that hath been here."
The knight replied:
"I take no force of if I yield or die
Now that a dearer than my life hath died."
Yet did he, for death's dread, his grief put by
Enough to swear it.
"These dead hounds of mine,"
Said Gawain, "shalt thou bear thy selle before,
As witness of the wrong that brought thy woe;
And now thy name I only seek to know
Before thine outset."
"I am Ablamore,
Called of the Marsh." And with that word he went
His dolorous tale to tell, and sore repent
Too late. For what remorse can life restore?
But Gawain in that hold remained, content
That his unpractised sword prevailed. He saw
Good hope that harder tests of joust and war
Would find him equal, and the king thereby
Disposed to grant him that high destiny
Which Arthur's nephew, and the heir of Lot,
Might claim, if potent to his part were he.
So, confident of mood, aside he laid
His arms for ease, and called Gaheris' aid
To loose his hawberk; but with quick protest
His brother answered: "Doth thou deem so sure
Thy safety here, that in unguarded rest
Amidst thy likely foes thy head shall lie?
So mayst thou, if thou wilt, but shall not I."
And even as he spake, four knights appeared,
Armed at all points. "Thou new-made knight," they cried,
"That lady's blood with which thy sword is dyed
So stains that never shall thy name be cleared.
Nor shall the gates of mercy gape so wide
That thou shalt enter at thine utmost need.
Nor shouldst thou fondly doubt the need is now."
With that their swords were out. From either side
They closed, and Gawain's death that hour had been,
And the realm's future changed beyond surmise,
Had not Gaheris thrust a sword untried
Boldly between them.
"Stand away," they cried,
"We have no lust a simple squire to slay."
"In odds of four to one your answer lies.
It is yourselves should lightlier stand away.
I am his brother."
"Then your end you choose.
For he who slew her, here his life shall loose."
At that they clashed in combat, four to two.
Never in later days Lord Gawain knew
A direr peril, for good knights were they,
And ireful for that piteous death. They drove
The brethren backward to the wall, and there
The bright swords bickered, and the cornered pair
Had but one hour to live, one death to share,
Had not four ladies entered.
Not too soon
They came, for one more backward than the rest
Of those four knights, whose sword Sir Gawain broke,
Had drawn a bow, and o'er a comrade's head
Too well the message of the shaft had sped,
For Gawain's arm it pierced, and thus distrest,
His sword sank futile. Single to delay
The avoidless end, a half-grown wolf at bay,
Savage and hopeless, still Gaheris held
That narrow place, while those whose strength excelled
Sought the safe chance. For who, the victory theirs,
Will jeopard life an instant's time to win?
Yet was that instant pregnant, for the din
Of clashing weapons paused, and as it fell
Those ladies interposed their gentler prayers:
"It were but shame a wounded knight to slay."...
"Surely he yields."... "It were no boast to tell
That four to one a single knight ye slew."...
"Or that a spurless youth had made it two."
They answered: "Know ye what he did?"
But would not therefore ye alike should do."
"Well, if he yield - "
"I cannot else but so."
Sir Gawain answered, "with the wound I bear;
And for my brother's life."
They led the brethren to a chamber fair,
Where the deep wound was searched, and courteous
The tendance that they gave. But sore lament
Was Gawain's: "Surely, if I do not die,
Nor captived in this hold forsaken lie,
Maimed am I, and my pride of knighthood gone."
So hot the pain by which his arm was rent.
Thus passed the night. But when the morning shone
That lady who had first for mercy pled
Heard his lament, and came beside his bed.
"What cheer?" she asked.
"Was never cheer so ill."
"It is but from your own default," she said.
"For had you mercy to the fallen meant
You had not caused the death you now repent,
Nor had that wound to nurse. But I would wit:
Are you from Arthur's court?"
"His knight am I."
"We are not to his rule of evil will.
Disclose your name, and in the sound of it
May be your freedom."
"I am Lothian's heir.
My mother is a sister to the king.
Gawain my name."
"And in that name will lie
Your sure release. Await, and let me deal."
