The Song Of Arthur - Chapter XVII
by S. Fowler Wright
Return to Chapter XVI
The Challenge Of The Grail.
Those long slow years that Lancelot's life had scarred
From blows abusive that the witless meet,
More swiftly in the peace of Joyous Garde
Fulfilled their course. And in that fair retreat
Could love and peace the shadows past forget:
The night which comes to all was distant yet.
All summer seasons end: all suns will set.
But when high noon the thought of night denies
Shall be no joyance for the golden skies?
Or wherefore should blind night their loss regret?
And quiet passed the days, with seldom word
Of peril, or great deed, or summoning
Of Arthur's lieges to his court, and they,
Iseult and Tristram, by Sir Lancelot's grace
Who dwelt in Joyous Garde secure, could play
In its fair woodlands, which no discord heard.
So passed the days that love made short, and night
Shorter by content of more deep delight
Found in some fair pavilion's sheltered rest
While yet reluctant sunset lit the west,
Till waked they to the morning's misty blue
Before the summer dawn had lit the dew.
For through those years of Lancelot's loss, the king,
Even when they who searched with weary dole,
One after one, from barren wandering
Rejoined the court, was heartless to control
Lethargic days to livelier ends. It seemed
As though they turned in drowsing sleep, and dreamed
Of great things past, but less of things to be.
For what remained? In Arthur's peace secure
Slept the wide realm. Of settled empire sure,
What trumpet roused him now? And those who still
Linked the strong circle of his might, could they
For ever the returning tourney day
Welcome afresh? Each knight, to deal or dure,
Knew all he could and all he could not do,
And if some knights excelled him, more or few,
Why should he lust to prove his loss anew?
But now that Lancelot had his place regained,
The king, as one who wakes from dreams too deep,
And looks around with wildered eyes, aware
Of life around him which he does not share,
Refreshed belike by that lethargic sleep
Was active to assert his throne anew.
Soon through the land the joyous trumpets blew
Which told of tourney in such style designed
That none so great but here he fame might find,
And none so naked in his own esteem
But there some prospect of applause might seem,
Joined in strong ranks. And in the after days
Should not such presence be a lasting praise?
Now when the word in Joyous Garde was said
Of that great tourney call that Arthur sent
Wide through the land; and how were there-ward bent
All knights in easeful peace too long that lay,
Rose Tristram lightly; fain of heart was he
Again from rest his garnered strength to try,
And friends rejoined of older days to see,
And various tales to change; and thought he there,
From that strong tower's secure, in Mark's despite,
And scorn of envious spears, in all men's sight,
Iseult, his lawless, peerless prize to bear,
Where all a kingdom showed of worth and fair
Should meet; and light he spake: "This tourney cry,
Comes as the fall of bars to captives held
At hindered ransom long. For joys whate'er
We here have proved, and thank Lord Lancelot's care,
These towers that lent, our larger mirth shall be
Once more clear skies and open wold to see,
Around us and before."
She answered: "Nay,
I go not there. For I have seen thereby
That larger burden on thy lance is laid
Than else had been. Marked art thou ever for me.
But ride thou single, and the envious glance
That deems me prize of any fortuned lance
Molests no more."
He answered: "Save with thee,
I will not there."
"Now God defend!" she said,
"What shame is here among all knights? For dead
Far liever were I, and my love forgot,
Than thou, when Percival shows, and Lancelot,
And his great kin foregathered, and Orkney's might,
Found absent, and the word be laughed: 'He lies
In idle dalliance, and his lady's eyes
More lure him than the tourney.' O my knight,
How should thine ease endure the emptier day?
What to my shame might queens and ladies say?"
And in some space he answered: "Well I wot,
Ye counsel nobly, and who loved me not,
Or loved me lightlier, had not willed as thou.
Loth am I to leave thy side, and loth that now
We should not blithe to this high feast repair,
As, in the unthinking chanceful days that were,
Where most we would, for all men's wrath, we went.
Nor think I yet my younger strength is spent
So far, I might not hold thee at ease. But lo!
Time changeth all, with ceaseless tide and slow,
And soundless in the night, that not we know
When the flood turns. Thyself shalt choose, and more
To serve thy peace, I will not ride as yore,
Armed at device, and in full steel arrayed,
As offering war; but shield and lance and blade
Bear only, that no mailed knight that sees me so
Shall strife intend, except more base he were
Than likely might to this great feast repair,
And that God wills shall chance me.
"Thus may rest
My strength untried for this high tourney test
The king hath called. But think not there I bide
More long than need, a lonely path who ride,
And all beside of dearer joys forgo."
Leaving the girth of Joyous Garde, as he
Who leaves restraints of youthful years to know
Full freedom, blithely did Sir Tristram go,
From those too-restful years again to see
Camelot's wide lists bethronged, and dazzling gay
With burnished steel, and feathered crests, and glow
Of blazoned shields that in their bright array
Were gules and or and argent, vert and blue.
Such vision filled his mind, the while he knew
The bare length of the sunlit road, and waved
Farewell to those who lined the wall, Iseult
Among them foremost. While around him drew
Four knights, full-armed, her care had sent to be
His escort. Truly though he laughed to see,
He spake not till the southward-bending road
Hid the high towers, but then he reined, and said:
"Return ye now, and tell my queen that I
May yet with safety on my lance rely
At any wayside chance; and should the need
For helm and mail arise, my squires are near
With all her care hath furnished. Be your heed
Herself to guard; for rather there than here
May hard occasion rise."
To this control
They bent, and to Iseult returned, while he
To laughter half, and half to wrath inclined:
'Thinks she the years have spent my strength? Perde!
Who cometh next my naked arm may find
Sufficient answer to his boast will be.'
So mooded, onward from the open plain
Through the deep woods he rode, which now the spring,
Ever reversed and ever lord again,
Made gaily loud with love's gay tourneying
Among the bud-green boughs.
But song was still,
And steel rang harshly, as they came to where
Two knights contended. One with strengthless skill,
Delaying that he could not change: and one
Down-raining tireless blows that would not spare
Until - but instant now the strife was done.
Down sank the weaker knight, and he that won
Advanced his sword against his throat; but loud
Sir Tristram hailed him: "Nay, thou Paynim proud!
It is not thine a Table knight to slay."
Sir Palomides turned: "Then must he plead
For mercy, or by knighthood's general law - "
But stopped he in midspeech at whom he saw.
"Sir Tristram -"
"Sir Tristram, nay.
Thy rescue of my life shall blows repay?
I do not lightly in two years forget."
"The times my mind recalls are longer yet.
We have so ancient and so large a score
That well may blows relieve it."
While he spake
He turned toward his squire, a lance to take,
Addressed his shield, and on the Paynim bore.
Sir Palomides well the onslaught met
With shield alone, and lance which turned away
From one unmailed, whose failure death should pay.
Nor was he thrown thereby, for Tristram's lance
In splinters leapt.
"Art mad?" The Paynim cried.
But hard on helm Sir Tristram's sword replied.
Sir Palomides thought: 'If all I dure,
Steel is not constant, and the end is sure.
Or should I all return the most I may,
What shame were mine a naked knight to slay?
Who should believe I had no choice?'
"Sir Tristram, ere this bitter strife we try,
Wilt thou, in God's name, give one true reply
To but one question?"
"Surely that will I."
