The Song Of Arthur - Chapter XVI
by S. Fowler Wright
Return to Chapter XV
Elaine Of Carbonac.
Before Sir Tristram first to Camelot came,
Or Palomides bore a boasted name,
While Lamorack lived, and courtly life was gay,
Oblivious that nor Earth nor Heaven should stay
The lengthening shadows of the later day,
One Pentecost when the full Table's might
Was ranged, and Arthur at the crowded hall
Rejoicing gazed, he marked swift silence fall
Of those whose lips were loud, whose hearts were light.
For there, in that wide hall, in all men's sight,
It seemed without approach, a hermit stood
In russet garbed; and murmurs of the wood,
And shadowing of great trees, a wondrous thing,
Were round them, till the solid walls became
Less real than they, and what were truth or dream
Were hard to tell; though likeliest all may seem
And naught may be.
Was never earthly knight
Should gaze undaunted on such wildering sight.
Fear stilled the hall. But boldly spake the king:
"Friend, if thou art, I charge thee speak, for here
Are those who will not flinch, and will not fear,
For any wonder or device you bring."
The hermit answered: "Naught of fear I tell,
And all of life is wonder. Wit ye well.
Why are two sieges vacant at thy side?"
The king gave answer: "Here are sieges void
By Merlin's word. If any there should sit,
By fault of honour or of birth unfit,
He were God's outcast, and his life destroyed,
Though how we may not guess."
The sage replied:
"So is it rightly. For one siege awaits
A knight God-favoured and most kingly bred,
Who is not yet conceived, but soon will be;
Destined at last the hidden Grail to see
Which sin hath clouded, and the private hates
Which here divide ye, and the lusts as strong,
Which the high purpose of the Table wrong,
Reject from dwelling where it else might be."
He ceased, and vanished, and the canopy
Of great boughs faded, and the fresh night air
No longer swayed them. But the walls were there,
Solid again for wildered eyes to see.
Then through the silence, to the knights anear,
There came the sound of Modred's whispered sneer:
"What said he? This bold knight conceived today?
That puts his coming half a life away.
No closer rival now should Gawain fear."
Sir Lancelot to the Bridge of Corbin rode,
Dealing to all the justice of the king,
According to that sworn knight-errant code
Which lent his lance to such adventuring
As evil might avert, or rescue bring.
Men say that from Le Fey's malignant spell
He rescued one her jealous hate had cast
Into such torture as no life could last,
Except by magic art, conceived of hell.
For in a vapour of such heat she lay
As had too quickly swept her life away
For Morgan's malice, save a loathly spell
Held the reluctant soul therein to dwell,
Twisting in ceaseless pain that would not slay.
Sir Lancelot, entering through the eddying steam,
As no man till that hour had dared to do,
Found it unreal as a fading dream,
(Who knoweth what be feigned or what be true?)
Only that lady's mortal need he knew,
And by the hand amidst the clouding steam
He caught her, and to sunlit safety drew.
Naked she was as one at birth must be,
And, as the magic failed, so fair to see
That none should doubt the cause of Morgan's hate.
Fair thanks she paid, as in good sooth she might,
And being serviced well, and robed aright,
She said: "Fair lord, and more than lord to me,
Wilt thou that side by side we kneel to give
Thanks to High God that through thine aid I live?"
"That will I gladly."
Then she led to where
There stood a chapel on a wild sea-shore.
Peaceful it seemed, but in the graveyard there
Were tombs that once had known the reverent care
Love gives to death, but now were burst and bare,
Emptied of those sad burdens once they bore .
For came a dragon at the noon of night
From the black depths outraging. Wide it tore
Even strong stone, its carnal meal to reach.
Sir Lancelot asked: "What means it?"
"Nay," she said,
"Naught is there here to void, and naught to dread.
The dragon comes not in the hours of light.
But mark its trail along the lonely beach.
Some deep sea-cavern holds it sleeping now."
Sir Lancelot answered naught, nor made delay,
But to that chapel's holy quietude
He followed whom he saved, with her to pray.
Then, as they left it, once again he viewed
Those tombs so foully raped. "The night," he said,
" - the next dark night its slimy coil's extend
On the dry earth where mortal feet may tread,
Shall two lives counter where one life shall end."
So meant he surely, and two nights from then,
Unfollowed by the feet of fearful men
For closer comfort than a mile behind,
Again he sought the plundered tombs, to find
More strenuous hours. In sheltering dunes he lay,
Between them and the sands.
The clouds were low,
With scattering rain that drove as cold as snow,
The autumn moon was yet two hours away,
When came the dragon, with a fiery breath
That lit the rain; and to the place of death
On lizard feet it dragged its length.
Where Lancelot from the hiding dunes arose,
At which the hot sparks waxed to spouting flame
That seared his shield. Against such breath to close
How can he? But his swifter feet contrive
Its hinder parts to reach, and there to drive
An instant thrust, before the swinging tail
Grazes, but does not clasp, his covering mail,
As he leaps backward. On his shield he takes
A further burst of fire, the while he makes
Swift feint to foil its slower-moving wit,
And thrusts again.
Now, where its side is slit,
A black smoke rises, and the fire is less
That from its frustrate jaws out-jets. And now,
From feint more sudden, and more bold aggress,
The great sword downward sweeps. Before its tail
Its spine is severed, and its quarters fail:
The legs can move, the tail can swing no more.
The sword its belly slits, and smoke and gore
Soak the dark ground, and choke the murky air.
Backward Sir Lancelot stept, at last aware
That men who had not dangered close before
Were round him now. The dragon's bellowing roar,
Which in the stress of strife he did not hear,
Had reached them where they hoved, and brought them near
When changed its tone to shriller notes of pain.
Now riding foremost of the closing train,
On a white stallion, Corbin's holy king,
Of royal mien, though maimed by Balyn's spear,
Pellam, advanced and spake: "Fair valiant knight,
For thy much service this foul beast to slay
I would requite thee in such seemly way
As to thy rank accords. My halls to grace,
I pray thee choose them for thy biding place."
Sir Lancelot answered: "None such rank could claim
He were not honoured by thy courtesy."
For Pellam's was a name of high degree.
Close-born of blood, and lineal heir was he
To Joseph, who the Grail from Holy Land
To Britain brought.
"Fair knight," he asked, "thy name?"
"Men call me Lancelot of the Lake."
"- Whose fame
Hath come before thee. . . Goodliest cause have I
High Heaven to thank for thee."
"I know not why.
But thank thy bounty."
Surely naught he knew
Of Pellam's secret hope. But yet were true
Those words, and more than barren courtesy.
For, at Elaine, his daughter's birth, a seer
Foretold that one, the noblest knight of all,
Would sire her babe; and he she bore would grow
To find the Grail, and save a world of woe
Should men look Godward, as they might; and so
They taught her to expect and wait. But few
Of knights world-famous came to Corbin now,
While she to youth's full flower from childhood grew,
And none who could be called the best. But here
Was one whose greatest claim would all allow.
Hope rose: "My halls," King Pellam urged, "are near.
Thy needs are instant from this strife." He led
To those high towers which once had Balyn wrecked,
Since by a thousand's toil again erect.
They showed like crystal in the morning light,
From ground that rose to no exceeding height,
Though loftier than the moors that round it spread.
Inward they passed to chambers richly dight,
And the high service of a kingly court,
Which yet maintained its royal state, although
It bore the burden of enduring woe.
Sir Lancelot entering here was tended well,
And being to the hall of banquet brought,
He first the name of Pellam's daughter heard,
And scarcely heard it, with regarding slight,
And tribute of the careless-kindly word
Of casual greeting said; nor marked the light
Her shy glance held responsive, doubting naught,
As nurse and priest and sire from childhood taught,
By Heaven's guiding rule, herself he sought.
Nor Pellam doubt allowed. What knight should see
And leave unbarriered wealth? For fair was she
As any of high blood could wish to be.
Guenever's grace, Guenever's gold, she had:
Guenever's green her slender beauty clad.
Though not the keen swift flame of life which glowed
In Arthur's queen, that all her motions showed,
Was hers, yet sweeter lips and eyes more fair,
And surely dawn of tenderer youth was there.
But Lancelot of all ladies cared for one,
And not for lust's advance, or service done,
Either required or took love's harvestry.
Marvels of Corbin and of Carbonac
Had Lancelot heard, and all believed; for he
Knew well that wonders duller minds will lack
The wit for credence, God's unclosing hand
Scatters disordered as the stars, and far
Beyond our reading as their wanderings are,
Though all His purpose, and his laws obey.
For what but shadows of His thoughts are they?
A dove upon an open casement lit,
Closing white pinions. In its beak it held,
The olive sign which first the fears dispelled
Of those who doubted the receding wave
Would make such large retreat as life would save
For those who in their sole frail refuge lay.
Around its neck a little censer swung,
From which such odours spread as none may say
In human speech, for guests of God were they
Who filled King Pellam's hall of banquet there.
Instant before the eyes of wondering men
The viands that the royal table bore
Were tenfold richer than they showed before,
Transformed to food for heavenly conclaves fit.
And as men stretched with eager hands for it,
Being compelled beyond their fears thereto,
There came a damsel up the hall, who wore
A garment of the dawn's most lucent hue.
Was no man there her name or nature knew,
But all could guess the clouded Grail she bore
High-lifted, for within its misty shell
It burnt far brighter than the flames of hell
Show, through the blackness of the nether skies,
The desolation that around it lies.
But this was golden-rose, and lovelier far
Than earth's bright metals or its roses are.
"Pellam," she said, "the long-sought sign am I.
Lift thy sad heart, for now the hour is nigh."
She spake, and was not, and the hushed hall heard
A murmur as of leaves which have no word,
But myriad answers to the wind's caress.
"Now," said the king, "is God's high mercy here,
And Heaven's door, to those who inward press,
Yields at the latch; but if it open wide
Not God Himself, but only men decide."
The Grail was that the hand of Christ had set
To His own lips, and from that touch divine
Had passed it, burdened with translated wine
To those whom most he loved, lest men forget
His lonely duel with the king of night.
This sacred cup the wandering saint had brought
When from the tomb of Christ he came, and taught
A faith unknown. And by its pregnant sight
Had sins been cleansed, and wrongs been rectified,
Till those whose hearts the Holy Name denied,
Leagued with wild heathen of the Northern Sea,
Ravaged the land; and lest the Sacred Grail
Should fall to impious use, and rescue fail,
God snatched it from the hands and sights of men,
Yet left it near them, its return decreed
If loyal service done, and Christly creed,
Should cleanse their hearts and clear their sight. And when
Heir should be born to Pellam's line, he knew
God's mercy offered, and the test was then.
"Cold," said King Pellam, "is his courtesy.
No more he heeds her than the crouching hound
He steps aside to pass. What gain can be
From this brief sojourn?"
"Lo," Dame Brisen said,
"Where fate so wills it shall a way be found,
And that be mine to do."
The dame was known
For arts of night and sleights of sorcery
Such as plain-dealing men must fear to see
Being unbucklered for defence therefrom.
