The Song Of Arthur - Chapter XX
by S. Fowler Wright
Return to Chapter XIX
Elaine of Astolat.
Slow peace that watched the warlike days recede
Droused in the land. With tale of warrior deed,
With song of warrior toil, and warrior need,
The halls were loud, the while the rusting blade
Slept in the sheath.
Now Arthur held his court
In London's ancient walls. But oft resort
To Camelot made, with aim to bring recall
Of former splendours when the realm was young.
So came it that he spake in middle May
To those around him: "Lords, we rest too long.
And therefore, on the near Assumption day,
I will proclaim so large a tourney-test
As well may draw the boldest and the best
From all the lands that hear it. Caradoc
And I will jointly all the world oppose.
Those from the furthest lands allied with those
Of Gales, and Ireland, and Northumbria,
Surluse, and Listonaise, our ranks to shock
May freely on a common front combine,
And break us if their many spears outshine
Our narrower ranks. It was not boast too high
One time to thus the gathered world defy.
Who could the Table shake? And I would not stand
On height of reputation insecure.
"The turmoil and the flashing chance of war
This five years past we have not known. But though
The pulse that nears shunned age may beat more slow,
Controlled to ordered course of use and law,
And restful in accomplished ends, we yet
Have neither wholly lost, nor all forget
Valour and strength, and skill and fortitude.
And still of those our present ranks include
The noblest may prevail, the least endure."
Therefrom his heart was glad, for those who heard,
As by the summons of a trumpet stirred,
Had shown no slackness in response. But soon,
Like a black cloud across the light of noon,
Came other causes for despondency.
For when from London in due time, with press
Of knights and earls and barons numberless
And many ladies and their trains (for they
Were mindful to regard the gentle play,
The inspirations of their lords to be,
Rewards or consolations) forth he set,
The queen was absent: "Dear my lord," said she,
"I am too sick to ride. I may not go.
I have no heart for tourneys."
Made over-late excuse: "Last night I felt
A stirring in that wound that Mador dealt,
Which warned me I would wiselier resting bide
Than join these jousts, to stand perforce aside
When strong spears enter, and to hear men say:
"Sir Lancelot is a knight of yesterday:
He dares no longer where the first contend!
I needs must plead thy pardon, king and friend."
Full woe'd was Arthur, who with large intent
To please these twain had made that tournament,
And thinking for his own delight to view
His mightiest in the world-known lists renew
The deeds of old; and hear his queen acclaimed
Again by shouting thousands: fairest named,
Noblest and kindliest, while the mortal slur
That nearly stained her fame, removed from her,
Left those who slandered or who doubted shamed.
But angered was the queen. With sharp demur
She spake to Lancelot when she heard: "Hast thou
No thought for what our watchful foes will say,
That we controlled by common purpose stay
To take our pleasure while the king is far?"
He answered, vext beyond his wont: "Too late
You talk of caution. Who but taketh now
The count of what we do, and what we are?
Nor did I feign. I am not fit to go.
Yet will I, as thou wilt; but secretly,
And as I find at last my strength to be
I will adventure, or the chance forgo."
Beyond the stream, beyond the town, there stood
Closed in the deep heart of the hiding wood
The tower of Astolat.
Sir Lancelot rode
Aside the town to seek more quiet abode
Than there should be; and late, as even sped,
Found the woodpath to the lone tower which led,
And there arrived, and was of none withstood.
Some space of tilth he passed: some gateways through:
Finding free course where no man stirred.
Fell somewhat toward a shining moat that lay
Round a gaunt tower.
Its open gate within,
The daughter of the knight of Astolat,
Elaine, looked out through wide lit doors which showed
The darkness of the wood. The sky behind
Crimsoned the gloom; and where the path inclined
To meet the junction of the wider road,
Dark on the light of that red dusk she saw
So fair a knight, as meeting fates befell,
(With back-slung shield he rode, and helm at selle)
That love she might not at her need withdraw
She gave. And well might any knight forget
All else, when tangled in that offering net
When summer ways were kind. So fair was she;
And formed of God that none but Nimue
Such grace of love to whom she loved could pay.
"Fair one," he asked, "is any knight within?"
"Why dost thou ask?"
"I seek a boon."
And my two brothers at this hour are due.
From Guildford should they make return, wherethrough
The king's long train since morn hath moved; for he
Made there his halt to range it."
This to say
The time was short before they came. The three,
In peaceful furnish of festivity,
Gave friendly greeting to the armoured knight
Who at their gates had halted. Would he rest
In their poor walls? Sir Bernard asked. Or how
Were it their grace to serve him?
"That I seek,"
Sir Lancelot answered, "would I well requite,
Beyond its value. If a shield unshown
Be on thy walls, or one of such device
That all may bear it in this land, its loan
Would do me service."
"Such a shield to lend,"
Sir Bernard answered, "to a knight unknown
Might well a treason cloak, or shame a friend.
Yet would I trust thee... No such shield have I.