Then went she to her friends, with counselling
To which they heeded: "Let them freely go,
Your loyal fealty to the king to show.
Whatever fault were his, his wound will pay.
And young in arms, with all to learn, are they."
Thus did they, and to prove his quest was won
The antlers of the milkwhite hart they gave;
And then, in penance for the evil done,
They caused him by his knighthood's good faith to swear
The piteous body of the slain to bear
Back to the court, and all the truth relate,
For Arthur's judgement.
This he swore, and did,
And Arthur, where his queen beside him sate,
Turned as he heard. "Is here a wrong," he said,
"Done to all ladies, which may God forbid
I should as king accept, as knight condone,
Because that of my blood, and near my throne
Is he who wrought it. Thou alone shalt say
The price that Gawain for that death shall pay."
Guenever answered: "Shall my word condemn
A knight so closely of thy household? Nay,
But grant this inquest in a larger way,
That all my ladies join it, and with them
As jurors, fitly may the fault be weighed.
For mercies surely at the last belong
To those alike to those who felt the wrong."
Lightly the king agreed, and dame and maid,
The noblest and the best of ladies there,
Were called in council. With the queen's assent
They gave this judgement: "Though he had not meant
That lady's death, yet had he paused to spare
A yielding foe, as knightly use required,
It had not been; and penance meet to do
Now must he swear that till his life shall fail
Never shall fallen knights for mercy sue
Unheeded: never lady find him foe
Unless another's cause should make it so;
But ever courteous should his dealings be,
With valour wed to magnanimity."
So did he swear. But how shall oaths avail
The stubborn core to change? In all he did
Temperate he was by natural use, except
Some gust of overruling anger swept
Calm prudence and sagacious choice aside.
Then were his actions from his judgements wide,
And naught of Earth could rein, nor Heaven forbid.
Strange to his arms, unsquired, unproven in war,
Fast as he might, the new-made knight, Sir Tor,
Took the long rises of the coastward road.
Hope in his heart a wind-blown beacon glowed
Inconstant; for to that dark king his sire
Not only limbs of tireless strength he owed,
But sombre-thoughted hours, and moods of ire
Would vex him, past control; and taming these,
His mother's watchful thrift, that felt no ease
Except good order ruled in house and byre.
Now as he urged his course, his quest to prove,
Out from the brake a sudden dwarf arose,
From whom the startled charger swerved. He reared
An oaken staff, that with such boisterous blows
Beat on its head, and with such clamorous tongue
He bade it halt, that wholly round it swung,
Dispite the rein; and in much wrath thereat
Sir Tor demanded: "Knave, why didst thou that?
Dost thou not value that thy life may pay?"
But shortly did the dwarf give answer: "Nay,
I do but as my lords direct, and they
Should answer. Never knight shall pass their way
Except he meet them."
Then Sir Tor was ware
Of twain pavilions, and great spears thereby,
And boldly blazoned shields that hung on high
From over-crossing boughs.
"To try compare
With those such use who hold I would not shun,
Except that on another quest I ride,
And may not loiter."
"Nay, thy choice is none.
Needs must thou dress thee as my lords decide."
With that, his horn blew, and at the sound
A knight appeared both horsed and armed, and he
Said naught of malice or of courtesy,
But sank his spear.
Full hard to sobering ground
Before the point of Tor's good lance he fell.
Sore bruised, he yielded. "But I warn thee well
My fellow arms, a further bout to try.
And proved is he the better knight than I."
"So," said Sir Tor, "methinks it well may be."
Even as they spake, he came. A perilous knight
He looked, and was. With random strength he closed.
But Tor, so warned, his utmost strength opposed,
And cast him, wounded underneath his shield,
Heavily to earth.
Even so, he would not yield
Without debate, but quickly rose and drew,
For of good heart and stubborn might was he.
Yet yield he must, for Tor so hardly dealt
A downward stroke, that as its force he felt
He faltered in his stride, and weak of knee,
"I ask thy mercy, being spent," said he.
"Mercy is lightly thine. But not to me
Thy leigance goes. Ye must to Arthur's court,
And yield ye there. But first your names."
