The Song Of Arthur - Chapter XXII
by S. Fowler Wright
Return to Chapter XXI
May light, May song, May verdure, warmth of May,
And the green boughs' full shade again that lay
A quivering coolness through the copse, proclaimed
That procreant life awaked, its strength untamed,
Which ever deathless through the winter day
Beat in the live heart of the leafless tree,
Where spring with blind birth-motions sought to be.
Love is of summer, where he finds delight
Not often equalled in the wintry night,
And springtime joyance is his welcoming.
So rose Guenever in the mood of spring,
And called assembly of her knights, that they
Should wanton with her mid the flowers of May.
These were the ten she named for that fair play:
Persuant and Pelleas, Agravain and Kay,
Griflet, Ozanna, and that constant pair
Dodinas and Sagramore, and of her whim
Brandiles, though the Mayday game to him
Was naught. Young Ladinas was last.
Sparely of Benoic knights, for private foes
Were most of Orkney and of Benoic now.
Nor would the prudence of her choice allow
To favour Orkney. Only Agravain
Bore the bright falcon of the North. She bade
That all should ride in Mayday garb arrayed,
With each his lady and with each his squire,
And yeomen twain with each, in spring's attire;
With woodland banquet and with junketing
To hail the lustful purpose of the spring,
Which to the sun's compulsion waked. And so
Gaily with dawn they rose, and greenly clad,
Where shadowy woods were green, and green the fields,
And fragrant with the scent the hawthorn yields.
No thought was theirs of any front of feir,
No arms beyond their constant swords they had,
For who should in those peaceful woods appear,
To Arthur's court so close, from foes so far,
The jocund frolic of the spring to mar
With discord of offence? When skies are clear,
Who thinks of thunder? Thus they mazed; and so
Gathered at nearing dusk to homeward go.
Who thought of Meliagraunt? A tower he held
Which Arthur's bounty to his father gave
When Baudemagus stronger knights excelled
Through constant valour that fatigue defied,
What time the king the heathen legions drave,
When the father died,
The son, of lowlier worth but larger pride,
Made there his dwelling, with such state and court
As Arthur to his lesser kings allowed.
But not the service of his liege he sought,
Not Arthur held him from his land away,
But ever schemed he in audacious thought
To win the queen. No constant wife was she!
No cold Lucretia, no Penelope.
Was she not Lancelot's leman? Was not he
Younger and comelier, and of like degree
To Benoic's lord? To his infatuate thought,
Though call of word or glance she gave him naught,
Only occasion would she need to show
A full complaisance. Now he thought to take
The chance long-waited. Was it much to dare?
Her knights unarmed! - and Lancelot was not there.
In this resolve, a troop of mounted men,
Outcounting those he snared by one to ten,
He ambushed where the queen would backward ride,
To where, with vantage of a fallen tide,
Her train must take the ford at Westminster.
Awhile he watched them from the boughs' retreat
Approaching guardless, and of harness bare;
Save for the sword that knights of rank will wear,
Unweaponed, thinking of no guile to meet.
Caught in the queen's uncaring mood were they,
And burdened with the flowery spoils of May.
To these, full-armed, showed Meliagraunt, astride
A warhorse equalled to his weight. On high
And silent sate he, where the paths they tried
Climbed through the thorns to find an opening wide
And smooth, but closed against the windier sky
By girth of oaks, and yet full-leaved to hide
Blue heaven above them.
Ranged their course to stay,
Out-issuing from the trees, and closing in
Left-hand and right, were armed and mounted men
Arrayed in files of five and ranks of ten,
Full fifty spears on either side their way;
To these a dense and deadly thrust, who stood,
The queen amidst them, and the shadowing wood
Alive with lances round them.
Cried from his place above them: "Knights, abide.
For here is force you have no strength to stay.
To mine own castle must I bid you ride.
The queen and I must share the flaunt of May."
And answered, fearless in great wrath, the queen:
"What would you, Meliagraunt? Dost think that I
Am one whom fear can bend or violence use?
Wouldst cast thy life so vainly? Loose and seen
Thy madness here to all men. Wouldst thou try
A bout so fruitful of thy shame, and else
So fruitless? Count not on thy strength, for I,
Before I gave me to thy gain would die
By this weak hand to foil thee; likelier live
To watch the ravens clean thy bones aswing,
Feloned, with thy fouled shield reversed below.
"Dost think that one knight mine, and least the king,
Would leave thee harboured in thy hold to blow
Boast of such wrong? Or thou so far couldst flee
That any height of hills or waste of sea
Should hide thee from that fate accursed and sure?"
"Be all these things," he answered, "as they may.
One thought is mine: for many a hopeless day
I have endured the burden of thy scorn;
And for thy rape will rise no likelier morn
Sir Pelleas answered: "Would ye slay,
Unhelmed, unarmed, and in this peace of May,
Thy comrades here? For in no easier way,
Except this thing she willed, as well ye wit,
Could she go from us, and our lives permit
Such outrage on the kingdom and the king."
"They be spent fools," said Meliagraunt, "who stay
The hungered leopard from his taken prey,
Being bare of force; and when this rape he know,
Think ye the king will heed that live or low
I left ye here, or in his vengeance weigh
The fates I deal ye? Take your lives, and go."
Brandiles answered: "Hadst thou weighed the shame
That must pursue thy life, and make thy name
A lasting scorn, if thou, a Table knight,
Shouldst take by capture for thy lewd delight
Thy liege's lady and thy queen? For thee
There would not refuge nor forgiveness be;
But Arthur's vengeance would thine end procure,
Disknighted, for a felon's death made fit,
Quartered and drawn, while at the sight of it
Would all men revel."
"Then if blood be shed
The cause is thine."
His boldest score he bade
Advance their spears, the while their comrades made,
Around the halted group, a breachless ring.
