The Song Of Arthur - Chapter XXIII
by S. Fowler Wright
Return to Chapter XXII
Lancelot And The Queen.
Not in close counsel, but in open hall,
Careless of who might hear, Sir Agravain
Reviled Sir Lancelot and the queen: "We shame
Ourselves by silence, and the realm. What gain
Demands a price so high? Would Arthur fall
Without the Benoic spears? What boasted name
Through the wide Christian pale with his compares?
And fling he off the shameful cloak he wears
He were in all the greater."
"What would ye now? We can but scantly guess
That Arthur knows or knows not. This we know:
That Lancelot's fall would leave us all the less,
Though we ourselves were lossless. Likelier far
The throne would shake with almost equal war.
I charge thee leave it."
"That I will not do."
Gaheris said: "I take no part in this,
Brother Sir Agravain. You think amiss,
Thinking that envy leads an easy way."
Gareth, who seldom of their part would be,
Either in counsel or in company,
Since Lamorack died, said likewise: "Not by me
Shall ever sword be drawn, or word be said,
Against Sir Lancelot."
Modred's watchful eyes
Contemned him: "In our hands the traitor lies.
We may sustain or end. But were the king
Constrained the falsehood of his queen to see,
He needs must meet it with such mastery
As should our vantage and our surety bring.
I stand with Agravain."
"That so ye would,
Brother Sir Modred," Gawain answered, "few
Who know ye would not well believe. To do
That which confusion breeds, and thwarts success,
Discords to rouse, and all unfriendliness,
Hath ever been thy part. But this begun
Could no man cease at will.... I charge ye all
To leave Sir Lancelot, lest such dole befall
As should this kingdom to its roots distress."
"Nay, but in our control will all things be,"
Answered Sir Agravain. "An hour will see
This shame resolved."
"It were a likelier thing
That war should follow, thundering loud and long.
Strong is Logre. But is not Benoic strong?
Bethink how many, knight and prince and king,
Would hold with Lancelot, if choice must be.
"And think ye also in what sort were we
Beholden to him in past days. As when
He freed me from the Dolorous Tower; and freed
Ye both from Turquin. Had he left us then,
Ye had not here against his life agreed."
"Ye will not move us with such words."
King Arthur entered.
"Stint ye," Gawain said,
Urgent and low. But Modred loud replied:
"Why should we stint of what we would not hide?"
"Then must I leave ye, for I will not be,
Even though silent, of thy company."
"Nor I," Gaheris said.
"Nor surely I,"
Sir Gareth spake alike, "who own a debt
Of friendship and good deeds."
The king stood by:
"What means this bicker?" As the three withdrew,
He wondering asked. And answer gave the two:
"We are thy sister's sons, and that we know
We needs must tell thee. Lancelot holds thy queen.
Too long and boldly hath he shamed thee so.
We call him traitor to thy throne and thee,
And so will prove it."
Arthur's words were slow:
"Bethink ye lest a proofless charge ye show,
For Lancelot is a better knight than we.
Better than all. And ye such end should know
As Mador or as Meliagraunt. Unless
He were so taken that the fact confess
A certain treason, so our best would fare
Who should the height of such assertion dare.
What saith Sir Gawain?"
"Gawain weighs and weighs.
But well he knows it."
"Where Sir Gawain stays
They walk at hazard who the path pursue."
"Yet is it simple that we think to do.
Thyself at break of morn shall outward ride
To hunt the further woods on Solway side,
And later send a courier back to say
Your cooks must join you, for you camp away.
But come ye in the night in privity;
And doubt not all we tell thyself shalt see."
"That would I never. By so base a plot
Far likelier than the queen and Lancelot
Myself were shamed."
"Then only there remain.
Ourselves will take them in the act."
Ye deem that in their deeds adulterous
They will be snared, I must the proof allow.
But for your own avail I warn ye now
You are not casting for a frightened hare."
"Nay, for we better know the beast we snare.
Twelve of the Table will we take."
May need them if a substanced tale ye tell.
But I will naught believe."
In this consent
They parted. Agravain his friends to call,
As Modred prompted, who contrived in all,
While holding backward in his craftful way.
But Arthur that long night in anguish spent.
He half believed, and yet belief denied.
Long had he half believed, and thrust aside
A thought unwelcome. If it were, he knew
It had been better that he should not know
- Should not know surely. If it were not true,
Would this resolve it in a final way?
Surely it could not. Still would slander say
That which it said before. And were it true
What would exposure now avert or do?
Evil and vengeance only! Did he seek
The fruits of vengeance? For his queen must be
The death that treason earns, except she flee
- Except she flee with Lancelot. So to flee
Would mean twelve good knights proved too weak
Against him singly. Would he that prefer?
Nay; but the doubt was strange. Was doubt of her
The lesser grief that moved him? Was it not
He had himself most love for Lancelot?
Did he condemn her for his own defect?
Nay, but the kingdom! All the years had gained,
By Benoic and by Benoic's spears sustained,
To be by such contrived confusion wrecked!
Who could divide them? Realm and queen and friend.
Gain else who might, for him the certain end
Was loss beyond computing. Had he not
Been warned by Merlin in the long-forgot
Buoyant adventurous days when first he thought
To take a consort from the mountain court,
Where he in boyhood had unheeded seen
One in herself and birth a natural queen,
Regal in courage, and in form and mien?
So had she proved. In all ways excellent
As public consort; nor in private ways
Too cold of conduct. Yet had Merlin seen
She was not wholesome. This his words had meant,
Or had no meaning, and by that consent
Her guilt was certain.
So the short June night
Passed in a turmoil of contending thought,
Till rose he with the dawn's advancing light,
Impatient of the silence. Was there naught
To do - to hasten - to resolve? He sought
From the eventless hours to break away
Whatever lay beyond. To pass the door.
Yet still as one who must a weird obey:
As one who acts a part rehearsed before,
Outside himself, and cannot change the play.
"The king," she wrote, "camps in the woods away.
I have with thee a private word to say.
Come when the moonlight falls across the stair."
"That," said Sir Bors, who had perforce to share
Sir Lancelot's lodging in the crowded town,
"Is near the midnight hour. I would not go.
