The Song Of Arthur - Chapter VIII
by S. Fowler Wright
Return to Chapter VII
The Riding Of Lancelot.
Of Benoic's lords to Arthur's court who came,
Was none of lowlier mien or loftier name
Than Lancelot, when before the king he bent
To take the vows of knighthood. None was there
More heavenward-high to dream, more bold to dare
The gins of middle earth to hell's descent
For search of worship, or his vows, than he
Who learnt the rule of life from Nimue.
And as two flames to larger flame unite,
So Arthur looked on whom he made his knight,
And he on Arthur, and at once they knew
In knighthood's high resolve they were not two,
But single in all thought and all they did.
Twofold in strength thereby to all attain,
Or all by discord render void and vain.
And as two flames a common wind will fan,
So, as it hath been since Love's days began,
Though honour fail thereby, though God forbid,
On Lancelot looked the queen, and he no less
Owned, and was conquered by her loveliness,
That every glance they changed, or word they said,
Stirred their hot pulses. In her private thought,
'Mine shall he be', she vowed, 'though God retort
With all His thunder. But I well believe
To better fruitage shall this toil be brought,
For he who knoweth naught for naught shall grieve.'
While Lancelot thought: 'There were no height so hard
But it were tamed for this: no price too high,
Excepting honour, which my hope hath barred
Beyond attempt to take it. God defend
That I were traitor to a trusting friend.
From sorrow here doth no far comfort lie.'
But frustrate longing and desire were seen
More than perchance from love's relief had been.
The talk of Arthur's friend and Arthur's queen
Went through the world, the while in truth that she,
Adulteress in her heart, and deemed to be
False only in desire for Lancelot.
That which alike they would, but he would not
At the high purchase that its price required,
Remained a fruit unplucked, but yet desired
By both, and purposed by the lust of one
Who thought, before her summer days were done,
Greatly she cared not at what cost or how,
To reach the yield of any favoured bough.
Men died, and peace was born. The noise of war
Clamoured and fell. In Camelot's halls the King,
Strife-weary, rested. There the High Feast saw
Lords of far lands their settled tributes bring. -
Those lords that once in banded strife withstood
The rule he sought; and now but as he would
Their tributary kingdoms held, nor durst
Divulge the enduring hate they felt. But though
Bold front of issuing war they might not show,
Contempts of law and byepath treasons grew
In lands that ordered life had left since first
The lifting of the Roman heel they knew;
When paths grew green beneath infrequent feet,
And wolf-packs howled along the noonday street,
And many a king in many a hold abode,
Who ruled no further than his lances rode,
And ruled no longer when their lines withdrew.
But peace secure the towers of Camelot knew,
And all Logre; and those strong knights who dwelt
In the full daylight of a great renown,
Not swordhilts to their customed hands had felt,
In war's hard bicker, since its final bout
On Badon's plain the flying heathen slew.
And hence, to more the further realm subdue,
Did Arthur send them forth, by one, by two,
With charge to deal his justice: each to ride
At random hazard; and at Whitsuntide,
Yearly assembling all, to then relate
Of whom they pardoned, or of why they slew,
To right establish, or to wrong abate.
Of these, Sir Lancelot was not last to rise,
Nor stayed for whispered word, or angered eyes
Of whom he loved. For what was use to stay?
For yet one year he chose the nobler way;
And taking that young knight, Sir Lionel,
His nephew, as his comrade, save for him,
Rode forth untended.
Fair before him lay
Northward the woods, the wolds; and south the sea.
Far northward, to the wider lands rode he.
Far rode Sir Lancelot and Sir Lionel
In unfrequented ways. A dawn of gold
In misty heaven did noontide heat foretell.
While turned they downward from the windier wold
By paths that toward the infolding woodland fell.
Awhile they joyed in cool deep lanes, beneath
Briar roses: all the uncounted flowers of June
On either bank; awhile a broad highway,
White in the full glare of the sultry noon,
No shelter gave. A windless silence lay
In hazing heat, but broken from the wood
With seldom sounds of song, and faint between
The distant cooing of doves. The sheltering green
Of that near wood Sir Lancelot marked, nor long
Its cool allure his tempted thought withstood.
Aside they turned, and there dismounting cast
Their weight of arms: their steeds secured: no wrong
In that lone silence seemed, to wake their dread;
Beneath the offering shade their cloaks they spread,
And Lancelot, weary, soon to slumber passed.
Now while he slept, Sir Lionel watched, and knew
The swift approach of three strong knights who fled
A fear behind. But following these their dread
Was one knight only; but Sir Lionel thought
Not midst the glorious crowd of that great court
He left could equal to that knight be met.
Hopeless of flight, he saw them turn, and set
Vain spears to rest, and each to ground was cast.
Where on the victor knight, dismounting, fast
With their own bridles bound them where they lay.
Then Lionel thought that hard attempt to try,
And cautious arming lest should sound betray
His purpose to Sir Lancelot, rode the way
The knight had passed. Through woods that closed the sky,
And glades of opening blue, the pathway fell
To where a wide stream flowed, and Lionel
Reined at a hurrying water eddying wide
And ribbed with rocks that broke the impetuous wave.
But near he marked, upon the further side,
The knight he sought had passed the ford, and drave
On those three steeds their living burden bound,
Toward a wide and high-walled hold that rose
With strong stockades begirt, and moated round
From that broad stream. Once those strong bounds within,
Well knew he naught his single lance could win.
Wherefore, in haste his following to disclose,
He plunged the stream as chance should guide, and high
Above the trampling hooves arose his cry:
"Turn, coward; or yield thy cumbering spoil, and fly
Ere rescue reach."
The insulted knight, surprised -
Seldom they sought who might avoid his way -
Returned his course the bold pursuit to stay.
"Seest thou not these bound dogs, that late as thou
Bayed at my heel," he said, "till more avised
Vainly they fled the wrath they raised, and now
Their doom await?"
And Lionel answered: "Yea,
I saw it; and therefore would thy might essay,
Thou knighthood's shame."
"Thy beaten like abound,"
He answered, "in my dungeons near; but chain
And gyve and space for thee may yet remain."
Then on wide lawn, that gave fair fighting-ground,
As strong knights meet they met. Sir Lionel fell,
Hard-flung to earth, but yet so knightly well
He gained his seat again, that seemed his foe
Achieved slight vantage of that overthrow.
As some swift kestrel, having stooped in vain,
Indignant turns and soars to stoop again,
So did that knight in further circle bend,
And came again, hard-spurred, with more intend
To maim or slay. Sir Lionel, breathless yet
And dazed by that rude fall which late he met,
Scarce to the aim his fewtred lance had set,
Ere vain it snapped against his foeman's shield,
Whose strong lance held and threw him, that on the field,
Charger and knight, a foundered heap they fell.
Nor rose he from that fall: nor more he knew
Till with rude force his ruthless victor threw
Those others and he the where chained captives lay,
In dungeon vaults so deep the noon of day
Gave them no light, its heat no warmth, its drought
No dryness. Of the fair wide life without,
Its changing moons, its rainbowed skies, of all
Its drowsing calms, and winds that rise and fall,
They nothing knew. Nor hope was theirs. They lay
In those damp vaults and foul that knew no day,
Awaiting death, that should not long delay.
It chanced, as Lancelot slept, while noon was high,
Down that white road, bare to the sultry sky,
With flutter of silk and shine of steel, and gay
And glittering train of penselled lances, drew
Four queens, that on white mules were borne.
Those woods they heard a great horse grimly neigh,
They halted on their road, and bade a squire
Among the covering boughs its cause enquire.
Four knights a silken curtain gold and green
On lifted lances spread, a glimmering screen
From dust and heat. Queen Morgan's snakes of gold
Their broidered blazons showed. These white mules bore,
Beneath that silken shade, the Queens of Gore,
North Gales, and Eastland, and the Outer Isles.
Friends were they in the bonds of treacherous wiles,
And arts unnamed, and wanton ways and bold.
The squire's report, a sleeping knight that told,
Caused those four queens a common end pursue.
Alighted each that knight unknown to view;
And there beneath the bending boughs, that made
A welcome shelter of slow-moving shade,
They found Sir Lancelot.
Him Queen Morgan knew,
And ere he waked a loathly discord grew,
Where those four Queens within that shaded grove
For Lancelot's love with shameless anger strove,
Who yet not knew them any; till Morgan's guile
With subtle counsel stilled their strifes awhile.
"Behold," she said, "and if we awake him here,
Think ye to any his grace will grant us cheer?
No damsel of the Court, nor where he rides,
Saving the queen, but in her heart she hides
Vain longing of his love; and hence my rede
Shall charm him long to sleep, and bear him so
Between strong walls, and there, our spoil indeed,
Himself must choose our best his love to know."
This counsel pleased them well, for each of all
Esteemed that on herself his choice should fall.
So when that spell till eve his sleep had sealed,
She bade two knights to raise him, and on his shield
They laid, and bore him to her hold nearby,
The Castle Chariot.
When the sunset sky
Defied the earlier glory of the dawn,
And lit the long west with its losing gold,
The level rays assailed those dungeons cold
Where Morgan's helpless captives learnt to mourn.
That sunset light on Lancelot sleeping fell,
And as it touched him broke the sorcerous spell,
And, entering as he waked, a damsel
Came with a meal well dight, and asked what cheer.
"Nay, that thyself shouldst better tell. For here
I know not how I came, except it be
Wrought by some false enchantress' perfidy."
"Strange paths," she said, "may wind to stranger ends,
But only on thyself thine ease depends;
And if such knight as well I count you be,
Tomorrow's prime our more converse may see."
"Therefore I trust," he said, "thy courtesy."
Lone seemed he left, and lonely sought his rest,
But Morgan wrought her secret spells, and there
She gave him dreams of Freyga's leaning breast,
And the loose gold of Freyga's falling hair.
Until from amorous quest he waked aware
Of those four queens that knelt, and every queen
In rich allurements clad, and well beseen.
Queen Morgan first he knew. Her hair was night.
Her vesture, as the sunset west alight,
Cloud-like, a snowy shoulder gave to sight,
And one peaked breast, in lure to love's delight,
Showed as she bent.
Beside her, purple-dight,
The consort of North Gales' unyielding king,
Of life that no regard had ruled or shamed,
Could but the wrecks of one time beauty bring.
The scarlet promise of her lips proclaimed
No weariness of years her lusts could tame.
Chalk-hollows to the mind of Lancelot came,
Where poppies showed like blood.
The island queen
Was next, in sendal sheen from neck to knee;
Sea-born and bold, and nobler of form and mien,
Though lawless as her own seawinds, had been
His worthier mate, if any his choice could be.
At her left hand the queen of Eastland knelt.
In billowy white her slender form was clad,
Save only that a golden broidered belt,
Linked with fine pearls she wore. Her eyes were glad
With surance of his choice, so fair was she.
Queen Morgan spake: "Lord Lancelot, - that thou art
Is past denial, - although what chance apart
Had left thee in these woods we may not tell;
Long have we loved and longed in vain, and when
We found thee sleeping, by strange chance our own,
The goodliest-known of knights, the flower of men,
We needs must take the meed our fortune gave.
Behold us, queens, low-kneeling to thy will,
That at thy choosing one thy grace may save,
And three despair. This fair behest fulfil,
Consent thy queen to choose, her knight to live,
Free offer is ours of all that queens can give
In wealth and love. Our pleaded suit deny,
Lone must thou languish here, and dungeoned die."
Hard choice was Lancelot's. That he paused, is true;
For well the heart of that fierce queen he knew,
And all her thwarted wrath could work; and few
More loved free air, and wandering days; but still,
With glance unmoved, and never flexing will,
He met those dark desiring eyes, that drew
Allegiance of a hundred knights, and knew
No fixed regard, that whom she sought she slew
With veer of will; and answered:
"Foul or fair
You may be to such knights as seek or care;
You are naught to me, and naught these others, and I
Would choose long years between cold walls to lie,
Than thou shouldst gain me, by such threats reversed."
Nor wrath, nor guile, nor those sweet-pleading eyes
Of Eastland's gentler queen, that maiden-wise
Her shy love showed, could move him: "Work thy worst,"
In equal wrath he said, "till Arthur clean
The fouled land from thee."
"Arthur first, I ween,
Might break the bond that shares his bride between
Himself and thee." Queen Morgan spake, more skilled
Than he, to wound with words, if wound she willed.
"Queen," he replied, "you speak as ladies may.