"Seek not to slay; but seize the queen," he said.
"They cannot foil ye, being all foredone.
And guard the rabble at their rear, that none
Slip through to warn Sir Lancelot or the king."
A page there was Guenever's rein beside
To do her service. Now to him she spake:
"Anton, fall back. And when their ranks shall break
Be instant with thy spurs to leap aside.
Neither for water nor for land delay
Until ye tell this peril to the king,
Or else Sir Lancelot. Show this signet ring."
He, who to spare her dole had lightly died,
Being where love and worship scare divide
In his young contact with her loveliness -
Devotion at her feet could not be more:
Hope of response thereto could not be less:
So was it perfect and entire - He bent
His head to one who did not doubt assent.
He faltered from her side, as one unarmed
By threatening steel, and fenceless all. He swung
With sudden swerve their crowding foes among,
And jostled through them ere they closed. A hand
Snatched at his rein: a lifted sword was bare.
But neither stayed him. Had he cause to care
For chase of heavier and worse-mounted men?
Awhile upon his horse's neck, and then
Upright, exultant, past a shaft's pursuit,
North rode he as the paths allowed, and they
Led, as he would, to where, at fall of tide
When rain had tarried, with good stakes to guide,
The Thames was forded at that distant day.
This ford he passed, and came, at night's descent,
To where Sir Lancelot lodged. To seek the king
At such sharp need had been a vain delay.
Wood wrath was Lancelot at the tale. He sent
Hot word his charger and his arms to bring.
He bade the page Lavaine to seek, and say
That he should follow one who would not wait:
"For if mischance be mine, I trust him well
To do what rescue needs, or vengeance may."
Angered at Anton's shrewd escape, and ware
His time was shortened, Meliagraunt thereat
Gave signal of assault, but no man there
Guarding the queen, although his breast was bare,
Blenched from the charge of hirling spears, and they
Who aimed to seize the queen, but none to slay,
Fought not forgetful of themselves, as who
For land or life, for hate or rescue do.
And those ten knights, of known and tested skill,
And hearts indignant of such deaths to die,
Prevailed awhile to prove their mastery.
They hewed the points from off the spears: they smote
With fiercer purpose and resolve to kill,
The while their practised use sufficed to slide
Opposing points from mortal hurt aside.
So was there flurry round the queen the while
Murmured and scowled her train in vain complaint,
Being offenceless in their festal style;
And ladies, stilled by honour's hard constraint,
Watched those whom most they loved avoid to die.
Guenever straitly viewed the strife. She saw,
With heart that seldom quailed to loss or law,
Its certain end. Already wounded lay
Dodinas and Griflet, Agravain and Kay,
Too hurt to more endure; and those who stood,
Though all they did that noble venture could,
Must fail at last. What hope was left her then?
'When swords are vain,' she thought, 'remaineth wit.'
"Sir Meliagraunt," she cried, "this strife remit.
We yet may parley. Backward call thy men,
And hear my proffer. Let my knights foredone
Come with me, and upon thine oath that none
Be further hurt; and we, of free consent,
Will with thee to thy towers."
Sir Pelleas said:
(No stance as his so bold: no sword so red.)
"Madam, bethink ye that we are not sped.
Regard the slain. Though do they all they may,
The more they be is but the more to slay."
"Pelleas, our valour and our wounds I see.
Not all my knights are blessed by Nimue.
Nor art thou hurtless."
"What thou wilt we will.
..... Sir Meliagraunt, to this accord we may.
To hold us with the queen, and walk her way.
In like constraint; and if her safe release
Thy wiser mood or nobler mercy give,
We may desire the king to let thee live."
"To let me live? Belike, a different peace
Would other judgement than thine own foretell.
Who holds the queen may treat and bargain well.
Nor Arthur's word would fail: no trickster he.
I am not dangered as yourselves will be
Except ye yield her in a peaceful way."
"I reck not. Strife or peace is hers to say.
But I will call thee caitiff, as thou art,
Until the dogs that pull thy bones apart
Lick their greased jaws, and lie."
"I pray thee cease,"
Guenever said. "For in this treatied peace
Should words be reined."
To this brief concord brought,
Their blood-wiped swords were sheathed. To each it seemed
More than they staked they gained. Guenever thought:
"I bring the wounded, or I leave the dead."
And Meliagraunt, with good occasion, deemed
That Anton would such rescue rouse that he
Were better in his battled walls to be.
At higher tide the river deeper ran,
But Lancelot weighed it naught, though horse and man
Were whelmed at once, and soon the burdened steed,
Groundless at times, must common strength exceed
To bear him through the flood. His hard intent
Paused not his path to choose, or pace relent:
Here was the truest thrift, that all be spent.
So shortly to the trampled place he came
Where yet the random signs of conflict lay.
Seen in the pale light of the moon of May,
Its tale was clear; but to the path ahead
The woods gave shadow. From the darkness cried
A voice of warning: "Turn thy course aside.
We loose one volley, and thou art but dead."
"Who are ye in this peaceful realm," he said,
"Such murderous threat to dare? A Table knight
Asks not the freedom of the public way."
"We the strait orders of our lord obey.
What should restore thy life? Be wise, and go."
Sir Lancelot saw the woods to left and right
Were dense and tangled. In that loss of light
How should he break his way? Or rightly know
His course to hold? No passing thought he had
To halt; and if the crowding woods forbad
Alternate passage then he needs must ride
Through where the ambushed archers lurked aside.
Fast flew the shafts thereat: the furious hail
Glanced or rebounded from the tested mail
Sir Lancelot wore, but not the steed he rode
Was likely guarded. Through its sides there drove
The deathly shafts, and to its knees it fell,
Screaming in death.
Sir Lancelot rose. He strode
Some forward paces, with his sword athrust;
But reined his wrath, for reason saw too well
He could not reach them in the night.