Let prudence rule thee. Those who seek thy bane
Whisper together, and their aim we know.
The sullen envious eyes of Agravain
Are lit with smouldering purpose. Think ye not
That Arthur's absence shows an active plot?"
"Nay, for would Arthur plot with Agravain?
Surely he would not! Fear ye naught. For I
Will go for few words only. Not to fail
The queen through cowardice, nor that plots prevail,
I shall be with thee ere the midnight bell,
And treason would but test an empty shell."
"Well, may God keep thee."
Loose Sir Lancelot shook
His cloak around him, and his sword he took
Sheathed in his hand. Along the moonlit street
Alert he passed, but all was silent there,
And as the pale light crossed the private stair
He reached the chamber of the queen, and she,
Among her ladies, stretched glad hands to greet
His safe arrival.
"Were ye seen?"
Unless the shadows - But Sir Bors believes - "
"Sir Bors! He ever hates me. All foredone
Would be our joys if he might rule. He grieves
For every kiss we change. Forget! Forget!"
Her arms were round him now, her lips were set
In love's fierce hunger to his own. But he
Responded to her mood, and then withdrew.
"Nay, but they are not idle words," he said.
"Sir Modred plots, and his designs to dread
Is prudence while in this close town we be,
Where none may pass or leave but all men see."
"Nay, if another waits thee, not would I
Retard thy pleasure - "
As she spake, there came
A rush of feet without, and Lancelot's name
Was shouted. Blows upon the door were loud.
But to the ladies of the queen Linette
Had joined herself that night. The noise allowed
The instant's warning that she used. She set
Her hand to the great bolt, and down it slid
As the door trembled. Iron and stone defied
The clamour, and their eager foes forbid;
Till others joined her, and the bars were shot,
While those without still roared for Lancelot:
"Come forth, thou traitor, to thy doom; for thou
Beyond thy vaunting boasts art cornered now."
These were the twelve who held with Agravain:
Colgrevance; Mador; Meliot of Logre;
Galleron; Petipace of Winchelsea;
Curselaine; Melion; Grumore; Astamore;
Florence and Lovell, Gawain's sons; and he
Who with them in their wildest bouts would be,
Sir Gringaline. With Modred had they lain
In a near chamber, while Sir Agravain,
Deep in a shadowed alcove, watched the stair.
By him of Lancelot's entrance made aware,
They waited naught, but rushed incontinent
To break the door, and being foiled they beat
Its solid strength, and clamorous cried: "Come out,
Traitor! Adulterer! Come thy doom to meet.
Thou hast no rescue. What avails delay?"
Sir Lancelot gazed the narrow space about
Of his short safety. Though the door was strong,
It could not serve him for protection long.
High was the chamber in the eastern tower,
Unwindowed save for arrow-slits. To try
For other exit than the door were vain.
The bolts unproven strength might gain an hour,
With shameful issue for so slight a gain.
Was else no sleight to put the danger by?
Oh for the fence of shield, the clothing steel!
Enraged he thought, but knew one joy, to feel
The sword-hilt to his hand ungauntleted.
"Still is there hope of one good chance," he said,
And somewhat backward from the door he bade
That all should stand, but yet alert to aid
His instant call; and then the bars he drew,
Upwrenched the bolt, and cried those without:
"Abate that clamour! What ye think to do
Prove on me, if your hands suffice thereto."
He wrapped his mantle his left arm about,
And in his right his ready sword was bare.
A little space he let the door unclose,
At which the nearest of his eager foes,
Colgrevance, inward thrust, too late aware
Of that which waited. Sword to sword was set.
Colgrevance' blade the twisted mantle met,
While through his throat the point of Lancelot's bore.
Grovelling he fell, choked by his spurting gore,
The while the queen, and all her ladies there,
Clanged back the door, and dropped the bolt anew.
Loud railed the foiled besiegers. But the queen
Laughed out, her fears released, the while she stripped
With firm cool hands the dead man's arms. She said:
"Now have I little need for doubt or dread,
For not the voice of any knight is there
Who change of buffets from thy sword will dare;
And well I wot that while thy heart is whole
My fault will ever find a lighter dole
Than is for those who wrong me."
"Though the next hour should leave me live or dead,
Your safety would not fail. For those my kin
Who love me, would not dure that harm to thee
Should be their failure. Bors and Lionel,
With Ector, and a score of less degree,
Would venge me surely, and thy life would win
By speedy rescue."
"Nay, would Bors forgive?
Poor gain were mine at such a price to live.
I would go with thee, better tale to tell
At God's great judgement..... But thou wilt not fail.
Too well I know thee."
"That with God must be."
He called to those without: "I charge ye now
Abate this clamour. With the morn I vow
I will at Arthur's seat appear, and there
Ye may the malice of your hearts declare.
And I will answer as a knight should do."
"Nay, but come forth, and yield thee. Ours must be
To save or slay thee as we list."
Flung the door wide, and out, as bolt from bow,
He leapt upon them. First was Agravain
Caught on the point upthrust through throat and brain,
That down he rolled, his comrades' feet below.
And scarce the blade slipped backward from the slain
Ere with infuriate wrath it thrust again.
Backward they jostled, with no thought at all
Of seizing Lancelot, but to find the screen
Of bolder comrades. So they half withdrew,
Thinking that safety in their rear must be,
Being among themselves so numerous.
But Lancelot on their front so swiftly slew
That no safe rear could be. He drave them thus
Till Meliot tumbled backward on the stair,
Slain ere he fell neck-broken.
Scaped there none?
That takes not Modred in the count, for he
First for intrigue, and last when good blows fell,
After one thrust beneath a comrade's arm,
For all its venomed hate too weak to harm,
Held backward till, as Meliot's frantic blade
The moment of his certain death delayed,
He turned in flight; but struck by Meliot's corse,
On the mid-stair, he rolled ignobly down,
Battered and bleeding rose, and found his horse,
And from the silence of the sleeping town,
The while from darkening clouds a cold rain fell,
Rode out to seek the king.
The queen beheld
A blood-drenched passage, where the slain asprawl
Lay corse on corse. She looked, and liked it well.
