The Song Of Arthur - Chapter XVIII
by S. Fowler Wright
Return to Chapter XVII
The Seeking Of The Grail.
Lone rode Sir Percival, but time would be
When some good knight his searching eyes would see
On the far sky line of a distant height;
Or, where dividing woods far prospect showed,
A lance flashed, as a knight across it rode,
A moment seen, next moment lost to sight.
Glad was he therefore when, beneath the boughs,
He came to where a humble cot was hid,
Where, in the strength of weakness, unforbid,
Unenvied, in that peace which God allows
To those who rank reject, and wealth contemn,
Dwelt a recluse. Before her casement low
He knelt, desiring harbour. Soon her hand
Loosened the bolt, and opened: "I would know
Who art thou?"
"From King Arthur's court I ride:
"In these poor walls to bide
Were none more welcome."
"Madam, speak you so
As one who knows me?"
"So of right I may.
I am your mother's sister, once the Queen
Of the Waste Lands. But what hath wealth to show,
Or power's high pride, or beauty's insolence,
To equal here the peace which leaves pretence
For the pure light where God is seen?"
Through quickly opened gates while this was said.
All service that she could, and all she had,
She gave him largely. For her heart was glad,
Though fixed on God, her goodly kin to see.
Yet was one sorrow to be told. She said:
"When of your mother heard ye last?" And he:
"Naught have I heard of late."
"Of late she died.
Being too lonely when you left her side."
"Grief is it this to hear, though grief the less
Because the doubt within my heart hath been
Since the last fall of summer leaves was seen,
So often to my thoughts she came, as they
Who are not held by mortal hindrance may;
And more in dreams than in the waking day."
Thereat he wept; but when his tears were done
He asked her: "Of all life there is but one
Whom I would welcome for my comrade now.
Hast heard of Galahad the where he rides?"
She answered: "Nay. But where his kindred be,
From such wide wandering, late or soon, will he
His steps return."
"Then I to Carbonac
Will straightly ride. For in this quest we lack
All guidance, choosing only, forth or back,
A random way."
In this resolve he went;
But soon had reason to his choice repent.
It was the full noon of a cloudless day.
A vale in summer peace beneath him lay.
Fair in its yet undarkened green, and still
In windless air it stretched from hill to hill.
But where beneath the boughs the highway ran,
A score of knights there came, and there among
They led the steed of one they lately slew,
And on it, bound asprawl, the murdered man,
For later spoiling.
Now their swords outswung:
Their voices rose. "Disclose us whence and who
And of what leigance art thou?"
"Knight am I
Of Arthur's court."
"A prey!" They cried. "A prey!
A second of that brood is ours to slay."
Was neither thought of flight nor pulse of fear,
The knight of Arthur dropped a cumbering spear,
And sword to many swords opposed. He thrust
The foremost through his bellowing throat. But close
They crowded. That he felt, his sword returned,
Hard, swift, and deadly. Who in numbers trust
Are seldom in front place such blows to bear;
But one who did not heed or had not learned
The rules of knightly strife, a stroke of shame
Made at the charger's side. To ground they came,
Charger and knight at once. But as they fell
A rescue neared. For Galahad, riding by,
Saw the wild bicker of the bright blades. He thought:
'What broil is here? And what the arms I see
Of him whose horse is down? As mine they be.
Like shield hath Percival, and only he.
Him will I rescue, as of right I ought.'
So, like a storm he came. His lance down-bore
The first he reached; and that craven score
A scattering rout he made.
Rose from the ground, and called him, and pursued
Some length on foot; but Galahad passed from sight,
Harrying the rearmost of that random flight.
Vain though it were, what better course to choose
Continued his? As thus he vainly ran,
To meet him down the path, a serving man
Came riding, mounted on a hackney grey,
And leading at his side a stallion black
-Blacker than any bier, and huge of limb -
To whom he cried: "Good fellow, see my lack!
Grant me that steed. I shall not stint to pay."
To which the man made answer: "Lord, thy need
I fain would succour. But a master grim
Who owns this stallion would not grant. From him
My death would be; except thy mastering deed - "
"That would I never, for my vows forbid.
But much I thank thee."
Where a branching oak
Narrowed the path and half the prospect hid,
On bare gnarled roots in frustrate mood he sate,
Until advancing hooves the silence broke.
By-riding came a knight of arms ornate,
On that black charger which had passed before.
No heed to Percival he gave. His gait
Was that of one who scorned to contemplate
His own high standing. As his hoof-beats died,
The man from whom the steed was reft arrived,
Spurring his hackney in pursuit. He cried,
At sight of Percival: "In mercy, lord,
For my life's safety, wilt thou aid afford?
Never my master will that loss forgive;
To lose the stallion thus, is not to live."
"Fellow, can one who hath no horse pursue?"
"Take thou my hackney."
"That I gladly do."
So mounted, at such pace he rode, that soon
The thieving knight he saw, and hailed. Whereat
Basely he turned, and thrust the hackney through,
Speaking no word the while, and rode away.
"Stay!" cried Sir Percival. "False traitor, stay!
Coward-hearted knave! Let sword to sword decide."
But no reproach would cause him speak or bide,
And in despair of heart, Sir Percival
Flung his sword from him as a worthless toy,
Unarmed, and by that gesture cast aside
His shield of faith, that else, impregnable,
Had foiled and flung the chiefest fiends' annoy.
But when black midnight came, from dreams of ill
Fitful and short, of snares and dangers full,
While in the east a rising moon was red,
He waked to find a woman fair and young,
Beside him. Naught of carnal lure she said,
But blamed his fault with bold reproachful tongue:
"Is this thy faith? Is this thy constant will?
What dost thou here?"
"I do nor good nor ill,
Being dismounted, as no knight should be."
"Nay, but a charger of no mean degree
I can provide, if thou wilt then for me
A knightly champion prove."
"And that will I."
Her place was vacant as he made reply;
But soon she came again, and now she led
A steed that well might seem had darkness bred,
For blacker than the noon of night was he.