That good men dure is still from cowards," he said.
His thoughts on Meliagraunt. But onward still,
Dragging the lance he could not leave, he went,
However slowly, till a cart he met,
Log-ladden, which two woodsmen homeward led.
"I pray thee let me ride. My horse is dead."
They answered with rude jests. But swift repent
Was theirs. They jeered at one whose mind was set
On one thing only. Scarce he heard, but hard
His buffet senseless felled the nearer knave;
At which the second made no more retard,
But spilled the logs, in haste his skull to save.
Are many who design but do not dare;
Of their own weakness and their fears aware.
Are fewer who design to act construe;
And that before they dreamed today they do.
Frustrate may both at last be found to be:
One by himself, and one by destiny.
But worst and weakest those who all contrive,
And half perform, and prove too weak to thrive,
Daunted by presage of adversity.
Of such was Meliagraunt. From when the page
Broke through the crowding horsemen, bird from cage,
His purpose faltered, and his thoughts were less
On his dreamed profit from the queen's duress,
Than dread of that which Lancelot's wrath would bring;
For more he feared him than he feared the king.
When would his rescue reach? How soon and how?
Had the bows stayed him? Was he nearing now?
The queen, with cold contempting eyes could see
The weakness bred from that infirmity.
Neither as captive nor as guest she spake,
But with directing words she bade them make
Soft couches for her wounded knights. They lay
So placed that still her constant guards were they,
An outer chamber being theirs, and she
Inward among her ladies. Wistfully,
A damsel whom that hard restraint delayed
From her pledged love-tryst in the moon-lit hour,
Looked from a casement of the central tower
Where lodged the queen. She cried: "St James to aid!
Here comes a noble knight to hanging led!
Out from the trees, across the lighted lawn,
Here to the gate, the gallows-cart is drawn."
Forth looked they all thereat, and plain to see
Was the bright armour, and the helmet plumed,
And the huge lance projecting lengthily
From the high freeboard of the cart.
Another spake, "a knight so basely doomed,
Must have offended in no frequent way."
The queen stood by them. With more anxious eyes
She looked, and Lancelot's shield to recognise
Found the faint light suffice. Her quick rebuke
Brought silence: "Now such ribald words to say
Is evil natured and foul-mouthed! For he
To our deliverance comes. Dost fail to see
The greatest knight of Arthur? God I bless,
Who made him in his worth companionless,
That those who trust him have no fault to fear....
Jesus from any shame protect him here!"
While thus they spake, the carter turned, and stayed
At the main gate. A burly porter there
Saw the blue shield with frightened eyes astare,
As down Sir Lancelot lit.
He faltered, "none - "
"I have no time to stay."
A buffet felled him. To the outer guard
He entered, but his further course was barred,
Though all had fled. The grill was down. He cried:
"Come forth, thou traitor! Wilt thou lurk, defied
Thus by one only? Art thou Arthur's knight?
Confront me, and clean death may yet forestall
The final shame which should be thine aright,
To hang head-downward from a captured wall."
But Meliagraunt replied not. Prone he lay
At the queen's feet. His hurried words outran
Coherent meaning, as his life he pled:
"I meant it naught.... I yield... it all began
A Mayday frolic... in the mood of May...
I yield me wholly.... if no more were said...
To thy good grace... it was a Mayday dream."
The queen's foot spurned him. "Groveller, didst thou dream
There were no sword to save me? Even though
It were in absence of my lord the king?
Do ladies born of royal sort belong
To knavish weaklings, whose bold lusts will bring
Their lips to meek surrender?"
"All of wrong
Shall be amended well."
"By what device?
Shalt thou do evil and avoid the price?"
"It shall be largely paid. I ask thee not
For more than this. To rule Sir Lancelot.
My life be in thy hands to save or slay.
Use my poor towers, and with morn depart.
Command in all. I am thy servant. Nay,
I am thy slave hence forth."
"For what thou art
I know thee, nor such service need. But still
Is better peace than war. That men forget
Would serve my worship."
To the court she led,
Where Lancelot clamoured: "Hoist the grill," she said.
"Is this good welcome for my friend?" She stept
Foremost to meet him. "Good my lord, thy heat
Hath small occasion. What hath moved thee so?"
"Madam, none better than yourself should know."
"I know ye would my wiser end defeat
By any violence here. Where all of ill
Is taled and ended. Sworn to serve my will
Is he who ruleth here."
"It well may be;
Nor would I counter aught required by thee,
Though less my haste and less my loss had been
Had I forecast it so."
"I that believe,
And thank thee truly"... Then she spake apart:
"Lancelot, he all retracts and all amends.
Think not I pardon. Nay, his life to grieve
Would give me solace. But bethink thee well.
Were this a tale through distant lands to tell
Varied and jibed in every minstrel's song?
I have but bargained lying tongues to still."
Answered Sir Lancelot: "As thou wilt I will;
Nor doubt thy prudence. Else I had not slacked
Till his foul heart were cold. Not all the wrong
Was thine. His trespass to myself you see.
With caitiff arrows was my charger slain.
Only contrivance, not the heart, he lacked
To slay me likewise. That my life remain
I thank good harness."
With these words they went
To where her wounded knights were laid, and he
Approved their valour and their constancy,
Which had not faltered to their strife sustain
When to cold reason it was lost and vain.
By which they showed, as oft in life will be,
That reason yields to importunity,
Being so challenged in a nobler way.
For had they at the first the queen resigned,
Her chance were lost the low-voiced word to say
That prompted Anton, or the last delay
Her wit contrived. But now was ease of mind
Even for those whose stiffening wounds were sore;
Which is not theirs, though cometh stint or store,
Who flinch or flee where counsel calls 'despair'.