"The basest of my foes thy sword hath felled,
And less remain. Yet had I bartered all
Sir Modred writhing in his death to see."
Sir Lancelot answered: "Of such sort is he
That wisdom were it. Yet what difference now
Could Modred make? Death hath digged too deep
The gulf of separation. Will the king
Such loss excuse? Will Gawain's heat allow
I had good reason to such end to bring
His sons, his brother? Now our lives to keep
Is one way only. Through the night to ride
To Joyous Garde. In safety at my side
I might not fail to hold thee."
That were to prove me in the shame they say.
But be thou swift, for while they know thee free,
Naught will they dare of open wrong to me
So dire thou shouldst not in my rescue show.
And this may doubt the king past all. To know
I fled not with thee from this overthrow."
He answered, doubtful: "Thine the bolder choice,
And leaving such faint hope as yet may spring
In cooler moments to persuade the king
I slew them justly... Rather far would I
We were together now, to gain or die.
But that thou wilt I will. And this believe:
Is none thine honour or thy life shall grieve
The while my freedom and my strength remain."
At that, he kissed and left her. None could say
That they would meet again on earthly day;
But confident of heart she summed the slain.
"What meaneth this?" Sir Lancelot asked. He saw
Ector and Bors full armed, in guise of war.
But Bors, who saw that Lancelot likely came
Full-armed, who in his cloak had left, replied:
"Before we answer, we may ask the same,
Being more urgent, as I deem."
Sir Ector added: "Through a whispered word
That by a random chance I overheard
My mind was vexed; and such a dream I knew
That here I came, prepared my part to do
As need might be, and found Sir Bors awake,
Awaiting evil, sheathed and armed as I."
Sir Lancelot answered: "By my warned mistake
Our lofty days are done. In blood they lie,
So many Table knights who barred my way,
That Gawain's vengeance will not halt, nor less
May be the anger of the king."
All that had been, and Ector answered: "Yea,
I dreamed not rashly. Now hath Orkney sold
The kingdom to thee by its own duress.
All, if thou wilt, is thine."
But Bors replied:
"Is none of all thy kin will leave thy side.
For we who took the wealth should take the woe
With thanks alike to God for that we share.
But not for triumph will our swords be bare.
Thou art not Britain's, nay, nor Arthur's foe."
"Never," Sir Lancelot said, "but should they dare
The queen to jeopard, what were then to do?"
"What hast thou done at lesser need afore
Her life to rescue, and her name restore?
Not asking if the cause were clean or bad,
Your sword she needed, and your sword she had.
And now - what cause is wrong or right? Through thee
Her honour falls except her rescue be....
Remain thou here the while we rouse our kin
For counsel and accord."
Sir Lancelot said:
"Ye give me comfort, though ye know the sin
That brings this evil."
Bors, without reply,
Went forth with Ector, such a tale to spread
As loyal faiths must break, and friendships try,
With hard divisions and resolves. They left
Sir Lancelot shaken by so swift a fall,
Seeing reverse of fame, and loss of all
His life had garnered, king and realm and friends,
Now to confusions sunk, by discords reft,
An ill avoidless if the king and he
Should counter, might to might.
Short time was his
Of single vigil, for in haste there came
A score of Benoic knights of greatest name,
With others who, at such a choice, would be
Ranged at his side. Came Ufra. Came Lavaine.
Came Harry Fils du Lac. And came the two
Whom Lancelot met long since, and overthrew
On the strait bridge: Bellangre and de Lisle
Came with Selise of the Dolorous Tower.
Dinas and Sadoc in this fatal hour
Their hard election made, and with them brought
Clarias and Clegis. With no native zeal
Either for Britain or for Arthur's weal,
Sir Palomides lightly came - his thought
To choose the part where periled venture lay.
These were the first who came by night, and they,
Four score in all, with Benoic's spears, were such
That Arthur's mightiest might not seem too much
For durance at the need.
To these he said:
"Believe it only, which to God I swear,
Neither myself I purposed to be there,
Nor, being summoned, had I meant to stay.
And this is truth beyond refute, that they,
Her ladies with her, can confirm, that I
Had scantly entered when there rose a cry,
Clamorous, from those who must await have lain -
Now solely by their own presumption slain.
But slain they are beyond recall, and those
Who yet sustain the king are not my foes.
My foes and hers - and bitter foes they were -
Fallen, save Modred, now on hall and stair,
Have paid the purchase of their enmity.
I would not now that further deaths should be.
Yet, if the king be fixed in evil will,
What burden have we?"
Bors gave answer: "Still
Thy mind rejects the single path to see.
If the king choose, with naught of choice for thee,
Deaths will be. Therefore should thy doubts delay?
Death is the smallest of the debts we pay
To Him who made us. Must the king decide.
And that which cometh must we boldly bide."
Sir Lancelot answered: "Simple choice to thee,
Who hast no part in this, may different be
For one whose error hath its course inclined.
And though this night its certain fruit must bear
Dividing what we are from what we were,
My sword, which never shall again be clean
From blood of comrades in one oath confined,
I would not further in such conflict bare."
To which Bors answered: "What of wrong hath been
Is changeless. But of further wrong to be
Must separate judgement weigh. This deed was planned
By those of traitorous mind, and now we stand
Assured of naught but treason. Not desire
For Arthur's honour, or to vindicate
His kinghood was the brand which lit this fire.
But emulous malice are its ulcered way
Through the fair promise of our Christian day.
Thy sword was cleaner than their thoughts; and still
Is clean from blood outpoured from evil will.
And did you right before, or did you wrong,
Our swords of rescue to the queen belong,
If she be dangered of her life by thee."
"Yea," said Sir Lancelot, "so it well may be.
May God defend that any sun should see
The queen in jeopard of her life through me,
And I stand backward. Therefore, friends and kin,
I ask your counsel first. What would ye do?"
And in one voice they answered: "Like as you."
"Good friends, what should I? If the king in heat
Condemn the queen a felon's fate to meet?
I ask your counsel."