But not for ill her magic spells would she,
As did Sir Garlon, ere he died, contrive,
But rather that avert of ill should be,
And weakness sheltered stand, and cultures thrive.
"Do that thou wilt," King Pellam said. "I know
Thou wilt not fail me."
Then Elaine she sent
With marshalled escort of strong spears, as though
On some far visit of set state she went,
But so devised that scarce from sight were they
When the broad road they left, a tower to gain
Through the dark woods, but four short leagues away;
The castle of Case.
Against a driving rain
They rode with draggled plumes, and wind that blew
Disordered cloaks, and lapped drenched pencels dry.
Not the dense-closing woods, that hid the sky,
And forced at times a single file, could break
The storm's short fury, but as Case was seen
- A square grey stronghold, which a heaving lake
As greyly bordered, where all else was green -
The wind fell, and blue heaven returned.
Who centred all, no sound of winds astir,
No beating of the storm's full fury, roused
Feeling or thought, her mind a formless fear
Of that so long designed, so swiftly near,
With wonder and with expectation blent.
Would this strange knight reject? Would fate relent?
Was she next blessed to Her by God espoused?
Was she most cursed no natural love to know?
Or would he love her if she wrought it so?
... Her cloak was cast. The log fire blazed. The voice
Of Brisen reached her: "Fix your eyes on me.
Believe and triumph. Your long-loved is he.
You are Guenever. At most risk you came
The willing bondage of his love to claim.
Subject and silent shall your part be done
And not since that fair birth of God His Son
Shall be such vantage to the world of men,
Or honour like to thine."
As tranced she heard;
And with no sign and no revealing word
Bent to the counsel all her life had known,
Passed to the chamber where her mentor led,
To wait in darkness and in doubt alone.
One came to Lancelot whom it seemed he knew,
Whose hand a missive from his doublet drew
In furtive wise, and showed a ruby ring
Which was Guenever's secret signalling,
For when she wore it was her meaning clear.
But in this distant land -? How came she here?
Wondering he took the script, though naught he said,
By caution ruled, but walked apart and read:
'I bide the night at Case. If here ye speed
The time is thine.'
The words were brief. But when
Risked Arthur's queen the peril of the pen
In amorous scroll? And that which here was writ
Might be eclipsed, he thought, by nimble wit,
Seeing the friendship that the king and she
So long had shown him. Fain of heart was he,
And little stirred a careful doubt to weigh.
Doth hunger cavil at the meal's display?
He made excuse for short abide. He said
He must ride onward at the fall of day.
Yes, through the night. With secret joy the king
Gave courteous answer. Had he willed to stay
It had been joy to hear. Fair journeying
He else must wish him. "That," Sir Lancelot said,
"I think to find."
The summer eve was red
When he rode lonely on the open way,
Till the great woods contained him.
Dark were they
When noon was clearest. One strait path alone
Less dense in closure made the darkness less.
Will little light suffice where else is none.
Good pace he made. 'In such close wilderness
Once rode Rience,' he thought, 'and might not see
The waiting ambush, nor his loss avoid
For all the knights behind him.' Ware was he
Of any movement heard from brake or tree,
And bare his sword, and drest his shield. Fordone
By false device he had some fear to be,
Yet confident in that short scroll was he;
And none waylaid him. Now the light ahead,
Though darkness only, was more clear to see
Than the faint difference in the boughs above.
As daylight seemed it when he left the wood,
And in a wide cleared space the stronghold stood,
Lightless itself, as though it housed the dead.
The postern opened as he reined thereat,
With noiseless motion. One dim light supplied
Its feeble aid his iron feet to guide
Behind the gentler steps of her who led.
"Be ever silent as thou canst," she said,
"For here hath come - it was an hour from now -
King Arthur's nephew."
How should he doubt the tale? Or fail to see
Its likely menace? Here, he knew not how,
Or on what pretext made, the queen had come
To this fair land where he was known to be.
And if one followed whose hostility,
Sullen and jealous to suspect, was plain
In earlier deeds and words, could caution take
Too great a care?
His further steps were light
Till came they to a chamber richly dight,
But void of life, and lightless. Here she laid
Her dim lamp on the board, where cates were seen,
And a great flagon of red wine. "The queen,"
She said, "lies in the inner room. She bade
That all be vacant. For thy use was spread
That which thou see'st. Of her care, she said
Wine would be welcome from so long a ride."
"I thank the thought," he answered, fear of guile
Not entering to his mind. The wine he tried,
And found it good. He drank full deep, the while
With lifted lamp the open door she held,
Showing a room as dimly gloomed; but he
Dazed by the draught, saw what he looked to see,
And would do till God's light her craft dispelled.
Near was the morn, and ere the morn to go,
Sir Lancelot thought, was wise resolve, and so
Rose, and the shuttered casement loosed. The air
Of morning entered, and the sunlight fair.
From that clear dawn the night's enchantment fled...
One whom he knew not from the nuptial bed
Watched with wide eyes, but whom he could not guess.
And cold to that bare-breasted loveliness,
And hot in wrath a treasoned trick to pay,
"Traitress!" He cried, and snatched his sword, that lay
On a near chest, "the while thy life endure
Gyved am I in a shame that naught can cure."
Meeting his glance thereat, she answered: "Lord,
I nothing dread thee, nor that naked sword:
Nor scorn I life: nor do I lean indeed
Too surely on thy fair repute. I plead
Another life foretold. To slay me thus
Would slay thy child. For this my father willed,
That God's high purpose be complete through us,
The long doom lifted, and the quest fulfilled."
"Who art thou, traitress?"
"Lord, Elaine am I.
King Pellam's daughter."
"Well, I let thee live!
And that I venge not must I next forgive.
You knew not all the bitter wrong you did,
And none can measure what its fruits may be...
That I should slay thee suppliant, God forbid,
Or that I fail thy gracious youth to see."
Then down he laid the sword, and courteously
Halsed her and kissed. "I will not blame," he said,
"Largely thyself, but who this witchery
Contrived to snare us. What its end shall be
God only knoweth."
"Fair my lord," she said,
"Be gracious to me! For my maidenhed
Is lost to thee. And not of evil will
I gave it, nor of wanton mood, but so
That God his mercy to our land should show,
And that foretold the coming days fulfil."
Kindly he answered, though she knew too well
Wroth was he yet for that which there befell,
Nor meant for aught her further love to be.
"In any need," he said, "thy call to me
Shall bring swift answer. On my sword depend..
Though never more we meet, believe me friend.
God keep thee ever."
Then he turned to go;
For more of love she was not born to know.
Thus for Elaine love's joy awaked and died
In one short night, and all her years beyond
Looked back thereto, or took their livelier pride
From the fair fruit it showed. Her first despond
At life dawn-ended died, as well might be
The child she bore from grace to grace to see
Nor of need her life had been
So bounded, for a knight who harboured near,
Sir Bromell, swore that with his single spear,
For neither depth of snow nor may-day green
Moving therefrom, throughout the changing year
The bridge of Corbin would he hold, that so
Should be her name renowned, and all men know
He most her worshipped, and esteemed her best,
Purest, and most delect, and loveliest.
Naught would she heed his homage. More her thought
Returned to him from whom no word was brought,
Nor whom herself by any word she sought;
But more her toils and more her prayers she spent
Her babe to guard; and all her cares were bent
That in the years beyond he should not fail
In the hard seeking of the Sacred Grail.
But when two years had been, on random quest
Far wandering through the barren, lava'd land,
(Where might no life its waiting curse withstand,
Save lustwort on the marsh, to death that led)
Came Bors to Carbonac.
The wounded king
Received him, for himself and kinship's claim,
With honour; and at the meal, how Lancelot came
That earlier year he told, and how that he
Broke the strong spell of Morgan's sorcery;
And how the dragon of the tombs he slew,
That fed on death, and held the grave in fee,
(The fading purple of a lustrous wing
Yet shown in proof). But naught of all said he
That else had been, when Brisen's wile was tried,
And falsehood's word had caused Sir Lancelot ride
To where till dawn in amorous bondage he
Had lain, and thought that in that secret hour
Guenever's tryst he kept. He did not tell
What came therefrom, through which, he trusted well,
The fruitless land from Balyn's curse should be,
As Merlin told, redeemed; and, tenfold more,
The Grail achieved; nor how that full time should see
The healing of the mystic wound he bore.
But while the maimed king spake, his daughter brought
The guest-cup to Sir Bors. More fair he thought,
Either in wandering ways or Arthur's court,
Was seldom damsel that his eyes had seen.
For she, on whom her kingdom's hope was set
Its curse to break, if freed to different ways,
Had shown to all her equal right of praise
With those who first at Camelot's banquets shone.
His mind recalled the tale of Arthur's queen
As young, as regal, and as radiant-fair
To him who was not then the kingdom's heir
Supposed, but Anton's son, where first they met.
And when he lightly cast that thought away,
Then also by the cradled babe that lay
At her near hand, his passing glance was stayed,
And when withdrawn returned without his will,
- Slight heed his wont of nameless babes - and still,
Unreasoned, from that night recalled would rise
The thought of Benoic's lord, his house's head.
And when, the while the fretting doubt he weighed,
She passed, and bent aloud her love to speak,
He heard the name of Galahad. "Scarce," he said,
"That name but Benoic knows, and boldened now,
Lady, I ask, and in some trust that thou
Wilt grace reply, nor deem the thing I seek
Of idlesse born, or any lurking guile,
But in some hope of right, and most goodwill -
Who fathered this thy babe? In whom I see,
If later days their lofty end fulfil,
One like our Lancelot, and no less than he."
And she, down-glancing on the babe the while,
And more to Heaven than whom she heard, replied:
"Yea, for my first love and my last was he,
Who loved me never. Of older time was told
That fate should close me, and this birth should be.
So learnt I from my earliest days. To me
This woe was given, through long years to hold
A dream, which dreamlike came, and might not stay.
"One joy was mine, that passed with dawn. One pain,
That gave me Galahad. When he knows not vain
His kisses stained me on the night I lay
In that witched wedlock, till the lighting day
Dissolved it, thinkest thou, past his wrath, it may
Rejoice him aught?"
"We may not doubt," he said,
"Births of good knights, though come of bonds unwed,
Such bonds assoils, and must rejoice their sires;
And when the word stirs Heaven through all its quires,
Their angels in the sight of God are glad."
Scarcely he spake when that which Lancelot
Had seen was his to see. The same white dove
Lit on the sill. The board was richly spread
With heavenly fare. The maiden came. She said:
"Sir Bors de Ganis, see thou hide it not.
Here is no shame; and no conceal should be.
The babe that Lancelot on this maid begot,
First chosen of the knights of God is he,
Himself to chasten, and the Grail to see.
But what comes after will not God decide:
The choice is open, and the gates are wide...
This to the evil court of Arthur tell:
Use well the years, and yet may all be well."
She ceased, and was not. Bors in marvel spake:
"Much have I wandered, and have seen too much
Of wonders in God's world to this mistake.
Well would I that a better dawn should break,
And Arthur's purpose to its height arrive.
