The Song Of Arthur - part 1
by S. Fowler Wright
Note: Foreword and Contents after introduction 'Arthur'.
An ancient tale may later words retell,
Time's sure oblivion somewhat to delay;
Though in the shadows of a faithless day,
For one bright moment somewhat to repel
The meaner voices that themselves betray.
A tale of far dim days, vital with youth,
Of earliest Britain first as empire deemed.
No man may part the legend from the truth,
Nor say who lived, nor whom romance hath dreamed.
Through fluctuant clouds the enchanted dawn appears,
Red with the rose of honour: blind with tears.
A tale believed in earlier times; but say
No sun these heroes' deeds beheld, nor they
Lived, or lived only in the thoughts of men,
A dream that waking days reject. What then?
Shall ocean or the founded land remain?
Cloud-like they change. And who but God shall say,
Are dreams less real, are songs less worth, than they?
For this beyond the reach of doubt is sure:
The substance changes, and the dreams endure.
Illusion all? Yet those who heed shall hear
The noise of chargers, and the breaking spear,
And breathe the air of battle. They shall learn
Of deaths, and valours, and strong chastities;
Of violenced rights down-thrown to more return:
Of dungeons, and the weight of hopeless days:
Of wonders of waste ways where few men trod:
Of faiths child-eyed, that held the hand of God
As few men now: and of that sinless one
Who from her veins the wine of life spilled red
To save the worthless; and the vengeance done
By angered Heaven therefor.
Through winters, and the fresh delights of spring:
Of sportive loves in summer days and kind:
Of treasons of foul sorts that strike behind:
Of rapes and rescues. Of a dream that died
When Heaven to sinful man the Grail denied.
Of wide night-waters, shadowed deep and still,
Clothed in starless dark from hill to hill,
Where those who only at their wills we see,
Transient as earth, whose immortality
Is of the sun from which their lives derive,
More than ourselves and less, who fail or thrive
As the sun's system thrive or fail; for they
The bounded laws of Nature's life obey,
Nor any further life is theirs to be.
Of spells and charms a long-dead learning knew:
Of fastings, and the veil of flesh worn thin:
Of Hell's deep snares, and those who rode therethrough:
Of sin, and of the bitter doles of sin,
Avoidless, till the toll of life was past,
And only at God's feet was peace at last.
Swords reap: death garners. Races fail and die;
Or harbour in close hills to strife renew.
But still the light of Britain lifts more high
As tribe with tribe their strengths unite, and through
The healing of the reconciling years,
From these, than any of these, a hardier race
Is born of Britain and the sea's embrace,
To raise through transient mists a deathless star.
Till came at last the later Lancelot, he
The thunder of whose guns at Trafalgar
Should echo freedom to the utmost sea.
And we who now, beneath an equal sky,
In freedom's twilight, watch that greatness die,
By envious voices to its end misled:
A fallen hope behind, a doubt ahead,
Who more than life have loved that loveliest star,
May we not backward gaze to whence it sprung,
And gain some impulse of their light from far
Dream-dawns of other days, when life was young?
|Scenes from the|
|Volume 1||Morte d'Arthur.|
|II||Uther & Igraine||14||1|
|V||The Three Quests||111|
|VI||Morgan Le Fey||147|
|VII||The Three Damsels||181||3,4|
|VIII||The Riding Of Lancelot||213||10|
|XI||Tristram And Iseult||368||7|
|XIII||Gareth & Lionore||511||2|
|XVI||Elaine Of Carbonac||706||13|
|XVII||The Challenge Of The Grail||754||11,17|
|XVIII||The Seeking Of The Grail||786||14,15|
|XIX||The Vision Of The Grail||812||16,18,19|
|XX||Elaine Of Astolat||827|
|XXI||The Queen's Supper||850|
|XIII||Lancelot And The Queen||890|
|XXIV||The Death Of Arthur||925|
As mentioned, in Brian Stableford's synopsis of Sydney Fowler Wright's literary achievements, this is his life's work.
S. FW worked on this new rendering, of the Arthurian Legends in verse, for over 30 years; only to have, the only, nearly completed manuscript destroyed - along with his Fetter Lane offices and much else of importance - by a bomb in May 1941. Despite his advanced years (67) - and being bombed out of home twice - he largely re-wrote the 332,500 words - stopping only in 1956 on his 82nd birthday.
The 'Literary notes' give a flavour of his frustrations; and one insignificant dramatic loss in what was so much carnage. The War Damage Commission paid for his smaller losses but refused compensation for this work - needed to finance the re-writing - after an Oxford professor described it as 'a work of art'. As such it was beyond their scope. Being required to be secured in government vault... for protection.
S. FW's youngest son Nigel (1932-1987) had read the original, and having lived through part of its creation, it's destruction (and the attempts to re-write) was of the opinion that the 're-write' did not achieve the original greatness through its entire length. S.FW. ran out of time. It was Nigel's hope to use his understanding of its proper construction to prepare the work for publication when he retired. The available manuscripts being damaged, with sections missing and areas with which S.FW. was clearly unhappy. Particularly in vol. 4. Sadly this was not to be.
I have published the work in the hope that it will inspire others - and in the immensity of time the right person to re-work the original magic.
I have marked chapters that incorporate the sections from his 1919 work 'Scenes From The Morte d'Arthur' accordingly. 'The Riding of Lancelot' being self-evident.
Slight differences exist between versions - mostly 'linking lines' - this version is the 'Song of Arthur'.
His publication 'The Ballad of Elaine' is a short alternative version of 'Elaine of Astolat' (Chap. XVI). This was published in The Empire Poetry League's subscription Quarterly 'Poetry' July 1921 edition as 'Elaine and Lancelot'.
'Poetry' 1918-1931 (From Vol 8. No. 72 (June 1925) re-titled 'Poetry & The Play' - was also edited by S.FW from Vol. 3. No. 6. Aug. 1920 (as Alan Seymour) - also published other sections and articles by S.FW. on 'Arthur'.
The tale of Merlin. Virgin-born was he,
And fiend-engendered. These the proofs men tell.
What time the lord of Life to deepest Hell
Sought the world's pain, and issuing upward bore
Lost souls to God, a sharp confusion fell
On fiends whose boast to Heaven had been before
That none they seized from out their fatal door
Came ever, that He their spoil should wrest away.
Amazed with portent of their loss were they,
And wroth at loosing of their taken prey,
And fearful all of some dark-shadowing end.
Then spake the master-fiend of that foul crew,
Whose counsels might with all but God contend.
He thought with subtler craft to all fordo
The craft of Heaven.
"Behold," he said, "ye see
What power belongs this Spirit of mortal birth!
Own we the leigance of the tribes of Earth,
Or seek they God? Shall Heaven prevent that we
A maiden fitted to our use shall bend?
Shall we not raise such seed as well may be
More potent in its growth our cause to friend
Than this new foe to thwart us? Heed ye me.
Cast fears aside. Recall the joys we had
When earlier for the souls of men we fought
In God's defeat. Shall not this victory be
Repeated, and advance a hope more glad
Of Earth reconquered, our assured resort?"
He gained of feebler fiends deserved acclaim;
And missioned thus to Middle Earth he came,
And spent long years of search, and lastly found
A maiden fit to bear immortal birth.
There was no fairer stepped on earthly ground:
No flower more flawless from the soil of Earth
Sprang ever. But clean in all her thoughts was she,
And pure of heart as mortal maid shall be.
Now was his thought for but one transient hour
To draw her separate from the shielding power
Invincible of Heaven. For well knew he
Who held on God should all his wiles withstand;
And hence her siege with deep conceits he planned.
Her father first, with loss of worldly store
He vexed. A murrian seized his kine. The more
Device to save his lessening herds he sought,
The more beyond remede the plaguing grew.
At last in his wide fields were left him naught
But such brood-mares of price, and these but few,
As most he valued past compare; for he,
Beyond the hills, and to the northland sea,
Was famed for coursers that his strain had bred.
One morn their came a herdsman: "Lord, are dead
Of some strange plague the whole thou hadst." Thereat
Of all but wrath his angered heart forgat:
"Now may the fiend who rules this world," he said,
"Take all he will."
Released in this permit
To greater power, the fiend who purposed it
Wrought with more wrong his weakened faith to test.
Next morn his heir and only son was found
Slain in the night. Dark stains the white throat round
Of strangling fingers scorching where they pressed
Revealed his death.
His father gazed. Of naught
Again he spake. But of his hand he sought
And found his end.
Two sisters yet remained
Whom well she loved, before the fiend had gained
His goal to reive her of her earthly kin.
To these he cast the snare of carnal sin
In different guise their moods to lure, and one
Weak-yielding to a love misgiven, was led
By that delude a downward path to tread
That in the hues of heaven its marshes hid.
And when the purpose of his guile was won,
In love's defeat her lover faithless fled.
But she was plainly of the sin she did
Convict; for so the subtle fiend had planned.
There was an evil custom of that land
That maidens once who in that sort had sinned
(Except that nobler souded, or loftier kinned
Their deaths they chose), themselves they then must give
To all who would. By such foul use to live,
No heart was hers. Nor surely urged her so
The Elders who her falling judged, for though
Her fault they might not by their laws forgive,
They might not by their ready choice agree
A damsel of her father's race to see
Soiled in the shameful traffic of the mart,
But slew her darkly in a place apart
That no man knew.
The fiend, rejoiced, perceived,
As thus with loss on loss her heart he grieved,
That round his prey a closing snare he drew.
As some strong lioness toward the secret snare
The wary beaters drive, till all unware
Plunged in the pit the treacherous branches through;
Or more as wolves divide a labouring doe
Separate from out the antlered herd, that so
Perforde she further from her safety flies,
Till lonely to the leaping fangs she dies.
So working still to reach his worst intent,
A temptress to the second sister sent
This fiend of hell. A crone so base was she
That hard she wrought all cleaner minds to see
Sunk in like slough to her own infamy.
"Surely," she said, "they waste their nights in vain
The while in men's strong arms they have not lain,
Nor love's dear shame and dear surrender know."
And answered her the maiden: "Surely so
You tempted, and my sister died thereby."
To which the crone gave answer: "Nay, not I;
But wiser counsel from my lips had been
To save her, though the tender fault were seen,
From that strait grave and cold, for fresh delights,
And dalliance of warm days and warmer nights."
The maiden to her chamber passed, and there
Shook from her shoulders loose her pride of hair,
Gazed on her slender body white and bare,
And those smooth limbs that God had made so fair
For love's delight, and felt quick pulses stir
Of lewd desire. So that fiend wrought in her.
Thereat she sought the temptress out anew.
"Thinkst thou," she asked, "I might so stoop, and then
Choose mine own pleasure in desire of men?"
"You are so fair," she said, "that all but few
Would yield thee of their wealth thy will to do."
Then went she forth in fameless ways, and left
Her sister lone in that doomed house, bereft
Of kin or comrade for the days to be.
Thus neared the fiend his purposed hour, but she
Turned Godward in her need, and sought for aid
A holy hermit, Blaise, and him she prayed
For counsel: "All my house is lost," she said,
"And fear is mine."
He answered: "Rest thy dread
On Heaven, for in sure faith is fear's defeat.
Who lean on Christ, High God, for his Son's sake,
Shall not forsake them, save they first forsake,
Their leigance due."
Her steps returned to meet
Whom least she thought about her gates, for there,
With ribald jests and mocking guise to greet
Her quieter mien, inflamed of lust and wine,
Was concourse of her sister's sort, and she
Not backward of them.
With no ruth to see
Whom once she loved so lost from virtues fair,
But wroth that thus they round her gates should bide,
She spoke with scorn she had no heart to hide:
"Oh, sister, shameless! In such shame as thine
What shame contains? Or in thy wasted pride
Wouldst hope to draw me down in like descent
To these and thee?"
So chiding, wroth and proud,
She parted. Scorn such fall that Heaven allowed
Diseased her mind.
Of this repenting naught,
Her door she barred, her narrow couch she sought.
Neither she bent for boon of God her knee,
Nor crossed her with the Sacred Sign, nor plea
To Mary piteous made to hold her free
From demons that the Godless dark affright.
Without, the moon set, and the clouding night
Cowered silent, shrinking from the fear to be.
On the doomed roof, conceived of deepest hell,
A shadow blacker than the midnight fell.
With dawn she rose, her door unbarred, and sought
With sightless-seeming eyes the hermit's cell,
Such tale of marvel and fear to tell
As nothing from his antique lore had taught.
"Was no man came," she said, "was parted none.
There was none with me, nay, by God His Son;
Yet deep I knew my maiden days were done."
The doubtful hermit weighed her tale. He knew
Her simple days. Her life, serene and true,
Pled for her.... But wilder tale should no man hear,
Nor such, he thought, should any credence win,
Devised of shame to shield a likelier sin.
"Daughter," he said, "if aid of Heaven you seek,
Or counsel at most need from mortal weak
To cleanse your soul from guilt, or lift your fear
(The portent of your sister's doom so near),
How hope you aught from me or Heaven the while
You seek to hide your deeds in cloaking guile?"
"God's dole!" She said, "I tell you all I may.
There are no words in mortal speech to say
The more I knew. Than should such night return
I would my flesh the leaping flame should burn.
Yea, by God's death!"
"Daughter," the holy man
Replied, "such marvel since our times began
Hath no man heard. If I can scarce believe,
Who know thee, shall the colder world receive
Thy tale for truth? Thy stricken house to grieve
Strange powers are loose. Yet this thing hold thou sure:
Rest thou thy heart on Heaven, devout and pure,
Though seemeth to man's eyes that fiends prevail,
God's justice at the last shall weight the scale.
Hence with sure faith to God thy life submit.
There is no fear but He shall vanquish it:
No dole but shall His larger grace repay."
Then entering in, he wrote with careful skill
The wondrous tale he heard, that whoso will
May read it yet. 'If truth,' he thought, 'she tell,
And monstrous wrong a monstrous birth portend,
This writ may aid her at the later day
When ginned by that stern law her faults offend
Death must be hers, excepting that God indwell,
A wondrous birth to bring; or demon spell
That wrought this evil should her doom delay.'
Now passed the months: the colder winds prevailed:
The dawns delayed, and summer left the land.
Apparent cause her virgin fame assailed.
The grey morn rose that saw her guiltless stand
For condemnation; or such tale to plead
As few men might for aught but mockery heed.
Yet for her life's defence that hermit came
Her tale to urge; and by his reverend age,
And clean repute, and temperate speech and sage,
And pleadings in the Holy Name they knew,
Some respite from remedeless doom to claim,
A hearing won. But when he ceased, anew
Her tale with ribald scoff and scathing jest
That audience, loud in murmuring, mocked: suppressed
Scarce by the graver Elders there.
A tale beyond the common ways of men
By every scale of patient proof to test
Was counsel called, and long-writ books were brought
The wisdom of the dead years to reap; but naught
Was in them dealing of such wonders met.
And deeming at the last much guilt to let
Were such defence allowed, this doom they read;
That lest clean life of sinless soul be shed
Live should she, captive in strong hold immured;
Till born her babe, and nursed to life assured,
When fire should cleanse her from her shameful wrong.
They closed her in a battered tower and strong,
High-built; and but one outer stairway wound
In giddy curve the steep slope wall around.
And here contained, her babe was born, and here
Grew with its strengthening days the closer fear
Of her unmeet, escapeless doom more near.
And when the gorse upon the moors was gold,
And kingcups in the marshier ways, and all
That her wide prospect showed, in verdure gay
Its summer thrall allowed, at evenfall
There came such word to where she watched as told
Her doomday nigh; and bending, while it lay
Against her heart, that sireless babe above,
Who paid her dole and death for life and love,
"Oh, babe, dear babe," she said, "I dred me sore
The cruel flame to feel, but weep I more
To leave thee shameful to a world unkind."
And in man's speech the babe gave answer clear:
"Oh, mother, from thy heart cast forth thy fear.
There is no fire shall reach thee while I live."
And she, abashed thereat: "Now God forgive
If sin be here, as marvel here I find
Beyond aught else," and called the beldames twain
Who service there and bitter guard combined.
They came, and many an eager wile they wrought
To tempt its speech, but gat they answer naught:
It was mere babe in all response thereto.
Again the Hall of Judgement. Dark again
The brows of those who judged her bent to see
The maiden garb, the babe on arm, as she
Condemned before, to hear her doom was brought.
A ruler in their chiefest place who sate
Faint-stirred of ruth her deadly plight to view.
Adjured her yet once more: "Dost urge thou naught
In more excuse, or own - not yet too late -
Thy frailty, and the stubborn pride subdue
Thy one release that barriers?"
"Nay," she said,
"For sins I nothing wit, God's offcast I.
Do thou thy will."
He answered: "Think ye well.
The fault is plain. The doom is dire. Submit
The lighter choice to take. Confess the wrong.
Live mayst thou yet."
She answered: "Well I know
That deathward from this bitter world I go.
Unmercied, hopeless of one friend's belief.
Yet not for gain of life or change of grief
Will take I refuge in that shameful lie.
But past ye all to God His throne I cry
For His high justice when this dole is through."
Then in the stillness when she ceased - a fear
To that thronged court - in ready speech and clear
From her young babe there came a bold reply:
"Oh, fools! Who hear plain truth, and pass it by.
Think ye the charge of wanton use ye bring
Had falsehood countered with no likelier lie?
Or lewdness had your choice refused? Held fit
In judgement on the doubtful cause to sit,
Condemn ye for a proofless doubt?... I spring
From womb of one no mortal chose, but he
Who holds to all thy race arch-enmity,
Higher than your first beyond compare, I wist.
Sired by the Eternal God's antagonist,
More wise at birth in mortal lores am I
Than those of hoary eld who latest die.
"Begot was I to work your race more wrong
Than erst hath been; yet that the life was pure
Of her who should to life my soul innure,
And that she sought God for me night and day
While gaining life beneath her heart I lay,
This choice of Him was given: that though to me
The wisdom of my demon sire belongs,
And his far-purposed thought, my soul is free
To serve him, or to God for larger gain
To Heavenward turn.
"Now harken. If she die
Guiltless, approve it Hell or Heaven, will I
On all who silent here consent her wrong
So deal, that they for lagging death too long
Shall call in vain; or in more dreadful woes
Shall work like end through sharper pangs for those
They dearest hold. I will such vengeance take
As this ill custom from your laws shall break,
And cleanse the land for ever."
While he spake
Was silence, and some space beyond, until
That ruler who had judgement given before
Boldly sustained the cloak of rule he wore.
"You claim high wisdom, yet your words confess
You were conceived in worse than foolishness,
And so confute thee in themselves. No ill
We seek to show, a cruel fruit to bear.
Our justice oft for surer proof delays;
Or halts, the guiltless from its sword to spare,
As here is shown, or not thy birth had been.
But not for threats its measured pace it stays;
Nor claim of doubt, when such the doubt is seen
As springs from sorcerous crafts, or arts unclean."
To this the babe gave answer: "Say ye so?...
Whose mother risking her soul's price doth go
The while ye speak, the more than mine hath done
For this thing ever."
To this the judge, though wroth
Such monstrous charge to meet, with wont control
Tempering his speech: "This word hath saved her whole
For whom ye plead, or cast you equalled forth
In common flame to die. Not guiltier she
Than is thy base concept, unless that thou
Canst stablish that thou sayest."
The babe replied:
"Well can I prove my word, and more beside.
And nearlier to thee than I spake before,
Were smaller audience held. Or wilt thou more
In open hall be said? I would not shame
Beyond good need thy fair repute, but I
A certain proof will tell, with all men by,
Or solely to thyself; and thou shalt name
Or doom or freedom in thy just review,
While I contest no more."
The judge replied,
Abashed and fallen from his former pride:
"Let space be given," and all men else withdrew.
Then said the babe: "Your secret thoughts I show.
A high descent and clean you think you know.
You think a late-dead sire you mourn. Not so;
Begotten of one you hold your direst foe
Your life began. And while that here you bide,
In your proud towers, the rapid Rhone beside,
Your mother's lust a dearer bond renews
Than with your father's death she learnt to lose.
"All this your short return may seek and see,
To thwart at once and prove it, since that he
You shall not meet, who ere you reach shall die,
Drowned in the flood - to meet his death through thee,
Though no man's hand against his life be high."
"Babe," said the judge, "if these strange words be true,
Her forfeit life is yours. If false you lie,
Then justly in a common doom you die;
As trust I yet no sadder dole to view."
The court recalled, he bade them closely hold
Mother and child alike their fate to bide.
"For secret and for certain proof I ride,
Of which, if justice need, shall more be told;
Or else, convict of false defence, they die;
Cast in a pit themselves have digged thereby.
Mure them the while I leave in keeping strong.
Grant them no boon: but do their lives no wrong."
Then with a slender troop, in haste arrayed,
Hard journey to his father's towers he made,
To prove a monstrous tale or false or true.
Swiftly he rode, but swifter rumour flew
To her who, lately from a life perverse
Released by death, had prudence cast aside,
And with more boldness than an eager bride,
Had called her paramour: "My lord is dead.
My son is absent for sure weeks," she said,
"Come to me," and he came. But different now
Her fearful words: "My son, I know not how,
Hath surely learned; for all he leaves, and fast
Hither he urges his blown steeds." And he,
Her craven lover, rose in haste to flee,
Stung with sharp fear. Across his urgent way
A ford engorged with summer rains there lay.
Brimmed to the brinks from bank to bank it ran,
But blindly plunged he in, and horse and man,
Swept downward, died.
His son, who not till then
Had guessed him father, following, found him caught
In reeds from which a sinking stream withdrew.
Silent he backward rode in sombre thought:
'Not by my hand his death, whose death was due.
Well is it that he died, and well that I
Am guiltless, surely though he died through me...
How should that babe so well that end foresee,
Which was not in clear course of destiny,
But of his own contrive?... If fiend he be,
Or angel, at his door no charge is laid;
And she hath warrant for her tale... My word
Is pledged moreover... If with Blaise they bide,
He will fair guidance and close care provide,
By which should right be proved, or wrong be stayed.'
So by his court's decree this rule was made,
And she who once from God's protection erred,
And he who first her tale of wonder heard
And did not with rejecting words condemn,
Nurtured the child with common aim to draw
Its fiend-bred thoughts to God's auguster law,
And were not impotent thereto. With them
The child in learning and in wisdom grew,
Till Hell's thwart fiend the scourge of Heaven anew
Felt in defeat. For, come to man's degree,
His arts against the tides of heathenry
That surged from Northward round the Christian pale,
He practised long, and with a demon's skill,
Subtle of devious wiles, but clean of will,
Armed with such powers as are not wont to fail.
Uther And Igraine.
The western gate of Camelot was barred.
Storm and wild night across the city lay,
When down the paving of the middle way
A clang of coming hooves aroused the guard;
For under that dark cloak of night and rain
Fled from the king, Duke Gorlois and Igraine.
Soon at the ward the reined-in chargers steamed:
The penselled lances rose into the night:
While on wet mail the warders' torches gleamed,
And sign and counter-sign were changed aright.
Yet had the warders paused - a band it seemed
Starkly arrayed for foray or for flight -
But when the shield of that great lord they knew
Who shortly with their king was reconciled,
Without demur the grating bars withdrew,
And forth he rode toward the outer wild.
But when from the grey walls the grey dawn showed
A land wind-beaten and abashed with rain,
Pierced by the straight blade of the Roman road,
The fear-born flight of Gorlois and Igraine
Aroused the royal towers, and prince and lord
Were called in haste to Uther's council board.
"Lords," spake the king, "ye know that Gorlois long
Our Devon border vexed with raid and wrong,
Before our strengthened realm such front could show
As made ourselves at last the deadlier foe:
That brought of no true faith, but urged of fear
He came, and terms of peace accorded here;
And yestermorn, his weaker rule to save,
Reluctant to our throne allegiance gave.
Now, wrothed at eve because I sought to gain
The moment's favour of the fair Igraine,
To more deride me, secretly and late,
Fled all his household by the western gate.
Doubtless he plots to range his subject powers
Beneath the shelter of Tintagel towers;
Where he may linger, like a wolf in wait,
His time to bide, that haply, soon or late,
When Northern raiders on our borders press,
The league of Cornwall and of Lyonesse
May lightly pierce an unprotected side.
Now, lords, such menace should we break or bide?
Should ordered war, or swift pursuit be tried?"
So Uther spake; and answered he who wrought
A realm from out the lawless north; alike
Cunning his time to wait, and swift to strike,
The fair-haired Lot of Lothian. Only he
Spake out, as king to king, direct and free.
"Lord king," he said, "thou art accounted wise.
But what is wisdom to a woman's eyes!
At yester noon our counsel brought accord
Between thy kingdom and this rebel lord;
And now - a foolish word, a woman's frown,
And all our work of peace is broken down.
Yet mayst thou practice to attain thine end,
To draw from Gorlois every doubtful friend,
And gather all thy lieges to thy side. . .
Ere with himself his strength his heart debate,
And cooler wisdom on his fury wait,
Hard bid thy heralds to Tintagel ride,
And straitly charge him, by allegiance sworn,
He here attend thee on the Easter morn.
And surely as thy call he shall decline,
His is the oath forsworn, the wrong is thine.
"Then should Pendragon sheathe an idle sword
The while a vassel prince defies his lord?
How if with such a tale the minstrel went
Wandering among the trustless tribes of Trent?
If Gorlois should so lightly loose the cord,
How should we bind Northumbria's hostile horde?
Such cause of quarrel fastens all thy friends,
Whose safety on thy settled throne depends.
When on his lands thy gathered power appears
Shall Gorlois face the might of all thy spears?
Shall any height of tower or depth of vault
Immune him sheltered from thy strong assault?
Or when the flames of strongholds stormed arise
Are not the women still the victor's prize?"
While sowed the craft of Lot such seed as grew
To fruit of deaths untaled, and flowered anew
A glory lifted for a world to view,
Informed of births and fames which had not been
Had Uther not Igraine in longing seen,
Or counsel failed, the angered Gorlois, he
Whom hope of equal peace to Uther's court
Had seven days since the king's safe-conduct brought,
Toward his eyrie by the western sea,
Rode gale-swept moor and sheltered combe, until
No more the faltering steed the rider's will
Controlled; such haste had Gorlois' wrath: such fear
Beat in Igraine the loud pursuit to hear.
Short space they drew perforce reluctant rein,
And then with night the windy moors again
They rode, though scarce to guide their path availed
The moon's white shield in drifting vapour veiled.
Nor willing pause was theirs until they saw
Those age-old towers to any wave of war
Found virgin: through the drifting cloud they rose,
Where on sheer cliff the might of ocean throws
Its weight in vain. And here, in short secure
They dwelt, and treaties all and threats denied,
Till Uther launched his war.
To best endure
The heavier ranks, and in good heart abide
A sheltered storm, and most to hold Igraine,
That though the king might gain he should not gain
His first desire, had Gorlois warded strong
Tintagel's high sea-towers, where memory-long
Had foemen stormed in vain; and fortified
The Castle Terribil, ten rough miles away,
That hard across the invader's pathway lay.
Both holds he garnished with great store, to stay
The long-drawn months of war; and in the first
Igraine he placed, that there, though came the worst
To those wide towers that first assault must dure,
Still might she bide in scatheless height secure.
Wide-walled was Terribil, on the broken plain,
And many-gated. Built that leaguering foe,
Whose force, thin-stretched should all its girth contain,
No rest from fear of issuing ranks might know
From any of all its gates, their siege to break
Ere aid might reach; or swift blood-tribute take,
And waiting port regain; and underground
Were secret ways, that past the widest bound
Of girding hosts led free.
Came with the lengthening days. On gate and tower
Flung battle beat. The King's desire to gain
Were venturous deeds emprised, and strong men slain
On either part. The urged assault in vain
Attempted walls too high, and issuing through
Their opened gates, the strong defenders slew
The long weeks passed, and flew,
From those high walls, defiant of all Logre,
The flag which long had ruled from sea to sea
The narrowing lands. The vain assaults were ceased.
The rigour of the straitening lines increased
All paths to bar, that starving days should tame
A pride too high. At this constraint there came
A word that mocked from Gorlois to the king.
"To those lean dogs," he wrote, "who round my gate
For meat not theirs in restless hunger wait,
The word of Gorlois: Here, with meats to spare,
Which they may noway take who noway dare,
Who wills may learn my mercy: ask and share."
But Uther, while the long siege stayed, and while,
Or meeting force with force, or guile with guile,
His foe yet held him from his sighted prey,
To sickness fell. And all the windless day,
While drowsed the camp, and summer parched the land,
And danced the air above the glaring sand,
Fevered with thwarted hope and wrath he lay,
Till peaceless night. From that diseaseful bed
His captains held: his serfs had gladlier fled.
A noble knight, Sir Ulfius named, whom most
The thwarted king would heed of all his host,
Approached, and spake: "Lord king, though gaunt and weak
Of sickness here ye lie, no leech ye seek,
Nor food ye will, nor this vain sieging break
Of garnished towers whose strength we may not take
Ere winter force our more contemned retreat;
So wilt thou thus thy larger ends defeat,
Distress thy friends, thy cold allies estrange,
To past its use a futile raid prolong.
What helps it Gorlois' peace that towers too strong
For all assault he holds, and furnished well?
Might we not through his land in wasting range
From sea to sea a locust host? How long
Would then content his heart that close confine
When rumours of some fresh despoil should tell
As frequent as the following days? But here,
With naught of honour gained thy ranks to cheer,
Base treasons stir, and nobler motions pine."
"Good friend," the king made answer, "might ye know
My grief, thy doubts were done. Behold, I show
A weakness for thy scorning bare. Not storm
Of these strong towers, not gain of this wide land,
Not Gorlois' life I seek, except that so
Igraine were mine thereby; and her to win
There is nor hazard of loss, nor mortal sin,
Nor price, nor toil, that shall mine end withstand;
And therefore, while these stubborn walls endure,
No food can comfort, and no leech can cure."
"Lord king," he said, "when tides that strength shall fail,
Oft at the loss shall cunning wile avail;
And since that here thy purpose halts delayed,
Some deeper counsel than thine own to aid
Were well besought. Bethink ye Merlin; he
Whose wisdom in thy service works, would free
This longing from thy heart, or gain it thee
At short device."
"Who bringeth," said the king,
"Mage Merlin here, may ask for guerdoning
His heart's most hope, and gain it."
"That will I,
And in short space, except that first I die;
Seeking him even where, his feared retreat,
At eve and morn the sounding waters meet."
Now when three days had Ulfius ridden, and wide
Had bent his path from Severn's narrowing side,
And the great woods were round him, and the night
Was closing, seemed it to his doubtful sight
Approached him through the boughs a minstrel lad,
In velvet prankt; and then, but meanlier clad,
Likelier he seemed an aged thrall, that wore
The badge of servitude, and groaning bore
A faggot piled. The startled charger swerved,
That scarce stern word and tightened reining served
To hold him to the path. With nearer view,
In amice garbed, the sage he sought he knew.
"Ulfius," he said, "I rede the quest ye ride.
Return at hastened pace to Uther's side;
For soon I follow." Ere Ulfius, gazing there,
Had shaped reply, the shadowed path was bare.
But when returned in Uther's tent he stood,
And told the vision of the darkened wood,
Ere the king's doubt in wrathful words had way,
Was Merlin there. And when the couch he neared,
And the wide tent of all men else was cleared:
"Oh, Merlin," spake the king, "at greater need
I called thee never, though long the call delayed;
And hope I fairly of this wondrous speed
That thou wilt cure the grief I need not say."
Answered the sage: "To seek my sooner aid,
Unurged of any, thy thought had turned, but thou
Wast dred to hear an evil purpose weighed
In speech of one that not thy fear should hold
From ruder telling than thy wraths allow.
Yet, as in Heaven the wondrous weird is writ
Nor but High God can turn or alter it,
That gives thy land a coming dawn of gold,
Which else would pass thy power to work - let be
The boon I will (thy greater gain) and ye,
Yea, even tonight, and if thou let me deal,
The arms ye seek in willing love shalt feel
About thee; not reluctant or constrained,
Which all thine utmost power had noway gained."
Then Uther sware upon the Cross Divine,
By the Shed Blood, and by the Sacred Sign,
If fainly to his arms she came, and he
Begat a child upon her, such babe should be
At Merlin's will.
That night, with Ulfius, he
Moving at Merlin's word most secretly,
Left the stilled camp. "Forget not momently,"
So charged the sage, "we be not whom we be.
But thou, the king, art Gorlois' self, and we
Are knights of Gorlois. So shall all men see
Our own belief."
And feigning thus, they rode
To where Tintagel's strong integrity
Rose massed and black against their upward way.
As these dark walls they gained, extending far,
Through the west heaven there trailed a splendid star,
With widening skirts of fire. Was glad to see
The sage such portent of high destiny
As here he deemed.
Beneath the barbican
The password Merlin gave. The sentinel
Allowed them who they were. The drawbridge fell
- The fate of nations with it - A quick word ran
To where Igraine her lonely rest had sought;
And she received him as her lord she ought,
Adventured through the perilous night to find
Some space from narrowing woes a kind resort.
And if by Merlin's art, or darkness blind
And silence guiled, who knoweth? But ere the morn
Conceived, of that strange night a babe was born
Whose fame a thousand years should more extend,
Uplifted till the tale of fame shall end.
Ere light returned, at Merlin's urgent hest,
Had Uther risen, and passed again unguessed
Beyond those hostile walls. But as they gained
The clearer way, from out the dawn there came,
With hooves that struck the flying flint to flame,
A courier. Scarce his trembling steed, back-reined,
The narrow edge sustained. "Make path," he cried,
"I stand for none, The courier-sign ye see."
But Merlin: "Speak what news of haste and fear
Ye bear, that reckless thus the path ye ride."
"I bring the news of Gorlois' death," said he,
And smote his steed to further speed, and passed.
For Gorlois of that moonless night and clear
Avail had sought. Within his mind he cast
With one fierce onset on a sleeping host
His foes to break. His utmost force he led
In cautioned silence forth; and thus that most
Confounding panic in their lines should spread,
He clave their leaguer through, and backward bent
In swift reverse, their startled rear to take
Unware. In this design his swift outbreak
Obtained. To noise of nearing strife they wake,
And terrored steeds that fly the burning tent.
Astonied, blinded, foolish path they fled,
Where Gorlois raged. Across his deathful way
Icenia's spears and Garlot's bowmen lay;
And these he broke.
But camping more away,
Roused were the iron-ruled ranks of Lot. Not here
To panic, or the hastened pulse of fear,
They waked; but gathering in close ranks, the while
The impatient and reiterant trumpets shrilled
Their urgent calls of war, full fast arrayed,
His waiting spears their wary lord obeyed,
Leash-strained. But that stark-hearted king, and skilled
In warlike lore, and many a fruitful guile,
His rescue paused, until, enforced the more
By Urience and the lighter ranks of Gore,
Out through the night he moved their joined array,
And in like coin a deadly craft to pay,
On Gorlois' rear his doubled force he flung.
Thus was the strife. While Gorlois overbore
Icenia, and their wounded remnant fled,
The more advanced the exultant van, the more
His rear, indriven by Lot, behind him bled;
And Gorlois, hearing, forced a backward way,
The slaughter of that trodden rear to stay.
As some broad oak the tender copse among
He showed. A huge twice-bladed axe he swung.
Shrank from its sweep his boldest foes, but they,
As waiting dogs, that hold the boar at bay,
Or wolves that shrink to leap the antlered prey,
Half ringed him round. A long Icenian spear,
Cast from the cumbered hand of flight, there lay
On that strewn ground where strife had passed before.
This spear a Lothian warrior raised and flung,
Low-aimed, at Gorlois' feet. Beneath his knee
A laming wound it gave. He stooped; he rose
Staggering; to left, to right, his closing foes
Apart he hurled. Though naught but these he saw,
In hope the rush of rescuing friends to hear,
Above the multitudinous sounds of war,
Rejecting fate, his lifted warcry rang.
Hewing on the fierce waves of that whelming sea,
Vain deaths he gave, but not for these the less
The friendlier cries recede, the deeper press
Engulfs him ever, beyond relieve, that he
Whose might so long had Uther's might defied,
Unbent of valour and untamed of pride,
Of countless wounds, of no man slain he died.
They were good knights of Gorlois, proven men
Alike in counsel and the smiting fray,
To whom the guarding of Igraine he gave.
Not surely lightlier to her cause they clave
That in the castle chantry cold he lay,
Their lord no more. Yet cooler words had way
Than could with Gorlois live have been, and when,
By truce agreed, less desperate hope they saw
Then offering from the hard appeal of war
Their doubtful hearts allowed, full glad were they.
For freedom gave the king, at Merlin's word,
That chosen lords of either part conferred
A common peace to find, and truth was said,
That were Igraine to Uther's kingdom wed,
Rest should both lands from weary strifes, that sore
Had barrened many a weary year before
From fair increase of life, and natural store.
This thought, of Ulfius fostered, grew. The king
Heard, and was glad. A bargained suit they bring
To one who granted with blithe heart - and she?
This for her land she did. Of what she thought
Was no man knew. Above the recent grave
Of whom she loved, to whom in life she clave,
To his most foe her troth and hand she gave;
And her three daughters, in the same accord,
The brides of Uther's strong allies were plight.
Her first, Elaine, was given to Garlot's lord.
The next, Morgause, whose tawny hair, alight
With changing fire, in many a lauding lay
Had minstrels to the wilds of Lothian sung,
Best loved and fairest of those sisters three,
But doomed for those whom most she loved to be
A deathly snare, was chosen of Lot.
For bridal then, to Urience, lord of Gore,
Was Morgan, called in after years Le Fey,
Affianced. In sheltering nunnery walls awhile
He left her, where, through many a dreaming day,
Avid of life, against that slow delay
She chafed in vain. To lagging hours beguile,
Ill chanced, she lighted on an ancient store
Of writings of dead days, unthought, unread,
In baffling scripts of eld, that there had lain
Since heathen hands had left them. Seeking fain,
Of keen desires and curious dreamings led,
A fearful lore she found. For there were writ
Charms that could bend the very fiends of hell
To man's caprice; and many a secret spell
That nature thralled: and mystic rites, unfit
For mortal thought to know.
Of these so well
She learned, that soon, with fearful trembling joy
She sought in midnight hour to first employ
The power she gained, and proved it. Held in aid
Such service bound and dread, her lifted thought
Saw Uther to her feet in vengeance brought
For her dead sire, and at her hand repaid
The griefs he gave. So passed her days, until
Forth-called to bend her life to Urience' will.
From closing convent walls to bridal bed
She came; and yet two months before she wed
Were ended her short years of maidenhed.
None knoweth if first herself she willed the wrong,
Or powers invoked for ill she found too strong
To bind. But all the moonless night, men say,
Closed in strange arms of lower earth she lay;
And when released she rose with rising day,
And found her chamber barred and void, was lain
This weird upon her, to seek with restless pain
That earthless joy she knew, and seek in vain,
And find it never.
And yet her babe, Ewaine,
Of incubus derived, or fear unknown,
A true knight, and of loyal heart was he.
Lord of the west, with Garlot, Lothian, Gore,
To further friendship drawn; and next his side,
Beyond fair hope, a longed, consenting bride;
What more of fate could Uther claim, what more
Could fortune grant? Yet irked his heart that now,
Though fixed in speech and deed she held her vow,
Unlike the golden fruit he plucked before,
Her colder arms received him, and her eyes
Were loveless. More to vex his peace, he heard
In the fierce north, half-tamed, dissensions stirred,
Impending war: a tempest muttering low
Which yet might break in ruin. A closer care,
The pledge to Merlin, in his heart would rise,
While of that babe weird-gotten the nearer drew
The hour of birth. At last the sage he sought.
"Merlin," he spake, "this babe Igraine shall bear -
What would ye with it?"
The sage replied: "That so
Its life may prosper. If thy heart foreknew
The time that cometh, thy thanks were paid. There lives
- His towers wood-hidden the pathless hills amid -
In far North Gales, a knight of worth, and wed
To one of gracious mood, and wise and fair.
Worthy her lord. This dame but now doth bear
Her firstling son. In that lone safety hid,
Thy child shall grow, the while in all she gives
To one not hers an equal care. To bring
Such end to be, this knight, Sir Anton, call
Before thee in a privy place, and there
Entreat him with great gifts, and charge as king,
That he shall take a child unknown, in all
To rear as his, in first esteem. Declare
No more; but only that the kingdom's weal
His trust depends."
As Merlin told, he did.
The knight, though loth, of loyalty urged, his word
Gave in full faith, that past his own preferred,
This babe, that soon the king should send, his care
Would foster ever; nor speech nor act reveal
From whence it came to any. Large gifts and rare,
And store of gold, the king, beyond his will,
In guerdon gave.
Then further to fulfil
The mind of Merlin, passed the king his way
His purpose feignly to Igraine to show,
Where in the shadow of that near birth she lay;
To whom as one in soothful doubt, he said:
"Tell truly if the babe be mine or no,
As Christ at last shall save thee."
"Lord," she said,
"I know not. On the night that Gorlois died,
As all men say, it seemed he sought my side,
And I received him as was meet. Next day
From Castle Terribil they brought him dead.
And though that ye believe my word or nay,
I cannot change it."
"Rest in peace," he said,
"I well believe thee. Yet this babe not mine,
(For so thou sayest, and truth is dark to see),
Whose claim of rule, with my sure heirs at strife,
Might break the kingdom's peace in days to be,
You shall with birth to such sure hand resign
As Merlin's wisdom shows, to raise its life
As one not born to any high degree,
Its place and name unknown of all but he."
"Lord, as thou wilt." For grief and marvel long
Had spoiled her thought, who knew no meaning wrong,
With memory seeming truth which well she knew
Nowise for all its seeming truth were true;
And shame that shrank the seeking word; and fear
That grief had raught her mind.
The pains of more than death, that life belong,
Were hers to dure. At twilight birth of day
The child of Merlin's wile beside her lay.
At eve returned, from out the postern gate
To Ulfius mounted in the dusk await,
They bore it from her. Through the casement wide,
The hoof beats on her heart to silence died.
There came no peace to Uther. Discords rent
A realm scarce welded. Wooded wastes of Trent
Poured their wild tribes, and Humber's wolds allied
A gathering cloud behind them rose. To ride
North, in his name, beyond his own Logre,
Or west of where broad Severn turns the sea,
Might no man dare. His nearer foes to aid,
From frozen lands that heathen gods obeyed,
Invading hosts, wing-helmed, were called, and came
Naught loth, and to the land a searing flame
Their passing proved. In two great strifes oppressed,
His captains' hard retreat their loss confessed,
To Ouse's swamps retired. Himself the while,
Of some strange sickness seized, in Servage isle,
In fretful weakness lay.
At last he sent
For Merlin's aid, who not his house had failed
At previous calls. But little comfort gave
The doubtful seer. "Behold, the future veiled,
By all my arts," he spake, "I may not see.
For mortal seems thy fate, and near, and save
Thyself can lead thy host, it may not be
But thy strong foes shall wrest their victory.
Yet falleth not thy realm in final loss
To these winged rovers of the frozen sea."
"Nay," said the King, "it seems, by God His Cross,
Myself must rede it. Hast thine art no power
To grant me vigour for one passing hour,
Who am not old, nor weakling deemed afore,
To sweep these raiders to the northern shore?
Be death the toll, no more I ask."
"There is no power but God's shall grant it thee,
Whose weakness toward thine end declines."
Roused his last wrath. "My banners yet shall fling
Despite of all, above me, while I drive
Raider and rebel without relent, who strive
Too soon these lands to share: their lord on live
Who drave them ever."
Though doomed to rise no more,
Lain on a litter, and borne his host before,
He entered London. There some space he stayed,
And all his force in that last strife arrayed,
Summoning the powers by fear or fealty bound
Of tributory kings and lords allied;
While word to Lot, in his far north conveyed,
How best to strike, his own design to aid.
Then in his time he moved, and choosing ground,
Halted before St. Albans, camped astride
The Roman road, and waited, till the sound
Of heathen war-cries waked, and moving men.