With one voice again
They answered: "Should she in that danger lie,
We must make rescue though a hundred die,
Surely you would yourself alike be slain
Could Arthur hold you. In the fairer days
That now are ended, oft thy sword was bare
To prove her quarrels which you did not share;
More urgent is it for your final praise
Her part at any present need to take,
She being periled for thine only sake."
But Lancelot paced the room, and turned about
Again its length, as in dividing doubt,
Which no way would resolve.
"Fair lords," he said,
"I have no lust for shame: no lust to see
The queen in question of her life through me.
That may ye well believe. But have ye thought
That if her rescue at such pass we wrought
A tale of wounds, a tale of deaths must be,
Not of our foes, but those who yesterday
We called our friends; and some, good sooth to say,
Are friends indeed, and if their choice were free,
Would Arthur's part defer, and hold with me.
To do them hurt would be a grievous thing
Who were but loyal to their natural king,
Their hearts from malice and contention free.
And if the queen from out their hands we bring,
Where should we hold her?"
"That," Sir Bors replied,
"Should be the least of all our cares. Recall
How Tristram wile and force alike defied
In thy high towers of Joyous Garde: a wall
Is there that none may scale and none may mine.
And harboured surely in that hold of thine
Secure she were till Arthur's heat be past.
Then might she well return, and at the last
Might Arthur and thyself be reconciled
By that so free surrender."
"Thus to do,"
Sir Lancelot answered, "were our deaths to woo;
And Tristram's surely is a warning name.
For when such treaty with King Mark he made
Its end was evil. Of that deed of shame
Is speech reluctant. When Sir Tristram died
He left none equal in our land."
Sir Bors made answer, "what for truth we know.
But one thing further may be said. The way
Of Mark is not as Arthur's. When the king,
In either great or any meaner thing,
Hath pledged his word, that plight is sure. And so
We may find courage that he would not do
Aught to betray his treaty's faith."
Gave all who heard, and with no more debate
Accorded were they that the queen should be
Rescued at need, whatever lives be spent.
Then separate through the rain-dark streets they went
For finding of their squires and steeds and gear,
To all assemble at the eastern gate,
Where came they ere the dawn.
As those unsure
Of whether or of when return might be,
They brought such ladies as would more endure
Couch of cold ground than colder chastity.
They left as some defeated force might fly,
With carts and sumpter horses loaded high.
But not at heart as those outfought, they went
In strength and resolution confident,
Being so many, and so great of name.
Surely, should Arthur with their strength contend,
Were then the sombre and most certain end
Of the wide realm he made.
So, many a shield
Of famous symbols, many a deadly spear,
Shone as the torches tossed, or rose aloft
Lost in the darkness of the night; for here
Was Benoic's boasted strength, that list and field
Had proved so oft afore; and those beside
Who Lancelot more than Orkney's harder pride
Preferred of choice.
Through opened gates they rode
Some miles at speed along a northward road,
As men who fled, the strength of walls to win;
But as the eastern clouds with dawn were red
Sir Lancelot through a shadowed byway led,
To where the hollow-hearted hills contained
A wooded vale; and being camped therein,
Beneath the storm-wet boughs, sure scouts he sent
To bring him tidings to that ambushment
Of Gawain's counsel, and the king's intent.
Wounded and bruised and soiled and all bebled,
Fast through the falling rain Sir Modred fled,
Seeking the king; and while the eastern cloud
Rosed to the dawn, and drenched woods waked aloud
To song contempting rain and gale, he found
The woodland tents where Arthur sleepless lay,
By hopes and fears controlled alternately.
'I fret for naught,' he hoped, 'for naught will be...
I go not by my own, but Modred's way.
Ruin and grief,' he feared, 'are mine to pay.'
So vexed, he heard the thudding hooves. A gown
He cast around him, and in haste he went
To where Sir Modred, from his steed set down,
Demanded of the guard that word be sent
To wake him in the dawn.
"What means," he said,
"This bicker, and this steaming steed? Perde,
Sir Modred, soiled thou art, and much bebled.
What rough collision hast thou found, to be
So tumbled? Come thou to my tent with me,
The hard occasion of thy state to tell."
So Arthur heard the tale. He saw the end
At once of public and of private weal,
Sunk in one wreck. He said: "I warned thee well.
Thou shouldst not through the world thy search extend
To find the peer of Lancelot. What can heal
The wound this night against my realm hath dealt?
The noble fellowship of knights I had
Is broken now, and tides of strife may whelm
The peace I built so hardly. Dost thou wit
Thou hast in equal parts my Table split? -
Or less than equal mine. For knights and kings
From whose according front our greatness springs,
Will now their valour and their might divide,
And those who range themselves at Lancelot's side,
With all the strength of Benoic's spears allied,
May thwart the utmost that ourselves may do."
Sir Modred had no answer here. He knew,
And feared, and hated, though his secret thought
Went further than the king's. He answered naught.
But Arthur mused: "I must to Gawain go.
However black his mood with wrath and woe
For those, his nearest, by Sir Lancelot slain,
Yet prudence will his utmost hate restrain
To counsel that our common end we reach
By such contrivance as may compass best
His vengeance and maintain my regnancy."
Lord Gawain met the king with temperate speech:
"King, ere you strike in blinded wrath, and so
That half thy throne's support shall break, and lest
To lasting shame a random judgement fall,
Weigh the full facts in equal scale, for he
Was not as others to her.... Lord, recall,
When all the court refused her, and she stood
In mortal doubt of death; when perfidy
Seemed truth, and truth seemed treason, who but he
Was then thy hope and hers? And all men know
Later she was confirmed most innocent.
Suppose that of her grateful thought she sent
Her thanks to pay; and lonely, in the fear
Of evil tongues, it may be. Certain, oft
Our caution brings to birth the doubt we dread.
The truth is not the tale that Modred said,
Rousing thy wrath to rash resolve, but so -
Her ladies there, and while no space had sped
Was outcry raised - that none shall surely know
What else had been."
The king gave answer: "Thou,
Whose sons lie slaughtered, should be well content
That to reduce his pride my wrath is bent."
"Lord, grief is mine; but yet, the while I grieve,
Must I persuade thee what I less believe?
They knew that what they did I naught agreed.
I gave them warning which they would not heed.