Yet jealous lusts and hates and treasons thrive
Too closely round him still, and next his throne - "
Here failed his voice, for that to all men known
Should not be spoken, save in undertone
To those of closest trust; or else denied,
Though even for that false assert he died,
As might by ordeal of God's justice be.
He said: "Of all strange haps is this to me
Most wondrous, and the name of Carbonac
Hath such repute that well this hold were named
The Tower of Ventures."
"Sooth ye speak," replied
The wounded king. "No Christian realm contains
A place which doth so much God's buckler lack.
All fiends make revel which the night unchains...
But now comes Heaven, and not since Garlon died
(I own it justly, though my son was he)
Have been such marvels as at last we see.
"Not any sojourns here except his pains
Be equalled to his Godless plight, for save
His guardian angel shield him, naught remains
Sufficient for his aid where fiends are free."
"To prove so strange a test must knighthood crave,
I will endure this night."
"You will not so
If by my counsel ruled. Four months ago,
In such bold mood, a night must Gawain stay.
But with much honour lost he rode away
Ere the dawn opened its full flower."
I will adventure."
"Then thy sins confess.
The fiends will siege thee, but their power is less
When cleansed the soul."
"That will I gladly."
He took that hazard with clean heart, to show
God's knights are fearless of the ranks of hell.
In a fair chamber was he laid, alight
With many torches. There alone he lay,
For none so bold as would beside him stay,
And when at dawn they asked of what befell
He found clear answer hard.
"I may not well
Divide what happened from maze of dreams aright.
But little rest was mine, for first there came
A spear that no man held. From out the wall
It seemed it issued, with a point of flame,
Clear-burning, amber. Though no guiding hand
Controlled, it held its level course, and through
My shoulder thrust. But this I doubt to tell.
For the wound was not as the point withdrew,
Though long I felt, and feel, its scorching pain.
And when, so hurt, I would awhile have lain
On the soft couch (though still mine arms I kept)
A door swung wide, and one whose sword was bare
Entered (unless perchance in all I slept)
And bade me rise, my life to guard. I said
I was too hurt for strife, but ruthless there
That knight assailed me. Long we fought, until
I lopped his helm, that to his feet he bled,
Whereon I bade him yield, but he withdrew
The way he entered, and returned anew
Whole-helmed and fresh. Again we fought. Again
I had the vantage, but this time I thrust
Between him and the door, that needs he must
Fight on or yield him. Hard he strove in vain
To pass me sideward, and his refuge win;
But to the ground I smote him. Lest he die,
He yielded, and his name he gave - the Knight
Of the Strait Marshes.
"Thus he went, and I
Resought my couch. Some while I lay therein,
Still, by God's mercy, with my arms in sight,
For shafts and quarrels came, I know not whence,
Nor how so many in such place could find
A natural entrance through the casement wide.
I seized mine arms, and by their large defence
I lived, who else a dozen times had died.
For still the arrows fell - before - behind -
And I was wounded in bare spots, although
Few hours have followed, and no wounds I show.
"Then as the shafts their cruel hunt declined,
A lion entered. Wide of mouth was he,
With mane erect, and roaring throat. He leapt,
And reft my shield, but yet my sword I kept,
Which, at close wrestle, through his throat I drave.
"A dragon followed. Not my life to save,
Being so wounded and so toiled, had I
Done more encounter. But his first offence
Turned from me, when a leopard old and grim
Assailed him from behind, so tearing him
That, though he writhed and fought, with short suspense
I saw that which followed could I not foresee,
For as, blood-drenched, with lashing tail he lay,
The leopard licked his paws, and turned away,
Indifferent to his death; and while he died
Out from his mouth a vomit spewed, which threw
A hundred tiny dragons loose, and they
Turned on him, and devoured, and fast they grew
Distending with his blood before it dried.
"The vision passed, if such it were, and peace
Came to me, and with sleepless eyes I saw
A bard of reverend age enthroned who sate,
And smote his harp to give my fears release.
Two adders, careless of the truceless war
Which parts them from mankind, his son to hear,
Had mounted to his neck, and void of fear
Curled round it, while, with cadent voice elate
Of God's high ransom of our race he told;
And how St. Joseph came in days of old,
Gently regardless of the heathen sword,
And brought the Sacred Grail that once our Lord
Passed to His Chosen on the night of woe.
And having closed his song, he bade me go,
Content that life remained. And at that word
A storm without, which earst I scarce had heard,
Though loud it ravened through the tortured night,
To sudden silence fell. Such peace was mine
Scarce could I to blest sleep my heart incline,
However worn, I was so loth to be
Oblivious of that wondrous ecstasy."
So much he told, and they believed him well,
But more, from divers cause, he did not tell
For warning had he heard, that though so far
He had not faltered at the test, he yet
Was distant from the goal that God had set
For those who surely of his chosen are.
Much had he yet to gain, and much forget,
Before he might that holy contest win,
Though was he pure in heart from greed and guile,
Or from the kindlier faults of carnal sin.
And yet more secret than his own, he heard
A warning that he should to Lancelot bear,
That though of most repute for earth's brief while
In skill and fortitude beyond compare,
So that no other knights his equals were,
Yet would he fail upon a harder field,
And honour's shining crest be his to yield,
Unless he cleansed him of continual sin.
Well knew Sir Bors of what was meant. He knew
How strait the cords of Lancelot's bondage drew.
'Fair is she as a flaming dawn,' he thought,
'And noble-natured in a generous sort,
Yet better were that she in dust should lie,
Than he, in all beyond herself so high,
Be draggled ever by her lustful whim.
What honour lies in her? What faith in him
Hath she shown ever? Cruel love she shows,
And jealous doubt, that near to hatred grows
At each false whisper that he loves away.
Here should his heart be drawn. And why should they
-This damsel and himself - be held apart?
Such love is hers as should his comfort be.'
So rose his thoughts, from love of Lancelot bred;
And had Guenever at his mercy been
The while he mused, belike that golden head
Had held no more its poise as Arthur's queen
And carnal mistress of his closest friend.
Neither he told of how, that doubt to end,
A vision came, as though the doors were wide
Which from our earthly eyes the Holiest hide.
Of that to speak were mortal words too few,
Too weak, too narrow. Then at last there came
A naked sword before his eyes which shone.
Steel was its hue. As though cold steel were flame
It glowed to blind him. When its blade withdrew
Was all divine but recollection gone.
Bors rode to Camelot. To Sir Lancelot there
All that his eyes had seen, his ears had heard,
He told of Carbonac. Was seld his care
Straight truth to hide. He said: "A bride more fair:
More equal to content thee: more designed
For gracious consort, or thy babes to bear,
In searching of ten realms you might not find.
Her child is thine; and thine herself should be."
But Lancelot answered: "All of her you tell
I well believe; and had I loved her well
It had been short of her sweet worth. But I
From shame to shame should pass to thus put by
My present bond, except consent were free
From her who holds me; and it will not be."
"Then wouldst thou?"
"Not of choice. But that she willed
Should be against all rule but Heaven's fulfilled."
No more was said. For what was left to say?
Too close in love and in accord were they
To barter words of difference. Each was ware
Of other's thoughts unspoken. Bors withdrew
The news he carried with their kin to share.
No secret was there in the thing he knew,
Whatever fruit its wider talk should bear.
Guenever heard it, as she must. Her eyes
Darkened in startled half-belief. She sent
An urgent word to Lancelot. Well he knew
That she, who oft would take false doubt for true,
Would not be stilled by less than truth. He said:
"I well believe the child is mine, but I
Was treasoned to suppose that there you lay.
Because that where I might I do not lie,
You must believe me wholly."
"That you say
Is wild for credence."
"It was all foretold
By Merlin. So King Pellam swears."
'Alike for Arthur's birth Mage Merlin wrought.
It may be.... Hast thou seen her since?'
"I shall not seek her. Distant lie
Those wilds from here."
"But in thy wanderings?"
Far is it from my thought to ride her way."
"Thou still dost love me most?"
"And only thee."
They closed awhile. Of near belief was she
That all and only truth he spake. But still
Hate must be hers for whom without his will
Had so possessed him, and in more degree
Because the father of that babe was he
Which she would never bear him. Half forgot
It might be with the passing days, but not
In aught condoned if memory stirred. And came
An hour that roused her to a fiercer flame.
A herald rode to Corbin. There he saw
A land more wasted than by waste of war;
At which he marvelled. Those who dwelt therein
Moved furtive, conscious of the hostile skies,
Or, like a beaten hound afraid to rise,
Crouched from the shadow of unlifted sin.
But high stood Carbonac, resistant still
To Hell's black malice, on its lonely hill;
The guardian angels of the Sacred Grail
Still winging round it, lest those powers prevail
Which Balyn had unloosed unconsciously.
King Pellam feasted at the board. He bade
The herald nearly at his side be set.
"For who may come from Arthur's court," said he,
"More than I honour him is grace to me;
For only Arthur is our hope today."
The herald in fit words replied: "I bring
My gracious lord's regard. As king to king
He greets thee well, and hath this word to say:
He rests, returning from the noise of war.
For Claudas, to his last retreat pursued,
Knelt in the dust before him. Now may all
Who join his peace trust less in dyke and wall
Than in the name of Arthur. Rape and feud
No more bring sorrow where his rule extends.
Now would he mark his bounds and count his friends,
And seal them surely from those lands away
Where yet the unruled, ungentled heathen slay.
"Therefore he calls to those of friendly sort,
Ladies and knights and kings, to make resort
To Camelot at the feast which next will fall,
That he may meet them in his festal hall,
And with new oaths confirm their lands. To those
Who come not, he will in good faith suppose
That naught of local rule or lands they claim;
Or that, as rebels to his sovereign name,
They ask chastisement, which they will not miss.
"But naught against thyself is meant in this,
Who may not be of health to roughly ride.
He knows thy heart too closely to mistake
A likely absence."
"Yea," the king replied,
"He holds us in a bond which will not break.
So would I have it, as he knows. He stayed
The long disaster of internal strife,
And in Logre such common right he made
That no man lacks whole roof, nor straw to lie,
Nor daily boon of meat, nor loaves of rye.
The surf in surety knows that child and wife
No lord shall barter from his hearth. In this,
Well hath he done; but yet is more to do.
I send such words as should not sound amiss,
Being in friendship said, and wholly true.
The hardest trial and the last is here,
Which Gawain's counsel, nay, nor Lancelot's spear,
Will aught avail to meet. For peace can breed
Evils which those of violence all exceed.
Heaven waits expectant of the final test.
Life's hardest trial is in sloth to rest.
But God's throws wide the gates of hope for men.
His mercy yet may all transform; as when
O'er the wide horror of a carrioned plain
Breaks the glad torrent of the cleansing rain...
Tell him that choiceless in my halls I stay:
But night and morning for his peace I pray."
"He shall be told in words as fair as thine."
They ceased, and at that moment spake Elaine:
"I would go for thee, if I might." For fain
Was all her heart again to Lancelot see.