Shocked the great hosts with following dawn of day;
And where amidst the opening strife he lay,
Beside his couch he gave command to fling
The dragon banner wide, and plant it deep;
An ensign rooted for his host to keep,
Or lose at once their standard and their king.
There, round the sign of that famed symbol spread,
From earliest lift of dawn till eve was red,
Loud battle roared and rang. For countering there
Were legions striving for a land most fair,
With all it held, and trampled deaths unsung
Countless for that great stake were given, and deeds
And toils heroic in that joined front were hid,
The noise of weapons and blinding dust amid,
And cries that rose in many an outland tongue.
Round the red field the wolves impatient cried:
A cloud in air the gathering ravens hung.
But though declined in heaven the westward day,
To reap more deaths the heathen axes rose
Sateless; and still of racial hate supplied
Was strength renewed in stalwart hearts of those
Who felt their shield-locked line to breaking sway,
Threatening the hour of woe when kindless foes
Upon their children's necks thrall bonds should set,
And on their maids an alien race beget,
If failed their comrades from that field, or they.
Hence with firm hearts reiterant shocks they met,
Though but with force to lift high shield remained
A remnant of themselves, and o'er the dead
Closed their outnumbered front again, that yet
No whit allowed their strife discomfited;
And yet beneath Pendragon their rooted ground
To death's oblivion held; though charged them round,
Three sides at once, wolf-hearted foes who sought
Such gain as gave a fertile land their prey,
With spoil of women to captive servage led;
Meadows and cornlands wide, and herd and stead;
And fair walled towns, the spoiling victors' prize,
And garniture of wealth their homes within,
And in the rich-piled booths strange merchandise,
That one day's jeopard of dear life should win.
So to dusk eve the great strife held; but then
On that fierce rear the noise of charging men
Waked the dim heavens, and swift confusion spread
The invading ranks among, for on their track,
Hard marching, reached and smote the Lothian Lot.
A death to those who fought or those who fled,
Twofold the Christian hosts became. In wrack,
Cloven to the core, with all but fear forgot,
A scattering rout was flung that fierce array.
A broken rout they fled. As each man may
His backward life from that defeat he bears,
Through woods and ways alert of heartened foes.
In shadowy eve or blinder night he goes.
Of wood-doves' food the husks and haws he shares,
Lean as the wintering wolves, and fierce as they.
Were scenes of men that skulk and men that slay
Wide through the land, till all from sea to sea
Northumbria broad and far to Forth was free,
And Eastland and North Gales and all Logre
Heard but from lips of slaves the heathen tongue;
And Lot's hard rule the rebel tribes among
In Uther's name had treasons crushed. But he
The more revered for that great victory,
And lauded by the land he saved, returned
To London: there of weakening pain he learned
How poor the pride of this world's empery;
Till passed he, ending with a voice which called
Igraine, who came not.
Thus dark Uther died.
No certain heir he left. The sad years saw
A weakened realm that many wraths divide,
Vext with internal and invading war
That inly raged from tortured side to side;
While, midst waste hates and spent confusions wide,
Strength raped, and cunning held, and neither ruth
Regarded, nor the abandoned yoke of law.
For all were kings alike, where king in truth
There was not: no man's arm of strength to stay
The wasting tides of war: no voice to say:
"Be heir to this abandoned realm who may,
Lord-born to break an anarch wrong am I.
I charge ye by my sword: be ruled, or die."
While that lost babe Igraine to Uther bare,
Close nurtured of the kindly hills, unware
Of vacant throne, or waiting land's despair,
To sanguine youth from dreaming childhood grew,
Till near the hour of Merlin's purpose drew.
When Uther died and left no certain heir,
Was none sufficient both of power and will
To make dominion of a throne left bare,
But lordless were the inferior kings, and they
Howled as wolves howl, and made the land a prey,
Vexed it with various rules that void to fill,
And wide confusions when they clashed. Alone
The Church of God around that empty throne
Sustained the concord of the land, and drew
Sharp boundary from the heathen north. Were few
Of peaceful men who did not sigh to see
Some end to this, but what that end might be,
Without worse strife, they saw not.
One night to Brise, the priest of Camelot.
"Lord Bishop," said he, "dost thou ponder not
The jeopard of this realm, which single lies
As Christ's strong bulwark from those heathenries
That round its weakened borders surge and fret?"
"Seer," said the priest, "the menace of heathenry
I sleepless fear. But who that rent's repair
Can soothly hope? For found we Uther's heir,
Would any twelve of twenty kings agree
To clip their rights and sink their jars, that he
Should overrule them? Would they not unite
More briskly to tread down the threatening light?"
"Yet this I counsel. On the Christmas day
That nearly cometh, six short weeks away,
Proclaim that Christian lords shall meet and pray
That God may guide them to a choice aright."
"What counsels claim ye with High God herein?"
"I bid ye call to prayer. Can prayer be sin?"
"Good is thy word, from whencesoe'er ye be;
And not for thy repute of wizardry
Will I reject it."
"Boldly look to see
Propitious fruit therefrom."
The careful priest
No whit delayed, but for the nearing feast
He called the noblest of the land to pray
In Stephen's minster on the Christmas day,
That Heaven might grant to open proof to bring
The heir of Uther, as their rightful king.
Came at that call to punctual time and place
Far kings and near, the noble and the base.
Came men devout, who cast their sins to plead
At once the church's and the nation's need,
In clean humility acceptable
To Him Who judgeth the heart: came greedful men
Their gains to hold, or seize a chance, or slay
Presumptuous rivals, should the pregnant day
Breed some bold violence, or pretence of right.
So in the winter days, when few men far
Rode the waste ways from sheltering hearth and hall,
And the snowed town within the ingirding wall
Slept in sure peace: when swollen fords would bar,
And wider marsh, chill rain, or changing snow,
Or keener cold prevent the camping foe,
A marvel came. For in that minster met,
The matins of the Christmas dawn to share,
The far-called congregation; and the while,
Though no man heard it on that pavement set,
The dim-dawn light showed in the outer yard,
Fixed on a stone, four-square, of marble hard,
An anvil that a sword transfixed. The blade
Clear through the iron its course had pierced, and yet
Unflawed, as though no force its path had stayed.
A scroll was round it: Who this sword shall draw
Is king of this great realm by right and law.
Then emulous kings, and men of worth or pride,
Stirred by strange hopes, their strengths or fortunes tried,
Watched by a crowd where all estates as one
Mingled in that suspense. Yet came there none
But vainly to his own defeat he tried.
"Behold," they said, "no man the sword may take.
What shall we?"
And the saint of God replied
"Here shall the stone be stayed, and watch be set
To guard it ever, from Feast to Feast, for yet,
Though no man of your best be worthy now,
Who cometh with cleaner heart may God allow,
Even of your selves, the stubborn sword to draw.
"And one thing first in sign of peace shall ye
Swear on the Rood, that round each Feast shall be
A seven weeks' truce of God, from sea to sea.
That not from fear of lawless might, nor law
Against him given for earlier wrongs, shall one
Of all in these wide realms or kindred land
Undareful, in his stronghold halt, but here
Without except our total count may stand,
None found too weak, and judged too evil none;
That who shall lord us may from Heaven appear,
Not frustrate by our preconcept.
Swear shall ye soothIy in the Sacred Name
That who shall draw that sword your king shall be."
Then to these oaths did all who heard agree.
Ten stainless knights they chose, and these were sworn
Never by night or noon, by eve or morn,
To leave that stone unwatched, nor hand of man
Permit to close upon it, except the ban
Were raised in session of the realm aright.
But not thereon the assembly broke, for Brise,
Anxious to end at once the evil days,
And thinking God might revelation give,
Contrived such tourney for the New Year's Day,
That few there were but chose that time to stay,
Themselves to venture, or to watch the play.
That knight whose dame King Uther's babe had fed,
Sir Anton, had wide lands where Avon's head
Turns through fair pastures southward to the sea,
And Severn's nearer flood. No thought had he
Of crown to seize, or realm to rule; but aim
His sons to nurture in desire of fame
Impelled him that he now to Camelot came,
The jousts to view.
His elder son, Sir Kay,
Though youthful knighted on the earlier day,
Rode at his side; and of an equal right,
Child of Igraine, Pendragon's doubtful heir,
In no way of high fate or birth aware,
Rode Arthur. Not cold wind, nor drifting snow,
Could cool his eager youth, elate to know
That round him for his choice the whole world lay,
As only youth at the dividing way
Can choose and take.
As the short day went down,
They reached their lodging in the crowded town,
Bargained before; and ere the sun was through
Rode out again the tourney strife to view.
They rode where all men moved a single way.
Silent behind, the city vacant lay.
Even those ten knights whose oaths the sword to guard
Should there have held them, found restraint too hard.
Where no man stayed, what shielding use were they?
Awhile they bickered, but was none would stay.
Each on his comrades set the moment's trust,
So that the sword stood guardless.
Who would see
How free-willed men are bound by destiny
May this regard. The new-made knight, Sir Kay,
It chanced his unaccustomed sword forgot.
Loth was he on so bold a tourney day,
As one in childhood yet, to wear it not.
"Arthur, thou hast a better horse than I.
Wilt bring it?"
Arthur gave a light assent.
Back to their lodging of the night he went.
But met barred doors, for all that tenantry
Had sought the tourney. As he turned, anigh
Rose the great minster. In its yard there stood
The anvil with the sword which none might draw.
Blithe to his chanceful heart his chance he saw.
"If Kay's I leave, I gain a sword as good.
Is none to question here, and ere they learn,
We can replace it at our own return."
As from a sheath of silk, the sword he drew,
And heard far off the tourney trumpets blow.
Naught meant the sword: but what they meant he knew,
And turned in haste, that not the opening show
His eyes should miss. A road left vacant now
He rode at speed, and at the barrier side
He reached Sir Kay.
"A reckless pace you ride.
But that - You bring a sword which is not mine!"
"Your own I might not reach."
"But whence is this?"
"The sword was in the stone, which none will miss,
For none to watch and none to guard was by."
His father heard Sir Kay's exultant cry:
"The sword is from the stone, and king am I!"
"That sword was taken from the stone?" He said.
"So was it."
Sir Anton spake no more, but led
Back to the minster yard an instant way,
Where swordless stood the stone.
"I charge thee say
How to thy hand it came. From knightly law
Deceit at this strange pass would cast thee far."
Kay answered with slow truth full craftfully:
"My brother brought it for my use," said he,
"And therefore king am I."
"What'er you are,
Put back the sword. To earn that blade a right,
It must avoid the stone in all men's sight."
"How, when no gap the iron's smooth surface shows,
Can the sword enter?"
"That shall Arthur try."
"Nay, for the elder, with more right, am I."
Hard thrust Sir Kay, but iron to steel replied.
On the hard surface slipped the sword aside,
Or jarred the arm that drave it. Ruthfully
Sir Kay resigned it. "Naught but sorcery
Could here prevail."
To be alike repelled
Thought Arthur as the heavy sword he held,
But thrust, lighthearted, with a laughing word,
And force he did not need, for sank the sword
As though it countered but the yielding air
"Canst draw it out?" Sir Anton asked.
That have I done before."
With ease no less
He drew it from the anvil's hold away.
As though within its native sheath it lay.
"Return it once again, and leave it there."
Again the sword within the anvil sank,
As though the stubborn iron but water were.
But yet, as founded in one piece, to Kay
Rock was it. So proved it at his twice essay.
Then knee to earth Sir Anton stooped, and said:
"Lord, and my king, whom Heaven hath found, no sire,
No father more, but of thy lieges see
One who would lowly on thy part remain,
As thou shalt swear me first of all thy train."
"Father," the child replied, with blinded eyes,
"I may not hold thee so. Except thou rise,
My word goes from me."
"Nay, for child of mine
(Save as one shielded in long bonds of love)
I may not claim thee more. Nor must I say
Of how you came. For such the oath I swore.
But for these ended years I ask no more
Than one boon only."
"That thou wouldst is thine,
If this be dreamless of the waking day.
Else were I shamed for ever."
"I ask that Kay
Be senechal of thy lands."
"That boon to give
Is lightly sworn. The while we both shall live
There is none else shall hold it."
"Kind my lord,
As must be - King thou art of Heaven's accord,
Shown by the verdict of that mystic sword -
Well were it that to Brise forthright we go."
So went they, and the priest this counsel gave:
"Say naught, nor do, until the conclave meet
On the twelvth day, when all our realm complete
Shall for the verdict of the sword compete.
And if this marvel then to all ye show,
There will be those of loyal hearts and brave
Thy part to hold, though some will find no joy
To yield their princedoms to a nameless boy."
Came the twelvth day. High lords and kings were there,
Barons of good name, and knights of large repute,
And meaner louts who came that chance to share,
With hearts that hungered for a kingdom's loot.
Some on wide rule, or princely birth, relied;
Some on plain worth, and some on emptier pride;
Some on brute strength the bedded sword to wrest,
And some, who deemed not that themselves were best,
Yet thought with loyal hearts the realm to bless,
If God's high wisdom should their worthlessness
Accept and use.
To this high test there came
Not only wealth and power and rank and fame,
Not only ermine white or golden vair,
And knights' gay tabards, scrolled and broidered fair,
But all in sendal, or inferior wear,
To homespun rude, were free that sword to try.
Ostler and host, and chapman wandering by,
Miller and wright, and churl and armourer,
Even the swineherd, if his heart allowed
To face the laughter of the jeering crowd.
Some hours the long slow files their fortunes tried,
And moved rejected from the stone aside,
And then came Anton with no eagerness
His turn to take; and Kay; who strove no less
For the last day's defeat; and Arthur then,
Amidst the deep breaths of astounded men,
Drew the sword out, and laughed, and raised it high,
And thrust it back, as though no mastery
Were in a natural act. The startled crowd
Was like a murmuring sea. One voice aloud
Led the long cry that rose, and would not still.
"A king! A king!" The voice of Brastias cried.
A thousand voices with that word replied.
But not from those of rank the voices rose.
Scornful, amazed, appalled, of evil will,
Envious of heart, the morn's untrustful foes
Looked in each other's eyes, and thoughts of ill
Made base accords before the evening fell.
And even those of cleaner hearts were slow
To welcome one whose birth they did not know,
A youth unnamed, unproved. And hence delay
Was urged, except where Merlin's word prevailed.
(For Merlin, from their consort long away,
Among them moved.) Yet even Merlin failed
To range such strength of front on Arthur's part
As might suffice those boisterous cries to still,
And gave delay consent. This word availed
With even those most urged of evil will;
For who, if to his loss the dice he threw,
Would not forget the cast, and dice anew?
All to the Feast of Candlemas was then
Deferred, new test to try, and simple men
Prayed that in peace it might determined be.
So lord and king each went his separate way,
But ever, five by night, and five by day,
Watched the ten knights that none the sword should free
By might, or by device, or sorcery.
And Arthur in like sort by Merlin's care
Was compassed by good knights of bold report,
Both in his riding and his rest, that ne'er
Should treason reach him; and good friends he gained
By frank response and light of prideless eyes -
The morning light that later storms may dim.
So much of childhood and of God remained
That all was glamour and high deeds to him.
And some there were who later favour sought;
And some were selfless in desire to see
The will of Heaven prevail; and some were led
By Merlin's counsel, or by Brise; and so
The cause of Arthur gathered strength; but yet
For one who called him friend was twice a foe.
And when at Candlemas again were met
Barons and kings the further test to try,
And only Arthur drew the sword once more,
Still was there discord, and hot words were said,
And swords half-drawn, and once again delay
Was urged, and all deferred to Easter day;
And then to Pentecost.
But Merlin drew
Such lords aside as, though of hostile sort,
Were yet of honour, and of fair report,
And asked: "What think ye at the last to do?
Will God be mocked? How many times anew
Must Arthur draw the sword, and all beside
Attempt and fail? Against the goad to kick,
- Of old they wrote it - prompts the harder prick.
The stubborn lastly by their deaths will pay."
With troubled mien they answered: "Sooth ye say.
We would not of our hearts averse our will
From Him who doth our ransomed lives fulfil.
But bitter dole were here, perverse and ill,
That child unbearded should our best obey,
Preferred before his natural lords; and they,
Strife-hardened, proved in many a sleight and wile
Of practised war, his lighter words defer."
Answered the sage: "If wiser these ye ween
Than He Who ruleth all, will now be seen
Whether his purpose or your wills prevail.
Think ye God's choosing will be changed of men?
Are ye so fond another end to plan?
Bethink ye whom ye are, and whom is He."
These words had weight to win a large consent,
And silence others of the malcontent;
But smouldering hates remained, for wroth were they,
The thwarted kings, and bitter strife had been,
Save that they might not in one aim unite
Their various greeds, and each of all suspect,
Bethought, if first his blade were naked seen,
Ill might his peers, in justice' name, requite
A causeless murder of their king elect,
Although the while their privy hearts were glad.
And more they hid the baffled wrath they had
Because that, dense their ordered spears around,
And clamorous in their joy, the general crowd,
So long by lawless bondage cursed, aloud,
Hailed as God's choice a king their hearts had crowned.
So Arthur on a troubled throne was set
By miracle of choice, and wondering yet
What meant that miracle, and why should be
The marvel of the sword, that only he
Could loose it.
To Sir Anton spake he: "Sire,
- For so I still would call thee - wilt thou say
Of whom my birth, and by what devious way
I came to call thee father?"
"All, my king,"
Sir Anton answered, "of thy just require
I tell thee that I know. At dusk of day
It was but few weeks from the birth of Kay -
A knight in secret wise arrived to bring
A babe that Merlin bargained months afore
That I should take. The straitest oath I swore
To guard it with my life, and naught to speak
Or ask thenceafter, nor its birth to seek.
The knight who brought it by such oaths alike
Was bound to lasting silence. Guessed I more
I might not speak it. But I do not guess.
Soothly, I know not whom thy sire may be,
Excepting only that I am not he."
Arthur to Merlin went: "Good friend to me,
And knowing as none else how these things be,
Wilt thou not freely in good faith declare
That which will cease my doubt?"
The sage replied:
"I may not tell thee all. The past I see
Inseparate from the fateful years to be.
But if thy destined course were turned aside,
Not even magic art should reach to tell
What would be other: but it were not well."
"It were my bane to know?"
"I say not that.
It were to break and change the future days
From what they will be."
"Which is fair?"
At least, not wholly. But the ills we know
However bitter to regard, may be
Less than the evils which we do not see.
As in a mirror may we dimly view
The destined end; but if in fear we turn
From that our hearts become too faint to learn,
It is as though the mirror breaks. To give
Clear vision of the cause alternative
It will not serve us. But we well may fear,
When for God's hand our own we stretch to steer,
We shall not better than His wisdom meant."
"I ask no longer "
"That ye ask shall be
Later disclosed, which now were bane to thee,
To stir confusion and unite thy foes.
For now thy thoughts to apter use were bent
To count the short tale of thy certain friends,
Ranging the strength on which thy throne depends
More swiftly than their league against thee grows
Who are repelled, but yet not reconciled,
Nor yet subjected to thy rule.
Whose hearts are hateful, most ye need, to dread
The Lothian Lot, whose might, since Emrys fell,
All storms have strengthened. Cautious, vengeful, bold;
Most craftful; when the sudden chance he saw,
Swift at the swoop, a ruthless hawk of war.
Such hath he proved him ever. Ware him well."
He heard and heeded. While a hostile crew,
More bold to flaunt him as their distance grew,
Rebellion ranged, he made his own expand
In narrower limits, thoroughly to subdue
The fertile vales and uplands of Logre,
And the two coasts of Severn's estuary
(Excepting Gore's strong-towered and naked land),
And Cornwall southward to the final sea.
But those who Uther's throne had buttressed well
Aforetime, though they now to treason fell,
Yet could not singly to one end unite,
Though Lot gave counsel. Jealous hates alight
Too fiercely burned to bargain, king with king,
What charges they should bear, what numbers bring,
Without dissent, and discord, and delay.
Yet at the last they joined a host that lay
Along the cliffs of Gore, and crossing thence
(After the guile of Lot; with short pretence,
Had feinted at Caerleon's walls to throw
A force they had not been of height to stem)
They landed where Tintagel faced the sea,
And then moved southward; while to counter them
Arthur, withheld by doubt of where would be
Their planned advance, now came with all his power
To meet them blithely, in no dreadful hour,
But of his star alertly confident.
Yet were they no mean foes, and when they met,
Six kings, with knights around them numberless,
Their banners flaunted. Garlot's sable fess
Led the bold van, and near beside were set,
Argent and gules, the twisted snakes of Gore,
And Ireland's emerald sign; and there behind,
Where Lot had rule, and cunning wile designed,
His fierce ger-falcon flew. The panthers four
Of Scotland's Caradoc, and the wolf await
Of the young king who owned no stablished state,
He of the Hundred who his kingdom were -
These flanked the ranks of Orkney.
Now was heard
The roar of conflict from the closing van;
And Lot no more his subtle ruse deferred
Than for assurance that the strife began
Firm-fronted to resist the most that lay
In Arthur's power to test it. Then he turned
His rearward ranks, and round low woodland led,
Curving to Arthur's rear. The sleights he learned
When at St Alban's, fifteen years before,
The heathen rear he smote with slaughter red,
He thought to practice on a hardier foe.
The Irish ranks, with Garlot and with Gore,
Had their short peril. Had they failed to show
Unbroken front to Arthur's greatest, then,
Left naked of support, their loss had been
Beyond remede. But no resistless strain
Swayed the locked lines, till Arthur paused to hear
The height of battle on his startled rear.
But not as once a heathen horde had fled
Replied the knights of Arthur. Facing round,
Orkney and Ireland in new front they found,
And met them boldly. Though surrounded now,
And in strait space confined, they knew not how,
Was none but held firm ground as knightly well
As though he losely rode: whose good blows fell
As hardly on his foeman's helm; and so
Having repelled design of overthrow
At the first impulse of confused surprise,
The solid core within that girdle raged,
Yieldless, and furious as a beast encaged
That strains its bars and feels them bend, that so
Hope rouses strength, and weights a deadlier blow
At that which yields the more; so valiantly
They met the compass of surrounding foes
That refluent were they flung, and bursting free
The knights of Arthur broke the ranks of those
Who thought to break them.
In no scattering rout
Some space his sullen foes retired, unsure
If strength were theirs that day for victory.
And then, when counsels clashed, as well might be
Where no true friendships were, to break their doubt,
King Lot his resolution spake, no more
Of Lothian lives to lose: "While light endure,
We may continue to be slain or slay,
Piling abortive loss. For fixed are they
Beyond uprooting. If we more contend,
It will remain we have not gained nor lost.
Why buy that verdict at a larger cost?"
Pleased or displeased thereat, alike they knew
They would be left too weak when Lot withdrew,
If more they challenged, at the last to meet
With the disaster of their full defeat.
Sullen and slow, in ordered ranks, without
Pursuit or harass, in no guise of rout,
They left a field they did not lose nor win.
For Merlin's wisdom the reluctant king
Heard and obeyed: "To that retreat molest
Would be vain slaughter. For a harder test,
That yet must come, thy strength conserve, and well
Regard thy preparation. Save ye heed
The voice of caution, may thy foes exceed
Thine utmost strength to drive them."
His barons of these warning words to tell.
To which they answered: "Have we seemed so weak?
Let the six kings their last supporters seek
And we may rack them."
"Friends," the king replied,
"Stout-hearted are ye, to my much content.
But ours is peril which I must not hide.
For our full strength we showed; and strengths allied
May join the six upon no distant day.
In the short pause of blows should counsel be.
And Merlin to good end hath counselled me
Not one time only. Let our prides allow
At least to hear him when he counsels now."
They sought the sage. He said: "Your foes will go,
As some far-drowning tide retires to fling
A further-forward wave. They think they know
The tale of all your strength; and if they bring
Allies united by the hope of prey
(As from the lands they neighbour well they may)
They will asses their strength to tread thee flat.
And therefore, in no craven mood, but clear
Of judgement, to discern, and then to steer
To better harbour of good peace than that
Which they would purpose, for their overthrow
I give this counsel: In the land of Gaul,
And far to south, where Benoic fronts the sea,
Two kings are cousins, and one enmity
Confronts them both. Kings Ban and Bors are they.
Stout-hearted both in war's debates, but he
Who to the mountains rules in Burgundy,
King Claudas, to their lower lands possess,
Each season irks them with some new distress.
Still they resist, but still his arms prevail
Some tower to storm, to grasp some fertile vale,
Making his lands the more, and theirs the less.
"To these two kings let proffer fair be sent
That if they bring sufficient aid to thee
To rout rebellion here, thine aid shall be
As potent to combine in strong aggress
Against King Claudas, till his chastened mood
Return his plunder, and good peace conclude.
This should be gain to them, and gain to thee,
And all of loyal sort, and equity."
The barons answered with one voice: "Is here
A project pregnant with success." The king
Praised it alike: Whatever force they bring
No niggard count shall equal. Every spear
Our strength augmenting victory brings more near
At lighter purchase. Nor should prudence weigh
Our foes too lightly. Stark of heart are they.
Violent of use, and wileful to devise
The fatal toils of war."
"Good sooth ye say,"
The sage replied. "Their heathen-neighboured lands
Such tutors both in blows and ruse have been
That those of warier sleights or hardier hands
The world contains not. Count them of such kind
That starker foes on live ye shall not find,
Who neither mercy ask nor mercy mean.
Ulfius and Brastias from the best of those
Who once were Uther's strength Mage Merlin chose
To do that errand. To the Benoic land
A fair wind took them. There King Bors they found,
And, by good chance, King Ban, whose needs had brought
Their meeting, to confer on how defence
Too long sustained might take offensive range
In such reversion as would all rely
On one last effort to prevail or die.
But here was solving of their doubt unthought,
As often, when the snare of circumstance
Invites despair, and those of feeble will
Would all resign, and wisdom's lips are dumb,
As from God's hand shall strange occasion come,
Beyond foreseeing or control of those
Its casual salvage; so the two kings heard
From Arthur's knights the unexpected word
That changed design and gave new confidence.
They saw short peril while their arms would be
So largely distanced by dividing sea,
Lessened if those they left the while should dwell
In compass of strong holds, and garnished well;
And cancelled at the worst when Arthur's spears
Beneath Pendragon should King Claudas see,
Portending loss; and in his startled ears
Should Britain's trumpets sound.
That all should be
Well ordered, now was bargain made that first
Should the two kings, in ceremonial wise,
Caerleon's court attend, while, still dispersed,
Their armies, from the winter days' release,
Routine assembly made, as though to bar
King Claudas' raiding bands, to then decrease
Their ranks by seaward movements in the night,
Leaving strong garrisons in town and tower
To hold their walls from storm, as well they might,
In expectation of the early hour
When the two kings, with Arthur's larger power
Would all reverse.
This plan in all prevailed.
The two kings from the port of Benoic sailed,
Garnished and favoured well, and of their train
Three hundred chosen knights. With seemly state
King Arthur met them at the eastern gate
Of Caerleon's Roman wall, and therewithin
He lodged their noblest well, the while without
Their following camped.
And now were treaties made
Of fair import, that equalled aid for aid,
Numbers, and times, and arms, and furnishings,
To which the seals of the contracting kings
Their honours staked.
Then in high rivalry
Against King Arthur's knights the hundreds three
In general tourney clashed. Was soon to see
That matched in valour and in might were they,
Preluding what in later years should be
A cancerous ill. But that was far away.
Now spurred they at the tourney-trumpet's peal
To wide promiscuous mimic strife that closed
In deafening tumult, while the gleam of steel
Shone through enveloping dust. As when contend
The lords of storm in ultimate air opposed,
When thunderous heaven to heaven, and deep to deep
Make answer, and the sudden lightnings leap,
So did that conflict's roar to heaven ascend:
So did the sudden blades the dust offend.
But Arthur watched the strife with eyes aware
That all who took their wounds or dealt them there
Were friends at need to him. As rose its heat
Beyond restraints that mortal harms should bar,
He bade the trumpets sound that called retreat
To rearward of the lists. "No single star
Excels," he said, "where all in heaven that are
Have their own place, and part, and excellence."
So with good words to joyous ease they passed,
To sojourn while the winter days should last
In Arthur's providence, while here they stayed
Until the lengthening days, Mage Merlin made
A secret journey to the Benoic land,
In the kings' names those movements to command
Which to the coast their mobile ranks withdrew,
And shipped to Britain; while remained the few
Chosen their passive praiseless part to do,
Captains discreet, on whom their lords relied
Behind the shelter of strong walls to bide;
A threat that Claudas could not pass, and leave
His land to foray, or his rear to grieve.
Fair spring, that dried the hollow ways, allowed
Beneath blue skies, or change of light and cloud,
Assembly of the host of Arthur's foes
In the far north, beyond his rule, which went
No further than the southern bank of Trent.
Near where the widening Humber seaward flows
They fixed their meeting-place. The six were now
By five augmented. Mark of Cornwall chose,
After long doubt, the part he thought would win,
But pleaded distance, which would scarce allow
A large contingent. "That," he wrote, "wherein
I most may aid is here await to lie
And menace Arthur's rear."
"He will not that,"
King Lot, who scorned him, said, "but there await
Will seek to profit from our hard debate
At little cost. Before our swords are dry,
He may repent it."
He of Camberet,
Duke Eustace, brought strong spears; and Brandigore
Was bought his feud with Scotland to forget
By lust of plunder. From Northumberland
King Clarence with his moorland horsemen came;
And came King Credimont, from isle and strand
With those whom neither seas nor winds could tame.
Southward they marched, the while King Arthur lay
East of the forests of Bedgraine; but they
Found barren leagues to pass, for Merlin's care
Wasted the land. The scouts of Arthur spread
Forward and far, till those who foremost led
The rebel host they touched, and then retired,
Reducing all. The barns they cleared. They fired
That which they might not move. From field and wood
The herds and swine they drave. To silent stead
And emptied byre the invaders came; the while
The host of Arthur's part in plenty fed.
It was two nights before the dawn that saw
The hard encounter of the ruthless war
That the bold king the Hundred knights who led
Dreamed a great dream. Though in his waking days
No land was his, who rode regardless ways
(His camp his home, his knights his subjects were),
He dreamed that in great towers he dwelt. They rose
Immense to heaven, the while aborted foes
Around them ranged and died. Impregnable
He with content, and they with raging, knew
They must be ever. But a tempest blew
Their massive girth around. The winds a shriek
Grasped the great walls, that shook like canvas weak,
And like a blown pavilion inward fell.
Then the wind died, and where those towers had been
A great flood swept, and bore their wrecks away.
At which he waked to wonder, and to tell
So strange a dream; and that his mind had seen
Remained so vivid, and so feared to say,
That those who heard as words of doom received,
Till Lot, who starkly in good steel believed,
Mocked their unsubstanced fears.
"Behold," he said,
"How rashly are vain dreams interpreted!
The dreamer hath no tower: he hath no land.
Should that which is not built be strong to stand?
Nothing the dream (or any dream) implies
Beyond the turmoil in our minds that lies."
But men about to slay, or else to die,
Brace their strong harness, and their dreams put by.
Eleven armies now their ranks arrayed
(For Mark his meagre contribution made,
Though holding absent) and their bold advance
Was dazzling with bright arms, and shields aglance.
Lot stretched his front the most he might, but here
The river flanked them, and the woods anear
Narrowed their march. Upon their leftward flank,
Low-built beside the river's nearer bank,
Were Bedgraine's walls, for Arthur held. Was need
Half Garlot to detach, its gates to heed,
Lest their loose rear should feel an issuing foe.
Before them lay King Arthur's host, but so
That as their van should leave the woods behind,
And the uncertain stream should eastward wind,
On front and flanks the curved attack should be.
Yet for this wide attempt must Arthur spread
Thin ranks reliant more on hardihed
Than on close front and push of crowding spear.
For only Arthur's dragon led Logre:
The arms of Benoic were not here to see.
By Merlin's ruse in Bedgraine woods they lay,
Waiting their time. For Lot was meeting here
His own device, against a formless rear,
When the strife roared, a serried force to fling.
So, as the rebel armies, king by king,
Extended on the wider plain, they found
Three sides their interrupted ranks around
A fierce assault drive in, where half arrayed
Each knight must meet who fronts him, blade for blade.
Unordered ranks the sudden onset gored,
And broken both, a wild confusion roared,
Congesting those who first deployed, and then
Obstructing who behind them pressed. The strife
Raged for long hours, while Ban and Bors withheld
Their Benoic spears, that Arthur's knights alone
Should prove their might.
But when this might was shown
Equal to hold, but not to rout, the word
Was sent to loose them. Benoic's green and gold,
And Gaul's gay silken lilies, azure-scrolled,
From the dark woods in ranks impatient spurred.
Came riot that far off King Arthur heard,
As Lot with hasteful regiment opposed
The sudden peril that the woods disclosed,
With fiercer strife than had been, flank and rear.
But what of front or flank had meaning here?
One side the river made a partial screen.
One side the woods that had protection been
Were live with foes, the while, behind, before,
Foes of the earlier day, and foes the more
Which noonday brought, their pressure urged, that so
That which before he taught was his to know.
And as before had Arthur's knights endured,
So did these others, being, as they were,
Of the like blood, and in like mood aware
That only in themselves their safety lay.
So were they constant with good blows to pay
For those they felt.
But Arthur's heart was glad,
Seeing the battle that before he had
Reversed in process, and assured that now
He ruled such ranks as would not break nor bow,
But hold the taken in too hard a net
For any outward burst its sides to fret.
While Lot, from when the Benoic arms he saw,
Knew that not ever in a world of war
Had been such hazard to his life and fame.
"Good friends," he said, "our straitened space to bar,
Three sides our foes, and one the waters are.
Loose we our footmen through the woods to flee,
As by good chance through closing boughs they may,
Each for himself; and with firm front will we
Resist them till of deaths they tire. For here
What flight remains? We must their fury stay,
Or all be lost."
In this resolve combined
They dressed their lines anew. Before, behind,
(Though now was little choice of front or rear,
Excepting that the river's fordless screen
Gave cover where their leftward flank had been)
No vacant space was left, but spear by spear
And steed by steed they stood, while round them surged
Arthur's exultant ranks, whose spears converged
On their defensive front. No harder strife
Than the next hour's the long encounter saw.
With wound for wound they paid, with life for life,
Till, wearied by the heavy toll of war,
They slackened as the light of evening
Left the high skies, and failed along the west.
Then where they stood the rebel kings must make
Their compassed camp, with here no junketing,
No mood of song to hold the night awake.
But cold at heart for many a good knight's fall,
And weary past desire for aught but rest,
And cumbered with the slain, and wounded all,
And thoughtful that return of light would bring
Resumption of such strife as deathward led.
But round them lay their foes, alike distrest,
With wounds as deep, with equal deaths to mourn.
Yet knowing that their purpose fairly sped,
And thinking to conclude with following morn
The full destruction of a taken prey.
But when morn came, and Arthur's strong array
Advanced for end of those its toils within,
Mage Merlin spake: "Lord king, thy wrath delay
Awhile to hear me. Those who will, not fly,
Preferring midst their victors' deaths to die,
Who will thy most endure, thy worst defy,
If now thy clement hand neglect to slay,
May be the bulwark at a later day
Of this thy realm when heathen swords are bare.
Will not thy best be slain the while they slay?
I charge thee now a further loss to spare,
Lest God's long patience tire. Thy part were best
To leave them standing with no more molest:
Leave them to lick their wounds, and list their slain.
"Believe that here they will not long remain,
For evil tidings to their counsel speed.
Their lands, left lordless, with rebellions bleed:
Their seaward borders from the heathen breed
The North lets loose when Christian discords rise.
Thou shouldst not now to further weakness fret
Swords that may soon with Christless blood be wet.
By the far sight that Heaven allows, I vow
They will not vex thee for three years from now,
When thou shalt meet them with more strength than here,
And win, and weld them to one conquering blade,
And find them faithful to thy throne and thee,
When those wild heathen of the colder sea
Shall press thy bounds till every sword be dear."
Answered the king: "Against my mortal foes
My sword is bare, and ere the day goes
I count to break them."
"Yet my word believe
Thyself at last thy further wrath shouldst grieve."
Then Arthur reined impetuous mood to heed
A cooler counsel.
From the northward road
His ranks, to wood and heath retiring, showed
Clear exit. Ware at first, and then with speed,
The rebels, to a beaten field agreed,
But doubtful of some deadly ruse, defiled
To flight and freedom.
With his foes dispersed,
Dejected, and conscious of the wounds they nursed,
And soon of bold barbarian hosts aware,
Their general absence had aroused to raid
Rich lands left vacant of their former care,
That they must form new fronts to overbear,
Or be themselves reversed, King Arthur saw
The wisdom of the word his wrath had stayed.
Not treatied peace, but mutual pause of war
Three years would last, the while the strength he spared
The outer ramparts of his realm repaired
From heathen inroads, lacking sight to see
Their travail at the last his gain would be.
So, to a peace they had not known before,
Logre far northward to the line of Trent,
The Severn vale, and Devon's broad extent,
He brought, and westward to the bounds of Gore
Beyond Caerleon, and the wilder ways
That were the landward route to Listonaise.
All these he ruled, and in his strength secure
Such comfort of strong spears to Benoic sent
That Claudas could not in set field endure
Those whom he drave before. And when the knights
Of Arthur's sending left the Benoic land
Where peace would be, from lust of war's delights,
Desires of fames, or friendships' calls, there went
Therewith a score of Benoic's best, to be
In later, greater days at Arthur's court,
Not least in splendour for his throne's support,
And pregnant to decide its last event.
Now from the caution and the craft of Lot
Came a strange seed to bear a distant woe,
Which not a thousand further years forgot;
A tale at this late day that all men know.
Long while he pondered Arthur's power, and weighed
The wisdom to oppose or else to aid
His crescent strength. 'It hangs at last,' he thought,
'Most on himself, who is young, unproved, untaught
In rules of kinghood, and the needful guile
That hides its purpose till the pointing prow
Is close to ram. Audacious first success
Will hold him in his place, no lengthened while,
Except with thriftful care he use it now
To form his friendships and his bounds to dress....
More must I learn before I chose.'
To seek Morgause: "Fair wife, attend," he said,
To one who all in awe and half in dread
Looked to her older lord, whose forceful hand
Had rent her girdle when from Cornish land
He bore her as the wage of conquering war,
The gift of Uther for the aid he gave,
"I need thee for a task none else could do,
And none could bring to better fruit than you.
For either must I join to Arthur's power,
If he be stablished in a rule secure,
Or take the chance of his disastrous hour,
If he be found unfit to long endure
The adverse gales on such a course that blow.
Therefore I send you to his court in sign
Of peace and friendship, and your part shall be
To use the sensuous arts you lightly know
To find his weakness and his strength. For so
Thy sons shall prosper at his side; or we
Take the high place where Merlin's craft hath set
A youth unsinewed for such destiny.
"I will that to Caerleon court you ride,
Your ladies and your children at your side,
With knights of honour, but in festal guise
For proof of friendship. That I thus devise,
The sullen beaten kings that round him lie
Will warn, no further test too soon to try;
Deeming, as surely he will deem thereby,
I seek alliance, and no more would be
In league against him. But yourself will know
I am not certain friend nor certain foe,
But watch the scale, that as it rise or fall
I may the more incline it. All thine art,
As well thou canst, to subtle purpose bend,
To bind him to thee. Make him much thy friend.
Yet do it briefly. Lag not to depart.
Ourselves are royal."
So to Arthur's court
She who was half his sister came. But naught
Knew either of the bond of blood. She brought
Her four young sons. The first, nigh grown
Gawain; Gaheris, keen and hard; and Agravain,
Sullen and strong; and youngest and most dear,
The laughing Gareth.
While the year was young
They journeyed southward. Still cold winter hung
Its shield's white challenge on the leafless bough.
But not for swollen ford or frozen way
Less gaily rode Morgause. Nor turn nor stay
Was hers for wild March winds, or those who lay
Across her transit. For the name of Lot
More than her escort of strong spears availed
To guard her. Where his fierce gyr-falcon flew,
Not often in remotest hills it failed
An open path to gain from all who knew
His mode of war. So through the whole land's length
She moved secure. The winter's lessening strength
Her sole restraint, she rode with ranks entire
Caerleon's gates of open welcome through.
Gay with hued silks those ranks, and bright with gold,
And brave with front of proven knights who led
The lengthened line of spears in which was set
The silken litter that her ease allowed.
But now she chose a fair white palfrey, thus
To grant her presence to the cheering crowd.
Gracious to all, their curious looks she met
With smiling eyes, the while her spearmen gazed
As men by naught allured, by naught amazed,
Straight forward. Thoughtless were they trained for war.
Lot's iron hand formed them.
Royal alike in wise,
Rode Arthur outward in midstreet to show
Meet honour to a queen in friendship's guise
Who offered concord from a pausing foe.
A seawind was there from the south, that back
The ladies' scarves, the knights long pensels blew,
And from the bleak March skies their drifting rack
Swept north, till naked heaven was coldly blue.
So met they, strangers in the open street,
Knowing not the bond of blood which both forbad
The falsehood that she wrought, and that they had
Of other sort in the near days. She saw
No stern-browed king, no hardened hawk of war,
Such as at Orkney's royal board would meet;
But frank-eyed youth, and grace, and comeliness,
That expectation and report were less
Than whom with smiling lips she bent to greet.
Nor Arthur's greeting was of colder kind,
Nor feigned of craft. For here high polity
With youth's keen impulse joined. So fair was she
In her full womanhood, his heart inclined
In swift desire toward her, instant, blind,
Untested in the doubtful lists of love.
Had she been distant on her part, as one
Assured and elder in her place and name,
Naught might have been of larger evil done,
But longing, barren of all hope to claim,
Had been the sport of time to change, or tame
To ever fainter though more dear regret,
Only to be recalled in empty hours.
Or, had he loved her not, it had not been.
For she from fault of random lusts was clean,
Unlike to Morgan, whose unlikely powers
Were servants to a lust incontinent.
True had she been to one unloved, whom yet
In his stern habit had been justly kind.
But now, obedient to his word, she bent
All her sweet ways a king's regard to gain
Who in swift passion for herself was fain.
Weak was her fence such keen response to find,
Such love, such worship, and such gentleness.
Was wonder here that one so lured forgot
The cunning purpose which the craft of Lot
Had laid upon her? If her heart were less
Held by that alien thought than drawn to yield
Love's favour, caught on that unequal field?
Sweet converse soon to sweeter usage grew.
The severing bond of blood that neither knew,
Its barriers down, was in that ignorance
Traitor to their integrities, for they
Were kindred largely in those thoughts which lie
Within the backward mind. Herself she showed,
As Lot had counselled. By that open road
Came Arthur to the door of mortal sin,
Asked not its price, but pressed, and entered in.
One month was all before she backward went
To her bleak northern home. One month was all.
Yet in those days was wrought, beyond repent,
The deaths of myriads, with an empire's fall.
Backward she went the fruit of sin to bear,
Ware of her fault, and yet not all aware,
Who knew not Arthur for her closest kin.
No thought of sorrow for so dear a sin
Was Arthur's as he watched her pensels go,
Till the far flashes of the sunlit spears
Died out, and left him to a lonely woe.
But in the watches of the sleepless night
A bitter conflict in his heart he knew:
'Her will I gain in very Heaven's despite.'...
'Unknightly were it from a cause untrue
To war on Lot, his wife to gain anew,
Whom sent he in good faith and friendly will.'...
'How know I but he plots his treason still?'...
'I know not that he doth.'.... 'If thus I do,
Will she consent her lord's reverse to see,
And join her life to whom his bane hath been?...
Whom loves she surely if she loves not me?
Lot's widow were her choice, or Camelot's queen?'
There was his doubt the most. If strife should be,
Lot's ruin or his death to work, would she
Witness that wrack, and then in full consent
Accept a seat beside the conqueror's throne?
Much surely had she in love's weakness shown,
But less than told him that. In thought he went
Backward to search for any certain sign,
And did not find it. Torn by doubt he lay.
Too noble-natured to his lust obey:
Too lustful for her to his hope decline.