My years of saddle and lance are past. In far
Spent days I fought, a knight in Uther's war,
When round his bier be broke his foes. But now
My shield is rust and worn: would none rely
On its cracked shelter. This my son ye see,
Sir Tirre, may be thy better aid, for he
In his first bout was maimed, and may not ride
In turmoil of the lists. His shield to spare
Would be no forfeit, and its front is bare....
But if this shifting of thy shield be meant
For baffling at the coming tournament,
I ask a boon in turn. That at thy side,
Lavaine, my younger son, with license ride.
Age hath not dulled my wit, nor dimmed mine eyes
So greatly that I fail thy worth to see.
He would have guidance and support in thee,
Whatever night should fall, or dawn should rise."
To which Sir Lancelot answered: "For my need
Sir Tirre's good shield will well suffice. For I
Ride to thy guess, a nameless lance to try
At the great tourney. Should I fairly speed,
I will return and tell it. Where I ride
I thank thee that thy son shall keep my side;
As also that his brother's shield shall be
My charge to keep. Nor may it fail with me
Some reputation for itself to gain,
If God's good favour aid."
This treaty made,
Within that kindly tower Sir Lancelot stayed
The next three days, while in the town the king
The Table's total strength was marshalling
Before he moved on Camelot. Naught was said
Of Lancelot's name, nor those who dwelt therein
(At life's first threshold, or whose youth was fled)
Or knew or guessed it.
When, at prime of day,
He rose to leave, Elaine, with all to win,
And naught to lose, who those three days had spent
To woo his favour, asked him ere he went:
"Fair knight, I pray thee of thy grace, declare
If damsel's favour in love's lists you wear?"
He answered: "Nay, God witness, none wear I."
She said: "I might not this red sleeve deny
To whom should ask, found worthy."
"Not to me,"
He answered, "should so great thy favour be."
But then he thought: "The thing I have not done
In these long years would be such cloak that none
Would know me... Damsel, if that sleeve I show
It will conceal me well. For those who know
My use and guise in tourney strife will so
Be most confounded, whom no stranger's shield,
Or change of arms had past one course concealed.
And fair I hope that not thy grace shall be
So much unguerdoned that thy sleeve shall fail
To float unfallen where strong knights prevail.
And this I ask thee, of thy courtesy,
To guard the shield I leave, for, speed I well,
I shall return to claim it."
"That will I,"
She answered gladly, and he rode away,
Lavaine beside him.
Well, it showed to her,
Her three days' suit had sped. Her scarf he wore:
His shield she guarded. At a short delay
He must return to claim it. So she dreamed
Through summer days, and so she dreamed in vain,
For divorce to that lonely tower again
Should Lancelot enter.
Now to Camelot
The byway paths he chose, and entering there
When dusk had fallen made unmarked repair,
Lavaine his guide, to one Sir Bernard knew,
A burgess of the town; and there he lay
Till the near dawning of the tourney day.
"Lancelot will come disguised," so thought the king,
- The guess was right, though not the reasoning -
"For so he purposed when excuse he made.
He will hold back, the weaker side to aid,
And thus is likelier on their part to be
Who face the Table. Joy it were to see
Our mightiest meet him, as they seldom do;
So much his might in younger days they knew....
Yet would I not that he in such misguise
Should meet with Gawain, lest new wraths should rise;
For never yet hath Gawain worship won
From such encounter."
Hence he sought to keep
Lord Gawain from the lists, and charged him bide
At his right hand: "For surely at my side
I need thy judgement when the lances leap,
And I must rule the tourney's fluctuant tide."
To which Sir Gawain, inly well content,
Made answer: "Lord, I hold my strength unbent
For call of war, but not as once I seek
By tourney-test to prove it. As thou wilt
I will abide thee."
Now the lists were set.
High called the trumpets as the Table met
The outer realms. Could Arthur's might withstand
North Gales, and Scotland, and Northumberland,
Ireland, and Listonaise, and Brittany,
The Hundred knights behind their landless king,
And paladins from round the Southland sea,
Iberia, and its isles, and Italy,
And Paynims from the east far-wandering?
So did it surely. As stout boars may meet
A scattering hound-pack that from each retreat
Rallies, and rushes, breaks, and forms anew,
So did the Table, in close order due
Break and remain unbroken; flinging back
Their various foes from each combined attack;
Or knight with knight alone encountering
In the midfield, while either rank withdrew
To give them space to prove their worth.
Watched with content, for Palomides threw
North Gales; and he the Hundred knights who led
Sir Galahalt by fine force discomfited.
But then, from out a little wood thereby,
Two knights advanced their twofold strength to try
Against the Table. Side by side they drew
To the torn front which lightly let them through.
All eyes were on them: if the best they sought,
Such were the spears that on themselves they brought.
Well with his greater comrade rode Lavaine,
Equal the course he matched with Agravain,
Lucas he cast, and with a single spear
Foiled the war-hardened might of Bedivere,
And flung Ozanna of the Hardy Heart.