Returning slanders of yourselves you say,
And knights are dumb. That falsehood foul you name,
If any knight aloud should dare proclaim,
On horse or foot, with lance or sword, would I
With good steel down his throat refuse the lie."
Then with most wrath they left. At later day,
That last-night's damsel came again, and he
With more regard beheld, well pleased to see
In hoped-for friend such gentle mien to be.
"Lord" - first she spake, - "meseems I judged thee right;
You gave such comfort as I weened ye might
To those who came. Among themselves they say
You are the great Sir Lancelot. Wroth are they
That you refuse them. Surely, here ye lie
At peril dire, if here ye more remain,
And of your fixed resolve refuse them still."
"Damsel," he said, "it is not of my will
I here remain"
"One granted boon," she said,
"Might see the snare sprung, and the captive fled."
"Damsel, at freedom's call, the boons are few,
Within my power, I might not grant or do."
"My father's towers," she said, "nine leagues away,
But late I left; and on the earlier day,
Beneath their walls had wide-known tourney been,
From Usk to Reged loud proclaimed between
My father's friends, and all who came to test
What fortune would. Fourscore good knights and strong
And loyal, that to my father's rule belong,
He banded in one vow, in hope to wrest
Such wreaths of honour as might his heart console,
And break the bondage of an earlier dole,
By which afore he took, in wrathful pride,
A vow that holds him from King Arthur's side.
"The rules of equal force he laid aside,
And all that came he in one rank defied,
Or more or few. Thus was the tourney cried.
"Strong knights and many to prove that tourney came,
Of Arthur, and the heathen North, and knights
Far-wandering from the further lands, their fame
In western jousts to try, or war's delights.
"The tourney-morn arrived: the ranks were set:
With twice their force those fourscore warriors met.
What chance have any against such odds? And yet
Awhile they dured, and honour was theirs, until
Three knights of Arthur joined their foes, and bare
Our bravest back, and gained that joust; but still
My father, not with one repulse content,
For seven days hence hath called new tournament,
The same strong knights to meet: him wouldst thou aid,
It might be that their soaring pride were stayed."
"Whate'er my need, I may not blindly lend
Mine aid for gain of foe, or loss of friend.
First shalt thou show thy father's rank and name,
And if, and how, to Arthur's peace he came."
"Lord Lancelot, if you be," the maid replied,
"May fitly rank him on my father's side.
King Baudemagus he, and as thine own
His name is stainless held."
"I long have known
Thy father for a noble knight and king,
And guerdon for thy good delivering
Is thine to thy desire in all I may."
She answered: "Wait thee till the dawning day
Pursues the night, and I will loose thee free,
With thine own arms and steed; and point thy way
Toward a priory where our tryst shall be.
Myself will follow with the later day,
By paths I might not to thine heeding tell,
Which I from childhood's days have known so well
That sleep could walk them now. The broad highway
Thy path shall be. With evening meet we there.
Soft couch thy need shalt find, and seemly fare.
The following day my father comes thereto,
And much will thank thine aid."
"Thy part fulfil,
And by God's grace," he said, "and of my will,
I shall not fail thy heart's desire to do."
As warders from the battled walls they tread,
With gladness, pacing their cold rounds, behold
The pale sky changing into orient gold,
So Lancelot, sleepless, with more joy beheld
The paling moon, the faltering stars, that told
How sooner from their loftier watch they knew
That dawn beneath the dark horizon grew, -
The dawn, that if that damsel's pledge she held,
Should find him freed.
He did not doubt her true,
But hindering chance, or Morgan's art, must dread,
Till her light steps his anxious thought repelled.
With caution at his stride, and soundless tread,
By tortuous darkened ways the damsel led,
Through twelve strong wards. Their mastering keys they knew.
With short demur the groaning bolts withdrew.
No warders stirred, no ban-dogs bayed; 'twas all
Death-silent. Upward through the outer wall
A winding stair she took, that led them through
A vacant guard. A secret door she knew,
In peaceful days unthought, and waiting near
By earlier toil his arms were piled, and here
His lioned shield, his sword, his mighty spear,
Unmeet for maiden's hands to lift, were laid.
With careful haste he armed, and thanked her aid;
And issuing thence, in outer stall he saw
His charger, groomed and fed, and barbed for war;
And mounting, once again fair thanks he gave,
And took the path she showed, and turned to wave
His hand to that king's daughter where she stood,
And rode the green glades of the wildering wood.
Awhile she watched him pass from sight, and then
In that still dawn, ere movement came of men,
She sought her palfrey in the stall, and left,
Serene as owning all, and quiet as theft,
Those towers of dread the secret postern through;
And toward that priory, by the woodland way
She told, she rode toward the widening day;
And fearless in the woodland paths she knew,
Sang as she rode: of Love and Death she sang
Clear-toned through those green bowers the accents rang.
Delight she were to hear: delight to view.
For fair as any dawn across the wold
Lifted the light-poised head's unclouded gold;
And sweet as any mavis in the brake
The song she sang of death for dear love's sake;
And sad as any death beneath the boughs
The song she sang of fate that God allows.
She sang of love that holds, and wrath that rends;
Desire that cries, and death, desire that ends.
Light oath Sir Lancelot sware, by God His grace,
To keep his morn-tryst at that meeting-place;
And light at heart from near release to feel
Once more the saddle-seat, the trusted steel,
The forward path his own, perchance he rode
Too careless down those forest wastes, that showed
No certain issue to the wide highway
The damsel told; and all the rise of day,
And all its noon, and all its wane, - aware
Too late of error, - sought with useless care
Some exit from such wilderness-depths as grew
More dense and pathless.
Wide he ranged unto
The threshold of the summer night in vain.
Then, wearied with long quest, he sought to gain
Such sheltering in those wilds as nature made,
And turning downward by a falling slade
Clear space he found, the where, before his sight,
A darker shadow on the darkening night,
A silk pavilion rose.
Around he gazed,
Wondering, and sought, and called aloud, but found
Motion nor voice. Nor on the grassy ground
Was sign of pathway trod. At length he raised
The curtained screen, and found it furnished fair;
And called, but none replied, for none was there.
Yet was fair meal and welcome couch bespread
For weary knight: "Now by my faith," he said,
"Some friending fey my need hath known." Well pleased,
Of cuish and greave his straitened limbs he eased;
But ere he rested more, his waiting steed
Disburdened, and turned it loose to seek its need.
And soon, with liberal cates and wines refreshed,
He sought that couch that gave luxurious rest;
And thinking best he sleeps who sleeps prepared,
Near for his hand his ready sword he bared.
That noble knight Sir Pelleas named had set
The fair pavilion there his love to meet,
Who only might in such wild ways be met.
The bondage of her arms and dalliance sweet
His heart foretold, as forth with eve he fared
That tryst to prove.
His charger, stumbling lame,
His urgent path delayed till late, and now
Slow-pacing by the clouded moon he came.
In surance that his love would hold her vow,
Nor doubtful that a waiting tryst she kept,
Midst such sweet dreams as rivals naught allow,
Nor thinking aught but peace, approached he there.
Soft on the grassy ground his charger stept,
And soft to earth he slid, and all unware
Entered, - and all unstirred Sir Lancelot slept.
In utter darkness, as the tent-flap fell,
Sir Pelleas felt toward that couch, and laid
His groping reach on no love-motioned maid
Or woodland fey, but Lancelot's hardened hand,
That still the sword-hilt held in sleep, his own
Encountered; and at the touch the idle brand
Leapt living, for with his mind awaked the fear
In Lancelot that those sorcerous queens were near.
That would he surely with his life withstand.
Twice his blind strokes clave through the whistling air,
Then rang on mail, and in blind wrath he drove
Sir Pelleas backward from the tent, and there,
In the vague light of the veiled moon they strove.
Well happed it then for Pelleas' life that he,
Though bare of shield, his fensive harness wore;
For Lancelot, ware of his more jeopardy,
Called all his strength, and smote one stroke that shore
And shredded the hard mail through, and yet not stayed,
That deep in Pelleas' side he felt the blade.
"Smite not again," he cried, "I yield, - I die."
Then Lancelot, - "Mercy I grant, but rede me why
My rest ye broke."
And Pelleas: "Nay, but I
Would learn of thee, how in that couch you lay,
Which I myself for other use designed,
And surely different greeting looked to find.
"That damsel of the dawn, - or maid or fey,
What know we? - first that in these woods I met,
Nimue herself, herself this night assigned
Her love to show. That fair-found tent, designed
For such dear joys, last noon myself I set, -
And here, by all mischance, my life is let."
"Fair lord," Sir Lancelot said, "I much repent
Thy wounds, that hapless from my wrong arise,
Who wandering in these woods was lost, and went
Of witch crafts fearful, and such sorceries
As thralled me late, and but one night ago
I had not scaped. Behold, I might not know
In that close gloom, if friend or likelier foe
My rest assailed. But in most faith I trust,
Not to thy life my luckless blade hath thrust;
And wilt thou to thy tent return, may I
Sufficient succour for thy need supply."
Then to that tent returned, as light they found,
And while his wound Sir Lancelot staunched and bound,
Through the still night they heard the hastening sound
Of palfrey's feet, and in the torch's glare,
- Her eyes dim stars aware of dawn, her hair
Mid-darkness when the moonless heavens are bare
Of all beside, - the lake-born Nimue stood.
Aloud she cried, that piteous wound to view,
And then to Lancelot keen reproaching gave:
"This meeting long my boding heart foreknew,
Yet might not at the last my dear love save.
Its time I could not of my art forecast,
And what God wills it chanceth, late or last.
Why couldst thou not this knight in mercy,
Who wronged thee naught, and whom none else could grieve?"
"Peace, of thy love," Sir Pelleas said, "you see
The harm, nor greatly of the cause enquire.
It came not of plain wrong, nor perfidy,
But blind mischance, that waked our mutual ire.
Mishappening strife hath been, but no way guilt
Belongs, nor seems it that my life is spilt.
And freely, when I thus disabled fell,
This knight accorded, and hath holpen well
And Lancelot next, - "I can but plead
The darkening night, that caused and hid the deed."
"Then, lord," she said, "this knight I pray thee show
The name of him to whom such wounds we owe.
"Damsel, Sir Lancelot is the name I bear
Most known of men."
"Fair lord, the name I knew
Before you spake, and if requital due
Ye own for this disastrous stroke, I pray,
Ye will advance my lord in Arthur's sight.
There were not at his court a nobler knight,
Thyself unless; nor hold I worthier they
Than he the best you count in Camelot are.
A mighty lord of lands in isles afar,
Strong of his hands, and bold of heart, and keen
Of honour, and wise of counsel, as well was seen
In Reged, and if against the king he fought
In those first wars, meseems of right he ought,
Allied to Neutres and to Lot was he."
And Lancelot answered: "Fair one, best from thee
Such pleading were to Arthur made. If plea
Good knight requires from any, for in the end
His fate can only on himself depend.
And thou thyself, if whom I deem you be,
Would Arthur welcome with good heart. For me,
In all I may, this knight may count me friend.
"But tell me, damsel, of thy courtesy,
Art not the famed lake-maiden Nimue,
Who Morgan's treason bared, and saved thereby
King Arthur's life; and gained that perilous fight,
Where Merlin tilted for a life's delight,
And thou for freedom, and he lost his own?"
"Yea," she replied, "though not to mortal known,
Save as I will, such name I bear; for I
Walk often in the ways of men, as now,
And mortal joys I share, and mortal woe."
Freely she spake, who felt her heart allow
The kinship, not of blood, she knew. For he,
Though mortal, cradled in her arms had lain,
And well she knew that round him, following fain,
Were shadows of the world that walks unseen.
So spake they till the faint dawn showed between
Those curtain walls, and dulled the torch's glare,
And Lancelot, of his broken tryst aware,
Would forth, at failure of the hindering night.
Some space, to guide him on that quest aright
Through those dim coppice-depths, aloud with song,
Rode Nimue. Wariest knight had wandered wrong
Unguided in the pathless wilds she knew.
Later, as toward the plainer path they drew,
And her first riding to his side returned,
In less regard of tracks to seek or show,
With broader way the loftier boughs below,
While the wide rose-glow of the dawning spurned
From its last thicket-holds the lurking night,
There came to Nimue's visioned eyes a sight
Of woes to be.
Guenever's self she knew,
But doomed and bound, as Arthur's wrath decreed,
Midst faggots piled to wait the leaping flame;
And that strong guard of chosen knights that drew
Around her, not to fend, but close her in,
Lest rescue save her from the dole of sin.