He knew not to such deeds his birth he owed,
Yet half was bent to take Pendragon's road,
And half his mother's juster blood forbad;
And in this doubt he slept at last, and knew
His mind disordered still. Such dreams he had
That waking discords were but peace thereto.
For now a vision dread his thoughts possessed,
Not of kind ease, and love's soft comforting,
But in his land he was a lonely king,
Beset by entering foes that darkness bred.
From earth's deep entrails, and from fields of air
Black with low storm, their hateful onsets were.
With claws to tear, with venomed deaths to spew,
Snakes upward writhed, and dragons downward flew.
Through all the pested land the folk they slew,
And he fought only. Now he smote below,
And now thrust upward at a swooping foe.
Wounded he was, and dazed with strife, but still
Were more to chase aside, and more to kill.
Till faint from toil, and weak from wounds that bled,
He stood alive amidst the countless dead,
And waked, but was at heart uncomforted.
Again he slept: again he chased and slew.
But ever as he turned they came anew,
And still he smote, although most wearily,
Till the last writhing ceased, and he could know
He lived among the slain. But even so
He felt no triumph victoring thus to stand,
For they had left him in an empty land,
And empty also in his heart was he.
Thereat he waked, and looked abroad to see
The pause of dawn, while yet wide heaven was flecked
With failing stars. The deep immensity,
Dawn-pregnant, did not wholly yet conceal
That space unbound which never daylight shows
Where the stars wander on their loneliest ways.
Now Arthur felt its power to cease and heal
The short disturbance of the transient days
Of mortal being. 'Here is need,' he thought,
'Of better counsel than my heart can give;
For all my later days to lose or live
Must here depend.'
Mage Merlin's aid he sought,
The tumult of his tortured thoughts to still,
But gained he naught thereby, for Merlin's will
Was not to aid him, as, at Uther's call,
He once had aided. "Now shall truth be told,"
He answered, "haply on too late a day;
Though that be more than mortal men can say,
Who see a babe's birth, or a kingdom's fall,
Not as God sees it, in its place with all,
That thus the coloured pattern fitly glow."
"But this thou must to halt thy purpose know:
Thou art the child of Uther and Igraine,
Begotten ere they wed, and placed away
In wise most secret, lest the doubt that lay
Around thy coming were thy childhood's bane,
With such contention when Pendragon died
As might have slain thee. Here is certain cause
To hold thee separate, for the Queen Morgause
Is half thy sister."
"That I hold too ill
For light believing."
"That I speak I know.
And more I tell thee. From thy sin shall grow
A monstrous evil. For Morgause shall bear
A son to thee, whose base and envious will,
Through tortuous plots, and deeds iniquitous,
Shall wreck thy realm at last. For this prepare
Thy soul through prosperous years."
"This tale of ill,
If surely to thy proof the past be thus,
And such black sequel in the future lie,
Why tell me not before, or now too late?"
"I would that heart be thine to counter fate,
Which was not mine to alter. Even I,
For mine own self, a coming doom may fear,
And yet more fear to change it."
"As thou wilt.
Yet to the burden of incestuous guilt,
Unweening though it were, I will not bend
Without the baring of full proof."
Such proof is simple. Hear Sir Anton's tale,
When I release him from the oath he swore,
Or call thy mother from the heights of Gore,
- Those crag-built towers which never foe shall scale -
Where, with her youngest born (excepting thee),
Queen Morgan, doth she pensive bide, as one
Who stands aside from life; whose life is done."
Sir Anton came, and Merlin charged him: "Once
I tied thee straitly by an oath which bound
Thy lips to silence. Now I bid thee tell."
"That will I freely. Uther bade me take
A babe not mine beneath my roof to dwell,
That thus should be a nameless safety found
For one who else might die by violence,
If left uncovered in rebellious days."
"That child perchance was I, perchance was Kay."
"Then, by God's verdict, had the sword been Kay's!"
Believing, yet the smallest doubt to stay,
He sent such missive to Igraine as bought
Her soon appearance. At her side there came
Queen Morgan, who the powers of Hell could tame
To work her bidding. So the fearful said.
And none could doubt that to her use she bent
The viewless virtues earth and air have bred,
As neither men require, nor God had meant.
Loyal was she not to her lord, nor he
Believed it ever. Lover none was hers
Of constant faith, nor such she sought, for she
Was lustful, changeful, and incontinent.
Heedless of all, her wanton ways she went
As one no ruths restrained, no laws compelled.
And if, through all the evil course she held
She yet her bond with Urience half sustained,
Light was the price she gave for that she gained
In name, and refuge of the towers of Gore.
And if King Urience took and asked no more,
What loss was his her lustful moods to share?
What gain to seek for that which was not there?
On Arthur now, with glances darkly bright
She gazed, and heard a tale that long she knew.
Eyes with no sister's love but hate alight
Were hers, Pendragon's wile-born child to view.
'His father,' so she thought. 'My father slew.
Mine shall be vengeance wrought by devious ways
He shall not guess.' And those sweet-seeming eyes
Were lifted to him, as fair dawn may rise
While the near storm its gathered clouds delays.
Then hardly Ulfius spake: "So strait a vow
Hath held me these long years, that naught I said
Of all I knew. But that is ended now.
And this, that bitter silence long hath bred,
Must now be spoken. All our crowding woes
Had been averted, and King Arthur's right
Allowed and stablished in the whole world's sight,
Had Queen Igraine his birth declared."
The king made answer, "of your wrath beware.
Few of there of my court such words would dare;
And none who shall with light impunity
Traduce her. With a mother's claim on me
Thine own words dower her."
"Lord, my liege, I say
No more than truth requires and knighthood may.
Through all thy years with hopeless eyes I saw
The land disordered; and the mortal war
Thy proclamation made. Had true men known
Thou wert Pendragon's heir, their strength had grown
So largely round thee that the sound of strife
We had not heard, or else the factious few
Were wind-blown leaves upon the gale of war.
But while men faltered on a doubt unsure,
Either they lagged a loyal sword to draw,
Or joined the rabble of thy foes.... For me,
I speak the things I knew, the fault I see,
And will for naught abate it."
Answered Igraine, "a woman's strength is mine,
Unfit the temper of thy sword to try.
Yet not so friendless nor so false am I
That all of Urience' or of Arthur's court
Should let thy gage for long unlifted lie.
"But I would answer in a gentler way.
Thou art indignant for a kingdom's woe,
Not causeless, yet, if more than most you know,
You know not all. You know that Merlin's wile
Betrayed my honour, that a babe I bore,
Perchance to Uther, but I know no more
Than that by night in unsuspected guile
Of magic caught, I as my lord received
Another, and Duke Gorlois lay the while
Slain in strong battle, eight sure leagues away.
"So much we know; and likely more you may
Of who that babe concealed, as did not I.
But this you know not, that my word I plight
To Uther, not to ask or seek or say
Aught of it; for its larger safety lay
In that conceal had Merlin urged. Whereby
I could not surely solve, though hope I might,
What meant the advent of a nameless king."
And Ulfius answered: "Reasoned words are thine.
I spake too rashly; and thy pardoning
I can but sue. More blame with Merlin lies,
Who on his subtle-working arts relies
Too greatly. Devil though he may not be,
He is not God, and that he doth not see.
He makes three woes for one his craft allays."
To which Mage Merlin: "That we are we do.
And great occasion, for the world's amaze,
Beyond thy thought, my cunning arts could view."
Then turned he to the king: "My liege, believe
She is thy mother. To thyself receive
One who was sinless and misfortunate."
"I all believe," and as he spake, the king
With tearful joy his mother clasped, and she
In the likewise embraced him joyfully,
Long winter ending in so fair a spring.
So came clear truth to light from vain surmise,
By which was Arthur owned Pendragon's heir,
His throne made firmer, and his hopes more fair
To those who knew not all. But only he,
And Merlin whom he told the whole, could weigh:
What fruit would incest bear? What price to pay
Would be his part who in that incest lay?
'Heavy,' he thought, 'the price, and hard the way;
Yet not the shadow of a distant wrack,
Nor sorrow for short love so curstly sped,
Shall break high dreams; and what at last may lack
Shall not dissolve the things that first I do,
Which shall be changeless when their form hath fled,
As all things past are changeless. Deep I rue
That which is changeless now to mould anew.
Yet while earth stands, and while endures the sky,
At here my place my given part will I,
Till the full tempest break, whate'er it be.'
In this resolve his peace he found. He set
Far from him vain remorse and vain regret.
The thin-veiled hate in Morgan's eyes he met
- What knew she surely? - with such glance as gave
Full friendship's offer from her king and kin.
But Morgan was Duke Gorlois' child. To her
He was no brother, but the fruit of rape
Of whom she loved. He was an alien seed
Sown with no right, and now a monstrous weed,
Which she by magic art, and only she,
Might humble. Those dark eyes had depths wherein
Lay hell-born menace for the days to be.
'What sleight,' she thought, 'shall void, what strength shall save
His life from my set snares of sorcery?
Shall shield of God, shall ruth in me,
Exempt him from the bitter price of sin?
Conceived in craft, and now by lechery
Sire to such monster as not earth should see.'
One morn a squire to Arthur's justice came,
His master's corse who bore with sore lament.
"Grant me," he pled, "a knight of bold intent
This death to venge. It was but yesterday
My noble master here (Sir Miles his name)
A strong knight, hoving at a fountain's fall,
Waiting for some strange beast to pass that way,
And idle in his long quest's long interval,
For no just cause opposed. He barred his way,
Demanding strife; and, ruthless, smote to slay,
As this wide wound gives witness."
"Was it so?"
Answered the king. "A forest fountain? Nay,
It may be that this knight myself I know."
Then through the talk that rose, and while the king
That which good rule required was pondering,
Another squire approached him, Griflet named,
Of beardless youth, but who with reverence claimed
The boon of knighthood from his lord.
Gave dubious answer: "Much of hope I see,
But not the strength that further years will show;
And those who aim too high may fall too low.
Who art thou?"
And the suppliant youth replied:
His name was Griflet, called le Fils de Dieu,
For of his birth there was not man that knew.
Sir Blamor's squire.
"Why ask this boon?"
The venture of this fountain strife may try.
Who aims too low has little hope to rise,
I do beseech thy grace to hear my plea."
But Merlin counselled: "Let thy heart deny
Too soon a prayer. This youth in days to be,
Strong for himself, and stronger yet for thee,
Shall be a bulwark to thy throne. But now
He knows too little of stern jousts, or how
The spear-point shivers on the slanted shield."
But Arthur, whose high dreams interpreted
That which he heard, denied not: "If," he said,
"I grant thy prayer, while wisdom halts, to me
It is but seemly that thy gift shall be,
Even as I ask. "
"Lord, all thou wilt. "
This pledge require, that when thy bout is done,
From mounted strife or foot, or lost or won,
Thou dost not fail to here return, and tell
Of triumph gained, or if defeat befell;
Returning though for praise, or though for shame."
"Lord, by my body's faith, that word I swear."
And so Sir Griflet, come to knighthood's name,
In boyhood's haste his saddled steed bestrode
- A strong-limbed steed, of little weight aware -
And spurred a wallop down the woodland road.
Then came he to a rich pavilion pight
Beside a fountain, through its ferns that fell
From hanging rock, to find a slaty bed
So narrow that the forest boughs from sight
Its course concealed, though further down it spread
A turbulent breadth.
A steed accoutred well
Stood waiting, and a shield of blazons gay
Hung from a larch, beside a leaning spear.
Then with his own spear's butt the shield he smote
With such brusque vigour that to ground it fell,
Cord-sundered. Outward at the clamorous note
There came unarmed a haut and kingly knight.
"Why hast thou served my shield in such despite?"
"For I would joust."
"Thou art but young," he said.
"Unarmed I stand. Restore the shield and go."
"I will not that."
"Thy strength is yet to be.
No lust is mine to be thine overthrow."
"Yet strike I for that knight ye lately sped."
"Then tell me whence thou comest."
"From Arthur's court."
"Bold are ye all who ride from that resort;
Yet tame thy bold presume I lightly may.
Loth, I will joust thee."
"Less or more to say,
The end is one."
"The choice is thine,
The strong knight armed him, and his spear he gat,
And gained his horse. On level ground they met.
That bout sufficed, for Griflet, overset,
More backward than his rolling charger lay.
With flash of sparks from strenuous hooves, the steed
Regained his feet, the while the victor knight,
Firm-seated still, upon Sir Griflet gazed.
He saw the broken shield. The torn side bled.
'Dead is he,' he thought, and for a nearer sight
Dismounted at his side. His helm he raised.
With freer air the fallen knight revived.
"How dost thou?"
"In my side a splinter lies.
Yet must I - "
With the word he strove to rise,
But could not.
"Let that arm of strength deprived
On mine depend."
Dizzily Sir Griflet thus
Refound his feet. With effort arduous,
In pain's contempt, and dear blood's loss, he gained
His seat once more.
"I must return," he said,
"If that your grace allow me. Live or dead,
My knighthood's faith is straitly pledged thereto."
"God," said the victor, "be thine aid to do
What few so mortal-hurt would rise to try.
A mighty heart is thine. Should life endure,
With fuller strength to be, with seat more sure,
With lance more practised to its goal, I ween,
A knight to match thee were but seldom seen."
Wood wrath was Arthur while Sir Griflet lay
Avoiding death. 'I would not heed,' he thought,
'The counsel Merlin gave. I would not stay
A boy's vain dream, but cast his life away,
Too avid where myself I ventured naught.'
To heralds of far kings, who reached his court
With tribute claims, and threats of war's retort,
He gave short hearing, and a sharp reply.
'One course remains,' he thought, 'and that will I.'
A chamberlain he called, and spake aside:
"Voice this to none, but ere the dawn provide
Of all the goodly steeds I own the best;
And of mine arms the mail of surest test;
And lance that shall not fail. Have these conveyed
Without the walls in secret wise. I ride
As honour calls, and at the eventide
Expect my safe return, with God to aid,"
So came it, as the routed stars withdrew,
Through the clear coldness of the morning dew
That Arthur rode in no man's company,
As a poor knight rides squireless. Naught had he
His royal person or his rank to show.
Soft pace he rode the while encroaching light
Chased the last shadows of the woodland night,
But pricked his steed at widening dawn, for near
Were sounds of chase and flight; and cries of fear
Were lost in those of churls who roused a prey.
Out from the woods, across the open way,
Stumbled a man who ran with failing breath,
While three stout villains who desired his death
Made swift pursuit with naked knives to slay.
But on the lance-point now the dawn's low light
Gave flashing signal, and the quickening beat
Of horse-hooves sounded in their ears. Retreat
Was instant then. High ferns and brambles hid
Their worming course. The low-grown brake forbid
A further search. In Arthur's wondering sight
Stood Merlin breathless on the path.
Not all thy craft nor all thy wizardry
It seems had saved thee from their thieving clutch
Except I came," in open mirth laughed he.
"My danger at their hands was not so much
I had not foiled it in good time. But more
Is that to which thou goest. Thy likely end
Thy rashness asks, and only Heaven's defend
Can save thee."
"Yet I dread me not so sore
That I will falter at thy word.... And see!
The fountain and the shield. And there is he,
The knight I seek."
Truly he spake, for near
Lay the strewn shards of Griflet's splintered spear,
And there the fountain where the strange beast drank,
And there the steed which once with little thank
The bold knight seized who now, in morning ease,
Sate at his meal beneath the meeting trees.
"Knight," said the king, to one who knew not him,
Why dost thou bide in this wild place, and why
Free passage on the open path deny?
Who ride in peace should jeopard life nor limb,
Except of free desire their strength they try."
To this the seated knight gave sharp reply:
"I wait a beast that here resorts, and while
I wait I will the laggard hours beguile
As pleasure calls."
"And died Sir Miles thereby."
"Ill fortune his."
"And very near to die
A youth unequalled to such sports."
Desired the fall he sought."
"I charge thee leave
A custom which King Arthur's peace doth grieve."
"If my pursuits thy better wits offend,
Freedom is knightly thine to force amend."
"That will I in short course with God to friend."
"Well, as thou wilt."
The nameless knight arose,
As one whose daily count of carnal foes
Was yet to tale; and armoured soon he came
So bold a challenge to his might to tame.
But equal-fortune was the course they ran.
The strong spears broke. But neither horse nor man
Quailed from the shocks.
Then Arthur's sword outshone.
But said the knight: "Another bout should we
Try with sharp spears."
"My only spear is gone."
"But I can furnish for myself and thee."
Then by his squire were two stout spears supplied.
And once again that course did Arthur ride,
And held his seat: "Then now must swords debate."
"Nay, for I have not found a knight of late
So hardily to meet me. Once again
For joy of combat shall the course be run."
"So be it for me," replied the careless king,
More joyed of hazards than of safety fain,
But fate defied too far may no man shun.
Against the opposing spear his skill was vain.
Angered he rose from ignominious fall.
"That the lance loses shall the sword regain."
So said he, as his own he drew. The knight,
Who sought no vantage, must to earth alight
To meet him equal. "Must thou more?" he said.
"Bethink, that shouldst thou fail thou art but dead.
My mood is mercy now. Be wise, and go."
But Arthur answered, still in wrath: "Not so,
A lance may fail, but therefore fail not I."
Clashed in mid-air the meeting swords, and swept
Backward a circling course to clang again.
Against such strokes the shifting shields were vain.
The shredded cantals leapt: the red blood spread.
Scantly awhile the king his dear life kept.
"Now may we pause," he cried, and breathless both
Rested apart, and then, alike unloth,
Together rushed as savage rams contend,
The empire of the grazing ewes to gain.
High heart delayed awhile relentless end,
But valour and resolve alike were vain
When the swords clashed, and Arthur's broke.
The victor swore, "more stubborn foe to me
Either of sword or word I have not met.
But vantage here is mine to close the debt.
Yield shalt thou recreant to my rule, or I
The strife resume by which thou canst but die."
"Death comes to all; and those of noble parts
Account it welcome to accepting hearts.
But recreant to thy rule I will not be."
So Arthur spake, and with the word he leapt
To reach his foeman's throat, too late who swept
A hindering stroke. To common earth they fell.
With honour there to buy, and life to sell,
Savagely they strove; but greater strength at last
Assertion made: the king, with helm off-cast,
Saw the bright dagger raised his life to slay.
Then death had been, but Merlin on the way
Suddenly appeared, and cried: "Oh, knight too bold,
From that disastrous deed thy hand withhold!
A bane to all this land that stroke should be,
Fair hopes to fade; nor least its loss to thee."
"Now, be ye devil or man, what knight is he?"
"It is the king is held beneath thy knee.
Even Arthur's self."
"Not only king is he.
King am I also in my land."
Resolving mind King Pellinor thought: "Too far
My fault hath outraged for its cloud to lift.
My safety lies in this descending blow."
But with the thought the nerveless hand sank low,
For Merlin on him cast so strong a spell
That swooning as to death, he forward fell.
Slow rose King Arthur, and the thanks he gave
To whom had come his forfeit life to save
Were halt and poor. "A better knight alive
I have not met. And do I meanly thrive
Because thy sorcerous arts contrive his death?"
But Merlin laughed upon him: "Too scant of breath
Thou art to waste it in such wail. Believe
His harm is naught. Before returning eve
His life resumes. King of Mid-Wales is he,
And his two sons, Lamorack and Percival,
In the strange hazards of far days to be,
Shall honour well thy throne; nor largely less
His loyal service to thee. But thy need
Is sharp for some good leech thy wounds to dress.
Mount by mine aid. King Pellinor's stolen steed
Will bear me."
To a hidden hermitage
Near in the woods they went as Merlin led,
Where the good hermit did his hurts assuage
With cunning salves. But three short days were sped
Before the king from that impatient bed
Was active to the court to ride again.
Merlin with Arthur westward rode. The king,
Grateful for rescue at his need, was still
Vexed by the issue of that strife. He said:
"I fought and failed. I would not yield. To bring
My loss to bold reverse of victoring
Even life I gaged. It was not of my will
That he who triumphed should be falsely sped
By arts beyond our mortal use. I live,
Yet ride I swordless, as is right; for I
Am one dis-weaponed, who should yield or die."
But Merlin laughed. "Not thine the right to give
Thy life, which to thy kingdom's needs belongs.
Thou wilt not yield while life remains. In thee
Is that high heart which makes its sovranty
Through all disaster or reverse secure.
For thy lost sword we near the destined cure.
Await a wonder."
Now the woodland way
Opened, and wide upon their left there lay
A water great and fair, that smoothly shone
Beneath a noon-lit sky. Far out thereon
An arm they saw that from the waters rose
In gleaming samite, that a sword upheld,
And brandished, sheathed.
"That sword is thine to take."
"Who," Arthur asked, "is she who walks the lake
As one who on firm earth unheedful goes?"
"She whom thou seest though her grace to thee
Is of the Water Spirits, Nimue.
Beneath the floods their homes are built, and there
Are palace halls as fine, and garths as fair,
As any monarch of high pride should dare
To round him build in overbold compare
Of bright celestial domes. Her aid to thee
Is largely pledged. There is no cause to fear.
Speak fairly to her when she comes more near."
"I fear her naught.... Oh, lady, dost thou see
I am a swordless knight? Can grace or gold
Win the fair sword that lifted hand doth hold,
Or doth it mock my need?"
"Lord king," she said,
"That sword is thine. The price is yet to pay.
Swear that a gift I will not name today
Is mine when I shall ask, and what thou wilt
Thine hand shall reach."
"I swear it soothly."
The secret of its name, Excalibar:
That which cleaves all and naught shall cleave. But though
Thy hand shall take it, be not thus content.
Not single to thyself its virtues are.
Except thou guard it well, thou mayst repent
"Closely shall I guard it."
That barge close-moored against a leaning tree?
Thy use it waits."
He saw the barge the where
Naught but green boughs had been and empty air
To previous sight.
The king and seer alit,
Tied their good steeds, and rowed the sword to win.
It was a lady's hand that brandished it.
She loosed it to the king; and deep within
The lake's green depths the arm no waters wet
From baffled eyes withdrew.
"If fair was she
As one with such flawless hand should be,
I would have seen her gladly," said the king.
"Nay," said the seer, "what need we else to see?"
His half-immortal eyes on Nimue,
With power to view beyond her vanquishing,
Though from the king she now withheld.
The land regained, they sought their steeds, and rode
Till by the path a rich pavilion showed,
But vacant. "What," said Arthur, "hath been here?"
"It is that king's pavilion," said the seer,
"With whom you fought. But since it here was pight,
He bickered stoutly with a Table knight,
Sir Eglam, who before his fury fled.
Save for his swifter steed, he were but dead.
But now Caerleon hath he reached. The king
From baffled chase returns, it is but now."
"Then shall I meet him with no swordless hand,
And all redress."
"Sire, if my counsel stand,
Ye shall not do so, worn with strife is he.
And with long chasing. Should thy sword excel
Were honour scarce to find; and rested well
Few knights were harder for thy mastery.
Bethink that strongly for thy throne's support
Such kings as he thy choicest words should woo,
Not thinking rather what thy lance couldst do,
Like to a landless knight's more random thought."
"A just rebuke I may not heedless hear.
And this good sword hath left too dear a debt
For short refusal of thy most request."
"Which, of the sword or scabbard, like'st thou best?"
"The sword were simple choice."
"The choice were wrong.
For though high virtues to the sword belong,
The scabard hath the greater. While ye wear
Its comfort at thy side, no blood shall flow
From any wounds, however deep they feel,
But it shall harden as it meets the air,
So that such hurts as else were life's despair
Shall irk thee little, and shall lightly heal.
Regard it as thy life, and keep it so
That never hand of any secret foe
Shall reive it from thee."
"That, good sooth, will I.
.... But mark who cometh."
"Yea, - and rideth by."
So it was. For the craft of Merlin cast
Such spell on Pellinor that naught he saw
But train of chapmen on the road who passed,
Urging their mules, unsure that Arthur's law
Would guard them. So he thought, and gave them way,
To salve their fears.
And Arthur said: "Perde,
Of less aggress, and different mien is he
From when before we met."
"So God thee save,
He did not shrink from that he did not see."
So to Caerleon they came, where knights were glad
To learn his safety. Marvelled much were they
That one such honour and such power who had
Should wager life and fame in private play.
Yet men of worship spake him praise. They said:
"What other lord so high, alive or dead,
Hath ever ventured as a landless knight
In honour's hard pursuit? Well blest are we
The subjects of so graced a prince to be."
Wide now was Arthur's realm to Orkney's bound,
And Cornwall owned him, and beyond Logre
His rule went onward to the eastern sea;
But yet were kings who held their mountain ground,
And sea-divided lands where chiefs were found
Hostile, and active to reduce his power.
Foremost of these, within his cloudy tower,
North Gales' fierce lord, Rience, his strong allies
And subject kings would count, till came a day
When to Caerleon came a strong array
That bore his message in no peaceful wise,
Though but a herald's train of pomp were they.
"Arthur," he said, "thy lord, Rience, by me
A summons sends. As rightful king is he
Of all North Gales, and all North Ireland, far
To where the wastes of shoreless ocean are,
And further north of many isles that breed
Warriors who far thine utmost strength exceed,
So of thy tribute and thy fealty
His natural claim he makes, and for its sign
He will have shaving of that beard of thine
To fringe his mantle where a gap remains,
Requiring that completion. He hath made
A robe so royal that its hem sustains
Eleven beards of kings discomfited,
And lacks but thine to close that lordly braid."
And Arthur answered: "Little beard have I;
And older growths would shame it. Tell thy lord
I owe no homage, and a naked sword
To his lewd message is the fit reply.
Say further that my beard is his to fetch,
If mountain vulture dare his neck to stretch
So far to the southward for so dear a prey.
If here he cometh let him clothe his knees
The gravelled dirt to meet, for doomed are they
To bear him grovelling at my feet. His head
Upon my footstool laid, with worships pled
Of subject homage, are the courtesies
Which will absolve the taunts so basely said
By the boor's hirling that thou art. Reply:
I charge him here to come, to gain or die,
Or through the world I will his mockery wake,
As one who bayed for that he dared not take."
With purpose Arthur spake, who surely knew
How little all his utmost force could do
That evil to uproot the where it grew;
And saw how brittle were his peace the while
North Gales' fierce hills, with many an outland isle,
Were hostile to his rule. And hence he sent
A word to sting him from his fortressed heights
To where the marshalled strength of mounted knights
Could break him on the plains.
With poor content
Withdrew that messenger; and Arthur asked:
"Who knoweth this Rience?" A Gore-bred knight
Sir Naram, answered: "Lord, two years ago,
I saw him nearly. Of a kingly height,
And fairly formed is he. But lust and pride
Have that befouled which Nature formed aright;
His body gross hath grown: his words deride
All gracious freedoms. As of natural right
He seizes, tortures, plunders, rapes and slays."
"Then rest we in good heart," replied the king.
"That here he cometh is a likely thing;
And here, by God's good grace, perchance he stays."
King Arthur left Caerleon. "If here I stay,
Through hills to hills Rience might break his way,
Shirking the plains; or Severn ford could wade,
And spoil the fair land in so swift a raid
As might its outrage and return complete
Before my altered front could close retreat."
Therefore he moved to Camelot, gathering there
The full strength of Logre, alert to hear
That from impregnable hills the mountaineer
Moved downward to the plains.
The while he sate
In the fair city, to its hall of state
There came a damsel well-beseen, and fair
As the most noble of its ladies were.
Cloaked was she in rich furs from neck to heel,
And when she backward threw that close conceal,
Lo, she was girded with a sword of might.
And Arthur, moved by that unseemly sight,
Required her: "Oh, most fair, I charge thee show
A doubtless cause that in such guise you go,
Bearing, as though you sought some warrior field,
A sword unequal for your hands to wield."
"Lord king," she said, "within this sheath you see
A sword not purposed to be drawn by me.
I bear it with a word that Nimue sends
Even to thyself. Who draws this sword must be
Of coward thought or base, or treasonous end,
Wholly devoid: a knight whose truth were shown
Flawless, although before the Eternal's throne.
To King Rience I bore it first, that he
The full perdition of his knights should see;
And none could loose it from the sheath, although
Great gains he pledged them for that feat; and so
I bring it, with a better hope, to try
If knight of thine shall solve its sorcery.
For clement, just, and gentle must be he;
And pure from base resolve as are but few;
And mighty of his hands great deed to do."
"Damsel," the king replied, "so hard a test
I would not think to dure, who am not best,
Even of my hands, among my knights. And who
Knows his own heart so well to speak and do
That in God's sight he call it clean? But I
Merely to lead my knights, the test will try,
That all alike be shamed who fail, and none
May be contemned unduly."
While he spake
He rose, and hardly strove the sword to take,
One hand on hilt, and one the sheath that strained;
But naught it moved.
The damsel said: "Perde,
Noble as thou art, the sword is not for thee.
A grasp God-sanctioned had more lightly gained."
"I thought it never," the king replied; and then
Came his high barons and less noble men,
Till few there were in all that court untried.
But still the great sword at the damsel's side
Dragged its sheathed weight, and she with sore lament
Reproached their impotence: "I had not thought
So burdened to withdraw from Arthur's court."
But Arthur answered: "Here be more than few
Strong knights and noble, and clean of base intent,
As any perchance who live. Yet deep I rue
Their grace is not to help you. Haply true,
Is one that, only for this venture meant,
Now far, shall yet thy thwarted hope renew,
If seek ye, constant in good heart."
Thus spake they, doubtful down the opening aisle,
From where he lingered near the doors, there drew
A captive knight, Sir Balyn, late releast
From closer bonds, but pledged to yet remain
At Arthur's court; for by his hand was slain
In dubious strife, a kinsman of the king.
Yet friends of worth he had who worked to bring
Forgiveness for that fault, if fault it were.
And so the freedom of the court to share
They gained him.
Lowly to the king's high feast
In meanest garb he came, but felt his heart
Lift as he heard, though no presumptuous part
Till all had failed he sought, nor cared to stand
In forward contrast with the glittering band
Of Arthur's courtlier knights.
But when the maid
Bewailed that loss that none her need should aid,
Sir Balyn ventured from his place, and said:
"Past those untried a pointless shaft is sped."
The damsel judged him with short glance, and thought,
Seeing him so mean: 'A likely knight; but naught
Save treacherous guiles, or wrongs by violence wrought
Could win to worship from such poor estate.' ....
"Fond is thy thought," she said, "to here prevail
Who hast seen but now King Arthur's noblest fail."
"Damsel, not all that garbs in pride is great,
Nor all is mean that moves in mean array."
"God knoweth," the damsel answered, "sooth ye say,
And therefore shalt thou do the most ye will."
At that, left-hand, the sheath he caught, and hand
Gripped the cross-hilts beneath the gauntlet-guard;
But seemed that needless was the toil he did,
For loosely in his grasp the sword outslid.
"So art thou proved," she said, "and all may see
That the mean garment hides the best degree."
But envy stirred the court - an outland knight -
One from Northumbria wandering here to brawl -
So meanly clad - should he be first of all? -
How knew they that she told the test aright? -
How knew they who she was, or who was he? -
"Witchcraft," they said, "may walk in knighthood's guise,"
And viewed the illclad knight with friendless eyes.
But Balyn heard not. Only eyes had he
For that charmed sword which told its sorcery
Down the blue blade in wavering scrolls, that none
Of earth might read, it may be. Yet it seemed
He almost read them. Like he seemed to one
Who some eluding gain or danger dreamed,
And reaches backward in his memory's pit
For that he would, without recalling it,
Which is no more than half a thought away.
The damsel said: "Fair knight, of courtesy -
Fair gentle knight, and proved of worth, I pray
Thou wilt restore the sword. Its virtue lay
In that discernment which it showed to thee,
But evil were it to retain."
Closed harder. "Shall I loose this sword," said he,
"Which by its own release is meant for me?
Who else should lift it with the larger right?"
"I speak not of thy right, nor doubt," she said,
"That such thou hast; but evil all have sped
That sword who bore. And at the fatal end
The blood may stain it of thy dearest friend.
Be warned by me."
But on the mystic blade
His eyes were fixed. He said: "With God to aid,
I will the venture take. The sword is mine.
I will, but only, with cold death resign
That which hath chosen in my hand to stay."
"It was for thine avail I spake. Believe,
While at thy side that mystic sword shall be,
Shall honour thwart thee, and success shall grieve."
But yet so glamoured by the sword was he
Nor pleas nor tears could move him. At the last,
Lamenting vainly, from the court she passed
Came she indeed from Nimue? Who shall say?
That sword returning at a greater day
Proved one unborn its proper lord to be.
Loud weeping for that dole she went away.
As one who wailed in bitter grief she went.
Yet for what purpose had the sword been sent?
So Balyn kept it; and his fate to know
Ever behind the swift pursuit of woe:
Ever to see success to failure fall.
"Lord King," he said, "behold, in open hall,
To all men's reading doth this verdict show
I am not traitored. Have I leave to go?"
"Free leave is thine. But shouldst thou choose to stay,
Fair shall be mine amends, the most I may.
For wrong I judged thee."
"On a later day
I gladly may return. But here I see
Friends to thy throne enough, but few to me."
"Wrong dost thou think. Yet if thou thinkest so,
With all good speeding hast thou leave to go."
While Balyn, of no friendly eyes aware,
Made to reject that court his brief prepare,
There came a damsel more than mortal fair,
Her hair flame-gold, a wonder, passing praise.
Her vesture, woven in no earthly loom,
Was broidered with strange scrolls, her foes to doom
Remedeless: and her eyes were steel that slays.
To Arthur's seat she came. "Lord King," she cried,
"When from my hand you took the conquering sword
To Nimue didst thou plight her own reward."
Doubt in his heart, the careful king replied:
"Truth are thy words. A gift I pledged. But yet
Full memory fails me, that I half forget
The essential name of that good sword. I pray
You tell me once again."
She answered: "Yea,
Excalibar, which means All steel I cleave,
But none can cleave me."
So I must believe
Thou art from Nimue. To fulfil my debt
Ask what thou wilt, and take it; naught denied
Within my power to give thee."
The damsel, "of thy faith would doubt thee none.
I ask that knight's head who the sword hath won,
Or hers who brought it. If both heads I had
The better paid I were, and largelier glad.
For ruthless he in mortal combat slew
My brother; and by her wiles she did fordo
My father's life."
The troubled king replied:
"Nay, ask not that. Ask what thou wilt beside.
My hand to sate thee shall be opened wide.
But that too deep would shame me."
"Nay," she said,
"I will naught only but the damsel's head,
Or his so wizardly that sword who drew.
Is this thy faith? The boon I ask put by?
Thy shelter round my foes? Naught else will I."
While paused the king his final rule to give,
Caught in the choice of shames alternative,
To Balyn, in the outer court prepared
To leave that place where none his friendship shared,
A chance word came, and stayed him. Silently
He entered. At her back the maid he eyed.
Flashed to the morn sun through the oriel wide
His sheathless sword. Downward it swept, and smote
The sorceress' head. Off-sheared from neck to throat,
From the swung blade it leapt its ghastly course
To the king's feet, the while the uncertain corse
Clutched with blind hands and fell.
The wrathful king
On Balyn gazed: "Is thine the ordering
Of whom I doom or save? Dost think that thou
Canst end her asking thus, and grace allow
Thy judgement for mine own? Such scorn till now
Was done me never."
"Nay, lord a binding vow
Constrained me to it, who would not lightly grieve
Thy grace, nor fail to serve thy throne. Believe
She was not truly whom ye deemed, but one
With false assume of whom she mocked to be.
My mother, foully by her crafts fordone,
That stroke avenged. Of lying lips was she,
Who only sought thy shame."
"What cause you had,"
The King replied, "or where the truth may be,
I will not doubt; for not as Nimue
Her boon she chose. But, were you wrong or right,
Yet in my presence to my much dispite
Unseemly deed was thine. So get you gone
Forth of this court in all the haste you may.....
Bethink - I also have the power to slay."
"Lord, I forthink thy wrath," Sir Balyn said,
Uplifting as he spake the tumbled head,
"Yet only in my haste our safety lay,
Both thine and mine. Her sorcerous power I knew."
"Yet, be she whom she might, or false or true,
Dispitious to my throne such deed to do
Thy fault remains," the troubled king replied.
"I neither pardon, nor my word repeat."
So warned, Sir Balyn, with no more debate,
Made from the king's reproach his swift retreat,
And at his lodging found his squire await.
"Take thou," he charged him, "this slain sorceress' head
To our Northumbrian home, and tell my kin
That she who practiced for my life is dead.
Tell them of all I lose, and all I win.
The king's sharp anger; and the sword I drew
Which none beside could loose."
"A happier tale
It were that Arthur's favour should not fail."
"Tell them to deem that that may soon be true.
I ride to seek Rience, and if we meet
Death may be mine, but any less defeat
I will not take; and should I find success
Then may the king resume his graciousness."
"Where shall I find thee next?"
"Return ye here.
For Arthur's favour I regain or die."
Thereat they went their separate ways.
The wrothed king ruled that that slain witch should lie
In no mean grave. "For wherefore here she came,
And who she was, are doubts I need not try.
Too late the sum to change of right or blame
Till God at last all wrongs shall reconcile."
There was a knight of Ireland, Lanceor named,
King Anguish's heir, to Arthur's court who came,
Of overreaching pride, of moods untamed,
Insatiate in uncomely lust for fame
Beyond the rightful meed of worth.
- In envy of a nameless knight he spake,
Who from the all default of that proud ring
The sword had won, and hope himself to take
Both sword and fame - "may one with grief who saw
The honour of thy great Court contemned, chastise
Him who so late in scorn of courteous law
Hath stained thy stones with damsel's blood?"
Answered: "I left him free, but where he lies
May seek who choose, and God the event may bring
To that sure end he will."
In such consent,
And armed in hastiest sort, did Lanceor ride,
Till Balyn lowlier on a long hillside
He marked, and forward in his fierce intent
He urged, and nearing at the hill's decline
Hailed him aloud: "In Arthur's name," he cried,
"False knight, for treasons meed I bid thee stay.
For thou shalt turn thee if thou wilt or nay,
Or forced or free."
Sir Balyn answered stern:
"Guard thou thy life, so loud who threatenest mine,
Out-boasting fool. Or hast thou yet to learn
The gibe of shearers shorn? Thyself shalt see
How lightly I reverse thy brawl and thee."
Then in the whirl of sudden dust they closed,
And Lanceor's spear that Balyn's shield opposed
Splintered and sprang; but Balyn's course he ran
So sure that deep beneath the insanguined shield
The unbroken point he drove, and horse and man,
A foundered heap they fell.
He reined, he wheeled,
His ready sword outswung, awhile unware
That Lanceor cast from that sought onfall lay
To rise in life not ever. His surcoat gay,
Where the strong lance its fatal course had torn,
His lifeblood spilled upon the dusty way.
Down leapt Sir Balyn. Mortal hurt to deal
He had not thought. But here too soon he knew
No scarf could bind, no craft of leech should heal,
The wound his lance had given; for whom he slew
Died as he bent: the high white-clouded blue
Wavered: the o'erhanging boughs to dimness grew:
Across his sight the endless darkness grew.
Then Balyn, lifting from the knight he felled
A gaze of grief, on that white road beheld
A damsel, urgent that a palfrey bore
Adown that long descent a headlong way,
But all too late the fatal strife to stay.
"Oh, Balyn! Oh, unhappy of hand," she cried,
"One life thy wrath hath taken, and twain have died."
And in the dust she sank with knees bloodwet,
And sought for life until sure death she knew.
Thereat the sword of her dead love she drew,
And to her hopeless heart its point she set.
Forward he stept that fatal stroke to stay:
In his right hand her lifted arm he caught.
But grasp too gentle for her desperate thought
One instant failed, and on its rending way
The keen steel pierced her tender side, that red
From out the wound the piteous lifeblood spread.
So in the white flower of her youth she died,
Calling aloud to Love, and Death replied.
The passing cloud restored the sunnier day.
Blithe from the thicket the thrush, love's liegeman, sang.
But turned Sir Balyn from that sight away
Of pride and love to common loss betrayed.
Sad was his heart to mark such bale, and know
Himself the cause of that reverseless woe.
Turned from the scene of death, his glance surveyed
The further way. From out a greenwood glade
A spearhead flashed. Hooves on the hard road rang.
Forth rode a knight whose vermeil shield was gay
With crossing gold, alike that Balyn's bore;
And like in mien and strengthful ease was he.
For cradled on the same Northumbrian shore,
And nursed by seawinds of the same wild sea,
Twinborn were they. Not love's close bonds allowed
In earlier years that parted ways they went,
Till sorcery raught their mother's life, and sent
Their bloodquest, to unpitying vengeance vowed,
In separate search.
From out the veiling wood
Rode Balan now. The steeds unruled that stood,
The deathstrewn ground, his gaze first held; but when
Themselves they knew that each of earthly men
Most loved and longed, with all around forgot
They joyful greetings gave.
But that sad view
More soon again the gaze of Balan drew
- For who the insistent hour may long forget? -
And Balyn told: "By woeful chance I met
This knight and damsel to their deaths, though not
To my swords point she perished." - And more he said,
Showed the won sword, and told the sorceress dead,
And Arthur's wrath that drave him out, and how,
As forth he rose, he made to Heaven his vow
That by God's aid he would such service do
The indignant king as should his pardon sue,
Potent to claim and gain a grace unpled.
And Balan answered: "In good hour for thee
Our meeting comes. Such fateful news I bear
As who shall first before his throne declare
The king must thank; nor Lanceor's death might be
A thing of weight against it. Hearken. While
Misled, false-questing, following words of guile,
(A net that sorceress for our lairing spread,
The while to Arthur's court she went, and blind
Approached her death, who deemed us wide behind
Joined the path I held, and like to find
Such venture there as haply thralled or dead
Should leave us, and relieve her lively dread)
Still foiled by Severn's further bank I rode
A southward way. I found a trampled road,
Wheel-worn; and turning from it, in glade and glen
Charred ashes of fires, and marks of camping men.
And searching here, beside a leafy brook,
With mouth to stream, a dying serf I found,
Whose flight a random-following shaft had paid.
Vain for his life a wound too deep I bound,
And learned the while the urgent tale I bring.
No private strife he told, no plundering raid,
But all North Gales, beneath the bearded king
"With wary heed I took
The deeper ways, but held their trace, and saw,
On the wide lands where Severn's waters meet
Smooth Avon's flood, Rience, with all his war
Marshalled. He tales his heavy ranks complete
On some near goal their ordered force to fling.
"While to the further bank his lines he led,
And spoiling wide that fertile land advanced,
- The fords were held - the deeper stream I chanced.
A pathless way to foil his riders spread
Wide-cast I came. A weary rein I drew
At Fourstone Tower at last, for there I knew
Pursuit were lost; and gained for warning there
Good change of steed, and southward swerved; and so
Thy fairer days begin. For thou shalt go
Thy backward path at better pace than I
- Myself outworn, my charger spent and lame -
And prove thy will to Arthur's part, that well
He may not stint whatever peace you claim."
While thus they spake, in more pursuit there came
A dwarf that well Sir Lanceor served, whom he,
Hastening his death to meet, had charged to tell
His damsel where he rode, that so should she
His triumphed return await. The warier dread,
That toward their deaths their fearful course had led,
To like resolve the doubtful dwarf impelled.
Fearing he came, but past his fear beheld.
Now bold he spake: "Which knight of ye strong twain
Hath this fair lord and hapless damsel slain?"
And Balan answered: "Ere we grant reply
Reveal us by what right you ask, and why."
"For I would wit."
"It boots not to withhold,"
Said Balyn. "That is wrought may well be told.
This knight to guard my life myself I slew;
And when his certain death the damsel knew
Her life she let."
The dwarf gave answer high,
As one who to his less than equals spake:
"Then fly ye fast, and think, the while ye fly,
Ye do but choose the further place to die.
For he whom thus ye overweened to slay
Is Ireland's heir, and meanliest though ye lie
His kin shall earth ye: For this woeful day
Poor are such lives as yours the price to pay."