And of such thews he was, and form, and fire,
That the wide land to search from sea to sea
Had been vain seeking for his like. The sight
Was joy to Percival. With heart alight,
He seized his arms, and with that lady's aid,
Himself again in martial sort arrayed;
And ere she might her urgent cause require
He leapt upon the restless steed, and he
Bounded thereat, and forward raced, as though
Elate such rider on his back to know.
And strong as never mortal steed shall be,
And fast as never mortal steed shall go,
The far goal of no mortal thought to find,
He left the moonlit forest paths behind.
The mountains were beneath his feet. He leapt
Their lonely tarns wherein the moonlight slept,
As though but pools they were. By wild and way,
Rejoicing in a strength that naught could stay,
In one swift hour a four-days' space he ran.
Naught thought his rider when that race began
Of where its end would be. He was but ware
Of motion, and the rushing joy to share
Of space devoured, and forests whirling by.
Next, wonder with elation strove; and next
Doubt neighbouring fear his wildered heart perplext
For how should mortal steed such tempest try?
Then fear exceeded. For a shadowy shore
They gained, and boiling was the boisterous roar
Of the wild flood to which they raced...... He made
The sign from which boldest fiend dismayed
Shrinks abject. From his flying seat he fell,
And the black imp, as to his native hell,
Leapt screeching to the floods which upward cast,
Not foam, but flakes of fire.
And then till day
The one so nearly lost lamenting lay:
"Thinking that God was mine, and all was well.
How soon, how steeply, from my faith I fell!"
Dawn came, a wild and naked shore to show
Where only now the far-brought knight could see,
For the hot flood, cold leagues of waveless sea.
But when he turned, a valley, green and low,
Struck inland, where high hills, that met the snow,
Were sundered. Here he went, for here to go
Gave the sole hope he had. But all he found
Were beasts, ayawn with hunger, lurking round;
And came a serpent, crawling swift and lithe
Bearing a lion cub, its captured prey,
Held by the neck. On its retreating track,
With cries and roars, a swifter lioness ran,
And leapt upon it. With a backward writhe,
Loosing the cub, her charge the reptile met.
A hissing, roaring, feinting strife began;
The lioness leaping in, or bounding back,
Dodging the venomed head, which each attack
Twisted to meet.
This strife Sir Percival
Approaching viewed, with pity natural
More for the beast than snake. His sword he set
To end it, trusting to his guarding mail
To foil the venom. Brief the dust that rose
In that quick bicker of illsorted foes.
Then with a ghastly wound the serpent shrank
To half its length, the while the hot soil drank
Its strange cold blood. A second stroke supplied
The cause by which it writhed, and stilled, and died.
So stood they, alien comrades, beast and man,
Of whom he doubted first, but she began
To purr and fawn around his feet; and then
She licked the frightened cub; and then returned
To fawn again, and when her mood he learned
He cast aside a shield the snake had marred,
And with no longer care his life to guard,
Disarmed and rested, while the kindly beast
Crouched like a spaniel at his feet, and he
Her neck and shoulders stroked, and thanks he paid
To God, Who thus their natural feud had stayed
By His great rule of service, which will free
All bonds, and every chasm of difference close.
Then, as noon came, the crouching beast arose,
And trussed her whelp across her neck, and so
She bore him to the place from whence he came.
Most lonely was Sir Percival, as though
His only friend had left him. All the shame
Of his faith's failure, in that loneliness,
Enlarged and darkened to his heart's distress,
Till came the dusk; and on her noiseless feet
The lioness came again, and side by side
They slept, and seemed it to his fallen pride,
That so God blessed him in a lowly way.
Proved worthless to the quest, in faith's defeat,
He served His purpose for a beast of prey,
And its strange friendship found. From this good peace
Came sleep, His wandering mind in that release
Waked to a vision. On a lioness rode
A lady gracious, and serene, and young;
And on a serpent one of wise aspect,
Older and graver.
First the younger spake:
"Young knight of God, nor least of God's elect,
I come to warn thee from my lord, to take
Good heed and caution. For the day to be
Thy conflict with no courtly foe will see,
But the most champion of the world, and thou
Shalt risk no common wound to hurt or maim,
But such a burden of relieveless shame
As should outlast the world."
"What lord is thine?"
"The greatest that the earth hath known."
Was vacant, even as the vaunt was said,
But she who on the serpent rode remained,
And spake reproach: "Young knight, that snake was mine,
Which for no cause, and to my grief, is dead.
- Dead by thy hand. What right was thine to slay?
The lioness was not thine, and naught to thee."
"Lady, the lioness was the gentler sort,
And her I succoured whom of right I ought.
So seemeth it to me. But grant me wrong.
The fact is changeless now. What equity
Is mine to give thee?"
"All thy years belong
To me henceforward. For my servant slain
Thy living service is but equal gain."
"Lady, who asks too much may gain the less."
"Boast not too soon, for I this debt will press
With all divisings both by night and day."
At that she went, and in such sleep he lay
As comes to those the powers of night assail,
And wakened at relief of dawn, to feel
Feeble and hungered, with no likely meal
In that stark wilderness.
But toward the shore
A barque came sailing. As the tide withdrew
It grounded, and Sir Percival thereto
Made hasteful way, in hope of rescuing.
But no barque timbered for the buffeting
Of winds averse, and ocean waves to fling,
Was here. White was it all; from bow to stem
Draped with white sendal. On the deck there stood
An old man, priestly garbed. Sir Percival
Leapt to the deck to greet him.
"Whom be ye?"
The old man asked.
"I am but one," said he,
"From Arthur's court, who would the Grail return
To sight and healing of our race; and so
We wander on a path we do not know,
To where we know not. Here, God's truth, am I
Through fault of faith, in this bare wilderness.
Nor think I to escape its black duress
Unless some rescue in thy hand may lie."
To this the priest returned no soft reply.
"Through lack of faith ye fell? And think ye now,
Despite that lack, some near escape to find?
What didst thou at the rites of knighthood vow?
Art thou to failure of thy quest resigned?
If thy heart lift as God's high knighthood ought,
Thou wilt not falter from a fight unfought."
"Who art thou?"
"One from strange far lands who came
To rouse thee, lest thou sink to final shame."