Lancelot the while sustained his harder part,
Who now with one unbroken lance downbore
The Table's loftiest names. They sank as corn
At the wind's impulse. Down was Sagramore,
Dodinas was down, and Griflet Fils de Dieu;
And Kay, shorn crestless, from the lists withdrew,
Orkney's three brethren from that strife no less,
Brandiles, wounded struggling through the press,
And Melliot's limping gait his might allowed.
Hard on the barriers swayed the cheering crowd,
Amazed, for seemed it by such deeds as though
The knights of most repute, by treason slain,
Tristram or Lamorack, had returned again.
"Who is he?" Asked Sir Gawain.
"Well I know,"
Answered the king, "but now I will not say."
Marvelled Sir Gawain: "Much in Lancelot's way
He rides, and like in stature, strength and skill;
Yet is not he, who neither would nor will
Bear lady's favour in the tourney throng."
"Let be," said Arthur, "you shall learn ere long."
But not so feeble nor so few were they
Who held the Table's front that cold dismay
Should daunt them for such falls. Sir Bors was first
The Benoic knights to call. Around him were
Ector, and Aliduke, and Bellengere;
And Lionel joined them; and his closer kin,
Blamor and Bleoberis; and thereto
When Galihud and Galihodin drew,
With ninefold strength they forward thrust. They met
Sir Lancelot on their broken front. As one
Three lances smote him: Bors' and Lionel's
And Ector's. Onward slid Sir Bors', bloodwet
But pointless; for the point its goal had won
In Lancelot's hawberk ere it snapt. Fordone,
His charger rolled; and as he rose he felt
The wounds sharp pain. That mortal hurt was dealt
Well might he fear; but with the fear arose
Resolve before he failed to break his foes.
That moment at his side Lavaine he knew,
And ere how wounded were they, or how few,
Had Benoic learned, in mounted strength anew
They forward charged; and there Sir Blamor fell
Before Lavaine; and Bors Sir Lancelot threw,
And Ector overrode, and Lionel,
And Bleoberis ere a good lance broke.
And then with sword he smote them, stroke on stroke,
Till those nine knights were chased, or laid full low,
And still Lavaine beside him, blow for blow,
With honour held his place.
Sir Gawain said:
"I marvel who may bear that sleeve of red."
King Arthur answered: "We shall shortly know
Before he leave us."
Were they like to guess
He was so angered by his wound's distress
That life's high values left his mind? For who
But he, with death in doubt, such deeds would do?
Now for the close of strife the trumpets blew,
And those bold knights who met the Table drew
Around Sir Lancelot: "By thy strength," they said,
"Our front was worshipped; and the prize to claim
Will none impede thee. Let us call thy name
At Arthur's feet."
"Nay, for I am but dead,"
He answered, conscious in that pause how sore
His hurt had been. "I pray ye ask no more
My gain is naught to that my loss may be."
And as he spake he turned, and hastefully
Rode for the wood, and when its boskage hid
Those who had watched his course, as most men did,
He halted, and Lavaine, who kept his side,
He called, and weakly from his seat he slid.
His arms they loosed, and when his side was bare
The broken truncheon of the spear was there,
Protruding somewhat, and so deeply set
That well Lavaine might doubt his life would let
If it were altered from its place.
Sir Lancelot said, "my life, by more delay
Is less to hope. Draw - as you love me - draw."
So urged, he drew; and when the length he saw
Of that snapt point, he marvelled mortal man
Could so have dured. But as the hot blood ran,
Sir Lancelot, with a loud lamenting cry,
Sank to the earth, and sinking swooned.
Lavaine remained, in doubt of what thereby would be.
Sadly on one who showed no life he gazed.
He turned him to the wind, but long was he
Awareless, nigh to death.
At length he raised
Dim-sighted eyes. "Oh, gentle friend," he said,
"One hope remains. Sir Baudwin's hermitage
Is but two miles away. I am but dead
Except I reach it. Give me aid to mount,
I am not willing of this wound to die."
Then was it seen how valiant heart will make
Conquest of weakness. With dear life at stake
He did not stay the adverse odds to count,
But with his comrade's willing help he gained
A seat unsure, the while the red blood rained
A second torrent from the wound astrained.
Then with Lavaine's supporting arm he rode
Until they reached the hermitage, and there
Dismounted feebly, while his comrade's care
Must leave his side a silent gate to wake.
Softly Lavaine upon the grassy sward
Laid him whom most he loved as friend and lord.
Then with his spear-butt on the gate he beat.
"Hasten!" He loudly cried, "for Christ His sake."
A fair page answered: "Now by God's entreat,
Be swift to call thy lord. For here is set
A knight who did such deeds as can but few
At Arthur's tourney, and his life is let
Except that with good speed your part ye do."
Swift at that urgence were the page's feet
His lord to find, and forth the good man came.
"You ask me succour for a knight of name?"
"His name I know not. But for these two days
Of the great tourney, none an equal praise
Hath won by marvellous deeds."
"Which side was he?"
"Against the full might of the Table Round
His worth was shown."
"Fair knight," the hermit said,
"Days were there when such words would coldly sound
To one who in that Table's hardihed
Took pride and place. But, God I thank, today
My feet have learned to walk a Christlier way.