Now should we wreck the realm for vengeance? Nay,
Their deaths be only on their heads, for they
Contemned my counsel. Shall our friends despair,
Our foes make triumph, that the strength we were
In discord shatters?"
More in craft he spake
Than true conviction. Well and long he knew
The queen was largely to her lord untrue.
Yet saw he that the haste of Agravain
Had left it proofless, and the chance it gave
The truth to cover, and the realm to save.
But Arthur answered: "All hath gone too far
For simple cover. I a court will call
Where shall the queen appear, to stand or fall.
Impartial justice shall her faith acquit
Or else condemn, and all may yet be well.
But longer in the public doubt to dwell,
Or to condone so many deaths, without
A resolution of their cause, would be
To close a wound uncleansed, from which would grow
More deadly evil than the lifeblood's flow."
"Yet were it wiser choice that less were done."
"Those who believe the guilt the proof may shun.
So shall I judge thee?"
Gawain said no more.
King Arthur sought a lonely room. He went
Through streets of curious eyes, where some would cheer,
And some were silent. Was the end so near?
Were some who passed him with averted eyes...
He saw the chantry where the dead men lay.
Was that God's answer?.... Was he base as they?
Let others judge it! One of trust he sent
The Scottish king to find. In Caradoc
Was friendship certain, and integrity
Of word and act.
"How fares the queen?"
Her boldest mood. She makes her boast of those
Whom Lancelot slew. She says thy choice must be
Between herself and Gawain."
"Doth she so?
Gawain is less than friend, and less than foe.
He would compose with Lancelot."
"That to do
The day may be too late, for Lancelot slew
So many, and their friends will not be still."
"You speak a likely word, but of my will
It shall not so be closed. So deep a sore
No leech would seek to salve, but first explore
It's poison's source. I will the queen be tried
This charge of treason to decide; and thou
Shalt all control."
"Lord king, I would not that.
I am not of a mind opinionless,
As those who judge should be."
"Such judge to find
I might not hope. But I can trust thee now,
As few I could, and one I must, to weigh
With careful scales. I would not aught should go
Against the level course of justice; though
For her acquittal, and this strife to stay
The half my realm were little price to pay."
So was it done. With only brief delay,
As must be needful for the right array
Of accusation, and defence thereto,
A court was called, at which the queen must stand
Arraigned of treason to her lord and land;
To which she answered, as she best might do,
By strong denial, and assertion made
Of envious malice: "For it was not I
Whose life they sought. For him their nets were laid
Whose shining honour is a star too high
For their ascension."
Thus, with truth to aid,
She smote her foes, yet even here supplied
The damning witness which her words denied.
Truth was her shield, and then her guard betrayed.
For when she spake of Lancelot all could see
That first and only in her heart was he.
Of him her vaunt: in him her confidence.
But next Linette's bold witness brought offence
That in a moment changed her front of war
To forward motion: "Here is truth," said she,
"I only speak of that myself I saw.
The door was open, and her ladies there.
Only when riot sounded from the stair
Myself I closed it. There was cause to hear!...
Whoever by their own defect have died,
Yet will the name of Orkney stand aside.
Gaheris was not there. Is Gawain here?
Hath Gareth part herein? But those misled
By Modred, of their own misdeeds are dead."
The moments that she spake reversed the tide
That swept against the queen, but soon again
Its strength resumed, and when the judgement came,
Though doubtful justice weighed, and placed aside,
Her scroll to Lancelot (in his chamber found),
Straining no proof from that; nor that brief while
They were together proof of guilt supplied
- Rather disproof, for there her ladies were -
Yet was there one in that thronged court unware
Of what for twenty years scarce masked had been?
The adulterous intercourse by which the queen
Dishonoured Arthur, and herself, and realm,
Was known too widely, and was known too long,
For the three kings who sate with Caradoc
To join consenting tongues to loose her free,
And make a jest of justice. Nor could be
A choice of sentence, for the legal wrong
Was treason to the state, for which the doom
Was pardonless, that cleansing fire consume
The tainted flesh. Nor was there hope to hear
In Caradoc's words: "Think not of aid from him
Who raised thee to the place thy lust hath soiled.
It is not his to pardon; for thy wrong
Strikes at the kingdom, of good name dispoiled,
Which thy removal best can rectify."
Freed by the voice of the deciding law,
Men spake aloud of all they thought or saw
Through earlier years, and Arthur heard the tale,
With all its circumstance of practised guile,
Told haply with intent to reconcile
His heart to that which must be. But therein
Neither relief nor consolation lay.
Better the planned deceit of yesterday.
His world was broken. Not the carnal sin
Of those he trusted stirred his heart, as ire
For that disclosure. Hate of Modred more
Possessed him than good hope to yet restore
His fallen honour.... What would Lancelot do?
Where was he?... Half he guessed, though naught he knew.
He went to Gawain: "If this doom must be,
Wilt thou be there, its seemly end to see?
Men wonder thou shouldst stand apart."
Nay, for I call the charge disproved, and though
Its proof were better, still I would not go.
Think ye the queen will there unrescued die?
I watch a folly that sane wits would seek
Even now to mend." (For surely all men knew
That women, loosely to their lords untrue,
Erred in such sort. And were not queens the same?
Only the evil from exposure came.
And but one lover all her life had she!)
"It is too late for better end to be.
But I would show a front of unity
Among us who remain. At least do thou
Thy brethren for the law's support allow,
Without persuasion that they stand aside."
"My lord," Sir Gawain to the king replied,
"I will not speak to urge, nor yet to stay.
Not used to question thy commands are they,
And may be pliant. But I warn thee yet
That Gareth will not all the past forget.
And more Gaheris to his way inclines
Than once he would."
"Have I no friends at all?
Is there no difference that the heart divines
Between who bears and who contrives the wrong?"
"Yea, by God's wounds! But is thy grief the less
For flames of judgement? Be she right or wrong,
She is most royal; and our queen too long
To welcome vengeance in such large excess
For dubious guilt unproved.... Of what will be
I know not. But I do not think to see
A death so shameful."
"In her life was shame
More than her death will bring."