"I ask thee: wert thou in thine armour clad,
And I nor helm, nor greaves, nor hawberk had,
Wouldst thou consent to slay me thus?"
So must my word condemn myself? Let be.
I was not knightly in my thought. But I
Planned it not thus, who did not count to die,
But prove my valour to thy likelier fall....
If the hurt knight will lend his arms, we yet
May deal full quittance, or in death forget."
Then looked he to Sir Gallison, who lay
Sore-bruised, hard-breathing, well content that they
In their new bicker turned their thoughts away
From one who else had failure's price to pay.
"Take all thou wilt," he said, "with only care
That gently are the laces loosed; for I
Am hurt most sorely."
With this free consent,
Sir Tristram's squires above the fallen bent,
And stripped him of his arms, and Tristram there
They dressed therein, who found, with good content,
That they were ample for his need. And so
Was strife resumed. Not oft did Tristram know
Such strong assail as he must counter now.
Nor ever did Sir Palomides meet
Other who faced him with no foot's retreat,
And would no moment's feinting pause allow.
But backward Palomides stepped at last.
His shield was cleft, his hawberk overcast
With dusky slurs; and Tristram moved with pain,
Side-wounded: "Do we fight to death?"
Till thou shalt yield thee as a recreant knight,
Or else to death."
The Paynim raised again
A weary sword; but Tristram's tireless might
Smote it from out his hand, at which they stood
Silent alike. For thought Sir Tristram: 'Nay,
No heart is mine a swordless knight to slay.'
And Palomides: "I were rightly slain
If I should motion to the sword regain."
Then Tristram stepped a backward pace, and said:
"I will not slay thee thus. The sword retrieve.
So may we fairly strive till one be sped."
But Palomides answered: "By thy leave,
I will not, till ye hear me. Not to thee
Was ever mine offence so great but yet
We might have friendship, and the past forget.
How have I wronged thee? That Iseult I love
I have not cloaked. But she is raised above
All other ladies in so great degree
That all should worship. If myself I won
Some meed of honour, other cause was none
But all through her. Yet never aught offence
Against her person have I made. Through me
No lessened tribute to her name shall be.
Her seldom friendly, ever distant eyes
Have never met mine own in carnal wise.
To give thee comfort, or thy safety guard,
For me no shame so low, no fall so hard,
But she had seen it with a sure content.
"To thee alone my past offence hath been,
And if thy failure or thy loss I meant,
Sore blows have paid it.... More than that, through thee
First was I brought the light of Christ to see,
When thou didst rescue who had wrought thee wrong.
I ask thy pardon, through whose grace I live."
"Yea, I forgive thee, as may God forgive."
Gone was the crocus-gold of earliest spring,
When came God's challenge. Gone from Arthur's heart
Its first high impulse? When he walked apart,
As oft he would, upon a weakened wing
Rose the old vision, which its dream had wrought,
Godlike, to splendid life from procreant thought?
The noon is not the morn. At noon to rest
May even zeal incline, to rise refresht
To lift the burden of the later day.
Droned the last years. But who from that could say
That those long-venturous knights would drouse unstirred
If the high trumpets of God's hosts were heard?
Ever at Pentecost had Arthur made
Good feast, and gathering of his knights, to see
The shining fullness of their ranks arrayed,
And others choose of good report, to be
Heirs to the seats that fatal chance had left
Claimless, since at the previous year they met.
And when the noon came, and the board was set,
He would the banquet in suspense delay
Till some high deed was heard, or marvel came
To lift from meaner thoughts that holiest day.
But now the fair concourse of knight and dame,
Princes and kings and lords and damsels bright,
Gathered around, and naught of song or sight
Or tale of wonder came; and asked Sir Kay,
Before he signalled that the feast be set:
"Dost thou the custom of past years forget?"
And the king answered: "Very truth to say,
Such joy in Lancelot's safe return I have
That other marvel had I failed to need."
Then spake Guenever: "Dost thou fail to heed
His place is vacant? Yestereve there came,
Hard-riding through the failing light, a dame
Who sought his aid. Her cause she would not name;
But when I asked him: 'Wilt thou leave us thus,
The feast so near?' She swore an oath to bind
That he should join us at this hour.
Sir Lancelot entered. "Hadst thy place with us
Again been vacant, such a loss to find
We must again abroad our best have sent."
So Arthur spake, and Lancelot answered: "Lord,
Such mission drew me as would none repent;
And soon occasion will this feast afford
For search diviner than for mortal knight."
For Lancelot, riding through the early night
With her who sought him in that secret way,
Was brought to halt where, in the moon's low light,
An abbey on a lake's dark margin lay.
Dame Brisen said: "In this retreat is he
Who must be knighted, and by only thee."
"I doubt it largely."
"Yet by God's decree
Must all be fashioned."
While they spake there came
Those who with reverence heard Sir Lancelot's name,
And led him inward to a chamber fair
Wherein the Abbess sate, and welcome there
She gave, with seemly words; and entered then
Twelve nuns, and in their midst a youth was seen
Not often equalled among earthly men
In strength, in beauty, or in gentle mien.
"Sir," said they all, "this child of thine should be
By thy hand knighted, and by none but thee;
For like in all he is, as all may see."
"That," said Sir Lancelot, "may high God forbid."
Yet here was likeness which no difference hid.
It was as though himself he saw: the same
From the clear mirror of the lake who came.
Without the weakness, and without the sin,
Galahad was there again: a name forgot
In the high fame and faults of Lancelot.
So separate were they, and so close akin.
He looked and loved. "To knighthood take from me
Is thy free choosing? Then it so shall be.
Watch through the night; and with the morn thy will
Shall be mine also, and may God fulfil
His purpose in thee."
"Wilt thou with me ride?"
Next morn Sir Lancelot asked his knighted son.
But Galahad answered: "Nay, I here abide
Some further hour with cause of weight."
Am pledged to stay not."
So, ere noon had won
Its regnant height, Sir Lancelot came again
Where through the crowded hall arose a cry:
"Behold a marvel!" For that single seat
Beside Sir Percival's, that long had lain
Vacant and feared through Merlin's warning, now
Bore a bright scroll that no man there had set.
'Behold,' it read, 'the tale of years complete.
Four hundred-fifty-four since Christ our debt
Cancelled, and rose triumphant. Such the day
Destined to see this siege possessed.'
Sir Lancelot said, "is as the scroll's protest.
The time, and closely God's elect, are here.
Yet, that no doubt on such occasion rest,
I counsel that silken pall be cast
To hide that scroll until the hour be past,
Or God's set purpose to all eyes be clear."
So was it done, the while the board asteam
Drew all toward their rightful seats, when loud
A squire, who hustled through the doorway crowd
Of servitors who came and went, and they
Who must the choice of lowlier seats delay
Till all of worth were placed, a marvel cried:
"Lord, past believing, at the waterside,
Anear to where thy royal barge is tied,
A huge stone floats, as though but ice it were.
And in the stone a sword is thrust, as though
It were but nature there for steel to go."
"This will I see," and all arose to share
The feast-day wonder. Crowding to the shore
They found that truth was told. Of marble red
The floating stone: the sword, bright-hilted, bore
A scroll that all who bent might read. It said:
'Let those who touch me for themselves beware.
The world's best knight my waiting sheath doth bear.