Sudden a whirlwind charge of champions came,
And lances pierced their guard, and swords hewed through;
And first of those his dearest friends who slew,
Sir Lancelot's riding and his shield she knew,
As bold knights broke from his blind-smiting wrath.
So rescue seemed; but when the queen came forth,
Her steps were in the blood of Arthur's best,
Who might have been her bulwark at her need,
Against the leagued might of a world at war.
This vision in her clouded mind she saw;
Yet not short rein she drew, nor knee she pressed
Harder on flank, nor doubt in anywise
Disturbed the dreaming quiet of her eyes.
At length to Lancelot, who through bower and brake
In silence rode beside, content to view
The lifting of the morning's misty blue,
She turned, and slowly, of her mood, she spake.
"Lancelot, our greatest gave you, where ye go,
Moon-silence and the meaning of night to know.
All that she might she gave; she did not give
The shadows of dooms foreknown, in which we live.
"Such presage told, when Pelleas first I met,
Thy sword alone in strife his life could let;
And in this fear, I wrought with ceaseless pain,
And of my love contrived with careful thought
To keep him from thee; even from Arthur's court,
Lest there ye met; a labour void and vain,
For lo! God willed it, and the rest was naught.
"We may not grant this weird in which we see
Less of things present than of things to be,
Not that which cometh may we largely show.
It were but loss to man that he should know,
Who bold in hope his life doth spend away,
That failures shall resolve, and slander pay
The toils that he with largest purpose wrought,
Deeming he built as heaven secure. Forethought
To mortal man it were but curse to give
Of friends shown false, and love found fugitive,
And age left lone, and hope to darkness brought.
But we, who tread the walks of night, although
In dim presage envisioned we rede the woe
That cometh, and may not change the fate we know,
Yet further vision doth more end foreshow,
Beyond the habit of earth; and though to thee
I may not speak the shadowed thing I see.
Yet may I of lost hopes, long years away,
And shades of wrong they show, this counsel say:
Though of thyself thy heart despair, though all
Thine honour from thee as a cloak should fall,
It were not vain thy last devoirs to do.
Though truth were falsehood shown, and falsehood true,
The storm may cloud, it doth not sink the star:
Behold, God ruleth. and the end is far."
Now while Sir Pelleas watched the moving shade
The back-looped curtain showed him where he lay,
On the green sward that peaked pavilion made,
He heard the palfrey of the hurrying fey,
Who, faster than she outward rode, again
Returned. Swiftly she searched, and eased its pain,
And closed his wound, with cool requiring hands,
And spells, that with the night as whole he grew
As ever. If more she gave at love's demands,
The rising moon, the wide night-silence knew.
Deep in a shadowed vale that priory lay
Of Lancelot sought, fair-seen in dawning day,
A home of peace, that in the name was built
Of Christ, but many a stain of life-blood spilt
Its courtyard showed; and towers rectangular,
High battled for the shocks of heathen war,
Its walls controlled. But now slight guard was kept
In quieter days, and Lancelot rode below
Grey walls and worn that housed the clamorous daw
Unchallenged, and that king's daughter where she slept
Heard the loud hooves as Lancelot's charger stept
The pavement stones, and through the casement saw,
Though later than his tryst, he came; and glad
She rose to greet him. Fair converse they had,
Until the long day spent.
King Baudemagus came. Strong knights and tall,
Armed in device of war, around him rode.
Above their heads in gold and purple flowed
His banner of the Hindered Flame. But he,
The crown and centre of that company
Of knights war-proven, - vigil-spent and spare,
Too slight he seemed the weight of arms to bear;
But in his eyes the soul high deeds to dare
Fair in mutual courtesy
And like regard they met. The damsel told
How from the walls of Morgan's sorcerous hold
Sir Lancelot compassed there her hand had freed,
And hence his aid for that near tourney plight.
And answer gave the king: "No nobler knight
At need, my heart could wish. I well believe
That with such aid we may their boldest grieve."
But Lancelot doubted: "Hard the odds we seek,
And well the noblest knights may prove too weak
Such test to try. Yet chance of counselled fray
Oft to the weaker deals the prize away,
And we must all dispose as best we may.
"You know the rule, that numbered knights may bide
To rearward, in reserve, on either side,
And inward at their choosing charge to break
Their forward-forcing foes, or overtake
A scattering rout mayhap. That part to me,
With three good knights you choose for comrades, be.
"The number of thy held reserve convey
To those thy foes, but naught you need to say
Of whom we are; and when the strife begins,
Ere thy lean lines the loss of conflict thins,
If with strong hearts ye hold that tournament
Until their earliest force be spoiled and spent,
Then, when ye break, ourselves such course may cleave
As lightly shall thy driven ranks relieve,
And gain, if fortune hold, the doubtful day.
"And therefore shalt thou here in secrecy,
Three knights of worth and four white shields purvey,
And three white steeds the like to mine, that they
In all things outward as myself may be."
This counsel pleased the king: "In all," he said,
"I will thy will, and thank the chance that led
Thee to us; for as we were, we were but sped."
Beneath the walls of stormworn towers and grey,
Fresh-mown and fair, a levelled lawn there lay,
Wide to the wood, for ordered tourney fit.
Beyond the lawn were pitched pavilions gay,
That with all hues of earth and heaven were lit,
And further stretched than sight beheld; for there
The pennons of the knights assailant flew,
Eight score, and round their countless followers drew;
And wide between the barriered space was bare.
Now from the gate King Baudemagus led
Those four-score knights, so late discomfited;
And twice their tale the ranked pavilions gave,
And blazoned on their serried shields were read
The arms of many a feared and famous name.
Behind them in reserve, their need to save,
Four chosen knights of all their strongest came.
North Gales' fierce king was there, Gahalatine,
Modred and Mador. Bold their blazons shine.
Not so those four that from the wood forth rode,
And rearward of the castle knights incline.
Bare of device their shields: no crests they showed:
White streamers only from their lances flowed:
White the strong steeds they reined in restless pride.
On those high walls, and round the barriers wide,
Were crowding thousands that fair strife to view.
They marked the entrance of the knights they knew,
That various crests and blazoned shields denote;
The pencelled lances and the plumes afloat;
The dazzle of arms, the barded steeds restrained
That hard the alike impatient riders reined;
Till loud and clear the clarions rose, and then
On either hand the uplifted lances sank,
And in full charge they crashed, spurred rank on rank,
Confusion wild of struggling steeds and men.
Beneath, the entrampled turf the hot blood drank
Of knights unknowing, so fierce they strove, as though
Valour and high heart could thwart death's overthrow.
But those thin ranks King Baudemagus led
With longer strife their greater weakness knew;
Until their line, back-driven, and half pierced through,
No more their foemen's weight sustained, and slow
Their strongest gave their ground, their best were sped.
Sir Lancelot then, with those three knights he led,
Their moment chose, their rested lances set.
An opening lane in those torn ranks, that yet
Endured their foes, they marked, and charging through,
Right hand and left the countering knights they threw.
No war-cry loud as through the rout they drave
Sounded: their naked shields no warning gave
Of what they were. Pierced through, the exultant press
Recoiled: the back flung steeds ran riderless.
They charged as through dense clouds a sunshaft smites:
His heavy lance aligns
North Gales' strong king, on those white-shielded knights.
Through opening ranks his silvered harness shines.
The foremost of those four he makes his foe.
Loud in the midst they meet with shattering shock:
The acclaiming walls resound: the barriers rock:
North Gales is down, his rolling steed below.
Behind Sir Mador, waiting in the rear,
Sank his proud crest, and sank his mighty spear,
And on the victor spurred. Sir Lancelot, ware
Of his nigh coming, aroused like speed, and bare
Sir Mador backward and down, from selle flung clear.
Then Modred, that mis-shapen child of sin,
- Not hunched nor dwarfed, but of the soul within
Made monstrous, - deadly of intent and skill,
At Lancelot charged, and he with equal will,
Countered, and on the point of his good spear,
Backward from out the saddle he bore him sheer.
Twelve paces from his rearing steed he fell.
Then grasped Gahalatine a ponderous spear.
With driving force he came. Now here was knight
On makeless charger borne, accoutred well,
Of finest furnished skill, and hardiest might,
No mortal knight in single strife that feared.
Space for their strife a common purpose cleared.
Their equal spears to-brast: their swords out-flang.
Such blows they changed as words were weak to tell;
Till hard on helm Sir Lancelot's blade down-rang,
And senseless from his steed his foeman fell.
Loud waked the acclaiming lists from side to side;
And ere the applause of that thronged concourse died,
King Baudemagus on their foes arrayed
His heartened ranks, in such strong charge as drave
Their boldest back. Good knights were many who then
Saw vantage in that refluent tide of men,
And harder pressed, and harder smote, and gave
Strong aid; but that king's daughter, where she sate,
With breathless lips and beating heart elate,
One striving knight alone, one white shield knew;
That even her father's plume, that backward blew
From that wild front she saw not, though, but one,
Such deeds of arms he did as likened none.
Now the king's knights their foes before them swept;
Midst foes, not comrades now, their chargers stept;
Disordered all, a spent and struggling wrack,
Perforce they drove them to the barriers back,
Where bold knights broke, as fluttering doves that find
The dovecote shuttered, and the hawk behind.
High then to heaven the heralds' trumpets blew.
They clave that eddying noise of combat through:
And in mid-stroke the lifted blow was stayed;
Rose the red lance, and sank the swinging blade.
Swift silence followed on that broken roar,
But movement waked again a livelier din,
As knights to earth to aid their foes before
Leapt, and from barriers dropt there crowded in
Page, groom and squire, to first their lords relieve,
And loosened chargers rein, and arms retrieve.
Then one great shout rose to the echoing skies,
As Baudemagus there, dishelmed and rent
And reddened, approached on wounded steed and spent,
And from the tourney-lord the tourney-prize
He took. A dying wreath of deathless fame,
By blazoned scroll and minstrel harp to live;
And gained thereby to such renown of name
As could nor gold nor rank nor kingdom give.
Two days of revel from the tourney's close,
Did Lancelot at that king's desire remain;
Till restless on the third fair morn he rose,
Longing to take his forward path again.
He armed, and when the king in hall he met,
His steadfast purpose in fair words he set,
But would not change. Thereat from stall they brought
His rested steed, and him to God betaught.
That damsel, who his late release had wrought,
Last left him, parting on the broad highway.
"Lord Lancelot," said she, "if you list to go,
We would not hold thee more, yet should you know
That we would well entreat thy longer stay,
And thy good pleasing serve in all we may."
But Lancelot answered: "Not such ease to find
As in these halls belongs, I left behind
Camelot's high towers, but venturous paths to know.
And needful, truly, of this time I go
To seek Sir Lionel, who from what ye tell,
It seems had left me ere this venture fell,
If him ye saw not where I slept, nor he
Was captived of that false queen's wizardry.
But damsel, dream not that thy kindness shown
I deem repaid. Let ever thy need be known,
That I may serve it."
Thus they parted there;
And he, soon wearying of the dust and glare,
Left the broad light that vexed the white highway.
Cool and green aisles he rode. The calling jay,
The cuckoo's voice, the wood's noon-silence broke.
Nor seemed that bolder life its depths contained,
Till came there down those aisles of beech and oak
A damsel, that a fair white palfrey reined;
Clothed in the deep sheath-green the iris knows
Was she, and in her hair the wreathing rose
Trailed wanton. Neither wife nor maid was she,
But one who lightly lent her beauty's flower
To speed the passing of an idle hour,
As moved her mood or thralling fancy led,
Or guerdon of high deeds accomplished,
And now to knight approved gay greeting gave.
Courteous he answered: "Now may Christ thee save,
O fair one! Knowest thou any good ventures near,
For knight of Arthur meet?" She answered: "Yea,
The quest may hap, but not the knight is here."
"Seem I," he smiled, "a knight should ventures daunt?"
"A likely knight thou art, myself shall say,
An thou wilt give me name to match thy vaunt."
"Damsel, I take no force to tell thee, called
Sir Lancelot of the Lake am I."
I erred that mocked thee. Surely, if but thou,
No knight may win it. Thou knowest Sir Turquin, how
He one time joined Rience, and since thy sword
Slew Caradoc at the Dolorous Tower, hath warred
Against the knights of Arthur, lying in wait
To meet them singly and subdue. Nearby,
His hold a score containeth. Of his hate,
Dungeoned, scourged, starved and maimed they lie."