Then Balyn: Boldly have thy boasts been said;
And praise belongs the loyal hardihed
That flouts us thus. But that which God ordains
To each man cometh: to his equal lance
The doom of splendid or disastrous chance
Is dealt from Heaven. On our part remains
To meet it in good heart. Full light I weigh
His kinsmen's wrath. But this my grief will say:
To vex my sovereign lord my heart is sore;
Yet more offence may yield to service more."
As went the dwarf, the summer dust they saw
Rise from the road, as in no fear of war,
But marshalled fairly, came a glittering crowd,
Gay with bright dyes, with calling bugles loud.
For here from Cornish towers to Camelot drew,
Boldly beseen, and ranged in order due,
A pride of spears, with sumpter mules, and train
Such as were likely in fair rank to ride
Attendant on the state of kings who pay
Homage to one of loftier state than they,
Yet would their own to fitting place exalt.
By Cornwall's gules and argent arms they knew
The subtle-counselled Mark.
His ranks to halt
Signalled the king at that disastrous sight.
Hearing the tale, a ready ruth he showed,
And gave command that there his guide alight
On the green sward that fringed the woodland road
Was soon a line of high pavilions pight.
"Nay, by my faith, from this cold sight," he said,
"I will not move until the piteous dead
Be tombed aright."
The thanks of Ireland's King,
And his liege lord, King Arthur, both thereby
He largely bought. But of what mood, and why,
Perchance himself he did not wholly know,
For craft with evil may not only dwell;
Nor is man born of earth can wholly tell
The mingled springs of his self-counselling.
Now, while the brethren knights their tale exposed,
There came a carle adown the road, and he,
With little reverence for their great degree,
Paused where the king and knights in converse closed.
"Truly," he said, "this tomb ye talk will be
A shrine of fame, for one, Sir Lancelot,
Shall meet the noblest lord of Lyonesse,
Sir Tristram, in unstinting strife."
Answered the king, "thy boisterous churlishness
Would equal Heaven the unborn days to wot?
Who art thou, fellow, of tattered wisdom?"
As for this time, my name I will not say."
"Then that were evil heard we shall not hear."
"But when the Lyonesse knight, thy nephew dear,
Shall to his sovereign lady come too near.
Thou shalt recall my words with little glee."
And then to Balyn turned the churl, and said:
"Much for this lady's death thy grief must be,
For her salvation in thy hands was laid."
"Now by my lady's faith, whoe'er ye be,
There is nor truth in that nor fault in me,
With such a sudden stroke herself she slew."
"Yet wast thou backward to her death prevent,
And for that fault this doom from Heaven is sent
That thou shalt strike all earth's most dolorous blow.
Save that by which the sacred blood did flow
From the pierced side of Christ, and hence shall be
Such bane to Britain, and such grief to thee,
As fell not since four hundred years and three."
And answered Balyn: "If I feared it true,
To prove it false I would my life fordo,"
And gazed in marvel, for the road was bare.
"God's mercy," said King Mark, "though seers foretell,
It may be, heaven's intent, a fiend from hell
May evil speak to make that evil be,
To loss of those who heed him. As for me,
Such words I will not in my thought contain.
Yet ere ye leave ye might not think it vain
To tell me where ye ride, and whom ye be."
And answered Balan: "As two swords he bears
My brother may be called by whoso cares
The knight of the two swords."
"Your names to hide
Is yours of courteous right," the king replied,
And then to his pavilion turned aside.
But not far forward did the brethren ride
Before that churl again appeared. "Now say,"
He asked, "what purpose guides your chosen way?"
"Why ask us that, and not yourself declare
From whence you came, and what the name you bear?"
"As for this time, my name I will not tell."
"Then by that word thy truth is evil seen."
"Yet such my word, and you should heed me well.
Yourselves I know, and where your steps have been,
And where you next would tidings bear. But ye
Can go with more than any tidings be;
Even with Rience himself. Yet all is vain
Except my counsel shall your spears sustain."
"Thou art Merlin's self!" said Balyn.
"If I be,
You shall the likelier find relief in me.
But this I warn you: never knightlier need
Shall the near testing of your strength exceed."
"Dread not for that. We do the most we may."
"Then heed the tale I heard. The dame de Vance,
Moved by the common impulse of the spring,
Or seeking issue of so great a king,
Her lustful fancy ruling unrestrained,
Hath sent Rience such word as answer gained
That gives with fall of night a desperate chance.
Through the deep woods he rides a secret way,
But rides not single. Forty mounted men
- Three tens behind him, and a forward ten -
Will guard him; but they count no foe to see
More than some outlawed bandit rogue might be.
An open chance is here. The king waylaid,
Were all the impulse of his army stayed;
And be he slain or be he captive brought
Loud would the welcome be at Arthur's court
Of who should compass thus to take or slay."
Then to a wood's close shade mage Merlin led.
Narrow the path and straight, and overhead
The low wide branches of the beeches spread.
Here for good ease they loosed their steeds, and lay
In the cool bracken till the close of day.
-"Here," said the sage, "Rience must ride, and here
Single must ride his escort, spear by spear,
Dreadless of evil in the lonely wood."
"How shall we know him?"
"White his steed will be.
Such rides he at all times, and only he."
Faint was the moonlight in that leafy shade
When ambush closely to the path they made,
And waited, silent on soft ground, until
The trampling hooves they heard, and, silent still,
They let the long-lanced escort, one by one,
Ride past them. Each must take good space; so low
The boughs, that level must their lances go.
Then, with the passing of the ten, they saw
Rience, and charged upon him. His time was none
Either his shield to dress or sword to draw.
Came the first wound to him who waked the war.
Down went he, by two lances earthward flung.
Right turned Sir Balyn, left Sir Balan swung.
What force could front them those close woods among?
"The foe! The foe! The king is down." The cry
Rang through the night, and those who turned to fly
Than those who rallied in good heart were more.
Those who came on, the flyers backward bore.
Awhile the brethren on their traces slew.
Yet why too far a broken force pursue,
While unsecured they left so dear a prize?
But abject lay Rience, too bruised to rise,
For mercy screaming when their swords he saw:
"A king I am - the King Rience - for me
How great the ransom! What the gains to thee
My death would bring?"
Sir Balyn answered: "Nay,
It is not ours to save, nor yet to slay.
To Arthur shalt thou fall, and Arthur's law."
No comfort had Rience that name to hear,
And feel the strong cords twist his feet around.
But in a woodman's cart that Merlin found
They laid him, careless of his loud protest.
His knightly word? Not kings, but churls, were bound!
Arthur's release their sure rebuke would be.
"The king shall serve thee as him pleases best,"
Sir Balyn answered, "but no word from thee
Were aught but churlish to mine ears."
They bore him to the steps of Arthur's throne,
And like a carcass on the pavement thrown
They left him, till the king with morning came,
And loosed him from his bonds, and learned his name,
And said: "This only shall thy scourging be
That in the empty place once meant for me
Thy beard shalt hang, and thou that cloak shalt wear,
Brushing the dirt behind thee. Kingly place
Thou canst no longer hold, for heart so base
Could never to the kingly rule comply.
But here within my walls are byre and sty,
Which fainly may be cleansed by hands of thine.
No penal word is here, for swine with swine
Should find no fault in common straw to lie."
So was he, wondering at his life's reprieve,
Led forth for garbing as the king had said,
And Arthur asked: "Who brought him?"
Gave answer: "He who did the sword receive
When others all had failed - and they, misled
By envy, further failed his worth to share
With comrade welcome - left thy court the less
Lustred than hadst thou held him, and thereon,
Not having hope of better grace forgone,
With one, his brother, of a kindred kind,
Waylaid Rience, and toiled him. Soon again
They will the witness of thy throne maintain
Against more deathful foes. You would not find
Worthier than Balyn, constant, bold, and sure,
In all thy realm; and could he long endure
Thy greatest might require a lowlier seat.
But that he will not. That charmed sword he bears
Will hell's black warrant for his end prepare,
Though that which cometh may be strangely sweet
To his soul's rescue at the last."
Gave careful answer: "All who worth esteem
Would much lament it."
"Yet such harvesting,
Beyond remede, from any seed should spring
Which prudence might prefer or caution change,
For here beyond the mortal choice we range
To destined ends. But not such end shall be
Before his valour and his faith to thee
Shall past defaults and Lanceor's death redeem."
Lightly had Arthur thought North Gales to keep
Now that Rience for his strong mountains knew
No better hillock than the steaming heap
On which the litter of the sties he threw.
But from the further west a warning came
Of urgent foes who roused that strife anew.
For not alone Rience had thought to tame
The power of Arthur. On the Cornish coast
King Lot had landed with his Lothian host,
And Neros, from the outer Hebrides,
Rience's brother, brought a heathen crew
As wild and fell as their contending seas.
Now inland fast they came, and burnt and slew,
Thinking on Arthur's flank to fall the while
He faced Rience, and well mage Merlin knew
Not Arthur's self had dured it. Well may be
That changed was all the wide land's destiny
When wrote de Vance her missive to beguile
Rience by night a forest path to ride.
For came King Neros in such regiment
That ten great battles formed his deep array
When Arthur found him, while some space aside
Camped the great host of Lot. For no delay
To more recruit his power had Arthur stayed,
Though far and urgent were the calls he sent
To friend and liegeman for their further aid
Beyond their tale who would Rience have met.
Those only in his battle ranks were set
When on the plain that east of Terribil
Had seen the sieging might of Uther, still
Mounded and trenched as when Duke Gorlois died,
He clashed with Neros. Meagre force had he,
But one to two, with fear of one to three
If the near host of Lot against his side
Its savage ranks in middle strife to fling.
There was his danger most. The Northland king
He knew his wronged and bitter foe to be;
Though cautious in his watchful guise, had he
Held backward for a while, to make more sure.
Till the cold hate that only death could cure,
And yet the rule of bloodless craft obeyed,
Judged its best moment in Rience's raid.
Fair dawn it was when Neros' archers saw
The bright approaching front of Arthur's war,
And noon in skies that held no cloud was high
While still those striving ranks preferred to die.
Reputes a life to last were made that day
For like a lean fierce leopard fought Sir Kay.
His strength, as yet ungrossed by food and wine,
Still crescent, signless of its soon decline.
He fought for all his life could gain or be
If Arthur's kingdom held, for well knew he
Naught would he from his father's name possess
But narrow lands and little nobleness.
Hervis de Revel did his part that day,
But the twin brethren all surpassed, for they
Stirrup to stirrup rode, and smote so well
That angels sent from God, or fiends from hell,
They seemed to those they saved and those they slew.
While thus they strove, but four short miles away,
The camp-held force of Lot unmotioned lay,
Not fronted yet for war. For Merlin knew
One host's assault at once, but nowise two,
Might Arthur dure. By curious arts he read
One king must conquer, and two kings be dead,
Ere eve should fall. He would not save King Lot
At such stern choice, although he altered not
In high esteeming of the northern king.
Therefore he held him in such talk as few
Would fail to heed. For all that time would bring
To Britain's feet a thousand years ahead
Of power and wealth - and all those years would sing
Of fame and praise - he told, and in such wise
That none he heard might doubt the scenes he said.
Till while they spake a panting courier came:
"Lord, dost thou care not that thy foemen slay
Thy friends, and broken are thy strong allies?
Fallen on the field of death King Neros lies
Beneath the hooves of Arthur."
"Now my shame,"
Spake the wrothed king, "this guile-bred chatterer sought,
And did not miss! For by my slack repair
How many have died who, had I first been there,
This hour were live. To shave that boaster short,
Though my last act -" His threatful sword was bare,
But clove, in Merlin's place, the vacant air.
Then to his lords with more restraint he said:
"Friends, shall we feed on words to more regret
So shrewd a snare? But what remaineth yet
For harvest? With our ranks unvanquished
Shall we retrieve the loss? Or else retire
To light with better brands a later fire?"
"Lord," said the knight, "when weary men contend
With those untoiled, there is a likely end."
"Yea, by God's thunder! Let the trumpets blow,
And, comrades, charge we down a wearied foe."
Then bright with banners, and with steel alight,
Moved the long front of Orkney's marshalled might,
Till like two tides of ocean, swell to swell,
It met the ranks of Arthur.
Sooth to tell
It met no semblance of a wearied foe,
But one exultant from one overthrow
To serve another in a practiced way.
Yet fresher knights were Lot's to strife prolong,
And trained were they by nurture stark and strong
Hard blows to take, and equal pains to pay.
Nor least was he his striving ranks to cheer,
No knight he faced who broke a deadlier spear,
And while he ranged along his vanward press
It was not of its mood than Arthur's less.
Long hung the issue of the doubtful war:
Swayed the long lines but did not break therefor.
Loud through the clouds of risen dust arose
The clang and clamour of contending foes.
There was no sign that strike determining,
Till in the midst they countered, king to king,
Pellinor and Lot.
Contending knights alike
On either side delayed to fend or strike,
Turning their eyes to that great bout. The kings
Smote with such fierce down-battering blows as few
Could long endure. One stroke from Pellinor
Lot's sword received, and turned in all men's view
Featly, yet better had his helm sustained
The blow's full weight, for glancing down it gained
Beyond its loss. Upon the horses mane
With force unspent it smote. A purple stain
Leapt to the shield: the stumbling charger fell.
Swang the great sword a further stroke that well
Its vantage reaped. For cleaving casque and skull.
Even to the brows, the falling king it slew.
Who now would longer stand for Orkney? Who
Support a host unleadered? Fast they fled,
Till Arthur ceased pursuit. Ten kings beside
On that red field with Lot and Neros died.
And these were laid, with Neros and with Lot,
Within St. Stephen's Church at Camelot,
Where men may see that end of earthly pride.
Many a strong king and many a knight of fame
With their high ladies to those burials came,
There came a night Lot's widow, fair Morgause,
Whose love-filled eyes had been that slaughter's cause,
And would of more disasters yet to be.
Lot's widow, Arthur's sister still was she,
And by that secret hour incestuous
More close than sister. Now its visible fruit,
Modred, among her older sons she brought;
And these in humble guise at Arthur's knee,
As to a conqueror's led; and made her suit
That they should be sustained in their degree
With all the lands of Lot.
"Oh, sister, rise,"
Answered the king, "for that you seek to be
I had not thought to change. Thy sons shall stand
In honour at my side, of life and land
And all their rights in settled peace secure,
Enduring surely as my throne endure.
Lot's death hath left no longer feud to be,
My wrath was not to him, but his to me,
Causeful or causeless. Yet may all men see
It hath not prospered as of God's good will."
And, sister also to the king, there came
Morgan le Fey, whom Urience brought, although
Not docile to his word, to bide or go
Was Morgan ever. If here she came, god wot,
Some nearer cause than was the end of Lot
Richly were those tombs designed
By Merlin's counsel, for his craft wit
Saw that the more their tombs displayed their fame
The more of praise their victor's part became,
Of brass, of copper, and of gold refined,
Twelve statues of the fallen kings he wrought,
With Lot and Neros shown in hardy sort,
And yet as those subdued, who both submit;
And while beneath them grouped the lowlier ten
With faces of abashed and fallen men,
Above them Arthur showed in conqueror's style,
And in his hand the sword Excalibar
Shone upward, pointing his particular star,
Bright in a painted heaven.
So peace and ease
To Arthur came, and many bended knees
Confest him conqueror with good heart or ill.
But Merlin's curse of birth pursued him still,
The sight that could the threatening cloud foresee
But could not turn its tempest, nor provide,
Most often, shelter from its drowning tide.
Much counsel at this time he gave the king
Of what might change, and what must changeless be.
High deeds and bitter doles forecasted he,
Even to the seeking of the Grail.
"Short space is mine, for neither live nor dead,
It seemeth by some hidden mystery,
I soon, despite my wariest craft, may be.
But life is thine, to better fruit to bring
A livelier fate. Yet be thy careful heed
To guard the scabbard of Excalibar,
For by its virtue never wound shall bleed.
Neither for bribe nor wile nor courtesy
Release it from thy keeping."
"That shall be,"
Answered the king, "my wakeful care. But say
Why Pellinor here contrived so short delay?
And where is Balyn? Deep to those my debt,
For knights of loftier worth I have not met.
And Balan also. Not a wandering way
Their deeds deserve."
"With Pellinor look to meet
At no far day, and Balyn's less retreat
Will bring him to thee at thine earliest need.
But Balan not again thine eyes shall see."
Now sought the king the warning word to heed.
How should that sheath through changeful years to be
Lie day and night in most security?
It must be secret: held in faith secure:
And near and certain at his need. Was one
He so might trust. Queen Morgan had the wit
To hide: the craft to hold. And surely none
Of faith more certain than a sister is,
Being wed to one most loyal. So he prayed
Her care to guard it. For the trenchant blade
A sheath to mock the magic sheath he made.
In the full heat of summer came a day
When Arthur in a lone pavilion lay
Pitched for his ease besides a woodland way.
Hearing the thuds of hooves on turf, he gazed
In idlesse out, some passing knight to view,
But then a wonder held his eyes amazed,
For came a knight the thickest woodland through
Who seemed in haste, but held no constant way;
Starting aside, or swerving fearfully,
Leaning or crouching as a knight may lean
Suddenly to avoid the imminent lance
At the last instant, to confound its aim.
Yet none of threatening mien behind him came.
There was none other in those woods to see,
Neither on horse nor foot, but only he.
"Hold," cried the king, "and rede thy wildering dread.
I were not for thy need too weak a friend."
"Delay me naught," the hasteful warrior said.
"High towers alone my mortal fear amend.
Ware thou the invisible death," and faster spurred
Toward the castle Meliot.
At this word
Much wondering, mused the king, and watched a road
Bear to the sultry heavens, and white with drought.
And while he looked and wondered, seemed it showed
Fresh hoof-marks in the dust, where surely naught
Passed while he gazed, which stirred a wildering doubt.
But in his doubtful mind he mocked his thought,
And turned his eyes to that disordered knight
Till the boughs hid him, and his further flight
Was noiseless on a pinewood path. But came
Sir Balyn, riding with no certain aim,
Save the fresh breeze to feel, the woods to see.
Content of heart in days of peace was he.
What curse had followed from the sheath he bore?
Great was his part in Arthur's victory,
And those who most had slurred his worth before
Were friendlier now. Yet wholly peace to know
He might not reach. The while the sword was bare
The damsel's warnings left him, light as air.
But sheathed, it vexed him with a boding woe
Which steadfast valour would not own nor show.
Now the king stayed him. What had been he told.
"Or so to me it soothly seemed," he said,
"I marvel what was feigned, or what was true.
Wilt thou some while that flying knight pursue,
And bring him, if thou canst?"
"Yea, that will I.
I would that harder task were mine to try
My loyal will," he answered.
Swift he sped,
Swerving or doubling as the hoof-prints led,
And urgent of his mood, for he would rede
What error of these woods such fear could breed.
The knight whom Balyn at such pace pursued
Was halting at a green pavilion now,
So sheltered by green leaf and leaning bough
That only might its silken porch be viewed
By those who looked with care, or came most nigh.
With grave unsmiling eyes, that yet were glad
Her lord to see - for sharp the fear she had
That he by sorcerous arts was marked to die -
Out came a damsel from that cool retreat.
Comely and young she looked, and all ways meet
For love's high service, but his eyes on her
Were fearful only, as the vizor rose.
"Garlon is out," he said, "my life to close.
Only in Meliot's tower will safety lie."
"Then will we there," she answered, "while will I
Behind thee mount, a backward thrust, to bear
Which even he might shrink to deal, though he
Be base of heart as never son should be
Born from the shrunk loins of the holy king."
So had she done it, with his fear's consent,
But to that glade, by man and nature meant
For sweet converse and summer loitering,
Came Balyn with fair words that yet were said
In Arthur's name, which all must heed: "The king
Hath straitly charged me that, alive or dead,
I bring thee to him."
"That my scathe would be
With no fair reason or avail to thee."
"Nay, but no hurt were thine. Our lord would know
What evil doth distract thy peace. Thy woe
He will amend, if any mortal may."
"Thou art Balyn, as I think?"
"That name is mine."
"Loth were I to resist thee."
"Loth were I
My sword to bare."
"If I thy hest obey,
I should not vainly on thy shield rely,
If through void air a sudden spear should shine?"
What menace to a mail clad knight could be,
Thought Balyn, in so frail a fantasy?
Even in strong knights' hands, are spears to dread?
"I will safeguard thee with my life," he said.
"Thou art so much the stronger knight than I,
No choice is left beyond of whom I die."
Then with dejection, as to death resigned,
With eyes all ways for that he might not see,
And ears alert for Garlon's sorcery,
He followed Balyn, and, some space behind,
Without their heed, that dreadless damsel rode.
"Dear," thought she, "for his death the price shall be."
So holds a forest scent a patient hound,
Knowing its quarry must at last be found,
However oft it turn, or swift it flee.
The king's pavilion was in sight, and there
Himself stood waiting, and Sir Balyn thought
His care was ended of the knight he brought
The while the moment came that mocked his care.
For even as he turned, soft earth to tread,
The highway leaving for the path that led
To the bright-hued pavilion, came a sound
Too sudden to resolve, too swift to stay.
Hooves on the hard road sounded: dust arose;
And ere Sir Balyn could his shield oppose
To that he saw not, though he heard, a spear
Driven unhindered knavely from the rear
Transfixed the captured knight, and snapt.
Though instant, was pursuit. Soft ground again,
The further side the road, the murderer took.
How may they ride at haste who first must look
For hoofmarks on soft ground, or strain to hear
Soft thuds on summer grass? His wrath aware
Of folly, soon Sir Balyn stayed. He drew
Beside the fallen. Naught was here to do;
And what was said was little space to say.
While for short time contriving death's delay
They left the truncheon of the spear undrawn,
The slain knight spake: "Oh, Balyn, dost thou see,
When past avail, that what thou didst to me
Was my life's loss? That not thy word, nor his
Who lord of Britain and its tributes is,
Before God's throne shall be regarded now?
I go beyond his reach or thine. But hear
One word before I at that throne appear.
I will acquit thee if I hear thee vow
To venge my death, and cleanse the land of him
Who wrought it basely. When his hate I won
- Sir Garlon he, King Pellam's sorcerous son -
He shunned to meet me in fair strife, for he
Is caitiff-hearted; but the arts of hell
He used, to ride invisible. Wilt thou swear
To find him in his father's halls, and there,
While the light shows him, be so swift to slay
He shall not foil thee?"
Balyn answered: "Yea,
For I am forfeit for thy life, and they
Who on such arts depend no mercy earn,
Nor knightly warning ere their end they learn."
The king stood by them as they spake. "To me
Alike the penance as the blame should be,"
Sadly he said. But Balyn answered: "Lo!
It is the sword I would not yield which brings
Destruction round me, nor the might of kings,
Nor Merlin's wisdom, could avert the woe.
I doubt not to some bitter end I go,
Yet think I first that felon knight shall die."
While thus they spake, the damsel wrought to see
If any rescue from that wound might be,
Then, hopeless, drew the lance's broken head.
"I will not leave it till its point be red
With other, baser blood than thine," she said,
And kissed dead lips that would not more reply.
Tearless she rose: "Fair knight, in gentleness,
I pray thee that a common path we ride."
And Balyn answered: "Come thou at my side,
And by God's grace I will thy wrong redress
So far as justice may."
So in that bond
They rode some days together, till they met
A knight who rested by a lonely pond
Where the deer drank. The wild swine hunted he,
But loved the antlered herd, and let them be.
"What do ye here," he asked, "where few men ride?"
"We seek a Christless knight, to break his pride."
"Noble or felon, here are found but few."
"But one we seek."
"And yet ye say not who."
"Naught would we hide. King Pellam's heir is he,
Garlon, and though thy friend - "
"No friend to me.
The taint of treason fouls his name. But heed
His sorcerous wile. He rides in such conceal
His foes may feel his sword before they see."
"So have we found it."
"Will a lance the more
Be welcome? Even those who sightless ride
May fear the challenge which two spears provide.
For smite he one the other swift may be
To bring his steed to ground, and how should he
Avoid the blows a mounted knight may deal,
Remorseless at such odds, with hoof and steel?"
"So might it be, if fortune willed aright;
But think we rather in his halls to find
In open view an unsuspecting knight;
And deal to one who strikes his foes behind
A blow too swift for magic's subtlest sleight
To save him."
"So by God's good grace ye may.
Yet who should slay him, soon his friends would slay.
King Pellam thinks him as himself to be,
Chaste-hearted. Rapine, lust, and sorcery
He follows; but his sire believes it not."
"All will we dare."
"Then I will guide ye."
Some miles they journeyed till the dusk was low,
And darkness in the deeper woods. And then,
As searched they for the kindly roofs of men,
Where they might rest them and be fairly fed,
There was an outbreak from the boughs, and red
A spear-point through their comrade's surcoat showed,
And silent to his death he earthward slid.
The startled charger plunged, and thus fordid
The swift attempt that Balyn made to stay
The slayer ere he fled the boughs amid.
The end that comes alike to knight and clown
Was their new comrade's on that woodland way,
And after halting there two days to lay
His corse in holier earth, they rode not long
Till came they to a castle walled and strong,
But open of approach. Its bridge was down:
Its grille was raised. And Balyn thought nor wrong
Nor harboured dread. "Now here," he said, "may we
Find shelter by its good lord's courtesy,
For the wind riseth and the night is near."
Down from the charger's side he clomb, and she
Alighted with less haste, that first was he,
To cross the bridge, and as the court he gained
Behind him the portcullis clanging fell.
Round swung he at the sound. He saw too well
His heedless error. Still the maid remained
Without, but now by violent hands assailed.
In terror she cried. Bare steel was round her now.
Wrathful he called, but naught his wrath availed
With that strong gate between them. Up the stair
Of the ward-tower he ran. He cared not how,
Nor at what jeopard of limb the wall he leapt,
But scatheless came he to her side.
He cried, "with what intent your knives you bare,
And raise unseemly hands. My sword shall share
Whatever bicker would you have from now."
The varlets all as with one voice replied:
"Lord, hear us. Custom here hath long been kept,
As all men in this land would witness bear,
That any damsel at these gates who stays,
Who will not of base blood consent to be,
Nor make disclaim of her virginity,
Shall of her blood a silver dish supply,
Which surely she may yield, and need not die.
For long the lady of these towers hath lain
Vext by much sickness and continual pain,
Which by no leech-craft may amended be,
Except a maiden's blood of high degree
Be rendered for her use. We did not doubt,
Seeing her alight with thee our gates without,
That for this purpose you had brought her here."
And answered Balyn: "Naught of this we knew,
And naught but of her will this maid shall do.
But haply to amend your lady's ill
She may accord it of her own good will,
Though not of violence. So her life ye save,
I will not counter."
Of good heart she gave
Blood from her arm that heavy dole to heal,
But naught availed it.
That unholy price
A maiden at her own life's sacrifice
Chose of her will with no constraint to pay.
But that was far to be, long years away:
Sir Percival's sister she.
That night remained
Sir Balyn there, but when new daylight gained
Its passing empire, forth they rode anew.
Through hours of storm, and summer sunlight through,
Four days the path of these deep woods they crost,
As hounds may quarter when the scent is lost,
Seeking for guidance which they did not get,
And riding in a thrall of pauseless fear
Of death's swift menace from a viewless spear
Seen only as its fatal aim it met.
Then came they to a manor. Liberal cheer
Was theirs from one who lived at ease therein,
A knight of worth and good esteem; but woe
When they were seated at his board he told.
"I chanced at Listonaise a joust to win
Against King Pellam's son. I thought not so
Should rancour rise among good knights. But old
He thought me, and to prove his might was more
Another course would take. But then, perde,
Beyond refute a harder fall had he,
With more dishonour than he felt before.
"Degraded thus, his malice stirred to say:
'Tomorrow those may rise who fall today,
And I may wound thee, if I do not slay,
More deeply than the pang of death would be.'
"So hath he done. By sorcerous perfidy
In viewless air concealed, he rode behind
Mine only son, and such the wound he gave
Death waits expectant, while no leech can find
The poison lurking where the lancehead drave.
Maimed, tortured, longing for release he lies,
Hating the light, or with his midnight cries
Chiding the darkness that it doth not bring
Death's sombre rescue on its dusky wing.
Only if he who dealt that blow should die
Its curse were ended. And what force have I
Against so ruthless and so guiled a foe?"
To which Sir Balyn answered: "Foe to thee
He is not more than to ourselves, for we
More than our lives his end regard. We go
Where most he goeth, of our choice, as may
A hound that scents, or seeks to scent, a prey.
He hath in Arthur's sight his peace defied:
Through him this damsel's dearest lord hath died."
"I will go with you."
"Those who go with me
Find a short road to death."
"It would not be
More than thine own is, nor my cause the less;
To Castonack, for there the Holy King
Hath called his lieges for high banqueting,
On this consent, that there each knight who rides
Damsel - or wife or paramour, must bring,
Or coldly in the outer ward he bides.
I may not enter by that count, but thou
Canst surely with this damsel, and thereby
Meet Garlon as thou wouldst."
"I care not how
Or where it be, nor with what poor retreat,
If but one moment in plain sight we meet."
So through the shortening of the August days
They journeyed on the road to Listonaise,
Stayed not by viewed, nor hurt by viewless foe,
And came to that strange land, and found the gate
Where the king's guests were proved, when he who led,
Stating his name, the guards for entrance pled,
But as his doubt foretold, they answered no.
"Wife," said they, "may ye bring, or plighted fere,
Or wayside chance, or some loved leman dear,
But single to the feast ye may not go."
While Balyn, with the damsel at his side,
Proving his name and rank, they not denied.
They led him to a lofty chamber fair
Where maiden's hands his arms released, and brought
Fair cates and wines of price. Not Arthur's court
Gave royaller tendance. Many a robe was there
Of sendal and of silk and miniver
His choice to win. Forgotten were dust and heat
In comfort of soft garbs for banquet meet.
But when they laid his sword aside, his hand
Reached it again, and by the broidered band
He slung it from his shoulder as before.
"It is the custom of my land," he said.
"Vowed am I." Waiting not for words the more
He entered to the banquet-hall, and so,
Joining his damsel at the board, he sate
Amid bright eyes, and garments bright and fair
Of ladies and of those who joyed to share,
With each his choice, the bounty ordinate
Of Listonaise's maimed and cloistered king.
But careless voices could not turn his care
From his set purpose. To a jestful dame
Seated beside him, when her eyes forsook
Her lord upon her other hand, and met
His graver glance, he said: "But late I came
From Arthur's distant court. I know not yet
Even the greatest here. But is not one
Of these bold knights King Pellam's single son?"
Whereat low-voiced, and with an altered look,
She answered: "Mark you where the swarthy knight
Strides down the hall, and where his looks alight
Fall friendless silence, and avoiding eyes?
Taught by some fiend of hell, the art he knows
To ride unseen against his hopeless foes,
And who shall cross his wrath untimely dies."
Then Balyn gazed, and in his mind he weighed
A doubtful thought: "If here at once I smite
Before he knows, the sudden-thrusting blade
Might find his life ere summoned fiend could aid,
Or darkness hide him. If I grant respite,
Because my life were surely forfeit so,
Then might he pass abroad, and I should know
My chance were lost, and all he wrought anew
Of evil justly on myself were laid."
Debating this, his hand unheeded strayed
Toward that hilt which in his thought he drew,
And Garlon marked, and rightly in his gait
Read menace, and in his eyes unfearing hate,
But yet in pride and hard repute secure,
And in the concourse of the knights he led,
And deeming none was of such hardihed
As face him there, where none might hope endure,
At Balyn's mouth a hard black-handed blow
He dealt in scorn.
"Sir knight, I bid thee know
That none shall in these halls regard me so.
Do that thou camest to do, and eat and go."
And Balyn answered: "That I came to do
Now will I at thine asking."
From the board
Swiftly he rose, and as he rose his sword
Leapt to its height, and downward swung, and through
The helmless head clove deep. At that grim view
Burst like floods that force a breaking dyke
Loud clamour, as the knights around who sat
Sprang from their seats with swords aloft to strike,
Or deadlier points at level height. Thereat
Sir Balyn backward to the wall withdrew,
And hearing Pellam's fierce though feeble cry:
"You shall not for that death delay to die,"
Made answer: "Kill me if thou canst, for thine
Should be such vengeance in a knightly way;
And bid this rabble that they hold away."
"So shall it be," replied the angry king,
And hobbling forward with his sword aswing
Smote as he might. Though halt, his arm was strong,
And down his blade a magic virtue ran,
If tales were true, that all contacting steel
Shivered against it.
Less the king to wrong
Was in Sir Balyn's thought than so to deal
That parley might be made, with hope to show
Good cause for what had seemed a causeless blow.
He countered only with a fensive guard,
And saw with marvel that his sundered blade
Clinked on the stones.
A pass before too hard
Was hopeless now. He sideways turned, and fled
Down the long hall, and through an offering door,
Which swifter than pursuit he clanged and barred;
And thence from room to room vain search he made
For some good weapon cast on chest or bed,
Or patterned on the wall its shield before.
But naught he found. The chamber walls were bare
Of all but pictured saints and calls to prayer.
But now the noises of pursuit were near,
And neither passage more before him lay
Nor might he turn by any sideward way.
Only one door remained, and entering here
He found a chamber lustrous, marvellous,
As though a kingdom all its tithes had pled
To yield bright honour to its princely head.
Its rich-veined stones were fire beneath his feet.
Its shining walls revealed its whole complete
Fourfold around it. Bare its furnishing,
Except that only in its midst was set
A pale-gold altar very richly wrought.
A writhing demon was its sole support,
In silver moulded. Neither cloth it bore,
Nor plate, nor chalice, but a stranger thing,
A short outlandish lance that still was wet
With blood of one it wounded long afore.
It was the lance that Longius used, men said,
To pierce the Saviour's side. God's lifeblood red
Yet stained it.
Naught he paused for doubt or heed,
Nor thought of reverence gave. For deadliest need
Constrained him blindly to the impious deed.
Close came the fierce pursuit that thundered through
That quiet place the holiest place that knew:
The weapons clattered, and the armed feet rang,
And Pellam's voice was loud: "Stand all away!
Mine only is it this false knight to slay."
Again his magic sword around he swang
But surely different was the steel it met
From aught its charm was framed to break. The spear
Turned the runed blade, and in its own career
Entered the halt king's side. As sinful gore
Was mingled with the sacred stain it bore.
A wail as though of Earth's own voice arose.
The great towers shook, and whether powers of Hell
Or outraged Heaven impelled the dreadful close,
In cataracts of disjointed stones they fell.
Slowly the dust of that great fall dispersed,
But those proud towers by Garlon's treason cursed
In tumbled ruin and red slaughter lay.
Only the holy place remained; and they
Who brought that woe were live its cause to say.
To Balyn, bruised and stunned, but whole of limb,
The voice of Merlin came: "Arise, and fly!
Fierce vengeance for thy deed alert will be
When this strange horror from its deadening pain
To outward-conscious life reverts again.
Rouse thee, and ride - a living steed I bring -
While the loud storm that smote these towers apart
Is yet too dreadful in its thundering
For men to gather, or pursuit to start."
But Balyn answered: "Surely naught I know
Of what hath chanced, or aught of wrong I did.
For life to strike, doth man or God forbid?
Nor could I knightly ride, and leave behind
My damsel, safety for myself to find.
Surely she cometh, or I do not go."
"Beyond thy rescue, or thy reach, behold
Thy damsel quiet in death's embracing cold,
Where fell the eastward tower."
His glance he raised
Where the sun smote the ruins, and while he gazed
Across that white and broken form there lay
The broad wing-shadows of a bird of prey.
Eight days he rode, intent to leave behind
Shades that pursued and voices that condemned.
Heedless and pathless course he rode, and blind
Or height or pass he toiled or stream he stemmed.
And no man smote him. Only rode he still
Aware of eyes that cursed him, and aware
Of ruin, and wasted fields, and everywhere
The dead, and they that mourned them, and a land
Storm-wasted. In a torturing dream he fled
The hateful living, and the piteous dead.
Leagues of bare waste untamed of mortal hands
He rode beyond the known world's utterest bound
Through trackless sands and vacant mountains, crowned
With lifting of lone towers in loneliest lands -
Wizard or fiend he deemed their building knew.
But when the ninth day to its noontide grew
He came again to ordered lands and fair,
Where midst high woods the vales were green; and there
Sweet was the sound of rain on leaves, and air
Blew kindlier. Peace, that not his life should know
A longer day, was round him. Soft he reined
His wasted steed. By bending paths and low
Through the great woods he sank. At ease he gained
A meadowed stream and still. The bounded view
Showed a great tower with girth of ivied wall
Held in a moat that from the stream was fed.
In peaceful strength it stood, and silent all.
But nearer than the tower, unhelmeted,
A seemly knight upon the ground was laid,
And where a great oak's branches outward spread
A noble warhorse by the rein was stayed.
With gestures of despair, and wild lament,
Showed that prone form a grief incontinent.
Aloud the heedless trees his dole he told.
Then Balyn stayed, and bending toward him spake:
"Fair knight, what venture lost, or damsel's sake,
Impels this grief unmeet and uncontrolled?"
And he, as one who found relief to tell
The tale that weighed him, spake: "In days foredone,
As servitor to this land's lord I knelt,
And served his part when Arthur's wars began;
And being not backward when strong blows were dealt,
By God His grace my interposing glaive
At Badon fortuned my good lord to save
Then knighthood from his princely sword he gave,
And lands and name - Sir Garnish of the Mount.
Fair gifts were these, yet all of light account
Except they raised me from my meanness high,
To reach his daughter's love that called to mine.
"For oft midst menial toil, in days gone by,
I watched her passing with regardless eyes,
As though no pulse of passioned hope dare rise;
Yet purpose toward great deeds, and yearning high
She gave, as gives an inaccessible star
Night-guidance through the waters waste and far.
"And later while, though still in bonds I bowed,
By proof of war some lowly place I won,
And comrades in front rank my part allowed,
Swift glance of answering eyes, else seen of none,
At passing chance she gave, and hot desire,
A hound hard-leashed within me, rose. But she
- Star-fair, dawn-distant - if she mocked at me
I knew not, nor I know.
"But when my name,
Exempt from bonds and stain of menial shame,
Was raised and honoured in the mouths of men,
She gave me grace of hands and lips; and then
Chilled her regard with varying moods. At last,
Her faith she gave that here, this noontide past,
Meet should we, and our loves accord; for now
Her father's death doth her full choice allow,
From past restraint and fear of censure free."
"Then whence your woe?"
"Because the sun's decline
Mocks me, that false I deem her tryst, and she
Laid as I wait in other arms than mine."
Grief found new current at the spoken word.
To Balyn, half was lost; and half he heard
He half discarded from his mind, as though
He less regarded than a child's light woe
The spoken tale. No strength it held to draw
His mind from out its larger grief. Yet so
His practiced use to stanch the wound he saw,
If power were his, constrained him.
"Knight," he said,
"Such doubt is peril. Many a faith, misled
By seeming wrong, hath wrought the wrong it dread.
Accept me comrade in this test, and we
Will reach the truth of all your fear; and free
From trustless bonds shall loose you, or more sure
Thy stablished faith in later days shall dure.
Where bide ye both?"
"In yonder hold we bide.
Short mile upon the beaten path to ride."
"There will we seek her first."
In this consent
Together to that silent hold they went,
And paused before a gateway void and wide.
But no man at their halting showed; and none
Crossed the wide court on which the sinking sun
Lengthened the gateway arch.
"Abide you here
Short space," Sir Balyn said, "and news of cheer
My single quest may bring than would thine own,
None will mislead who am myself unknown."
Entering to quieter shade and cooler air,
An ample hall he reached, and vaulted fair,
But vacant all and silent, save alone
Rang the steel tread along the echoing stone.
Calling to no response, and baring now
His sword's bright menace to that drowsing gloom,
Door after door he found free path allow,
And passing still from vacant room to room
Entered at last a bedded chamber where
A gaping panel showed a secret stair,
Whereby he reached a garden close: the air
Bloom-laden. Riot of roses white and red
Restrained the path he trode, and overhead
Delayed his plume.
Beyond, a grove he found
Of closest growth, wherethrough the pathway wound
In glimmering shade, and in its last recess
A couch of leaves was laid; and sleeping there
A damsel lewdly in a knight's embrace.
Backward he went, and told: "The place is bare
Of moving life. It may be those who serve
Were ordered, as yourself was guiled, away.
A damsel only and a knight are there.
Lost in the sleep of sated lust are they;
But be she whom you seek is yours to say."
No words had Garnish as they entered in
Through those still chambers to that garden close,
Where to the loss of love's rejected rose
His lady snatched at lust's inferior sin.
But when he gazed on that unholy sight
Of faith betrayed, and her accepted knight,
Foul-featured, out a sudden sword he drew,
And pierced the throat he loved, that ere she knew
She choked in death; and that foul knight beside
Alike he smote, that in his sleep he died.
"Balyn," he said, "you make this grief too hard.
I might have lived, except that here I came,
Even to hear it and endure her shame;
For that we do not see we less regard.
But now is life and hope and purpose through."
"God knoweth that I did was knightly meant,"
Sir Balyn answered, "with no more intent
Than that thou shouldst her naked treason view.
So would I others to myself should do
Were I so basely in my faith misled."
No heed gave Garnish. On his sword fell he,
And round Sir Balyn's feet the slain were three.
Gloom at his heart, long downward at the dead,
He gazed in silence, while the slow pools spread
That made their lifebloods one. "Behold," he said,
"Oh, Lord, I am not equal! All I wrought
Of purposed good becomes a demon's sport;
And whom I seek to save my counsels slay.
Though the charmed sword betrayed my closest need,
Its fragments in that fallen tower to leave,
Yet seems that past escape, and past reprieve,
Its curse is on my trace, new bane to breed."
Then from that ruin of lives he turned away,
And through the twilight roses dusky red,
And the still chambers passed; and as the day
Surrendered to the night, his steed he gained,
And, seeking more to leave than find, he fled
From that death-stillness that around him lay,
Riding with no regard nor certain way.
Three days Sir Balyn rode his weary steed
Blindly as one who goes where death shall lead.
Silent at times he rode with head low-bowed,
At times he either wept or groaned aloud.
"Lord of the lost," he cried. "Who seekest all
Who wander from the strait appointed way,
Still meshed in adverse circumstance I fall.
If thou thy rescue or regard delay.
Be death the night of my disastrous day:
The only night of peace that yet remains.
Nor such a night as any dream contains,
Lest on the darkness I behold once more
The dead face of the love of Lanceor,
The dead face of the damsel that was mine."
But even as he appealed the Sacred Name
Across his eyes a sunlit vision came
Of falling towers, wide ruined, that sank and spread;
And crushed in that cast havoc a damsel dead;
And o'er her white and broken form there lay
The broad wing-shadows of a bird of prey.
The vision passed. The road before him showed
Open and bare. A ruined cross and grey
Beside it stood. He turned his eyes to see
A narrow climbing path that branched apart,
Once guarded by the cross. But hautier now
A banner hung beyond it. Bold was dight
Its blazoned threat: 'It is not for a knight
Alone to ride toward this castle.' His heart
Lightened thereat, 'for here,' he thought, 'is strife
That endeth all.' He took the path. It seemed
That voices warned him, and the mort of a horn
Sounded, and cries of warriors overborne,
As from lost lives returning, wailed forlorn.
And hearing, in his weary heart he deemed
That rest was night.
'I ween that blast is blown
For me, though living, for I ride alone
Where none may turn and live.'
Short space he found
A strength of towers before him, and wide surround
Of lawns that tamed the encroaching woods away.
Quiet in the peace of drowsing noon they lay,
Till where beneath his earlier glance had been
Bare space of lawns and girdling growths of green,
At once a hundred ladies, fair beseen,
Were round him, and their knights. In courteous way,
To banquet ease a welcome guest they led.
No menace of doom, no hostile glance was here;
Content had been more prompt of mood to fear
Than Balyn ever; But while the meal was spread,
And mirth at height, their chiefest lady said,
Leaning to where upon her right he sat:
"Oh, knight, why came you? Slain except you slay!