To others should I prove a wounding dread.'
To Lancelot said the king: "The sword is thine.
Heaven with us joins thy glad return to bless."
But Lancelot answered: "Nay, it is not mine.
His shall it rather be whose guilt is less;
Who see'th as the pure in heart may see
The Heavenward path. It is not meant for me."
"Wilt thou?" King Arthur next to Gawain said.
"Shall all be daunted by this proofless dread?"
Sir Gawain grasped it with good heart, and strove
Some while, and strongly, but he did not stir.
Slowly reluctant did he loose its hilt.
"Fair lord," Sir Lancelot said, "that sword hath spilt
Not only blood of those whose helms it clove
Or harness pierced; but words of worth aver
That who hath held it hath its curse sustained
Even to death. For while his end it gained
It ever turned it to a course perverse.
No man who wields it may avoid its curse,
Till to the hand it seeks at last it come."
"I did it only at our lord's desire,"
Sir Gawain answered, and the king replied:
"I much repent it. Yet to leave untried
So bold a challenge would the shame require
Of those around me who unequalled stand
In the wide circuit of the Christianed land.
My hope is in Sir Percival." And he
Gave seemly answer: "Though I think to be
Sir Gawain's comrade in a failing test,
I will not shrink to share his danger so."
Lightlier he grasped the shining hilt, as though
He knew no mortal strength that sword should wrest
Consentless from its sheath of stone; and then
As lightly loosed it. "Better knight than I
This sword shall win."
Was none had lust to try
Where Gawain failed and Percival; and all
Had Lancelot's warning heard. The vacant hall,
Where the meats cooled along the board, again
"Now may we eat in peace, Sir Kay,
For we have seen the wonder," said the king,
Not guessing what the coming hour should bring
Of larger portent. More he did not say,
For every casement there, and every door
Closed wholly of itself, and not as though
Violenced by gust of wind, but smooth and slow.
And yet the hall was lighted as before
By noonday's natural use; and when they raised
Their doubtful eyes this marvel to regard,
They saw two entered whom they did not know.
A man of reverend years, and whitely clad,
White bearded: at his side a youth he had
In arms of shining steel, but bare of head,
And with an ermined cloak of sendal red,
And swordless hung a sheath against his side.
"It is in peace we come," the old man said.
"King Pellam sent me, this young knight to guide
To that which waits him here. By him shall be
Great marvels in this realm, from sea to sea,
And in far lands accomplished."
While he spake,
The youth toward the vacant siege he led,
And raised the hiding cloth, and there was writ:
'Sir Galahad on this day this siege shall take.'
And when the young knight had accepted it,
He said full meekly: "Sir, your part is done.
Return ye to my grandsire's towers, and say
That I will do all as best I may,
Till the high moment when the goal be won.
But I shall see them on a sooner day."
Thereon the doors swung wide, and all men saw
Gathered without, but in no fier of war,
A score of mounted knights, and twice a score
Of squires and varlets who their harness bore,
With burnished steel and royal purple gay.
This troop the old man joined, and rode away
The while all eyes were turned on Galahad,
In doubt, in marvel, or in generous wise.
But he of friendly or of envious eyes
Regardless seemed, as one whose thoughts were far,
As the high dreamings of God's servants are.
When that fair feast was done, King Arthur said:
"Young knight, the sword you lack may not be far,
Come with me."
To the floating stone he led,
With knights and ladies in a following throng.
"This sword most noble knights have failed to win,
Yet shouldst thou venture."
Galahad answered: "Yea,
Was little marvel that they failed therein.
For this good sheath doth to the sword belong,
And till I found it must I all delay.
It once was Balyn's bane, to bring to naught
All good he purposed, till at last he fought
Whom most he cherished, to be slain and slay.
But that was when despair alone he knew,
So that the cover of God's shield withdrew."
Lightly he won it from the stone away.
"Thine is the sword; but yet a shield you lack."
"That also must I wait."
The queen nearby;
Who watched and heard, contently thought: 'By this
The truth of that old tale of gramarie,
Which I have doubted long, at last I see.
His child he is. But yet poor fool was I
To take it wrothly as a deed amiss.
It was my name that lured him; but the deed
Before Sir Balyn died had fate decreed.'
...... "Lancelot," she said, "I doubt it naught that he
Of Pellam's sacred line, and sired by thee,
Will be our greatest. All must change at last.
Yet that I live to see thy fame surpassed
I had not feared till now."
"To call it fear
Were to give hope a different name. And I,
Whatever to thy gracious thought appear,
Was never greatest."
Arthur said: "The year
With change is pregnant. Here at Pentecost
Each season meet we in full strength, or less
By those made captive, or in danger lost.
Most will be here; and any seats left bare
With younger knights alike in worthiness
We to full tale the broken ring repair.
But much I doubt of whom again I see,
Or that from now our gathered strength shall be
That which it hath been, and it is today.
And therefore will I that, while light shall last,
In one more tourney, in our customed way,
We break good spears, as never more we may."
So was it done. The sudden lists were set
In the near meadow. Orkney Orkney met,
And Benoic Benoic, in such friendly wise
As was high joyance to King Arthur's eyes,
Seeing their might, their valour, and their skill,
And their full number - numbering one the more
Than the full Table's count had taled before.
For Galahad, though as yet no shield he bore,
Entered among them, and his maiden spear
So well was guided that few knights were here
Who were not worsted. Foul Sir Ector fell,
Griflet, and Agravain, and Lionel;
And even Tristram, when a course he tried,
Felt his steed falter, and was wroth to rise
From ground seldom felt, though, sooth to say,
His own strong spear had turned its point away
From one no shield who showed. But Lancelot
And Percival Sir Galahad did not meet.
So that fair game was played till eventide,
And in the heart of Arthur fear and pride
Contended as he watched. For this bright scene
But for his vision not on earth had been,
And in the changing that doth all confound
Might not again be seen on earthly ground.
Yet were it for this hour by God designed?
To grow, to scatter, and the Grail to find,
And so redeem a world before that fell?
Or would black failure all his dreams dispel?
With seats left vacant, and the empty shell
Of his feared Table left for heathen feet
To trample? Doubting thus, the crowded street,
His queen beside him, and behind the press
Of kings and ladies and bold knights, he rode,
In the great minster to his fault confess,
And pray for that high faith by God bestowed
On those who serve Him with no thought that they
Rule the fair issue; but His Word obey.
Then from the minster to the court again,
Their even service done, the glittering train
Returned, and for the closing meal resumed
Their customed seats. The cresset torches lit
The loud thronged board, and all the length of it
Showed myriad-hued, the while the high roof gloomed,
And the tall-windowed walls, and all thereon
Of painted records and of garnishing,
Beyond the region of the torches bright.
Till with a sudden wave of thundering,
Such as no tempest of torn skies would bring,
Through that high-galleried gloom, toward the king,
Slant through the hall, a beam of blinding light
Intenser sevenfold than the sunlight shone.
Voiceless they gazed thereon, while king and knight,
Each to the seeming of his comrades' sight,
Showed godlier than themselves they were, as though
Revealed as God had meant them, or as though
Their baser selves that light denied.
Down the slant beam a vision of flame in flame,
Wing-folded. Down that shaft of light there slid,
Borne of no visible hands, the Grail unsought.