"O damsel, speak not to thy more delay,
But of thy kindness turn, and guide the way.
Instant he spake, but slowlier, pausing, she:
"Nay, if I lead to thy desire, wilt be
Thy later part of mine to guerdon me,
To all content?"
"Yea, speak and take," he said.
Then down these shadowy ways the damsel led,
Until by grove and glade the pathway sank
To where beneath their gaze a fair stream spread.
Deep in the wave the burdened charger drank;
And while Sir Lancelot paused a space to scan
The hurrying water, and the towers that broad,
In battled strength, along the further bank,
Their foes defied, that damsel's less delay
Foremost had pushed her palfrey at the ford,
"For knights must learn that ladies lead," said she.
Though lower by far than erst the swift stream ran,
Sometime the murmuring water lapped her knee.
The weighted warhorse stepped a cautious way,
Following the customed palfrey's tracks, and so
They gained the bank, and came where, gnarled and low,
A twisted thorn before the gate-way grew
Of those dark towers, and swinging thereupon
A silver horn, and when its use he knew,
Instant a deep and deadly note he blew.
Its echoes waked the walls and wandered on
To distant hills. Full soon he thought to see
Turquin forth ride to prove his perilous might.
But came nor warder's call, nor issuing knight,
Though there in restless wrath long waited he.
At length, and as the summer noon from high
Had waned, and wearied of much waiting they,
That damsel marked a knight approaching nigh,
Who drave before him, down the long highway
A captive knight, who in contempt was tied
Athwart his steed. "Behold, he comes," she cried,
"And brings he witness of his vowed despite
To Arthur's rule."
Sir Lancelot knew the knight
That bounden in such shameful wise he led,
And spake in wrath: "Now if he hold his prize,
Then surely, as Heaven me save at last," he said,
"This knight must be the higher of hardihed,
Than any I met till now. For he that lies
Fast bounden, for a fellow of mine I know.
I well believe my kinsmen starve below
In that foul hold."
The approaching knight espied
The path they held, and spake in wondering pride:
"What do ye here? Strange knights that hove a nigh
My hold, may longer than their pleasing lie
Its walls within. Now with this captive won
My heart is well content: be wise and go."
And Lancelot answered: "These good knights fordone
You boast, are comrades mine for wealth or woe;
And twixt us twain if any peace may be
Thy heart must bend to set thy captives free,
And yield thy life to Arthur's grace."
Rash knight, though rich my recent spoils," he said,
"My stables yet can stall thy steed, my bed
A damsel lacks."
That damsel laughed: "The bed
Good fortune grant, shall lack me long," she said,
"That waits thee now."
Then Lancelot: "Vaunts avail
Our lives how long, if chance our lances fail?
For mortal strife is here, and yet remains
Thy boast to prove."
He ceased, and backward reins
Each knight his steed, well taught such strife to try.
Thunderous they crashed, and reared their chargers high,
As their strong lances held, and either knight
Was hurled to earth, and either, leaping light,
His feet regained, and loosed his sword, and stern
The blows they met, and gave in like return.
Such blows could never forged steel withstand, nor guard
Of shifting shield for long their end retard.
With reddening arms and hauberks torn, and bare
And piteous wounds, of these as men not ware
They fought, till Turquin backward stepped, and stayed
To heave again aloft his blood-drenched blade,
And called for truce awhile, with labouring breath.
Lancelot, who seldom in the eyes of death
Had looked so nearly, signed assent, and low
His wearied sword he sank, and either so
Some space withdrew, their needed rest to take;
And wondering at his foe, Sir Turquin spake:
"Bold knight, whoe'er you be, wilt yield thee? Nay?
Then surely, though thy fate somewhile delay,
Thou diest; and but that in thy swift swordplay
Thou art like to one that most I seek to slay,
I might repent it. Hearken. Ere this strife
In death we close, I proffer thee, not thy life
Alone, but freedom for these knights thy friends
In durance held, that here all difference ends.
For never I met thy like, and thou and I,
As comrades sworn, might any of all defy
That chance might bring. I only ask thee swear
Ye are not he to whom most hate I bear,
Lancelot du Lake, that in the Dolorous Tower
My brother he slew, and ever I wait the hour
That I may meet him, and that stroke repay."
And Lancelot answered: "Well, from all ye say,
I may perceive that on my word depends
Our fair accord: but not for that will I
The name I bear, nor that good deed deny.
I am he you seek; and therefore rise and try
What end remains."
That rest had Turquin shown
How much from wounds and toil had weakness grown:
Yet strength with wrath and pride renewed, to know
In this strong knight his sought and hated foe.
Lightly he rose, and each alike addressed
His heart in strife their final strength to test.
Then hard Sir Turquin smote on Lancelot's shield
A stroke of might: a cantel large he lopt:
Deep wound he gave. Yet not that might concealed
His labouring breath, nor how his sword sunk low
He raised with pain; and Lancelot knew it, and dropt
His shield, and round his swinging blade he swept,
Felling his strong foe with one great stroke, and leapt
Upon him, and by the banneret seized, and smote
The head clean from him.
The damsel, reined remote
From those wide-sweeping blades, their strife did view,
Content, as one its certain end that knew,
So confident of Lancelot's sword was she.
And now, dismounting that bound knight beside,
Whose shield she knew, to loose his bonds she tried.
"You would not that your loved, Lynette, should see
How here ye lie?" she laughed.
"God's death!" said he
Wrothed of that shame, the while he wrenched him free,
"Me thought not knight was living that so could seize
Such strength as mine, and whose that strength that frees
My life may be, God knoweth; but thank I ought
Who with like peril of his my life hath bought.
Fair knight," he said, "Gaheris of Orkney I,
And this good deed's desert I well can pay,
If whom you be, and your desire to say,
May please thee."
Lancelot, smiling, made reply,
"The name I bear is Lancelot of the Lake,
And so to help thy need, for Arthur's sake,
Of right I ought, and guerdon is no way due.
Yet this thing of thy love I pray thee do,
These towers to search, and every captive knight
Release; for if the shields I read aright,
Hung o'er the gateway shamed in all men's view,
Comrades and kinsmen they, ye well shall greet
From me, and pray their grace that next we meet
At Camelot, at the King's High Feast."
No meaner knight for life to thank he had,
Nor bond nor homage for his rescue pay,
This charge Gaheris received.
Before him lay
A gate, from which the affrighted warder fled.
For many their dread lord's fate had seen and told,
And still the vision of Lancelot's sword blade, red
With Turquin's blood they saw, - and entering bold
As Camelot's halls he trod, from ward to ward
He passed. Was no man there that faced his sword,
Or closed his way, but trustless menials came
His will to do, with words that fouled the name
Of their late lord, and his new service sought.
To whom, of evil or good, he answered naught,
But bade them those pent knights release forthright.
So these they brought forth to the blinding light,
In sickness sore, and starved and piteous plight,
But dauntless all; for in these dungeons lay
Ector de Maris, Lionel, Brandel, Kay,
Aliduke, and Brian of Listonaise, beside
A score of loyal bold knights of lowlier pride,
That Arthur's halls belonged.
When him they knew,
Who met them in soiled arms and wounded score, -
For hard had been the strife that overbore
Such knight as he, - they deemed he overthrew
Their tyrant, and their grateful thanks would pay,
For life at desperate strait renewed. But he
Rejoined, that in like thrall to theirs he lay:
"And maugre my desire I came, and we
Were dungeon-comrades now, our deaths to wait,
But there was one that hoved before the gate.
And in such strife as erst I seldom knew,
Encountering its fierce lord, subdued and slew.
Lancelot it was. His hawberk riven and red
Disclosed such wounds as many a knight had sped,
Yet heedless he his path resumed. To me,
This charge he gave, to break your bonds, and sent
Greeting, and prayed, not following where he went,
That ye would seek the Court, and wait him there."
"I will not rest," Sir Ector spake, "before
His safe retreat I see. Who knoweth how sore
His wounds may be? His wont was ever as though
There were no wound the where no wound we show."
But Lionel counselled: "Lo,
Yourself to climb a steed art nigh too weak,
And soon might succour from the knight you seek
Require, if strengthless yet such toil you try."
Then came there word of mules approaching nigh,
With venison burdened, and thereat Sir Kay:
"Now wilt thou but for one good meal delay,
Myself thy search wilt share."
But most would stay;
And plunder of these princely halls they made.
Meanwhile without, to Lancelot, where he stayed,
That wondering damsel spake: "These towers contain
A kingdom's wealth, and thou their lord hast slain,
And all is thine."
"I will naught of it," he said,
"For life, to bring me gain, I will not slay.
But of thy kindness shown, disclose, I pray,
Some quiet abode from hostile eyes secure;
For more I may not of my strength endure
The hurts I bear."
"Lord," said she, "where I dwell
None cometh, and there thou shouldst be tended well,
If thou wouldst deign so lowly."
"Lead," said he,
"Haply my strength shall last till there we be."
Yet not to where she dwelt she led, but where
The trackless forest closed them round, and there
A secret bower in deepest woodland hid,
Compact of leafy branches bent and tied,
Seemed meet for summer loves, and naught beside,
And yet was framed such densest growth amid
Its plaited roof the rustling rain defied,
And cool in heat it lay.
"Behold," she said,
"Here may ye rest and sleep devoid of dread.
When Turquin's sword my leman's life had spilt,
Whom loved I well, this secret bower I built,
And vowed that here I would that knight repay
In all he would, whose sword should Turquin slay.
"Himself I told, I would his life undo,
Whereat in wrath he did my path pursue
Long miles, until my palfrey's pace he knew,
And wiser that he came he went, perde.
"Yet summer months have passed, and knights besought
Have cowardly shunned a vain emprise, or fought
And lost themselves thereby, the while that he
New spoils achieved and larger fear, that few
Remained of heart to face his might by now.
And little with this rising morn I thought,
As wandering in these ways bold knight I sought
Hither with eve to bring such guest as thou;
Beyond my worth to serve."
The while she spake,
She wrought his harness from his wounds to take
With least offence, and searched and bound them well.
Then meats and wine from secret store she brought,
And, largely at her hest, he ate, for low
The pulse of life exhausted beat; and fell
To needed sleep; nor heard that damsel go,
His charger's bridle to her palfrey's caught;
And in that lone bower rested, more secure
Than in strong towers, that first the lightnings dure.
Not long had moved the light, nor waked the bird,
Nor the quiet boughs the morning breeze had stirred,
Before her hastened palfrey's feet he heard
Returning. Hearing, hard to rise he sought,
But found the weakness that his wounds had brought,
His lord remained; and thus that damsel found
Her helpless champion laid. She bent her aid
To meet his need: his opening wounds rebound:
And all the length of summer light she stayed,
The while, to ease his mood, strange tales she told
Of wandering knights, and ventures lone and bold,
Herself had seen; for court and camp and wild
Alike she knew.
"Damsel, thy steps have been
As mine," he said, "and much thine eyes have seen;
And yet thy name - "
"My name is naught," said she.
"There is no man that knoweth of whom I be."
Seven days within that damsel's bower he lay,
Renewing the strength that strife had drained away.
Then to his prayer she brought his tended steed,
And hawberk all re-linked to guard his need,
Where Turquin's sword had gapped and rent it sore.
And shield new-wrought, his painted arms that bore
The last alike; and lance; and chosen store
Of all by-wandering knight should need, supplied
Beyond his will. Full soon his strength he tried,
And climbed his steed, and out forthright would ride,
New paths to try. She might not more dissuade
His restless will, but lent reluctant aid,
And held at last her path his path beside.
Now rode Sir Lancelot in a woodland way,
And prayed that damsel her pledged boon to show,
That he might grant her will. "Large thanks I owe
Thy tendance, and the debt would largely pay."
Whereat she answered: "Lord, a knight devoid
Of honour, these woods doth haunt, by whom distrest
Are damsels, seized in violence, or decoyed
His hold to enter, who depart at best
Ravished and spoiled. He doth the path molest
Of all who ride in thought security."
"This use you name," he said, "myself would see,
That justice may be dealt where such things be.
Go forward therefore. I some space will ride
Behind, and rescue at thy need provide."
Forward she rode thereat, and swift from sight
Lost in the darkening depths of green was she,
And soon by-riding where that treasonous knight,
From covert ambush watched. Well pleased to see
Without escort a damsel formed so fair.