Now came fresh clamour at the gate, for there
Lavaine sought entrance, of ill hap made ware
By the dead witness that the pathway bore.
"Where is my lord, Sir Lancelot?" Loud he cried.
But soon was welcome, and the gate was wide,
And all was peace; and at a later hour,
Chambered with Lancelot in the southward tower,
The whole he heard, with Lancelot's grudged consent
To make no quarrel; and a further word
The queen had whispered to his lord he heard,
Which called him to her window in the night
For private converse.
"There I would not go,"
Answered Lavaine, "for not a noble foe
Besets thee now. The shaft thy horse that slew
Might be a dagger in thy side."
My word is pledged. Nor would I lurk afraid
Of coward malice. That were but to be
As futile and as craven-souled as he."
"Then God go with thee."
"And abide with thee."
No steel, for silence as he strode, he wore,
Nor weapon, save beneath his cloak he bore
His sword unbelted in his hand, and so
Crossed the wide lawn.
The sinking moon, too low
The shadowed forest or the wall to show,
Gave the high outline of her tower to guide
His path, that sought beneath its western side
A ladder that his watchful glance before
Had memoried well; and this, being found, he bore
With careful silence through the garth that lay
Round the main keep, and found at last his way
To where her window took the light; and then
He paused till moonset closed both light and shade
In common darkness, when advance he made,
And raised the ladder lightly to the sill.
The casement opened inward, but the queen,
Await to greet him, could not outward lean,
Being forbidden by a thwarting bar.
They talked, so sundered, till her wayward will
Awaked incontinent: "I would," she said,
"That something better than a lonely bed
Were solace for the day's indignity."
"Now in God's truth?" asked Lancelot.
"Yea," said she.
Thereat the bar with passing strength he rent
Clear of the morticed stone, and outward bent,
Unheeding that his hand he tore thereby.
Inward he leapt, and followed where she led.
"Now, for thy life, be silent." for his tread
Than hers was louder on the boards: his blade
Rang somewhat as he laid it. "Couched anear,
Without the wicket, there to guard me lie
Thy wounded comrades. Should they chance to hear
More stir than would my ladies make, would they
Its cause too surely guess; or else surmise
That rescue were my need."
And thus they made
Their cautious passage to her curtained bed,
Where in delight of common love they played,
Until she slept, the while his wakeful eyes
Watched lest the dim light of the dawn should rise;
And timely left her.
None his noiseless tread
Heard as he passed them. Soon he backward bent
The outwrenched bar, and smoothed the stone, and so
Descended to the silent garth below,
Returned the ladder, and the room regained
Where Lavaine in anxious doubt remained,
Sleepless for dread of that which would not be.
For oft will fears a different ill foresee
Than that which snares those fears' unwariness.
Rose the queen's ladies with the rise of day,
Aware of sunshine, and the mood of May
Returned, and eager for release, and glad
That rescued wholly from the threat she had
She could rejoin her lord unscathed, with naught
That shame must cover with concealing thought.
Only the wounded knights - and none was dead
Or deadly hurt - had come to loss; and these
With comfort of good salves and ungeants spread,
They tended; and rich cates and wines were brought;
And litters called for those who not with ease
Had climbed a charger's side.
To take the road
They had not more delayed, except that still
The queen's close curtains screened a silent bed.
To rouse her ever was against her will
Unless pre-ordered. And perchance they said
That those who wake by night will sleep by day,
With thought on that they knew, but did not say
In words more closely aimed.
But while debate
Was made to wake her at an hour so late,
Came Meliagraunt to seek what meaning lay
In the confusion of that long delay.
He came from sleepless hours of grief and shame:
From night-long fears of Arthur's wrath he came:
From mean devisings of some ill to do
To whom he blamed for that reverse, unware
That in his own defaults its failures were.
What might this loitering mean? His anxious mind,
Alert for evil, chafed its cause to find.
Therefore he sought her rooms... "This long delay?
She sleeps! God's wounds! It is not sense to say"...
He pulled the curtain wide, and there she lay.
Neither her startled wrath, not shoulders bare
He heeded, but the pillow whence she raised
Engaged his eyes, which saw it first amazed,
And then with exaltation. "Now I see
Why those hurt knights must near thy chamber be.
False traitress art thou to thy lord, to share
Thy bed so freely. One or more hath been
A leman of the hour to Arthur's queen."
With bold contempt the queen replied: "Thy spite
Betrays thee wholly. Ask them, knight by knight.
I will report me of them all, that none
Such shame hath proffered, or such deed hath done."
The knights gave answer with one voice. They said:
"Thy charge is false, and of thy baseness bred.
Choose whom thou wilt, and when our wounds are whole,
We will that slander by thy death control."
"Nay, think ye not," they heard his harsh reply,
"Proud words shall put the accusation by...
Behold the witness here, too dumb to lie."
Then to the bed they drew, abashed to see
The pillow bloodied, as it well might be,
Where Lancelot's hand without regard had bled.
Yet still they put the accusation by.
With guiltless confidence alike they said:
"God is my witness that it was not I."
Through this much discord, and averse contends
Sir Lancelot entered.
"Here is strange array,"
He said. "What means it?"
"It means that here be proof too plain to hide
Of the queen's treason to our lord the king.
See where in shame she lies, and all the bed
By one or other of these knights bebled."
Sir Lancelot answered: "Thine the surer shame.
To thus expose the queen. You know not how
Those stains were made, nor what their meaning be.
But thy bold treason is more plain to see,
For scorn of all good knights. I dare to say
That not her lord himself had where she lay
Intruded in such sort except he came
In different mood than thine is."
"What you mean
I know not; but I say that here is seen
That she with one of these hurt knights hath lain.
That will I surely with my hands maintain
If one be bold to doubt it."
"That I dare,
And will most surely. Therefore be thou ware,
While yet thy life is whole."