"I am beset by dreams I may not read."
"Then tell them."
Of his latest dream he told,
And heard it rendered: "She who younger showed
Was Christs' new law: upon the serpent rode
The older evil. Came the first to warn
How near, how strong, temptation's hour shall be:
And came the second with her subtler plea
Thy freedom to betray, thy faith suborn.
Hadst thou consented to her wile, for thee
What surety could remain, what rescue be?"
At that he bade him to the land return,
And seek God's comfort. More he might not learn.
But, of himself and all unconfident,
Yet humbly such short-falling to lament,
Back to the beast, his sole last friend, he went.
Fastworn, Sir Percival, in that wild land,
And faint with toil, had seven days sought, and found
Naught of the Grail, nor any sight nor sound
Of life; but in the empty night he heard
Sighing of great winds in spaces waste and bare;
Cries, as of men, that sank where no men were,
Nor any life, nor call of nighted bird
Rose ever, but desolation, drear of day,
With wailings in lone night for life's delay,
Had brooded from the birth of time, and bore
Sad winds, that wailed along a broken shore
Of hungered, frustrate, and insatiate sea.
But that seventh night upon the sterile sand
He sank, too weak for longer toil, and lay
Despairing life, nor left with hope to pray
For that High Vision he sought.
"Behold," he said,
"I am not surely in God's sight as they
That manna found at morn, or ravens fed,
But seems that in this demoned land and dead
My bones shall whiten till the final day."
But when the moon at her first dawn betrayed
Half heaven, and laid a path of silver flame
On the dim heaving of the waters dark,
A shadow down that path of light there came,
With sails full-breasted to the land, a barque
That grounded nearly where he slept, and made
Fast anchor from the falling tide, and soon
Came damsels thence, and by the rising moon
Pavilions there they raised, and banquet spread.
More late, their lady from the barque aland
Came with no haste, and passing near she knew
Where slept he yet, and closer stooped to view
A toil-worn knight and young, and softly spake,
His fast-born dreams of losing life to break:
"O gentle knight, what dost thou here, to press
A couch so cold in this stark wilderness,
Where naught but death goes with ye where ye go."
He answered, doubtful yet with dreams: "Not so,
But God's Grail seek I where it bides, and not
Turn we, so vowed, nor know what desolate spot
May hold it, hindered from the sight of man.
Nor were there land in this wide earth, God wot
Too deathly, so that there good hope might be
That sight in life beyond our worth to see.
But doubt I sore that not God's grace to me
Intends, but in this utter waste I die."
She answered: "Own ye not more hope that I,
Here driven in flight from bitter loss, may so
Thy spent life save, and then such quest supply
As shall advance thee in God's sight, and lead
To that High Vision that ye seek indeed,
Ere all be done? But rise ye first, and share
The feast my damsels for our ease prepare,
And I will tell such loss as leaves me bare
Of my world's wealth, except that here ye see.
Save I thy life, and will ye then my will,
Against the aggress of my most deadly foe
To attempt, and even to thy life's loss fulfil,
My most desire?"
He answered: "Yea, to me
At life's extreme ye came, and I should be
To all my knighthood false, and more to thee,
Except in thy devoir I serve or die."
Then softly to that moon-lit feast she led,
Of various meats and more delectable,
Him seemed, than erst in Arthur's halls were spread
At Yule, or Whitsun, or high banquet made
For bridal of great lord, his chiefest there.
And then, refreshed, his wearied limbs he laid
On no cold ground, to wind and tempest bare,
But silken-soft in that pavilion fair
His couch was dight. That damsel watched beside
While long he slept, and all his strength anew
Asserted in him, and noon to even grew,
And moon-rise came again, and falling tide,
Ere waked he, and again rich feast was spread
And wines perchance no earthly vintage knew
She poured, the while her woeful tale was said
From height once held of fate's reverse - "For I,
To this wild coast, and with no force, who fly,
Who own no train but these that here I bring,
Was child and heiress to a mighty king,
Whom served I fair, till more in pride I said
It may be than was meet, and he thereon
Renounced me wholly from his gates, and so,
In this denude of wealth, and open woe,
His servants, envious erst, and hateful now,
Pursue me, ruthless in their wrath; but thou
Shalt more requite for any loss foregone.
Art thou not found in these waste ways for me
To own my rescue and my lord in thee,
Noblest of all that search this quest, and fit
In might and valour to all my loss remit,
And seat me stablished where I first belong?"
And Percival gazed, and impulse swift and strong
Consumed him. Fair as any flower was she,
And in first youth, and in such garb that there
Man's work with Nature's mocked and lost compare.
For o'er one breast and shoulder mantling fair
Shot samite gleamed with gold, and one was bare,
That leaned towards him while she spake, and all
Her hair fell round him as a flame might fall,
Maddening his heart with most desire thereat.
Therewith he reached, but she some backward way
Leaned from him again, and spake, low-voiced: "Were that
Thine that ye would, and fain that grant would I,
Then wilt thou swear, to thy soul's doom, thy will
As I do now, so later mine shalt thou,
Nor aught of earth nor aught of heaven shall stay?"
He answered: "Till my latest pulse be still,
Without reluct of life, to right thy wrong
Thy knight am I, to thy most need, whom now
Beyond all gains of earth or heaven I long."
And she: "Without repent or change, ye swear
To serve and love me in that guise I wear
When walking in my land my purposed way?"
He answered, kindled to more fierce desire
By her consenting words, and act's delay:
"What might I further for thy surance say?
What more may knighthood grant, or faith require?"
And lifting eyes that shone with tears unshed,
She answered: "Nay, I doubt thee naught, and though
Ye more regard my present love to know
Than think to aid the harder need I said,
Am I not weaker in the like delight,
And spoiled of love, who know thee, O my knight,
For all thou art? But thou shalt pledge me true
Hence on to work my will, and that thing do
I treat thee ever. That in this faith content,
That thou shalt naught renounce, and naught repent,
Myself for guerdon in thine arms be laid."