Where is this knight?"
"He hoveth here."
To where Sir Lancelot faint and bloodless lay,
"Now, by the tomb of God," the hermit thought,
I know him, or in other days I did."
Yet of that death-white face recalled he naught
With certain memory, so had anguish wrought,
With change of years, to change it.
"Knight," said he,
"I grieve thy wound, but tell me who ye be,
And from what land?"
"A stranger knight am I,
Who many realms have known in wandering far,
That in God's name where any ventures are
I may win worship."
As he answered thus,
The hermit closelier looked, and marked a scar
That crossed his cheek, and memory, waked thereby,
To surance grew.
"Alas, my lord," he cried,
"Thou art no nameless knight adventurous,
But most occasion of our Table's pride.
Thou art our Lancelot!"
"If my name ye know,
I charge thee in Christ's name to treat me so
That ease be mine to either last or die."
"Have ye no doubt thereof."
They bore him in, and matched his deathly need
With leechcraft, and rich wines, and service good,
Dealing in all things as a hermit would.
For hermits in those greater days than now
Were not drawn separate by a Godward vow
From conversation and resort of men;
But knights of prowess and of large estate
Gave in God's name a lavish service then
To those whose means were small, or needs were great.
For penury or peril or distress
Their equal gates stood wide and questionless,
The very ways of Christ to emulate.
When at the trumpet's call the lists were stilled,
And all the crowding knights its ranks who filled
Dispersed, the king, whose place required that he
Of all around should think, and all should see,
With searching glance throughout their movement sought
For him who that red favour bore so well.
"Let him," he cried, "before my seat be brought,
That I may name him first." But none could tell
Of where he went, until Sir Galahalt
Gave answer: "Lord, by our reluctant fault
He left sore-wounded, and avoided all."
"Sore-wounded?" said the king. "I would not that
For half my realm."
"Then is he known to thee,"
Lord Gawain said.
"It may or may not be.
But lest that ill beyond remede befall,
I charge thee seek him."
"That I lightly will.
For never in glad game or mortal war
Lancecraft or swordplay of more vaunt I saw
For either forceful strength or finer skill.
And short the search should be, for wounded so
How could he life sustain long road to go?"
There was good reason; and for such report
All sides from Camelot's circling walls he sought
Six miles around; but yet mischancefully
Passed the lone hermitage, in oakwoods hid;
And as the king to London moved his court
In the next days, he followed. Had not he
Sought with sufficient zeal and tiringly
For one who might be dead, or might be far?
A day behind the king his household rode,
And so it chanced, that where Sir Bernard bode
They passed beneath the tower of Astolat
When dusk had blurred the sunset's purple bar.
Then urgent from the gate a trumpet came,
And sued Sir Gawain, in Sir Bernard's name,
Of his fair grace that night to rest him there.
Sir Gawain halted with good heart thereat,
And found fair maintenance.
No word was said
Of whence he came the while the meal was spread,
Nor in the hospitable hour beyond
Of talk and song was conversation led
To Arthur's tourney; but when all withdrew
To welcome rest, before the midnight hour,
To Gawain, private in his separate bower,
Sir Bernard and Elaine, in secret wise,
His audience sought.
"We plead thy courtesy,"
The baron asked, "of what hath been to tell
At the great tourney. Who did most excel
Of names foreknown, or those of less degree
Sometimes who gain?"
Before his answering,
Elaine spake quickly: "Saw ye there," she said,
"A tall knight with a trailing scarf of red
Blown from his helm? In the front rank? - a king
Of knights and men. And likely him beside
A younger knight content his aid to ride?
Fell they, as must be when the lances break,
Or rode he lording through the tourney press,
As of good right he should?"
In haste she spake,
And paused in breathless doubt as one who heard
Hoof-beats on stone, and sees the approaching spears
Thronging the narrow street, and looks alone
To mark that scarf on lance, so late her own,
Her favour for the field - and looks in vain
For one too likely in the sortie slain,
While through the throng the rumoured tale is spread:
" - were overmatched and scattered: half are dead:
Half gained the gate."
"Was one such knight," he said,
"Who in design and deed was excellent.
But where he came from, or to where he went
I know not; though he did such deeds as few
Of Arthur's mightiest names can boast to do."
"Now God be lauded for that grace! For he
Is first my love and very last to me.
Surely the sleeve was mine."
"If that be so,
I came well-guided, for the king would know
This champion's name, which must be known to thee."
"Truly I know not."
"That is hard to hear.
How met ye first?"
"With privy purpose here
He came, my brother's naked shield to sue,
Saying that men his own too quickly knew:
Wherefore he left it in my charge."
View that fair shield?"
"It in my chamber lies,
Hid in a case I made from curious eyes.
Yet will I not from thee that sight deny.
Come with me therefor."
"Nay," Sir Bernard said,
"Let others bring it here."
The shield was brought,
Whereon the azure lions ramped and fought.
"Belike," she said, "these noble arms ye know?"
"Yea," said Sir Gawain, "and my heart is woe.
Is he in faith thy love, and loved by thee?"