With no content
Arthur ceased vain-bartering words. He sent
For Gawain's brothers with the same intent,
If to himself his real intent were bare,
And Gareth answered: "Lord, if we be there,
Your justice to support (and not will I,
For any grief, thy injured right deny),
It will be lothly, through thy strait command.
Nor would I ever with bare sword withstand
My lord, Sir Lancelot. What at last will be
I know not, as I know not where is he.
What can we hope beyond a different woe?...
But only in a garb of peace I go."
So said Gaheris; and the king replied:
"I ask no more." Could mortal wit foresee
That the last hope of peace that word denied?
Knew Arthur what he hoped or feared? Was he
Desiring rescue? Was his injured pride
More than his love for her, who long had been
His trusted consort, and reputed queen?
No more was said. They knew not what would be.
In a fair meadow, Carlisle walls without
The stake of death was set, and thereabout
Gathered the knights who yet to Arthur's name
Gave reverence and regard. Full armed they came,
And all approaches closed, the while the queen,
Stripped to her smock (to be her further shame
When it should shrivel to the rising flame,
And give the adulterous writhing flesh to view),
Was guided to the stake, and bound thereto.
Only remained her ghostly peace to make,
To find God's mercy for her Saviour's sake,
Before the smoke should creep from foot to knee;
And the ill stench of burning flesh should be.
But pride was in her heart, to fear's disdain.
And when for succour had she looked in vain
To him she served but ill in easier days?
Yet when had any gazed on vacant ways
As now she looked for Lancelot? Surely he,
Who failed her never at less needs, would be
Her potent champion now. But densely met
The ring of spears around her. Densely set
Were guards at all approaches. Knights of fame
Sate their great steeds with rising spears arow,
And visors down, that none their thoughts could know,
But well she judged it that her friends were few.
Only unarmed of all those knights were two,
Gaheris and Gareth, and they looked as though
They stood regardless at an alien show.
Where then Lancelot? Not too soon he came
To make her rescue, lest strong walls reclaim
A victim not full-distanced. But report
Was signalled backward to the close resort
The where, with eighty knights of victoring fame,
He fretted, hardly by Sir Bors restrained:
"All may be lost by haste, but naught be gained.
Deliberate ritual is the rule of law.
They will not hasten, lest some final flaw
Reverse their orders."
But, as this was said,
A lance-point from the roadside haws ahead,
Three times up-thrust, the sunlight caught, and he
Who outward watched, a white scarf waved, whereon
Sir Lancelot tightened rein, and instantly
Four-score impatient steeds one impulse knew.
Heavy and strong they crashed the boskage through,
Till on the road four-score the lances shone.
Hard was their pace, where none the last would be.
And as swift tempest smites the waiting sea
They clashed with those as armed, as bold, as they.
So charged, so challenged, who would yield them way?
All fought of instinct now, the cause forgot,
With death to take or give. But Lancelot
So raged, the strongest must their ranks divide.
Yet when he ranged the unlit pile beside
Still rang the conflict, and the maimed and dead
Had priced her life beyond its worth, for here
Brandiles fell; and here Perimones
And Pertelope, the green knight and the red;
Griflet; and Gautier; and Guillimere;
Belias le Orgulous; Segwarides;
And, princelier far, the sons of Pellinor,
Last of their household, Aglovale and Tor;
Herminde and Damas; Priamus and Driant;
Lambegus; and Sir Kay the Stranger fell.
So died they from a traitor's doom to wrest
Her who was treasoned for long years. The cord
That bound her, from the point of Lancelot's sword
Curled backward. In the blood of Arthur's best,
Who might have been her bulwark at her need
Against the leagued might of a world at war,
She stept, and looked to Lancelot. Neither saw
That nobler than the best that strife had slain,
And more of portent for the kingdom's bane,
Dolorous for pen to write, or song to say,
Stretched with the dead, the sons of Orkney lay.
For midst that throng who strove, and smote and died,
Blind with desire to gain Guenever's side,
As Lancelot raged, across his path of woe,
Stood Gareth and Gaheris. Neither a knight
For any turmoil to retreat his right.
Resolved they would not fight and would not fly,
Helmless to Lancelot's blind broad-sweeping blade,
What choice was theirs? - What choice, except to die?
Dawnward they rode, the while the north-eastern skies
Foretold with lengthening rose that dawn would rise,
Asserting God to man.
Full weary they.
Weary their twice-changed steeds. But not for day
Would pause be lengthened, till before them showed
Their walls of safety from the moorland road.
For so had Lancelot planned, more strife to stay,
The queen to save, and instant bear away
To Joyous Garde's attemptless walls, and there
His purpose to recover peace declare.
Beside his rein Guenever rode. Fatigue
She knew not, while the long road, league by league,
Went backward through the night. Such joy she had
For this sure freedom. So her heart was glad
That Lancelot now was hers, and only he.
Gaily she spake: "When Benoic's force is here,
Our count should tale with Arthur's, spear for spear;
And only Gawain on his part remains
With craft of warfare like to thine, and we
Are stronger in knights of name. I think to see
A bloodier flight, and from repulse more dire,
Than ours is now."
But Lancelot's sombre eyes
Lit not to hear her: "Yet I trust," said he,
"Some better issue of this grief to see
Than war's disaster, where our swords must let
The blood of comrades. That of need I did
To save thee, by that need denies regret.
But that more strife should be may God forbid!
Some bridge of concord yet - "
"What bridge could be?"
"Doth not thy freedom such a hope admit?
If still we urge the charge is false - as it
Was false in fact the night that snared us - then
Do we not prove it to the sight of men,
If, in the strength of Joyous Garde contained,
We make fair proffer that, with surance gained
Of life and honour, thou couldst straight return,
In free forgiveness of a king misled,
Now that thy foes are in their treason dead,
Were Modred exiled?"
"He had let me burn!
Shall I go back to that reluctant bed?
Surely it is a mocking word I hear!"
"It is his right, and never right had I."
"Than such forgiveness, I had liever die."
"It is thy honour that I hold so dear."
"Nay, it is naught of mine, and naught of me!
It is with Arthur, and alike with thee,
That Britain only is thy thought and care.