I am Sir Petipace of Winchelsea.
My comrade, Felot of Landoc."
God speed us on our different ways."
The dwarf approached. "My lord, a gift bestow."
"So may I, if a seemly cause ye show."
"I would no more than to thy service turn
From those whose deeds their louder boasts deny."
"I grant it with goodwill, for squireless I.
I seek a knight a small white hound who reft.
Canst guide me on his tracks, good wage to earn?"
"That can I."
Then a speedy pace he led
By forest ways, to where a priory stood.
And near its gates, within the sheltering glade,
Were two pavilions, with two shields displayed:
One was renewed with white, and one was red.
"Lo," said the dwarf, "thy search is ended here."
At which Sir Tor alit, and gave his spear
To his new squire to hold, and with no threat
Of steel's advance, he crossed the space to where,
Midst sheltering oaks, those gay pavilions were.
In guise of peace he came, but naught he met
Either for peace, or hostile sword's assert.
Save only that a squirrel sideward leapt,
And for the leaves' long murmur, all was still.
'Here,' thought he, 'surely, where no guard is kept,
Naught shall I find of strife, but all goodwill;
Or likelier, absence of who bideth here.'
So to the white pavilion first he came.
Open it stood, as having naught to fear.
Nor cause for fear, unless to knighthood's shame,
Should there have been, for there three damsels lay,
Young as the spring, and fair as birth of day,
'No bracket here I see,'
He thought, 'and though a better sight may be,
They are not of my quest, nor yet for me.'
The red pavilion next he sought. It lay
Open alike, in careless wise, but there
One only slumbered, whom he thought as fair
As summer noon, that may its dawn forget
Because its sunlit glades are lovelier yet.
Such was his thought who gazed; and who shall say
Was never any June as fair as May?
But short his glance, for at her feet asleep
A bracket lay, a better watch to keep
Than those three damsels who their trust belied.
Instant it waked, and as it clamorous cried,
His mistress lightly cast her sleep aside,
And rose dishevelled as a wind-blown flower.
"Young knight, what would ye by this entrance rude?"
"Fairest, I would not on thy couch intrude;
But that I seek I find."
The hound he caught.
"Nay, but ye would not earn a thief's report?"
"Lady, at Arthur's word, from Arthur's court,
Hard have I ridden for this purpose sole."
"Yet shalt thou find it to thy likely dole;
Hard-handled ere ye ride short miles away."
"That should I hardly by God's grace repay."
With that he turned and left her. Fast he rode,
Till the long shadows on the path that lay
Were warning of the near retreat of day.
"Good dwarf," he said, "doth know some near abode
Where we may rest us till the light return?"
"I know that in the higher woods there lies
A humble hermitage. We can but learn
Its meagre stable, and its mean supplies."
To that low roof they came, and harboured there,
Finding a couch as hard, a meal as spare,
As most they feared; but he that roof who owned
Gave them good blessing as they rode away.
But when the long straight road before them lay
Which led to Camelot's gates, the sound they heard
Of one who rode behind more fast than they,
And cried aloud: "False thief, thy course delay,
Or fall as those who in their flight we slay."
Then turned Sir Tor against the opprobrious word,
And saw a knight well-armed, of prideful mien,
That seldom any had he seemlier seen.
"What wouldst thou of me? Arthur's knight am I."
"My lady's bracket shalt thou yield or die."
"If her's the right, then must thou ask the king,
Who sent me with strait word the hound to bring;
And a knight also, who thyself mayst be."
"Thou art bold and foolish. Yield the hound and go."
"I count thee by that word King Arthur's foe.
Regard thy head."
Sir Tor's unpractised spear
By strength prevailed, but not his seat he held.
He backward tumbled as the knight he felled;
And slowly both they rose, and swords they drew.
Fiercely they strove and long. Carved cantals flew
From either covering shield; and hawberks next
And helms were shredded till the hot blood ran.
Weary were both and faint. But wearier far
The older knight became, and this Sir Tor
Exultant knew. As though new strife began
His blows he rained, until that knight he saw,
Side-stooping to avoid a downward blow,
Stumble to earth. With lifted sword he cried:
"Now yield; or death the heavy price may be."