He marked the deep-green robe of sendal rare
She wore, that all in cunning wise was wrought,
And roses white entwined in dusky hair.
The goodly palfrey for his spoil he thought
With all it bore. It seemed was none to save,
And none to hear, as down her path he drave,
And stooping, in strong hand, her rein he caught.
From the high warhorse that he rode he bent,
And seized her with rude hands. One cry she sent,
Clear-voiced and shrill thereat, and laughed content
"Why dost thou laugh?" he cried.
"I laugh," she said,
"That this time hath thy lust thy life misled.
To fear thee further were to fear the dead.
Behold who cometh behind! His sword the stain
Of Turquin's life-blood bears, and soon shall drain
Thine own from thee." She laughed again.
Loosed her in haste, and turned, too late for flight,
Too fearing for defence. Its own award.
His coward heart gave the strife, ere Lancelot's sword
Went through it.
Awhile she watched that slain knight die,
As round her palfrey's feet his life-blood spread,
Scorn on her lips. "No more shall damsel's cry
Disturb these woods through that good thrust," she said,
"Sir Peris of the Savage Land was he."
And Lancelot answered: "In good hour he died."
And while he spake resumed his forward way."
But hast thou, damsel, no desire beside,
That I may work thy need? For I would ride
In farther lands, and would not long delay,
Except to serve thy will."
One upward glance
To that plumed helm, from doubtful brows she gave,
And then, left hand, to scape the hindering lance,
Close at his side, her palfrey's pace she stayed.
Upon the shining cuish light hand she laid,
And answered: "Lancelot, more than mortal brave
Men call thee, more than mortal hold thy skill
In use of war, but mortal that thou art
Well know I, and ask thee soothly ere we part,
So long dost wander these lone ways, and still
No damsel to rejoice thee at thy will
Thy heart desires? For save the Queen, men say
Of ladies none thy longed-for love may know.
And damsels many of high estates and low
Are left thereby to grieve uncomforted."
"O fair one, idly, what they choose," he said,
"Men speak, and foolish words I may not stay.
Freedom I love, and that my fated way
From youth's release hath strife and wandering known,
It needs must follow that I ride it lone.
For he that bears the thought of babes and wife
In every perilous pass accounts his life
Too dearly for his right devoirs; and knights
Who take of paramours their dear delights
Are seldom first where good blows fall; and I
Love honour, and this fair rule of life, whereby
At every damsel's service is my sword,
And none are held in fear of claimed reward.
Naught would it tend to mine enduring praise
That any errant damsel thus repays
The price of my shield-shelter by the way."
"Behold," she said, "what laws should bind thee thus!
Thou art first of all good knights adventurous.
And while that limbs are strong, and life beats high,
Thy name may on thy lance's point rely.
The aftermath of fame, - regard it naught.
To either be the gain that either sought."
"Damsel," he said, "I sought no gain, nor deem
But mine hath been the gain, and mine the debt.
That which thou wilt, I will. Thou must not dream
I disregard thee: where thy heart is set,
To all desires, and ever, command me then."
"Nay, lord," she said, "not any; but God thee rest
In other loves than mine, Who hast made thee best,
Noblest and gentlest known of knights and men."
Sir Lancelot rode in forests dark and dense,
Pathless and sunless, silent, drear and dread
Where seemed had no man entered erst; and thence
Emerging by strong heart and hardihed,
Though worn with breaking difficult way, free air,
Free light, free path he found, and pausing scanned
A place of birch woods, and of quiet streams
Wandering uncertain in a level land.
Stretched in still light beneath him, wide and fair,
A strange land lay. 'Now here,' he thought, 'meseems,
Some place of rest should be.' Ere daylight died,
A herdsman's hut his simpler needs supplied.
Forth, with first light, he fared, to prove anew
A wandering path, and that fair land to view
Where quiet peace seemed, and signs of labouring man
The faint dawn showed; till doubtful rein he drew
Where far through eddying mist a causeway ran.
The only path it showed, for all beside
The autumn floods had covered, and near and wide
Returned again the misty gold of dawn.
And through that mist slow-rising, sunward-drawn,
Wind-trailed, he rode, now opening wide, and now
A closing cloud. Till from the misty way
A foul churl rose, resolved his course to stay;
And on the mouth Sir Lancelot's steed smote he.
Thereat the startled charger suddenly
Reared and reversed. His practised seat to lose
He came full nigh; and with much wrath restrained,
He spake: "Now wherefore close mine only way?
I may not pass beside."
"Thou shalt not choose,"
Cried that strong churl. A monstrous club tough-grained
And spiked with steel he swung, and treacherous-low
At Lancelot's steed he smote, but naught he gained.
The sheathed sword, suddenly lifted, glanced the blow
Which else had surely the goodly charger felled;
And he thereat let loose the wrath withheld
And smote and slew.
Short space beyond he found
The causeway joined the land, and there around
The concourse of a timorous crowd, who cried:
"O knight, unhappy art thou! And if thou bide,
No better than dead, for he thy sword hath slain
Our lords had placed there."
"With thy lords," he said,
"My words shall be." And passed those clamorous cries,
And took the path toward their hold that led.
Vague in wreathed mist to heaven its towers did rise.
A vacant gate he passed: a drawbridge down,
An outer dyke to span. It seemed renown
Of those who dwelt therein sufficed to guard
Its portals bare. To venturous knight retard,
Nor warders stood, nor signal bugle blew,
Nor ponderous gratings fell, nor bridge was raised.
Within the outer ward his steed he tied,
And forward still through vacant gates and wide
He passed, till on the inmost keep he gazed.
A wide green court of levelled lawn was there,
For tourney-throng or single fighting fair
As ever he saw, and while he paused, thereto
Two loathly giants came running. Huge clubs they bore,
And in contempt of strength slight harness wore.
But Lancelot at the foremost smote, and shore
With one great stroke the head clean from him, at which
The second ran bellowing back, and in the ditch
Fell prone; and Lancelot stooped, and thrust him through.
That timorous crowd his death-cries heard, and they,
As warblers when the gorged hawk wings away,
Stirred with new life, and, boldly entering, drew
Around Sir Lancelot there; and pressed to view
Their tyrants in their life bloods weltering.
They cried, "the issue of thy vengeful sword
Doth with new life a slaughtered land endow.
Ten years these monstrous giants our maids have slain,
And face them boldly would no knight till now.
Thine are we to thy will, and thine shall be
These towers, and all the garnered wealth ye see."
"Friends," he replied, "I seek nor land nor gain.
To slay these giants, that from the marshes rise,
And feed on men, is every knight's emprise.
No thanks are due. Yet heed, and hear my will.
The plundered wealths of men, these halls that fill,
Ye shall commit to one ye trust, that so
He may with just and equal hand divide
To each compensate to his loss and woe;
And that he giveth ye not compare, but take
As from the hand of God. This rule I make
In Arthur's name; and that ye next restore
These towers to him that owned them erst, or they
Who heired his death, if by these giants he died."
He ceased, and left them there, and held his way.
In pathless wilds Sir Lancelot rode from now,
While darker days and lengthening nights he knew,
The last leaves drifted from the autumn bough,
And cold the northern winds of winter blew.
Bleak heights that barred his path he clomb, and through
Great vales, sheer-sided, where the pine-trees clave;
He heard above the encountering storm-winds rave,
And strong storm-waters in the gorge below.
And sometime riding through the rattling hail,
And sometime pacing o'er the silent snow,
Wind-opened heaven or clouded, calm or gale,
By steep ascent, or loose and falling way,
His course he held. In caves of earth he lay,
Or ruins long left of man. At length, and through
Such toils as few of many might live to say,
Beneath his gaze the Perilous Land he knew.
Far to his sight, in naked light it lay,
A world of mighty woods, in thronged array,
Interminable stretched. One straitened way
Through that close growth for seven days' journey ran;
Nor other in all that land was known of man;
And those of heart to dare its depths, again
Came seldom. Hunted men, that else were slain,
Outlawed, who foully in some sort had wronged
Their kind, passed inward, and their memories went.
Vague tales and terrors to its nights belonged,
Of monstrous shapes its glooming branches hid,
And visions that madness wrought its shades amid,
And fears by which the veil of death was rent.
Yet not for those he dred; such fears before
Faith and high heart, and knightly rule, which taught
That honour of life is all, and life is naught,
Were harmless, as to those the steel he wore.
Thus with good heart that path he tried, nor met
With shade of fear through all its length, and yet,
At last, when widening tracks before him showed
That all that fearful wild behind him lay,
Heart-weary, from no certained cause he rode.
For when the long hours passed him, with but change
Of scene, and shadow, and shift of light, then strange
Forebodings formless in his heart would grow.
The woes that watched his birth, the woes that still
Pursued, and still delayed to work their will,
Drew nearer; even the shadow of that far woe
That in the distant days should overthrow
All that he held most dear in land and love.
Glad was he at last the reddening west to see,
And gabled roofs the naked boughs above;
Of hope of peaceful harbour glad was he.
Black rose, against the glare of sunset fire,
The walls he sought, where all might entrance win,
Who wandered in those lands. For dwelt therein
An aged recluse, who in lost days of old
Had borne strong sons to some dead king's desire,
And given them all the lore of love could give,
And seen them wander forth to lose or live,
As fate should send. And then, when silence told
What words would never, beleft in friendless age,
In the Lone Lands had built this courtelage,
Where wandering knights might rest.
Though reft of law
That land, yet even the fell red hand of war
Spared it: the raiding plunderers passed it by.
Soon as was known that halting knight was nigh,
Came welcoming damsels forth. His name unsought,
Sir Lancelot to the banquet hall they brought,
As honoured guest and known. A chamber fair,
Above the angle of the porch, their care
His needful rest assigned, and here he lay,
While the long night forgot the wintry day.
It chanced from sleep that Lancelot restless stirred.
And set the casement wide awhile to view
The open night, that more for friend he knew
In wakeful hours than closing walls, and heard,
Through the still air, the sound of feet that fled.
The moon in open heaven had gained her height.
Black ranged the pines: clear gleamed the roadway white.
Fast flying adown it came a panting knight;
And in the porchway of that courtelage,
Fenced in the angle of the wall he stayed,
And turned, and swang aloft a sheathless blade.
Then three strong knights, whose swords alike were bare,
In hot pursuit and close Sir Lancelot saw.
They marked their prey, that desperate turned, and there
Closed on him at once, devoid of knightly law.
Forth from the casement wide did Lancelot lean,
Sometime that desperate swording, all unseen,
He watched, and while he judged their blows, he thought:
'Hard strives this knight, yet in the end out-fought,
He can but die. Naught know I of wrong or right,
Or whence their discords grew, or why they fight
So foully, one to three; but rede I well
That none may right the dead, and naught can tell,
Except I stint their strife, where right may be.'
Then from the coverings of the couch he wrought
A rope of length to break his fall, and caught
His armour to him in haste, and where they fought
Down-leapt amidst their strife, and charged them stay,
And rede the meaning of their wrath; but they
Fierce answer flung, and when the voice of Kay
From that pressed knight he knew, then: "Stand away,
And let me deal," he bade. His sword he swang,
Two-handed, high, and thrice on helm it rang,
And felled its foe.
The amazed, out-foughten three
Yielded: "For more than mortal knight ye be,"
They spake, "and shameless may we yield."
Gave answer: "Would ye peace, I charge ye ride
To yield ye to Guenever's grace, and say,
Recreant ye come, the conquered knights of Kay."
"Nay, lord, we yield," with one protest they cried,
"To thee, not him who at our hands had died.
It is not meet we yield to him we sped."
"It is not meet three knights should join to slay
One knight alone. I take no force," he said,
"Of that your prides prefer. Ye are but dead,
Except ye swear."
And thus they swore perforce;
And slowlier than they came, returned their course.
Then courteous to Sir Kay did Lancelot turn:
"Cowards are they ever who knightly rule forget;
And doubt I naught thy sword, before we met,
Their earlier might had tamed. But I would learn,
Why wend ye in these naked lands, and why
This strife began."
"Thyself to seek," he said,
"In sooth I came, but further tale to try
The hour is late, and I since eve have fled;
And if that here may hungered knight be fed,
That most I would. Though first my heart must give
Due thanks to thee, by whose strong aid I live,
To hunger now."
And Lancelot answered: "Nay,
For comrades we in many a former fray,
And thanks are naught to take, and naught to pay.
And in this chance the less, that sooth to say,
I knew not whom I leapt to save or slay."