Nearby it passed them, but the close wings hid
The unendurable glory: thus they brought
The holy vessel, and veiled it. Twice it passed
Down the long hall, and was not; and the light
Not faded, but withdrawn. The hall remained
Silent awhile, till Arthur spake: "We well
Our Lord may thank of this revealing sight.
Witness of how He loosed the gates of Hell
With travail that our dear salvation gained."
Cool and unfearful, as a pilot heeds
The signs of tempest in a clouding sky,
Sir Gawain watched. Should Benoic only try
This strange adventure? That which Lancelot leads
Should Orkney follow? Nay, should all Logre?
Would they good counsel take, and all abide?
Or would they choose at Lancelot's call to ride,
Leaving him only? Or, for Orkney's name,
Would he, though laggard, make his choice the same,
As one, though last, by good example led?
Better it were to make the first protest,
And lead, not follow, on this scapeless quest.
"Now will I swear before High God," he said,
"That from next morn a twelve month save a day
The Grail I seek by any wild or way
That may dispose it to our sinful sight,
Or longer at good need. Yet if shall be
That such high sight I may not reach to see,
I will return as one who may not change
The will of Heaven therein."
Like oath to swear
Rose with one impulse all who heard. Arose
The Table knights as one that quest to share
In bold assertion. Only Tristram thought:
'Were I of worth so great a goal to dare,
Which well I know I am not, even so
My word is given, and I would not go.'
"Gawain," King Arthur said, "so strait a vow
May no man break, and therefore fallen now
Is all I live for, or I hoped to see.
God knoweth how ye all are dear to me.
For in fair fellowship and knightly ways
Not in the whole world's space your like can be.
Now must I for a year of silent days
Wait for I know not what, the while I gaze
On seats left empty, and my queen and I
Doubt of how many in strange wilds shall die;
For those who follow where the Grail shall lead
Must neither distance shrink, nor danger heed.
This is God's challenge, not of mortal kind,
And if beyond all hope the Grail ye find,
Will it return our common life to bless?
I know not, and ye know not. Yet for less
We might have called the road too steep to try.
There must our prayers be set."
The night went by
With little thought of sleep, so much to do,
So much to feel there was, so much to say,
Where ladies pleaded for their lords to stay,
Or showed not that they felt, because they knew
The code of honour. Some would plead to ride
Through any dangered ways their lords beside,
And when rejected from this hope (for none,
A holy hermit ruled, such quest who took,
Might so be solaced, or with longing look
For lewd occasions of strange ways, but shun
All earthly pleasure) bitter partings came.
Was loyal faith contemned? Was wedlock shame?
Was this the issue of the comrade years?
Some fell to open wrath, and some to tears.
And some, reproachless, showed how love can gain
Its fairest triumphs when its hopes are slain.
Morn came regardless of that night of woe,
A cloudless radiance from the east, as though
All heaven gladdened that such quest should be.
But Arthur wept so many knights to see
Drest in bright arms, though helmless yet, for they
Would first before the minster altar pray
God's guidance where they rode. "Oh, Lancelot,"
He said, "thy counsel was not wont to fail.
Can naught to save us from this loss avail?"
And Lancelot answered: "If our hearts forgot
The vows we uttered, wouldst thou praise us?"
I know not. But I have no heart to say
Aught but lament."
"Yet is thy comfort clear.
For honour's path is ours. And die we here
Or in some distant land, and die we now
Or when age finds us in some distant year,
All are we sure of death. It is but how
And where it meets us. And thy Table's name
May find in this fair quest its loftiest fame."
"Lancelot, regard not how I spake, for I
So well have loved thee and my knights: so long
Hath this old custom held, that round me throng
The truest, noblest, of our land: that now,
Seeing them lost by this dividing vow,
My sorrow wronged me."
While they spake, the queen
Had Galahad met. With searching eyes she scanned
One who much trouble to her life had been,
And whom, till then, she had not closely seen.
"You came," she asked him, "from a distant land?"
"Madam, from Corbin."
"Thou art Lancelot's son?"
He answered naught to that.
"God's life!" Said she,
"No shame is here. The goodliest knight is he
In all known realms, and in those realms is none
Of such high record, nor of ancestry
Nobler or knightlier. If thy deeds accord,
Are few men living but should call thee lord."
The while she spake he felt her glance explore
All that he was, with seeking wit to see
What there of Lancelot or Elaine might be,
For hate, or tolerance, or reluctant love.
Graceful and slender in his strength was he,
Fearless of aspect though demure as dove.
He felt the challenge that appraised him so,
And somewhat troubled and abashed thereby,
He answered: "Madam, if so much ye know,
Why ask me? Naught I said, and naught deny.
Born only for one single end was I,
As all have told me. That must surely be.
Nor aught beyond, nor aught beside I see."
She turned, and to her chamber went, and there
Found little comfort in such frenzied prayer
As Heaven impeached, and turned aside to blame
Consort and lover that this parting came.
Should Arthur thus consent his knights to lose?
More that her love this quest should Lancelot choose,
Having returned so few short days before?
Short joy, that ended in a change of woe!
Then Lancelot entered: "Sweet, I could not go
Without thy favour." Leapt her words thereat
In scourging fury: "Didst thou think of me,
When Gawain led thee to so wild a vow?
Four years apart! - and then one night! - and now
Again we sever! Dost thou care? Or grieve
That Arthur naked to his foes ye leave?
The whole Round Table empty? Death to me,
And Arthur's ruin shall thy treason be."
"My queen," he said, "for love's dear sake I pray
That with less bitter words I ride away.
Be not displeased that what I must I do.
Believe that ever shall my thoughts to you
Look back with longing till my steps I turn
Hereward again, the first glad hour I may
"Of thy love, forgive!
Oh, Lancelot, only in thy life I live.
Alas that ever in this world we met!
All but my sorrow - but my love - forget.
May He who for our sinful race was slain
Be thy good conduct, to return again
As late thou didst when nearly hope was dead.
So will I pray, and not alone for thee,
But all alike who wander.... Nay, let be!
Nay, leave me now, lest other words be said."
She heard of steel on stone the echoing tread
Receding down the stair. She sank her head
In cushions green as spring, and brightly gay
With braiding gold, and as she wept she thought:
'What hope remains? Few knights shall likelier win
The Grail of God. But would he here resort
Thereafter, or reject so dear a sin?
Shall love be traitor to itself, and pray
That alien triumph shall its rites betray?'
She sought for Arthur, where her comfort lay,
For half he guessed at that would neither say,
And half forgave, for both he loved, nor thought
They wronged him, as they did, in carnal sort;
And here was grief to share.
The king she met
Returning from the gate. "Such sight to see
- A hundred knights and fifty scattering wide -
Except at call of war, I had not thought.
Now must we hold," he said, "an empty court
Of ladies only, till at last we learn
What broken remnant to their seats return."
Thereat he wept, and common grief allied
Their separate hearts, for well she shared the pride
That in the concourse of his knights he had.
And in the outer streets, while this was said,
As the last knight on that far venture sped
Slowly dispersed a silent crowd and sad.
Four days Sir Galahad, whom no shield belonged,
Rode a straight way, and no man turned him. Then,
Unperilled, and of good heart adventurous,
When closing night his further pathway wronged,
An Abbey White he saw. Short halt was here
At parleying port. His name, with welcome cheer,
Swung the wide gate. To such fair room they led
As pleasured ease; until refection, spread
In the great hall, was due. And here he met
Two Table knights he had not known before -
King Baudemagus and Ewaine of Gore.