And that she asked had reason's aid, for he
Being unfit, his nearest kin to send
Was seemly; and to that high concourse drawn
Would many ladies and bright damsels be.
He answered doubtful: "Should thy heart desire
I would not hinder." What strange fruit would fall
From that bold venture? Had his wit foreseen
That which it bore, is sure it had not been.
Yet all was natural of its kind.
Have waited such a chance to find," she said.
The herald pondered that he did not say,
Seeing her courage wake, for those as they
Who do the errands which to states belong
Know the good price of silence, as they know
Most things that move behind the outward show
Of those gay courts they serve.
He thought: 'Than she
How should a king's loved consort lovelier be?
Is any knight in all this warrior isle
Who would not gladden at her passing smile?
And he whose son she bore - ' Aloud he said:
"Kings will be many there, and queens be sent
By those held backward, all of fair intent
To honour Arthur and his rule augment.
But midst bold kings and beauteous queens, and those
The likeliest to themselves, a central rose
There will be ever."
"Of your courtesy
You speak," she said, "what is not meant for me."
So missioned, from her father's towers she rode
To dare the court of Arthur. In her train
A score of horses felt the knightly rein,
A hundred with gay ladies, grooms and squires,
Marshalled behind them. Shield and silk and plume
Irised the drear road through that land of gloom,
Till with clear dawns of gold and sunset fires
The young spring met them, as they left behind
The desolate land, and made their upward march
Beneath the clear green of the leafing larch,
A fairer scene in further vales to find.
Here seemed it that she saw with different eyes.
Gone was the curse that held her land. The cries
Of building birds were round her. The spring air
Was on her lips and kissed her coifless hair.
How should she doubt of better times to be?
Further they rode with yet new realms to see,
And royal welcomes at their ruling towers,
Until the fertile pastures of Logre
Were round them, shining in the sunlit hours,
Or clouded low, and drenched with driving showers,
As the wind varied. Willowed streams they saw
Wandering uncertain in a level land,
And left them for soft-contoured hills, that stand
Dividing vale from vale, and passing these,
Through the white ocean of their orchard trees
They climbed again, till high bare downs they rode
Scarred with deep clefts that holly held and haw,
Till the white walls above the oakwoods showed
Which were their journey's end.
King Arthur came
Two miles to meet them of his courtesy,
His queen beside him, for: "God's truth!" Said he
"Those who support my power shall all men see
Sustained and honoured to their just degree;
And Pellam's is a great and noble name."
Thus on the open road those ladies met
Where many eyes were on them: those who knew
And those who knew not. So the scene was set
From which fierce wrath and hate and madness grew.
Yet in that meeting was there naught to view
But signs of courtesy, and words of grace.
Had some bare chamber been their meeting place,
It might have been no other, for the guile
Of women covers hate with guile for smile,
And the smooth word that hides the poisoned sting.
There too was Lancelot at King Arthur's side.
He saw her whom he swore he would not see.
Clear to his mind another scene must be:
- A casement to the morning opening wide:
A chamber where that lady shiftless lay,
Fair as the dawn that showed her. How were they
As though that had not been to meet again?
As though beneath his heart she had not lain,
Or he begotten that fair child who now
Grew nearly to the hour of knightly vow
And knightly deed forecast by Merlin's word?
Now shamedly to his mind the sword recurred
Which once beneath her small peaked breasts he set;
And when his glance her own, that flinched not, met
It faltered and withdrew. Yet not the less,
Neither that vision of her loveliness,
Nor her near presence moved him, nor the thought
Of the fair fruit that wildered night had brought,
From his set faith to swerve. He turned aside,
As distant from that lady's rein to ride
As in the marshalled cavalcade might be
Without conspicuous change, as those who came
Mingled with those they met.
She needs must see
His motion, and its cold intent construe.
So saw the queen alike, and thought the same,
But with more joy, which yet must doubt undo.
'So doth he here - but when I should not see?'
And urged by this self-torturing thought, she bade
New dispositions for fresh guests be made
Which any hour might bring. Sir Lancelot found
His chamber distanced from her own. Elaine
Was neighboured closely to the queen, and so
That all seemed grace to those who did not know
What passions raged beneath fair words. She said,
At night's retreat, with none but Brisen near:
"I am a tree whose summer leaves are shed
While spring is jocund yet. What hope is here?
For falsehood might I scorn, or death forget,
But Lancelot is not false, and is not dead.
His am I by my womb's sole fruit, but yet
No wrong, no honour, and no right have I;
While he contemns me wholly."
"Wouldst thou try
Another bout?" Dame Brisen asked; and she
Was swift to answer: "Yea. More right have I
Than that adulteress. Better life would be
For Lancelot surely had he none but me.
I yet would win him if I might."
As the hall cleared, a single whispered word:
'Come to me. Arthur sleeps apart.' Believe
I yet may aid thee to good end. Expect
It will be as before."
In this consent,
Dame Brisen to Sir Lancelot's chamber went.
How should he now the new deceit detect?
Loose-robed he waited for a wonted call,
As the queen's caution ruled. The words were low:
'All slumber. But the bowers are crowded all.
Move softly.' Like a ghost she went ahead.
Small was the lamp she bore his steps to show.
All else was blackness. But he saw she led
To the queen's tower, where those alone would lie
Who had her trust, and served their secret sin.
The caution which had lodged Elaine therein
Became the pit that snared them.
Scarce went by
The clock's next chime before a damsel went
A truer message from the queen to bear.
Backward she came. "Sir Lancelot is not there.
His place is empty."
Guessing the fact without the truth, was live
The jealous queen without restraint to drive
Her doubt to prove. In haste that chamber nigh
She sought, and when she vainly twirled the pin,
Hard blows she dealt, and voices rose therein:
"Nay, do not open.".... "Who, hell's curse, art thou?"
Wide came the door, and there Sir Lancelot stood,
Loosed-robed, and gazing with distracted eyes
On the wrothed queen. What could be pleaded now?
Never he well Guenever's wrath withstood.
This was his weakness at her tongue to quail.
Wildered he stood. Did mind and memory fail?
How could he answer, had her words allowed?
Here was no shadow of such transient cloud
As oft her jealous moods would raise. Distraught,
Confounded as by guilt, he answered naught
While her loosed fury drove her tongue to rail
In bitter words that did not wait reply.
"Is this thy faith? Is this thine oath? Dost try
A second magic? Should the babes be two?
Did Merlin this design? But might not I
Hear the full tale at once?... Or didst thou lie,
And I believe? And wouldst thou swear anew?
Thou couldst not, dost not, fool me twice. Begone
With thy false leman! Go! Foul traitor, go!"
He turned ignobly who had blenchless faced
A tenfold onfall of good knights. Despair
That one so loved should thus her heart declare,
And shame for what had been against his will,
And baffled reason (for the queen had placed
Elaine within her private tower unguessed)
Unhelmed his mind. And as she forward stept
He turned, and flung the casement wide, and leapt
To the black void without.
A thorn's arrest
Stayed what had been a fatal fall. He lay
Bloodied by many prick's, but yet sustained,
So that his folly's debt was less to pay.
The chamber which he left to silence fell,
But only shortly, while those ladies there
Saw the poor harvest that their wiles had gained.
Elaine was first to speak, who speechless heard
The queen's hard railing. Bitter grief and fear
Roused her to answer with the poisoned word
Which else had none been ever like to hear:
"Madam, your jealous spite's full gain you see.
Curse could I, but you need no curse from me.
False to the noblest king the world hath known,
A discord to the realm that shakes his throne,
You chose the next of noble name to be
His curse the more. You need no curse from me.
Though by the garth's good grace his life endure,
Our loss is still beyond a mortal cure.
I saw the madness in his eyes. For me
God made him; and His high design by thee
Could not be thwarted. Still the boast is mine
- His child to knighthood grows; and is not thine."
"Dame," said the queen, "I charge and warn thee well
That thou this court with morn avoid, for I
Am minded much to slay thee... Shouldst thou tell
That which this night hath been, to mean or high,
To maid or man, I bid thee this regard:
You could not make my shameful fall more hard
Than would be his thereby."
"His fall can be
No greater. Death were gentlest friend. But I
Will neither aught reveal nor aught deny.
Why should I vex the king? And all but he
Know what thou art."
"I have too sharp a fear
That both have lost him, for thy words to care.
Yet can we rouse alarm?"
Dame Brisen said:
"It were but bootless, for he is not dead,
Nor lying maimed beneath. I heard him go
Through the small postern in the court below."
At morn Elaine an urgent reason spake
That she ride homeward for her father's sake,
And Arthur wondered, but in courtesy
Allowed, and that the readier that the queen
Assured him that she did not feign; and so
He rode beside her, that she should not go
Without full honour, through the woodlands green
With many knights around them. Bors of these
Came earliest to her rein, to say farewell.
Glad was she of that night's ill chance to tell
To one she trusted, and of Lancelot's kin.
Short were her words, which had as short reply:
"Long have I looked such end to meet. Do thou
In converse hold the king the most ye may,
Retarding his return, the while that I
Make rule for that which should not hinder now,
Yet must be ordered in a secret way."
Aside he turned, and when the long array
Had passed him all, he backward spurred, and found
The wild queen pacing like a hindered hound
In her own garth, and there with Lionel
And Ector (pausing but short tale to tell)
He charged her in no heedless words: "You weep,
But should we pity? Tears are now too late.
Our greatest through your fault is lost, and lies
We know not where, nor in what need. Through thee
We lack the leader of our house. For he,
Alike in valour and in courtesy,
In noble living both of wild and hall,
Led, and exampled, and sustained us all."
"Oh, Bors," she said, "ungentle words let be.
How can we find him?"
"Gentle words to thee
Are hard to render when I count the woe
That through thee only doth so widely fall,
Because you loved - if reason name it so -
One whom you did not trust, and did not know."
"Still is our cause the same. Wilt aid me now?"
"I will, to find him. Though I know not how."
Sir Ector said: "We three could ride away
As on some secret quest, which none would stay,
And none would doubt; and if Sir Lancelot's place
Continue vacant, then might well be thought
That he were following, in his customed sort,
For aid or rescue should his friends outpace,
Through eager hearts, their strength of strife. And then
We may divide, and search both near and far,
More in wild places than the haunts of men,
For as in trance the blind inclinings are
Of minds distraught. And that he used to choose
Yet may he."
To this counsel all agreed.
Large treasure gave the queen to meet their need.
And so, forthright, but in no secret way,
They garnished, armed, and went.
Through woods of May,
Through summer fields, through waste and wilderness,
By ford, by pass, through citied plain, they rode
Separate, but meeting at set times, that so
All might the issue of their searchings know,
Till summer waned; but naught they learned, although
Endlong and overthwart they searched, until
Fairley it chanced they met a knight they knew,
Sir Melion. "Dost thou some far quest pursue?"
"I am for Arthur's court." "Of friendship, say,
Wilt thou a message to the king convey?"
"That will I freely." "Then this warning give:
Sir Lancelot long is lost, and may not live.
And till that less we dread, or more we learn,
We may not gladly to the court return."