By this, within the hall were menials raised,
That forth the clangour of that strife had brought.
Soon on the smouldering hearth the logs were blazed,
And meats and wine to his content they sought.
And Lancelot gave his couch; and when Sir Kay
In such deep sleep as feared no waking lay,
His comrade's shield, and gilded arms and gay,
Himself assumed, and left, of these in lieu,
The azure couchant lions that all men knew.
Long space Sir Kay in that deep slumber passed,
And when with hungering noon he waked at last,
And saw those arms his couch beside, and heard
That Lancelot ere the dawn had left, there stirred
Laughter within him thereat .
"Now well I wot,
Who rideth in the arms of Lancelot
May pass in peace. But wherefore is it? Not I
Have seen him oft of mirth such jest to try.
Meant he safe way through these wild lands to give,
Or proof that whom I sought I found provide?
Content am I, who need no further ride;
For who should wander in these wilds and live?"
Sir Lancelot passed the Perilous Land unstayed,
And came at length where level waters strayed,
Slow-moving through the meadows. Here, beside
The path he rode, left-hand, a causeway wide
Gave firm approach to one grey tower, that rose
Isled by the flood.
This sole approach to close,
Aflank the path, three fair pavilions stood.
The white shields of three venturous knights and good
Beside them hung, and at the cold wind's will
Their pennons from their planted lances blew.
By these Sir Lancelot rode, and thought no ill,
Heedless, but those begilded arms they knew.
"Now yonder," Gautier spake, "the proud Sir Kay
Passeth, for greeting or regard too vain
In his great name or fancied might to deign.
The two good blows he dealt on Humber side,
Must needs suffice him for a life of pride.
God's truth! I will his boasted worth essay."
And on Sir Lancelot's path he pricked, and cried
To him that held his way: "Bold knight, abide,
And prove that proud pretence in which you ride."
Then swift he turned, against the opprobrious word
Silent; and sank an instant spear, and spurred
On that rash foe, who thus his might defied;
And flung Sir Gautier heavily on the way.
"Methinks that knight is larger made than Kay,
And wears the arms his hardier might hath won,"
Spake Gillimere, and young Reynold answered: "Yea,
Well may he leave our earlier vaunt undone.
For what but Tristram's strength, or Lancelot' skill,
Or that fine might of Pelleas, so could cast
Our strongest thus, belike to maim or kill,
And hold unshaken seat? But lose or last,
Needs must we now to venge or rescue seek."
Then Gillimere next, of strong repute, but weak
As Gautier at the test, assailed and fell.
And spake young Reynold ere he closed: "To well,
O knight unknown, thy hardy might I see,
Thyself unscathed, my brethren slain maybe.
But I must hold me with the part they chose.
Guard now thyself."
With swords they closed. Awhile
With equal strength perchance, or generous guile,
Sir Lancelot matched Sir Reynold, stroke for stroke.
Till Gautier breathless, bruised and dazed, arose,
And Gillmere slowlier from deep swoon awoke;
And these amazed that conflict viewed, and knew
How stoutly Reynold held in hard ado
Their victor else.
To either hand they drew,
And Lancelot saw it, and all his strength came forth
In one strong blow that strife to stint, that hard
At helm he swung. It clave the shield's vain guard,
It clave the helm, and through it grim wound it dealt.
Yet Reynold rose, and with recruited wrath,
Assailed anew, so much that heat of strife
His wound contemned, and soon had spilt his life
In vain contest; but Lancelot charged him: "Nay,
Withhold! God's truth, I was not far away,
When thou wast knighted. Loth I were to slay
A friend afore."
Whereat they answered: "Lo,
We yield us to thy will, for well we know
Thou art not Kay."
He answered: "As it may,
Be that; ye shall to Arthur's queen, and say,
That through the might of her good knight, Sir Kay,
And this with light accord they sware;
And so to nurse their hurts he left them there.
Still rode Sir Lancelot, in the arms of Kay,
In the waste lands.
Now gloomed the shortening day,
And under a grey sky that burdened rain
A cold wind rose. In hope some stall to gain,
His charger splashed along the wintry way.
Four knights the while that rode on such lone quest,
In that wild land of silent dearth, as best
Themselves they knew, in covert counsel lay,
Deep in a glade of holly and stunted oak.
Of Camelot's knightly halls known knights were they,
Ector, Gawain, Ewaine, and Sagramore.
The warhorse' tramp their secret converse broke,
And Lancelot when they saw, themselves unseen:
"Now, by my faith," said Sagramore, "I ween,
There rideth Kay. What doth he alone, so far
From his most need? These lands, the feast is o'er
Ere feast is set. Me thinks to prove his pride."
And forth he rode, and Lancelot knew him, and fast
Spurred to the shock, and charger and knight he cast
To ground alike. Foul fall had Sagramore.
"Lo!" Said Sir Ector, "sure this knight is more
In prowess than ever was Kay.... Fair knight," he cried,
"For venging of my friend, I charge thee bide."
Sir Lancelot bode. With skilful lance controlled
To work his will to subtlest end, and shield
Dressed to his need, his kinsman's charge he met,
And lightly when they shocked he overset.
"Yea, by God's life," Ewaine to Gawain said,
"This knight unknown of his great hardihed,
Hath slain Sir Kay. Sir Kay's good lance could ne'er
Lightly to earth such knight as Ector bear.
Hard trial is mine."
He charged, and hard to ground,
From that spear's point a kindred fall he found.
Lord Gawain, frowning dark, his charger sate,
The while his comrades thus sustained the fate
Their rashness won.
'It seems,' in wrath he thought,
'Myself must jeopard life, these fools outfought
To rescue, in such highway strife as naught
Of gain or honour may bring.'
With keen regard
For vantage aught that ground or light supplied,
Forward he rode, and Lancelot's path he barred.
"Sir knight," he said, "the stubborn strength you hide
In arms not thine, a further course must try,
Before you seize these knights the where they lie.
Unless you choose to yield thy spoil and go,
Ere fortunes change."
And Lancelot answered: "Lo,
In open peace I rode, whoe'er I be,
The ambushed charge of not one knight but three
To find. If friend of these flung knights you be,
Them rescue if ye may." Full well knew he
Sir Gawain's shield, and well at heart was glad
His might to try, who yet no deeming had
Of whom he met.
Their equal ground they chose,
With care alike. That those late overthrows
His lance had strained, Sir Lancelot inly dred.
That risk the near result must prove. Again
Fewtred for hardier foe than erst it lay.
Not Camelot's lists their crowded galleries gay
Showed oft such joust as now that wintry way.
Lord Gawain fair the strong lance aimed, and well
Hard in mid-shield it smote, and snapped in vain;
But that good lance he met endured the strain,
And bore him back. To such mischance adept,
His high repute he held: his seat he kept,
Until the up rearing charger backward fell.
Then from the falling steed perforce he leapt
With feet on earth, and hand that still the rein
Controlled, that soon his rolling steed he raised.
Swift motion next to loose his sword he made,
A further strife to try, - then hard he gazed
At Lancelot waiting mute, and sheathed his blade.
Slow turned Sir Lancelot, with a passing smile,
And raised the spear that those four knights had sped,
And yet was whole. "Who made this lance," he said,
"God gave him joy in the work."
Those knights the while
Their scattered chargers sought, and reached with pain,
And when to Gawain they returned again,
Yet wrath: "What think ye of this jest," said he,
"That one strange knight should cast such knights as we?"
"We to the devil commend him," they replied,
"From whom belike he came, for hardier pride,
And more contempt of strength we shall not see,
That lightly flung us down, and left us free."
"Truly to praise his might ye say but well,
If whom I count he be, for those that dwell
Hereafter in these wasted lands, may tell, -
'Hereby the great Sir Lancelot passed, and here
Four knights he flung with one unbroken spear.'
Haply our names forgotten."
"Sooth ye tell,
We nothing doubt," the fey-born knight replied,
"But earlier wit to warn us ere we fell,
Had more availed us, and thyself beside."
Still eastward rode Sir Lancelot, deep amid
Such wintered wastes as moving life forbid.
Lone days he rode, long nights unsheltered knew
The while the hand of winter half withdrew,
Half gripped a land forsaken. Far and few
The abodes of men therein, so oft before
Tides of advancing or receding war
Had swept and left it silent.
Came a day
When, as Sir Lancelot rode the woodland way,
Through the clear air and cold he chanced to hear,
As on the fealty of a wounded deer,
A bracket quest; and turned aside to see
What in those solitary woods might be.
Alone upon the forest path he found,
Following a trail of blood, the questing hound,
That whined, and stayed, and went again ahead;
And Lancelot, wondering, followed where it led
Till, in a little space, again it stayed.
Here the path widened to a narrow glade,
Where bloodshed in the scanty winter shade,
And trampling feet a horrid mire had made,
Since frozen. Well the signs he knew, - for here
Where first they met, the long lance-splinters lay;
And there a broken gauntlet cast away.
On his lance-point he turned it, keen to know
Far-wandering friend, or ware the wasteland foe.
Reddened and hewn, no certain sign it showed,
And still the bracket led, and still he rode
In watchful doubt a narrowing path, that strayed
Midst stretching fens and reach of reed and sedge,
Where oft the weighted charger paused afraid,
Or swerved in caution of the treacherous edge.
But footprints tracked the marsh, and following these
And the impatient hound, at length he sees
A ruined manor, moated, midst a ridge
Of eastward-leaning poplars; crossed the bridge, -
The rotten timbers swaying beneath the weight
Of horse and man, - and passed a fallen gate,
And through the courtyard rode, and further found
A silent hall and bare, and on the ground
A dead knight laid.
Then to the hall there came
A lady weeping: "Canst thou view for shame
The issue of thy fatal wrath?" she cried.
"Or other sorrow wouldst thou work beside
On mine and me?"
"Nay, but I came," he said,
"By trace of blood and by the bracket led,
That haply I might aid in any wise
A woe beyond my helping, - but thine eyes
Through tears behold me not, mine arms unsoiled,
My charger and myself from strife untoiled,
And from your lover's blood my sword is clean."
"Yea, that is truth," she answered, "for, I ween,
He died not as an unresisting maid;
Stroke answered stroke, and wound for wound was paid;
And though my champion died, his fate is worse,
Abandoned, conscious, to the sorceress' curse
That drains his life aware, - unless she lied
And Sir Lancelot grave replied:
"Lady, I hear you, and were loth to show
Default of pity, or contemn thy woe.
Yet if, indeed, because thy knight hath died
In open strife, thou hast by sorcery tried
A secret vengeance, then I hold thy thought
Full evil. Gladly would I bring to naught
Such knowledge, evil used as evil learned.
God give you better comfort."
Then he turned
And left her.
On the path regained he met
A damsel known before in different guise. Sir
Meliot's sister she. With glad surprise
She gave him greeting due.
"And never yet
Came knight more welcome to a maid beset!
My brother born, and thine in arms," she said,
"Sir Meliot of the Table, lies hereby;
And wounded, not to death, but doomed to die
By sorcerous arts, except that one may dare
The Chapel Perilous, and entering there
Bring forth the sword that by a dead knight lies,
Together with a cantel of the pall,
And search his wounds therewith before he dies."
"Light task," Sir Lancelot smiled, "if that were all."
"Nay, knowest thou not," she cried, "the common bruit
That fiends pollute the place, - perchance the fruit
Of some old sacrilege, - and whom they may
Within the accursed bounds they seize and slay?
"Nigh hidden in the lonely woods it lies,
And many and valiant knights of proved emprise,
Lured by the various meeds which valour earns,
Have boldly entered, - and no man returns."
"Damsel, we wandering knights, who ventures seek,
Live but to aid the wounded and the weak.
Ill were the hour when any knight afraid
For shadowed peril should withhold his aid.
Point thou the path, - already fails the day, -
And guard thy brother's life as best you may,
While I the heart of this strange evil learn;
And rest expectant of my soon return."
Fast through the winter twilight fading wan
Rode Lancelot, till the abandoned haunt of prayer
Showed through the sombre boughs; and leaving there
His charger at the confines of the wood,
Crossed the cleared space whereon the chapel stood.
A grey wall bounded it, and thereupon
Known shields of knights of the Table hung reversed,
Dishonoured by unearthly hands accursed.
Hardened his glance thereat. Awhile he stayed
Musing, and closed his helm, and loosed his blade.
'The impotent spent valour of brave men slain,
It calls too loud for me to turn again.'