"Now come ye," asked Ewaine, "at random here?"
"I wander as my steed inclines."
Came here the marvel of a shield to see
Which none but he for whom it waits could bear,
Except that in three days he mischiefed were,
Or maybe maimed or dead."
"You think to try
A risk so large?"
King Baudemagus said:
"I will adventure."
"In God's name!"
Then mayst thou venture with more hope than I,
And with thy triumph for my loss atone."
"That would I gladly, for no shield I own."
Next morn the mass they heard, and then were led
To where a shield behind the altar hung -
A snow-white shield that bore a cross of red -
A priest disclosed it, as they asked, but said:
"Fair sirs, be warned, for those this shield who try
Repent it sorely ere three days go by."
"I will adventure; for my life is this:
To fail in all. Yet were it more amiss
If I should turn from any tests I meet,
And be defeated thus, without defeat,"
King Baudemagus said: "If here ye bide
Three days, ye then may learn what ills betide
To those unworthy with this shield who ride."
"We will await it here."
At this the king,
Taking a squire the backward word to bring,
Mounted, and round his neck the shield he drest.
"God knoweth," said Ewaine, "which knights are best
By His sure scales of judgement, but to me
Are few things better to His sight can be
Than still to strive, and fail, and strive anew
With heart unbroken."
"So I think: and so
I would not thwart him, though the shield, I know,
Without my proved desert, is meant for me."
Now from their sight King Baudemagus passed,
The road descending, till a vale he found
Fruit-blossomed, and the low green hills around
Shadowed by racing clouds, and there between
The sun made glory of the maytime green.
Through the fair vale a river wandered slow,
And on its bank a priory, long and low,
Lay in the sure peace of the Sacred Name.
Yet from its gate a swan-white warrior came
With levelled lance, and with no previous word
Up the straight road, against the king, he spurred.
This swift offence to meet, for choice was none,
King Baudemagus let his charger run.
His spear upon a strong shield broke; but he
Was backward flung, for, sliding past the rim
Of the charmed shield, which no defence would be,
The spear through mail and shoulder drave, and he
Felt the hard earth.
But not to capture him,
Nor injure more, the victor deigned. He said:
"King, thine own folly lays thee there. The shield
Will take no scratch from any earthly spear,
Except Sir Galahad's life it guard."
Was bold to answer: "Those who God require
All doors approach."
"Nor such shall God refuse.
Wherefore his jeopard life he will not lose....
But to Sir Galahad bear it."
"I would know
The name of him who doth direct me so."
"My name is not for ears of mortal men."
"Now, by the reverence that to Christ we owe,
Expound thy meaning, or I will not go."
"By that conjuring word I speak. Ye see
The arms of Christ on that fair shield, and they
Are potent of themselves to turn away
The points that might deface them. Only when
They guard the sinless will their virtue be
The adverse stroke to meet.... Ye need not fear
The king to leave, for better help is near,
And separate fortune thine."
As this was said,
A litter from the priory came, and they
Who brought it lifted, to a softer bed
Than the hard earth on which he bleeding lay,
The thwarted king.
To that charmed shield convey,
Back to Sir Galahad rode the squire, and told
All that had been, at which Sir Galahad,
Seeing the beckon of high deeds ahead,
Thanked him as one who comes with tidings glad.
He rose, and armed. So rose Ewaine, who said:
"I would go with you to the end."
Sir Galahad answered, "for I take a way
Which none may follow. Save the squire alone
I ride with no companion."
Then the squire
Was bold a boon to plead: "If that be so,
Wilt thou not grant me knighthood ere we go?"
"Who art thou?"
"Melias de Lisle am I.
The King of Denmark's son."
"Of rank so high
Thou shouldst be mirror where the best may see
Themselves excelled. Thy boon? I grant it thee.
What shall my favour with such knighthood be?"
"Only that to one path we keep, until
Some venture part us."
"As some venture will.
Till then I grant it thee."
The road they chose
Struck northward through Logre, where Arthur's foes
Came seldom, or in deep woods lurked; and they
Rode idly through the peace that round them lay
For seven long days, while converse made the twain
Good comrades as they journeyed rein to rein,
Being confirmed of equal knighthood now.
But at the eighth high noon they came to where
The forward road was forked, and there was set
A cross that bore a warning scroll: 'Beware
The road ye take, for those who rightward bear,
If knights of worth, shall find no hindrance there
Till the two roads again in one be met.
But that which leftward strikes, and bends away,
Hath larger danger, and shall soon assay
All who attempt it, to a hard degree.'
Then spake Sir Melias: "Of thy courtesy,
The freedom of this leftward road I pray;
For such hard test is rather meant for me."
"I would advise thee in a different way,
I deem I better might that test endure."
"Again I ask it."
"In God's name!"
They parted. Melias rode with eyes alert
For some strange danger that the woods should show
- Woods that grew denser as he rode, as though
They closed, defiant of their human foe,
Their uninvaded loneliness, which yet
No axe had felt.
Two days he rode, and found
The closing boughs were darker: more profound
The silence of their depths. But naught he heard
Of challenge, fiend's or man's. Against him stirred
No monster of the woods. What test was here?
Knighted, but with a yet unpractised spear,
He watched for that which came not.
When he saw
Occasion in his path his rein to draw,
Was still no menace, nor of life a cry.
But in close space beneath the branches high,
In sunlight brighter for the glooming wood,
And golden-hued, a broad pavilion stood,
Its curtains lifted. All was silk within,
Of scarlet sheen, and void of life it seemed.
But in the midst a damask table gleamed
With silver goblets and rich plate, that bore
A banquet laid. He had not thought it sin
Of that unguarded food to eat, but naught
Of hunger stirred him, for his quick regard
Was drawn to that which lust of seizure brought.
A circlet wrought of gold and ruby-starred,
Glowed on a great chair at the table's head.
"Now who will strive for that fair prize?" He said.
But in the stillness none an answer made:
None at the challenge rose from chair or bed.
And no man issued from the sombre shade
Of the dense woods around.
The crown he took
A natural spoil, but would not haste away.
Slow pace he rode. 'If one my path would stay
To rescue this fair gaud, I would not flee.'
So came he where the roads that branched apart
Again united. 'Here should Galahad be,
If he have traded in as fair a mart.'
Behind him, with the thought, arose a cry:
"Bold thief, defend thee! Either turn or die."
Around he reined in haste, a knight to see
Who spurred upon him, riding lance to knee.
'Now Heaven defend Thy newmade knight,' he prayed,
In youth's light confidence, of naught afraid.
Alike his lance he sank, but when they met
It splintered vainly, while his foeman's drave
Through shield and hawberk both; and overset
To friendless earth he fell.
As though disdain
Were his, who only would the crown regain,
The victor seized it, but to seize or save
The conquered naught he cared. And likely slain
He seemed, so lifeless on cold ground he lay.
But from the length of that long parted way
Sir Galahad came, and at his comrade's side
Alighting bent. Was here a wound so wide
That mortal aid should never life restore?
So looked it. But his patient aid he tried,
Kneeling beside him on the bloodwet ground
Till conscience waked.