"I will not yield except thy dwarf to me
The hound restore."
"Thy choice is death, for I
Must bring thee to the court, or one must die."
Then came a damsel at a careless pace,
Who drave her palfrey, as in haste to stay
The strife she saw; and high and loud she cried:
"Young knight, a boon! A boon for Arthur's sake!"
"Oh, damsel," Sir Tor made answer, "ask and take
All in that name thou wilt. His knight am I."
"I ask thee only that Abellius die;
For at the mercy of thy sword is he.
And he is false at heart; and foe to me
He hath been ever."
"Gentle damsel, nay.
I must repent my word. I would not slay
A knight outfought, except he mercy spurn.
Wrong shall he all amend, or spoil return,
And only on that oath arise and go."
"Believe me rather that he would not so,
For my dear brother with no cause he slew."
"Damsel, how know I that thy tale be true?"
But while he paused. Abellius rose and fled,
And Tor fast followed, and caught him, and smote his head
Clear with one sword-sweep from him.
That damsel saw
With ruthless eyes, and laughed well satisfied.
"When basely at his hands my brother died,
Surely his end he also chose," she said.
"Had mercy moved him, then he were not dead,
For I had pleaded in a different way....
Now to the shelter of my roof, I pray
That I may lead thee, for the night is near;
And thou art mired and worn, and rest and cheer
Both to thyself and to thy steed are due."
And when Sir Tor gave light assent thereto,
She led to such small hold, ill-fenced and rude,
As rather by its pathless solitude
Than by broad-moated strength was fortified.
Yet was he welcomed well, and all the need
For food and bedding of his weary steed
With his own hands the aged knight supplied
Whose wife it seemed, for all her youth, was she.
And he, with more than course of courtesy,
Good cheer received, and when the morning came,
As those who part full loth, they asked his name,,
And prayed him, if those paths again he rode,
He would not lightly pass their mean abode.
And so they parted. But her eyes pursued
Until alone the empty glade she viewed.
She looked, and sighed, and knew such sighs were vain;
And to her aged husband turned again.
But when Sir Tor in modest words had told
What things had passed, and of his part therein,
Was marvel; for except a charger old,
His father's gift, and arms the king supplied,
Forth had he ridden with nor aid nor guide,
And he unpractised in the dust and din
Of knightly strife.
But Merlin said: "Believe,
He shall such deeds in future days achieve
That these a token or a jest shall be.
And more than that: a life of courtesy,
Of faith unbroken, and of prudent ways,
Shall be the better of his part of praise.
For from his father's valour formed is he,
And of his mother's habit orderly
To rule his life, and all that round him lies."
Then said the king: "If such his good degree,
He shall be stablished to a likely height."
Wide lands he gave, that so he came to be
Of the fair station of a Table knight.
Such was the coming of the proofless Tor,
Son of a byremaid, and King Pellinor.
Hard rode King Pellinor his quest to bring,
The damsel of that bold knight's ravishing,
Scatheless to Arthur.
From the gate the way
Deep-bowered between the wooded uplands lay
A shadowed league, before it brought to sight
A lady weeping by a wounded knight,
Whom desperate strength had borne aside, and laid
Where leapt a spring beneath a birchen shade.
When the king's shield she saw, she rose and cried
For help at utmost need for knight allied;
But he nor turned nor heeded, though she prayed
By Christ His love; and knighthood's vows to aid
Piteously appealed in vain. For all his thought
Was single on the quest, nor recked he aught
Of strange knights wounded, nor the damsel's plea.
Harder he spurred to pass her cries; and she,
Seeing that he rode so fast, and heeded naught,
Changed tone, and cursed him: "Now may God decree
When in such bitter need as mine ye be,
Thy trusted friend may fail, and ere ye die,
Thy heart cry hopeless, from such loss as I."
Onward he rode regardless, while the maid,
In more despair for that short hope of aid,
Watched till the lessening pulse of life had ceast
In him she loved, and then his sword she took,
And died across him; and the forest beast
Slunk to the prey.