This message Melion bore, and found the court
Disturbed by previous doubt, for truth suppressed
Is pregnant yet. Though Arthur's knights would go
On distant quests, it was not often so
That none their going or their far resort
Would know. And four who ranked with Arthur's best
- Not Lancelot only, but his closest kin -
Could not be lost without remark. And now
Was Arthur instant in demand that all
Around him then, who had no closer call,
Should ride the land for rescue. "Think ye how
He oft hath succoured those who did not win
Their quests alone. If now some witchly gin
Hath snared him, or some league's outnumbering might
Hath overborne, or treason guiled, were we
Graceless and recreant, should our motions be
Less swift to reach him."
At this word arose
In eager haste Sir Sagramore; and those
Of Lancelot's house as quickly; and Ewaine,
As generous nature urged; and neither slow
Nor swift, but as of cool resolve to go,
Sir Gawain; and two other knights as fain
For Lancelot's rescue, Aglovale, and he
Who was the youngest and should greatest be
Of those four brethren, Percival. In all
Were eighteen of the Table knights who swore
They would not stint their search through byre and hall,
Through woods and wilds, through kingdoms, shore to shore,
That in the pale of Arthur's peace might be,
Nay, nor in further lands of heathenry
Till they should find him, or, at least, resolve
What fate had fallen.
In one glittering band
The city gates they passed, to thence expand
In twos and threes, to search the various land,
And reunite at trysts agreed.
Rode the two brethren on one path. They sought
Through the green valleys of the land they knew.
They halted at their mother's tower, whose thought
Was on the dead: on Gawain's murderous guile,
Who Pellinor first to evil end had brought,
And then had Lamorack snared: "My heart will rue
Your further deaths," she wept, "if Arthur's court
You hold, or with that falcon brood consort.
Stay with me. I am old. My sight is dim.
Tears are its bane."
But Percival answered: "Nay,
You would not that. It were our shame to stay.
Dormer is near you. Rest your heart on him.
The king's blood in us takes tempestuous way
To Heaven's assault, and should I loiter here
Yourself would sorrow for a rusted spear."
Thereat they went, from warm embraces changed.
From ruth they wept, but not that ruth deranged
The values of the knightly code they knew.
Some weeks they rode, while summer changed its hue
To autumns gold. Some wayside bouts were theirs.
Some wrongs they righted, and some knaves they slew.
But naught of Lancelot could they learn, although
They followed many a doubtful tale, until
In Percival a privy purpose grew
To search alone and further. Thus to go
Without restraint, or word of evil will,
He rose by night, and left Sir Agolvale
To wake in lonely wrath, of naught avail.
A broad stream, and a fair white bridge. Beyond
A white tower rose. But not on these were cast
The eyes of Percival. "What means thy bond?
Who art thou?" Asked he of a knight who stood
Chained like a watchdog to a stake of wood.
"I am Sir Persides. I pray thee break
This fetter, if thou canst."
Of Arthur's Table? Say, how camest thou thus?"
"Because that lady's lust I would not ease
Who owns those towers. Through all the night I lie
On the cold ground, and when the moon is high
She bids me whine for food, or else I die."
"Stretch the chain hard, and somewhat lean away,
For else I dread me that my rescue slay."
"Dread ye not that. Is here no life to lose."
"Yet hadst thou valour to her lust refuse."
As thus they spake, his sword he upward swang,
Downward it came, and on the chain it rang.
Nor on that only, for the mail beside
It cleft, and left a wound, not deep but wide.
Free stept Sir Persides, amazed to be,
Through one who looked so slight so quickly free.
"That was a stroke of might. Except the chain
Had been so massive had my life been slain."
"Give me not thanks, but rather God in me,
For when the measure of a need I see
My strength augments, or so it seems."
The need is here. The bridge - behold - beware.
I have no weapon to thy danger share."
Sir Percival turned. Across the bridge there came
A knight - if knight he were - but knight of name,
By the foul use he tried, he could not be.
His lance was down. His steed was spurred as though
He rode at joust against a mounted foe
Aware to meet him. Moment scant remained
For gaining lance and steed, but these were gained.
And as that false knight, with more haste than skill,
Came to the crash, it was not his to kill,
But his to feel. His own unruly spear
Glanced from a slanted shield, and ended clear,
While he such buffet felt as left his seat
Unridered. On the low stone parapet
He rolled, and tumbled to the stream below.
Yet was no splash to hear. His fall to meet
A boat lay moored. The heavy fall it met
With bruising violence. On its thwart asprawl
They saw him, stilled by that ignoble fall,
But were he live or dead they could not know,
Nor had they cause to care. His steed supplied
The need of Persides. "I may not ride,"
He said, "beside thee, these ill towers to leave,
Without dishonour, for my servants lie
Dungeoned within them."
"Then these towers to grieve
Must be our purpose, till we loose them free."
"You have no fear to all their might defy?"
"Am I to weigh God's danger? Nay, not I.
It is not my poor strength, but God in me,
Which at their jeopard must their rescue be.
So must we surely by our vows believe."
No more said Persides. The recreant's lance
He lifted from the dust: he climbed his steed.
"That which I may," he said, "to meet thy need
I will not fail at any pass to do."
"Surely that purpose is God's purpose too."
Bridge crossed; they reined those towers before.
Upon the wall their lady came. She said:
"What would ye, hoving here? Is Gartas dead?
Go, with my curse, and do no mischief more."
Answered Sir Percival: "We cast to do
No mischief, nor have done. But set ye free
Those whom thou hast, or in God's name will we
Their bonds release. Except a need more great
Constrain me, surely should my sword abate
Thine evil customs. Take my warning here.
Soon shall thy neck the sword of justice sheer
Except forthright thy lust-born treasons end."
"Wilt thou go quietly, if I all release?"
"If all be well returned, we part in peace.
But with no warrant, shouldst thou more offend,
To leave thee scatheless."
With this word content,
To break that bondage from the wall she went.
And in short hour, with those who served him free,
And all his gear restored, Sir Persides
Rode with his rescuer to a tower more kind,
Service and ease without restraint to find,
For he who held it was a liege to him.
But Percival would not rest. "I may not ease
This quest," he said, "till Lancelot's sure release,
Or certain knowledge of his death there be...
You are for Camelot? Then of courtesy
I pray thee bear this word to Aglovale:
If backward to the court his steps have been.
I will not leave this quest, nor think to fail.
That was my purpose when I left unseen,
Knowing that others had a shorter mind
To end it with the ending year. But say
To those false knights Sir Modred and Sir Kay,
Despite the jibings and the scorn I met
When came I to the court, it may be yet
That I shall do my part, and more than they.
I think not ever to return until
God's grace within me shall this hope fulfil."
So was it. To the court Sir Persides
Rode ere the leaves had left the autumn trees,
There came he to Sir Modred and Sir Kay.
"Fair lords," he said, "I have these words to say
That come from that young knight, Sir Percival:
Before he enters to this court again,
In God he trusts, where never trust is vain,
Of more accomplished nobleness to be
Than ever either at your best were ye,
And more reputed in the mouths of men."
To which they answered: "God to fruit may bring
The poorest stock. But, at his knighting, then
He showed no promise of leaf. Unlikelier thing
You shall not tell us in an hour's debate,"
And parted, mirthful of a boast so great.
But Percival rode alone, and learned to lie
On the cold ground beneath the open sky;
To lose, and shrink not at so large a loss,
All comforts of sure roof and board and bed.
Only the forest boughs were overhead:
Only the forest green was round him now.
So rode he till another knight he met
Wandering like ways to hold a likely vow,
But longer had he sought a heavenly debt
To cancel by such deeds as knights may do.
Now was his shield defaced, his plumage shed,
But neither of the other asked these two.
Lance to the rest and spur to flank they set,
To prove their strength against they cared not who.
Now greater than his own he hardly found
The skill that flung him to the bruising ground.
Yet rose he with dressed shield, and sword he drew,
As one not sated by so rude a fall.
"What! Would ye more?" That knight in wonder said.
"I would have lightly passed, and let thee be.
Death for hot youth provides too cold a bed.
Yet thy most asking shalt thou have," said he.
And slowly he alit, and heedfully
His charger tied. A dinted sword he drew,
Which yet of point was sharp, of steel was true.
And chose fair ground, and in no haste he met
The impetuous claim of youth against him set.
Strength clashed with strength, and agile youth opposed
The wariness of longer-practised skill.
Wound paid for wound as oft the combat closed,
And then retired for breathing rests, until
Much marvel might it seem that either knight
Could for so long sustain so fierce a fight,
While the red tribute of their wounds down-ran.
Then Percival words too long delayed began:
"Good knight - for I was seldom matched till now -
I pray thee pause, and of thy gentleness
Thy name reveal. We could not fight for less,
Who have no quarrel; nor more bitterly
Our failing lives reduce if holiest vow
Or honour's ordeal proof required."
To whom he spake, against a steadying tree
Leaning the while, made answer: "Old am I,
Of many battles, yet to death so nigh
I have not come till now: I have not felt
So many wounds as thy quick sword hath dealt.
I am Sir Ector, of the Table known.
Nearer to Lancelot none, of trust or kin."
"Alas!" Sir Percival said, "mine eager haste
My strength to prove, hath cast my life to waste
In conflict with my natural friend. Herein
I pay God's value for a vauntful sin.
Percival de Galis is the name I bore
In the short life which now will live no more.
I sought Sir Lancelot in these wilds, but I
Came blindly, futile at thy hands to die."
"Nay," said Sir Ector, "mine the death you tell,
For as I rest me here I know too well
I bleed too deeply for my life to dure.
Pierced am I by a hurt no leech could cure.
But this I charge thee, by the faith we share,
Seek thou some priory, with no pause, and bring
A priest to aid me.... Do not speak it there,
Nor after at the court, I warn thee well,
That by the violence of thy hand I fell,
For Lancelot therefor were thy certain foe.
Say only that you found me spent, as though
Seeking him both we rode the same rough way,
And you came later, and you found me thus."
"Alas!" Sir Percival answered, "what you say
I cannot. Not the strength to stand is mine.
Death's weakness answers pride too orgulous.
I rise no longer, strive the most I may."
So at the door of death await they sat
Until his latch should rise to let them through.
Being so weak, unknightly tears they knew
For high resolves and hopes relinquished
Through life's defeat. Until Sir Percival said:
"What use are lamentations?" And thereat
Bent knees of prayer, and all to God resigned;
And from that worship lifted eyes to find
More than the forest boughs before him now,
More than the light their crowding leaves allow,
More sweetness than the flowering hawthorns give.
"What saw you?" asked Sir Ector. . .
"What saw you?"
"I saw the Grail itself, by which we live,
For all my limbs are whole, and strength anew
Beats through them. There I glimpsed the Blood Divine.
I saw the Sacred Cup clear silver shine,
But by whose hands upborne I might not see."
"So," Percival said, "the vision came to me,
And so new strength revived these limbs of mine.
But, by God's grace, a larger sight than thine
Hath blessed me, for a maiden whitely clad
Held in her lifted hands the Cup."