For else is no return or forward way.
For none may here the warning cross defy
Save in their own or other's death they die.
This weird is ours till one concluding fate
Itself beyond more woe shall consummate."
And answered Balyn: "Naught that speech can say
May turn us from the doom forewritten. For me,
My heart is light that here my death should be;
Toiled in such bonds that no release beside
Can peace prefer."
"There may belike betide
No evil to thyself; for seldom yet
A knight of mightier thews mine eyes have met.
It is one only that thy spear must meet,
Though mortal is the strife. To bar retreat
Upon an island is the combat set."
"It is a custom of no grace," he said,
"That passing knights should thus be snared; for they
Who ride abroad may ride in wearihed,
And their toiled steeds no equal course may stay
With those that freshly to the lists are led."
Then spake a knight of smooth aspect thereby:
"What doubt is thine? A single strife you try.
And not shalt thou by any knight alone
With either lance or sword be overthrown...
Yet thy good shield a downward stroke hath cleft,
Too deep for safety in close strife. I pray
You will not scorn a better, in all goodwill
Lent for thy need?"
He answered: "Choicelessness
On either choice may wait, but yet will I,
Here where no loss but loss of life is left,
Accept, and thank thee."
From the board they rose,
And he, so destined since that path he chose,
Went with them, constant in his mood, as they
Who when fear enters, and the last hope dies,
Meet failure with resolved and equal eyes.
A space of waters, like a steel-grey targe,
Shone darkly. Dense with matted woods the marge
Met the deep flood. One only downward way
Before them showed. And here a waiting barge
Received them. As the island bank they gained
One only damsel at his side remained.
"Unhappy knight," she said, "a stranger's shield
Denies thee, from thy closest friend concealed.
Who bears a different blazon from his own
Is bare to blind mischance, and ills unknown."
Kindly she spake, and with sure sight, but he:
"Can naught disease me more. Let chance what may,
My heart is fain that here my death may be,
And all my woes find end. I am a knight
Foredoomed to find disaster. Cared I naught
To what event I came, or shield I brought;
For whatso'er of noble hope I know
Some monstrous evil lurks its flower below.
This curse is not delayed, and not complete:
There is nor dread to shun, nor hope to meet."
"Still is it ruth; but more I must not say."
Then rode they silent by a tortuous way,
Till to a tower they came, and spread below
A field for joust or mortal combat fit.
Draped seats of many hues surrounded it.
Their colour chastened by the warmer glow
Of ladies and high lords who there did sit,
So were they clad in every glorious hue,
Saffron and argent, crimson, vert and blue,
God's sunlight gives, as some bright tourney-show
They well might grace. But their unpitying eyes
Were cold in hope a harder sight to see.
A steward to Sir Balyn came: "Fair knight,
Yourself you chose that here you stand, as he,
Our island champion chose. Your lives are plight
To conquer or to die. No place to flee
Remains; nor any hope in mercy's plea."
"I ask not mercy. But I fain would know,
Why to such bitter end this strife must go?"
"It is the doom of those the horn who dare,
And take the challenge of the warning there."
"I did not make protest. I asked but why."
"It is our custom; finding most delight
When those who with no thought of mercy fight,
As only those who know that ordeal may."
"Whom do I meet in this relentless play?"
"A knight too little known, but soon is he
Great as the greatest in men's sight to be,
Unless thy lance shall thwart him. Here he came,
Dimmed by the shadow of a greater name,
To hold this ward a twelve month's space; and so
High valour and consummate might to show."
"He is not of the Table?"
"Nay, for he
Came from the wild lands of the Northern Sea."
"Likely of Neros' horde?"
"It well may be."
"High may he aim, but surely base are they
Who use no sign the cost of strife to stay.
I dread not death, who have no lust to live,
Yet that I shall not ask I well may give."
"It were to find the doom thou didst not deal."
"Those who regard not life no fear can feel
Except for baseness that themselves they do."
Then ceased they; for the calling trumpet blew,
And from the tower there came a knight arrayed
In scarlet, and his steed, some space who stayed,
As though in doubt, before he sank his spear.
Yet spurred he then, and in such fierce career
That Balyn, instant though he spurred alike,
Felt on his shield the crashing impact strike
More hard than from his own well-practiced hand
The thrust he gave. Alike the chargers fell,
But Balyn's, wearier, fell the worse, and he
Scarce from the rolling steed his feet could free
Before the sword of his opponent shone
So close that, though his shield he lifted well,
It scarce availed his throat to guard. Perde,
Fierce joy was in the eyes that looked thereon,
Such strength, such swiftness, and such skill displayed
Those twain, though neither knight, close-helmed, could see,
Or knew beforehand by whose hands should be
The wounds he felt. For life they fought, and one
Fought also that an equal fame he won
With whom had shadowed long his own. They met
In strife that did not pause though swords were wet
With flowing blood, though broken shields no more
Could shredded hawberks guard. In slippery gore
They fought, and with blood-blinded eyes, so sore
Their helms were battered. Those who watched could guess
Their mortal wounds, but not for those the less
They strove, and plaudits from the crowded ring,
And waving of bright scarves, and wagering
On who would longer last, approved their toil.
"First must our champion fall."
"So say not I."
"The strange knight weakens."
"Both alike must die."
No word of mercy, no protesting cry,
Rebuked that rule which gave no amnesty
To those who deathward went with hearts so high.
And Balyn turned his glance aside, and blurred
But bright coloured showed that throng. He heard
Voices that cheered their deaths, and all his might
Gathered within him, one last stroke to smite
To end it. Through drained veins the indignant blood
Pulsed hotly, as his sword he upward swang,
And on the red knight's helm so hard it rang
That to the ground he sank. Nor only he,
But Balyn, as that final impulse failed,
Sank at his side, the while black night prevailed.
Neither they strove to rise, but both they lay
As those resigned to death's dark empire may.
Till Balyn, on one hand uplifting said:
"Fair gentle knight, through thee that road I tread
Which waits for all, but ere I deathward go,
I would more knowledge of the nameless foe
Who hast slain me here in almost equal fight."
And he to whom he spake, in words too low
For easy hearing answered: "That to show
Unloth am I, for those who deathward go
Find the full peerage of an equal night.
I am Balan, brother to a greater knight,
"More than death thy word is woe!
I thought too soon no further grief should be
In hastening through the kindly doors of death.
Myself am Balyn."
"Brother, mine the woe
To thus have slain thee. But what evil hap
Disguised thy blazonry? I thought I knew
Thy gait and riding, but thy swords were two,
And thy shield-symbol is the sinking star,
Not those blue leopards."
"Brother, warned was I,
And by the burden of my fault we die.
For I rejected God, and would not see
His part is His, but mine is left for me,
Unaltered by reverse. The best I might
I did not aim to reach, and failing so
I draw thee with me to the lasting night.
My sword? The mystic blade which worked my woe
Broke like base metal at my direst need."
"Brother," a fainter voice replied, "we go
Together, as we should. And I for thee
The witness at the throne of Christ shall be
That nothing is my charge of wrath or wrong;
But all is well between us."
"All is well......
But, brother, wilt thy strength avail to tell
How thou couldst hold to this unmercied strife?"
"Because they caught me in too close a net
For any strength to break it. Dear is life.
For that I swore that all whom here I met
I would resist as those who champion wrong
Must be resisted: no loth word to say:
No victoring stroke to stint. For surely they,
Ladies and lords to whom of course belong
The mercies and regards high nurture bears,
To cease determined strife would lightly give
The signal that shall bid the fallen live."
"But that they did not."
"Nay, such hearts are theirs
As wolves might scorn. To sate their lust requires
That when wounds weaken, or long combat tires
A champion knight, he shall his death foresee,
And desperate hopeless strife prolonged shall be
With one who knows that save such end he deal,
The like unmercied death himself shall feel."
"There were our faults," Sir Balyn answered, "so,
For gain of life, or life's despair, to go
The way they pointed or constrained. To live
We were not worthy; and, though God forgive,
Ours is the shame before His throne to bear
Who by His guiding hand would not be there.
For they through whom we die their ardours gain
Not from high triumphs but for victims slain."
More of their love was in his heart to say.
For who by Nature's bond are close as they
Who share one birth, and in one failure die
By mutual fault, though clean of perfidy?
But now in bloodless veins was life too weak.
Sank in a murmuring sound his voice away.
His lifted head fell back. More grace to speak
He did not have, nor Balan life to hear.
But unregarded while they spake, anear
Were those who came the bloodwet scene to cheer,
And heard them, though their names they heard not. She
Who bade Sir Balyn ware the sorcery
Which gave him that false shield which caused his fall,
And only she, showed pitying eyes. She said:
"Though by each other's hands these knights are dead,
See how those hands are joined! If brethren they,
As those who heard them do not doubt to say,
Then in one tomb united shall they lie,
Who came from different ways this doom to find,
As sin misled them, or High God designed."
So dealt she at her cost. And that she did,
And that she spake, was of such potency
That they who ruled that castle all forbid
Its evil custom, and the horn no more
Blew the mort note for those who turned to try
What hazard on the upward path should lie.
Long stood the tomb she built, on which was writ
The most she knew, but not their names, and so
There was no word of that which no man wit
By wanderers told. Their far Northumbrian kin
Waited, and asked, and heard not. Minstrels said,
In Arthur's court, if any sought to know:
"Balyn? A valiant knight. He looked to win
The greatest place of all. But years have fled
Since last upon the ragged front of war
The shield that showed the dying star we saw.
Belike was wayside chance that left him dead,
Or, being maimed, he homeward went. He came
From that wild North which all our strength to tame
So these brethren past
From sight and tongue of men. While Earth shall last,
Until the Christ shall call, to doom or save,
Asleep together in their nameless grave.
The Three Quests.
King Arthur spake to Merlin: "Yestermorn
My Barons met me with a single plea,
That I should chose a fitting bride to be
My loyal consort, and adorn my court.
This have I pledged to do, and seek thine aid
To bring it to a good end."
"Such end to see,
Must first disclose of thy heart be made,
"I am of will to wed
One who for four years space I have not seen;
The daughter of the king Leodegran,
Who holds his narrow rule where lake and plain
"Soothly," Merlin said,
"More in such bargain were to give than gain.
When wast thou there?"
"It was not there we met.
But when Sir Anton, by wandering chance,
I being of his train, benighted made
Halt at a hold on Severn side, the king
Of Brecon's hills was there, and there I set
On his fair daughter longing eyes, that yet
Each glance, each word recurs - remembering
With recent hope, where hope in previous years
There had not been; and with no hope to aid
I thrust the recollection down. But now
Revigoured yearning doth good hope allow;
And vivid as a recent dream appears
The scene that memory once refused to know."
Then, while they spake, those scenes returned, as though
The chamber's painted walls had left his sight.....
Ploughed fields, dull-purple to the failing light
Were round him now. Before, a downward way
Through the green depths of Severn's woodlands lay,
And sank in gloom.
Sir Anton, reining back
To judge the promise of a branching track,
His train had stayed. A bearded knight was he,
With youth behind, who yet with lance to knee
Stark part might bear. He ruled a slender train
Of hillmen on rough mounts, that not the plain,
Save for red strife, would often ride. He weighed
The hope of peaceful ways the ploughland gave;
For in the losing light the ford to take,
Or camping on the open sward to make
Caution his lord, he neither liked. He made
The bolder choice, took the side-path, and soon
Beneath them, laired in woods that not the noon
Of daylight wholly pierced, a tower there lay,
Long, deep, and low, a crouching beast of prey,
Hold of the Dame de Vance; in later day
The Castle of Maidens.
Here no parleying
Delayed them at the gates, for festival
Had flung them wide, where baron, prince, and king,
So many and so great the friends of her
Who ruled that tower, by their assembly made
A tenfold strength around her, so that she
Had short indifference of who else might be
Guest or intruder there, or friend or foe.
So from clear air, and twilight woods and cool,
The crowded hall they entered, long and low,
Now loud with voices and great names. Were few
To greet them or regard, where none they knew.
But those by chance near-seated, guests as they,
Though earlier entered, and of more degree,
Received them with fair words of courtesy:
Brecon's grey king, and at his further side,
His daughter, whom alone did Arthur see,
Yet knew her sundered by a space too wide
To cross, unless some grace of marvel be.
For sired of but a simple knight was he,
And she was heiress to a seated king.
Noble of place and ancient name.
When later in the jocund hall they met,
Her glance, indifferent to the taller Kay,
Lured him to venture speech, and fair reply
She gave in words sweet-toned, but clear and high,
Unawed of those high banqueters, for sure
Of her much fairness, and her known degree,
And confident in her bold youth was she,
Daughter of kings who ruled by steel and fire,
And little used to thwart the day's desire
For fear of evil past or yet to be.
So had he seen her, nor too fondly seen.
So in his memory stayed she, gold and green.
Regal she was, and bold and gracious. One
Who while she lived would take her fixed require
Even from the altar of God. There were but none
Loved knighthood, and swift and splendid deeds to know,
The more than she.... The gown close-drawn to show
The small green apples of her breasts.... He thought:
'All would I stake to gain her.'
"Now if I tell thee that this maid to wed
Would not be wholesome, wilt thou turn aside
Thy wayward thoughts to seek a chaster bride -
One of good omen for thy throne's support?"
"She is not maiden?"
"That I did not say.
Nor that I meant. But meek of mood to thee
And constant of her faith she will not be,
Though she may largely to thy needs comply.
There may be sorrows half a life away.
But well beyond thy words thy thoughts I see,
Requiring counsel which thou wilt not take
Unless it please thee. Where thy heart is set,
Thy heaven to the falling dusk will be."
"I well believe thee, and thine aid I plead
To win my purpose. Wilt thou there with speed,
To Brecon's court, and ask its aged king
Guenever's hand to grant?"
The sage replied:
"That will I; nor I doubt thy bride to bring,
Whatever follow as the years divide."
Then by that swift and secret journeying
Which distance would confound, and days confuse,
He sought Leodegran. "Good lord, I use
Few words, for that I seek I may not hide.
I ask thy daughter as King Arthur's bride."
Answered the careworn king: "I have not heard
Since Uther died, a better-welcome word.
For I, grown weary of much strife, who here,
Since that great loss, have scantly, year by year,
Held the twain fords, and leagues of marsh and mere
That gird me from outnumbering foes - a bar
More strong than stone to turn the waves of war -
Have kept my land, if whole I kept it, whole
By ceaseless ward of sieged and staitened ways,
Should thus except me from that hard control,
And rest as one his frailer strength who stays
On him of youthful thews, and mightier far.
"Full gladly of my lands and public store
Gifts would I make my loyal will to show.
But more than mine the lands of Arthur are,
And more the wealth the halls of Camelot know.
Yet there is one thing mine shall please him more
Than tale of land and gold he doth not lack;
The Table Round Pendragon gave before,
And fitly to his heir I yield it back.
"When Uther gave it, for my sure defence
A hundred knights and fifty round me rode.
That owed I to his large munificence,
Who sent recruit for every seat it showed.
Now but a hundred nightly round it sit,
So many of my best are slain, but they
Are Arthur's at his choice. His charge of it
Shall lift its fame to light a loftier day."
Mage Merlin answered: "Wiser words than thine
I shall not hear. The Table's name shall be
Of wider fame, and more nobility
Than Uther dreamed it. From thy gift shall spring
Such high contentions, and so proud a ring
Of knights God-chosen, that its fame shall last
Till memories of our Land be overpast."
Then to Guenever spake the sage, and found
He met a bold but gracious maidenhood,
And ardent was she in assured assent.
Of Arthur thought she with enough content;
But separate from his side her forecast went
And rites of love, for brows with rubies crowned
And all the tributes of such eminence,
Her heart put by.
"I met him once," she said,
"When naught was visioned of the high pretence
To which so strangely and so young he came."
"It was that meeting in his heart remained,
With purpose at his time that this be gained
Which of all gain of ladies most he would."
"My thought recalls the day, and calls it good.
My gracious lord he will not fail to be."
"His generous faith will spare to doubt of thee."
"You doubt me?"
"Nay. I do not doubt. I know."
"And yet a course of ill you do not stay?"
"The end were dark by any different way.
And noon will rise before the night will fall."
"There may be noonday with no night at all.
Not Arthur loves high deeds the more than I."
So with bold heart she faced that destiny,
Who surely in the days not yet that were
Would grasp and lift in slender hands and fair
To its full height the horn of life entire,
And drain it at a kingdom's cost.
In royal wise, that often-leaguered tower
They left, where long its king's precarious power
Had ruled wild hills, and stubborn order made
Despite unlawful lords, and heathen raid.
High heart was hers to dream in youth's full flower
Of crescent splendours at King Arthur's side.
And Arthur, dreaming of so bright a bride,
Was in like mood to hers when first they met.
Who cares at sunrise that all suns will set?
The dawnlight grows: the noon is distant yet.
Who seeks high deeds to prove must dangered be.
The end too soon they should not seek to see,
Lest the heart fail them.
"Surely," Arthur said,
"Blest am I, one so queenly fair to wed;
And one I longed for, when it seemed too bold
To hope that I, a nameless squire, should hold
Consenting in mine arms that high princess,
Of rank assured, and like in loveliness.
This is no deed of state, fair love to wrong;
In privy memory I have loved her long.
"And this fair Table that her father sends,
Grouped with strong knights, more sumptuous gifts transcends,
There were no riches should my choice prefer
Than this uncounted gift which comes with her,
As symbol of the greater days to be."
So with glad speed and lavish banqueting
These noble twain were wed for weal or woe,
And Merlin, at the urgence of the king,
Searched the wide realm for valiant knights, that so
Might the full circle of the Table show
A strength invincible; and heathenry
And jealous factions such assemble see
That no opposing front would dare to be.
So it was filled, except at Arthur's side
Two sieges were at Merlin's word denied
Even to the greatest names. "Await," said he,
"The far high beacon of their destiny."
While the high proffer of that Table Round
Drew strength to Arthur, and his courtyard rang
With noise of arms and chargers, tramp and clang
Of knights dismounting ever, and esquires who led
Strong steed to stall, as Merlin's chosen came,
Proved knights enough, and those of lowlier name
Who would be greatest, as his craft foreread,
Was revel and feast prolonged; and there, no less
Esteemed for king's blood than for loveliness,
Of those who at the bridal feasts were met,
Was Orkney's widowed queen not lowliest set.
And of her youthful sons the elder two
Beside her sate. Their kinship well they knew.
No less, their father was a foeman slain.
"I will discover how we lose or gain,"
Young Gawain said, "if here we more remain,"
And knelt at Arthur's feet: "I ask a gift."
"Ask what thou wilt and take."
"I ask that I
- So nearly to thine own mine ancestry -
Be knighted first at this high carnival."
"It shall be as thou wilt. I fain would lift
My sister's sons to such fair dignity
As they may of themselves, in field and hall,
Sustain and honour. Knight thou shalt be made.
Be naught too feeble for thy gentleness,
And naught for baring of thy sword too strong,
And in the days I have good hope to see
Shall none be nearer to my throne and me."
But now came inward from the outer throng
An old man, and a woman worn and thin,
A lifetime's toils behind them; and therewith
A youth large-framed and comely.
Way to win
Through the gay press that filled the hall of state,
Even to the further end where Arthur sate,
Their purpose failed not. Shine of silver there,
Shot samite's gleam, or pall of miniver,
Crimson or green or gold, or ermine rare,
Had passed unheeded in that hall. But they
In peasant garments clothed, bestained with clay,
And bleached of sunlight and of rain - their way
Cleared to the king, who asked: "What seek ye?"
The old man answered, "where I lowly dwell
Between the marshes and the wester ford,
Wherethrough must all from Camilard pass, men tell
That while in feast of bridal here ye sit,
May all, though meanest round thy gate, present
Their prayers before thee."
"Surely," said the king,
"Excepting of my realm or mine estate,
For which would only treason plead, I cried
Such word, nor lightly were thy boon denied.
What would ye?"
"Lord, thy gracious words allow
The boon unasked. I do but plead that now
My son be knighted by thy hand."
Answered the king, "it may be small to thee,
But great I count it. Speak thy name."
"A cowherd of the river meads am I,
"Then tell me if this bold design
Be wholly of thy son, or largely thine."
"It cometh wholly of his own desire.
Thirteen are all the sons who call me sire.
And twelve there are of toil who do not tire,
Nor murmur at the tasks I set. But he
Will turn aside, and while his toils delay
Will dream, or with a broken sword will play.
And ceaseless doth he plead, both noon and night,
For such good harness as pertains a knight."
And Arthur marked the man, toil-bent and thin,
And meagre-visaged. If high heart within
Such husk concealed were marvel: fathered thus
Should knight excel were not less marvellous,
And curious in his doubt he charged him: "Ere
Thy plaint I weigh, thyself must tell me where
This youth his thews and noble heart derived.
And first I will that all thy sons I see."
Then came the twelve. But none was formed as he;
The first one, Tor, and none with equal eyes
Met the king's glance. And Arthur said: "Thy plea
I grant, consistent to thy rightful claim.
I deem the lowliest born may loftiest rise."
Then to the youth: "Behold, no sword is thine!"
"Lord, there is this." He showed a broken sword.
Not oft did war-hacked blade so brightly shine.
"What wouldst thou? Of thyself the prayer must be."
"I would be knight. I would be knight of thine.
Knight of the Table."
Arthur bade him kneel,
And touched him with the broken sword, and said:
"I make thee knight. To thine own thoughts belong
To make thee knightly: valiant hope and strong
Thy prayer implies. Be thine to break the wrong,
To build the right, being in thyself no less
Made noble by desire of nobleness
Than they who, nobly born, by base desires
Betray themselves ignoble. More requires
Of thee, thus risen by thine own plaint, than they
Who not their choice, but laws of birth, obey,
The Table Round may wait thee."
Thus he said:
And then to Merlin: "Seer, I charge thee rede
If knight so sired may prove high knight indeed."
And Merlin: "If king's blood suffice, meseems
This nameless, knight may prove his loftiest dreams."
"Me thought but little kinghood," said the king,
"Went to the sum of this man's fathering."
But Merlin answered: "Lord, would Pellinor tell
The secret of a winter dawn, were well
Thy doubting done. . . A friendless land he rode
No hope of hostel held, or known abode,
Where might he rest in surety, treason-free,
When winter darkness closed his path; and he
Sought shelter in a foddered byre, that lay
Lone in the wold. There came, before the day,
A maiden there the kine to tend: and now
We see the fruit-graft of the wilder bough.
"Seer," boldly, though abashed, Sir Tor replied,
"If knight shall speak it, that that knight hath lied
I count to prove upon him."
But Arthur: "Nay,
Fair truth we seek, and truth is hers to say."
Then to the woman: "Heed nor praise nor blame,
But, for thy dear son's love, reveal to me
By whom was he begotten in truth."
Gave answer: "Lord, it chanced, long years away,
Before the winter dawn, when all was grey,
I moved among the kine in byre, to do
Morn-toils, and lonely there of all, and knew,
High-plumed and fearful to the misty light,
Beside me in the gloom a waiting knight,
And dealt he death or any different ill,
Who was I, byremaid, to reject his will?
Hence is it that this my son, whom here ye see,
Seeks as his sire in use of life to be.
Of this none knoweth till now. Next moon I wed
The man who standeth here, as liking led."
Then the dark king gazed on her: "What gave I when
I rode away?"
The woman answered: "Then,
In light return to her thy violence stained,
A small white bracket of thy gift remained "
"Lord, she speaks truth," said Pellinor.
But the hind
Turned to the woman: "Hast thou lain so long
Beside me, silent of so deep a wrong,
Or that thy son was nowise son to me?"
"I would not vex thee with so vain a word.
Shamed was I wholly at the first," said she;
"And feared to lose thee if I spake more late.
Oft with a peaceless heart I held debate,
And harder with the passing days it grew.
The thing which no man guessed, and only two
Who sinned of will or of compulsion knew,
Seemed smaller left in silence."
"Regard thou fairly that she was not wed
When Pellinor came, nor of her own intent
She did it. Naught but good her silence meant:
For thee, and for the kindless seed she bore.
All things by larger speech have life the more.
And of our own, as of our neighbours' deeds,
The wit of silence that of speech exceeds."
Now in the great hall was the Table set;
And when the knights whom Merlin chose were all
In each his place that ample board around,
Questioned the king the needful cause that yet
Those seats the next his own were vacant found.
Thereat the seer: "These sieges long shall stand
Silent and void on feast and festal day.
There is none worth on live in Christian land
To hold them now. And these shall take who may
At hazard dire. For this Siege Perilous
Close to thy right shall be, and he who thus
Unworthy ventures with his death shall pay."
But next to these the dark king Pellinor,
The slayer of Lot, had Merlin placed, for more
Than all beside, in that great strife, had he
For Arthur's cause beside the Cornish sea
His worth advanced; for save his strength excelled,
When Lot's fierce ranks the rout of Neros swelled,
The power of Arthur had not dured the day.
But one who naught forgave, and naught forgot,
But naught would spoil in youth's too hasteful way,
Designed a woe that should no wisdom stay.
What thought they, were they watched, the sons of Lot,
To see him nearest to the king's right hand,
Whose wits their father's subtler course outplanned,
Whose sword their father's life had reft away?
Fierce to his brother's ear did Gawain say:
"Behold his pride who to that regence came
On the spilt honour of our father's name!
Be mine the trenchant sword that pride to slay."
Answered Gaheris: "Very sooth ye say;
Yet must we turn us from such thoughts away...
Bethink thee, and thy wrath shall reason curb.
It were not to our gain to thus disturb
The king's high feast with private broils; nor thus
Should Arthur's praise be ours, for all men know
Our father died in arms his open foe;
And for thy rancour therefore shown, on us
His heavy frown would fall."
A cold reply
Sir Gawain gave: "Your words are sooth, nor I
Meant rashly. Wait ye till the event appear."
"I would naught else. In other place than here
My sword were first to reach him."
So they said.
And Pellinor, had he heard, had heeded not.
Warred he with boys? Or were the sons of Lot
More than their mighty sire? And Lot was dead.
Yet had more wisdom feared a further end:
As sires with sires may sons with sons contend.
It was the last morn of the festival,
A morn of driving rain and changing blue.
The deep woods answered to the sea-wind's call:
Chased the chased light the cloud, and chasing slew.
Back the clear east was driven, and spring delayed
With violence entered.
On this morn there came
Full throng of warriors to the king's great hall,
Leave-grace to take; and damsel there and dame,
A kingdom's choice, ere separate ways they turned,
Glowed at the feast.
A word of Merlin stayed
The rising board: "A marvel comes," said he,
"Burdened with portents of the years to be,
Which, more than all high memories hold, shall take
A shape of glamorous dreams."
The while he spake,
There rose an outcry at the outer gate.
Burst through mid-hall a flying hart which burned
With eyes of fire, a wondrous sight to see.
Milkwhite it showed; and close, with toiling hate,
A bracket chased, milkwhite; and more behind,
Black hounds, deep baying.
As that wild hart appeared,
The eager bracket, that its chase had neared,
Snapt at the haunch. Wild leapt the hart, and cleared
The board and those on either side who sate,
Save that one knight was sidelong hurled, and he
Snatched at the bracket while he rose, nor mind,
Though hard it strove, to lose his prize he showed,
But held it in strong grasp as forth he strode,
Found horse without, and turned his homeward road.
Then reined a damsel at King Arthur's seat.
From her blown palfrey light to ground she slid.
Milkwhite that palfrey, speckless, mane to feet;
And fairest she that fairest throng amid.
Silent awhile, with quiet and equal eyes,
The scene she gazed: "O King, of right," said she,
"I pray thee grant that who this chase fordid,
And seized my bracket in thy hall, shall be
Enforced return. If aid thy grace denies,
Much wrong may fall."
The king gave answer cold:
"What right hath wrong? What right assert ye now
To burst offenceful through my halls? Do thou
Thine own reclaim."
"It may be lord," she said,
Not roused or wavering at repulse, "that glad
My rendered aid in larger needs shall be
Thy thanking ere the last, who not thy birth
"Damsel, my Table's mirth
Was broken by thy forced intrude, and now
You seek to rule me by a bold assert
Of favours from thy hand. What part ye had
In births of those of greater eld than thou
Requires me not to rede; or truth is hid
Beyond my wits to seek it. Right ye plead,
And plead it proofless."
Even as this was said,
A knight on a great horse, and warrior-clad,
Rode up the hall; and when that maid he saw,
Slender and young and more than mortal fair,
He dealt as in the random days that were
Before the coming of Arthur, when in sooth
Strength raped, and cunning snared, and neither ruth
Regarded, nor the broken yoke of law.
The maid athwart the saddle-peak to draw,
To turn, to spur toward the open gate,
Were all a moment's act, the while debate
Anger and threats resounded through the hall.
The sudden riot, and the maiden's call
Aloud for rescue, had but wrothed the king,
As part of that unseemly trespassing
That made denial of his dignity.
But Merlin counselled: "Shouldst thou leave it be
Devoid of judgement, then the affront remains."
"I care not," said the king; "the way they came
Denied my worship. Those who judgement claim
Must grant respect to whom they supplicate."
Answered the seer: "The dawn of thy new day
Stirs to strange births the powers that night belong,
Portentous of the full noon-light to be.
And largely shall thy Table's fame extend
If thou shalt rule, to reach a juster end,
Pursuit of those who have thy peace defied."
"Then who upon such wildering quests should ride?"
"Grant to King Pellinor the part to bring
The damsel of that bold knight's ravishing
Scatheless, her captor vanquished. Give to Tor
The finding of the hound. Be Gawain's part
To seek and here return the wondrous hart."
"It shall be as thou wilt," the king replied.
To Gawain gave the king his first request
The hart to bring, and he with hastened zest
His earliest venture took. In place of squire
Gaheris rode attendant.
Fierce as fire,
In counsel cautious, and in action dire,
Born of Morgause, but to their harder sire
More nearly natured, in the days to be
So should the court these sons of Orkney see.
Short mile they rode before the clang of blows
Sounded ahead, and as the pathway rose
Two striving knights they saw. Beside them lay
Their yet unbroken lances, cast away
As toys for friendlier joust more meet, and they
Though mounted, yet the deadlier swords preferred.
Said Gawain: "Here is that we aid or stay,"
And rode between them.
"Hold," he cried, "and say
Why thus ye bicker, and what names ye bear."
One answered: "Nay, a single name we share,
And discords hence to fiercer angers flare.
The brethren of the Woods are we. God wot,
One woman bore us, and one man begot."
"Alas!" Sir Gawain said, "why strive ye so?
Such bonds of blood to break is bootless woe."
"Sir," said the other, "in this earlier day
A rare white hart, wide-antlered, fled the way
Where now ye ride, and after, in full cry,
Black hounds, but wearying in pursuit, went by.
And these we would pursue, and first I said
The elder's part was mine, and he replied
As better knight he claimed it: hence we tried
That boast to prove."
"And now, forfoughten thus,
And wounded through your vain wraths orgulous,
How stand ye to sustain a strife anew?"
And either answered: "What ye charge us do,
That will we."
And he thereat: "This charge is mine,
To make straight way to the king's court, and there
To yield ye to him, and when he asks declare
The tale of this unholy strife I stay.
And add: the knight who rides the white hart's way
Hath sent ye."
This they swore, and faith to show,
Their names they gave. Surlouse and Brian were they,
Who after proved their worth, and strongly held
To Gawain, even to that last war which rent
So many trusts apart. Now onward went
Sir Gawain and Gaheris. Distant belled
A flying pack before them. Soon they saw
A river broad beneath. But hounds and hart
Swam stoutly to the further bank, and there
A knight was halted, horsed and armed for war.
"Come ye no further, or for death prepare,"
He called, and Gawain answered: "Ere we part
Deaths may be ours, but not the quest I leave
Before my lance thy lofty vaunt shall grieve."
Thereat he shortened rein, and downward rode,
Taking the flood, although no fordway showed.
And on dry ground again, his spear he sank.
More low and level was this further bank,
So that at once an equal course they ran;
And Gawain's lance prevailed, and horse and man
Rolled down before it.
Up the cast knight leapt:
"Another end than that our swords shall see."
"More would ye yet? Then tell me who ye be."
"Allardin of the Western Isles am I."
To earth Sir Gawain sprang. His sword down-swept
In one great stroke that through the helmet bit.
Short was the hurt Allardin felt of it.
Short space he stumbled blindly ere he kept
His tryst with death, that found him where he fell.
"Hell's night!" Gaheris swore, "you smote him well.
If this be on your knighthood's earliest day,
Who is there but thy fuller strength should slay?"
"He took the wage he asked," Sir Gawain said,
And caught his horse again, and left the dead
With no more thought, the flying hart to chase,
Which now the weary tailing hounds outran.
There were six greyhounds in Gaheris' care,
Which now he loosed, and set them, brace by brace,
To hold the chase from which those hounds withdrew.
Freshly they did the weary hart pursue,
Until a castle's wide opposing wall
Confronted, and he tried unlikely way
Through gate and guard, and in the central hall
Heard the close hounds behind, and turned to bay.
In vain defence the wide-grown antlers swept.
For sixfold here at once the swift deaths leapt,
And found his throat and slew him.
The while he died,
A knight who from a nearby chamber ran,
Roused by the tumult, with a naked sword
Struck at the hounds, of which the foremost two,
As one inflamed by causeful wrath he slew.
He chased the remnant through the gates away,
And then returned to where the slaughtered lay,
Complaining: "Oh, my hart! Ill care was mine
To let thee wander whom my lady gave.
Dear to the value of his life shall pay
Who chased thee thus," and in this loud lament
Back to his chamber for his arms he went,
And came again where Gawain, mounted still
Gazed at the hounds he came too late to save.
His wrath, that seldom from the leash ran free,
With vengeful purpose stirred, the sight to see
Of those slain hounds he loved. "What madness thine
Hath spent its violence on these hounds of mine,
Who did but of their noble kind?" He said.
"They did but follow where the quarry fled.
We meant thee no despite. But if we had,
Reason and knighthood with one voice forbad
That they should feel an anger meant for us."
"Doubt not for that. When my full wrath I deal,
The deaths your hounds have felt yourselves shall feel."
Then Gawain to the stone floor leapt. Their shields
Reflecting steel to steel a moment glow,
Then dull to battering blows. Though neither yields,
Neither awhile back-bears a quailing foe.
The swords the chain-weaved mail asunder tear:
The stunned helms dent the heavy strokes to bear:
Blood from stained hawberks to the ground is shed.
But Gawain for hard blows the harder gave,
Till to its midst the lifted shield he clave
With one fierce stroke of wounded fury bred.
Thus to the ground he brought a fenceless foe
Who cried: "I yield. My life to ransom, lo!
I will all wrongs requite thee."
Shall be thy death, which all reproaching ends."
"Nay, for I yield me to thy grace. Do thou,
For knighthood's gentle vows, my life allow."
"Allow thy life? Bethink thy threats before.
Canst thou the lives of my good hounds restore?"
Fixed in his wrath, the downward thrust he drave.
Unheeded through the strife, its end to know,
With breath short-drawn at every bartered blow,
Stood that knight's lady at his chamber door;
And now, as near his loss of life she knew,
Beneath the lifted sword herself she threw,
An act too late to pause its swift descent.
Through her own neck unstayed the keen blade went.
Too late Sir Gawain learned the life he shore.
Her head fell severed, and sank his sword, and he
Stood stonied. But loud his brother's voice arose,
In hard reproach: "An evil stroke, perde,
Thy sword hath dealt, that not thy life's far close
Shall distance, nor thy further wandering wide.
This shame shall ever on thy name abide.
For though ye smote not at her life aware,
Thy wrath impelled her impulse of despair
Beneath the sweep of that descending blade,
Unknightly, pitiless. Being sworn to aid
All weakness, weakness on thy sword hath died."
Sir Gawain answered naught. He gazed as though
His wits were faltered by a dazing blow.
"Rise," said he to the knight. "Thy life is thine."
"Nay," he replied. "I give no price for mine,
For thou hast slain her whom I loved more dear
Than aught beside of earth that hold us here."
"I sore repent it. This remorse to show
I grant thee life. Thou shalt to Arthur go,
And yield to him. And say the knight who sought
The white hart sent thee, making true report
Of all that hath been here."
The knight replied:
"I take no force of if I yield or die
Now that a dearer than my life hath died."
Yet did he, for death's dread, his grief put by
Enough to swear it.
"These dead hounds of mine,"
Said Gawain, "shalt thou bear thy selle before,
As witness of the wrong that brought thy woe;
And now thy name I only seek to know
Before thine outset."
"I am Ablamore,
Called of the Marsh." And with that word he went
His dolorous tale to tell, and sore repent
Too late. For what remorse can life restore?
But Gawain in that hold remained, content
That his unpractised sword prevailed. He saw
Good hope that harder tests of joust and war
Would find him equal, and the king thereby
Disposed to grant him that high destiny
Which Arthur's nephew, and the heir of Lot,
Might claim, if potent to his part were he.
So, confident of mood, aside he laid
His arms for ease, and called Gaheris' aid
To loose his hawberk; but with quick protest
His brother answered: "Doth thou deem so sure
Thy safety here, that in unguarded rest
Amidst thy likely foes thy head shall lie?
So mayst thou, if thou wilt, but shall not I."
And even as he spake, four knights appeared,
Armed at all points. "Thou new-made knight," they cried,
"That lady's blood with which thy sword is dyed
So stains that never shall thy name be cleared.
Nor shall the gates of mercy gape so wide
That thou shalt enter at thine utmost need.
Nor shouldst thou fondly doubt the need is now."
With that their swords were out. From either side
They closed, and Gawain's death that hour had been,
And the realm's future changed beyond surmise,
Had not Gaheris thrust a sword untried
Boldly between them.
"Stand away," they cried,
"We have no lust a simple squire to slay."
"In odds of four to one your answer lies.
It is yourselves should lightlier stand away.
I am his brother."
"Then your end you choose.
For he who slew her, here his life shall loose."
At that they clashed in combat, four to two.
Never in later days Lord Gawain knew
A direr peril, for good knights were they,
And ireful for that piteous death. They drove
The brethren backward to the wall, and there
The bright swords bickered, and the cornered pair
Had but one hour to live, one death to share,
Had not four ladies entered.
Not too soon
They came, for one more backward than the rest
Of those four knights, whose sword Sir Gawain broke,
Had drawn a bow, and o'er a comrade's head
Too well the message of the shaft had sped,
For Gawain's arm it pierced, and thus distrest,
His sword sank futile. Single to delay
The avoidless end, a half-grown wolf at bay,
Savage and hopeless, still Gaheris held
That narrow place, while those whose strength excelled
Sought the safe chance. For who, the victory theirs,
Will jeopard life an instant's time to win?
Yet was that instant pregnant, for the din
Of clashing weapons paused, and as it fell
Those ladies interposed their gentler prayers:
"It were but shame a wounded knight to slay."...
"Surely he yields."... "It were no boast to tell
That four to one a single knight ye slew."...
"Or that a spurless youth had made it two."
They answered: "Know ye what he did?"
But would not therefore ye alike should do."
"Well, if he yield - "
"I cannot else but so."
Sir Gawain answered, "with the wound I bear;
And for my brother's life."
They led the brethren to a chamber fair,
Where the deep wound was searched, and courteous
The tendance that they gave. But sore lament
Was Gawain's: "Surely, if I do not die,
Nor captived in this hold forsaken lie,
Maimed am I, and my pride of knighthood gone."
So hot the pain by which his arm was rent.
Thus passed the night. But when the morning shone
That lady who had first for mercy pled
Heard his lament, and came beside his bed.
"What cheer?" she asked.
"Was never cheer so ill."
"It is but from your own default," she said.
"For had you mercy to the fallen meant
You had not caused the death you now repent,
Nor had that wound to nurse. But I would wit:
Are you from Arthur's court?"
"His knight am I."
"We are not to his rule of evil will.
Disclose your name, and in the sound of it
May be your freedom."
"I am Lothian's heir.
My mother is a sister to the king.
Gawain my name."
"And in that name will lie
Your sure release. Await, and let me deal."
Then went she to her friends, with counselling
To which they heeded: "Let them freely go,
Your loyal fealty to the king to show.
Whatever fault were his, his wound will pay.
And young in arms, with all to learn, are they."
Thus did they, and to prove his quest was won
The antlers of the milkwhite hart they gave;
And then, in penance for the evil done,
They caused him by his knighthood's good faith to swear
The piteous body of the slain to bear
Back to the court, and all the truth relate,
For Arthur's judgement.
This he swore, and did,
And Arthur, where his queen beside him sate,
Turned as he heard. "Is here a wrong," he said,
"Done to all ladies, which may God forbid
I should as king accept, as knight condone,
Because that of my blood, and near my throne
Is he who wrought it. Thou alone shalt say
The price that Gawain for that death shall pay."
Guenever answered: "Shall my word condemn
A knight so closely of thy household? Nay,
But grant this inquest in a larger way,
That all my ladies join it, and with them
As jurors, fitly may the fault be weighed.
For mercies surely at the last belong
To those alike to those who felt the wrong."
Lightly the king agreed, and dame and maid,
The noblest and the best of ladies there,
Were called in council. With the queen's assent
They gave this judgement: "Though he had not meant
That lady's death, yet had he paused to spare
A yielding foe, as knightly use required,
It had not been; and penance meet to do
Now must he swear that till his life shall fail
Never shall fallen knights for mercy sue
Unheeded: never lady find him foe
Unless another's cause should make it so;
But ever courteous should his dealings be,
With valour wed to magnanimity."
So did he swear. But how shall oaths avail
The stubborn core to change? In all he did
Temperate he was by natural use, except
Some gust of overruling anger swept
Calm prudence and sagacious choice aside.
Then were his actions from his judgements wide,
And naught of Earth could rein, nor Heaven forbid.
Strange to his arms, unsquired, unproven in war,
Fast as he might, the new-made knight, Sir Tor,
Took the long rises of the coastward road.
Hope in his heart a wind-blown beacon glowed
Inconstant; for to that dark king his sire
Not only limbs of tireless strength he owed,
But sombre-thoughted hours, and moods of ire
Would vex him, past control; and taming these,
His mother's watchful thrift, that felt no ease
Except good order ruled in house and byre.
Now as he urged his course, his quest to prove,
Out from the brake a sudden dwarf arose,
From whom the startled charger swerved. He reared
An oaken staff, that with such boisterous blows
Beat on its head, and with such clamorous tongue
He bade it halt, that wholly round it swung,
Dispite the rein; and in much wrath thereat
Sir Tor demanded: "Knave, why didst thou that?
Dost thou not value that thy life may pay?"
But shortly did the dwarf give answer: "Nay,
I do but as my lords direct, and they
Should answer. Never knight shall pass their way
Except he meet them."
Then Sir Tor was ware
Of twain pavilions, and great spears thereby,
And boldly blazoned shields that hung on high
From over-crossing boughs.
"To try compare
With those such use who hold I would not shun,
Except that on another quest I ride,
And may not loiter."
"Nay, thy choice is none.
Needs must thou dress thee as my lords decide."
With that, his horn blew, and at the sound
A knight appeared both horsed and armed, and he
Said naught of malice or of courtesy,
But sank his spear.
Full hard to sobering ground
Before the point of Tor's good lance he fell.
Sore bruised, he yielded. "But I warn thee well
My fellow arms, a further bout to try.
And proved is he the better knight than I."
"So," said Sir Tor, "methinks it well may be."
Even as they spake, he came. A perilous knight
He looked, and was. With random strength he closed.
But Tor, so warned, his utmost strength opposed,
And cast him, wounded underneath his shield,
Heavily to earth.
Even so, he would not yield
Without debate, but quickly rose and drew,
For of good heart and stubborn might was he.
Yet yield he must, for Tor so hardly dealt
A downward stroke, that as its force he felt
He faltered in his stride, and weak of knee,
"I ask thy mercy, being spent," said he.
"Mercy is lightly thine. But not to me
Thy leigance goes. Ye must to Arthur's court,
And yield ye there. But first your names."