Thereat, by chance, or grace of Heaven, he eyed
The cross-hilt sword her hands had laid aside,
And all his vows recalled his heart, and though
No strength he held to then that goal forgo,
"Lord, help me!" In his heart he breathed, and made
The sign of Christ with hand half-ware - and knew
That round him were bare wastes, and open blue,
And clean blown airs of heaven.
From lift of spring to autumn's long decline
Rode Gawain on the quest. Through shade and shine,
Through dark and dawn he rode, for not was he
Light-turned from any taken path to be,
Importunate of purpose, wont to win.
Unswerving course through hostile lands or kind
He held, but naught of venture met therein,
Nor vision nor rumour of the Grail might find.
And wearying of the quest at last, and wroth
At those eventless days that dawned and died
Unreal, where seemed a knight might dreaming ride
Beyond the known earth and the steps of men,
Vacant at heart, and in the loneliest glen
His wandering life had known, unthought, he met
Sir Ector, faltering on that weariest way.
Well pleased, he hailed him: "Sure some friending fey
Across this desolate waste thy course hath set,
To break the silence of the strange still days
That numbs the blood-beat in our hearts, foredoomed
To failure, ere we rose this quest to try."
And Ector answered in like mood: "Not I
For listless care can ease of heart supply;
Vext by vain dreams, and lost in wildering ways,
Or mazed in mists where noon as night hath gloomed,
Far from the coming of men my course hath been;
Save that will chance to break the silent days
That most my comrades on this quest, as thou,
Ride past. But Percival I have not seen;
Nor Bors, nor Galahad of our house; nor him,
Our greatest, save in dreams. For while I ride,
Oft from my sight, a vaporous veil and dim,
Firm earth recedes and in its place I see
Our Lancelot kneeling at a low pool's side
His thirst to slake, the while the sinking brim
Avoids his lips. The more he stoops, the more
The mocking wave retires its arc, and he
Rises at last, and leaves it.
Once it seemed
He entered in a rich man's house, who held
High feast of bridal, but the rich man said:
"Is no place here for thee," and he forbore
A seat beside that feast to take.
Or visioned of truth, I know not. Naught dispelled
These sights unreal until they closed. Unled
My charger chose his way. Unseen had sped
My worst foe past me. Even the Grail forgot
My mind retires; this vision of Lancelot
So chases all my ways. I little deem
Of joy to prove, until, to break this dream,
Himself in better heart I meet."
Said Gawain, "light I count thy dreams, that rise
From length of these eventless days. But near
Where the rough vale the crowding boulders end,
If rightly by the signs I rede, there lies
A hermit's hut. Wilt there, thy doubts to cease,
And mine alike? The holy man may hear
Some voice of wind to guide us. Fair release
From this vain chase well would I, where naught appears
To call contest, the while our idle spears
Rust in the thong; and in the dead still air
We breathe with pain, and scarce our drowsing wills
Control our paths, to no sure ends that lead.
The streams lack life of lifting wave: the hills
Seem bare of all that change or seasons show.
Death is it in life. Shall all our natural need
Be weighed as naught, or longer here forego
All worth, except some likelier gain we see?"
So turned they to that lone retreat, and there
Found a green hollow in bare waste that lay,
And in the midst a wattled hermitage.
And near, stone-fashioned, but gapped and mossed with age,
A shrine that earlier days had built, and where
A birch tree drooped above the place of prayer,
Leant lance, and entered.
Rose that hermit old,
With toil; and gazed Lord Gawain, hard and cold,
Down on him: apart as alien worlds were they.
"Fair lords, what would ye at my hands? My store,
Though scant, is thine to take or use, or more
Desire ye counsel from weak age that knew
Life once as thine?"
And answered Gawain: "Nay,
Were deep our need thy meagre herbs to long.
The Grail we seek, the Sacred Grail, that lay
On Joseph's altar, till some earlier wrong
Removed it thence, where no man knoweth; but through
Long months we have ridden, and searched far lands, and now
With all our Table's strength that joined this vow,
Having sought so long in vain, would learn of thee
If those who seek may somewhere hope to see,
Or all be loss."
He answered: "Ask ye me
For all thy Table, or thyself? But nay,
Well know I thy heart, that who should else attain
Were more thy grief than pride, if given in vain
Thine own devoir. There are shall win it. But thou,
Thy mind a boast of murders cunningly wrought,
Thy lance stained with the dried blood of the dead,
That died offenceless in thy wrath - for naught
Ye seek. Not violence here thine hope should be;
Nor guile nor craft nor valour avails thee now.
But that your faith to seek is faint, because
You left for narrower ends and lewder laws,
For baser dreams, the once belief you had,
Twofold you fail, in truth and chastity.
God from such eyes the Sacred Grail forbad,
When first he snatched it from the world away."
Answered Sir Gawain: "Not our lives deny,
Nor may we cast the hard rebuke you say.
The Grail goes by us, too old to change in grain
The stubborn wood we be. But tell me sooth
Why on our hearts the woeful hours have lain
A burden wearying with the chanceless day;
That if were truth in dream, or dream in truth,
We knew not, wildered, nor could shake away
These bonds in any bout of arms; for lay
A land unreal around us, and a peace
Long stranger to our earlier wont confined
The restless wrath we knew?"
He answered: "Nay,
Not thus, to those God-chosen, should impulse cease,
Or fail of ventures in His cause to find.
Deemed ye the avoiding Sacred Grail to be
Spoil of strong arm or practised craft, as though
Should earth with Heaven contend for overthrow?
Not Galahad, nay nor Bors, nor Lancelot, so
Seeks on this quest, nor counts his days in vain
That violence naught he meets, nor foemen slain
Reveal him victor in fierce strife, but they
Toil to cast off the earthlier lusts ye say,
As cloud, that blinds them from the light they would.
Hadst thou not ever with stubborn heart withstood,
Were no tree nobler in God's woods than thou.
Yet how shall He for thy last doom allow
The boast of mighty girth or goodly bough
With all thy branches lean as winter now?
The fruit is naught, the tender green is gone,
Yet mightst thou of the naked rind thereon
Make such scant offering of thy late amend
That God should save thee in the night of fear -"
"Good sir," said Gawain, "had I space to hear,
Much were I in thy wisdom held; but see,
My comrade mounts already, and waiteth me,
I may not longer on thy words attend."