Logre and Benoic are a regal pair,
And I a chattel of such worth as serves
To burn or barter!"
So she railed, and he
Was silent in his frequent mode, until
The torrent of her scornful wrath was still,
Meeting no challenge.
Hard they rode, the while,
Borne inward through the grey walls of Carlisle,
The dead, in church and chantry laid, supplied
Sad witness that the strength so long allied
Would now with vain contention all confound,
At which men mourned or marvelled.
When others faltered, bore to Arthur's ear
The changeless names and total of the dead,
Which much he wept to learn. "Alas!" he said,
"Alas! That to this lonely height I came.
For now the noblest who advanced my fame
Are slain away. In such short days are gone
Full forty of the fairest names that shone
The first amidst the chosen. Lancelot too,
With all his valiant kin, no more shall do
The deeds by which our height more glorious grew.
I mourn my queen's unfaith, who ne'er from me
Had aught but honour to a queen's degree.
But most I sorrow for my knights undone.
For there be many queens, but kingdoms none
The like this realm I founded. Agravain,
May God forgive thy soul! A nation's bane
Hath been the hate that unprovoked you bore,
And Modred bore, to Lancelot."
Soon there came
The tale to Gawain. "Lancelot raged," they said,
"So hotly, more than twenty knights are dead
Of the strong band who held her."
"I blame him not for that. But where are they,
My brethren? Straitly did I warn the king
That Lancelot would not leave the queen to die
The while a sword-hilt in his hand would lie,
And he with life to lift it. That he did
I had done surely in like case, and so
Even all their deaths no wider breech should bring
Than patience yet may close. But I would know
How fared my brethren in that heat?"
That Lancelot slew them."
Gawain answered: "Nay,
Give not such falsehood words. It could not be.
For more than Gareth loved the king or me
He loved Sir Lancelot. Were that slander true,
Is naught for justice that I would not do.
There were no shelter in the world's extent
Would save him from me."
While that mood he knew,
The sad king entered.
"Can this tale be true?"
Sir Gawain asked.
"It is," the king replied,
"Beyond denial that thy brethren died.
Men say that in the thickest press they fell
To Lancelot's sword."
"He loved Sir Lancelot well.
Lancelot would never Gareth's death pursue."
"But rumour saith that that he did not do.
He slew them: but he saw not whom he slew."
"I needs must doubt it. All my house is down,
Save Modred only. Would he leave me bare?
Thinks he not only in thy queen to share?
Now would he take, or only halve, thy crown?"
"Yet, by mischance - "
"Mischance it would not be!
He thinks to end my house. But hear me swear,
For Gareth's death, I will his death contrive.
Earth is too small to hold us twain alive.
Now let us count our friends.... Will friends remain
To Lancelot, who so dear a friend hath slain?"
Joined in one purpose now, without relent,
The king and Gawain near and distant sent,
Making strait summons through the realm, that all
Who owed allegiance, at the trumpet-call,
Should armed assembly make around Carlisle.
So came they in the long June days, the while
Sir Lancelot, in the girth of Joyous Garde,
Confined his force, and in such sort supplied,
That though the summer days to winter died,
And Arthur should a constant siege sustain,
Through failure of good store he should not gain.
The vats with oxen filled, the pits with grain,
Denied the sharpest fear that those must feel
Whose safety trusteth more in stone than steel.
Grim was the host of those from near and wide
Who came to range their strength at Arthur's side:
Kings and great earls, and champion knights who bore
World-envied blazons. Listonaise and Gore,
Garlot and Reged, Cornwall and Logre,
Scotland and Orkney, and the isles that lie
Midst, tides and tempests of the western sea,
With Ireland and North Gales and Brittany,
Sent their bold levies of supporting spears.
So the ripe harvest of the splendid years
Was gathered on itself itself to fling.
But the rich grain of that false harvesting
Fell slowly from the stalk, for Lancelot
Held in restraint his restless knights. There rode
No outrage from his gates to meet the king:
No arrows from those leaguered walls were shot.
Castle and town, of that great host aware,
No wareness showed. Their silent walls alone
Refused its menace with the strength of stone.
So, through the summer days, the siege was made:
Stubborn but bloodless. Time, it seemed, delayed,
Reluctant of the end which yet must be.
The high grey walls' impregnability,
Dividing those strong lances which so oft,
When linked invincible, had thronged aloft
Around Pendragon's sign, to make the name
Of Arthur deathless as the voice of fame,
Till summer went, and autumn turned to go,
Its fruitage fallen, but its leaves aglow,
When came a day that Lancelot from the wall
Looked outward, and he bade his trumpets call
For parley, till himself King Arthur came,
With Gawain at his side. And Lancelot said:
"My gracious lord, the things in heat we do
We oft repent in cooler hours; and blame
- Blame in the whole world's sight - is ours to dread,
If we the path of lasting wrath pursue,
And heed not counsel. By my long withhold
Of knights most eager, I have kept them back
From such a field of death as might not slack
Before the venom of their hearts were cold
Who seek to break me."
"Were ye once so bold,
We might resolve it in a juster way."
"Lord, to be slain by those we would not slay
Hath less of virtue than a worse regard.
Is mercy and accord a choice too hard
For thee, to whom our vows are sworn, that we
Would practice mercy, to thy Table's praise?"
But Arthur answered: "Fair thy words may be,
But can fair words again to life upraise
My knights, who on thy sword have died? Or change
The years of falsehood, when my trust in thee
Made treason simple? Or again arrange
The front of honour which she broke, to flee
To this protection?"
"Nay, most gracious lord,
There lies thine error, which restrains my sword
From sharp resistance. Had she loosely fled
In lewd rejection of her natural bed,
Then were thy wrath well reasoned. But she came
In needly refuge from the stake of shame,
Which those had lit who had no care for thee,
But only to divide us. Had I not
That rescue made, there were no proof to show
That she perforce who came would lightly go.
I held her here from death, but not from thee.