Not any backward look
Gave Pellinor, nor backward thought, but still
Shortening the ravisher's track by cleft and hill,
Dense woodlands passed, and falling vales, until
The weed-grown path grew doubtful.
Here he met
An aged churl, who showed pavilions set
Deep in the hawthorned hollow of the glade,
And told him how two knights abiding made
- Brian of the Isles and Meliot of Logre -
To hunt awhile the wooded vales, and how,
Urging his burdened steed, a knight but now,
A damsel bound athwart his saddlebow,
Spurred down the way, the while the damsel bound
Appealed those knights for aid, and at the sound
Sir Meliot, roused as by a voice he knew,
Had barred the path, and fiercely claimed the maid
As cousin in blood; and both in anger drew.
Even now they fought.
King Pellinor scantly stayed
For brief 'God thank ye', seeing his prize so near,
But rode for those pavilion-peaks, and here
Unheeded came, and found the knight he sought,
Dismounted now, his bout with Meliot fought.
Between two squires the damsel watched, from whom,
With threats of Arthur's wrath, and traitor's doom,
King Pellinor claimed her, in their sovereign's name.
"Nay lord," they said, "it were a part of shame
If while our master strives the spoil we yield,
Or thou constrain us to it, before the field
Ye gain against him."
Pellinor owned the plea,
And rode his horse between those knights, and he
Who claimed her cousin questioned why they tried
Such strife. He answered: "In good cause I fight,
To save a maid from this too-violent knight."
And he who raped her from the feast replied,
(Falsely, but counting that he lightly lied):
"Mine is the maid - award of tourney strife
At Arthur's court. At stake of wound or life
I won -" But harshly Pellinor broke his speech:
"Thou art false of word and deed. Ere hand could reach
To stay thee, ravished from the king's high feast,
Myself I saw thee seize this maid and flee.
Wherefore the king hath charged that now with thee,
Or slain or bond, I bring the maid releast
And scatheless to the court. And therefore both
I charge a futile strife to cease; for loth
Or willing, in my guard the maid shall stay,
Defy the king who will, contend who may."
Then Pellinor backward reined for one space, lest now
Both knights at once a common cause allow
Against him single. But ere sword he drew,
Or earth he gained, that false knight leapt, and through
The goodly steed a level thrust he drave,
So that, loud screaming, it sank to earth. "Was need
That you should find our level ground," said he.
But Pellinor, even the while his feet he freed,
Wood wrath, one stroke of such fierce fury dealt
As cleft Sir Ontzlake to the knightly belt
His wearing shamed. This stroke, in talk of men,
From Camelot to the Isles, from sea to sea,
Was told and marvelled long.
To Meliot then
King Pellinor turned his hungry sword, but he,
Wounded already, and mazed such stroke to see,
Sank point, and yielded.
"I would but plead," he said,
"Such grace of usage as thy charge allows
For one who kinship claims, and seemed to be
That which - But was I in my haste misled?
My mind is shaken by a maze of doubt.
And now left breathless for too hard a bout
With one more strong than whom I fought before,
I can but sue thee by our knighthood's vows
That she, though captived, be not shamed by thee."
"But you will strike no blow for her you claim?"
"What hope were mine thy fresher strength to tame?"
"Then my pledged word is thine. No shame shall be.
The king's just order voids all villainy."
So stilled their strife. Within his tent the while
Sir Meliot's comrade stayed. His storm-held isle
Not more repelled than in his mood would he,
Nor more to mists of brooding gloom withdrew.
Then Pellinor turned to claim his gain, and knew
He touched the world of shadows. For not was she
Affrighted, helpless, raped and rescued maid,
But faced him the lake-maiden Nimue,
With eyes by naught disturbed, of naught afraid;
Though lightly captived, like a sword betrayed
To service lesser than the lives of men,
Yet in its metal not debased thereby.
For, mortal or immortal, maid or fey,
Feyborn she was, and close of race to they
Who walk the moonlit waters: shades withdrawn
Between the darkness and the lift of dawn.