Lonely Sir Bors, who neither thought to ride
With those most favoured, nor to swerve aside,
With those of little heart the quest to take,
But rather service as he might to make
Accordant to his vows, with God to aid,
Of naught expectant, and by naught dismayed.
As the light failed along the evening sky,
To a dark tower he came that strong and high
Gloomed all the land, and there he lodged, and there
Found welcome of a lady young and fair
Who owned it. Cleft in that close hold was she
By threatening dreads, and glad at heart to see
The coming to her lonely land of one
Who rode the abandoned ways so lordfully.
Therefore her gates were wide, her welcome free,
Her banquet lavish for his choice, but he
Thinking of penance, and of recent sin,
A bowl of water asked and dipped therein
Bread for his need, at which the lady said:
"Doubt ye my meals?"
"I nothing doubt; but I
Have vows to hold me."
Naught she made reply,
Who would not ire him. On good meat she fed,
And drank red wine, and seemed no more to see
Platter and goblet of her guest were dry
And vacant. How, she ever thought, could he
Be servant to her need?
The meal away,
She called not forward those who sing and play,
But talked of various haps, and wilefully
An offering mood she showed, for she was young,
Comely and lusty, made for man's desire,
And that she roused to ease; until that he,
Adroit to turn aside with courtesy
That which she offered and he would not see,
Spake of her lands.
"My lands!" She said. "My sire
Left me great woods, and fields extending far.
But all in peril of near loss they are.
A sister have I of such greed that she,
Maugre her wealth, would seize so much from me
That I shall scarce a landless tower sustain."
"Yet if your right be good - "
"Good right is vain
When in the trembling scale the sword is flung."
"What sword is that?"
"My sister, fair and young,
- Yea, fairer than myself - a paramour
Hath at her bidding, all her hest to do.
Priden le Noire his name. Though naught be true,
His owning of her claim its fault doth cure,
For none in all this land could bring him low."
"Hast thou a squire who to this knight would go
With challenge to decide thy right?"
So greatly aid me?"
"By our Table's vow,
I can no other."
Glad at heart was she.
Good cheer she gave him. At the midnight hour,
When all was silent, from her couch she rose,
Round her bare shoulders cast a cloak of vair,
And sought Sir Bors in his appointed bower.
Cautious, with slow and silent feet she stept
Down the long hall, where squires and servants slept,
Felt for his door, and pulled a noiseless pin.
But naught was hers thereby, to lose or win.
Cold was his pallet, and he was not there.
For he had chosen, where the stones were bare,
In the great hall the night to pass. To him
Came no warm lover, but such dreams as leave
A solveless doubt to vex the waking day.
A lake there was, and at its reeded brim
A great swan floated, flawless white as they,
God's angels, who his radiant light receive
On lifted wings. Its own fair plumes it spread
In shining sunlight. Human words it said:
"If thou wouldst serve my need, and none but me,
The world's most riches were my gift to thee,
And thou shouldst be as shining-white as I."
But ere the time was his to make reply,
A bird from backward at his side alit.
A raven black as any fiend was it,
And at its side the swan, with no delay,
Lifted white wings, and rose, and soared away.
"Although that bird was white," the raven said,
"And I am other, be not thus misled,
For my worst feather, I would have thee know,
Would more avail thee than her plumes of snow."
With that he vanished, and the lake; and there
A chapel showed, wherein a vacant chair
Worm-eaten, feeble, on one side was seen,
And on the other two white flowers were sheen
With mingling petals. But a holy man
Pulled them apart, at which they both began
To fruit in plenty. "Fault it were," said he,
"That they should perish for the rotten tree
From which that chair is made."
Sir Bors awoke.
Those dreams he might not rede, nor time was fit
To seek their meaning. For Sir Pridan came.
A valiant knight he proved, and hard to tame.
For when the trumpets called, the lists were set.
Sir Bors so stoutly in the midst he met,
That for two hours the heavy swords were swung
Before hard earth he felt, and faltering tongue
By full surrender of that lady's right,
Won the poor freedom of a recreant knight;
While he who broke that lawless lord's duress
Resumed his path, content and guerdonless.
As one whose valours by high God were blest,
With peace at heart, nor therefor arrogant,
Sir Bors rode on, but soon a different test
Would toil him.
Where two separate ways aslant
Branched from his path, two evil sights he met,
As with one glance. Upon the leftward way,
A naked captive on his charger set,
He saw Sir Lionel. Two knights, who rode
On either side, controlled his rein, and they
So scourged, that downward from his shoulders flowed
A garment of red blood, the while that he
Proved that in bonds and stripes no shame may be
By silent lips, and in blood-blinded eyes
The scorn that courage to strong hearts supplies.
This to left-hand: to rightward shrilled a cry
Of keenest fear, for through the opposing glade
Fast rode a knight, and in his arms a maid
Who strove and wailed. He to the deepest shade
Of that great wood pursued his urgent way.
But she Sir Bors had seen, and charged him now,
By hope of Heaven, by valour, faith, and vow,
Her need to aid. Then thought he: 'What shall I?
If I regard her naught, I do not well.
Yet is it else sure death for Lionel.
For all goodly sort beneath the sky
I would not leave him thus, dear life to lose.
And should he rape her, while to God she cry,
Or loth or fain, she will not likely die.'
And thought again in anguish: 'Vowed am I,
By Christ His cross, the weaker need to choose.'
Yet while this hard debate his reason swayed,
His hand resolved it. Round his charger swung.
Loudly to him who bore that captured maid
He cried high challenge: "Let her loose, or die."
"What wouldst thou?" asked the knight. She is not thine.
Are there not others for thy lust to win
At lighter jeopard, who will twist as she,
And learn their use as lightly? Nay, perde!
If thus thou wilt -" He dropped the maid. He turned.
In one crashed bout he took the wage he earned.
Thrust through the shoulder, dead or swooned he lay.
The damsel at the fallen looked. She said:
"Wilt thou not slay him? He were good to slay.