"I know thy might.
Yet though he be the whole world's greatest knight,
My lord Sir Lancelot should himself beware
A wrongful quarrel. Hath not God a share
In such resolve?" And as he spake he drew
The gauntlet from his hand, and downward threw
At Lancelot's feet, who answered: "God I dread;
Yet surely in God's name shall this be said.
These knights are guiltless of thy charge, and you,
Who seek confusion of the wrong you did,
With no clean thought assail them. What you do,
Casting this glove, God knoweth; and God forbid
That I should pause to lift it."
With the word,
While no man spake, nor any motion stirred
In those who watched, and maybe thought or knew
Where lay the truth, two forward steps he strode,
And raised the gage.
"God ruleth at the last,
But I this cause will take; and if you may
Right shall you prove upon me. Name the day,
And I will meet thee where thou wilt."
In Westminster's broad field, a week away.
There shall be seen if God is mocked."
Guenever said, "may God's high counsels be
Foretold in all!.... But this I warn thee well.
Thy charge is false, as these ten knights can swear;
And though beyond belief it substanced were,
God would requite thee with a broken spear,
Knowing thy foul design, which brought me here."
"Madam, messeems I thought no more to do
Than these were licensed by your lusts; and you
Pretence of virtue made for public view,
Which at a privy time you would not wear.
God will decide it..... But, Sir Lancelot, thee
I do beseech and charge to leave me free
Till the set day; and not by villainy
Await or snare."
Lancelot answered: "Who,
In all my knighthood's days hath known me do
A deed of treason? Or hath made consort
With those so practised?"
"I will doubt thee naught
Until the hour of ordeal. In that grace
I pray thee make this hold thy resting-place
For such short hour as shall suffice to view
The structure of its ancient towers, wherethrough
Rang heathen songs before the Romans came."
And Lancelot thought no guile, and made reply
Assenting lightly.... Let those knights declare
Their guiltless honour while he was not there.
And that gloved hand - he had no wish to lie.
Still in the green, though not the mood, of May,
As from an evil dream to waking day,
Moved, at a litter's pace, the homeward train.
Ranged at Guenever's bridle rode Lavaine,
Each with enough of thoughts, but words were few.
For the dream went not as a dream should do,
But still was live to deadly ends. Relief
Had seemed assured when Lancelot came. But now
What must be told? What thought? And what belief
Would Arthur's be? And, came that ordeal, how,
Dividing wrong from wrong, would Heaven decide?
With wonted courage, and cold fears to hide,
To Arthur came the queen. The tale he heard.
Most at the base assault his anger stirred
By which his knights were hurt. Amazed was he
That Meliagraunt should Lancelot dare: "Perde,
I had not thought him of so bold a cast.
Mador is more than he. Did Mador last?
..... But where is Lancelot?"
"Lancelot stayed awhile.
He will be shortly here."
No thought of guile
Or treason vexed the king: "I doubt it naught.
He would not fail my queen at need, for aught
The world could yield."
He turned a later thought
To how the charge arose. So foul a lie
Would Meliagraunt without some substance try?
Yet was he at a desperate pass. He stood
Convict and foiled of treason. Might he not
Have coined this tale himself to save? God wot,
It were shrewd wit; and but for Lancelot
Her peril were not light, except that He
Would potent on the side of justice be.
No less, the charge, made and defended so,
With gage of life by him who made it, meant
That once again the queen's integrity,
Her public honour, and her life, must be
At jeopard of good blows. What curse malign
So chased her? Yet, by Nimue's word, had been
Her honour proved before. It might be seen
In the same light again. He would not doubt.
He asked Guenever: "Had you wit to guess
Whence came the blood?"
She answered: "Weariness
Was mine, when in poor light to sleep I sought.
Who would be wary lest a trick be wrought
So base of concept? Nay, I heeded naught....
Surely with none of those ten knights I lay.
You cannot think it."
Arthur answered: "Nay,"
And paused on further words he did not say:
And silence lasted.
In her heart was fear
Not only that the king might doubt. For near,
Slow hour by hour, the day of ordeal drew
Which Heaven would rule. To God's completer sight
Where lay the wrong indeed and where the right?
"This dungeon," said Sir Meliagraunt, "remains
Of the most ancient part. These broken chains
Round a doomed king were welded once, before
The first invasion of the Romans came."
Sir Lancelot looked, and heard the closing door
Behind him jar. He heard a grating key.
Round turned he swiftly, yet too late was he
To win that exit. Ever thus we see
The noblest-natured caught by perfidy
In snares most simple. Those who guile reject
In their live's conduct will the last suspect
Its use by others.
There long hours he raged;
Till at the fall of dusk a damsel came
With food and counsel.
"Little strength have I
To hold thee, yet it were but vain to try
For freedom, though the door be wide. The guard
Who close the entrance to this ward are ware
Of all approach. Their ready swords are bare:
Their hands alert. The heavy gates were barred
Before thy nearing; or thy life were spilt."
"Damsel," he said, "I well believe. But thou
Shouldst think thyself that all who share the guilt
Of this lewd treason to that doom may bow
Which treason earns."
"I bring thee food and wine.
Is that so evil?"
"More ye well might do.
Contrive my freedom, and much gain were thine."
"I lack contrivance."
More she would not say.
Yet came to Lancelot, as she went away,
Hope from her silence. Had she much to lose
By failing Meliagraunt? He could not know.
Much could he make her gain. Was hers to choose!
So, in succeeding days, he spake anew,
To which she answered neither yes nor no;
But on his need for freedom dwelt, as though
She raised the price of that she yet might do,
The while he urged her: "I with gold will pay
Largely - uncounting - to the most I may.
What would ye else?"
"The warder's aid to buy,
Gold is but vain. I must myself supply
His lust's full price."
"Then honour bars the way.