I am Sir Petipace of Winchelsea.
My comrade, Felot of Landoc."
God speed us on our different ways."
The dwarf approached. "My lord, a gift bestow."
"So may I, if a seemly cause ye show."
"I would no more than to thy service turn
From those whose deeds their louder boasts deny."
"I grant it with goodwill, for squireless I.
I seek a knight a small white hound who reft.
Canst guide me on his tracks, good wage to earn?"
"That can I."
Then a speedy pace he led
By forest ways, to where a priory stood.
And near its gates, within the sheltering glade,
Were two pavilions, with two shields displayed:
One was renewed with white, and one was red.
"Lo," said the dwarf, "thy search is ended here."
At which Sir Tor alit, and gave his spear
To his new squire to hold, and with no threat
Of steel's advance, he crossed the space to where,
Midst sheltering oaks, those gay pavilions were.
In guise of peace he came, but naught he met
Either for peace, or hostile sword's assert.
Save only that a squirrel sideward leapt,
And for the leaves' long murmur, all was still.
'Here,' thought he, 'surely, where no guard is kept,
Naught shall I find of strife, but all goodwill;
Or likelier, absence of who bideth here.'
So to the white pavilion first he came.
Open it stood, as having naught to fear.
Nor cause for fear, unless to knighthood's shame,
Should there have been, for there three damsels lay,
Young as the spring, and fair as birth of day,
'No bracket here I see,'
He thought, 'and though a better sight may be,
They are not of my quest, nor yet for me.'
The red pavilion next he sought. It lay
Open alike, in careless wise, but there
One only slumbered, whom he thought as fair
As summer noon, that may its dawn forget
Because its sunlit glades are lovelier yet.
Such was his thought who gazed; and who shall say
Was never any June as fair as May?
But short his glance, for at her feet asleep
A bracket lay, a better watch to keep
Than those three damsels who their trust belied.
Instant it waked, and as it clamorous cried,
His mistress lightly cast her sleep aside,
And rose dishevelled as a wind-blown flower.
"Young knight, what would ye by this entrance rude?"
"Fairest, I would not on thy couch intrude;
But that I seek I find."
The hound he caught.
"Nay, but ye would not earn a thief's report?"
"Lady, at Arthur's word, from Arthur's court,
Hard have I ridden for this purpose sole."
"Yet shalt thou find it to thy likely dole;
Hard-handled ere ye ride short miles away."
"That should I hardly by God's grace repay."
With that he turned and left her. Fast he rode,
Till the long shadows on the path that lay
Were warning of the near retreat of day.
"Good dwarf," he said, "doth know some near abode
Where we may rest us till the light return?"
"I know that in the higher woods there lies
A humble hermitage. We can but learn
Its meagre stable, and its mean supplies."
To that low roof they came, and harboured there,
Finding a couch as hard, a meal as spare,
As most they feared; but he that roof who owned
Gave them good blessing as they rode away.
But when the long straight road before them lay
Which led to Camelot's gates, the sound they heard
Of one who rode behind more fast than they,
And cried aloud: "False thief, thy course delay,
Or fall as those who in their flight we slay."
Then turned Sir Tor against the opprobrious word,
And saw a knight well-armed, of prideful mien,
That seldom any had he seemlier seen.
"What wouldst thou of me? Arthur's knight am I."
"My lady's bracket shalt thou yield or die."
"If her's the right, then must thou ask the king,
Who sent me with strait word the hound to bring;
And a knight also, who thyself mayst be."
"Thou art bold and foolish. Yield the hound and go."
"I count thee by that word King Arthur's foe.
Regard thy head."
Sir Tor's unpractised spear
By strength prevailed, but not his seat he held.
He backward tumbled as the knight he felled;
And slowly both they rose, and swords they drew.
Fiercely they strove and long. Carved cantals flew
From either covering shield; and hawberks next
And helms were shredded till the hot blood ran.
Weary were both and faint. But wearier far
The older knight became, and this Sir Tor
Exultant knew. As though new strife began
His blows he rained, until that knight he saw,
Side-stooping to avoid a downward blow,
Stumble to earth. With lifted sword he cried:
"Now yield; or death the heavy price may be."
"I will not yield except thy dwarf to me
The hound restore."
"Thy choice is death, for I
Must bring thee to the court, or one must die."
Then came a damsel at a careless pace,
Who drave her palfrey, as in haste to stay
The strife she saw; and high and loud she cried:
"Young knight, a boon! A boon for Arthur's sake!"
"Oh, damsel," Sir Tor made answer, "ask and take
All in that name thou wilt. His knight am I."
"I ask thee only that Abellius die;
For at the mercy of thy sword is he.
And he is false at heart; and foe to me
He hath been ever."
"Gentle damsel, nay.
I must repent my word. I would not slay
A knight outfought, except he mercy spurn.
Wrong shall he all amend, or spoil return,
And only on that oath arise and go."
"Believe me rather that he would not so,
For my dear brother with no cause he slew."
"Damsel, how know I that thy tale be true?"
But while he paused. Abellius rose and fled,
And Tor fast followed, and caught him, and smote his head
Clear with one sword-sweep from him.
That damsel saw
With ruthless eyes, and laughed well satisfied.
"When basely at his hands my brother died,
Surely his end he also chose," she said.
"Had mercy moved him, then he were not dead,
For I had pleaded in a different way....
Now to the shelter of my roof, I pray
That I may lead thee, for the night is near;
And thou art mired and worn, and rest and cheer
Both to thyself and to thy steed are due."
And when Sir Tor gave light assent thereto,
She led to such small hold, ill-fenced and rude,
As rather by its pathless solitude
Than by broad-moated strength was fortified.
Yet was he welcomed well, and all the need
For food and bedding of his weary steed
With his own hands the aged knight supplied
Whose wife it seemed, for all her youth, was she.
And he, with more than course of courtesy,
Good cheer received, and when the morning came,
As those who part full loth, they asked his name,,
And prayed him, if those paths again he rode,
He would not lightly pass their mean abode.
And so they parted. But her eyes pursued
Until alone the empty glade she viewed.
She looked, and sighed, and knew such sighs were vain;
And to her aged husband turned again.
But when Sir Tor in modest words had told
What things had passed, and of his part therein,
Was marvel; for except a charger old,
His father's gift, and arms the king supplied,
Forth had he ridden with nor aid nor guide,
And he unpractised in the dust and din
Of knightly strife.
But Merlin said: "Believe,
He shall such deeds in future days achieve
That these a token or a jest shall be.
And more than that: a life of courtesy,
Of faith unbroken, and of prudent ways,
Shall be the better of his part of praise.
For from his father's valour formed is he,
And of his mother's habit orderly
To rule his life, and all that round him lies."
Then said the king: "If such his good degree,
He shall be stablished to a likely height."
Wide lands he gave, that so he came to be
Of the fair station of a Table knight.
Such was the coming of the proofless Tor,
Son of a byremaid, and King Pellinor.
Hard rode King Pellinor his quest to bring,
The damsel of that bold knight's ravishing,
Scatheless to Arthur.
From the gate the way
Deep-bowered between the wooded uplands lay
A shadowed league, before it brought to sight
A lady weeping by a wounded knight,
Whom desperate strength had borne aside, and laid
Where leapt a spring beneath a birchen shade.
When the king's shield she saw, she rose and cried
For help at utmost need for knight allied;
But he nor turned nor heeded, though she prayed
By Christ His love; and knighthood's vows to aid
Piteously appealed in vain. For all his thought
Was single on the quest, nor recked he aught
Of strange knights wounded, nor the damsel's plea.
Harder he spurred to pass her cries; and she,
Seeing that he rode so fast, and heeded naught,
Changed tone, and cursed him: "Now may God decree
When in such bitter need as mine ye be,
Thy trusted friend may fail, and ere ye die,
Thy heart cry hopeless, from such loss as I."
Onward he rode regardless, while the maid,
In more despair for that short hope of aid,
Watched till the lessening pulse of life had ceast
In him she loved, and then his sword she took,
And died across him; and the forest beast
Slunk to the prey.
Not any backward look
Gave Pellinor, nor backward thought, but still
Shortening the ravisher's track by cleft and hill,
Dense woodlands passed, and falling vales, until
The weed-grown path grew doubtful.
Here he met
An aged churl, who showed pavilions set
Deep in the hawthorned hollow of the glade,
And told him how two knights abiding made
- Brian of the Isles and Meliot of Logre -
To hunt awhile the wooded vales, and how,
Urging his burdened steed, a knight but now,
A damsel bound athwart his saddlebow,
Spurred down the way, the while the damsel bound
Appealed those knights for aid, and at the sound
Sir Meliot, roused as by a voice he knew,
Had barred the path, and fiercely claimed the maid
As cousin in blood; and both in anger drew.
Even now they fought.
King Pellinor scantly stayed
For brief 'God thank ye', seeing his prize so near,
But rode for those pavilion-peaks, and here
Unheeded came, and found the knight he sought,
Dismounted now, his bout with Meliot fought.
Between two squires the damsel watched, from whom,
With threats of Arthur's wrath, and traitor's doom,
King Pellinor claimed her, in their sovereign's name.
"Nay lord," they said, "it were a part of shame
If while our master strives the spoil we yield,
Or thou constrain us to it, before the field
Ye gain against him."
Pellinor owned the plea,
And rode his horse between those knights, and he
Who claimed her cousin questioned why they tried
Such strife. He answered: "In good cause I fight,
To save a maid from this too-violent knight."
And he who raped her from the feast replied,
(Falsely, but counting that he lightly lied):
"Mine is the maid - award of tourney strife
At Arthur's court. At stake of wound or life
I won -" But harshly Pellinor broke his speech:
"Thou art false of word and deed. Ere hand could reach
To stay thee, ravished from the king's high feast,
Myself I saw thee seize this maid and flee.
Wherefore the king hath charged that now with thee,
Or slain or bond, I bring the maid releast
And scatheless to the court. And therefore both
I charge a futile strife to cease; for loth
Or willing, in my guard the maid shall stay,
Defy the king who will, contend who may."
Then Pellinor backward reined for one space, lest now
Both knights at once a common cause allow
Against him single. But ere sword he drew,
Or earth he gained, that false knight leapt, and through
The goodly steed a level thrust he drave,
So that, loud screaming, it sank to earth. "Was need
That you should find our level ground," said he.
But Pellinor, even the while his feet he freed,
Wood wrath, one stroke of such fierce fury dealt
As cleft Sir Ontzlake to the knightly belt
His wearing shamed. This stroke, in talk of men,
From Camelot to the Isles, from sea to sea,
Was told and marvelled long.
To Meliot then
King Pellinor turned his hungry sword, but he,
Wounded already, and mazed such stroke to see,
Sank point, and yielded.
"I would but plead," he said,
"Such grace of usage as thy charge allows
For one who kinship claims, and seemed to be
That which - But was I in my haste misled?
My mind is shaken by a maze of doubt.
And now left breathless for too hard a bout
With one more strong than whom I fought before,
I can but sue thee by our knighthood's vows
That she, though captived, be not shamed by thee."
"But you will strike no blow for her you claim?"
"What hope were mine thy fresher strength to tame?"
"Then my pledged word is thine. No shame shall be.
The king's just order voids all villainy."
So stilled their strife. Within his tent the while
Sir Meliot's comrade stayed. His storm-held isle
Not more repelled than in his mood would he,
Nor more to mists of brooding gloom withdrew.
Then Pellinor turned to claim his gain, and knew
He touched the world of shadows. For not was she
Affrighted, helpless, raped and rescued maid,
But faced him the lake-maiden Nimue,
With eyes by naught disturbed, of naught afraid;
Though lightly captived, like a sword betrayed
To service lesser than the lives of men,
Yet in its metal not debased thereby.
For, mortal or immortal, maid or fey,
Feyborn she was, and close of race to they
Who walk the moonlit waters: shades withdrawn
Between the darkness and the lift of dawn.
Unlike in any urgent arms to lie,
Save at her choice. Perchance her aid she lent
To Merlin's craft, or worked to like intent,
Serving the king, to whom she held; but why
This venture chanced none knoweth. In secret ways
Would Merlin work to devious ends. But sure
Freely she dealt, who gained a hardier fight
What time he strove to win a life's delight,
And she for freedom, and he lost his own.
To Pellinor first she spake: "Good lord," she said,
And neither violence dured, nor carrion dead,
Though to her feet the down-hewn corse was thrown,
Could change the dreaming quiet of her eyes
- Green were they, as the under-wave is green
And shadows of the world that walks unseen
Moved in them - "thanks, and with good heart, are thine
For rescue from foul chance. Their ways unwise
Who thwart the king this showeth. This yielden knight
May well the wrong his haste conjoined requite
With gift of steed to mend thy loss. For mine,
The dead knight's will I. We should not longer stay,
To clear these woods before the dark of day."
But Meliot answered: "Be ye whom ye may,
The kin I thought ye, or some feigning fey,
To ride unrested on thine homeward way
Ye need not choose. For this good knight and thee
Shall this pavilion with no stint provide...
And, lord, at morn a better steed to ride
My squires shall furnish to thy more content
Than that thou see'th could be."
"I thank thee well,"
King Pellinor answered.
"Lord, I pray thee tell
The name thy deeds of valour magnify."
"King Pellinor, of the Middle Lands am I."
"Lord King, I hear it with good heart to know
That one so famed hath wrought this overthrow;
And one in his repute so continent
Hath charge of her I have not strength to stay."
"Repent ye naught for her. She rests secure.
But tell me of thy friend, who holds away
From all this bicker. In his tent unsure
Of whom, or friends or foes, are slain or slay."
Answered Sir Meliot: "Knight of worth is he,
And strong of heart and arm, and sworn to me
In brotherhood which would neither break; but yet
On other ways than mine his heart is set.
Careless of what hath been, or what may be,
Forever lonely in his dreams is he.
"Strive will he never except he must. His dread
Is more to deal a hurt or cause a wrong
Than that himself be shamed. Yet hardihed
He doth not lack."
"I marvel," said the king,
"He did not to thy ransom move."
Unchallenged by thyself, unasked by me,
Would own no lust our loud debate to share."
"You speak a wonder. For a knight of pride
Unmindful of the valiant chance to ride
I have not known. I would that when you may
You bring him to King Arthur's court, for there
All knights are welcomed who the rules obey
Of courteous law."
"There is no way more fair
Our steps could take, nor his would gladlier share.
Expect we shall not long that path delay."
At morn, from fair repast and fair repose,
King Pellinor and his willing captive rose
To take the backward path. Sir Meliot's care
A strong bay charger, fit his weight to bear,
Gave for his use, the while that Nimue
Rode lonely now on that she shared before.
"Of no constraint I go, who came," said she,
"As freely of my will."
"It well may be,"
King Pellinor answered, "yet thy rape to see
Had no man judged it thus; nor had the king
Required me ride to make thy rescuing."
"So was it meant to show; and yet may be
The craft that snared him was no evil thing."
Thus rode they till full noon, according well,
While he some high and sombre tale would tell,
Alike his mood; and she made answer less,
In clouded words, with meanings hard to guess,
And distant eyes, but all in friendliness;
Until, as to the forest edge they drew,
And falling thence a bouldered vale they knew,
Her charger stumbled on the stony way,
That hard to ground she came, and rose to say:
"I am hurt most sore, and may not ride awhile.
Rest will we."
And the king, who saw no guile,
Near beside the path they found
A thicket's tangled growth. The grassy ground
Spilled hawthorn whitened: yellowing oaks combined
A loftier shade. A fairer rest to find
Might no man need. And here their fast they broke.
And then beneath a wide outbranching oak
Slept in the warmth of the advancing day
So long that when the king from slumber woke,
And would have risen to take the onward way,
She answered: "See ye not the dark invades
The deeper woods? And though the branchless glades
Are lighted now, full soon the twilight shades
Would blind us, on a blundering path to ride?
Rest must we by good choice till morningtide,
And then go forward on a lighter way."
And Pellinor answered: "Simple sooth you say.
I will disarm, and in more comfort rest.
What matter when today be yesterday?
Haste was to gain, but not to prove, the quest."
Accorded thus, to sleep they passed, the while
Even from the open glades the light withdrew
And night was all the woodland path wherethrough
They earlier came; and dreamless rest he knew,
Until she waked him with low words: "Sir King,
Two knights are near to us. Some base treasoning
Is blazoned by the stealth in which they ride."
"They have not shown suspect that here we bide?"
"They seek not others; but themselves to hide
Such traitorous parts as should their deaths provide."
Then Pellinor grimly from his leafy lair
Uprose, and in his hand his sword was bare,
As side by side toward the sounds they crept,
The while, low-voiced, he asked her: "While I slept,
What heard ye?"
"First," she said, "thy charger neighed.
" - He is silenced now. - Then from the north there rode
A knight who seemed of every leaf afraid
That stirred among the shadows. The low moon showed
A moment from the drifting cloud, and clear
I viewed him from the thicket. Helm and spear
And shield were of the outland north. Beside
The meeting paths, and where the yews would hide
His steed and him, he waited. While he stayed,
A knight from southward came, alike afraid
His charger's steps to hear - of Camelot he.
I watched no more; for surely when they meet
Is treason meant; and Arthur's foes to greet
Thy sword is fitter than my words would be."
"Be still," he answered. "Hark their words." For now,
Visible in faint light, against the clouded sky,
Were those they quested, black and vague and high;
And spake the Camelot knight: "- the landless spears
Alone that Ulfius first around him drew,
With alien aid; but Pellinor's power adheres,
And Mark makes truce, and Lyonesse aids, and all
Through wide Logre the steaded vales are true,
And the wild lands beyond the Northern Wall
Send tribute; and strong spears adventurous
Crowd to the court of Arthur. North I go
To those who sent me here, the truth to show,
And counsel patience till our time arrive."
The other answered: "Better counsel mine,
Who bear a potion from those friends of thine
For Arthur's cup. Do thou with me return
To Camelot. Soon our boldest foes will learn
Their weakness, by his death left leaderless."
"Yet sooner," Pellinor thought, "thine end shall be.
For surely one shall die, though one may flee."
But Nimue stayed his sword: "Do naught," she said.
"Wouldst start the deer toward the snare that tread?
At Camelot shall the surer net be spread
For those thine haste would warn, and those who share
Their treasons, compassed in one toil."
Sheathed a slow blade. "Thy wiser counsels bring
Cool reason to the heats of wrath," he said.
"I would they had died."
Then backward path they bent
To where their waiting steeds were tied, the while
Those traitors, witless of their opened guile,
Rode their doomed way.
The widening light that now
(For morn had rosed the eastern heaven's extent)
Showed the clear path, and dew-drenched glades that lay
In lessening darkness, might not more allow
Their shortened rest. They took the southward way,
And at high noon they reached that place where he
Heard from the ground the urgent piteous plea
For aid, and deafly to that damsel's cry
His course had held.
Now, where the wolves had fed,
Were but dragged bones, and garments rent and red;
Save only scatheless lay the damsel's head,
Wide-eyed, accusing; and the silent king
Stayed, and gloomed at it, till Nimue wondered: "Lo!
Is death so strange, that there you gaze as though
You might not pass it? All your years have been
In ways of war, and many a piteous scene.
Our chargers swerved not, all too wont to tread
The trails of battle, and the broken dead."
Then Pellinor turned his gaze, and Nimue saw
The dark cheek paled, the eyes, inured to war,
Aghast, and answered: "Soon the tale is told
No time shall change. With heart too fixed to hold
The path I rode, upon thy rescue bent,
No heeding to this damsel's call I lent,
But passed their need. Thereat, with altered will,
She for the hurt knight cursed me. Curses still
Her eyes contain, and as I gaze I hear
Her voice, that distant sounds, but faintly clear:
"Not for my death, but for this knight's, I still
Know all and curse thee." What in truth she knows
I know not. God, I wot, shall grant her will.
And fear thereof is in my heart, that grows
The while I gaze upon her."
But Nimue knew
More than she told, and answered: "Little worth
Are vain regrets. Too oft, with purpose true,
We sow such seed as brings strange flowers to birth,
Our lasting dole: and oft, ill-thinking, do
The deed that long a better hour shall rue,
Grown changeless. Do ye now the least ye may,
In some close grave these sundered bones to lay -
Love's right at last - and if the damsel's head
Ye bear to Camelot, there may well be learned
The names and dwellings of the hapless dead."
"Yea," said the king, and from the path he turned.
A hermit's cave he sought beside the way.
The hermit heard, and ready aid he gave
In that sad toil, and delved and blessed the grave
Of those, who ere their flower of life was full
Passed onward to the doubt unsearchable.
By noon they came to Camelot. Here he told
His quest attained, and how that Nimue's word
Had caused him halt in that lone glade that heard
The voice of treason in the night. And how
He passed those bitter cries, that came as though
He once had known her whom he did not know:
"And now meseemeth that I may not fly
The sight of that dead face which will not die."
"Lord," said the queen, "to earn all ladies blame,
Your heart you closed. An ever lasting shame
Your wage shall prove."
"Oh, Queen," King Pellinor said,
"I was so random that my quest be sped
That all besides was little boot to me.
That shall repent me in the days to be;
Which will not change it."
Merlin answered: "Sore
You shall repent it. She your aid forbore
In her so bitter need, you did not wot
You on the Lady of the Rule begot
Long years before. Although you recked it not,
She was your daughter, hither come to bring
The knight she loved, that she might sue the king
To give him substance for their bridal day.
True was he, and worth and bold, but foully slain,
Smitten in the rear by that false knight Loraine,
Riding in Arthur's peace a careless way.
"Now ever through thy waking dreams shall rise
The haunting of those dead reminding eyes.
And surely for thy fault hath God decreed
Thy friend shall fail thee at thine utmost need."
"My heart forethinketh of thy words," said he,
"But yet may God reverse that destiny."
So were the three first quests that Arthur gave,
Guided by Merlin's craft, achieved the while
The bridal feast its glamour bold and gay,
Brave with his lustrous dawn's unfearing smile,
Foretold the bright noon of the rising day.
But largely, midst his joys, he sought to lay
The deep foundations of the time to be,
Which not on vaunting might established he,
But on true service, as our Lord had said.
The single rein by which the world is led:
"Servant of all is first of all," said He.
And as He spake men find it still to be,
Where pride and violence fall discomfited.
So said he to his knights assembled there,
That this they swore, and every year should swear
At the High Feast of Pentecost. For then
From every wandering, if alive and free,
On that, the day of all the changeful year
When did the authentic light of Heaven appear,
They should to their full tale assembled be.
Reports to make, and noble gest to hear.
Five were the vows that all alike must take:
The Vow of Honour. Never faith to break.
Never for pride, or lust, or lucre's sake
To deal with treason, or the backward blow.
The Vow of Mercy. Those who yield to spare.
Or if their deeds beyond such mercy were
To send them to the court, that judgement there
Be clear of vengeance on a private foe.
The Vow of Rectitude. That not for gold,
For land, for leigance or at kindred's call,
Should their strong swords an evil cause uphold,
Or be for ordeal of God's justice sold.
The Vow of Succour. Whether wife or maid,
All ladies at the call of need to aid
Of either noble or of mean degree,
That no duress should vanquish chastity.
The Vow of Lowliness. To hold in mind
No service lothsome is to gentle kind.
But they should rise the meanest needs to meet,
As did the Lord Who washed His servant's feet.
These were the vows on which the throne was stayed:
These were the words of Christ His knights obeyed.
What though that blaze of dawn to darkness came?
Its light in Britain lit too clear a flame
For intervening night to quench. It shines
Till God at last His light with ours combines.
Morgan Le Fey.
Merlin, of human birth and demon sire,
Was therefore of delight and of desire
Different from those of human parents twain.
Never in damsel's arms his lust had lain;
Never his heart for any maiden's kiss
Had ached. But to another world than this
He turned, and in the eyes of Nimue
He sought the joys of common love to see.
She was his quest, and dark of hope, for she
Avoided ever, and her wiles of night
Were subtler than his wisdom, and her skill
Eluded his designing. Will to will
They clashed in ways that never mortals know.
This strife, he could not gain nor yet forgo,
Had issue that his prescience feared; and when
Not all the wisdom that is veiled from men,
Nor the deep lore of many an ancient pen,
Could turn desire, and from that strife unwon
He saw the danger that he would not shun,
He sought the king, to whom he spake: "On me
The shadow of disastrous night is near.
Against an evil which I will not flee,
No force is mine to strive, no craft to veer.
Either beyond my hope my wiles avail,
Or at the bitter price of life I fail.
And therefore to thy throne, the while I live,
Some counsels must I urge, some warnings give."
And answered Arthur: "If thy craft so well
Can pierce the womb of things unshaped, and tell
Their issuing substance, and the front they bear,
Canst thou not guard thee from this fate, aware
On what events its growth shall feed? For thee,
Good friend to all my race, and most to me,
I would not lose for half my realm. Thy care
So oft hath saved us. What can lure, that so,
The end foreseen, to chosen death you go?"
To which the seer: "The hazard of tourney strife
Why take you, knowing that death may chance? I seek
Mine own devoir, nor count the stake of life
Too great a gage. But while the field is set,
Ere joins the front, I would not first forget
The friendship thine; and though my power were weak,
Though live, to turn thee from the destined snare
That waits thee on thy purposed path, would yet
For that which comes your equal heart prepare.
"Bethink thee this, that though thy foes are thrown,
Thy friends sustained, thy kingdom owns thy right,
Thy strong allies are strengthened through thy throne,
There is no day but darkness ends: no night
But dawn shall cease. Nor hold I heaven so high
But in the dust of time its pride shall lie.
And though thy sun toward its noon ascend,
It shall not at the last its night deny.
All life that flowereth woos its hastened end,
That recreate life another scene may try.
"Yet long shall stand thy peace, if care be thine
That force nor guile shall wrest thy sword, nor take
Its mystic sheath until the waiting lake
Receive it at the last. But all I say,
And all thy caution, is but vain to stay
The fate foredoomed. For she that most you trust
(As many yet you will, and some you must)
Will steal it from thee."
With this warning said,
That she should fool him first where first his trust
Was stablished, from the precincts of the court
He passed, and by the way that Nimue fled
Followed, and passed the narrow seas, and sought
Throughout the bounds of Benoic, till he found
Where at the court of Ban awhile she stayed.
For well Elaine, Ban's constant queen, she knew,
Whose babe at earlier need her hands had laid
In that strange cradle where the waters sound
Their song unceasing, and the winds around
Mirage the shadowy lake from mortal view.
Here to the queen he spake, whose grief had way
For Claudas' war upon her lord and land,
To whom he counselled: "Let no weight of woe
Distress thee, that thy life be hindered so
From its full compass. Coming days to know
Were oft to know how vain forebodings are.
Regard thy son, whose lake-reflected star
Shall gain the height of heaven. For Galahad - he
Whom Lancelot of the Lake you fondly name,
Since faery-dowered from Nimue's care he came -
Doubt not that in his youthful strength shall lie
The prowess that should twice such foes defy
As ever restive on thy bounds shall be."
For when, long years before, the queen had fled
From Claudas first, and in her mortal dread,
Clasping her babe her weary arms within,
Heard of the near pursuit the rising cry,
Was one who crossed her path. That rout to see
No fear was in the eyes of Nimue.
Hasteless she spake: "It were no boot to fly
Pursuit so swift. But yield thy babe to me,
And at the dawn of better days to be
I will return him. Greater none than he
Shall shine where Christian knights their strengths compare."
"Hast thou such sight the further days to see?"
"Believe ye that. The future's destined wear
More than things present to mine eyes is bare."
So, in that need, his threatened life to save,
The babe to Nimue's outstretched hands she gave;
And in that instant all the path was clear,
While those who followed saw a darkening mere
Oppose their feet, that reins perforce thy drew,
And whom they saw not could no more pursue.
But Nimue bore the babe the lake below,
(If lake it were can never mortal know
Or such mirage as sorcerous spells will cast
On Afric's desert sands, as true men say;
Yet seemed it so; and so for years to last.)
There overhead the still lake-surface lay,
Translucent to the change of night and day,
But shadowed ever by the woods that grew
Tall on the marge. Within that charmed retreat
Not ever reached before by human feet,
The babe she reared. Not ever winds they knew,
Nor heat nor cold, but clothed in morning mist,
Or shortly by the sun's high glory kist,
Above them lay the waters, and around
Were shining caverns where nor light nor sound
Of earthly change invades; and tended here
Was Lancelot, till the ever varying year
Brought succour to King Bors, and brought to him
Valour of youthful heart, and strength of limb,
When Nimue sent him forth the world to know,
Where all of life he met, exalt or low,
And all that mortal thought will least esteem,
Wore the strange habit of a wondrous dream.
Such was the youth of Lancelot. Who was she
Who gave that rescue? Who was Nimue?
One was she with the life of lake and fell,
Of torrents and great woods. Of such men tell
Such proofless wonders as may none deny.
Nor they themselves may rede the mystery
That shrouds the hidden marvel of their birth.
How know they surely if their natures be
Or mortal or immortal? If they share
Redemption with the race of middle earth?
But wisdom holds that less of earth are they,
The manifest spirit of Nature, to last with her,
And with her passing doomed to pass away.
No mortal needs are theirs, and naught they own
Of the mean needs required of mortal man,
But are sufficient in themselves alone.
Yet mortal loves are theirs; and haply woe
Deeper than aught the hearts of mortals know.
Such was the one whom Merlin sought: to whom
(The demon offspring of a mortal womb)
No mortal woman could full comfort be.
And called he for his aid, nor called in vain,
Discarnates that the lightless deeps contain.
From demon-birth derived such powers he led,
Such snares against her carnal peace he spread,
That scarce the holiest sign had saved; but she,
Being more than mortal, and than mortal less,
Dissolved them to light air in swift redress.
For this hard joust the final lists were set
When Nimue at the Benoic court he met
And half in pleading wise, and half in threat,
He urged her yielding: "Were we joined," he said,
"As Heaven belike designed, and best should be,
Such powers were ours that all around we see
Should be transmuted by our empery,
As when the shadowy mists of midnight born
Shrink backward from the red release of dawn.
"Art thou not more than mortal? Am not I
Of might to foil the dooms by which men die?
What were we joined? Ourselves we could not say.
But partly may forecast how much we may.
"Yet think ye, while our separate strengths contend
Alike we lose; and to what likely end?
Thy wisdom, though from Earth's creation gained,
How slight to mine! And thine eluding skill
To mock me with thy transient wraith how frail,
If all the strong fiend-powers that wait my will
I called to aid! Should vaporous wiles avail
If strengths foundationed in the depths of Hell
Contained thy ways? Should any refuge show
In earth's recess, or any power dispel
Such leagues drawn? And if my wars delay
Their last assault, you may not hope that so
Of parley in the doubt of power they tell.
But I would win thee in the gentler way,
Unviolenced, wilful in the like require.
For, wert thou mortal, had I not to thee
Come with invisible form and unfelt hand,
And foot that left no footprint on the sand,
Exploring all thy beauty, though thy heart
Believed itself alone, and thought apart?
Had I not known thy purpose ere thy thought
Its fashioned meaning to thyself had wrought?
Who couldst thy every close intent observe,
And conquer wholly whom I sue to serve?"
And Nimue answered: "Great thy boasts that scale
Such heights that there mine airier arts should fail.
I do not doubt thee wholly. Yet to yield
To that I know not, in such vaunts concealed,
Were wealth to barter for a proofless prize.
Saw I this power in such stupendous spell
As only genders from the fiends of Hell,
I then might meet thee in a different wise."
"Were we but one, I were not loth to show
The sudden wonders of the world I know;
But spells stupendous are not rashly wrought.
Beyond the world they reach, beyond the thought,
To no controlful end. But that I may
To gain thee will I grant."
"I ask thee naught
To change events from Heaven's destined way,"
She answered, lifting eyes whose quiet grey
Turned the last warning of his wits away.
"But if at last beyond my heart I yield,
What marvel wrought, or secret charm revealed,
Shall be the sign by which the bond is sealed?"
And Merlin, "Choose thy will."
"The charm," she said,
"The charm that none may name, the charm of dread,
That holds him from pursuit who has not fled."
"Why ask you that for which no need could be?"
"For I would wit these wondrous things," said she.
"They are but words," he said, "yet hold the power
To separate wholly from the changeful hour
That which they name, which after holds its place
In that which is, and yet which is not, space.
It is, but is not, death. And only he
Who spake the word can change that destiny."
The words he told.
"Their sound is dark," said she.
"And could this binding spell be wrought on me?"
"I know not surely, but suppose it so."
"That which I fear I ever would to know."
Swiftly she spake, and Merlin named; and he
Was there, but was not.
"I'll thy jest," he said.
"The words reversed will be the words unsaid."
"Then not by me, whose freedom is thy thrall."
"Alas, that simply in the snare I fall!
Hast thou no ruth?"
"Doth mercy bed with fear?
I prayed thee leave me, but you would not hear."
"Release me, and I will be ruled by thee."
"Content thee as thou art. It will not be."
"Power have I yet to use, who first implore."
"Thou art not here. I dread thy spells no more."
Thus from the void the voice of Merlin cried,
Pleading a hundred ways, and all denied.
Until she left him, in that weird to dwell
Till she relent, or else till Heaven and Hell
All Earth succeed, and all things fail beside.
King Arthur moved from Camelot to Carlisle,
Disturbed by rumours of unrest that grew
In the far north. For while that peace he knew
On southern plains, his mountained foes the while,
Those of North Gales and of the Longtainse Isle,
And Ireland, and Surluse, with Denmark's king.
Made a strong league; and such bold furnishing
Of mounted men and all the stores of war
Valour and hate and lust of plunder made,
As powerless to repulse Northumbria saw.
Ravening fair vales the rapine southward spread,
And Arthur, roused to wrath incontinent,
For Pellinor's aid an urgent signal sent,
Yet stayed not for his strength, but lightly led
Such knights as could his sudden haste array,
And turned from prudent words deaf ears away.
Nor went he single, for his recent bride,
Urged of high heart, that not his love denied,
But thanked it rather, rode her lord beside.
"Strength shall be in the joyous thought," said he,
"That here thou ridest, not at jeopardy,
But that thine eyes shall own my victory.
For in thy presence could I fail or flee?"
This the five kings were told, and one was there
Who counselled wisely: "Every passing hour
Brings him new succour and augments his power.
Valour and caution oft one cup will share.
Strike quickly, while the half his knights delay,
Strike hard, with all the gathered strength ye may.
Break ye by night, in sudden swift surprise
Where on the north of Humber's stream he lies.
Caught the deep flood and all our host between,
You gain a dead king and captived queen."
Hard marched they then by privy ways, that so
Their camp was made in thickets dense and low
Nearer to Arthur than he deemed, and there
They waited for the moonless dark.
Of vague disquiet which were ease to share,
Gawain, who shared with Griflet and with Kay
To guard the king's pavilion through the night,
Where in midhost beside his queen he lay,
Rose restless: "Do we keep our trust aright
Unarmed to lie?"
But answered Griflet: "Nay,
Their vanguard camps a five hours' march away
Our scouts have told, and swollen streams between
Their path would hinder though that path were seen
In daylight hours. With morn our camp we break
Themselves to seek." But even while he spake,
Through the still night the rending trumpet cried,
Clamorous, and ere one urgent note had died,
Loose, in full tide of tempest, broke the foe.
What rank? What rule? For separate lives they strove,
Haply content for one good stroke that clove
The slayer the while they fell. From out his tent
Came the roused king, and called his arms, and though
Were round him darkness and confusion dire,
His aspect and his voice were confident.
And though to all alert, of all aware,
He made its threat the less, till leapt in fire
The tented camp, and in the widening glare
A wounded knight fought toward him, crying the while:
"Lord, save thee! Closer toward thy tent they slay.
Thy flight alone their final aim may fail.
Bethink thine hostaged queen. Can aught prevail
But larger loss if longer here ye stay?"
Loth turned the king. With Gawain, Griflet, Kay
Guarding the queen, their hasty course he led
Where deep and downward through close boughs there fell
A path that reached the river; and haltered there
A barge that strained against the rising tide.
The black wave lapped along its seaward side
Menacing, it leapt in larger wrath the where
The wind was on the water. Frail and low
Seemed the slight barge the sheltered bank to leave
Yet with light laughter stept the queen therein.
"For simple choice I take, to drown or win,
Rather than hands of savage foes to know,
To feel their slaughter, or their scorned reprieve."
Yet Arthur paused to give the word to cast
The mooring loose. He had no mood to flee;
And that black tempest of relentless sea
Gave little surance that the barge would last
Beyond the bank's high shelter. "Sirs," he said
"When blindly in the night confusions spread,
Worse may be thought than that the light would show."
"Nay," said Sir Griflet, "but yourselves to flee
Were most to foil them. For yourselves would be
Their largest profit."
"Yet I would not go
While others strive. Nor that my queen should dare
The waves' high peril which I should not share."
Then stilled debate, for voices on the road
Above them louder grew, and horsemen showed
High-speared and dark against a lighter sky
Conscious of dawn's approach. They well might know
That the five kings were they; their words so high
Sounded, dispitious of a broken foe.
"Here," said Sir Kay, "our better chance appears,
To meet them boldly with our single spears,
And, ere support can reach, to overthrow."
Said Gawain: "Five are they, and four are we.
Is that good odds? Should Arthur stake his crown
On how a lance break, or a horse go down?"
"Yes," said Sir Griflet. "Lie we close."
"These are but kings; not champion knights are they.
Five say you? Let me meet the earlier two.
Not odds but equals shall be left to you."
Boldly he spake, as one whose later fame
Would likely rise to leave a loftier name
Than his at last should be, when grosser girth
Made sluggish blood, and noble deeds forbid.
But now his valours as his words were worth,
And that he boldly spake he boldly did.
His sudden charge the wareless group amid
Bore to the ground North Gales' twice-perjured king,
And near behind his ready comrades came,
And each bore one proud king to earth the same,
While he the fifth so hard on helm down-smit
That through the skull the blade unhindered bit.
There was swift end to that full conquering.
Back to his queen went Arthur. Who but Kay
Was praised by him, and praised the more by her?
If greatest were he called would none demur,
Nor would he doubt it.
With the opening day
The tide had turned. A slackening wind forebore
To drive the breakers on the Humber shore.
The further bank a closer prospect lay
Than in the darkness had they feared. To guess
Were hard how far apart their friends might flee,
How numerous might their foes around them be.
"Go," Arthur said, "in Griflet's care, and I
Will seek my comrades."
Gawain made reply,
Not craven, but of cautious prudence bred.
"Nay, for we know not how they stand," he said.
"But surely may we look more foes to see.
For in short time that here alone we be
Their flying squires will tell. To safety now
The barge will take ye, till with Pellinor's power
New ranks are ranged to face a fairer hour."
But Arthur answered: "Would ye have me so
To Pellinor sue? A king of kinghood bare,
His army wandered to he knows not where?
Himself in timorous flight? I tell thee no.
From these unleadered hordes we will not flee,
But seek our friends. For when the loss they see
Of those who ruled them in one heap aside
As refuse cast, if any heart to bide
Continue theirs, our gathered force anew
Shall slay two foes for one before they slew."
Then by the forest, through its closest screen,
Rode the three comrades, of their foes unseen,
Until such friends they found as had not fled,
Being still bold-hearted, though discomfited,
Whom Arthur ordered and arrayed anew.
Once more, high-toned, the British bugles blew
Defiant challenge, as the Table knights,
Constant in valour though their ranks were less,
Charged out on foes bewildered, leaderless.
Unsure of others or themselves were they:
The wolves of night were morning's sheep to slay.
So from reverse high heart its vantage caught.
Much praise had Kay, as of good right he ought.
Much praise alike had Griflet and Gawain.
Soon was his queen at Arthur's side again,
Glad-eyed his safety and success to see.
Lover of high far-shining deeds was she.
Cool at sharp need he knew her now to be,
And more approved her. Merlin's warning died
Wholly from one who saw with praiseful pride
How royal was the queen his choice had won.
Now from King Pellinor's host a courier came.
Blown and bemired his steed. "Lord king," he cried,
"Men in unseemly flight have rumour spread
Of outrage in the night and slaughter red;
Even they babbled that thyself hast died."
"Greet ye King Pellinor well, and thank his speed,
His loyal will that tells. But hasteful need
There is no longer, for our foes are sped.
He is but ten miles away? Then there should he
His camp arrange, and we will there proceed
To link our counsel, that the realm shall be
Brought by new kings to closer unity."
Next sought he of the cost of victory,
And found that darkness and confusion bred
Semblance of slaughter that the light denied.
Eight Table Knights in their pavilions died:
Two hundred warriors on the field were dead.
"Light was the cost of such a gain." He said,
"And thanks to Heaven our liberal hearts should pay.
Here shall be built an abbey fair and rich,
Dowered with wide lands, and stablished long to be
For weakness or for guilt God's sanctuary:
Haven for those who learn, or those who pray."
So was it done. An Abbey fair and good,
And titled with great lands and livelihood,
Rose by the Humber in near days to be.
Of High Adventure was it named, to tell
To future years what in the night befell,
And how reversed was panic's mastery
By those who would not fear, and would not flee.
Triumphant now in Camelot's halls the king
His Table called for such high banqueting
As well might hail the five-fold victory
Which welded his wide realm from sea to sea.
But when they gathered, of the glorious ring
Eight seats were vacant.
"Give me choice," he said
To Pellinor, who beside him sate, "of names
In no way meaner than the previous fames
Of those who by that sharp surprise are dead."
"Sire, my conceit is this. Good knights are here
- Right noble knights - who would not least appear
Even with thine own, and these more numerous far
Than at thy board the vacant spaces are.
Choose thee four knights from them of years discreet,
Alike for turmoil or for counsel meet;
And four of valour, but whose years are less,
Whose lack of counsel now will time redress:
Some of a constant strength to keep thy side,
And some more fit on arduous quests to ride."
"Wise were it so to do. What names are thine
To match thy precept?"
"Sire, if choice were mine,
King Urience, who hath held thy part, and wed
So near thy throne, were first; and next were said
Lancelot, though still of youthful years, who shows
Not valour alone, but such high nobleness
That all besides may prove at last the less,
And skilled to rule both camp and strife is he.
Herve and Galagar next I join. And then,
To find the younger four I first would name
Thy nephew, Gawain, though no friend to me.
For if I be good judge of stedfast men,
Though bitter in his hates, and hard is he
The spoils of life to take, he will not fail
To menace most thy foes; and chose I then
Griflet, for should his ardent youth avail
To guard his life through ventures wild and far,
Few may excel him at last. My third is Kay,
Whose fault of prideful boast should noway bar
Reward for that he did two kings to slay."
"I well approve it. Name thy last."
King Baudemagus. Stronger knights may be;
But keen and fearless as a flame is he.
Or if that not on him thy choice should fall,
Then might I speak of Tor, nor think it shame,
Whom, were he not my son, I well might call
Proved both in arm and heart, resolved and strong,
And loth alike to take or work a wrong."
"Yea, said the king, "I count him proved and true;
And slow to speak perchance, but swift to do;
And were his mother's race as proud as thine,
Haply not half these chosen knights of mine
Would equal. He this time preferred shall be;
And Baudemagus, little less than he
In knightly prowess, and no whit the less
Either in honour or in gentleness,
Shall have the seat that next shall vacant fall."
Then did the king those knights he favoured call
To take the vacant seats, and those who still
Crowded the lower boards, each chosen name
Applauded as he moved his place to fill.
But Baudemagus rose: "Lord King, I see
Is here no welcome, and no place for me,
However promptly at thy call I came."
He turned, not waiting for the king's reply,
Wood wroth that younger knights of less degree,
Near kin to those conferring kings, should be
So favoured to his own indignity,
Being himself of royal rank and style.
So to his household in that ire he went,
And bade them all to horse, to homeward ride.
Forth from the city, many a woodland mile,
Northward he led; his wrath incontinent,
Even from his train, he had no strength to hide,
Till cooler thoughts controlled: "Though wrong I feel
At this despite, yet more the shame were mine
Should anger at such shame my deeds reveal."