"I love him surely. But in that may be
No cause for dolour."
"Cause for grief is naught
In that regard, but rather boast, for he
Is of most honour and most worship held
Among the knights of Arthur."
"Thus I thought.
Is here no grief, but little doubt dispelled,
Or fact for faith; for did I doubt at all?
I doubt it surely."
"Yet must grief be mine
His name to learn, for from that tournament
When with one comrade to the woods he went,
He rode as one who would his death forestall.
A breaking spear, men said, had pierced his side.
And this is truth, that one which went not wide
Was red and pointless. More will now repent
The hand that drave it. For Sir Lancelot
Owns this good shield; and he the wound who gave
Was Bors, his nephew. But we guessed him not,
For never yet through twenty years before,
A lady's favour in the lists he wore....
Fair one, if kindly fate his life allow,
May God have called thee to rejoice him now.
So of good counsel will his friends agree."
"Father, that whom I love I yet may save,
I pray thee, let me seek him! Else shall be,
If thus I stint before his fate I show,
My mind will leave me."
"Be thy heart thy guide.
For sore my grief that noble knight to know
So hurt and lost."
With morn she rose to ride
A quest more urgent than had Gawain's been;
And he to London made a hastened way,
Having such tale to bear. But Arthur said:
"I largely knew it. Hence I bade thee stay
Beside my seat, lest, by his guise misled,
And for our Table's honour roused, should clash
Benoic and Orkney in a bout too rash.
"But of this maid I knew not. Sooth I pray
That she may find him, and that sleeve portend
That he, so long to every damsel friend,
And yet so friendless, shall at last arrive
At love's fair harbour. May their meeting thrive."
Lord Gawain told the queen: "The maid is fair,
And gently fearless all to stake or dare
At love's high summons. If his life remain,
And by her hands be healed, it were but vain
To think she will not for herself require
Her natural guerdon. Well for all it were
That he should grant it. Of such grace is she
Belike no damsel live but Nimue
At bed or board could pass her lord's desire
Answer made the queen: "To me
This faithless shame ye tell!" Her anger leapt
Beyond regard of grief. No ruth she showed
For Lancelot's wound. If any tears she wept
They were such tempest as with lightning glowed.
Lord Gawain left her with a mind content.
Her raging irked him naught; nor care he felt
That she her wedlock vows should break. But why
Be wroth with Lancelot, if the wrong she dealt
Himself should use alike, incontinent
With better cause than hers?
For Bors she sent,
Who came, but in no mood to hear complaint,
Or give it solace.
"Have ye heard," she cried,
"How falsely Lancelot hath my trust betrayed?"
"He hath betrayed us all," Sir Bors replied.
"Nor least himself."
"He hath too base a taint
For more regard, and if he last or die
I take no force."
Sir Bors short answer made:
"Ye speak a language which I will not hear
From even thee."
"Why Bors, the sleeve ye saw!
Is he not traitor? Must the word therefor
Be left unspoken?"
"Madam, most I grieve
It was his choice to wear it. By that sleeve
He thought, as well I rede, to most deceive
Those of his blood, and all who nearly knew
His different use."
"But that he thought to do,
For all the boldness of his vaunting pride,
Thy better riding and good aim denied.
Late hath he learnt his lower place to know."
"Madam, I charge thee that ye say not so.
It were but falsehood. In his wounded might
Yet could he all resist and all requite."
"Say what thou wilt. I heard Sir Gawain say
That which no words of thine can cleanse away.
Their loves are screenless for the world to see.
He wore her sleeve! To passing strangers she
Proclaims and boasts the bond. What more could be?"
"Madam, Sir Gawain is not warned by me
For speech or silence. That he wills to say
I may not hinder. If ye Lancelot knew,
As do his kinsmen, with a faith more true,
Well would ye know that all he serves alike:
For any damsel's service swift to strike:
From all rewardless of their grace to go.
I haste to seek him, and to God I plead
I find him from that wound's most danger freed."
Down the green aisles in constant search, Elaine
Rode through the woods, with fearful heart more fain
Than had been Gawain's for her quest's success.
Yet was it more by chance than love's duress
She found Sir Lancelot.
From a path aside
Came one unarmed, a restive steed who rode.
A moment only had she watched him ride
When in glad tones: "Lavaine! Lavaine!" she cried.
And he who that impatient steed bestrode
Subdued and reined it; and most eagerly
And wondering came, his sister there to see.
"How fares Sir Lancelot?"
"Who hath told his name?"
"It chanced to Astolat Lord Gawain came,
And viewed his shield... But in what plight is he?"
"He gains from weakness, as yourself shall see."
"Then let us haste."
"I may not loosely rein
This steed, that kept too long an idle stall."
"Lead as thou wilt."
A rearing steed again
He turned, and led the narrow path along
By which he came. At hour of evenfall
They reached the hermitage.
Sir Lancelot lay
Fleshless, and worn with pain, and bleakly grey;
Unconscious that she entered. At the sight
Of him who filled her thought so changed of plight,
Her blood turned backward to its source. She lay
Swooning beside him for a time. She grew
Aware again as his loved voice she knew
Weak but strong-hearted: "Fair one, sooth to say,
I prosper well. This little hurt? It heals.