"In this far wilderness,"
Sir Melias asked, "can any priest be found
To shrive me ere I die?"
"The loneliest ways
And wildest in the Christian lands are few
God doth not with some house of mercy bless.
Such will I seek. But say what chance and who
Have left thee thus?"
Before the tale was said,
By one whose words, controlled by halting pain,
Came hardly, from the boughs there rang a cry:
"Who aids God's outcast, guard thyself, or die."
Sir Galahad rose. The same stark knight was there
Who had Sir Melias cast.
He answered. "Not to swell thy pride am I."
And while he spake he turned, his steed to gain.
Now was that earlier bout reversed, for he
Who gave the wound must to the like degree
Its depth endure, for shield and shoulder through
Pierced the unbreaking lance, and then withdrew.
Then from the woods another knight outrode,
If knight he were, who broke the knightly code
Of equal chance. Against Sir Galahad's side,
As yet unware, a sudden thrust he tried,
Which backward glanced, unharming. Next he felt
More than he gave, for Galahad's sword was bare.
One blow - one only - with that sword he dealt,
Which did not fail him. Wholly shorn away,
The knight's left arm upon the greensward lay,
While fallen forward on his horse he fled
The life-blood leaping from the wound.
To fled or fallen Galahad gave his heed,
But to his comrade's rescue bent again,
Whose shoulder still the shaft transfixed. With pain
He raised, and held him on a patient steed.
And then, slow-pacing, found the hermitage
His hope foretold.
The hermit, sear and sage,
Who once had worn the belt of knighthood, now
Was Heaven's regent in his reverend age.
Seeing the need, he asked not whence or how,
But gave the sacrament of Christ to one
So near to death.
"And now," Sir Melias said,
"Draw forth the truncheon, for I am but dead."
And so the hot blood burst when this was done
That in a distant swoon from life he lay.
It seemed was only for his soul to pray
For more avail. But with exceeding care
The hermit searched the wound, supporting prayer,
And dressed it meetly. "By God's grace I deem
In seven weeks' time his present dole will seem
A doubtful memory as he rides away."
Three days Sir Galahad in that hermitage
Abode, his friend's recovered life to see.
"How goes it with thee?" Then he asked, and he,
Who moved but weakly, though his thoughts were clear,
Made answer: "God be thanked, though here I lie
Most drained of life, I do not think to die."
"Then must I leave thee, for the quest we hold
We may not loiter, while good knights and bold
Surpass us in pursuit."
"When strength is mine,
I will rejoin thee, if good fortune aid."
"If such high quest," the hermit said, "be thine,
It doth a lowlier than thy mood require,
Or thou art asking for a wound more dire,
A fall more abject, than thy last. For when
Requesting knighthood, didst thou aught confess
In clean humility to God? Or less
Or more our sins may be; but righteousness
Is never in the hearts of sinful men
So stablished that they can God's strength omit
To aid them.... When ye reached that forking way
Pride made thy choice. For that which rightward lay
Was the straight path that once our Lord had trod.
And that which twisted to the leftward led
The wicked way of those, renouncing God,
Whose earthlier pleasures by their lusts are bred.
"Some while high purpose held thee safe, but pride
Was ever with thee, and the equal sin
Of avarice entering next, to pride akin,
Betrayed thee to unknightly theft. These twain
Were the two horsemen whose assault was vain
On Galahad, blessed a better road to ride."
Long rode Sir Galahad, as those must ride
Who seek for that which in no place doth bide
Of mortal knowledge. Hope he would not lose.
But oft the turning would his charger choose.
Endlong and overthwart the land he ranged,
And doubted ever as his course he changed:
'Turn I perversely from a close success?
Shall I not trust in God to guide and bless
If I go blindly, as I needs must do?'
So came he to the towers of Ablasour
That stood where Severn still its eastward way
Pursues, far-wandering, and forgets the sea.
And found such harbour at the fall of day
As in a godless lawless hold should be.
There at the meal his host, a genial boor,
Gave friendly warning: "Shouldst thou eastward ride,
Keep the left bank, for all the further side
Is barred by those who have a boisterous play
That strangers to their land their sport shall be.
Their ladies to their common use they take,
And knights they slay; or menial serfs they make
Of those most noble. Great the change hath been
Since once the king and all his court were seen
The welcomed guests of those wide halls."
Have these high towers so sunk to evil fame?"
"The castle of Maidens is it called: the place
Where a great tourney once was held."
Make head to tame them?"
"Nay, what harm is done?
They irk us naught."
"Shall rapine thus deface
The Christian land, and no man move?"
Move if thou wilt, for man thou art, but we
Whole skins prefer." A rumbling laughter stirred
His ample paunch.
"I would acquit thy word,
And root them wholly in God's name, but I
Am vowed too straitly to one errantry."
More laughter waked. "You do not ask to hear
Their number or their strength? Good fortune steer
Thy different course!"
Next morn he rode away
Hearing no mass, for if no guilt were there,
Was there no nobleness. The northern bank
Of the slow stream, where many weeds were rank
Awhile he held, but when the treacherous ground
Sucked at his charger's hooves, a path he found
Which rose toward a barren wold whereon
A ruined chapel in the sunlight shone
- That light of God which makes destruction fair -
Pillaged and spoiled and desolate and bare.
He entered. Dust and windblown leaves were there.
But in the dust no mark of human tread.
And the void altar, where no pall was spread,
Showed that its holy use had ceased. He thought:
'Now see I why no morning mass was said.
Not only on one bank the godless dwell.
Yet here, though winds invade, and faith hath fled,
May still the angels of High God resort,
Still be the wings of His protection spread,
Still backward held the baffled powers of Hell
From ground made sacred. And I here may find
The peace that left me when my heart inclined
My quest to leave, a passing call to aid.'
Before the altar-rail he knelt in prayer,
But found nor peace nor consolation there,
Still vexed by longing to uproot the wrong
That lay so near him. 'Saviour Christ,' he prayed,
'Make me against this hard temptation strong!
Am I not chosen, vowed, and held apart
Thy quest to gain?'
Was surely no man there,
Yet came a voice clear-toned and close. It said:
"Be not thy heart by lust for God misled.
Shalt thou reject His work His Grail to see?
And think to find it by so lost a way?"
Then was he blithe of heart. His waiting steed
He soon bestrode. He thanked High God who gave
So clear a guidance where he else had erred
Too lightly to suppose, as virtue may,
The holier is the more reluctant way.
Towards the river now his course he spurred,
Until its winding vale before him spread,
And on the further bank a fortress lay
Which he looked down on; like a beast of prey
It crouched beneath him, long and dark. It stood
In a large clearance, holding back the wood.
Descending to the river's side he met
A man made feeble by great age, who said:
"Fair knight, if counsel may thy life prolong,
In other compass will thy steps be set.
For they who hold those towers may work thee wrong
Through greed, or malice, or such moods as they
Who idlesse of ungoverned lusts obey."
"I think to end them."
"Though thy comeliness
Be clear, it seemeth that thy wits are less."
"Gibe as thou wilt, I do not turn."
His shield, he felt each tightened brace to test.
He meant not by his own default to fail,
Nor yet his hostile purpose hide. He rode
Straight for the stream, a likely ford to find,
And down its bank pursued a watchful way.
Till, as he traced its turning course, it showed
A group of damsels bathing, boldly gay.