I could not ask it."
"Even that might be,
If I should also have delight with thee."
"Fair one, bethink thee. Count that word unsaid.
For else thine honour would alike be shed,
By bought consent, or should I still deny."
"Bethink thee rather that thy queen may die
Without thy rescue."
"That may God defend!
I will not fear it. If I am not there,
She will not be without some nearer friend.
For all my record will the truth declare
That dungeoned must I be, or maimed, or dead,
To fail my gage."
"If that I ask," she said,
"Be worse than durance, other aid from me
You will not hope."
"Nay, fair one, think not so.
No penance were it in thy grace to be.
But honour weighs not or delight or woe;
Love must be priceless, and its gifts are free."
"It is thy freedom that I price, and thou
Wilt rather here - perchance to death - remain
Than grant me favour."
"For no mortal gain
Would I so barter."
"Then I leave thee now,
To count the cost of pride."
At that she went.
Must he not surely of such pride repent
As neared the ordeal hour? And should she not
Win the high boast that once with Lancelot
She, only she, while others longed, had lain?
Had she made error in that likely lie
That she must thus a lustful warder buy,
Though joyless were it for his only gain?
Sir Meliagraunt to great occasion came
Less of himself than through his father's name.
Now, by himself, and circumstance betrayed,
Neither obeying nor himself obeyed,
A craven progress through the storm he made,
Heartless to hope, and lacking strength to steer.
Yet were two causes left for confidence:
Her guilt was naked! Heaven's strong defence
Was shield impregnable to those who stood
For justice in such strife. And Lancelot's spear,
Of which no faith in Heaven could quail his fear,
Would not confront him. Could her death defer
If Lancelot came not? Did he wish for her
The flame's sharp penance? Yea! God's judgement! Yea!
Had she not scorned him while she lewdly lay
With those chance-neighboured?
Thus he basely thought,
The while his arms were laced and linked. But naught
Clothed him with courage, nor conviction brought
Of triumph rising from his foe's default.
Soon was he horsed, and forward rode, to halt
At the high seat of Arthur.
"Lord," he cried,
"Where stands her champion? Of her guilt aware,
He doubts the wrath of Heaven too much to dare."
"Nay," said the careful king, "you vaunt too soon.
The shadow falters at the point of noon.
Sir Lancelot hath thy gage, who doth not fail.
Regard thy weapons, and thine own avail."
Kingly he spake, as putting doubt aside,
Yet was his heart abashed, and fears arose.
Was his queen friendless? Had she only foes?
What thought the silent knights who watched around?
Was there no sword, if Lancelot were not found,
To take this challenge? Could it surely be
That all men knew the truth but only he?
He looked toward the queen, whose place was set
Anear the stake where must her doom be met,
Unless some champion to her rescue came.
Courage and pride controlling fear he saw,
And high contempt of that unlikely shame.
Clearly she spake: "If Lancelot is not here,
I make appeal to all. Full well ye know
Save of duress he would not fail me so.
But either wounded by a wayside spear,
Or hindered by mischance beyond control,
Or couched by mortal sickness must he be,
To be so absent. Those ten knights who know
The falsehood of this charge may not be slow
His place to take, as honour calls."
She had not asked in vain; but sooth to say
They spake not quickly. Haply short delay,
A moment's only, was for each to see
If his nine comrades were more swift than he;
And some were still of laming wounds aware.
But forward stepped Lavaine. "Lord king," he said,
"Good reason gives the queen. Full well we know
Sir Lancelot fails not. Some extreme mischance
Hath mired him surely. If a weaker lance
She will accept the will of God to show,
By His high favour shall I cast him low
In whom is neither truth nor courtesy."
So spake he, while he thought: "Alone I know
Where rests the truth in Heaven's sight, and so
It were more just that mine the strife should be
Than that a knight who knows not certainly
Should peril blindly."
Answer gave the king:
"I grant it with a doubtless mind. For who
Knows not Sir Lancelot? Would he fail, unless
By treason trapped, or some extreme duress?
And all we know that when no craven cause
Witholds a champion, by the ordeal laws
Another may his vacant place supply.
Take thou her rescue, and on God rely,
For I have talked with those ten knights, and they
Assure me largely."
So to horse he got,
The while the queen still watched for Lancelot
As those in wilds benighted watch for day.
For in his absence was her fear, that thus
Had Heaven, for her guilt adulterous,
Contrived to doom her by his forced delay.
But ere the heralds gave their loosing cry:
'Laiser les aller', from the woods nearby
Burst a white charger at its utmost speed.
So was it urged that all men turned to heed,
And heard Sir Lancelot: "Bide, I charge thee, bide!
Await the tale I bring." The king allowed
That all should pause, while through the parting crowd
Sir Lancelot to his seat advanced. "Lord king,
A tale of shame to strain belief I bring,
That one by birth to princely fame allied,
And by our Table's oaths, should so put by
The garb of honour." All his tale he told -
"And thus I fretted in the traitor's hold
Till this fair morn that damsel's mood amiss
Relaxed, and of her better courtesy
She gave me freedom for an only kiss,
And this good charger found, my speed to be."
Said Arthur: "Foul the tale. Shall God decide
The hidden truth of all." At which they ran
A thunderous course, and earthward, horse and man,
Sir Lancelot bore Sir Meliagraunt; but he,
Large-limbed and strong, though base his heart might be,
Rose, and awhile for life he strove, but met
Such hail of furious whirling blows, which yet
Were no way random of their aim, that few
Had long sustained them. One that circling came,
Down-cast him sideward, when, rejecting shame,
He clamoured: "Mercy! For I yield - I yield.
I yield me recreant. At thy grace am I.
- Thine and the kings - to pardon or to die -
Thou canst not slay me, if I yield."