Surely thou art right welcome. Thou shalt be
My comfort, if thou wilt. I well believe
Thy father sent thee. When did knight receive
Such kindness, fallen through his own conceals,
As from thy brother and thyself to me?"
"My lord, Sir Lancelot, at thy need - "
Heard ye that name? I had not thought till now
That any guessed it."
"Lord, to Astolat
Sir Gawain came, and saw thy shield."
May evil come in likely ways."
Thinking of much it were not wise to say.
Sir Lancelot prayed Lavaine: "Of courtesy
I charge thee that a careful watch be set
On Camelot's streets and gates, for surely he
Who gave this hurt, until we here be met,
Will seek me, now my name be known. His shield
Is the blue heaven: on its azure field
A white dove soars. At closer sight, a scar
Divides his brow."
Light labour took Lavaine,
For neither sought he long nor sought he far
Before one told him of Sir Bors: "He came
Last eve: he halted at the ploughshare sign."
There Lavaine found him. At Sir Lancelot's name
He rose regardless of a waiting meal.
"Fair knight, wilt lead me to him?"
"Much he longs
To plead thy pardon."
"Mine? His grace to me
Were much to ask."
"He rather counts the wrongs
He to his kinsmen dealt, nor least to thee,
When stranger arms against thy part he bore."
"It was not those: it was the sleeve he wore.
Of which men say - "
"It was my sister's."
Thou art Lavaine?"
The while these words were said,
Sir Bors had found his steed, and short the while
Before, by city gate and woodland way,
They reached the hermitage.
Sir Lancelot lay
With eyes indifferent to the light of day
Through pain and weakness; but he knew the tread
Of him who with good cause he thought to see.
With outstretched hand he sought to rise to greet
One whom, save Ector, and to like degree,
He loved and trusted most.
But when Sir Bors
Saw him so gaunt, and felt himself the cause,
In such contrition at Sir Lancelot's feet
He knelt, that scarce for grief his words had way.
But Lancelot answered: "That may kindness say
Which reason knows not. That to hurt I came
Was of my pride, and only mine the blame.
I thought to all contest, and all excel,
And humbled justly, by thy lance I fell,
Who might have told thee.... Let us leave of this
For God to judge, Who weighs our acts amiss
In better scales than ours; and turn we now
To take good counsel for the days to be.
What knows the queen?"
"A tale Sir Gawain brought
From Astolat hath wrothed her."
"Then for naught
Her anger burns; the sleeve I did but wear
To foil surmise."
"It was the likely guess
Which she would no way in her mood allow,
Although I urged it. In her wild distress
More than I say she said.... But who was she
Who left thy couch but now?"
"She is the same
The sleeve who lent. Unless discourteously,
I cannot part her from my side."
Such parting seek? It were short tale to name
The lovelier in the land. And tale as short
Might all the ladies name of Arthur's court
Of mien as gracious, or as gently taught,
If Gawain spake aright. And who but he
Censor of beauty or of grace should be?
To counsel or to urge I would not dare,
Yet would I thank High God thy life to see
To peaceful bliss compelled by one so fair,
Who by her service to thy weakness now
Her love protests."
"If so of truth it be,
I much repent it."
"Not the first is she
To waste her labour on thee."
"Bors, my sin
Will nothing of inconstant loves allow,
Which only could excess its guilt to me.
Never for me will better life begin,
Of open love and common trust to learn....
But hearken. Wilt thou to the queen return,
And give her surance that my faith to her
Unshaken stands?.... And tell my lord that I
For his forgiveness on his grace rely
That I against our Table strove?"
The king accounteth naught. But joy will stir
In all who hear me, when the tale I bear
Of thy returning strength."
Sir Lancelot thought:
'With joy to all?' He did not doubt the king.
But one whom most he loved, and trusted less -
Would aught placate her?
To the court Sir Bors
Rode a good pace. He said: "With joyful cause
I hastened. Lancelot lives. His heart outfought
The weakness that to death's dark entrance led."
Guenever spake apart: "In truth," she said,
"Is he undangered? Will he surely thrive?"
"Yea, by my faith."
"I would he were but dead.
False recreant knight!"
"If any else alive,
Except thyself, such evil words shouldst say,
We of his blood their lives would shorter shear.
But, madam, when those bitter thoughts I hear,
My mind recalls that thou hast railed before,
And then repented. Ever yet to you
Hath Lancelot been, and hast thou found him, true."
Whole was Sir Lancelot of his wound. The day
Was reddening autumn when they rode away,
Thanking Sir Baudwin, from that hermitage.
As blithe as linnets from an opened cage
They rode to Astolat. A night's delay
Sir Lancelot granted, both of courtesy
And that the distance to the court required
A midway halt. But with the dawn, he said,
His speed must overtake the London way.
And ere with thought of storm that dawn was red
He rose, to reach the court impatient.