Well, as thou wilt! I thank a valiant spear.
Yet would I thank thee more to bring me clear
Of these strange woods, for many foes are here,
And my safe manor lies a league away.
This further courtesy I charge thee show,
Till surety in familiar paths I know."
"Damsel, I would not leave thee dangered still,
Though other need to serve a deadlier ill
Awaits the while I pause - "
"I thank thy care.
Find but the bridge, and pass the stream, and there
Is safety where no hostile hoof would dare.
And well for Christ and peace thy spear hath sped;
For surely, had I lost my maidenhed,
Not strife had ended with a hundred dead."
As thus they spake, the woodland boskage through
Came cries, and crashing steeds, and lances shone.
Twelve knights asearch in loud approach they knew.
Shields could be seen of vert and gold, whereon,
With other blazons was an oak tree wide,
That vainly at its roots an axe defied.
That lady with glad cries, and crowding round
They greeted. Praise and thanks to him they gave
Whose lance was equal whom they sought to save;
Whom they too late for most avail had found,
Or else not found her. "A great lord, her sire,
Will give thee welcome, and thy needs require
That he may grant them with most open hand."
"I thank ye," said Sir Bors, "but here I stand
Delayed by this sharp need from need as dire.
May God be with ye all."
"May God at need
Be with thee also, and thy venture speed."
So with good words they left him. Vacant lay
The long straight vista of the left-hand way.
But bracken crushed, and fallen leaves bebled,
Pursuit too surely to its failure led.
He reached at length a castle, dark and grim,
And silent of all life. But not to him
Too huge its challenge, in the mood he knew.
But as his helm he closed, his sword he drew,
Leaving his charger as he turned thereto,
A horseman, from a sideward path who came,
Delayed him. On a mighty steed he rode,
Black as a bear, that such an aspect showed
As in compare had made that charger tame
Which once had borne Sir Percival. But he
Who rode it in no friendly garb was clad,
But priestly vestments told the faith he had.
"My son, what wouldst thou?"
"For my closest kin
I seek, on rescue bent, if that may be;
Or else for vengeance."
"Son, too late thou art.
I grieve to tell thee. Break those boughs apart
That grow most thickly. Thou shalt find therein
Him whom thou seekest slain and cast away.
But those who practised in such sort to slay,
Are distant now beyond thy reach."
The briars apart. A scourged and broken corse
They lifted. Near that silent tower they found
A lowly chapel. In its holy ground
They laid him. Weeping for so dear a loss
And seeking guidance in most doubt. (For who
Should point him surely, wrong or right to do?
Or that he had done at its worth assess?)
Was it God's truth that Lionel's death was less
Than that a maid full loth should force subdue?
"Father," he said, "I walk in doubt. Construe,
I pray thee for my peace, a dream I had."
"To aid thee in thy doubt my heart were glad.
The last night's dream of birds he told,
And of the white flowers, and the cankered tree.
"Strange are thy dreams," the priest replied, "nor all
The warnings for thee that its symbols hold
Is time to tell thee now. But this to know
Is instant for thy peace, lest worse befall
Than that which blinds thine eyes with weeping now.
"The snow-white bird is one who loves thee well.
The smaller fowl a loathly fiend of hell,
Who would prevent what might most fairly be.
Of his black malice and despite for thee
He plots to snare thee through thy pride. For thou
Art so enamoured of thy chastity
That though a maiden for thy love should die
Thou wouldst not ease her."
"Should I break the vow
Which holds me on this quest?"
"Should vows prevail
To hinder mercy? Shouldst thy purpose fail
Through carnal lust, thou wert God's outcast then.
But motives only for the acts of men
Are weighed in Heaven. At thy feet doth lie
One who were living hadst thou judged aright.
What was that maid to thee? Not last to die,
Nay, nor thy dearest, will Sir Lionel be.
Who is there closer to thy heart? For he
Sir Lancelot, is the next thou wilt betray,
Except thou learn that God's elect are they
Who by soft ways or hard perform His will,
And are not stubborn for the harder way,
As therefore godlier. If so much ye learn,
More will I show thee at my soon return."
With that he left him, and that silent hold
Waked to glad life, as though a binding spell
Were lifted. From its gates bright damsels came.
"Hail, gentle knight," they said. "No gain of gold,
No gift of costliest gems should serve as well
For our fair mistress as to hear thy name."
Wondering, he followed to a chamber dight
Full richly, where he cast his arms, and where
The signs of toil he lost, and garments fair
Were tendered on bent knees, as though were he
Liege lord of all who served that seigneury.
Then in an ermine robe arrayed aright,
More fit for monarch than for simple knight,
He went to banquet, and their lady's sight.
Not ever damsel that his eyes had seen,
Spirit or mortal, paramour or queen,
Had stood beside her in content compare.
For not one beauty in extreme was there,
Lure of sweet eyes, or wealth of shining hair,
But all was excellent.
She raised her head,
And showed glad eyes to greet him. "Lord," she said,
"Long have I waited for this hour, for I
Was born to prove it, and thy name to me,
And all thy deeds, have been a rising song."
He answered: "Fairest, of thy courtesy,
Praise not beyond my worth, to do me wrong,
Nor mock my service with too loud a lie."
"I lie not here. As she of Carbonac
Lived for one hour, is kindred fate for me,
Destined to save thee from thy single lack.
For only by thy prideful chastity
Dost thou fall short of virtue. Hence my need
Is nurtured to refusals all exceed;
And thou must own me now, or else I die."
Abashed at this, Sir Bors, without reply
Took at the board his seat. Such cates were there
As matched herself. Was more of choice and rare
Than in a lifetime he had known before.
Then, as the wine was poured, her maids withdrew,
And those who waited, till they were but two,
And while he drank she loosed the belt she wore,
And wooed him ever with awaiting eyes.
And he remembered what the priest had said,
But could not lightly from his heart excise
The vows that held him.
"Fair my lord," she pled,
"To do thy pleasure at this time have I
Dreamed through long years."
"Thou hast not known," he said,
"One closely of my blood is lately dead.
How can I in an hour of grief put by?"
"Can grief his life restore? But else I die."