Unlike in any urgent arms to lie,
Save at her choice. Perchance her aid she lent
To Merlin's craft, or worked to like intent,
Serving the king, to whom she held; but why
This venture chanced none knoweth. In secret ways
Would Merlin work to devious ends. But sure
Freely she dealt, who gained a hardier fight
What time he strove to win a life's delight,
And she for freedom, and he lost his own.
To Pellinor first she spake: "Good lord," she said,
And neither violence dured, nor carrion dead,
Though to her feet the down-hewn corse was thrown,
Could change the dreaming quiet of her eyes
- Green were they, as the under-wave is green
And shadows of the world that walks unseen
Moved in them - "thanks, and with good heart, are thine
For rescue from foul chance. Their ways unwise
Who thwart the king this showeth. This yielden knight
May well the wrong his haste conjoined requite
With gift of steed to mend thy loss. For mine,
The dead knight's will I. We should not longer stay,
To clear these woods before the dark of day."
But Meliot answered: "Be ye whom ye may,
The kin I thought ye, or some feigning fey,
To ride unrested on thine homeward way
Ye need not choose. For this good knight and thee
Shall this pavilion with no stint provide...
And, lord, at morn a better steed to ride
My squires shall furnish to thy more content
Than that thou see'th could be."
"I thank thee well,"
King Pellinor answered.
"Lord, I pray thee tell
The name thy deeds of valour magnify."
"King Pellinor, of the Middle Lands am I."
"Lord King, I hear it with good heart to know
That one so famed hath wrought this overthrow;
And one in his repute so continent
Hath charge of her I have not strength to stay."
"Repent ye naught for her. She rests secure.
But tell me of thy friend, who holds away
From all this bicker. In his tent unsure
Of whom, or friends or foes, are slain or slay."
Answered Sir Meliot: "Knight of worth is he,
And strong of heart and arm, and sworn to me
In brotherhood which would neither break; but yet
On other ways than mine his heart is set.
Careless of what hath been, or what may be,
Forever lonely in his dreams is he.
"Strive will he never except he must. His dread
Is more to deal a hurt or cause a wrong
Than that himself be shamed. Yet hardihed
He doth not lack."
"I marvel," said the king,
"He did not to thy ransom move."
Unchallenged by thyself, unasked by me,
Would own no lust our loud debate to share."
"You speak a wonder. For a knight of pride
Unmindful of the valiant chance to ride
I have not known. I would that when you may
You bring him to King Arthur's court, for there
All knights are welcomed who the rules obey
Of courteous law."
"There is no way more fair
Our steps could take, nor his would gladlier share.
Expect we shall not long that path delay."
At morn, from fair repast and fair repose,
King Pellinor and his willing captive rose
To take the backward path. Sir Meliot's care
A strong bay charger, fit his weight to bear,
Gave for his use, the while that Nimue
Rode lonely now on that she shared before.
"Of no constraint I go, who came," said she,
"As freely of my will."
"It well may be,"
King Pellinor answered, "yet thy rape to see
Had no man judged it thus; nor had the king
Required me ride to make thy rescuing."
"So was it meant to show; and yet may be
The craft that snared him was no evil thing."
Thus rode they till full noon, according well,
While he some high and sombre tale would tell,
Alike his mood; and she made answer less,
In clouded words, with meanings hard to guess,
And distant eyes, but all in friendliness;
Until, as to the forest edge they drew,
And falling thence a bouldered vale they knew,
Her charger stumbled on the stony way,
That hard to ground she came, and rose to say:
"I am hurt most sore, and may not ride awhile.
Rest will we."
And the king, who saw no guile,
Near beside the path they found
A thicket's tangled growth. The grassy ground
Spilled hawthorn whitened: yellowing oaks combined
A loftier shade. A fairer rest to find
Might no man need. And here their fast they broke.
And then beneath a wide outbranching oak
Slept in the warmth of the advancing day
So long that when the king from slumber woke,
And would have risen to take the onward way,
She answered: "See ye not the dark invades
The deeper woods? And though the branchless glades
Are lighted now, full soon the twilight shades
Would blind us, on a blundering path to ride?