Yet earlier rose Elaine, with fixed intent
Either for life or loss, for weal or woe,
The flower or fading of her love to know.
To Lancelot's chamber with her sire she went,
And her two brethren. "Dear my lord," she said,
"Let words be plain between us. Thee to wed
Is my most longing, and thy courtesy
Draws me so nearly, while it holds me back,
That hope at heart I may not wholly lack,
However faint it be."
"But, fair one, I
Had never mind to wed."
"I well believe
That those who live the foes of God to grieve
Would choose no bond of wife or babe to tie
Their feet from venturous ways. But I would be
Thy paramour in all, to all allow:
In all things to support: in all submit.
I would at naught protest, but separately
Thou shouldst in all be single-souled as now.
To do thee service in unheeded ways:
To do thy pleasure in thine hours of ease
Mine only part. And I will speak thy praise
Though with the passage of the changeful days
Another than myself thy choice I see."
"Nay, fairest, for a better fate for thee
Lies in a bond more constant. I should be
Foe to thyself and thy noble kin
If I should grant it thus."
"Except I win
This little, which to one less fair than I
Would few unwed of Arthur's knights deny,
Then must I turn to my last friend, for life
Hath closed its prospect."
"Nay, its gate is wide;
And thou shalt thank me for thy suit denied
In days not distant, when a knight more fit
Shall give thee joyance; and to stablish it
I will endow thee with such wealth as may
Observe a debt too large for gold to pay."
"That will not be. A single boon I seek:
To be the leman of thy choice until
Its season tires thee. Then in all my will
Were thy will only. Still were thine to speak
The words to part us."
Pausing ere he spake,
Sir Lancelot, kindlier than his words, replied:
"Dear temptress - sweet Elaine - I may not take
That which is seldom to such sum denied.
Cause is there, though the cause I will not say,
Nor were it to thy comfort. This I may:
I am not what you dream, nor could there be
Clear joy between us.
"I am worn and scarred
In body and heart: of saddened thought: and marred
By much mischance of living. Much in me
Men envy; but the truth they do not see.....
My youth is dead: my life is past. To thee
The dawn is of the year as of the day;
I the near darkness meet, and would not stay."
"Then," said she, "are my dawn and darkness one
By this rebuke," and as she spake her heart
Paused at the warning that its use was done,
And swooning fell she to the ground; and so
They bore her to her chamber.
"Believe, I have not bought so large a woe
By any practice; nor her maidenhed
Assaulted subtly, nor by violence.
But she hath sought me with a fixed regard
That hath not faltered for soft ways or hard.
Except by sharp rebuke or rude offence
(And I was heartless such a course to try)
I might not turn her."
Likely said Lavaine:
"It is but truth that naught Sir Lancelot did
For her persuasion. But she feels as I.
For evil nor for good, for loss nor gain,
Can we who know thee leave thy side."
Sir Bernard answered, "all ye speak may be.
Yet much I fear me will my daughter die
Of love unsatisfied."
In more to say
Of grief or of regret what boot could be?
Heavy of heart, Sir Lancelot rode away.
Never to rise again from where she lay,
Ten days, with no regard of night or day,
Careless of aught but grief, with sleepless eyes,
Waited Elaine for death's dark door to rise,
Which would not fail her in its hasteless way.
Yet those around her said what love could say,
With recollections of her life before.
But who from ruin can the past restore?
Who can excise the intervening day?
"Leave me," she said, "your better lives remain.
I lose too largely. Hope and purpose slain.
What worth continues? Leave, and let me be."
A priest of God, who from her birth had known
And loved her as she grew, against her moan
With holy counsel strove, and reasoned plea.
"Cease such laments," he said, "such moanings shame
The simple honour of your father's name.
With Godward thoughts against this thirst contend.
For wiselier live they to more blissful end
Who make of earth's delights good husbandry;
The peace of God to gain, all else to flee."
"Now soothly, by that peace of God," said she,
"I am not shamed, and shamed I shall not be,
Nor leave such thoughts; though close to death my woe,
My heart is sure that shame I shall not know.
Shamed that I love him? That is God's grace in me.
Shamed that love slay me? Nay, God's truth, not I.
Behold if gladly of my grief I die!
"Clean maiden shall I stand at God His throne,
Who, save by sorrow, naught in life have known
Of love's design; and God, since time began,
Hath willed that earthly maid to earthly man
Shall turn, desirous of what love can give.
Not damned for this, not shamed, not fugitive,
Shall I stand there, but rather bold to plead
What sins were mine doth sorrow's weight exceed -
What earlier sins, for here no sins I see."
Then to her father and Sir Tirre she pled
That a fair letter be indited well.
With nothing altered of the words she said,
Though it were instant of her death to tell:
"And when I die, as I am fain to do,
And that I now forewrite is straightly true,
Then shall it shortly in my hand be laid,
That the cold fingers grasp it. Next thy care
Shall a black litter richly draped prepare,
Whereon, in all I own of worth arrayed,
I shall be borne to Thames' green bank, that so
A barge may take me down the stream. I go
Defeatless, scornless, thus, and undismayed
To him who cast my suit aside: secure
That nameless from his life I shall not fade...