Whereat he halted at a crossway shrine,
Seeing how small a thing the shame he had
Beside the eternal glory symboled there.
And long he knelt devout in humblest prayer,
Till God's peace touched him, and his heart was glad.
Edged by the gold of sunset cold and clear,
The wide horizon of the silent mere
Showed silken sails full-breasted toward the land.
In that still air they felt no wind's command,
Owned nor controlling voice nor steering hand,
Yet winged they came toward that waiting strand
Where Arthur, Urience of the land of Gore,
And that young knight of Gaul, Sir Accolon,
Watched the white sails, and wondered what they bore.
Fair on the royal chase that morn had shone,
Fast the strong hart fled through the passing day,
By that broad water brought at last to bay,
And slain by these that followed. Only they
With toiling steeds that long pursuit sustained,
And lost them, foundered, as their chase was gained.
The full sails furled them with no hand: no sound
Came from it as the light keel grazed aground:
No motion on that still deck stirred. The king
Laughed in good heart: "Now here be weirds," said he
"As ever I loved. More worth to seek and see
Than aught that wealths can spoil or wisdoms bring."
Lightly the side he clomb, but naught he saw.
The twain, of no weak hearts, but larger awe,
Behind him came. Some cabin space therein
They searched in vain. Though furnished all, and dight
Richly, and from its own pale heart alight,
A marvel, where no light was else - for now
The low sun had declined the western sky,
And no moon rose, and wide in heaven encamped
The starless dark - they might not there descry
One living mortal who that barque had brought.
But as they left, with eyes its light had lamped,
Facing again the darkness, darker so,
They stumbled in their blinded steps, and turned
To gain the guidance of that light, and lo!
The white strip glowed throughout a rosier flame,
And down its shining side twelve damsels came,
While seemed in molten fire the whole ship burned,
Yet by that fire uninjured, on the sands
Those damsels knelt. Low-voiced, with pleading hands,
The king's high favour and his grace they prayed
To deign his presence at their feast arrayed
Within the lighted barque.
"Fair maids," said he,
"Too much anhungered and bespent are we
To answer nay to that. But lead ye on,
I would not be the first that fire to tread."
"Nay, ye shall find it fair," the damsels said,
And through the unburning light that round them shone
Toward the wonder at its heart they led.
For in that ship, beyond the whole ship's size,
Came those three comrades with amazed eyes,
To where a hall of banquet, richly dight,
And princely furnished in all points aright,
Their ease assured. And meats and wines were brought,
Not as they asked, but all to match their thought,
Instant and best.
No better meal can be
Than when that that we long is that we see.
So thought the king, in fearless heart content;
And satiate when the evening hours were spent
He followed freely to a chamber fair
In all things furnished for his comfort there.
Sir Accolon also, and the King of Gore,
To separate rooms of royal state were led.
And found for wearied limbs so soft a bed
That well they slept.
But while they slept too well,
Moved to its end Queen Morgan's treasoned spell.
Warm waked King Urience, many a league away,
Halsed in the white arms of his wife, Le Fey;
But Arthur, cold in darkness, waked to hear
Cries of the marsh, and murmurs of the mere.
A narrow casement with a single bar
Dimly he saw, where seldom came a star,
And the moon crossed it in too brief a while
That showed no comfort. Through what glamorous guile
He was translated to that dungeon cell
He could not guess, but yet could surely tell
A foe had done it, and a foe to fear.
Nor was there comfort in the sounds that rose
Of lamentation round him. "Friends," he said,
"For friends I deem ye if alike misled
Ye here are brought against your wills as I,
Can any tell me by what enmity
This evil came?"
And with one voice replied
The twenty captive knights who round him lay:
"Are ye another? Was the gate so wide
Ye entered unduressed and ignorant?
Soon may ye enter here, and long repent.
But most who come were brought a different way."
"That would I learn," he said; "for naught I know."
"However came ye here to share our woe,
One are we by the like adversity,
And freely may we speak. Three years have gone
- Or more or less - three years of causeless thrall,
Since we, on whom God's light of morning shone,
Have languished in this gloom of narrowing wall,
And bars through which that single space of sky
Sees the sun never, and the stars go by.
"What was our fault? No fault these bonds belong,
Except we would not, to uphold a wrong,
On our vain swords against High God rely,
And by the verdict of His justice die."
"More would I hear."
"The tale is short to tell.
In this strong hold a caitiff knight doth dwell,
Sir Damas. Not the foulest sewer of Hell
Would find his worse. A very coward is he,
And false and treasoned to the like degree.
He hath a brother of a nobler sort,
Of loyal practice and of bold report,
Sir Outzlake, who doth dwell two leagues away,
Holding a manor, as by strength he may,
Which is but little to his right, for all
The wealth which at their father's death did fall
Into Sir Damas' hands, from greed and pride,
He would not as by rightful use divide.
"Against this wrong Sir Outzlake made appeal,
That either in fair combat, steel to steel,
He would God's verdict take, or else provide
A champion for his part. No knight alive
Could that decline. No craven, false as he,
Could dare to thus defend his perfidy.
A champion knight he sought, but found that none
Against Sir Outzlake in such cause would strive,
Even for much gold. In this extremity,
To seize good knights by craft he did not spare,
And hold them captive here, except they swear
His part to take. And so, with words of guile,
He doth the appointed combat-hour delay,
Year following year, and dungeoned here the while,
Shackled and starved that some have died thereby,
And some so weak from lengthened hunger lie
They may not stand, we in his danger stay,
Refusing freedom by his shameful way."
"Full evil is thy tale," the king replied,
"And simple of belief the while I share
The bondage that ye tell. To break the snare
Good hope must still be mine. I will not deem
But I can wake me from so foul a dream."
So spake they till the dawn the darkness slew,
What time a damsel to King Arthur drew,
Courteous of speech, and gentle-meined, who said:
"Fair lord, what cheer?"
"I would I surelier knew."
"Lord, thine the choice. A champion's part to play
Is all thy need. But else thy days are sped
Of freedom on fair height, or woodland way."
And Arthur answered lightly: "Liever I,
So foul my choice, in such vain strife would die
Than in these dungeons starve... Now grant I take
This combat for his need, will Damas break
The bondage of these knights? And well provide
Proved arms for peril, and sure steed to ride?"
"Yea, all thou wilt," she said, "he'll grant with speed,
So bold a knight to gain to meet his need."
"Damsel," he said, "thy face thy voice, suggest
Some doubtful memory mine..... In earlier quest,
Or at the court of Arthur, once we met?"
"Nay, for my youth in these strait towers hath grown.
Palace or wild alike I have not known.
Lord Damas' daughter I."
So smoothly lied
A damsel of Le Fey.
To Damas next
She went as falsely. Little thought was his
Of whom she served in secret. "Lord, there is
A strange knight taken in thy seat,
By whom Sir Outzlake should be shrewdly vexed,
If bribes or threats should gain him."
"Bring him here."
And when King Arthur came, a likely knight
He thought him, and solemn oath was plight
On Arthur's side to take that evil strife,
To gain for Damas or to loss of life;
At which consent Sir Damas straight released
The twenty captives that he held before.
For Arthur thought: "If wrong the cause I take
It will not triumph, but I dread me more
Such captive thrall than that my life were ceased
By God's high verdict; and these knights to free
Is one thing good; and better end may be
Than one who sees not to the last can see."
Sir Accolon wakened by a deep well-side,
Wherefrom a fountain flung a glittering tide
That backward into marble basins fell.
Therefrom he gazed in marvelled doubt around
And saw sloped lawns and sweeping walks that wound,
Twixt lawns and lake, and tamed and ordered well;
And by the lake a male swan preened his pride,
And from the further trees a peacock cried.
It was a fair wide pleasance, made for man;
Yet stilled it seemed as though, since time began,
Had no man moved therein, nor tempest stirred;
Or fey had formed it from a faery word.
But fear was his that altered scene to see,
As memory waked, and swift he rose. "Perde,"
Aloud he spake, "some strange enchantment here
With sight's delusion mocks, and sharp my fear
That those fair burdens of the faery boats
Have meant my lord but evil. Would my brand
Had slit the lying whiteness of their throats
The while they knelt before us on the strand."
Then with a wider-seeking gaze he knew
Those distant towers, dove-white, that broke the blue,
Where once had Morgan held him lightly thralled
In willing bondage. Now his thought recalled
How, for more favours than indeed he knew,
(For memory of the most her arts withdrew,
So that the truth was dream, and dreams were true),
His pledge she held her champion's part to do.
Then at his side a white-clad dwarf appeared,
Wide-mouthed, flat-visaged, monstrous as the feared
Elves of the Caves.
"The queen I serve," he said,
"Morgan Le Fey, sends greeting, bids you know
The test you pledged is here. If now you show
The fearless valour that approved your vow
Her guerdon will not fail. If do you now
Battle to the utterance, being most merciless,
That her most foe he fallen beyond redress
(Thy private promise when some grace she gave),
Then to thy chosen damsel who shall bring
His off-hewn head she will such largesse dower
Of wide estate and strength of sheltering tower
That she shall greet thee next as queen to king,
Yet soft of mood to be thine underling.
"Who serves Le Fey hath little need to fear.
Behold, to guard thy life she sends thee here
King Arthur's sword, his own Excalibar.
Much in the trenchant blade its virtues are,
But in the scabbard most its safety lies,
For who shall wear it finds the quick blood dries
As instant as the wounding steel retires."
Sir Accolon answered: "Not for hell's hot fires
My given word were changed. But say what time
This combat joins?"
"Tomorrow's hour of prime."
"When did you see the queen?"
"An hour ago."
"Commend me to her grace, and say that so,
Even as thy words have been, shall all things be.
I only would it were my part to see
Herself once more, who still to thrall me seems
A thought of God incarnate, reached in dreams,
But lost to wakeful days; and that she wills
Shall neither heavenly boons nor earthly ills
Divert me to denial.... I well suppose
That these enchantments had no purpose else
But here my presence for this strife to bring?"
"You likely may suppose a likely thing."
Even as the dwarf retired, his purpose done,
There came a knight in peaceful garb, who brought
His lady with him, both who fair besought
Sir Accolon's favour at their hall to bide.
And he unloth in grateful words replied,
At which their squires a void horse forward led,
And he went with them.
In short time they came
Where a fair manor by a priory stood,
Between a broad stream and a branching wood.
Here to his guest Sir Outzlake gave his name,
Which Accolon had not heard. Next hour was brought
Word from Sir Damas of no peaceful sort.
"I have a champion for my need," he wrote,
"Who at tomorrow's prime in field will stand
To stint the clamour from thy slandering throat.
Do thou be there, or never more expand
Thy bray of valour, or thy whine of wrong."
"Now," said Sir Outzlake, "is my chance, and lo!
A wound unhealed is mine - doth Damas know? -
Which makes me for such bout awhile unfit.
Yet for my honour and lands to venture it
Needs would I, though the strength to stand upright
I scantly know. To find a champion knight
Never my brother's need as mine today!"
Then spoke Sir Accolon: "The need you say
Be mine to fill. A royal sword I bear
Intended surely for the overthrow
Of not thine only but my lady's foe."
Sir Outzlake said: "Whatever sword you wear
It is not stouter than thy heart, to take
A strife not thine; and for what lady's sake
I know not, but for equal thanks I know
Who is not hence thy friend hath twice a foe."
Then sent he to Sir Damas bold reply:
"A champion for the morn alike have I.
May God the right to His conclusion bring."
So came at next day's prime the captived king
To meet Sir Accolon, while neither knew
Whose hand the opposing sword of conflict drew,
Yet each believed a makeless sword he bore.
For Arthur, of his cause less confident,
Was of his sword assured, for Morgan sent
That morn to him a secret messenger.
With sheath and sword that seemed Excalibar.
Why should he doubt of it? Or doubt of her?
His sister, wedded to a king who gave
Allegiance to his throne? He grasped the glaive
With grateful words, and cast his own away,
Not pausing in that haste to charge her say
How of his sudden need Queen Morgan knew.
So in the lists for that stern ordeal set,
Knightly with urge of rushing steeds they met.
Held the great lances, guided straight and well:
Chargers and knights alike reversed and fell,
And rose alike, and while their squires withdrew
The struggling steeds, the champions' swords were bare.
Clattering they met. Strong hearts, strong arms were there
To take or deal, and still the strife renew.
For Accolon thought beyond that victory
The mistress of his fevered dream to see,
Nor doubt of error in his cause had he.
And Arthur thought: 'No noble part have I.
Yet think I am not in these toils to die.'
Not reason, but high heart, upheld him now
To sanguine sureness that he should not fall
From his great place in this unlikely brawl.
Nor least in that good sword, Excalibar,
His trust was set, although that sword he felt
Not in his hand, but by the blows it dealt.
Soon was his need for constant heart increased,
For vainly on his foeman's helm he beat,
But Accolon's sword was harder steel to meet.
For every stroke that reached him, most or least,
Reddened his mail; until the truth he guessed
With sickening heart, although he failed to see
By what strange dealings could such treason be.
Yet not his crest, and not his sword therefor
He lowlier held, but with heart more high
He conquered that cold doubt. 'For, last or die,'
He thought, 'Pendragon from no field shall flee.
Slain if I must, but shamed I will not, be.'
Aloud Sir Accolon now, exulting cried:
But Arthur silent, with such stroke replied:
That Accolon bent, and some short space withdrew.
But then, in woundless strength, he rushed anew,
On Arthur, and that stroke in kind repaid.
Now Arthur stooped, but still his desperate blade,
Powerless to wound, the threatening end delayed.
While the great crowd that watched with wonder saw
That though, from out so many wounds he bled
That all his arms and all the ground were red,
He did not from the assailing sword withdraw,
Whereat much pity and much praise was said.
There was a damsel at Sir Damas' side,
One of the hundreds, lord and knight and dame
Of the bright crowd who to that conflict came.
Silent she watched the while the strife was tried,
With quiet eyes aloof from all she saw,
As one who naught contemned, and naught could awe.
Now to Sir Damas spake she, cool and low;
"Fair lord, you near an end you do not know.
Thy champion falters. To thy gain it were
To cease this trial, and the wrong repair
Which will not longer wait its time."
Warned in such sort, who knew not Nimue,
Short answer gave: "My champion holds his place,
And yet may conquer."
"If he gain for thee,
Thy more defeat is in that victory.
Be it as thou wilt."
No further heed she gave
To one she vainly warned; but all her care
Was now for Arthur. He, short breath to save,
Drew somewhat back, and for some resting-space
He called, as warriors by consent would do,
To pause awhile and then the strife renew,
If equal valour should its end delay.
But Accolon answered: "Nay, for more thy need.
Thou art mine by many wounds to save or slay.
Resume or yield;" and Arthur, wrothed thereby,
Swung up his sword, and made his hard reply
On Accolon's helm, who reeling backward went.
But Arthur larglier might that stroke repent,
For snapt the sword beneath the hilt. He held
The pommel only. Fear he needs must feel;
Yet still against despair his heart rebelled,
And with his covering shield he faced his foe.
"Now yield ye recreant, or your life forgo."
"I may not," said the King; "mine oath is sworn
To strive while life shall last, and that would I
Though with bare hands, and were I slain thereby
A hundred times, for shamed I would not live."
"Then must I slay thee, though I lack the will."
"Shame will be thine a swordless knight to kill."
"Thy life thy knowest that I may not give
Except you recreant yield. I will not spare,
Unless Sir Damas' claim you all forswear."
"That will I never."
"Thine the choice."
His sword he raised as one who ruth forgat.
But Arthur dived the coming stroke below,
And hard his shield upthrust at Accolon's chin,
While with the hilt he dealt so shrewd a blow
That Nimue, watching with calm eyes, as naught
Their depths could trouble with disturbing thought,
Saw that which men have guessed she willed to see.
For stumbled both, and Arthur to his knee
Went down; but fell from Accolon's bruise-numbed hand
The enchanted sword, and Arthur snatched the brand
Even as it fell, and as its hilt he knew
The truth was plain: "Oh, truant sword," he cried,
"Much evil hast thou done me!" Ere he smote.
He snatched the scabbard from Sir Accolon's side,
And cast it far: "Oh, knight," he said, "to you
All that you gave me can I now restore.
On thine own head shall fall thy precepts now.
Sayest thou the swordless I of right should slay?"
Steel of strong helm, and lift of sheltering shield
The great sword countered in midstroke, but shore
Unhindered way. His stumbling foeman fell
Sore wounded from that sorcerous strife, and lay
The king's point offering at his throat, that well
Might now its own enforced treason pay.
"Bethink you," said the King, "except you yield
I thrust." And Accolon answered: "That you may.
Light is the toil a fallen knight to slay;
And well from that sword-changing chance I see
That God is on thy part, and not with me.
I ask thee naught. Mine oath is pledged too deep
My life in recreance from this field to keep,
Were death more far."
But Arthur answered: "Nay,"
- For half it seemed that distant voice he knew -
"But speak thou first thy name, lest wrath fordo
That ruth might save."
The fallen answered: "I
Who here death-hurt beyond thy danger lie,
Beyond alike thy threats or mercy, well
Might all refuse, but that I choose to tell.
Accolon of Gaul, and Arthur's knight am I."
King Arthur heard and knew. With swift dismay,
His thought recalled the barque, the dungeon cell,
The sword his sister sent. He answered: "Say
How to your hand Excalibar came?"
That magic sword hath been, myself to slay."
"I doubt it naught; but answer."
"Queen le Fey
Sent me that sword but yestermorn. I show
More than I need, the fuller truth to tell.
Because I love her, and she loves me well,
She sent it, charging me this strife to take,
And slay thee surely (whom I do not know;
Or know thee only as her chosen foe).
But earlier in my hands that sword hath been,
And destined for more treasonous use. The Queen
Waited the chance when, for her dearest sake,
I might King Arthur find apart and slay;
When would she likewise with King Urience deal,
And be the whole land's ruler. Then should I
Be owned her lover with no more conceal,
And reign beside her. But I think to die
Of this deep wound; and now that dream is through
I ask no other than thy name to learn,
For whom did Heaven this strife against me turn,
And of what court ye be."
"You know not that?"
"I swear I know not."
"That you thought to do
You did most nearly. Arthur's self am I."
"Oh, gracious lord, forgive! I all confess
Of plotted evil, but did not guess
That thou didst front me here."
"I that believe;
And therefore somewhat would thy fault reprieve,
And that the more because at last I know
My sister's falsehood to its depth, and grieve
Her subtle crafts, that can, with lustful bait,
Corrupt good knights who on her favours wait:
Favours less certain than their wage of woe.
Well may I mercy find to pardon them,
Who must myself for kindred fault condemn.
"Have I not trusted her as none beside,
As castellan preferred to friend or bride
To keep this sword on which may life depend,
Heedless to warning word from bride or friend?
Vengeance I should not and I shall not spare
Shall pass thee by, who laid her treason bare."
Then to the Keepers of the Field he called:
"Behold," he said, "this strife yourselves have seen
Hath been full bitter, yet it had not been
Had we two knights been told of whom we were
By those who knew, and did its end contrive -
An end of treason which there will not be."
Then from the ground Sir Accolon spake: "Give heed,
All ye who hear me. Here before you stands
The lord of all our lives and all our lands,
Arthur, our gracious sovereign, liege and king.
Dying, by God's high boon from falsehood freed,
I here declare it, and repent full sore
That guiled I fell to such misfortuning."
Then wondered all who heard, but feared the more
The kingdom's lord in such a pass to see.
"Mercy, good lord, for who the truth could tell,
Or guess their liege in Damas' arms should be?"
"Mercy," the King replied, "is lightly thine,
For errant chance, that brought this knight of mine
To such contention, to our equal bane,
Is not your guilt. But ere my wounds prevail
Hear how I fought, and why I did not fail:
False was my cause, but treason held the field.
God's judgements will not to such treasons yield,
And hence I conquered. By that victory
All that Sir Damas claimed hath come to be
His proven right. That right I first allow;
But as your king I give my judgement now
On other issues that mine eyes have seen.
"Sir Damas, by whose hands good knights have been,
Through thy much violence and thy villany,
Dungeoned without offence, without appeal,
Mercy I grant on three observances.
First, thou shalt all these twenty knights restore
Not to mere freedom, but content them more
With horse and harness than they owned before,
And all that knighthood needs. If only one
To Camelot bring complaint that less be done
Knight will I send who shall thy life require
In mortal field, and of such bold repute
That champion for thy part thou shalt not hire,
Nor shalt thou practice to that strife delay -
The day he cometh shall be thine ending day.
"Next, thou shalt swear upon the sacred page
Thou wilt no further in such toils engage
By-wandering knights; and if thou dost again,
Thou shalt be surely by my justice slain.
"Last, to Sir Outzlake shall thou grant anew
The manor-lands he held, his seemly due.
But he shall pay thee as their rent agreed
A yearly palfrey of a peaceful breed;
For not a charger, great of heart and thew,
Thy meagre knighthood needs."
To Outzlake next
He spake: "Because men call thee bold, nor less
Of good regard for truth and gentleness,
Thou shalt with me to Camelot ride, and there,
Be thy deeds equal, and thy fame as fair
As these report, by God's good grace will I
So serve thee that short time shall testify
Thy greater worship and thy more domain
Than Damas boasteth, or such crafts obtain."
"Go will I gladly at thy side."
How far from Camelot am I snatched astray?"
"A two days' journey when the roads are dry."
"Then must I rest me first. What place is nigh
Of worship for mine ease?"
"Three miles away
There is an abbey of nuns of high degree,
King Uther founded. There thy rest should be
Secure, and bruise and hurt well comforted."
"There will I," said the king, "and bid prepare
A litter for Sir Accolon. Harboured there,
He shall be tended well, and leeched with care,
For he was by most sorcerous arts misled.
Because my sister would my life betray.
I will not vengeance on her instrument."
So to that Abbey's kindly roof they went
Victims alike of Morgan's lustful guile.
There Arthur well revived his strength forespent,
But Accolon, less of good blood drained, the while
Died as men die whose hope is past.
Death found him, memories that her art had blurred
Returned, but is such sort that all he saw
Was outward seeming, of himself as she
Seduced him to her wanton, ruthless will....
The noon was summer and the woods were still.
Relaxed in sleep her body's grace unclad
Gleamed in the deep cool greenness of the glade.
Well knew she none would pass that path unstayed
While thus she lay. No watchful need was hers
Her lure to prove. But waking eyes forbad
What sleep might yield, nor larger need imply.
No adder on the sunwarmed path might lie
Deadlier, nor less the coming foot to care,
Than in that shadowed glade beside the way
The sorceress slept.
The pacing hooves were still.
The steel, toiled-heated, stayed content. The noise
Of silenced birds returned the boughs. Nor dare
To wake this goddess of the woods, nor will
To leave such sight his heart could hold, until
She stirred, and eyes that seeming sleep had hid
Were on him, shameless with abrupt desire.
So watched he with cold heart the deed he did
With hotter pulses at her lustful lure.
Shrank his shamed thoughts therefrom, so base a hire
To own, and saw fair death, the waiting cure.
Divided from his previous self was he
By God's accepted light his sin to see.
Then Arthur to the gate of Morgan sent
The corse of Accolon. 'Behold,' he wrote,
'How vainly by the craft his life is spent!
Take the poor barter of thy sorcerous trade.
Mine is the sheath again, and mine the blade.'
But ere they reached, Queen Morgan, deeming sure
The death of Arthur in that nameless guise,
Rose with the morn, and looked with hateful eyes
On Urience sleeping. In short words she bid
One of those damsels who her treasons did
His sword to fetch: "No better time than now
To end his life," she said, "will fate allow."
"Oh, madam, if our noble lord we slay,
No art will save us, but our lives will pay."
"Nay, fetch the sword. You all misdeem. To me
The rule remains. But those who first obey
Will be the first their bright reward to see."
With no more words the damsel turned. She went
To where Ewaine in morning slumber lay.
"Oh, wake," she cried, "or else, our curse to be,
A deed of shame your mother seeks to do,
Which long we might, and all our land repent,
And no one will she heed, or only you."
"Well," said Ewaine, "to do the Queen's commands
Is thine, who else may long her vengeance feel.
Go by the way she wills, and let me deal."
No more the damsel said. With trembling hands
To Morgan's firmer grasp the sword she bore,
Who from the sheath the long bright blade outslid,
And cool and well-assured in all she did
Went boldly to the bed, and stood beside,
Pausing one moment only to decide
Where best the point to drive as Urience lay.
But as she raised the sword, a hand she felt
Grasping her wrist. Appalled, and hard, and low
The voice she heard: "Ah, fiend, and wouldst thou so?
Men say that Merlin had a fiend for sire,
But I may say a devil's womb I knew."
She loosed the sword, against his feet she knelt.
"Ah, son, fair son, Ewaine, as God is true
It was not of my will. Such moods of woe
At times possess me that I think to do
That which I would not. Hadst thou not been here
I had but feigned it, and the sword put by."
"Ah, mother, but for that dear name," he said,
"It were this moment that would see you dead.
But now I know not what were right to do."
"Fair son, have mercy, as by God I swear
I will that moment's evil thought repair
By loving service to my lord and you.
Only reveal not what hath been! For so
Would all my honour and my worship go."
"Might I so much believe - "
"Fair son, you may.
Thee have I always loved, and all I say
Will for thy sake be done."
"Ah, well!" Said he,
"God grant it!"
All the while their words they kept
So low, that all unware King Urience slept.
Queen Morgan read the scroll King Arthur sent.
She looked at Accolon, whom to death she led.
Nigh burst her heart with grief, but naught she said,
Nor showed that grief with which her heart was rent.
But well the shortness of her life she guessed
If Arthur caught her now. She sought the Queen.
"I have such tidings that I may not rest
Until I right them. Give me grace to go."
Guenever answered: "Nay, ye would not so
Till Arthur join us? From this strange delay
It is not likely that a longer day
Will hold him."
"Haste is mine. I must not stay."
"Well, as thou wilt."
That night, with all her train,
Queen Morgan passed the gate. All day she rode,
Longing the safety of the towers of Gore.
Yet subtly swerving from the nearer way,
Came to the nunnery where King Arthur lay.
Deep in Southgales, beside its wintry lake.
The steeds were weary, and she did not know,
Till there she lighted, that the king was there.
Then said she: "Doth he rest? For his dear sake
Hard have I ridden, since I heard of how
He wounded lay."
They answered: "Nay but now
From long dis-ease he sleeps."
"Then do not wake.
I will beside him watch, as sisters may."
With light assent she passed to where he lay,
Thinking the sword once more to gain, but he
Slept with it in his hand, as well might be
After such mischief from its loss afore.
To wake him was a risk she did not dare.
She took the scabbard; and her weary train
Roused from their hope of rest to ride again.
King Arthur waked, and cried aloud: "Perde,
Where is that scabbard which I do not see?"
They told him what had been. Wood wroth was he.
"Is none to trust?"
"Lord, when thy sister came,
Who were we, to deny so great a name?"
"Well, what is done will never words recall.
What use is wrath? I had not thought so bold
Even my sister at her chance should be,
Or more had warned. But stir Sir Outzlake now.
And fetch me two good steeds, the best of all
Your stables hold. For on her trace will we
Ride at such pace as never those who flee
Shall equal, though the spurs of fear they ply.
What train was hers?"
"Her following knights were ten."
"Then two should drive them. Never valorous men
Doth sorcery breed, nor gold of treason buy."
Then Arthur armed him at all points, and thus
With Outzlake and good squires, the chase he took
Southward and westward on the road to Gore.
For well he guessed that Morgan's eyes would look
With longing for the rocky height that bore
King Urience' towers. Yet not to risk too far
What doubt must be, when, by a cross of stone,
They saw a poor man resting, there they reined.
"Have any passed thee?"
"Lord, and hour ago,"
The cowherd answered, "came a headlong rout,
With lashed and jaded steeds, a lady led.
Ten knights full armed were there; and thirty more
The steeds her baggage and her menials bore.
Southward they turned where forks the road ahead."
"Now must we prove our speed," King Arthur said,
"An hour is little, for they ride but ill."
Faster they rode, awhile by heath and hill,
Awhile through forest wastes, until they saw
The dust of those they chased, which wintry boughs
Were leafless to conceal; and Morgan too
Had seen. She said: "When faster steeds pursue,
What flight avails? Yet narrowing time allows
To foil my brother of his end." She took
The splendid sheath, and on the shelving bank
Of a dark lake she stayed. She flung it far.
Weighted with gold and gems, too deep it sank
For quest of man to gain it. "Now may look
King Arthur where he will," she laughed, and so
They left the shore of that dark lake, to ride
A drear wide vale and bare, stone-strewn and dry,
Where drifts of mist beneath the low grey sky
Were all too thin their further flight to hide.
And in that fear increased, as fast she fled,
There crossed her thought an ancient charm she read
In early nunnery days, by which she changed
Herself and all the knights that round her ranged
To semblance of the stones they rode. And those
In close pursuit beheld their panting foes
So change, and rode among them, and could not say
Which were the stones before, and which were they.
"Here," said the King, "God's vengeance, as I ween,
Hath fallen, and no more my sister-queen
Will, with her sorcerous arts, on earth be seen.
Yet should the scabbard in this vale be found."
Thereat they searched the stones, and all around,
And found all searching, as it must be, vain;
And slowlier to the nunnery rode again.
Queen Morgan watched the baffled king depart,
And by reversal of her sorcerous art
Restored the animation of her train.
"You saw the king?" She asked.
"We saw," they said,
"Such fury in his eyes, and those he led
Were of such perilous kind, that hadst thou not
Constrained us by thy spells we fast had fled."
"I well believe it."
Silent then she fell,
Contriving as she rode a subtler plot
Than those that failed her, till her thought returned
To present chancings, as a knight they met
Who to his own another charger's rein
Had joined, for thus a blindfold knight and bound
He led in shameful wise.
"I charge ye tell,"
Queen Morgan asked, "what recreant deed hath earned
This hard reproach?"
The knight replied: "The debt
His bonds requite not, but their strength assures
That payment will not fail. When cast and drowned
In the near lake, no more the lewd allures
Of my false wife will cause his heart forget
What friendship owes."
"What friendship owes? Perde,
But little friendship in those bonds I see.
Why should his grace have been the more to thee
Than thine is now to him? Or wherefore set
Friendship aside, thy chosen friend to slay,
Because a woman goes her natural way?"
"I have a wrong that only death can pay.
That will she find her natural way to be."
"You all misvalue. Send them hence unslain.
Enough of damsels for thy use remain.
It may be fairer, and as fain as she."
"But she was mine. Her honour pledged to me."
"Doth she allow the fault?"
"She all denies,
With the sharp fear that spurs a wanton's lies."
"Doth he admit?"
"He swears it is not true.
Each time more perjured as he swears anew."
"Bound knight, how didst thou in this danger fall?"
"He bound me in my sleep, reversing all
The rules of honour. Had I waked to deal,
He were but carrion for a vulture's meal."
"How friendship thrives when women sport! But say
Who and from whence thou art?"
"A knight of Gaul,
Manassen, now of Arthur's Court am I,
Sir Accolon's cousin."
"Not for Arthur's sake,
But for thy cousin's name, those bonds to break
I must not fail. Good friends, his cords untie,
And he who bound him serve an equal way.
That which Manassen felt himself should feel."
So was it done. Her knights surrounding laid
Strong sudden hands on him whose foul arrest
A sleeping friend had snared. The knight, dismayed,
Fury and fear despite, and loud protest,
Was quickly bound. Queen Morgan laughed to see.
"Now wilt thou fight him, friend, or what shall be?"
"I would deal with him as he meant with me."
"Friendship endures! But wert thou false or true,
Not so would honour or good knighthood do
As he with thee. And who should bid thee nay,
If his the coin you use the debt to pay?"
They rode to that deep lake's high-shelving shore,
Wherein the scabbard had been cast before,
And there they drowned him. Were it right or wrong
Queen Morgan cared not. But a jesting word
She gave Manassen: "She he would not share
May now be wholly thine, except she heard
Thine oath that for her best thou dost not care,
And trusts thee less another oath to swear.
Such gods be with thee as thy barter needs!...
But wilt thou to the court at Camelot bear
A sister's message? Tell him naught I fear,
For men I make as stones, or stones appear
As though strong knights of marshalled strength they were.
Tell him I wait my time, and then will do
More than his wit will turn, or Merlin knew."
Next morn, Queen Morgan gained the towers of Gore,
And all her land she armed, and strengthened well.
For said she: "As Pendragon wrought before
Against my father, so belike with me
His son would deal. But more than earthly skill
To foil him from my secret lore will be
The viewless girdle of the walls I man."
Meanwhile King Arthur to the court returned,
Whereof all Camelot and the Queen were glad,
Marvelling as of that strange event they learned,
And all the perils and the pains he had.
"There hath not been, since Christian days began,
So false a queen," they said. "Good sight it were
Her stake-bound body in clean fire to see,
For her much treason and adultery."
Then to the court Manassen came, to bear
Such witness as a dubious tale arrayed.
Morgan's high taunt he to the king conveyed,
Who answered: "What my sister's plots intend
I do not doubt, but yet, with God to aid,
I am not barren of a strengthful friend."
When spring released from winter's colder claim
The leafless woodlands, and the mounting sun
Surrender of the willing earth had won,
A fair-clad damsel from Queen Morgan came
With innocent eyes, and words of peace, and prayer
For concord: "All her evil crafts misdone
Shall be amended to thy will: she pleads
Thy mercy, and repents her earlier deeds.
Rich gifts in protest of her meaning fair
Before thy throne I spread. She prays thee wear
This garment, princely as thyself."
A mantle at his feet of ermine rare,
And set with gems of price beyond compare
Of aught the court contained, or Arthur's eyes
Had seen till then; and half he thought to rise
And take a gift so great, and half afraid
Of Morgan's guile, his outstretched hand he stayed,
Then rose resolved to take. But haply he
Paused at the warning voice of Nimue:
"Lord king, you may not from the gift divide
The hand that gives it. Let this cloak be tried
On her who brought it hither."
That damsel's cheek
Paled at the words, but ready speech and meek
Was her to meet it: "Good my lord," she said,
"Most gladly would I please thy grace, but I,
Mean-born, the bearer of the gift, should die
At Morgan's wrathful hand if word misled
Her hastier mood, to judge I soiled thereby,
Impelled by pride, a thing so priced; or worse,
As scorning of her princely gift were read
So strange a deed. And, for myself, beside,
Maid am I, and may not for repute reverse
For kingly garb the maiden zone I wear."
He answered: "Ill you plead. So great her pride,
You deem she would not own my right, but dare
To slay thee for obedience given? I know
The love she showed that wrought her recent woe;
And that thieved sword my mind recalls. Do thou,
And with swift hands, the thing I speak, for now
You stand suspect of treason."
Still she stood,
Appalled, and glancing right and left, as though
For Morgan's sorcerous aid, and Arthur signed
To force her. Then, as one to death resigned,
The cloak she loosely round her shoulders drew.
No further word she spake. To ground she sank
Smouldering as one of liquid fire who drank;
Till she, and that she wore, were burnt away,
And smoking cinders told of where she lay.
"Now," said the King, "my sister's heart I see,
For that swift death was surely meant for me.
How can I rest in peace, or ride secure,
While any of her part around me be?
Though (to King Urience now he spake) I know
Thou art not of her kind nor she to thee
Her favour gives, for Accolon, ere he died,
Confessed that with my death for thine beside
She practiced...... But thy son is hers also.
I will not wrong him with a proofless slur,
But lest of natural blood he hold to her,
I will that distant from the court he ride,
Until fair deeds his loyal heart shall show."
Said Urience: "While that smoking ash we see,
I may not urge thee, though I count Ewaine
Gentle to all, and wholly bound to thee."
"Nay," said Gawain, "but I alike will go.
For he is natured, as a child should know,
No evil to devise, or wrong sustain."
Nor would he pause the king's quick wrath to stay,
But at his cousin's side he rode away.
"For doubt of one we take the loss of two,"
Gaheris said: "and, save, the king, were few
But of Ewaine's fair faith were confident."
To which the king gave answer: "Think ye so?
So may I alike, yet not my word repent.
For if untouched by any taint he be
Of treason either to my throne or me,
Then will he wander in wild lands afar
Where strange great scenes and many ventures are,
Meeting occasions to advance his name,
And making for ourselves from whence he came,
A more reputed and a farther fame;
And only if his heart to treason stir
Will he ride backward to her hold and her."
The Three Damsels.
The knights held northward through a forest wild,
Seeking the events of lonely paths apart,
And filled the long hours of the vacant way
With talk of Ewaine's mother (fiend-beguiled
He called her, hating all her murderous art),
Her loves misplaced and sudden hates astray,
Inconstant, the desired of yesterday
The murdered tomorrow: "Naught is sure;
Yet all so deadly is her changing part
That even Merlin feared her. Only they,
The dusk's lake-maidens, cross her path secure."
So came they where a moss-grown hold and grey
Girt by the wide peace of the woodland lay.
Yet little peace their eyes beheld, for there
A group of damsels well-beseen and fair
Halted beneath an oak's out-thrusting bough,
Wherefrom there hung, with naught to guard it now,
A pale shield, showing from a silver cloud
The pleading white hands. The damsels there
With ribald jestures and shrill cries and loud,
Mocked and defiled it. By the gate were set
Two knights who not, to hinder nor to let,
Regarded what they did.
Sir Gawain said:
"Oh, ladies, in good sooth, ye do not well
On that device to spit, for who may tell
How near its owner rides? Not far afield
Knight-errant wanders from his blazoned shield."
"Sirs," they replied, "the tale is lightly told.
A knight of Ireland hath in yonder hold
Fixed his resort, and this his shield ye see.
Noble is he and bold as knight may be.
Yet neither loves he damsels, nor requites
The love they offer with desired delights.
Therefore we render for despite and scorn
Scorn and despite."
To which Gawain replied:
"Ladies, ye may be with no cause aggrieved.
Knowing the custom of knights, I dare to say
His thoughts were with some damsel far away
Through whose dear favour are his deeds achieved.
But if he wronged ye, might ye not delay
Till ye shall shortly meet him face to face?
For here be knights your quarrel to embrace,
And charge his treason in a knightly way.
But say what name he bears?"
"He boast to spring
From Ireland's best, and Ireland's heirless king
His only equal: to his sister wed."
"Then do I know him well," Sir Ewaine said.
"A noble, but overbearing knight.
I saw him where no other spear could ride
A course that might avail to break his pride,
Before the castle of the Dame de Vance.
Seven chosen knights went down before his lance,
Which yet endured unbroken. Wroth were they;
And she, as ever, in soft mood to pay
The favour of that knight whose fame was high.
But no regard he gave to sword or sigh.
Careless of wrath or love he rode away."
"Well," said Sir Gawain, "whosoe'er he be,
Such slighting of his shield I will not see
As one consenting."
With that word they rode
Some space apart, and turned the event to view,
For even then the Irish knight they knew
Returning. Huge of height and girth was he,
On a huge charger mounted. At the sight
The damsels scattered with shrill screams. They ran
Toward the gateway, which the foremost gained.
But others stumbled in their headlong flight,
Falling upon the path.
Was one that rode
Forward from those who watched beside the gate.
Between the damsels and the knight he reined.
"Lo," said he, "better shall our spears debate
Than such ignoble chase thy fame defray."
To which Sir Marhaus in much wrath replied:
"Beshrew me but that jest thy life shall pay.
I chase not any. In themselves there lay
The impulse of fear or flight. Defend ye now."
In equal wrath they clashed. But equal else
In naught were they; nor did his fate allow
That knight one moment to that fate regret
For Marhaus, with a strong unbending spear,
Smote fairly on the helm, and cast him clear
Of saddle and dead, neck-broken down he fell
His comrade of the fate advanced to break
As vain a spear, and death alike to take
As empty as brief words its tale can tell.
Then rode he to the shield defaced, and there
Viewed it, and changed it for his own, and said:
"Now for her sake who gave it will I bear
No other." Turning, careless of the dead,
And still in wrath for that foul slight espied,
Where the young princes twain had reined aside.
Abrupt he spake: "Why stand and watch ye thus?"
Said Ewaine: "We be knights adventurous
From Arthur's court."
"Then if ye list to stand,
Soon shall be your adventures here at hand."
At that he wheeled for vantage, while Ewaine
Took counsel: "Here be two his might hath slain.
Should our unequal spears adventure forth
- No cause of quarrel ours - to stint his wrath?"
"Yea," said Gawain, "however feared his name,
That must we; for the choice is strife or shame."
And called Sir Marhaus: "This dishonoured shield
Ye left unrescued will ye face, or yield?"
Said Ewaine: "Let the weaker strive the first.
Be thine to venge me if I fare the worst."
Boldly he rode against that knight, and well
Drove the straight spear, but overborne he fell,
Hurt in the side, and rose not; and Gawain,
Seeing him so hardly flung and likely slain,
Charged instant. Hard resolve and wrath alight
Matched him so nearly to the Irish knight
That almost equal was the course they ran.
Hard in that shattering shock the dint he dealt,
But harder dint he dured, and foundering felt
His steed beneath him fail; but ere it fell
His feet he loosed, and came to ground so well
That little vantage had been lost thereby.
Whereat the Irish knight, in haste to bring
Another combat to the end he would,
Rode at him with his heavy sword aswing.
But cried Sir Gawain: "Knight, avoid thy steed,
For I am loth, as else of cause I could,
Its noble life to cease."
Sir Marhaus answered. "Use of courtesy
Is thine to teach. The fault was mine."
To earth he came, and that insulted shield
Before him dressed, and hard they clashed, for each
The other's causeless ire would tame or teach,
And neither might prevail, nor either yield.
Now of Sir Gawain's might the tale was told
That, as the sun to noon advanced, would he
Gain larger strength than its expense would be.
So that in confidence his strokes were bold,
And Marhaus wondered, but full manfully
His part sustained, and so they fought until
The sun went downward, and Sir Gawain felt
Declining vigour, and the blows he dealt
Were fainter than before.
This loss of might
Sir Marhaus knew, and backward stept. "Sir knight,"
Courteously he spake, "fair gentle knight, I see
Thy sword is slow to rise, and as for me,
I think not ever in my wanderings yet
A harder challenge on my shield I met.
We have not quarrels of such kind to try
That to the utterance we should strive or die."
So spake he from the magnanimity
Which oft would rule him when his pride was fed.
"They are such generous words," Sir Gawain said,
"As rather I should speak," and with one will
They kissed, and comrades of one mind became.
For largely were their thoughts and deeds the same,
Born of like passions, constant to fulfil
The dictates of their prides, though shrewder far
Was Gawain ever than the Irish knight.
Now to Sir Marhaus' lodging rode the three,
Conversing as they went. "It marvel's me,"
Lord Gawain said, "that any knight should be
Against all ladies, as it seems you are."
And Marhaus answered: "If for truth ye take
Those turret-damsels spite, ye widely err.
This shield I cherish for a lady's sake,
And love and homage are my gifts to her.
Iseult, the daughter of the Irish queen,
My sister's child, in earliest youth is she.
Lovelier with every year that youth hath been,
And lovelier yet with every spring shall be.
But for most ladies, as yourselves ye know,
To take their bondage is the overthrow
Of strength and freedom. Be they frail to me,
Gladly I take their gifts, and let them go."
Sir Marhaus' lodging was a priory, hid
In the deep woods, which few would find, for low
The beeches closed around it, and forbid
Sight of its walls to those who failed to know
Its single entrance. Near no road it stood;
And none, except who sought, would likely go
Its narrow path along.
Though small and bare
Sir Gawain judged it, yet their welcome there
Was past reproach, and ladies' gentle hands
Unlaced their helms, and loosed their hauberk bands;
And searched their wounds and salved, for all the three
Some hurts had suffered.
When Sir Marhaus knew
His comrades' nearness to King Arthur's throne,
There was no kindness that he would not do.
But when at last, well-eased, they rode anew,
He would not longer that they rode alone.
"For I can guide you to a land," he said,
"Where never any knight of hardihed
Has wandered through the dark, nor yet by day,
But has he found adventures strange and new
With marvels offering both to dure and do."