Rest must we by good choice till morningtide,
And then go forward on a lighter way."
And Pellinor answered: "Simple sooth you say.
I will disarm, and in more comfort rest.
What matter when today be yesterday?
Haste was to gain, but not to prove, the quest."
Accorded thus, to sleep they passed, the while
Even from the open glades the light withdrew
And night was all the woodland path wherethrough
They earlier came; and dreamless rest he knew,
Until she waked him with low words: "Sir King,
Two knights are near to us. Some base treasoning
Is blazoned by the stealth in which they ride."
"They have not shown suspect that here we bide?"
"They seek not others; but themselves to hide
Such traitorous parts as should their deaths provide."
Then Pellinor grimly from his leafy lair
Uprose, and in his hand his sword was bare,
As side by side toward the sounds they crept,
The while, low-voiced, he asked her: "While I slept,
What heard ye?"
"First," she said, "thy charger neighed.
" - He is silenced now. - Then from the north there rode
A knight who seemed of every leaf afraid
That stirred among the shadows. The low moon showed
A moment from the drifting cloud, and clear
I viewed him from the thicket. Helm and spear
And shield were of the outland north. Beside
The meeting paths, and where the yews would hide
His steed and him, he waited. While he stayed,
A knight from southward came, alike afraid
His charger's steps to hear - of Camelot he.
I watched no more; for surely when they meet
Is treason meant; and Arthur's foes to greet
Thy sword is fitter than my words would be."
"Be still," he answered. "Hark their words." For now,
Visible in faint light, against the clouded sky,
Were those they quested, black and vague and high;
And spake the Camelot knight: "- the landless spears
Alone that Ulfius first around him drew,
With alien aid; but Pellinor's power adheres,
And Mark makes truce, and Lyonesse aids, and all
Through wide Logre the steaded vales are true,
And the wild lands beyond the Northern Wall
Send tribute; and strong spears adventurous
Crowd to the court of Arthur. North I go
To those who sent me here, the truth to show,
And counsel patience till our time arrive."
The other answered: "Better counsel mine,
Who bear a potion from those friends of thine
For Arthur's cup. Do thou with me return
To Camelot. Soon our boldest foes will learn
Their weakness, by his death left leaderless."
"Yet sooner," Pellinor thought, "thine end shall be.
For surely one shall die, though one may flee."
But Nimue stayed his sword: "Do naught," she said.
"Wouldst start the deer toward the snare that tread?
At Camelot shall the surer net be spread
For those thine haste would warn, and those who share
Their treasons, compassed in one toil."
Sheathed a slow blade. "Thy wiser counsels bring
Cool reason to the heats of wrath," he said.
"I would they had died."
Then backward path they bent
To where their waiting steeds were tied, the while
Those traitors, witless of their opened guile,
Rode their doomed way.
The widening light that now
(For morn had rosed the eastern heaven's extent)
Showed the clear path, and dew-drenched glades that lay
In lessening darkness, might not more allow
Their shortened rest. They took the southward way,
And at high noon they reached that place where he
Heard from the ground the urgent piteous plea
For aid, and deafly to that damsel's cry
His course had held.
Now, where the wolves had fed,
Were but dragged bones, and garments rent and red;
Save only scatheless lay the damsel's head,
Wide-eyed, accusing; and the silent king
Stayed, and gloomed at it, till Nimue wondered: "Lo!
Is death so strange, that there you gaze as though
You might not pass it? All your years have been
In ways of war, and many a piteous scene.
Our chargers swerved not, all too wont to tread
The trails of battle, and the broken dead."
Then Pellinor turned his gaze, and Nimue saw
The dark cheek paled, the eyes, inured to war,
Aghast, and answered: "Soon the tale is told
No time shall change. With heart too fixed to hold
The path I rode, upon thy rescue bent,
No heeding to this damsel's call I lent,
But passed their need. Thereat, with altered will,
She for the hurt knight cursed me. Curses still
Her eyes contain, and as I gaze I hear
Her voice, that distant sounds, but faintly clear:
"Not for my death, but for this knight's, I still
Know all and curse thee." What in truth she knows
I know not. God, I wot, shall grant her will.