Much grace was thine so large a sight to see,"
Sir Ector answered.
For life returned, they sought, with toilsome care,
Flawed helm and down-hacked harness to repair.
And then remounted, and such way they took
As neither on his search had passed before,
Together now new countries to explore:
Nothing too wild, too bare, to overlook.
But leave we them with converse to beguile
The lonely length of many a weary mile,
And turn we to Sir Lancelot. He the while
Wandered distraught and roofless. Fruits that grew
Wild in the summer woods were all he knew
Of food; or haply, when the winter fell,
The crusts to beggars' tongues that taste so well.
Water he drank. No shining arms he wore,
But thorn-encountered rags. His feet were sore
From naked meeting of sharp stones. Two years
He wandered, till one day a verdant ground
He entered, and therein pitched tents he found,
Oak-shaded. From a branch a white shield swang.
Two swords were near it, and two leaning spears.
Thereat his heart arose. Wide space he leapt
Toward them. From its sheath one sword he drew,
And whirled, rejoicing in his strength. It swept
Clanging the shield. Again, again, it rang
Such battered music as the hammering hail
When five strong knights in gathered force assail.
Out from those tents a dwarf in wonder ran.
"Good fellow, cease this antic noise. Put down
A sword not thine," his sharp rebuke began.
He saw no danger from a roisterous clown,
That good knight, Sir Bliaunt, his master, near.
His thought was first that master's wrath to fear,
Who lay at ease the hinder tent within,
With little welcome for so wild a din.
He seized a lifted arm, those strokes to stay,
But Lancelot flung him with such force away
That nigh neck-broken on the ground he lay,
Thereat he cried for help, and forth there came
Sir Bliaunt, roused to wondering wrath. No arms
He wore, but had a robe of crimson flame
Loosely around him drawn. Small knight was he,
But one of graceful speech and dignity,
Though now disordered of his mood. Some space
In doubtful silence stood they, face to face,
The madman armed: the sane in fenceless guise.
He saw the frenzy in Sir Lancelot's eyes,
And flinched not at the test
"Good friend," he said,
"I pray thee yield that sword. An easeful bed
Food and fit clothing are thy greater needs,
Which I will find thee with good heart."
Sir Lancelot answered, "length of life, will leave
This sword untaken." With the words anew
He whirled it high, a whistling circle through,
Whereat Sir Bliaunt, as a prudent man,
Drew backward to the tents, and there began
His arms to reach. The dwarf's attendant hands
Drew lace and clasp. In armour confident,
Again Sir Bliaunt to the madman went.
But Lancelot, of a countering sword aware,
Recked not himself of any covering bare;
One sudden downward tempest-stroke he swang.
Hard on Sir Bliaunt's helm of proof it rang,
Dinting the steel it could not cleave, that so
He sank, struck senseless by the murderous blow.
Careless to further harm a fallen man,
And flinging down a sword whose use was through,
Into the tent's rich dusk Sir Lancelot ran.
Dimly a couch of double breadth he knew.
Back to its foot the silken pall he threw,
Thinking in that soft warmth awhile to lie.
But one, already in its close recess
Who couched, outstarted with a frightened cry.
Her raised arms, in the dusk pale ivory,
Glimmered as her cast smock she seized and drew
Over the tumble of her loosened hair.
But Lancelot to sharp cries or smooth limbs bare
No heeding gave. Aware of weariness,
And simple with all longings to comply,
He sank to slumberous rest incontinent.
That lady's fear the while her feet impelled
Out from the tent to run scarce garmented.
There lay Sir Bliaunt as a slain man lies.
"Oh, Jesu, pity!" In her grief she said,
Distraught by this cold sight her eyes beheld,
"Tell me, good dwarf - Good dwarf, he is not dead?"
The stunned man wakened to her urgent cries.
Raised on one hand, he said with bitter glee:
"Thank a smith's art for that, but thank not me.
A stroke so sudden and so hard, perde,
I have not met from mortal hand before.
Where is the madman now?"
The dwarf replied:
"He dropped the sword, and in the tent to hide
Ran blindly; but, good master, vengeance here
Would bring no worship. None who looked could doubt
His noble nature. But his wits are out.
Perchance some overtaking grief he had,
Which bore him wholly down, and left him mad.
"Such is his mien, although so basely clad,
That as I saw him, to my memory came
Lonazep, and Lancelot in its tourney field,
As once I there beheld him."
Sir Bliaunt answered, "to so great a shame
That Lancelot ever from his height should bend.
And God defend that I to wrath should yield
To prove my valour on a witless man.
Ride thou forthright, with all the haste ye may
Back by the way we came. Sir Selivant
Inform of this perverse event, and say:
'Bring thou a litter, and good force to take
This knight demented, that, for mercy's sake,
Him may we harbour till his wits awake.'"
Fast to the White Tower rode the dwarf, and told
Sir Bliaunt's brother there how strange a chance
His sylvan pleasure had betrayed. Thereat
His brother came with six stout knaves, and brought
A horse-drawn litter.
Beds more hard and cold
Had been Sir Lancelot's woodland use. He lay
Contently sunk in this warm circumstance.
Heaven-granted sleep appeased his erring thought.
So deep he slumbered that he knew not aught
Of how they bore him from that tent away,
Lifting the couch, and him thereon. The day
Lengthened its shadows to the night's pursuit
As the White Tower's strong portal closed them in.
They bound him, as they must. But fairly clad
They kept him, and well lodged, and meetly fed.
Goodly he grew, but wits he could not win.
No knowledge, seemed it, of himself he had;
Naught of himself in any mood he said.
So spring to summer bloomed, and waning days
Shortened to Yule, and spring's returning feud
Its warfare on the winter nights renewed,
Till summer boskage hid the woodland ways,
Though from the height of heaven should overbrood
The leaf-prevented light.
There came a day
When rode Sir Bliaunt on some quest away,
Taking no train, and had not left his hold
More than a morning hour, or haply two,
When that false knight, the pitiless Breuse, and one
Bertlot, his brother, who alike was sold
To devil service, in an ambush lay
Which sought indifferent any weaker prey.
Sir Bliaunt was a smaller knight than they,
And, being single, seemed an overthrow
They should not miss. From right, from left, they came.
But Bliaunt was a cool and wily knight.
Light were the hurts he took, and naught the shame.
Separate he meets their charge with swerving sleight.
Their vainly-splintered spears his craft acclaim.
Now clanging swords to crackling spears succeed.
Sir Bliaunt well the twofold onfall met.
But how should shield against two points be set?
Or charger from two chargers swerve as one?
That which a knight could do was knightly done:
That was undone which never knight could do.
While to Sir Breuse's sword his shield was set,
He felt Sir Bertlot pierce his hawberk through.
Then round he reined, and spur to flank he set,
Seeking in flight his periled life to get.
Sir Lancelot, in a turret chamber high,
Gazed vacant at the vacant height of sky.
Gyves to his wrists and to his ankles held
With strength of steel that human strength excelled.
Save but for these, he had his movements free.
The noise of hoofbeats on the road below
Drew the sad eyes; and then their vacancy
Changed as deep waters to the dawn's clear glow
With expectation of new life alight.
He saw Sir Bliaunt's steed in stumbling flight,
Urged by the spur; and either side a knight
Swung at his helm the overtaking blow.
Sir Lancelot rose thereat. His chains to break
He strove, regardless of the pain he gave.
Fell to the ground the gyves his ankles wore.
The twisted links that with his teeth he tore
Snapt from the bleeding wrists and left them free.
So showed he surely, for his master's sake,
More than to saner wits the strength should be.
Fast downward to the postern gate he ran.
He saw Sir Bliaunt, vainly turned to bay,
Calling for succour to his house; but they
With the more wits had shown the more delay.
Sir Lancelot with bare arms a writhing man
Dragged from his seat. Sir Bertlot's sword he tore
From hands too weak to hold it. Not the more
Sir Breuse could face him weaponed thus. He smote
That bold knight backward from his croup, and when
Sir Bertlot's dagger at his naked throat
Aimed from the back, Sir Bliaunt swiftly then
Swung with tired arm a final stroke that shore
Dagger and hand at once to earth away.
The evil brethren from too sharp a fray
Drew backward, scrambled to their steeds, and fled,
Leaving the shorn hand in the dust. By now
Sir Selivant, who heard the uproar, led
Too late a rescue. Being told of how
The madman for his brother's life had struck,
He joined Sir Bliaunt's thanks to God, that they
Had shown him mercy on the earlier day.
Sir Bliaunt marked the bloodied wrists that tore
The chains for his salvation. "Gyve no more,"
He said, "those hands my folly sinned to bind,
For he is surely of a gracious kind.
Evil may blot the scroll of memory blank,
Yet for this lasting mercy God we thank.
Through that great darkness will the soul endure.
If gracious erst, still gracious: pure if pure.
The months to autumn turned. Sir Lancelot still
In the White Tower remained, but bound no more.
Well was he served, and seemly. Grace for grace
His bearing gave them, though his wandered mind
Returned not. Naught of any previous place
Recalled he: naught of any name or face
His earlier life had known.
Now cold declined
The ageing year. The leafless woodland through,
Bleak from the north, a wind of winter blew,
As Lancelot from the postern wandered free.
Unarmed, unmounted, unrestrained was he;
Like a strong dog to gentle usage brought,
He walked unfeared, unwatched, unchecked. Was naught
Borne from the far woods but the cold wind's cry?
Sir Lancelot lifted eyes that wistfully
Sought recollection through associate sound.
But naught his mind recalled, the while around
The outcry neared.
A strong thick-shouldered boar
Broke from the copse. Its tushes streaming gore,
Froth at its mouth, its small red eyes alight
With fury at its chase, and lust to fight,
It turned to bay; and round next instant bayed
Hounds of like fury, yet which paused afraid
Of the grim menace of its sweeping jaw.
Behind the rout of hounds, Sir Lancelot saw
The hunters ride, with sound of horn to cheer
A chase that seemed its red conclusion near.
He saw one huntsman spring to ground. His spear
He leaned against an oak. His horse thereto
He loosely tied. To Lancelot's clouded thought
Old recollection as in mist it brought.
The spear he seized. A sword beside the selle
Was hung in sheath. Unarmed, but weaponed well,
He mounted, and a new pursuit he led
Of that strong boar that once again had fled,
With breath regained, to find deliverance so
From hounds that would not fight, and would not go.
The boar's new flight outpaced the hounds: outpaced
The hunt, except Sir Lancelot. Only he,
Reckless of all except the beast he chased,
Was close behind it when it turned to see
Its single foe. Beside a hermitage,
And buttressed by a broad far-branching tree,
It swung around its final strife to wage.
The spear-thrust passed its sudden swerve. The steed
Side-reined too late, the boar's swift outrush met.
Surely before it died it paid its debt
Of vengeance on the foes that unprovoked
Pursued its life, a merry sport to them.
Screamed the great charger as the sharp tusk tore
A length of fatal wound, nor thus content,
Returning, in the brawn of Lancelot's thigh
Ploughed to the bone, before his feet were free.