"There," said they, "surely would we seek to be.
And we will thank thee for thy company."
Seven days through forest silences they thrid,
And reached at length that fair enchanted vale
Where never any riding knight may fail
To find such tests its trackless depths amid
As shall his worth approve, or else reveal
What else he might from all but God conceal.
Some men its forest leagues Arroi will call:
But more the Land Where Strange Adventures Fall.
Deep lay the vale before them, boulder-strewn,
And through its stones a breaking streamlet ran,
That from the vale's fair side its course began,
Leaving the cliff's dark face in leaping light,
And near its source, in mantling ivies bright,
Three damsels sate, who dawn and dusk and noon
Might well have symboled, or the seasons three
That have cold winter for their destiny.
For one there was of three-score winters old
With her white hair bound in a brace of gold;
And one who seemed of half her age, and showed
A kindred circlet round her brows, that glowed
Of gold alike; and one had known no more
Than fifteen years of spring, and white she wore
A crest of roses in her night of hair.
Fair greeting these, Sir Gawain asked from where
They came, and why they sate that fount beside.
Whereto they answered: "We be here to teach
Ventures to wandering knights; and since ye ride
Three errant knights, and we be damsels three,
Needs must ye choose a damsel, each for each.
Then will we lead to where three highways meet,
And there divide. And when twelve months complete
Their changing moons, we here shall meet again,
If all our freedoms and our lives remain.
Sir Marhaus answered: "Lightly where ye lead
We follow, and may God our choosing speed.
Which will ye?"
And Ewaine answered: "Since I be
The youngest and the weakliest of the three,
Mine be the eldest, who will most have been
In various dangers past, and most have seen,
And best can counsel when the need is near."
"Yet doth such wisdom in the words appear,
Small need is thine the fault of youth to fear,"
Sir Marhaus answered. (If he mocked or no
Were hard to guess.) "The next must have my voice
As meetest mine."
With each the damsel of his choice for guide
They rode to where the triple ways divide,
And there they kissed and parted. Northward lay
The path that Gawain chose; the western way
Ewaine desired; and left, and well content
With that fair road, Sir Marhaus southward went.
Gay rode Sir Gawain, with his damsel's arms
Around his belt, and to his lips was blown
The careless challenge of her scented hair.
Little of guidance hers, till came they where
A noble manor, garthed and moated fair,
And ivied green to hide the colder stone,
Stood in a verdant valley, green and wide,
Edged by a gentle stream: its further side
Ascending to a wood so dense and black
That any who rode alone might turn him back
From entering its close glades and brakes of fear.
But on the soft stream's hither side was all
Quiet in the golden light of evenfall.
Here an old knight, whose days of strife were through,
Dwelt in a settled peace, that naught he knew
In emulous youth; and gracious ways and clear,
That varied only with the varying year,
Where habit to his life's serene decline.
An open gate, and open hearth, had he
For wanderers of exalt or mean degree.
Gawain he welcomed, and that damsel, who
It may be doubted that before he knew.
And when Sir Gawain asked: "In lands around
May hazards for an idle lance be found?"
He answered: "Seek ye for that lance of thine
Some perilous quest? Ye need not wander far.
For in the woods enough of ventures are
To keep ye active till the leaves descend.
Wait but the morn."
And with the morn he led,
Fording the stream, to where the greenwood shade
Parted to form a narrow rising glade,
Where on the loftier boughs the sunlight played.
Here in the past days revering hands had raised
A cross o'er some dead knight dead lips had praised,
Dead hearts had loved; but all was nameless now.
As the new leaves upon the changeful bough,
So the new time the old had pushed away.
Half broken was the cross, and round it lay
The mossy fragments that the storm had strewn.
"Wait here," the old knight said. "With reach of noon,
When to the sward the downward sun can smite
Your eyes will fall upon the seemliest knight
That in ten years these sombre woods have seen."
So it was. As the high down-striking sun
Its lordship of the narrow glade had won,
And the light changed it to a livelier green,
A knight came riding from the denser screen
In royal gold and green most fairly clad;
And on his helm the circling gold he had
Which kings may wear. No anvil of Logre
His arms had known, but by their outland style
It seemed that some remote sea-sundered isle
His home had been. Upon his painted shield
There was the symbol of a lonely star
In dexter chief, and 'neath its dexter bar
A seamew skimmed the sea's wind-furrowed field.
Comely and strong and young and bold was he,
And in all aspects as a knight should be,
And Gawain when he saw, full courteously
He greeted: "Now may God your worship send."
"Gramercy," said Sir Gawain, "and to thee
The like I would."
"My worship," said the knight,
"Is naught to wish. For as the day the night,
So doth dispraise its swift reverse supply."
And as he spake, a glance of such wild woe
He gave, that vext was Gawain's thought to know
By what strange evil was his life mischanced.
Then from the further side of that fair glade
Ten knights outrode and ranged in line, as though
Arrayed for settled strife or tourney-show,
As one by one from out their line advanced
And jousted singly with the single knight.
But little praise was theirs, for one by one
He cast them to the sward, till all were done.
Yet rose they boldly from their evil plight,
And him, who did not from his horse alight
Nor bare his sword, they bound in shameful sort
Beneath the belly of the steed, and so
They led him captive through the closing trees.
"Here," said Sir Gawain, "is a wondrous sight,
That not by force they bound the victor knight.
For came they all as one, I count with ease
He might have foiled them."
"Wonder here and woe,"
His damsel answered, "in one scale are flung.
Yet didst thou seek with neither hand nor tongue
To find their meaning, or their course prevent."
"Fair one, it seemed that of his own intent
His capture came."
Her storm-blue eyes alight
With scorn the caution of his words to know,
And those black tresses wreathed in roses white
Tossed in disdain, she answered: "Thought ye so?
To strike more swiftly, and to think the less,
Were no disfavour to thy knightliness."
And further words had been, but while they spake
A knight, all armed except he helmless came,
Rode outward on one side, and him to meet
A dwarf, like armed, except the helm, complete,
Came from the further woods, and called aloud:
"Where is the lady who should meet us here?"
And at the word a lady from the brake
Came forth on foot, of aspect fair and proud,
Who stood between them, but to neither near.
"Mine is she," said the knight.
"It shall not be
Except ye win her," said the dwarf.
Were any lady willing mate for thee?"
"That shall our swords decide."
Their swords they drew,
But ere the strife to utmost fury grew,
The dwarf cried: "Halt. Is here a fairer way.
Behold that watchful knight the cross beside.
Let him between us in good faith decide."
The knight agreed. Should any choice prefer
That foul dwarf as the better mate for her,
Unless by violence forced? And so the three
Approached Sir Gawain.
"Shall my judgement be
By all accepted?"
"Yea, good faith," they said.
"Then judge I that the lady's choice be free."
Thereat the knight laughed out. For who would choose
A wide-mouthed dwarf to gain, and lightlier lose
A comely knight as he? The dwarf was still.
And she, from such strange strife who found her will,
With unrevealing eyes a moment stood,
As held in thought, and then, in hasteless mood,
But yet not slowly, to the dwarf she drew.
"Come, let us go," she said, and laughing he
Embraced her, while the knight dejectedly
Turned to his steed, and mourning rode away.
But in high triumph, as his gain he knew,
The dwarf's good singing rang the woodland through.
"Here be strange sights enough," Sir Gawain said,
"Though naught be mine to do, and naught to dread."
But, as he spake, and to his words' rebuke,
Two knights came riding by, and when they saw
His falconed shield, as with one voice they cried:
"Thou knight of Arthur, guard thee."
One to avoid and one to fairly meet,
The further knight far backward in the shaw
Asprawl he cast; and with no lessening heat
Against the second rode, and overthrew.
But this strong knight arose, and sword he drew,
And Gawain's sword he met full actually.
A bold knight and of stubborn strength was he.
Now while they strove the other knight arose,
With little thought his comrade's fate to view.
But to Sir Gawain's damsel close he drew,
Who stirred not as that near approach she knew,
Thinking, it may be guessed, that flight were vain.
Softly between the clanging blows she heard,
Smooth as a stoneless stream, the tempting word:
"Because they are not friends, we are not foes?
While the dogs bicker, shall the bone remain?"
"How sweetly to a bone you liken me."
"The flesh is sweetest by the bone," said he.
"Minded I am to change to even thee,
In whom, God wot, a better heart may be."
"So should you know him. Tet, as God is true,
Meseems he standeth in most hard ado."
"Hard may he be," she answered "hard and bold.
Yet is his bartering mood too cautious-cold
For love or homage at his feet to lie."
"But neither cautious, nor too cold am I."
"That may be tried," she laughed, and laughing fled,
But not so fast that all pursuit were vain.
And Gawain marked them go: "Behold," he said,
"I need not slay thee nor myself be slain
For any difference ours! But while we strive
My damsel leaves me."
"Well, our strife may wait,"
The knight replied, "but even now too late
You gaze toward the boughs that blind their flight."
"Ah, well!" Sir Gawain said, "were vain to gyve
A damsel restive to her own delight.
Let go who will, are better yet to find;
And those who to ourselves are most inclined,
Are by that choice the most delectable.
So, be we comrades, laugh, and let them go."
And the knight answered: "If ye count it so.
I may content me at a cost as light.
And at my lodging, for the nearing night,
Will be the welcome of an open gate."
"Gramercy," said Sir Gawain, and the knight
Mounted his waiting steed, and led the way.
Now, as they rode, Sir Gawain raised debate
Of whom that strong and dolorous knight should be,
Who in his sight had done such boisterous play,
Casting ten to earth. "It showed to me
As though he might have overruled them all,
To each in turn he gave so hard a fall.
Yet at the last, with most indignity,
He suffered, meek as never maid should be,
Their rude assault."
"Is here a tale to tell,"
Sir Caradoc answered, (that the name he gave),
"To pass belief; but I can vouch it well,
Who all have seen. This knight, Sir Pelleas named,
King of fair isles, is comely, young and brave,
And skilled in arms beyond a light compare.
His love should any damsel seek unshamed:
His throne should any find it pride to share.
"But one there was on whom his favour fell
Beyond her fair desert, for all could see
Her prideful ways beyond her just degree,
And many thousands are more fair than she.
Ettard her name. Her castle, warded well,
Lies in these woods. But in the peopled lands,
Five hidden leagues beyond, a city stands
Where first they met.
"It chanced, while Pelleas there
Endured her scorn, its lord a tourney blew,
A three days' tourney, with a princely prize:
A sword, gold-hilted, of a marvellous blade,
And sheath enscrolled with charms, the strength to aid
Of who should wield it; and a circlet set
With rubies, golden for a queen to wear,
Which might the victor give to grace the hair
Of whom his fancy chose as fairest fair,
Of all the fair ones at the tourney met.
"Were many knights of valiant purpose there,
Mighty in arms to take the tourney test,
But of them all Sir Pelleas rode the best.
Joust after joust, unshaken seat he held:
Three score in those three days his spear excelled:
First was he in all men's mouths, to pass compare.
"His was the prize, and to Ettard he gave
The golden crown, while many lovelier there
Remained unhonoured. Oft such chance must be
When love, which sees what only love can see,
Exalts its choice; but one so placed may well
Observe it was not she did all excel,
But he who chose her, and in all she may
That honour with her loyal faith repay.
"But not Ettard was thus. The crown she took.
Yet gave who gave it not one generous look,
But open scorn, and said for all to heed
That he was naught to her, and naught should be
Though flatly in the dust he fell to plead.
"So to her castle she came again, and he,
Like a stoned dog that whines but will not flee,
Came after, and lodged anear, and round her gate
He hoved, and she was wroth, and forth she sent
Ten knights to drive him. Vain their strength they spent.
For all to earth he threw. But when they rose,
So was he to false love infatuate,
He would not profit from their overthrow,
Nor would he wisely take her word and go,
But rather would their shackled captive be,
So that he might renewed his torment know.
"Thus, week by week, a sight that glade hath seen
Such as it may be in no land hath been
Since the first trees in Eden's woods were green.
And week by week with fresh offence they sport
To shame him, while she laughs contempt, and he
Doth, not the next, as of good right he ought,
Slay those from whom he takes indignity."
"It is too deep a shame," Sir Gawain said.
"Tomorrow morn I will Sir Pelleas seek.
It may be that our wits are not too weak
Some sharp device to change its course to see."
To this resolve he held, and ere the light
Of the next noon that narrow glade had lit,
He gave his friendship to the woeful knight,
Who idle on a mossy bank did sit,
Waiting the chance that should his woe remit,
Though he were treated with the most despite
That fed the malice of her ruthless wit.
Glad was he of his evil plight to tell,
"Which naught can aid, and naught can change," he said,
"Nor any counsel cease; for wit ye well
Blithe were my heart her bonded slave to be,
If I were blessed thereby her face to see.
But leiver were I that she left me dead,
Than cast me thus beyond her walls to be."
To which Sir Gawain answered: "Long ye may
Such scorn endure, the while ye tamely take.
If light thy worth thyself account, shall she
More highly hold it, or for ruth remit
To mock thy meekness? Nay, ye all mistake
That damsels are. But let me deal, and I
To gain thine end a likelier wile shall try.
For there will ride I with thine arms, and say
In wayside strife I slew thee. All too late
Shall she, that paltered with thy faith ingrate,
Her loss believe; and when, with following day,
I here return, in better heart shalt thou
The truth reveal, and she, more wise than now,
Accord thee gladly. Not such knights as we
Do mateless damsels long in mockery flee."
And Pelleas answered: "That ye speak may be.
But her ye know not. Yet so bare am I
Of help or hope that, though thy ruse misfall,
What further grief were mine? When lost is all,
The desperate chance as cautioned use we try."
His shield he gave, and, "wait ye here the day:
The morn shall bring me." Gawain spake, and rode
Forth from the woods; and where red sunset glowed
On that low vale, her moated towers he knew;
And parleyed at the gate, and gave his name,
And showed the shield of whom in strife he slew
The earlier day, and entrance gained, and told
Ettard his tale, but she dark brows and bold
Bent on him the while, and not for all he said -
A piteous tale of knight untimely dead,
By thrust misfortuned in fair tilt, who died
Desiring only that his end she knew -
Cast down her glance, nor feigned his loss to rue
Nor sank the lifting of the strong white chin,
And laughter thrilled the heavy throat, wherein
A pulse beat ever. "Is one joy less," she said,
"That in such strife my three weeks' jest is dead.
Beshrew ye, Gawain, for his loss." And he
Marvelled that aught were here should Pelleas see
More worth than those a baser lust should hire,
Chance-chosen, damsels of a night's desire.
But well she welcomed, and his bold regard
Received, that not her own gay glance and hard
Abashed, and courteous words she found to sue
His longer halt at her poor towers, where few
Of noble name came ever; and he, content,
Accorded; nor allowed his heart's relent
For whom he friendship vowed, and aid.
That while to Pelleas in those woods await
The slow days wearied, swifter hours they knew,
Who found that passed too soon the lengthened day
In sport, and feast, and song, and jest, and play.
And when the third swift noon to eve had sped,
Beneath the walls was plenteous banquet spread,
In the wide gard the moat engirthed, and there
They feasted long in summer ease, and so
Vouchsafed Ettard her softer mien to show,
That well Sir Gawain judged he need but dare,
And his pledged purpose fail, his will to do.
'Behold,' he thought, 'a highway fruit is hung
For all of reach to take it Reach have I;
And that I take I leave; and, reach would he,
A seven-day hence the branch will bend as free.
What wrong is here? Who lets his chance go by,
The meanlier in forgotten dust shall lie,
Where all men end. But I, while life is strong,
Take that which falls, and leave of right or wrong,
A cause for those of weaker needs to try.'
And as the wine passed, and the feast was spent,
Toward her in like mood to hers he bent.
"O powers of friendship, and of wine!" Said he,
"That cause us speak the grief that else should be
Our secret woe. I may not as I would
Thy cheer receive, for all my purpose yearns
To one, the loveliest known, who likely spurns
Love's signal seen, or blindly casts it by."
She answered: "Blame is hers. Thy fame so high
Thyself so goodly in thy strength and race,
There is no damsel but should grant her grace
To meet thy will."
"If so ye deem," he said,
"That meetly may she yield, nor think it sin,
Wilt thou thine aid, her utter love to win,
Plight in sure faith?"
"My body's faith," said she,
"I pledge to help thee in good heart."
"I pray thee hold thy faith, for needs that now
I tell thee whom she be, and since that thou
Art whom I seek, effectual aid from thee
Must vanquish doubt, and prove love's mastery
And surely heaven had made thy beauty less
The anhungered hearts of lovers to distress,
If to desire it made thee merciless."
Then laughed Ettard: "I would not die forsworn.
With sins to choose, the sweeter sin for me.
Is naught for thee I would not lightlier do,
Than aught for that poor fool ye wisely slew."
But while in that slow summer dawn she lay
In Gawain's arms, a spoiled and willing prey,
Came Pelleas from the woods at last aware
Of shadowed treason in their long delay.
He crossed the moat, where no man stirred to stay,
Nor watch was kept, and through the garth his way
Unhindered held, where three pavilions gay
Were reared, and witless that his sword was bare,
Entered; and in the first her knights of guard
Sleeping, and in the next her damsels lay,
And in the last were Gawain and Ettard.
And Pelleas looked, and there long while he stood
Unmotioned; save his sight had seen, not he
Had that of her he loved believed, nor so
That knight renowned of his great order should
Betray so basely all he vowed. The woe
That later to the doubt of life should be,
He knew not yet; but wonder waked, and grew
To hate and loathing, and the lust to slay
Leapt in him thereat, and, as in sleep, he knew
The keen blade forward in his hand, and thought,
The while death chafed the thirsting point's delay:
'Is here no praise a sleeping knight to slay.'
And turned in doubt, and passed some space away,
And twice returned, and looked, and doubting yet,
Against her throat the eager point he set,
And then withheld, and thought them how they lay
Wine-flushed and easeless, and returned again,
And laid the sword across their throats, and said:
"Wake ye to woe, more quiet rest the dead."
And turned, and left them in their sleep unslain.
Sir Pelleas to his own pavilions came,
Where knights and squires his loyal service did,
Who sorrowed that their king so strange a shame
Should take, and, but his straitest word forbid,
Had done no less than honour bade them do
And taught Ettard for very life to sue.
To these with no conceal the truth he told,
As one who cast the dice of life away,
And rising from a game he would not play
Left on the board the stakes he would not hold.
"What I have is yours to part," he said,
"In rightful guerdon for your service done,
Now that of worldly goods my use is none,
Who think but on the couch of grief to lie
Until relenting Heaven shall let me die."
And casting off his arms, an easeless bed
He sought, despairful of more life, and they
Heard in like grief, but found no words to say,
Yet neither spoiled his goods, nor rode away.
Wholly they served him whom they could not aid,
And still in loyal faith his words obeyed,
That even yet Ettard they did not slay.
So while the moons of summer rose and set
He lay as those who tire of life may lie,
Too faint to rise, and yet too strong to die;
Till came a day when one who served him yet
Rode in those woods, and Nimue there he met,
Who asked him: "Why, while summer laughed aloud,
He gloomed as one beneath the winter's cloud?"
Then all he told her that had been, and how
"Sir Pelleas lies as one no clarion now
Shall rouse: no kiss to quickened pulses wake."
And Nimue answered: "Nay, you all mistake,
Remain to guard him well, and wait and see.
The road is other than the end shall be."
So when he weak from that long sickness lay,
And August in the deep woods waned; to where
His tent, back looped to find the cooler air
Owned the fierce noon, beside the leafy way
Came Nimue, riding in no haste, and lit,
And entered where he slept, and looked, and laid
Her weird upon him, to bide in sleep unstayed
While thence she passed, and brought Ettard; and they
To that pavilion came, and entered it
Even as he waked; and he beheld again,
With sight made clear in those slow weeks of pain,
Beside the elusive fairness of the fey
Ettard's hard beauty, in that noon of day
That naught reserved; and love to loathing grew,
Remembering where he last had seen, but she
His sword with differing thoughts recalled, that lay
Across her, waking.
That desire she knew,
Called by love's name, from Gawain turned, and he
That late she scorned, she longed; and doubting naught
That still, for all, her milder mood he sought,
"O Pelleas, rise ye in good heart," she said,
"Forget the wrongs I wrought. The night is fled.
Love must I now for thy proved faith to pay.
"Yea," said he, "when by night full noon shall be,
Or when clear stream from out a separate sea
Return, well may I, for any prayer ye say,
Regard thee more. But till that these things be,
Avoid me, traitress, lest my heart forget
Its patience, and my heel, too hardly set,
Deform thy mouth beneath it, ere the note
Of pleading, through the blood that choke thy throat,
Cease, where the sword-point enter."
With the word
He turned him from their sight, and she that heard,
Shrank from the scorn of whom to scorn before
Her mirth had made, and in desire the more
For that repulse, to Nimue spake, "Canst thou,
Who brought me here, resolve if help may be,
This hate to break, or I, reject as now,
Still plead his grace, and yet no mercy see,
Who well such scorn to lose were leiver dead?
Is all for naught?"
"Yea, so God deals," she said.
But when, to waste in that reversed regret,
Ettard had to her towers returned, he lay
More lone than erst, who might not more forget
That other; mortal seen, or dream, or fey,
He knew not surely; from the ways of men
Too likely passed; till that long heat gave way
To storm and discord of rent skies; but when
Rose, after rain and night's chill winds, a morn
Lovelier than Naiad from the reedy stream
Still dewed, and wringing her drenched hair, again,
Fairer than thought's recall, or dream, she came
To Pelleas, waking.
"Long ye still," she said,
"To gain her, faithless, whose unsightly scorn
Contemned thee, captive to her menials' shame?
Or wilt thou freedom of new days?"
"From blindness past the better light I see.
I thank God there for."
"Nay," she said, "thank me."
And o'er his couch she bent her glorious head,
And held him with her dreaming eyes, and said:
"Oh deep and cool, dim-vista'd, dream-endowed,
The faery path beyond the sunset cloud
Where I would lead thee willing. Love may teach
To love, the faery sight: the faery speech
Love may interpret. Past that light that lies
For ever changeless in the changeful skies
Of sunset, through the enchanted dark, where they
Who neither troth withhold, nor trust betray,
Find access to the nameless land, may be
Thy path, its joys in life to prove."
"O more than ransomed life, thou dawn to me,
O love that bound me in this freedom new,
O love that found me false to hold me true,
O mortal or immortal, maid or fey,
To mortal knight who thus beholds thy face
The way thou takest is the only way
Henceforth for ever." Here his raised embrace
Reached her, whereat she avoided.
"Nay," she said,
"Not I thy leman for the passing day.
Before thee is the further path to tread,
The faery speech to learn, the sight to see,
E'er love may rede if any love may be
Between us ever."
"Be thine to guide," said he,
"Thy steps I take, who only will thy willst.
Thy hands the cup that holds, to save or spill,
The dying life I had."
Long months they rode
While summer dulled its green: while autumn; glowed:
While every covert glade unshaded showed:
Till came again the covering green, and then
Far wandering in a land unknown of men,
Deep downward from the sunny skies, and through
A world of shadowy green, and misty blue
Of hyacinth dells, the guiding faery tried
A pathway borne through branches brushed aside,
Where more at last she gave for all denied
Often in the ways of men
They came thereafter. Him for guard she gave
The fence of faery lance and faery glaive
To hold him through the ringing lists unthrown,
A gift of sure avail to those alone
In most reverse of steadfast heart and strong.
Therewith she charged him ever, for right or wrong,
For thirst of honour, or for damsel's plea,
That never in strife or tilt his lance should he
Against Sir Lancelot venture forth (for he,
Though mortal, in immortal arms had lain,
In childhood days, when Claudas' hate had been
His sure death else, in mortal ways to flee;
And shadows of the world that walks unseen
Were round him ever), lest her spells in vain
She wove to guard him, and his life were slain.
South went Sir Marhaus. Long a woodland way
In pleasured ease he rode. The lessening day
To shelter turned his thought, and then remind
That not through all the empty leagues behind
Had cleared space shown; nor sound of axe on oak,
Nor call of kine, the brooding silence broke.
"Lo," said he to the damsel, "naught is here
Of sheltering roof. Is only darkness near,
With neither warmth of wine, nor easeful bed?"
"Bethink thee that the summer dark," she said,
"Is no way hostile to thy steed or thee.
Worse than the nightwind's chill embrace may be
In lighted halls, and where the feast is spread.
Yet if such rest you would, I will not nay:
But we must reach it by the darkest way."
Then turned she from the clearer path to take
Such narrow passage as the wild deer make
Through bracken that their antlers find too high.
Here closed the night before the night was nigh.
Above, the meeting branches hid the sky.
Ahead she rode, with little space for two,
As denser yet the wood's encounter grew.
"Is no man live in all this wild," he said.
"Beshrew thy guidance."
"See the light ahead."
Soothly she spake, for as the woods withdrew
On either hand, a starlit glade they knew,
And at the further side of that fair scene,
Where the black shadows closed their arms anew,
A trembling light, for any star too low,
Moved for a moment, and the space between
With quickened hooves they crossed. A place they found
From thickets tamed, and midst the trampled ground
Were swinepens, and a swineherd's lowly cot.
"Now here be lodging for our need, God wot,
My thanks to ask."
"To thank or thank me not
Is thine to choose, but those who thanks delay
May count more truly of the debt they pay."
He answered naught to that. He hailed a man
Who from his bolted wicket leaned to see
Who these night-wanderers of the woods might be,
His lantern loftier now. "Hast harbour near
For those who pay?"
"No harbour meet is here
For those who ride in steel, and prankt as thou."
"But worn are we, and all we ask thee now
Is fodder for our steeds, and straw to lie
In clean covert of an empty sty."
"I have no swinepen that is clean and clear,
Nor such presumption would my lord allow."
"Thy lord? Then wilt thou lead to where he dwells?"
"So must I if thou wilt, for such would be
My lord's desire alike. But yet for thee
The choice remains. The worst thy heart foretells
May fall too short."
"Plain words I guerdon."
I have said too much, and more the lash would pay."
"We will not turn us for a tale unsaid,
And more these black and pathless woods to tread
Our steeds are little fit; and we no less
Are faint through hunger and through weariness.
Dost say thy lord will grant no harbourage
To those wayfaring in such need?"
Will ever open to a wanderer's cry."
"Then time we lose in overlong debate.
Lead onward thou."
No more the swineherd said.
But through the blackness of the woods he led,
Sure of his steps as though the night were day.
So came they clear of those deep glades, and saw
A level land where shallow waters spread,
Far silvered by a rising moon, or black
Where sucking marshes lay. And midst of these
A glimmering causeway thrust its single track
To where a sombre castle, dimly grey,
Squat like a toad, thick-walled and moated lay.
The porter hailed them as they reached the gate:
"Who cometh here unasked, so loud and late?"
The swineherd answered: "Here be wanderers twain
Lost in the woods, a knight and damsel they,
Who seek but harbour till the rise of day."
Then screeched a bolt, and rang a falling chain.
In the huge gate there showed a slender slit,
Which would not those with steeds or arms admit,
But to his lord the swineherd went therethrough
And told his tale.
The lord of that wide hold
With crackling laughter heard: "Such grace is due
To wanderers all. The wind perchance is cold.
Let warmth of welcome that defect supply.
Here shall they freely eat and warmly lie,
Though morn repent the price at which they buy."
Then the dark courtyard waked to life. The light
Of torches tossed. The huge gates backward swung.
And Marhaus entering left behind the night
To find fair welcome, greeting knights among.
The wearied steeds to groom and stall were led.
The knight and damsel both were chambered well.
And well accomplished was the banquet spread
To which they came content that all befell
As most they would.
But in his hall await
Its lord required Sir Marhaus, ere they sate,
His name to show. Of mean aspect was he,
So formed, so featured, that his high degree,
Even by long use, could give no dignity;
Nor length of years availed. Behind him stood
Six taller sons, whose thews at least were good,
Though knightly in their gaits they could not be.
"Sir knight," he said, "I would thy name, and who
You serve, and whence you ride, and where you dwell,
And what in these woods you seek to do."
And Marhaus, stirred in his tempestuous pride,
Gave curt reply: "In Arthur's land I ride,
As all men may. An errant knight am I.
It little were thy gain my name to know.
If grudged be hostel here, we can but go."
"Nay, but I ask not vainly. Cause have I.
And in thine answer may thy safety lie."
"My safety? That may in myself abide.
But seldom need a knight of Ireland hide
The name he bears. Sir Marhaus. Near akin
To Ireland's king am I, and hence allied
To Arthur's throne and part."
"I can but grieve,"
Answered that lord, "that lightly I believe
That truth is said. For only Arthur's foe
Is free to enter here, and free to go,
Since of the thirteen sons that once I knew
Gawain's fierce wrath left less than one for two.
Now I am sworn myself the scale to weigh.
Here are the six who live, and surely they
At morn shall slay thee, or thyself shalt slay
Myself and them."
Sir Marhaus thought: 'But few
Such odds may dure, but yet if Gawain slew
The half, were no great bout to dare ado
With these, the remnant of the evil crew.
Yet would I know with whom I thus contend,'
And asked: "I would thy name?"
"My name let lie.
Duke of the Southern Marshes called am I."
"It is a name much known as Arthur's foe."
"It is a name thyself shall closelier know."
"Well, with the morn be that God will to be."
Thus to this friendless welcome entered he,
And had good tendence, and the damsel too,
Till morning came, and with the morning light
Came word for that hard strife to make prepare.
At that he rose, and when the mass was through
Broke fast, and armed, and every brace aright
His damsel's care assured, and down the stair
He went to find his saddled steed await
In the wide court-yard, and alike were there
The seven whose malice sought his death to be.
Lawless as hounds unleashed they charged, and he
Sate with raised lance the while that, two by two,
They brake their own upon him, and when the last
Snapt through the stave, his own he lowered, and fast
Charged on them lanceless in such sort as cast
The old knight to earth among his sons; and drew
Swift sword to strive, and in the mood to slay.
Next to his point the duke, head-injured, lay,
While his cast sons regained their feet, and they,
As wary dogs a stronger bear who bait,
To left and right with naked swords await
Closed on him. At which the fallen cried in fear:
"I charge ye for my life ye come not near,
So that Sir Marhaus on his part forebear
My life to let."
Sir Marhaus answered: "Yea,
They well may yield, for well their fates may share
Thine own. Most shortly shouldst thou lead the way."
Thereat, as faint of heart for more ado,
Or filial-urged a father's life to sue,
They knelt, and on their cross-hilt swords they swore
Against the king's high peace to work no more.
But soothly at the feast of Pentecost
At Arthur's feet those seven swords to lay;
And gain more honour thus than thus they lost.
"Why, when the better road prefers the lake,
Turn we abrupt a mountain path to take?"
"I lead thee where I may the most provide
To match thy valour, or to feed thy pride."
So to the north they turned, and so they came
After two days to where De Vance's dame
Had called a tourney, with a prize so great
- A heavy circlet of fine gold, wherein
Red rubies glowed - that such a prize to win
Knights of known prowess and large estate
Had scorned not to endure long journeying
From distant lands; and those of nearer name,
Glittering in arms, a jostling concourse came,
Baron, and earl, and captain; prince and king.
Of these Sir Marhaus proved so far the best
That forty fallen knights his strength confest,
And with much worship, and the crowd's acclaim,
They hailed him victor. Here some days he stayed,
Feted and feasted by the dame who made
That splendid tourney with no more intent
Than some high knight proved greatest to procure,
Not as guest only, but for paramour.
Ever she sought the noblest knights to know,
Ever when all was gained she let them go.
Wealth and high birth and youth and loveliness
She found a market-price that much could buy.
Ever she sought new lords in wantonness,
Lay with them once, and then no more would lie.
Sir Marhaus sought no more and took no less,
His heart as lustful and his pride as high.
So with the circlet on his helm to show
His valour's height, and how bebruised and low
His foes should fall, his damsel's guidance led
Far south and west, a seven day's ride, until
Beneath the shadow of a Cornish hill,
A bare grey hold, that o'er a desolate land
Looked southward to a wild sea-beaten strand,
They entered, and were met with welcome fair,
Though service mean, and meagre banquet there
Told that its youthful lord no wealth controlled,
And freely at the meal its course was told.
For said Sir Fergus: "Though these lands I own
By right of birth, but little gain I win,
While there is one so fierce who dwells herein,
So fearful in his strength contemptuous,
So prone to plunder, or to cast away
All that exceeds the hunger of the day,
Whom I should meet in knightly wise, but I
Should do the land no aid, but vainly die,
So greatly stronger of his hands is he."
To which Sir Marhaus answered: "Yet to me
He may not seem beyond a likely fall;
And ride I seeking where such needs may call.
Where lies his strength? In skill the lance to guide?
Or wind and limb a tireless sword to sway?"
"The lance? No lance he lifts. He doth not ride.
No horse would bear him. Oft the long June day
He sits or wanders in these woods, as might
A wolf of empty maw. An axe perchance,
Or iron club within his reach may be.
But little need of anvilled steel hath he,
For should you meet him, and his hands were bare,
A great limb from some mighty oak to tear
Would be his likely choice. One sweeping blow
May break a good steed's limbs, and bring him low,
And thus at mercy cast a mounted foe.
Mercy I said? He doth not mercy know.
Tallard his name, and devil-hearted he."
"On foot, it seemeth, must our meeting be."
At dawn, well guided by Earl Fergus' men,
Sir Marhaus came to where the monster's den
Close hollies screened, and he, that screen before,
Sprawled on the turf. A mace beside him lay,
Set with long spikes, and matted hair and gore
Proclaimed the slaughter of a previous prey.
Agile despite his bulk, his feet he gained,
As Marhaus' bold approach his glance perceived.
No parley his, nor fair pretence he feigned,
But in both hands the ponderous mace he heaved,
And bellowing like a beast he forward ran.
Too near a fatal end that strife began,
For Marhaus, loth a forward foot to yield,
Met the club's menace with a lifted shield,
That leapt to fragments at the blows descent.
Onward its sweeping course unhindered went
To shatter a sideward rock. Sir Marhaus thought:
'To stand is here to die,' and warier now,
Avoided, in his haste he knew not how,
Reiterate blows, until the giant's pursuit
Outreached its aim. For with one stroke's descent,
Which for an ending of that strife he meant,
He stumbled to his knee, and swift to seize
The instant chance, Sir Marhaus turned and smote.
While on his hand he leaned. The monster saw
His arm fall severed to the sand, cut through
Both muscle and bone. As some half-slaughtered bull
Bursts the strong toils, a blood-drenched course he ran
Down the slope sands, the while the sword he knew
Thrusting behind, his stumbling legs to stay.
Ahead the refuge of the water lay
In which beyond the common height of man
He waded, past pursuit. But those who saw
Hard chased and maimed their feared and hated foe,
Earl Fergus' servants, (as by natural law
All creatures so abused their chance who know
Will seize it) gathering on the water's verge,
Heaved rocks upon him. Soon he might not show
His head for one short breath above the surge
Except it bled beneath a further blow;
Until it rose no longer. Smooth and bright
The long wave rippled where he sank from sight.
Then those dark hollies Marhaus pierced to where,
Between sheer rocks some ancient thunder split
The giant made his fear-defended lair.
Ladies and beaten knights were captive there,
Whom mercy's had not been the thought to spare,
But servile for his monstrous use were they.
These did Sir Marhaus to the light release,
And found much plunder in that lair that lay,
Which Fergus would not take, but more increase,
For more he said was his the debt to pay
To half his lands. But Marhaus answered: "Nay,
For wealth is here beyond my need."
Content were both; and Marhaus there remained
In honoured care. For that first-taken blow
Had bruised him inly, and the months were slow
Before, with loaded spoils and strength regained,
To meet his comrades at that woodland well
He rode, their deeds to hear, and his to tell.
Now turn we to Ewaine. That damsel old
Led the young knight toward the sunset's gold,
That dark against the flaming west they rode
Toward the marshes of North Gales. Next eve
- The shadow still behind, the light before -
They came through meadow-scented vales to where
A king had called high tournament; and there
His strength he tried and proved, and gained the meed:
A fair ger-falcon, and a white war-steed
Trapped all in gold.
The damsel's guidance showed
Many a strange chance along a mountain road,
Through which with honour he came. A tower at last,
Between a slope-wood and a long lake shore
- Where the wide reeds their glamorous hosts upcast
In outcry for their outraged haunts, that far
Through the dim west, beneath its single star,
Circled, and filled it with their wailed protest -
Awaiting shelter showed.
Their course, anear
The lapping margin of the shadowy mere
Toward a dark entrance led. No welcome here,
Nor shine of torch, nor glint of warder's spear,
The lake repaid; but deepening darkness hid
The silent hold.
No less that damsel led
Boldly thereto, and when their names were said
To the grudged parley at the grating slit,
Entrance was theirs to lighted hall, and kind
The welcome that its lady gave.
As one," she said, "who is but fugitive
On her own land. By greater strength oppressed
Than mine could be." And at the meal she told
How she, the Lady of the Rock, was held
Nigh prisoned in that strong tower; for brethren two
Of the Red Hold - Sir Edward and Sir Hugh -
Accounted perilous knights, had robbed her due.
"Here in this narrow space contained I dwell,
Who own the land from lake to height," she said;
"And those who are not bought, and have not fled,
Who yet for mean reward my order do,
Are now so weak, and have become so few,
That in contempt of my futility,
As sunk beneath regard, they let me be."
In more assertion of her cause, she showed
The writings of the land, and bonds ignored
By those strong pilferers of her right, that so
Ewaine believed, and answered: "That you tell
Forbids debate. Your words and proofs too well
Expose the wrong to doubt it. Rest content.
They shall restore thee all, or much repent.
"Yet first in peace we ask, for wrath and wrong
Work wrong and wrath too often. If we fail,
Then doubt not shall the sword for right prevail.
For sworn in Arthur's name to cleanse the land
Are numerous knights of better strength than I;
And I may yet suffice thee."
"Prince," she said
"Thy noble gentleness fulfils report;
And if I may not as of right I ought,
Shall God requite thee."
Fair the words he sent
Requiring those two lords, in Arthur's name
To meet him there, to prove or loose their claim,
Ere the next dawn its morning light had spent.
Thereat they came those castle gates before,
A hundred knights behind them. Jest and mirth
Stirred the gay line their fluttering pencels led,
As though his mother's spells had called to birth
Fiend-powers too strong for all his hardihed
To lightly rule or lay. But he, the more
For that bold rout resolved, forthright had thought
To ride to meet them, till that dame besought
More trustless caution.
"Heed them naught," she said,
"Neither fair words nor any oaths they swear.
Such men are ever what at first they were,
And that by force they take, by guile they stay."
So from the wall Sir Ewaine held debate,
Requiring of a right they could not show.
But with light scorn they answered: "Right or no,
That which we have we little doubt to hold,
Maugre the most she may. But we will yet
Accept thy battle, if thy heart be bold
Our terms to take. We are not single here,
But partnered are we, and must so be met.
And if two spears against a single spear
You think not past your valour's competence,
Then will we meet thee on this witnessed bond,
That, if we win, she cease her loud offence,
Which vexes all the land with vain pretence."
"Now in God's quarrel who shall doubt or die?"
Ewaine made answer. "In good heart will I
Against ye twain contest it."
"Let there be
Sufficient bond," they said, "that wholly she
Her fretful claim will loose, except that so,
In clear fair field, on level ground and bare,
All rescue barred, ourselves and only thou
This cause shall prove; and if so much ye dare,
Let morn disclose."
He answered: "All ye say
I grant; and on this strife our right shall rest.
Return ye here with rising dawn of day,
And he shall yield who must, and hold who may."
Light-hearted rose Ewaine, as only they
May rise erect to face a threatening day
Who think not that God's part is theirs, nor fear
He shall not surely in His part appear.
So in good counsel to himself he said:
"God's knights may fall, but not discomfited.
I have not Marhaus' might, nor Gawain's skill
With lance and sword alike, but yet my will
May be no less than theirs, and God with me
More potent than a second sword should be."
Thus mooded, to the wide and barriered space
Without the gates, which was their meeting-place
For doubt of treason should he venture more,
He issued, well deviced. For all he wore
Had both his hostess' and his damsel's care
Dressed at all points the best of steel to bear.
Against him there Sir Edward and Sir Hugh
Their heavy spears declined. A single two
They charged upon him, but how oft is true
That which is good to think is vain to do.
The jostling shoulders of their steeds but ill
Their aims allowed. Their lances broke. But still
Ewaine his seat sustained, the while that he,
Whose eyes were only for his rightward foe,
Sir Edward smote and cast. To like degree
He compassed next his brother's overthrow.
But lightly both they rose, and swords they drew.
Here was a hardier test of one to two.
But in good heart Ewaine, with swift avoid,
Leapt from his steed before they closed, and so
His shield he raised, and all his art employed
To take their blades upon it, and more designed
His own defence, than instant chance to find
His foes to wound. The watching crowd that thronged
The barrier rails, and those of friendlier will
The castle wall who lined, were fixed and still
In that suspense, which long endured, for he
Defended with fine sleights, and patiently
To wait his chance, and when it came, so well
The instant seized that low Sir Edward fell
Down-smitten on the helm, so shrewd a blow
That good steel yielded, and the skull below
Was cloven. At the dead knight's side, Sir Hugh
Still faced Ewaine, but now his confidence
Had left him largely. With no more pretence
Of equal valour, back a stumbling way
Before Ewaine's hard-hammering harvestry
He faltered to his knees, and cast aside
His vain down-beaten sword: "I yield," he cried.
"Have mercy thou!"
To which, in gentleness
Answered Ewaine: He stretched a hand to raise
The kneeling knight: "You will the wrong redress
Which stirred this strife; and then for loftier days
At Arthur's court attend, his vows to swear."
So peace was made, and she he fought to spare
With joyous tears embraced him, while Sir Hugh
Wept for the brutish knight her champion slew.
There for long months Ewaine well-tended lay,
For as his heat was past his hurts he knew.
Many and deep and hard to heal were they,
But at the last he rose with strength anew,
As life awakened from its winter sleep,
To face the perils of the lonely way,
And with his damsel rode, the tryst to keep
Where from dark ivies leapt the fountain fair
At which they parted twelve short months before.
Three of the four at punctual time they met,
But Gawain's rose-crowned damsel was not there.
Still with Sir Marhaus in their company
Rode the two cousins by foul ways or fair,
Until a courier met them. Long had he
Sought them with Arthur's message: To repair
Back to the court in honour undeclined
He prayed them: "For you had not left a day
Before the King Urience rose in wrath to say
That, plot Queen Morgan's malice what she may,
His life were pledged for thee."
"That will we gladly, though the king denied
Fair justice, and a loyal friend forbad
The rights which to the lords of Gore belong;
Yet great and bitter was the cause he had,
And at my mother's door the wrong shall lie."
Then for twelve days they rode the wild woods through,
Before ploughed fields and kindly roofs they knew,
And came to Camelot.
There the Irish knight
Was known of some, and for his noble kin
Welcomed of more; and when at Pentecost
Came Pelleas to the court with Nimue,
And full session of the Table showed
Two places vacant (for two knights were lost
In such high ventures as they might not win),
On Marhaus and on Pelleas were bestowed
Those seats left vacant, and the Table's fame
Grew with the years, for still a mightier name
Would fill the space of whom no longer came
From knightly failure, or unkinightly shame.
Yet feuds were there, and jealous hates and mean,
Held in strong leash by Arthur's nobler will.
The death-feud Lot's and Pellinor's sons between
Was latent for the time, but thirsted still
Its lust of waiting vengeance to fulfil.
Though Lamorack's gentler nature half forgot,
There was no changing in the sons of Lot.
And Pelleas now on Gawain looked as one
Whom honour well might slay, and friendship shun.
But Nimue counselled: "Let Lord Gawain be.
What wrong he did was little loss to thee.
His craft in distant days may well restrain
His fiercer brethren to the kingdom's gain.
Save in swift wraths, as when his hounds were slain,
Sagacious even in his hates is he."
End of part 1