Sir Lancelot stood in doubt. On mortal field
No foe at mercy of his mood had lain
Whom he less purposed to arise unslain.
Toward the queen he turned his eyes, and she
Signalled for death. What lesser doom should be
For him who sought her own? What caution lay
In loosing him, in open hall to say
The bloodied sheet he saw?
The thing she would
Like willed Sir Lancelot. Nor can truth deny
That wisdom ruled her, and good right; but how
Slay one so abject in his fall, who now
Guilty and recreant pled?
Some paces stood
Sir Lancelot backward, yielding space, and said:
"I give you ground to rise, and if you may
Your cause achieve. Wouldst else, for short delay
Of death's sharp passage yield, who can but claim
A doom as certain and a darker shame? -
Nay, but for knighthood and thy father's name
Arise, nor this last hope of life betray
By recreance thus!"
"I will not rise," he said,
"Save only vanquished, and my cause submit
As recreant to the king."
"But I will make
Large proffers," said Sir Lancelot. "I will stand
To meet thine utmost strength with my left hand
Bound as thou wilt, and my left side made bare
Of mail or plate to ward me, offering it
Not in my own, but in all knighthood's name,
To save thee from a depth of open shame
Which hath no like at all."
The fallen knight
Made answer, with a hope revived: "Dost swear
That thou wilt meet me with thy side laid bare?"
And Arthur, troubled: "Was it wisely said?
He lieth vanquished. God's high doom is read."
"I stand by that which once I speak."
Sir Meliagraunt arose, and those who wait
The needs of warriors in such conflicts came,
And half disarmed Sir Lancelot. Bare was he
On the left side, and helmless. What could be
But swift disaster when the great blades swung?
So thought Sir Meliagraunt. And most among
The watchful crowd were doubtful. All men knew
The might of Lancelot, and his great repute.
But had he now presumed that might too far?
Beyond control of men God's judgements are.
Had he so ruled a scale that else might dip
Against the weight of justice? Darkly came
This chilling doubt to Arthur's heart. But she
Whose life was staked on that great jeopardy
Looked with unfaltering eyes, in which the flame
Of hate and scorn and triumph fearless glowed.
She had no doubt of Lancelot! Nor to him
Did any doubt intrude. He watched his foe,
Now sure and eager for his overthrow,
Advance swift-striding, confident to meet
A feigning blade, and wary, wiled retreat.
But Lancelot forward stepped, as one might do
Who thought no danger. In his single hand
He raised his sword. Should shield or helm withstand
That stroke's descent, his certain end he knew.
But naught withstood it. Crest and helm and head
Split to the neck.
"Behold a traitor dead."
King Arthur's voice the wonder-silence broke.
"God is not mocked." And then as thunder woke
The crowd's applause.
Who now as Lancelot
Was praised and cherished? Whose repute so high?
Even the queen her jealous moods forgot
For humbler and more trustful amity.
Only in Lancelot's heart a pain endured.
A torture in the lonely night: a cloud
That hid God's sunshine in the bustling day.
He left the court, but found no absence cured
The sin that held him, nor forgave its shame.
It was no comfort that his sword prevailed
Against Sir Meliagraunt. God's verdict lay
Between two evils. Meliagraunt had failed,
Being unclean of purpose. Should he thence
Assume God's pardon, or His impotence?
King Arthur, for the feast of Pentecost,
Moved to Carlisle; and there his Table drew,
As was their annual wont, to all renew
Of shortened strength. For those in dangers lost,
Or maimed, or sick beyond remede, would be
Replaced by later knights, until the tale
Regained full circle, seven score and ten.
There was a noble knight of Hungary,
That stubborn outpost of the Christian pale,
Who had been favoured once of God and men
Beyond compare of most. High prince was he,
The kingdom's heir, and of such haut regard
No venture seemed too bold, no quest too hard,
For him to bring it to good end.
Sir Urra, wandering through the wilds of Spain,
In strife from dawn's grey lift to noon's full height,
Another of no common worth had slain,
Sir Alpheus; but himself was wounded sore.
And these wounds healed not, for a curse was theirs
From Alpheus' mother. Not the Queen of Gore
More craft of evil witching knew than she.
No skill of leech, nor all the church's prayers,
Availed against her. Still they healthier grew,
Or into festering sores they broke anew,
Alternate. This, the curse declared, would be
Until the best knight that the world contained
Had searched them, and their blood his hands had stained.
So for long years in this vain search had he
Been borne from hold to hold, from court to court,
His mother, and his sister Fisole,
Beside him ever. Now their last resort
They made to Arthur.
"If I fail again,"
He said, "you shall not in a search so vain
Exhaust the purpose of your lives, but I
Will gladly rather take my doom and die."
This tale was told to Arthur. "Here," he said,
"Although I would not boast when proof is near,
Are knights of valour and of hardihed
Who would not likely meet an earthly peer...
I am not first of these, as all men know,
But I will first this test accept, that so
May none be shamed by failure more than I."
Sir Urra thanked him with faint words, and he
Searched the foul wounds with naught of gain thereby,
And after came the table.
First the kings:
Ireland and Scotland and Northumberland;
Carlot and Listonaise and Gore; and he
Berrault, the Hundred landless knights who led.