The lemans of the castle's knights were they.
They warned him with shrill cries: "Young knight, forbear.
We are not for thy use, to choose or share.
Fly while thou canst the danger looming high,
Or scarce thy treasure shall thy safety buy."
"Damsels," he said, "I for your rescue come."
At which their laughter waked. "Who asked thee that?"
One voice derisive called. But most were dumb
With doubtful wonder. Did he ride alone?
Had Arthur, stirring on his distant throne,
Reached out to end them? Were their lives of ease,
Bought by love's image on false coinage set,
So near to cease? Must meaner hours forget
The wanton pleasures of such days as these?
The obsequious serfs - the wealth of stolen store?
Across the reed-lined ford he rode: the shore
He lightly gained. An issuing squire he met,
As the dark towers he reached. "My lords desire
To know thy purpose, and what name ye bear.
Till these be shown, the castle rules require
That here, of peril warned, ye halt."
I had no thought a further mile to go.
Here is my halt designed. For bid them know
Their wicked customs have I come to cast."
"Fair lord, he answered, "if that purpose last,
Is here sufficient for one knight to do."
"In God's name I tell them, I their worst defy."
"Lord, if my warning pass thee, that must I."
"Hasten, and by that haste thy trust renew
For other days to be."
The squire thereto
No further answer gave, but went; and soon
To meet that challenge, not one knight, nor two,
But seven strong brethren through the portway came;
Their plumes, their harness, and their shields the same,
And with one clamour all their voices loud.
"Defend thee, if thou canst."
"Ye would not crowd
At once upon me?"
"That our mercy wills.
For kindest is the hand which swiftest kills
When doom is spoken, as it is for thee."
"Boast not too soon, for ever God will be
Most potent when the right is weakest seen."
Answered their laughter, and their charge aline.
But oft it would be shown in such combine
That each would each impede, from whence had been
Jostling confusion bred, and thrusts unsure.
So was it now. One lance, that broke in vain
On Galahad's shield, was all he need sustain
Of furious impact, while the rest aside,
Or from his harness glancing, passed him by.
One had he cast to earth, but yet must dure
Six knights at once, too closely round him now
For the long lances' use. From these secure,
Swords leapt to light, but Galahad's first was bare,
And dealt such blows as surely passed compare,
Unless with Lancelot's. Well would each allow
His brethren to be more advanced than he
To meet them. So, by Galahad's blows, but more
By their own craft's and craven hearts reversed -
Each from behind would strike, but none be first -
Increasing ground they gave, until they broke,
A rabble down the road, while, stroke on stroke,
The sword of Balyn on their rearmost rang.
Sir Galahad reined his steed. The recreants fled
Too nimbly for pursuit. Their victor drew
Reluctant rein. He could not more pursue
The wild recesses of the woodland through.
He entered gates unbarred, to those who quailed
Like curs left masterless, or else who hailed
Deliverance from a reign of hated wrong.
"To thee," the porter said, "these keys belong."
"These," said the seneschal, on bended knee.
"I render, as thy natural right, to thee.
And if my counsel to thine ears be good,
In the next hour, by road, and wild, and wood,
A horn of summons shall be blown to call
Knightly or base, the castle's liegemen all,
That they may swear a better use to hold,
As they most gladly will; for else with night,
If thou shouldst leave us, through thine absence told,
Will those who fled return, and all will be
Reversed, that now we gain."
With this consent,
Wide through the land a calling trumpet went.
For Galahad said: "I cannot hinder here.
And I would leave, with right and title clear,
A ruler of a better sort than they."
To which was answer made: "There could not be
More clear a title than, mere sooth to say,
Is hers who lingers in these towers, as one
Whose life is vanquished ere its dawn is won.
"For when those brethren came as guests to him
Who was the castle's gracious lord, and he
Received them with regard and courtesy,
They on his daughter looked with lustful eyes,
Devoid of honour. As their wanton prize
They thought to share her. With loose steel and threats
They laid their purpose to her father bare.
A sword too old he drew: his youthful heir
A sword too weak. Is none who saw forgets
Their piteous deaths. Who heard the piteous cries
Of her who to such hands so foully fell
Can hear them yet."
"At peace she lies
In welcome death. But one was left, too young
Their lust to tempt. The castle serfs among
She lurked, until they found her use - to stay
A claimant to these towers more strong than they,
Who else had heired them. With no right at all
They ruled, and vassals round obeyed their call,
Awed by their sevenfold strength. Yet what were they?
What had they done? An aging man to slay -
A youth not grown - and seven they to two!
Now what they would not, or they could not do
Thy single sword hath shown."
Sir Galahad said:
"God was my strength. Yet is it plain to see
How the haut front of evil knights may be
Built on their boasts alone."
The trumpet's sound,
From yeomen and from vassal knights around,
A swift obedience brought. Next noon of day
To her whose right it was their oaths were made
Of service and support; and blithe were they
For the new freedom of accepted law.
And ere they parted word was brought that laid
The shadows of past fear. For those who fled,
In numbers trusting, so the tale was said,
Meeting three knights, had thought to overbear
And spoil them. Fools, that knew not whom they were -
Gawain, and Gareth, and Ewaine. The three
Had slain the seven, as would likely be.
When Gawain took the quest, he thought to find
The bold attempts to which his heart inclined
Awaiting in wild lands, as oft before
He found them, and his valiant heart would bring
To such results as made his fame the more.
But now he found in much far wandering
Naught came his valour or his craft to prove.
For all was stagnant. In good time he rode
To where Sir Galahad found the shield, and then
To where Sir Melias lay, and Melias showed
The way that Galahad took.
"That way will I,"
Sir Gawain said, "for round his path will lie
The marvels that I seek. I shall not fail
To find them thus, and haply more prevail
Than his impetuous but unpractised spear."
"Sir," said a monk who chanced that boast to hear,
"He will not to thy course conform."
"Because thy ways are hateful. And his eyes
Look upward to the height where glory lies."
Hardly Sir Gawain heard, for riding by
He saw Sir Gareth, whom he loved, as they
Born of one blood to different purpose may.
"I follow Galahad's path."
"Alike will I,"
Sir Gareth answered, "for alone too long,
By no straight path, to no sure end, have I
Slow days endured."
Their chosen road they took
With following morn, and when the noon was high
A knight approached them with a shield that bore
The argent serpents of Ewaine of Gore.
Gladly they greeted. "Shall we ride as three?"
"Yea," said Ewaine, "for so again may we
Good fortune find, as when we twain, and he,
The Irish knight, the errant damsels met."
"Yea, could we so the changeful years forget,"
Sir Gawain answered, "blithe it were to be
Wandering as then, to light adventure find."
For now the shadows came, the light declined.
No damsels at no fount would meet them now.
But Gareth laughed assent! "I know not how
You fared afore. But nothing now betides
To stir indifferent days. Who loneliest rides
Hath the more silence; but no chance the more
A single feat to do."
By wild, by stream, by mountain, loft and low
They rode together, till at length they came
To Severn's northern bank, and there was said
How one who bore the symbols, white and red,
That anchor faith, the Castle of Maidens sought.
The seven brethren that one sword outfought
Two days had wandered, wroth for loss and shame,
Still boasting, bickering, each asserting loud
That had his brethren stood he had not fled.