Silent the scene. The brief day waned. Unbarred
The gate gave entrance. To the chapel-yard
Sir Lancelot passed unhindered. Midst the glooms
Of twilight gathering in the place of tombs
Murmurs and motions seemed and passed, and then
Huge shadowy shapes, that were and were not men,
With weaponed menace barred the path; their hue
Night-black and hideous. Vaguely they withdrew
On either hand, as Lancelot undismayed
Advanced with lifted shield and challenging blade.
Yet as he onward strode from tomb to tomb
Demoniac hands clutched from the ominous gloom.
Laughter of fiends rejoicing in a prey
Came from the closing night that round him lay.
Deep-shadowed lay the chapel. One low light
Burned red before the altar. The dead knight
Laid there before, in that strange light and dim,
It seemed to Lancelot showed the face of him
Whom Meliot slew. Beside the bier was laid
The sword he sought: a straight and naked blade,
Hilted in gems. He reached it, and it seemed
The high altar trembled. Doubting if he dreamed,
Sir Lancelot stooped, and shore a yard away
From the rich pall that on the dead man lay.
The earth shook surely now. In haste he rose,
Alike for earthly or unearthly foes
His point all ways, his eyes alert, aware;
And from the darkness of that place of prayer,
Now desecrate, passed outward.
Here he found,
Between a low sky and a swaying ground,
Fiend-shapes, dim-seen in darkness, narrowing round,
Clamouring for the sword, and offering life in fee.
Fear rose in tide about his heart, but he
For any fear had little thought to flee,
And hardily he turned, and answered high.
"Loud were your late and present threats, but I,
Who bear the scars of many a chance, as yet
No time have yielded for a vaunting threat,
And now, in Christ His name, thy worst defy."
He spoke, and smote; and from the imminent sky
Reverberate thunder answered, and anigh
Reached on all sides the fiends' abhorrent hands.
Alone his constant mind his fate withstands
Lost was the gate in darkness: sank and swayed
All else: nor knew he surely if his blade
Clove air or mail; and while he groped and smote
Blindly, his mind was vexed by woes remote,
Forgotten fears, and ills which had not been.
The fatal front of battle round him swayed
And broke, and while he strove to reach in vain
His father died unrescued. Never pain,
Past or to be, except he felt it then.
Saw Gareth's death, and knew Guenever's shame:
Learnt the great price which saved her from the flame,
In deaths of innocent and valiant men,
And ruin of all he lived for. Hope of life
Died from his heart; yet not the less the strife
His heart upheld; nor less the sword he gained
Against those fiendly hands his grasp maintained.
Till, mazed and spent, he found himself the gate
Without, in silence, and the cool night-air
Of moon rise, and his waiting steed was there.
Clear in the moonlit issue of the wood
In rich attire and fair, a damsel stood.
Red-gold her hair: red-gold her eyes: in mien,
In garb, in grace, she seemed a suppliant queen.
"O Lancelot, for thy lady's sake," she said,
"Take not the doom of him who lieth dead
On thyself also. - Cast the sword aside,
Ere the fate fall."
But coldly he replied:
"I will not loose it, nor for life, nor death,
Nor any treaties."
"Hast thou so," she saith,
"Thou hadst never known Guenever more."
Were the more fool to loose it."
Passed her unheeded.
"Gentle Lancelot," - low
She pleaded, - "prithee kiss me, ere ye go."
"Now God defend," said Lancelot, "damsel none
Hath kiss of love from me, by treaties won."
And pressed to pass her.
"Yea," she said, "pass on.
For hadst thou kissed me, thy life-days were done.
"Yet first I charge thee hear the truth, and less
Perchance in justice than in gentleness,
Forgiveness mayst thou grant for love denied.
'Tis through my love for thee these knights have died
Whose shields hang yonder shamed. Alone for thee,
I conquered fiends by art of gramerye,
And bound them to this purpose, offering here
A lure of death to all who ventured near;
That as the noise grew, and the lengthening list
Of strong knights from thy narrowing Table missed,
Thy wrath aroused, thou hadst thyself essayed
To avenge the dead, or captived friends to aid.
"And many came whose faith or courage failed,
That God's strong shield withdrew, and fiends prevailed;
And Gawain last, and paused before the gate,
And turned his horse and laughed, - 'The fiends may wait
Long, ere I enter their elect abode.'
And Gilbert, who waylaid him on the road,
Lost his left hand thereby, from Gawain's sword.
But had he entered, doubtless the great lord,
Sir Lancelot, had been called to avenge his fate, -
Not he the knight to pass again the gate."
Answered Sir Lancelot: "Gawain is a knight
Importunate of purpose. In his mood
He turns for nothing save the sacred rood:
All hell might howl in vain. But if I came,
What vantage thee my triumph or my shame?"
"Nay, hadst thou died," she said, "as well might be,
(Nor thought I ever mortal man to see
Repass the gate), thou hadst been mine indeed.
Denied in life, by death the bond were freed, -
Guenever's spell, - might I not then rejoice?
Love, unrepulsed, the unresisting clay,
Preserved by curious arts from earth's decay?
For mine the hard resolve, the barren choice,
To lose thee living, or to love thee dead."
"I hear ye. From your subtle crafts," he said,
"Jesu preserve me! Gawain hadst thou told
So foul a tale, his sword had left thee cold.
But I, who never blood of damsel spilt,
I leave thy frustrate purpose and thy guilt
To other doom than mine."
And old report
Tells, that before Sir Lancelot reached the court,
At the near feast of Pentecost, she died.
A ruined tower Sir Meliot's need had found,
And there, cold-couched upon the strawless ground,
While that slow stream of life was drained away,
Died living, all the long-enduring day.
Alert with desperate hope, and sick with fear,
His sister hoved upon the pathway near,
The sound of those returning hooves to hear.
Sir Lancelot, mindful of that piteous need,
Along the dark and unfamiliar way,
At hazard, urged his over-wearied steed.
Yet late he entered where Sir Meliot lay,
Through such cold guidance as the moonlight gave,
And touched his wounds with that enchanted glaive,
And with the fragment of the pall; and they
Marvellously healed thereat; and Meliot there
Rose, weak but whole, with grateful speech and fair,
And hopes Sir Lancelot somewhat to repay
With service of that life which else had died.
And he with customed courtesy replied.
Lightly he weighed a scathless service done;
And spoke his purpose there that night to bide,
And ride for Camelot with the rising sun.
Near was the feast-day which King Arthur set,
Year following year, when all their order met, -
Except they wounded were, or bond, or slain, -
With full delight of concourse once again,
In banquet, at the call of Pentecost.
And those whose lives in venturous quest were lost
Since last they met, in minstrel song were praised,
Not mourned, having knightly died; and Arthur raised
Young knights of crescent fame those seats to fill,
And leave their numbered blazons knightlier still.
Brief ease was Lancelot's here; the while his mind
Forgotten visions vexed that mocked recall;
Till, loathing rest, he roused himself to find
The moon had failed, and darkness held the hall.
Yet rose, and armed himself as best he might,
And found his steed, and passed into the night.
Loose-reined he rode, his charger wont to find
Unhastened way, the while dis-easeful mind,
Or dreaming, separate dwelt. A shade unsure
The seeking of his anxious thought withstood;
Secret, as shy wild creatures of the wood,
Neighboured by night, or housed in earth secure,
From hidden birth, till in the dark they die,
Known only by the footfall and the cry.
Vext his vain-following thought such dreams, and still
As blind he rode, his steed's unhindered will
Controlled his path by copse and marsh, until
Rose in the east the gradual gold, and then
The glory of full dawn across the fen.
The time was middle March. The wooing thrush
Sang from bare boughs: scarcely the night could hush
The voices of the wood. By marsh and reed,
By forest wastes and woods, by mere and mead,
Retracing that long path Sir Lancelot rode.
Day following day the later sunset glowed;
The earlier daylight dawned. No hindrance stayed,
No tale of wrong or violence claimed his aid.
In dreaming peace he rode, till o'er him fell
A shadow of towers. In moated strength they stood
Between a wide mere and a circling wood.
Grey menace gave those silent walls, but he,
Through confidence of strength from caution free,
Regardless rode the unsheltered pathway near,
Till roused to more regard he paused to hear
The sound of falcon bells; and soaring high,
Where one tall elm reached toward the windier sky,
Above the close concourse of trees beside,
With trailing lines and loose, a falcon flew,
And lit therein; and when again she tried
To wing her soaring course aloft anew,
The trailed lines held, and fluttering back she fell.
Sore vexed was Lancelot's heart, for loved he well
Those noble birds; and while he gazed there came
A lady from those towers, and cried on high;
And seeing Sir Lancelot there, in knighthood's name,
She charged his help: "For by my fault he flew,
And if such loss my wandering lord but knew
My life should pay it, before his wrath he reined."
Sir Lancelot wondered that she hailed not out
Some churl from those wide towers such toil to try,
The while with urgent words her loss she plained,
And his swift aid implored.
A shadow of doubt
Hindering his mind a moment ere he spake,
"Lady," at length he answered, "never but now
I paused to take devoir for damsel's sake;
And, that ye charge me by my knighthood, I
Will venture, though, as any I saw till now,
This elm is scant of boughs, and bare and high;
And those who know me will for sooth allow
I climb but ill." He lost the thought of guile.
Hawberk and helm, alighting, down he laid,
And lance, and all the trust of shield and blade;
And she with restless, hastening hands the while
Aided, that soon in fenceless garb he stood.
Then valorous heart that toilsome climb made good,
Mounting until the struggling bird at last
He reached, and there the trailing lines around
A broken branch he tied, and thus to ground
In safety at the lady's feet he cast.
Now downward from the swaying height he sought,
From branch to branch that hard descent began,
When from those silent walls a deadly mort
Their warder blew, and by that signal brought,
An armed knight outward from the postern ran.
Aloud he laughed, Sir Lancelot there to see,
And waited with drawn sword beneath the tree
To slay him: "Ah! Lady, why betray me thus?"
Sir Lancelot cried, and that knight orgulous
Made answer: "As I willed she did: for thee
The stakes are lost: the debt remains to pay;
And naught the cowardice of thy more delay
Thy life avails."
And Lancelot answered: "Nay.
I may not think thou wouldst me fenceless slay;
If wrong be thine, though naught of wrong I know,
Full knightly would I meet a knightly foe,
And vantage grant thee to thine utmost will,
If more you count me proved in strength or skill;
And make or here or hence the meeting-place.
It would but scorn thee to thy long disgrace
To slay me thus."
"I care not what ye say,"
The knight replied, "I wait thy life to slay.
I know you more than like you deem: nor dare
In any vantage mine our strifes compare."
At this sharp need Sir Lancelot glanced around,
Searching some shift his life to save; nor found
Aught to his will, except that overhead
A round-spike from the trunk projecting dead,
Rude weapon at such perilous pass might be,
If toil in desperate need could rend it free.
With life to win, his utmost strength he bent,
Till for his use a monstrous spike he rent
Clear from the trunk, and then his last descent
Began; beneath him moved his charger tied;
And feinting, widely to the further side
He leapt; and, as his waiting foeman thrust,
Caught on the spike, and turned the stroke aside,
And faced the desperate strife, as needs he must;
And swung his weapon round and smote so well
That senseless from the stroke his foeman fell;
And there that knight's own sword Sir Lancelot took
From out his hand: and from the trunk he strook
The head, at which that lady sharply cried,
In grief and fear her champion's death to see.
And all that chanced he overthought awhile;
And mercy died as he recalled her guile.
"Now," said he, "that I should pass and leave thee free
To work like loss to others, may God forbid."
But when she urged: "Whatever wrong I did,
My lord enforced me to it," he weighed the plea.
"Ye shall but reap the seed ye sowed," he said;
And when she swooned beside her lord, in dread
Of more resort from that dark hold, with haste
Sir Lancelot as he might his harness braced
About him, and left them where they lay, and gained
His steed, God thanking that his life remained.
The year was young: the flying cloud was pale.
The crying lapwing shouldered 'gainst the gale:
The slant of fields was varying light and shade;
The lake was wrinkled silver.
The calling south to blow: not yet was seen
Through the dark weald the earliest mist of green;
Not yet the wold her golden pensels flew,
As her gay daffodils awaked anew.
Toward the dark weald Sir Lancelot's path inclined.
He passed the wold: he left the lake behind:
A pathway through the mossy boles to find
Of beeches naked in the need of Spring.