"Nay, for why shouldst thou?"
Then his hand she took.
"Hast thou no manhood? Canst thou downward look
On all I bare thee, and jest my plea?
What were it to thyself? But death to me
Is else assured. Wilt thou not long repent,
When fallen from this hold's high battlement,
Not only I, but all the ladies mine,
A common end shall seek? For further days
From thy rejection would I shrink to see.
And they, who share good days or worse with me,
Would not live longer."
Yet his eyes were cold,
His heart was doubtful of her truth. Her hold
He loosed, and constant to his faith, replied:
"I pray thee for this time excuse me well."
"Then is my death the price that buys thy pride.
See that I do, and weep too late."
She climbed to those high battlements, and there
Her ladies, wailing, joined her. "Lord," they cried,
"Save us, for with our lady else we die.
Are all our lives against thy chastity
So light a weight? Is other virtue none?"
He saw them, beauteous all, and well beseen,
Poised for that giddy death which most would shun.
Should woes be theirs for joy which else had been
Through that sweet solace which his vows denied?
Surely his guardian angel's wings were wide
At that high moment to obstruct his way.
One forward step was his, and then delay
Strengthened his will to hard resolve; and they
Who lured him knew defeat, and leapt.....
On the green outskirt of the lonely wood.
There was no chapel where he laid the dead:
No walls of silent strength were overhead:
Naught was there but the peace the woodlands know.
Then thanked he God with lifted hands, Who so
Had saved him from that subtle lure. He rode
Through the green peace where seemed that no man bode,
Until, at twilight, at near hand he heard
A clock's slow striking. Turning to the sound,
A high-walled abbey with such gates he found
As would not yield if random violence stirred
Too quickly for relief of Christian men
Without their first reserve. But wide they swung
To give him entrance, when his name was said.
"Few are there greater Arthur's knights among:
A knight who quests the Grail: Sir Bors is he."
They brought fair water for his need; and then
Garments of ease, and to such meal they led
As best their stores could yield. "In courtesy,"
He said, "one further boon I ask. To see
A priest of wisdom who can marvels rede."
They said: "Our ablest will fulfil thy need
As would but few. Within the chantry now
Alone he prays, as oft at eve he may,
For he would ever be alone to pray."
They led him then to one of high degree,
Perfect in gentleness. He told him how,
By God's strong grace, he hardly held his vow,
Being so tempted, and so wiled. "I see
Such trammels round me," at the last said he,
"That much I fear another bout to win."
The priest made answer: "From such snares of sin
Are few knights-errant who release would gain.
But as thy faith so must thy testing be,
For Satan still to take the best is fain.
Thy dreams? Our talk is long: the midnight near.
Tomorrow shall I make their meaning clear."
"Thy dreams," the abbot said, "might well confound
The carnal mind, and holy thoughts confuse.
For godlier might it seem the white to choose
And the black bird reject. But judgement sound
Will seek more deeply than the outward show.
"The raven was the Church. For innocence
Is the more conscious of its sins' offence.
White raiment, till God's time, it will not know.
The swan was Satan, in his bold pretence.
His words betrayed him, when the wage of sin
He offered: "Serve me, and thy deeds shall win
The whole world's riches..... Doth a Christian knight
For pride, for riches, or for glory fight?.....
So came he after as a holy man,
Though blackly mounted on a steed of hell.
He counselled subtly as such demons can,
But falsely of thy brother's death to tell,
Who yet is living. By his wizardry,
Knowing thy manhood and thy gentleness,
He thought to snare thee in such lechery
As had exclusion been, beyond redress,
From the high vision thou art seeking still...
In the two flowers and chair of rotten tree
A simple meaning lay. The chair was he
Thy brother. Evil words and evil will
Proclaimed him cankered. The two flowers are they
Whom thou didst part save. A later day
Will see them in good faith and chastely wed,
Who else on sorrow and on shame had fed,
And he had met damnation. Now to thee
God's favour leans, who left the rotten tree,
Salvation to those periled souls to be."
Came to Sir Bors a talk of tournament.
The land was strange: the names scarce known of they
Who called their fellows for the joyful play.
But thought he: "Where good knights assemble so,
There may be comrades of the quest to greet,
Or haply with Sir Lionel might I meet,
And seek his pardon; though he needs must know
I did not leave him with light cause."
Few miles before a chapel courtyard showed,
Where the fair woodlands left an opening wide.
And there, to expectation all exceed,
Sir Lionel halted at his charger's side.
Sir Bors leapt down. With words of breathless joy,
And with embracing arms outstretched, he ran.
"Brother," he cried, "forgive my late misdeed,
If such it were, for not to mortal man
Can oft such conflicts of temptation press
Than have beset me, who would count it less
Myself to perish than that thou shouldst die."
"Then," said Sir Lionel, "our wills agree.
For here, the while I live, thy death shall be.
Vain are thy words to charm me, false and vain,
Who would with idle hands have seen me slain."
As thus he spake, his horse he gained: "For I
Am vowed to slay thee. If thou canst," he said,
"Defend thee from me. Had our father known
Such traitor that our noble house had bred,
Himself had marked thee with the brand of Cain."
But nothing did Sir Bors his horse to gain.
Low in the dust he knelt: "If wrong I did,
I seek thy pardon. But may God forbid
That we should both our common blood forget."
"Nay, but defend thee, or thy life I let."
"That will I never."
"Wilt thou whining die?"
"I pray thee for God's love thy wrath put by."
Sir Lionel answered with spurred heels. As though
He trampled to the dust a recreant foe
He rode across him. Beaten thus to ground,
Sore bruised, Sir Bors, from conscious life betrayed,
Lay swooning. Lionel from his horse alit.
His brother's helm he seized, and motion made
To loose it, still in savage lust to slay.
But from the chapel gate in haste there ran
A hermit, who had come that morn to pray,
And watched, and heard.
"Fair lord," he cried, "remit
A deed so dreadful, lest, for God unfit,
By His relentless doom for sinful man,
Thy soul be carrion at the judgement day
For fiends to mangle."
"Priest, if such ye be,
Come not between us, which were death for thee,
And scarce one moment would his life acquit.....