And those great princes of repute as high,
Galahalt and Clarence; and Duke Cador's son,
Who, when the tale of nobler days was done,
Would rule the land not basely. Vainly they
Touched the foul sores; and vainly Gawain's kin;
And vainly Benoic's best; and vainly Kay,
Lucas and Morganore and Bedivere:
The brethren Gautier, Reynold, Gillimere,
Whom Lancelot in Sir Kay's gay armour won;
Colgrevance, Darras, Harry fils de Lake,
And Lamiel, who for any damsel's sake
Would all beside of worth or wealth forget;
And Pelleas, who his love so hardly set
On false Ettard that, but for Nimue,
Died had he surely; and Epinogris,
That was the king's son of Northumberland:
Sadoc, and Melion of the Mount, and he
Degraine, of all men called sans villainy,
Who slew the monster of the dismal low;
Durnore, Brandiles, Arrock, Sagramore:
Dinas, Lambegus from the Cornish shore:
Driant and Fergus: Hebes and Sentraille:
Claras of Claremont, Clegas, Aglovale:
Ewaine, whose mother was the false Le Fey:
Helaine of the White Shield, whom Bors begot
When he with Brandegoris' daughter lay:
Servanse, who might not strive with Lancelot,
(They being both so pledged to Nimue)
But only fain to counter beasts was he,
Dragons and monsters that he sought and slew.
Men could but wonder what his sword might to
Had it been turned against his kind: the three
Whom Gareth won, Persuant, and Pertolope
And Perimones: and Sir Ironside
Whom Gareth also fought, and broke his pride:
Sir Maroc, whom an evil wife beguiled, -
Seven years a were-wolf through her arts was he:
Sir Plaine de Fors: Sir Heroe of the Wild:
Brewnor le Noir, and Meliot of Logre:
Sir Tor: Sir Petipace of Winchelsea:
Selise, to whose good rule the Dolorous Tower
Sir Lancelot gave: Grumore and Astamore:
Gyllenere: Ozanna of the Hardy Heart:
Melius de Lile: Brian of Listonaise:
And Alisander's son, Bellangre, who,
In the wild riot of one vengeful hour,
King Mark, and Andret, and their hirlings slew.
For Mark had slain Sir Tristram. Foully slain
As he sate harping with Iseult. A glaive,
In secret sharpened, from behind he drave
To spill the heart's blood of the noblest knight
Who bore the shield of Cornwall. Naught of woe
Beyond that moment was Iseult to know;
For she sank swooning at his side, and so
Died as he died. What better fate could be?
Such were the knights who touched the wounds, in all
Five score and ten. For some were absent yet;
And some would never come, their venture's debt
Taking the heavy price of life to pay.
But vainly to that task their hands they set
And in unaltered pain Sir Urra lay.
"Sister," the sick man said, with sore lament,
"I seek no rescue more. I much repent
That I have marred thy passing youth so long."
"Nay," said she, "let thy heart be blithe and strong.
We are not ended yet. A knight I see,
Where the wide doors stand open to the light,
Against the long west smouldering into night,
Approaching fast, and still is hope that he
The sudden rescue of long grief may be."
So Lancelot came, with little heart thereto.
He would not fail the king's expectancy
That all the Table in their seats should be,
Nor the high festal morn; but deep he knew
That hope and purpose from his heart withdrew.
Late and reluctant, though in haste, was he.
Heavy and slow the turning charger's tread
Rang on the pavement, and the sick man said,
Feebly, half raising from the bier his head:
"Meseems, my heart more yearneth unto thee,
Whom last with dimmed and dying eyes I see,
Than all that late have touched me."
Then the king
Told that had been, and Lancelot, marvelling
That none could save of all men there, replied:
"God knoweth, I had not deemed the world so wide
The better knights to hold than here there be."
And the king answered: "Not the whole were we,
Some still ride absent. Yet remains to try
That which thou canst."
But Lancelot answered: "Nay,
Where all have failed, I may not. God defend
That I were first among you."
Said the king:
"Thou shalt not choose, for I will charge ye do
This thing that all without respect have tried.
Wilt thou for doubt his dying hope delay?
Were meekness here the false assume of pride
Is none but God of who be best shall say."
"Oh, my liege lord," said Lancelot, "and my friend,
You would not urge if that at heart you knew
Which bear I ever. But since thy strait command
Controls my choice, I do it. The while I know
Hell laughs that in the scales of God be weighed
Light worth as mine."
But he for life who prayed,
Striving to raise a hand that lifeless fell,
Pled with weak lips: "Oh courteous knight! That so
My life be rescued, do this grace, for lo!
Since here you came, my aching wounds could tell
By their less grieving that good help is near."
Then knelt Sir Lancelot by the sick man's bier.
"Fair lord," he said, "for very ruth I would
That I might help thee."
In his heart he prayed:
"Not for myself, O lord, by sin betrayed
Too dark for pardon; not, O lord, for me,
But here that all men shall Thy mercy see,
And learn Thy wonders, and this knight opprest
Find comfort at the last, I pray Thee now
Reveal Thy rescuing power."
The while he prayed:
His hands were on the fetid wounds, to test
Their ulcered depths, and as his touch they knew
The sorcerous evil from the flesh withdrew.
Whole was Sir Urra by that instant's aid.
Lightly he rose, as one from bonds released,
Joyous of strength returned, and anguish ceased,
Grateful to God, nor less, as well should be,
To him who healed him from that sorcery.
But Lancelot in another mood arose,
Unware of plaudits, or the hands of those
Who reached to greet him, or the glance malign
Of Modred's hate. He was the greatest there.
He, with the burden of long sin to bear,
- Of unrejected sin - the greatest there.
So the high dream of Arthur sank from sight.
Failed the short day, and night succeeded night.
While all men wondered, Arthur's greatest knight
Went from them, weeping like a beaten child
For woe that he was greatest.
"Give we to God the praise." Himself he led
To the near altar, where they knelt in prayer,
And adoration of the mystery
Which is the garment of the lives of men.
Was much high revel of rejoicing then,
And Arthur sued the Queen of Hungary,
After long wandering, to continue there
A restful while; and Urra named to be
A Table knight, who thought with Fisole
To make Carlisle a lasting home, unware
Of discords that would soon the Table tear,
And break the realm. And hence it came that she,
Drawing the swift love of Lavaine, was wed
Before the hawthorn's scented blooms were shed.
End of Chapter XXII