They saw three knights approach. The boldest said:
"Now may we something of our loss redress.
Is here good spoil to take, and they but three.
For when our numbers and our mood they see,
Likeliest they will not strive. Or if they do
Our sleights will foil them. Here for each is two,
And one to succour where the need may be."
One only lance was theirs, for which they rode
Closely before a hostile front they showed.
They parted somewhat to each side the way,
As though of courteous use they would not stay
By their full width of front the knights they met,
Then pulled at once their swords: "While yet ye may,
Yield, and good ransom for your lives may pay.
But pause not, for our swords too soon forget
That grace we proffer."
Gareth's laugh replied.
"Who, by God's thunder, do ye think ye see?"
"Nay, but Arthur's knight's are we,"
Came from Ewaine, the while his sword he drew.
Short time those brigand knights their blunder knew.
They lacked the speed to flee, the heart to do.
Should vermin live, as by their words they were?
In flight to turn, or else in strife to dare
Were vain for safety now.
From slaughter done
With breath's light loss, the three resumed their way,
And at the darkening of the long June day
Came to the Castle of Maidens; but too late
To meet Sir Galahad. Nor was one could say
The road he chose. But question and dissent
Enlarged the doubt; and separate ways they went
To seek him.
Gawain, while the dawn was dim,
A southern pathway took the woodland through.
But as the long day passed he met but few,
And learned but naught. The great trees denser grew.
And when the shadowy eve encompassed him
Glad was he at a lowly hermitage
To halt; and pausing from the sacred page,
The hermit, in the midst of evensong,
Arose to greet him. "Gentle knight, declare
What wouldst thou, and of whom thou art, and where,
That I may serve thy need."
"I wander long
From Arthur's Court. I seek the Grail. My name
"Lord," the holy man replied,
"That I may do some service on thy side,
When at our Lady's feet I nightly pray,
Show me what virtues bind, or hindering shame
Divides thy heart from God."
"I am not loth
To tell thee. He to whom I last confest
Was hard of mood the common use to blame."
Thereon he told him fairly, worst and best.
Temperance and prudence, craft and lusting both,
Pride and sagacity and fortitude,
Were all apparent to the patient priest,
Who spake not till the whole long tale had ceased,
And then replied: "There is no life so lewd
But God may lift it. None so bold in sin
But Christ is at the door, to enter in
If it be opened. Penance long and dire
Thy sins, to fit thee for this quest, require
Wilt thou that I - "
"Good father, dost thou heed
That errant knights the weight of arms sustain?
That burdens of hard blows, and heat and rain
Are always theirs to dure? No more they need
Of penance than they are not like to miss."
"Well, may God keep thee! For I think in this
It is not mine to give thee aid."
He met Sir Griflet and Sir Aglovale.
His tale was theirs, and that was naught, to say.
With burnished spears, and bright unbroken mail
Lands had they ridden where no tumults stirred,
No lawless rule was told, no wrongs they heard.
What could they do for God, and how deserve
The Grail to gain?
"So hath it been with me,"
Sir Gawain said. "The whole wide land is free
From offering venture.... Separate ways are best
The widest range of this strange peace to test."
Sir Lancelot to a lowly hermitage
For shelter and for counsel came. He said:
"Resolve me this. Can all of sin's black wage
By tears be cancelled? By repentance sped?
There is no soul than mine more darkly stained.
That know I to my grief. I ask but this:
If I repent of that I wrought amiss,
Can yet God's favour and the Grail be gained?"
To which the hermit answered: "While we live,
The door of mercy doth not close. For thee
May be God's pardon. But the Grail to see
Is not man's right; and God that sight will give
To only those found worthy. Search thy heart,
As God shall search it. Dost thou now repent
So deeply that no later years relent
Could overcome thee? Wilt thy days be spent
Henceafter as thy lips protest today?
There rests God's verdict, Who alone can say
Which side will see the faltering scale's descent.
"But this I tell thee. Not thy hopes to blast,
But that thy strength augment to overcast
That which must wait thee in the days to be.
God gave thee valour, strength and comeliness,
In measure excellent. Such gifts to thee
For highest service call in equity.
Thine the ten talents. Thinkst thou God should be
Content to take one talent's usury?"
The dusk was round him, and the dark ahead,
And still the hopeless dole the hermit said,
With drear reiteration, like a bell,
Tolled in his thought. No hastened pace he rode,
Nor cared his end, but ere full darkness fell
A wayside shrine he reached, the where the road
Branched in the waste. A cross of mouldering stone
And near, a ruined chapel rose, as though
Long fired and plundered by some heathen foe;
And in the shadow of those charred walls he lit,
And left his steed, and entrance sought, but all
Was blank thereof, and round from wall to wall
He searched in vain. One gated porch alone
He found, and barred against him.
At this repulse, for seemed that God unfit
Had judged him, even that in such walls he prayed,
He turned at last, and in this more despair
Had ridden again to cease his thought, but where
He left his steed, the wayside cross he knew,
And hope thereat, though lowliest, waked anew.
'For,' thought he, 'though to this life's end I be
Refused of Heaven, who may not share may see
The festals given of kings, and I would be,
Though lastly from the outmost seat withsaid,
When comes God's bridal, and the feast is spread,
A lazer at the gates.'
He loosed his steed
For pasture where it would, and all unlaced
His arms, and close beside that cross he lay,
Couched on cold ground, and colder shield, and there,
Sunk in that shadow where no sin may dare,
Found comfort in the peace of wordless prayer.
And slept at last, and saw with wondering eyes
The Grail itself in vision, beyond surmise
Radiant in light. And near a lazer drew,
Fouled with great sores and filth, and reached a hand
Toward it, timorous, but did naught withstand;
And in that dream he saw the sick man rise,
Whole at the touch; and waked in peace, and knew
The last stars failing in the darkened blue,
Till heaven delayed no more its void desire,
But day, new risen, wing-lifting, fledged with fire,
Raptured o'er that wide plain its wider skies.
Two days beside the cross Sir Lancelot stayed,
'For only here,' he thought, 'with God to aid,
Can full rejection of my fault be made,
Which I have known before with partial eyes,
Seeing one sin, the while long years have I,
Content to all control, and all defy,
Been thence uplifted in mine inmost mind,
As though God blessed me, gain on gain to find
My portion, which my comrades' reach would miss.
For how could all be first? But here I seek
A higher proof to test, and find in this
My judgement and reverse: my faith too weak,
My heart too sinful for the sight divine.'
So mourned he while again the east was lit
With dawn's new conquest, and the birds began;
From which some comfort came. As night must cease
Its sombre shadows at the light's release,
So must the fears that darkness breeds admit
The challenge of returning light. For it
Is life's assertion. With faint hope he rose,
But firm resolve; and humbly sought again
The hermit's counsel. "Though my single prayer,"
He said, "to wrest with Heaven be weak and vain,
My son, who is God's knight, as am not I,
Doth also at His altar kneel; and there
His intercession shall this burden bear,
That I revert not to mine earlier sin."
"Nay," said he hermit, "though such boon to win
No prayer is fruitless at the feet of God,
And he doth surely with effectual prayer
Advance thy need, yet not in reason may
The father's burden of the son be borne.
Look thou to that; and on God's mercy lean:
Not all again need be that once hath been."
End of Chapter XVII