There is no shadow more, if this be sure."
They swore it, weeping; and at this content,
Laying life's burden like a cloak aside,
Down death's so lone, so crowded road she went;
So stilled they knew not surely when she died.
Thereon the letter in her hand was set,
And she, in sendal and bright gems arrayed,
To the Thames bank was borne, and there was laid
In a fair barge, bedraped with cloth of jet,
Which no man oared, but one whose hand was sure
Helmed as it followed down the falling tide,
Avoiding shallows till the stream was wide
And ample in its unobstructed flow.
And thus, at even, when the tide was low,
Beneath the tower of London's citadel,
Where Arthur held his court, it grounded well
Aside the quay that flanked the water-gate.
Forth from a high-set window gazed the king,
And to the queen he spake: "Against the quay,
A barge is grounded, draped as though to bring
A freight of death; yet in the midst a bed
Holds one who is not as we drape the dead,
But more for bridal or festal fit."
And then, in haste to learn the truth of it,
He bade Brandiles, Agravain, and Kay
Descend to search it. Soon the tale they brought.
Sir Kay, with babbling wonder. Agravain,
With talk of treason or of violence,
Proposing evil as his natural thought.
To which Brandiles said: "She had not lain
As though she slept had poison's torturing pain
Procured her end; and one by violence slain
Would show more likeless of its rude offence.
Yet how she died is past my wit to say,
Or why she cometh in so strange array."
"Here," said the king, "is more to learn." He went
Forthright to search it. To the like descent
Followed the queen; and damsel, knight, and dame,
Quickened by curious doubt, behind her came.
"Moor well the barge," King Arthur bade; and fast
The hawsers bound it, and a plank was cast
From quay to deck, by which they crossed. They saw
That maiden, stilled by death's relentless law;
Yet still, by death's forbearance, fair to see,
Serene as though in smiling sleep was she.
Guenever was the first the scroll to spy.
"There," said she, "surely will her secret lie."
And Arthur took it, and unopened bore
Back to his chamber. "All alike shall hear
That which hath turned her to the silent shore."
And when were many knights assembled near,
With queens and ladies at their sides, he bade
A clerk to read it.
"Noble knight," he read,
"My lord, Sir Lancelot, I, to death betrayed
By loss of love's debate with only thee,
Returning now to God clean maidenhead,
Make moan to all of gentle sort. Wilt thou
Do this I ask, who will not ask thee more,
Nor vex again with my rejected plea;
In love's default do only this for me,
To lay me in God's earth, nor stint to pray
For one who stumbled on too hard a way."
The reader ceased, and those around who heard
A space were silent. Some to wonder stirred,
And some to tearful grief that plaint to hear.
Then Arthur spake: "This scroll is firstly writ
To whom it names, and were Sir Lancelot here
He might resolve it in a fairer way
Than judgement else would reach. Let him be sought
In garth and chamber."
In his known resort,
The garth along the river bank that lay,
They found him musing. Through his sombre thought
Moved the past splendours of the realm, as they
From Arthur, and not least himself, had shone,
To rout the heathen darkness. Were they dead?
Firm stood the throne, and yet the light it shed
Flickered and dimmed, as from a weary fire.
What strength availeth if the heart shall tire,
Or bright faith falter? Here what faith could be,
While, in the centre, like a canker grew
The falsehood of the queen that all men knew
- That all men knew but Arthur... (Only he,
Burdened and saddened by a shapeless woe,
A shadow that aside he might not throw,
Yet knew not that which cast it)... Life's release
Should be, and only be, when life should cease;
For the high purpose of the king he knew
By God rejected when the Grail withdrew.
"Lord," said the page, "the king desires thine aid
In the high chamber to the south."
With distant mind, as one whose feet obeyed
A witless impulse with no formed intent;
But ware he wakened when that script was read,
And all men waited for the word he said.
"Sire," said he, "with a heavy heart I hear
That one so blameless and so fair as she
Should find her friend in death, and that through me,
Though, as God knoweth, never act of mine
Conduced thereto, of which good witness near
Is her own brother, who will bear me clear
From such aspersion.... Though I freely say
She did me service, as all maidens may
To one distressed by weakness. But she sought
That which I had not, and I could not feign."
Guenever answered: "For so fair a sin,
God's solace had it been her life to win."
"Queen, it repents me sore she doth not live,
But that she asked, it was not mine to give.
She would my leman be, or else to wed.
But how by such constraint can love be led?
To grant such mercy were most merciless."
"Yea," said the king. "For who should love distress
With reason's bondage? Love so bound would be
Its own destruction. No reproach is thine.
Yet to thy worship will it prove to see
That naught be lacking or of prayer or shrine
For her disposal. Of such sort was she,
I count most surely, that no lord's degree
Were lessened that his tomb than hers should be
Of lowlier presence."
Lancelot answered: "Yea.
To do her honour to the best I may
Is my least service and my most; and yet
Will leave it mine the loss, and mine the debt."
End of Chapter XX