Or sane or madman, now wood wrath was he
At that deep wound, to feel its pain, and see
His own blood falling. While he rose he drew
The sword that at the saddle's peak did hang.
As came the boar again, aloft it swang,
And with one sweep the severed head downfell.
Out came the hermit, in good time to view
That wondrous stroke, but with more care to see
The wound from which the life-blood leapt. "Good sir,
Come with me while ye may, for else must be
Thy dear life forfeit." But the pain he knew
Caused in the madman's heart wild wrath to stir.
With sword aloft and angered eyes he ran
At whom would friend him. When his weakened pace
Showed that he stumbled on a losing race,
He flung his sword, but that fell short. And so
The hermit of good heart advanced again.
"Fair sir," he said, "bethink, the boar is slain.
I do but seek to aid thee."
"Go thy way.
Slain am I, and I do but seek to slay."
But now a tramp of hooves the hermit heard.
To meet them down a forest path he ran.
A knight of honour rode before his train.
He met the runner with a shortened rein:
"What need impels thee?"
"Lord, the goodliest man
Mine eyes have seen hath slain a boar, but took
So deep a wound he dies unaided."
For aid is here."
Too weak Sir Lancelot lay
For further folly. To the hermitage
They bore him, where the good man nursed him well,
So that the deep wound healed, but sooth to tell
Was meagre diet for his strength's return.
Yet rose he at the last, and as before
He wandered, leaving with no thanks. He came
After long days to Corbin, naked, gaunt,
And crossed the bridge which once he rode to find
That which had snared him to the broken mind
Which now was vacant of its place and name.
He came again to Carbonac. But now
In the low street beneath the outer wall
A curious rabble jeered and chased, until
The madman turned with sudden lust to kill,
And the mob broke before him, scattering all.
Yet one he caught, and by the legs he flung
Among the fliers. Had that rout returned
Too closely, further of the wage they earned
They had been likely paid, but knights and squires,
Who from the wall had watched the evil chase,
Came forth for rescue. "Though his wits be lost,"
They said, "his worship yet our fence requires
For see the scars that line him! Wounds as those
Were taken in no life of soft repose.
And to outlast them all such victoring shows
As marks him mightiest."
In their guard he passed
The great scrolled gate, and in the yard they made
A strong-barred shelter. To such home at last
He came, where clean warm straw was round him laid,
And meat was thrown, and water brought. But who
Would venture close approach were bold and few.
There was a youth, a nephew of the king,
Who grew to years of knighthood. This degree
King Pellam, at the feast of Candelmas,
Bestowed upon him. With a bounty free,
Sir Castor, as he now was titled, gave
New robes to all who would.
The madman now,
Quietened by kindness, and by food restored,
Brought to the low foot of the festive board
By those who kept him, in such robe as clad
The guests around, such noble aspect had
In that fresh garb that all with wonder viewed.
"Here is such knight that, were his wits renewed,
And he were garnished with good arms," they said,
"As Gawain might avoid, or Lancelot dread."
But wits he had not. When the meal was through,
He wandered vaguely, as a dog would do,
From hall to garth, and as a dog would lie,
On the green sward he stretched adrowse. And so
Lay in the shadows when the sun was low,
When down the pathway came Elaine. "Is this,"
She asked her ladies, "he with wits amiss?"
And then she looked, and from her cheek the blood
Drew backward. Was it? Yet it could not be!
And yet it might, and was. "Abide ye here,"
She said, "but wake him not, nor draw ye near.
Wait my return."
King Pellam next she sought,
"Oh, father, for thine aid!"
"Mine aid is sure.
What would ye?"
"Lancelot in the garth is laid."
"I cannot think it."
"Yet my doubt is naught.
He is the fool we harbour."
"If thy mind
Be certain, hold thee still, and let me deal."
Then called he four of trust, the truth to find,
Dame Brisen with them, by her spells to aid
Should some black imp his crafty guise conceal
In that strange semblance.
Still Sir Lancelot slept
As thus they came, the while those ladies kept
Their distant watch. Dame Brisen looked, and said:
"It is Sir Lancelot, but his wits are shed.
Wake him not rashly lest his wrath we feel.
Stand back, and I will such enchantment use
That he will rouse not."
"Daughter," asked the king,
"How would ye rule him? Those their wits who lose
Are violent most to where before they clave."
"To mine own chamber bear him. Lose I more,
Betide what will, where all was lost before?
I will this venture prove, as Christ me save."
To that high room where Galahad's birth had been,
Borne witless thus, he on her bed was laid.
The bearers voided, and the door she barred,
And kneeling, weeping, at his side she prayed:
"Oh, Christ, Who sought the sinful! Lord," she cried,
"Hear me, who gladly for this knight had died,
Whom such strange curse (if not Thy work it were)
Doomed by bewitching guile his peace to snare.
My friend, my first love and my last, is laid,
Through my false scheming from his mind dismayed.
Restore him, though he slay me: though to me
His eyes be hateful, as his cause may be
Beyond condone to hate me. Lord, restore!
Though till I reach glad death's releasing shore
Our ways be sundered."
While she prayed, there came,
Intenser, and more soft than earthly flame,
Rose-light, with odours more than roses hold,
Haloing her hair, as never earthly crown
Makes splendour for a young queen's insolence.
Faltered her sight before that light intense,
As beating wings she heard, and lowlier down
She bent; nor owned she any thought so bold
As dared a lifted glance the Grail to view.
But soothly in her thankful heart she knew
Her prayer was gained, and where she knelt she sank
Sighing into sleep, for God's deep peace she knew,
Though the night entered as the Grail withdrew.
Sir Lancelot lifted eyes no madness held,
But yet were wildered. On a silken bed
His gauntness lay, and at his side there stood
King Pellam, and Elaine. "Fair lord," he said,
"For God's high mercy tell me where I be,
And how to here I came. For all to me
Is strange, and recollection void."
Gave answer: "Dear my lord, the worst to tell
I will not falter. Yet that all is well
Believe, and doubt not. Evil days are done.
But for four years, as one of wits bereft,
Since on a night you know the court you left,
You wild have wandered, making home with none,
Till hungered here you came, unkempt, unclad,
And shelter, though none knew you, here you had,
Until beneath mine eyes you came, and I
- Should I forget you? - to this chamber high
Conveyed you, where, last night, the Sacred Grail
Entered, and healed you."
"That you would not lie
My trust is sure. God's judgement falls too hard,
Deciding for me that I should not die;
And, lest with wit's return its use should fail,
Tell me how many of my plight are ware."
"All in these towers could well your weakness see,
But no man had a thought of whom you were,
Nor are they told today. Excepting we,
And Brisen, none hath known, and none shall know."
"There is no further need my name to show.
While will I rest to ponder what shall be,
And nurse the sores I feel, for now to me
Returns, with wits regained, their price of pain."
So for long weeks he lay, with slow regain
Of health, of vigour, and of comeliness.
Speaking few words; and those few words were less
Of lasting than immediate needs. And she
Waited, and hoped, and prayed for what would be.
Then, when Elaine, and none besides, was nigh
He spake his purpose: "Fair Elaine," he said,
"You will not soothly in your heart deny
That bitter travail and great wrong have I
Endured through thee. Nor would I stint to say
I wronged you once, when you at mercy lay,
With menace of the sword in wrath I drew.
Wrong had there been to me, but not from you.
But that a second time -!"
"You need not tell
The wrongs I did thee, which I know too well.
What wouldst thou?"
"Wilt thou to thy father go,
Reciting little of this count of woe,
Or urging largely, as thy suit may need.
And say that, through these haps, to Arthur's court
I may not further make mine old resort;
And hence his bounty with much cause I plead
To give me leave and space, that here I dwell
Lopped off from knowledge of my land and kind.
For should I Benoic seek, I know full well
My kin would follow, and the king would find
Such cleavage of the Table's strength as all
His foes would welcome. Not through me shall fall
So dark a shadow on a splendid day."
"Good lord," she answered, "wit ye well my sire
Will grant it gladly, with no hard require
Of reason or beseech. That here ye stay
Is our most hope. And all my life to thee
Is forfeit; and the largest joy for me
Were for thy gain to live, or else to die.
I think as lievely at this pass would I
By very loss of life my pardon buy,
If I might thus thy better life restore."
"It is beyond my worth such words to hear,"
He answered; and to one he held not dear
What better could be said?
She answered naught,
But in a place apart her sire she sought:
"Sir Lancelot would remain. He asks thy grace
To give him, for a long abiding place,
Some tower apart where he may nameless dwell."
"What is his wish to thee?"
"I like it well."
"You would go with him?"
"So I seek to do."
"So shall it be. For though his name be hid,
His presence at the last our praise shall be.
Bliat I grant him, with its seigniory.
And twenty chosen knights of good degree,
And thirty ladies of fair speech, that he
May soon be jocund in such company,
And turn belike his thoughts to none but thee."
So came it in few days that, garbed as though
Arrayed for festal or for tourney show,
A gay train from the gates of Carbonac
Rode outward in a clear pale dawn, and found
A frost of earliest autumn on the ground.
White were the furrowed fields, and fairer white,
With other blossoms than for spring's delight,
The hawthorn's leafless thickets bare and black.
So richly and so variously beseen
Were those bright ranks, they might in sooth have been
A train designed for grace of Arthur's queen,
And fair as dawn, though past her dawn was she,
Rode Pellam's loveless daughter, knee to knee
With him who sired her babe, her heart a song.
To whom but her did now his care belong?
Who but herself to serve his mood should be?
Would not insistent hours bring victory?
With their unchanging change of night and day
The love that may not by the love that may
Routed at last?... Far spread beneath them lay
A lowlier land, and where a water bent
Its circling arm, they saw the wide extent
Of Bliat, garth and tower.
Sir Lancelot said,
Gazing at that fair scene beneath him spread,
Frost-freed, and shining in the sun's low noon:
"King Pellam owed me not so large a boon.
Here surely may a life defeated dwell,
Thanking God's mercy, and contented well.
Though Joyous Garde again I may not see,
This shall be called the Joyous Isle for me,
Where I may rest me, with the past forgot."
So spake he to Elaine, but heeded not
Her eyes' glad answer. Like of mood was he
To one who takes a wound, before its pain
Throbs with hot impulse to its health regain.
"Fair lord," said Castor, to his side who came,
"Those towers they tell me shall be thine. Thy name
I fain would learn."
"I boast no name. To thee
I am the Knight Who Trespassed."
Thou art Sir Lancelot. Once I saw thee ride
In Camelot's lists."
"Fair sir, ye heard me say
My name to thee... But take this case: Suppose,
With privy cause enough, I seek to hide
My name from all. Suppose, as well ye may,
I am Sir Lancelot. Did thy vows profess
- Thy new-made knighthood's vows that gentlemen's
Or churlish ways should rule thy speech? Disclose
Of that which at the most thou canst but guess
Will bear no profit, nor will silence grieve.
Silence may serve thee well: but this believe,
Myself shall grieve thee, should thy speech betray."
"I seek thy pardon: more I will not say."