And fear thereof is in my heart, that grows
The while I gaze upon her."
But Nimue knew
More than she told, and answered: "Little worth
Are vain regrets. Too oft, with purpose true,
We sow such seed as brings strange flowers to birth,
Our lasting dole: and oft, ill-thinking, do
The deed that long a better hour shall rue,
Grown changeless. Do ye now the least ye may,
In some close grave these sundered bones to lay -
Love's right at last - and if the damsel's head
Ye bear to Camelot, there may well be learned
The names and dwellings of the hapless dead."
"Yea," said the king, and from the path he turned.
A hermit's cave he sought beside the way.
The hermit heard, and ready aid he gave
In that sad toil, and delved and blessed the grave
Of those, who ere their flower of life was full
Passed onward to the doubt unsearchable.
By noon they came to Camelot. Here he told
His quest attained, and how that Nimue's word
Had caused him halt in that lone glade that heard
The voice of treason in the night. And how
He passed those bitter cries, that came as though
He once had known her whom he did not know:
"And now meseemeth that I may not fly
The sight of that dead face which will not die."
"Lord," said the queen, "to earn all ladies blame,
Your heart you closed. An ever lasting shame
Your wage shall prove."
"Oh, Queen," King Pellinor said,
"I was so random that my quest be sped
That all besides was little boot to me.
That shall repent me in the days to be;
Which will not change it."
Merlin answered: "Sore
You shall repent it. She your aid forbore
In her so bitter need, you did not wot
You on the Lady of the Rule begot
Long years before. Although you recked it not,
She was your daughter, hither come to bring
The knight she loved, that she might sue the king
To give him substance for their bridal day.
True was he, and worth and bold, but foully slain,
Smitten in the rear by that false knight Loraine,
Riding in Arthur's peace a careless way.
"Now ever through thy waking dreams shall rise
The haunting of those dead reminding eyes.
And surely for thy fault hath God decreed
Thy friend shall fail thee at thine utmost need."
"My heart forethinketh of thy words," said he,
"But yet may God reverse that destiny."
So were the three first quests that Arthur gave,
Guided by Merlin's craft, achieved the while
The bridal feast its glamour bold and gay,
Brave with his lustrous dawn's unfearing smile,
Foretold the bright noon of the rising day.
But largely, midst his joys, he sought to lay
The deep foundations of the time to be,
Which not on vaunting might established he,
But on true service, as our Lord had said.
The single rein by which the world is led:
"Servant of all is first of all," said He.
And as He spake men find it still to be,
Where pride and violence fall discomfited.
So said he to his knights assembled there,
That this they swore, and every year should swear
At the High Feast of Pentecost. For then
From every wandering, if alive and free,
On that, the day of all the changeful year
When did the authentic light of Heaven appear,
They should to their full tale assembled be.
Reports to make, and noble gest to hear.
Five were the vows that all alike must take:
The Vow of Honour. Never faith to break.
Never for pride, or lust, or lucre's sake
To deal with treason, or the backward blow.
The Vow of Mercy. Those who yield to spare.
Or if their deeds beyond such mercy were
To send them to the court, that judgement there
Be clear of vengeance on a private foe.
The Vow of Rectitude. That not for gold,
For land, for leigance or at kindred's call,
Should their strong swords an evil cause uphold,
Or be for ordeal of God's justice sold.
The Vow of Succour. Whether wife or maid,
All ladies at the call of need to aid
Of either noble or of mean degree,
That no duress should vanquish chastity.
The Vow of Lowliness. To hold in mind
No service lothsome is to gentle kind.
But they should rise the meanest needs to meet,
As did the Lord Who washed His servant's feet.
These were the vows on which the throne was stayed:
These were the words of Christ His knights obeyed.
What though that blaze of dawn to darkness came?
Its light in Britain lit too clear a flame
For intervening night to quench. It shines
Till God at last His light with ours combines.
End of Chapter V