Then take the meddler's wage."
The hoary head
Fell backward as the great sword swept its way,
And Lionel bent again the helm to loose.
But came a voice: "What! Would ye all men slay?"
At which he turned a mounted knight to see
Close at his side.
"Who art thou?"
"One who knows
Who both ye are too well to let thee use
Upon thy brother's life thy violence.
I am thy comrade on our sacred quest,
"Then good speed to get thee hence
Will show thy wisdom."
"That I will not do
Except Sir Bors in better safety rest."
To earth he came, the while Sir Lionel threw
The severed helm aside, and raised his blade
The fatal stroke to deal, but felt his arms
Grasped from behind. To earth they wrestling fell.
Sir Bors, arousing at their loud alarms,
Attempt to rise, with dizzy failure, made.
Well did Colgrevance strive, but Lionel
In his fierce wrath the hardier proved. He rose,
And ere Colgrevance could his sword oppose,
He smote the helmet of the weaker knight.
Dazed was he as with pain he rose upright;
Yet with his shield the next hard stroke he met.
Somewhat retreating, sword to sword he set,
And soon Sir Bors, upon his hand who leaned,
A strife more equal viewed. His champion
Smote with full might, and traced and feinted well.
Yet of the finer skill was Lionel,
And as from stroke to stroke the fight went on
Clearer it was for one who watched to see
That his should be the final mastery.
Colgrevance knew it, and his startled eyes
Saw death's black shadow, for no hope was there
Of Lionel's mercy. To Sir Bors he cried:
"Canst thou not aid me? Thou, who hadst but died
Without my rescue, wilt thou naught for me?"
Sir Bors arose. Though dazed and weak of knee,
His sword he drew. But that infirmity
Which held him back before was potent still,
More than the hurt he felt. To maim or kill
Whom he from birth had loved? It could not be.
Sundered by doubt and pressed by shame was he,
The while Colgrevance with more sharp appeal
His aid required... And then too late it were.
He saw his rescuer blindly backward reel,
Blood spurting through his battered helm, until
Beneath a further blow most merciless,
To ground he sank, the hermit's death to share.
Then to Sir Bors Sir Lionel turned: "At last
I have thee!"
"Brother, for those seasons past
In which we loved - "
"A nearer thought is mine
Of one who left me to my death."
He dealt so hard the lifted shield it broke.
Sir Bors at need a sword reluctant drew.
"Only I guard my life to save thy sin."
"It boots not what ye mean, not what ye do.
For futile were thy best thy life to win."
Sword countered sword, and as good strokes he dealt
New life asserting through his veins he felt.
But then a voice he heard: "Sir Bors, forbear.
For shouldst thou strive thou wilt most surely slay."
And with the voice a rushing wind was there,
And flame between them roared their wraths to stay.
It scorched their painted shields. It cast them down
Swooning alike; and as it roared away
Lifeless together on the ground they lay.
Sir Bors was first to rise. He thought with dread
That God's swift bolt has left Sir Lionel dead.
But soon he wakened, and his ruthless mood
The swoon had ended. Now for peace he sued
With words of sorrow for his fault before.
And Bors made answer: "Nay, recall no more
That which to recollection dreamlike grows.
For here is marvel that alone are we.
No slain knight is here, no slaughtered priest we see.
What hath been is no simple thing to say."
He spake but sooth, for what had surely been
They well might doubt; for this is truth to tell
Colgrevance after at the court was seen
So doth not seem to Lionel's sword he fell.
But northward rode Sir Bors, as one will ride
Who seeketh no set place, but, God to guide,
Doth but desire to make the distance wide
Between him and the place he leaves. He came
At eve to abbey walls. The virgin's name
Was surance of the peace he sought; and there
He found good tendance. Though the food was spare,
The couch was soft they gave him. Slept he well
For two short hours, and then the midnight bell
That called the monks to wakeful prayer recalled
His mind to conscious life; or if there be
Such life in sleep, to be again aware
Of earthly circumstance. And waking so
It seemed, that with a voice he did not know,
The darkness called him as a child is bid;
And thus obedient, as it told he did,
Arming, and seeking where his steed was stalled,
And riding forth by night. A space he found
Where the grey wall which was outer bound
Of the lone priory's uncoultered ground
Was tumbled outward, and he rode therethrough
To where on shifting dunes a cold wind blew,
And the sea broke beneath them.
There he knew
Beside the shore, unanchored, motionless,
A ship that seemed not in the wind's control.
Its decks were draped in silken loveliness,
Its sides were sendal-sheathed.
No earthly goal
Would have such preface. So he thought; and so
It seemed the calling of his quest to go
By that strange passage. As he entered in,
The barque to open ocean turned its head.
The sails, like wings self-lifting, outward spread;
And leaping, as to sentient life akin,
More swift across the night-dark waves it fled
Than ever mortal-builded barque shall do.
The night grew darker round it. Naught could he
Of moon or cloud or traversed waters see.
Only the swiftness of her flight he knew
By the strong buffet of the broken air.
But being ever more of God aware
Than of the dangers that to earth belong,
Of that blind path he had no wakeful care,
No doubt of heart his settled faith to wrong.
Upon the silk-soft deck unvexed he lay,
And through the darkness slept, until the day
With bright invasion chased the night away.
He waked to sunlight, and a knight to see
Appearing from beneath, whom joyfully
He hailed, and in that wise was greeted well.
"There are but two," he said, "who like to thee
My heart would welcome."
"That were ease to tell,"
Replied Sir Percival, "for here should be
Sir Galahad to confirm that where we go
The Grail will meet us; and thy thought is set
On Lancelot ever..... How, since late we met,
Hath faith availed, by hell's defeat, to show
The might of God upon thee?"
Then they told
How, by God's grace sustained, they each had fared,
Marvelling, and thanking Heaven, that feet unsnared
Had passed the cunning nets, by fiends controlled.
And as they talked, the barque, that no man steered,
Of currents heedless, or of winds that veered,
Of tides, of tempests, or of waters shoaled,
Careered its swift, undeviating way.
End of Chapter XVIII