When, as he rode a lofty aisle and wide,
Across his path a flying damsel came,
And toward him turned, and caught his rein, and cried:
"Lord, save me."
"Stand thou on my further side,
And nothing fear."
His glance he bent to where
Her fierce pursuer, with sword to urge his claim
Bare in his hand, in hard-pressed chase appeared,
And seeing her stand, he roused his pace anew,
As some fell beast his trembling prey that neared.
But Lancelot rode between them: "First declare
What rightful cause you hold, such shame to do."
He turned thereat, as one that not till now
Had Lancelot seen, and scarce would wrath allow
The moment's pause required his wrong to say.
"I do the thing," he cried, "of right I may.
She is my wife, not thine, to save or slay.
Thou hast nor right to judge it, nor part herein."
"Nay, by the mother of God, I swear," she said,
"My lord's fierce anger hath his heart misled,
Because my cousin I cherished, nor thought of sin."
"Yet will I slay her," he cried, "despite thy head;
Nor her false swearing shall her life prolong."
"Fair knight," Sir Lancelot spake, "of right or wrong
I may not judge too soon; but here were shame
Her death to see, where proofs of guilt are none."
"Her death she earned by her late deeds misdone."
"Nay but I know not that she sinned," he said,
"A doubtful cause may cooler counsels claim.
In quieter hour ye shall your pleadings show:
And if ye know me, surely both ye know
That justly shall your pleas be heard and tried."
He ceased, but still that fearful damsel cried,
"Lord, save me," clinging in unquietened dread,
"His wrath you see, you heard the threats he said;
Though, by God's life, my very thoughts were clean
Of evil, and naught of all he dreams hath been.
Yet, surely, whatsoe'er constrained he say,
He will but wait the while his time to slay."
"Truly," Sir Lancelot said, "while here you be,
It rests not in his power to do it." And he
Assented: "Lord, I shall be ruled by thee."
Then Lancelot placed the damsel at his right side,
For sure safeguard, and caused the knight to bide
To left-ward, and their path continued thus.
Now that false knight took counsel treasonous,
In his base mind, some murdering chance to find,
And sudden exclaimed: "Look, lord, there is death behind."
And as Sir Lancelot swept a glance that searched
The backward trees, that false knight forward lurched,
Swang out his sword, and swerved afront, and smote
The helpless damsel at the unguarded throat;
Severing the white neck, and shearing short the cry
Her terror that told; and mocked to mark her die.
That flame of murderous fury, while he gazed,
Sank to cold ash, before such wrath as blazed
In Lancelot's eyes.
"I am shamed for ever," he cried,
"That trusting in my faith this damsel died.
Defend thee, liar."
And leapt to earth, and drew
Upon him in haste. But he no knighthood knew.
He grovelled, and caught Sir Lancelot by the thighs,
And clamoured with shameless oaths: "I will not rise
Except ye grant me mercy: ye may not slay
A kneeling knight."
In wrath Sir Lancelot spake:
"I may not grant thee mercy. Rise and take
Such vantage as you will. This craven fear
Put from thee. Lo, myself will meet thee here.
Save but my sword, of arms and buckler bare.
Surely you may so much for knighthood dare."
Then, as he grovelled the lower: "It seems the earth,
That surely hath been fouler for thy birth,
Must more endure thee. Rise, and hear my will.
As thy life's price thou shalt the burden bear
To Camelot of this damsel slain, and there
At the Queen's feet, and in full hall declare
Thy treason, and yield thee to her, and there fulfil
Such further penance as her mercy will."
Then on the cross-hilt of the sword he sware,
And by such oaths as such men bind, to bear
That piteous burden thus; and forth he set;
And with the maimed corse of that damsel dead,
As one that flies the tracks of plague he fled,
While in himself he bears the plague he met.
He, the third noon, to Camelot came, and there
Beneath the bannered arches rode, to where
King Arthur held his court. His throne anear,
Thronged those strong knights that held the world in fear.
To Camelot for the approaching feast they came,
Kings of great lands, and knights of lordlier fame,
From wandering quests and ventures wild and wide.
Ulfius and Brastius of the older day,
And he that with the Hundred knights did ride;
Ector and Blamor, Lionel, Villiars, Kay,
And Bors; and seated at King Arthur's side,
Lord Gawain; and the bulk of Agravain;
Gaheris; and the fey-born knight Ewaine.
And there was Griflet, called Le Fils de Dieu,
Whose land or birth there was not man that knew;
And Dodinas there, and there was Sagramore;
And there came Dinadan of the silver tongue,
His sword beside, his harp behind him hung;
Most loved of all to whom in right belong
The glamours of the life of sword and song.
And thereward came the knight of Winchelsea;
And Clarence from the windy moors and bare;
And there the strange lake-maiden Nimue,
Sir Pelleas, her love-chosen knight, was there;
And there the sons renowned of Pellinor,
Lamorack de Galis, Aglovale, and Tor;
Brian of the Woods, and Mador of the Wild;
Brian of the Isles, and Fergus of the Fen;
Through the high throng, that murder-burdened knight
Passed to the throne, and at Guenever's feet
Did from his urged and panting steed alight;
And there, in mood too wrothed for reverence meet,
With fierce hot words he urged his bitterest wrong,
And rights that must to outraged trust belong.
How could he fight with Lancelot, makeless known?
How let the traitress live? Her flight her own
Confession of guilt. Should vows be sworn for naught?
Spurred knight was he. His honour a wanton's sport?
Nay, by God's death! He thanked High Heaven that he
Had spilt her life, ere further mock might be.
The while he spake, on that gay throng that heard,
A listening silence sank, that only stirred
As Lancelot's name he gave. He ceased his plea;
And forward leaned the Queen: "O, Pedevere,
Lancelot ye saw?" She said: "The place how near?
And wandering further hence, or came he here?"
And Arthur watched the knight, and heeded naught
That with closed lips her shortened breath she caught,
The silent instant that the answer hung.
"Queen, it was he; though not his shield he bore,
And tarnished gold the painted arms he wore,
Unlike his wont. Yet had I known him among
A thousand else. The hither path he held,
But if himself he cometh he did not say.
Belike he rides at no such haste as I,
This three days' death my comrade of the way."
Then at that headless corse, that late rebelled
At life's controls, that haply sought to take
The bait of sin, and then its price to fly
So vainly, glanced the queen: "Dear lord," she said,
"I pray thee judge it," and Arthur paused, and spake.
"O knight unhappy! Who hast the burden dead
Of thine own deed, that once ye loved; for me,
I would not doom, and may not loose thee free;
Lest so should seem that I the dead condemn,
Whose guilt we know not; by thy perfidy
Whose lips are silent. Thou didst first contemn
Thy knightly word to Lancelot. Who may so
Believe thee now? And therefore shalt thou go,
Still with that load of woe, but meetly hid
From sight of men, to Rome's High Throne, and there
To him who stands for God Himself, declare
The truth indeed; and take such penance as he
Decrees; there holding as thou wilt thy way,
So that two nights in no one place you stay,
Nor part from that ye bear till there you be."
This doom he took, and forth he fared, and sought,
Where ruled that Pontiff in the Holy Court,
And the foul truth of that deed treasonous
Confessed to Heaven, nor shrank the fate enforced.
Penance and prayer and scourge and frequent fast
His days endured, and haply reached at last
Such gains as Heaven may hold for those who thus
Turn Godward, when the prize of life is lost.
Two days before the Feast of Pentecost,
Sir Lancelot, on his long way-wearied steed,
Passed the east gate; no weight his heart had lost
Of that which vexed him erst, and made his need
Of wandering days to know. Yet strong desire
Again, high-piled in middle heaven, to view
Those towers from which the dragoned banner flew,
Had caused him, past his wont, his steed to tire.
With morn he had risen; through dewy ways and dim
His path to take, before the mounting sun
Surrender of the willing earth had won,
While frosted yet the windier uplands lay.
But naught of these he saw: as naught to him
The wont-loved splendours of the lightening day.
Unheeded, paled in heaven the wide rose-glow
The advancing dawn that told. Unheeded he
The flowers that met the red dawn's call, - for though
Of sunlight woo'd, of northborn winds afraid,
Aware of frost, the white anemone
The opening of shy petals long delayed,
Yet the drenched primrose from the grasses wet
Bared its brave heart to heaven on bank and lea,
And from its own dark leaves the violet
Lifted, the enpurpling light of morn to see:
But blindly on his hastened path he set.
Longed he the applauding of his peers, that he
Alone had Meliot freed, and Turquin slain?
Or welcome of his kin? Or hungered he
His dear-won peace to deal for dearer pain?
Once more to know, with bitter longing vain,
The pleading of the sign he would not see?
In the great hall, from banquet cleared, that day
Were grouped, of Dinadan's harp to take delight,
A throng gay-hued, of damsel, dame and knight;
Few were there in that throng but loved his lay.
For he could rise to song's heroic height;
Though most he loved a japing strain to play,
That laughed at maiden's lure, and warrior's might,
And toil of errant knight's adventurous way.
Tale of bold deed he would with jest requite;
And speak of Spring, he mocked the breathing May.
And now of Pelleas and his chosen fey
In idle mirth he framed a japing lay:
Behold, are mortal maids so few,
Are mortal maids so cold to woo,
That fey must mortal knight pursue?
Such bond, I ween, it will not stay;
But knight shall leave that foolish fey,
As light as dream with waking day.
As passed the fey, the mocking strain he tried;
And Nimue, careless of his jest replied:
"Behold, you pass and jest at life, and lo!
You know not if all life be jest or no.
But I would gladly hear thy harp again,
If you would wake it to some worthier strain,
As well you may."
"My better songs are fled
My vagrant memory long."
"Wilt sing," she said,
"That song that all men speak? The song they sung
At Badon Mount, when Arthur backward flung
Nine miles in ruining rout the heathen host,
And brake their pride thereby, and Lothian's boast."
"Now heaven thee teach!" He said, "thy mystic lore,
And Merlin-gyving wiles, can rede no more
Than childhood might. The songs that morn we made
Were rung on helm and shield with hammering blade.
Tuned song might serve to pass the night before,
But when we crashed against their heathen roar,
Out! Out! For Christ! For Christ! For Christ! We cried,
And those wild ranks that shocked us broke and died."
"Say what thou wilt," she said, "so wilt thou sing."
"Yea, ye shall have it," he said, but ere the string
He touched, the thronged approach was stirred where-through
From mouth to mouth the name of Lancelot flew.
And loud aloft the shout of welcome leapt,
Up the long hall as Lancelot's charger stept;
And Arthur saw him, and hastened from his seat
His greatest and his best-loved knight to greet.
Rose the next morn through heaven serene and fair.
Above the royal towers of Camelot high
The dragon banner in the windless air
Drooped, as the drowsing hour of noon was nigh.
The king a practice of young knights controlled,
Contending in the court below. There rose
Laughter, and clanging falls, and echoing blows
Meanwhile the queen, love-bold,
Sir Lancelot called, and laced the curtain fold
That closed her bower, with light swift hands, and led
Even to its last recess, and turned, and said:
"Oh, Lancelot, this long year! Why went you forth,
And left me fearful? In the hostile north
Why rode you friendless in waste lands and far?
Thy name was made. Men know the knight you are.
Too high thou wert to rise. - But Lancelot, say,
Did always naught but fruitless words repay
Thy rescues done? Of giants and tyrants slain,
Of knights o'erthrown for injured maidens' plain,
Tales have we heard. But naught, when need was past,
Of grateful damsel's pledged reward at last.
Didst never turn thee from the forward way,
Didst never in the heated noon delay,
Beneath some cool pavilion-shade to find
The welcome of a damsel kissed and kind?"
And Lancelot answered: "Dear my queen, to me
The damsels of desire are none but thee,
Since first my service to thy name I vowed,
And took thy gage, as loyal faith allowed,
In Arthur's sight."
"Let be the King," she said,
"For only to thine own my heart is wed.
Have I not waited these long months to give
Thy most desire? Through days I did but live
To hear thy name renowned in court and street,
And lowly in my heart have kissed thy feet?
And lain long nights in secret fear to learn
With morn, that only should such tales return,
And thou come never? And when your life you gave,
Dear hostage to the hosts of night, to save
Such life as Meliot's!" - (did her heart foretell
That Carlisle stair at last where Meliot fell?) -
"Recked ye my grief? And now, thy will to do,
So lowly must thy sovran lady sue?
Disloyal!" And following to her mood he bent,
And kissed, and gave her of her first intent.
End of Chapter VIII