Fair faces, and soft speech, and bounteous ways
Were round Sir Lancelot through the winter days.
All sought his favour: all themselves deferred
To his least motion, or his casual word.
Elaine was servant to his moods, and he
Failed never in response of courtesy,
Nor ever answered in a warmer way.
But while long nights divided day from day,
And round those towers the siege of winter lay,
Whether the pale-gold dawn possessed the sky,
Or clouds rain-pregnant lowly drifted by,
Finding the turrets for their path too high,
Or loud winds ranged, or soft descending snow
Laid its white mantle on the courts below,
Sir Lancelot ever sought the tower which stood
Facing Logre, and to that distant realm
With longing gazed, as to his vacant mind
Old scenes assembled, till his eyes were blind
With tears unheeded.
One delight he had,
In his barred chamber, which intrude forbad,
A shield to paint. In vert and argent clad
A queen stood regnant, and a kneeling knight
Shone in bright steel thereon. All else was black.
So, for the arms a nameless knight must lack,
He made this fantasy, and showed thereby
That in his deepest heart the hope remained
Of love, of honour, and of life regained.
When the green land beneath a softer sky
Showed the bright triumph of expected spring,
Talk was there of a distant tourneying,
And Lancelot, longing that new shield to try,
Half thought to go, but put the purpose by.
How could he lodge among great knights, and not
Be seen of some, and known for Lancelot?
And sure it was that there such knights would be.
So for conceal a new device he tried.
Among the ladies there to mirth provide,
The youngest and the fairest and most fain
He asked: "Here would you through slow years remain,
Or some proved champion wouldst thou chose to wed?"
"I would in all things as thou wouldst," she said,
With brightening eyes, and wondering: Was it he?..
Nay, by that champion boast it could not be.
Then sent he trumpet to the tourney town
For loud proclaimed that who the road should ride
That passed the Joyous Isle at eventide,
Or at the prime of day, would find await
Such lance as likely would his pride abate.
But should he triumph through his greater might,
Were his, as ransom for a fallen knight
A trained ger-falcon; and for boon beyond
(If this he sought) a maiden fair and fond
For bride, not dowerless.
When this call was heard
Were many who for such fair game were stirred
A lance to break. The road to Joyous Isle
Soon lacked the silence of a lonely mile.
All came in buoyant hope: but soon were they
Who passed them on a more dejected way.
Rumour (but rumour lies) its total brought
To hundreds of good knights who came and went
To hope, and strive, and in full time repent
The bruises that they showed: the shame they bought.
But still (and here was wonder most) men said
No knight of all was maimed, and none was dead,
So were they cast to earth with tempered skill,
And she who was the tourney's prize remained
With fear unfronted, or with hope ungained.
Who through long years should seek Sir Lancelot still?
Most had long since returned their vacant way.
Not weak of will, nor faint of heart, were they.
But yet, their lives were theirs. Should all be spent
Because one knight was lost? And likeliest he
Wildered of wits, or dead, as well might be?
The courtly life of feast and tournament,
Of love's unlifting strife, of jape and play,
Resumed its fashion, as the smoothing sea
Closes above the lost wreck's mystery,
Till the last ripple sinks to rest.
Sought with no ceasing. One his vow to keep,
And one by love constrained. Far kingdoms through,
And lordless wilds they searched. No vale so deep,
No land so hostile, and no hill so high,
But these, Sir Ector and Sir Percival,
Who now together rode, the chance would try.
So came they to the Joyous Isle at last,
And might have passed it, being, as they were,
On the far margin of that water fair
Which round it curved a bridgeless arm, but there,
Across the stream, a damsel rode, who cast
A falcon loose to take some fancied prey.
It was their ever use to ask. They cried:
"Is there no ford to pass the water wide?
Wilt say who in those noble towers may dwell?"
She answered: "List ye not? I thought that all
Had heard our challenge. Come ye not to fall
As others daily do? Myself the prize,
Which none has thews, or maybe heart to win."
"Damsel," Sir Ector said, "such prize to gain
Should all be valiant. Surely dwells herein
A champion to surpass belief."
That he shall tame ye both, but leave unslain.
For such the strength he has; and such the whim."
"Damsel, it were our choice to speak with him,
But this broad stream withholds us."
"Would ye so?
The river curves three sides these towers around.
But somewhat leftward will a barge be found
To bear ye over to the tourney-ground,
With steeds and gear."
So to the gate they came.
"A single knight we cannot both oppose,
And by our count this bout belongs to me."
So said Sir Percival.
"And him to shame,"
Sir Ector answered, "should thy pastime be.
For I have learnt to more condole thy foes
Than doubt the sureness of thy victory."
"It is not of myself, but God in me."
"I doubt it naught. But when the bout is through,
What will ye with your captived damsel do?"
"I seek to loose her from such bonds."
She wears them lightly."
Now the porter spake:
"Ye seek to joust? There is a yard within
Which knights may enter who a lance would break
Against the castle's lord, and who shall win
Shall a ger-falcon and a maiden take.
But should they tumble, naught he asks, and they
Rise from the straw-strewn ground, and ride away."
"How many have there been such falls to meet?"
"I do not count so high. But sure defeat,
The while my master rides, each course will be."
"I will desire him of his courtesy
A single course to ride."
"He waiteth now."
Wide was the courtyard, and around it rose
High tiers of seats, with awnings roofed, for those
Whose mirth it was each fresh defeat to view.
Here came a knight whose shield was none that knew.
White was it only, with a cross of red.
"Is here a knight of bold approach," they said,
"A young knight surely, whom a gentle fall
Will harm not. Gentle is our lord to all,
As he is matchless in his strength and skill.
... Behold what pace they raise!"
They crashed, and lo!
Rolled steed and knights in one great overthrow,
For the strong spears had held.
Sir Lancelot rose
Wrothed at a fall he had not thought to meet.
Out came a sudden sword in ireful heat.
Should this young knight his hardened strength oppose?
One blow should bring him to a suppliant knee.
But rose Sir Percival as light as he.
Against the naked sword his own was bare.
Equal they countered in the whistling air,
And furious stroke by furious stroke was met.
Now foot to foot and shield to shield was set,
By those alike surprised such might to feel.
The murmuring galleries wondered to behold,
Such blows their shields sustain: such blows they deal.
But blows reiterate dealt on helm and shield
Will break their strength at last, and mail will yield.
Blood dimmed the brightness of their harness now.
The breathless tiers were silent, doubting how
Such strife its tragic end should find.
Sir Percival stept a pace. "Fair knight," he said,
"Never before so great a strength I met.
I would not slay thee while thy name I lack."
"I have no name. I am the Knight who Fell.
But, ere, I break thy pride, thy name to tell
I charge thee likely."
"That I lightly will.
I am a brother of Sir Aglovale.
Sir Percival de Galis."
"Woe is me!
Nameless I am, but of our Table still,
And I have wounded whom my care should be
To friend and succour, as our vows require.
But the red roses had I known."
The Cross for Christ: the white for chastity.
But I must charge thee by the vows we share,
Alike by things which are, and all things which were,
Thy rightful name to tell."
"So charged by thee,
I tell it. Leaning on thy courtesy
To hold it secret. Benoic's lord am I:
"Largelier I alas! May say.
For I have sought thee while four years went by,
And now was near the one I sought to slay,
..... Sir Ector waits without.... I lowly plead
"Rather I thy pardon need.
For I was first the needless sword to draw,
Wrothed by my fall."
Sir Ector came, and made
Such weeping joy when whom he sought he saw
That pity was it to behold.
Elaine that in short time such feast be laid
As not those towers had seen. Such mirth they had
Through the next days as words are weak to say,
As in good converse, and in jest and play
The swift hours passed; the while Sir Ector pled
That his true name, and rightful place, anew
Should Lancelot take. "Bethink the fame," he said,
"That once was thine. Bethink how great support
Thou wast to Arthur. None of all his court,
Even Sir Gawain and his ruthless kin,
But mourned thy loss. Thy queen's continual grief
Abates not with the years, and finds relief
Only in thought that we are searching still;
Now may new life with better hope begin,
For, in thy absence, all thy worth have weighed
As men will tale the great deeds of the dead;
And the high measure of the price she paid
For her false anger at a deed misread
Must tame the moods that irked thee. Should I so
Urge one whom most I love, except I know?"
"Brother, I thought not, till my time were through,
To thus return. Nor have I heart to do
That which thou wouldst. Yet will I not deny
The love which sought me these four years should give
Good counsel. Here I neither die nor live.
And if I live not there, I can but die."
This heard Elaine with sorrow-blinded eyes,
Though well she knew that naught she lost, for naught
Was hers to lose. "Dear lord," she said, "to me,
Through whom, beyond my fault, thy woes arise,
Thou hast been gracious ever. When the cost
Of our much travail from thy heart shall be
Belittled by the joys of days ahead,
Still shall its gain endure. I think to send,
At this next Pentecost, to Arthur's court,
Galahad, who is thy child as mine, for he
Nears to the age of knighthood."
"Do thy will.
And may God's grace sustain him."
"Doubt not that.
Foremost of all his kin, excepting thee,
He will be surely."
"If he be no less,
He will not shame us."
Through the lengthening days,
Southward they rode a rapid pace. Delays
For restful loitering in the woodland ways,
Or jocund feasting at some friendly tower,
Sir Lancelot would not dure. So much the hour
He longed the royal city's gates to see,
As oft from wild far ventures seen had he
Returning lone, of change and loss to hear,
And gains of honour, and to meet anew
Those who had scattered in the earlier year.
So much his heart recalled. But not the fear
That this occasion held. Yet half his dread
Was causeless. Swiftly though they rode, there spread
A swifter rumour. Wide the gates were flung.
Scarcely their chargers through the cheering press
Slow way could make to where, his knights among,
And queens and ladies in such festal dress
As royal banquet fits, King Arthur sate,
As for a monarch's greeting throned await.
This had the queen contrived, that all should be
Controlled and public at his first return,
And that in no way as ashamed should he
Rejoin her, or the court; or those should learn
Who knew not now, or guess, how deep the pit
That snared him, or herself the cause of it.
So as from wandering long in alien ways,
As oft he had - though less the length - before,
Hailed was he.
But King Arthur spake apart:
"I know thee and thy moods of silence well.
I would not urge for that thou wouldst not tell.
Yet may I, as our friendship prompts, surmise
That in Elaine's caprice thy torture lies,
Seeing that in past years thy babe she bore,
And that her coming, and abrupt depart
Were at the moment when we looked in vain
To find thee? This I know my queen believed,
And she so greatly for thy grief was grieved
That all she roused to seek thee."
"Lord and friend,
Whatever folly in my life hath lain,
A price which none may change and none may mend
I paid, and likely shall increase to pay.
Ask me no more."
"I ask no more than this:
By Ector's word you came from Carbonac.
Noise is there that thy son doth no way lack
Valour and grace and strength that none should miss,
Being so mothered and so sired."
He may in all excel me."
"Should he so,
No greater marvel would our Table know.
End of Chapter XVI