.... Recall, my liege, those days thy wrath forgot
When she was falsely charged before, to be
Restored to honour by my sword. To me
Thy thanks were paid. Did honour less require,
When by ill doom she faced the fatal fire,
And I was named therewith? No choice was mine;
But if thy word in common faith were plight,
In honour and regard, in all men's sight,
Again to take her to her past estate,
Then, by the knighthood that I took from thee,
I swear that never any right of thine
By me should be confounded.... Lord, too late
At even this last hour it may not be
For peace, if we desire it."
Looked to the king, but he no answer found
Immediate to his mind, though leapt his heart
Like a loosed captive, as the hope he heard
Of peace restored, and friendship joined anew.
But while his answer paused, a fiercer word
From Gawain broke, that wider clove apart
The narrowing space.
"And dost thou think to sue
So light a pardon? And the king forget
His closer kindred that thine outrage slew?
Nay! For thy death ten times to pay the debt
Would not be equal, though I wait the day
When waiting with thy blood that debt to pay
Ye shrink in abject bonds. I count the king
Thy downfall at his proper time will bring,
"It well may be," said Lancelot, "though
Ye know me somewhat, and my knights ye know,
Nor nobler names than theirs, and wit ye well
I nothing dread ye."
Gawain's wrath replied:
"False-hearted knight, I let thee wit the king
Shall win the queen and thee, to save or slay,
Despite thy head, and all thy kin that cling
So close to thy dishonour, as well they may.
Hast thou not mocked and overlaid us long -
The kindred of the king? Were ever wrong
Thy treasons, or thy violence lacked pretence?"
And Lancelot, quietlier than his foe, replied:
"Lord Gawain, both thy prowess and thy pride
Long since I knew; but left I this strong fence,
Impregnable of walls and virgin towers,
And met thee in mid-field, with all the powers
I lead, to hold the queen against thee, then
I warn thee, never in sight or tale of men
Were hardier battle for thy strength to win."
Sir Gawain answered: "Never shame or sin
Have charged I to the queen, but as for thee,
Recreant and false, and all thy murderous kin,
I would not live, except thy death to see,
As shall I at last. Why slew ye Gareth? For he
More than he loved his own, or thy kin thee,
Most loved thee, who made him knight. He would bear
Not even shield against thee."
"With no heart I use
Vain words, for not to thee shall words excuse
That deed of woe, though here by Christ I swear,
And by my knightly faith - in days that were
Not lightly scorned - that by my hand as lieve
Should Bors his deathwound from my sword receive
As Gareth scathe from me. Alas the day
That whom I saw not, those my hands should slay!"
"To call thy perjures vain ye speak aright,
Fenceless ye slew him, in thy fixed despite
Of all my House thy ruthless blade hath wronged
Too long impune; and not in life I longed
For aught found fair of men, as long I now
Thy vaunting pride in bitter dust to bow."
But answered Lancelot: "What in wrath you may
You speak, and men may prove it. This I say,
That never from all my days may one recall
That ambushed comrade from my spear should fall."
"Speak not of Lamorack! Where is Agravain?
And where Gaheris? Canst thou bring again
When I lead forth the valour of my kin,
These knights, who were the glory of my train?
And where is Gareth? Slain, and by thy sin,
And by thy hand, without a sheltering shield!
"Thy meekness ever wore a sword concealed.
Didst thou not dread the issue of the field,
Not those strong walls would hold thee."
"More I dread
To slay my friends."
"A simple boast is said
Behind such walls as thine. But thou shouldst know
By Lamorack's fate who wronged me, even so,
And worse, thy fate for Gareth's death shall be."
"I well believe that in thy hands to fall
Would mean no mercy."
Then he left the wall;
And to his tent returned the careful king.
Winter he saw, with no returning spring.
Why should Sir Gawain's hate remorseless glow?
So prudent at the first, for strife so slow,
Had been his counsel. Had he not foreseen
That Lancelot must strike in to save the queen,
And that condoned? But when Sir Gareth died
All counsel, all restraint, he cast aside,
Relentless in pursuant enmity.
And yet long years had Gareth held apart,
Since Lamorack's death, from Gawain's company,
And all his brethren, save at times would he
Ride with Gaheris... Gladly Arthur now
Had made accord with Lancelot, but he knew
To turn Sir Gawain from his vengeance-vow
Would be beyond his utmost rule, and who
Could loyal faith reject, to more prefer
A treasoned friend?... Would never strife subside
While Gawain held the gulf of hatred wide.
So Arthur sorrowed, while in Joyous Garde
Was louder discord. There Sir Lionel
Rebuked Sir Lancelot: "Here is rule too hard!
We may not dure it more. So mured to dwell
Inactive, compassed by deriding foes.
Think not that as thou wouldst the rumour goes
Of proud forbearance. But the world will hear
Of Benoic cowed, that not a single spear
Ventures without. And what the likely end
For thee, who still wouldst talk as Arthur's friend,
Mocked and reviled and scorned and hated so?
They may not reach thee; but they will not go."
This in the midst of many knights he said,
Whose voices joined him. "Were we loosely led,
We would so scourge them that their best would learn
The prudence that would urge a swift return;
Or likelier for a moonless night delay
For separate flight."
And then the murmur spread:
"We should be bold to break them, as we may,
And once we did to bear the queen away."
Till Blamor spake for all: "If this ye dare,
Go outward to the walls, and meet them there;
Or else reject us from thy part, for we
No longer in this craven guise will bide.
What think ye at the last to gain? To be
At peace with Arthur? Gawain doth not hide
His set resolve to thwart thee. Would thy flight
To thine own land obtain it? Or incite
Pursuit most certain? Would the king endure
That Benoic should his errant queen insure
Against his justice?... For thy life and right
Wilt thou not strike? Nay, if thou wilt not, we
No more the jest of Arthur's host will be.
Choose our desertion, or a front array
Of martial purpose now."
A last appeal
To Ector and to Bors Sir Lancelot made,
But heard like answer: "While our swords delay,
We watch beside a wound which doth not heal.
Nor is thy scruple in good coin repaid,
For Gawain's ruthless mood controls the king.
Whatever wrong the past hath held, we stand
With here one choice, a common shame to bring
On all thy friends, or else our force to fling
On those who now deride us."
"Say ye so?
Then shall the gates be wide, but ere we go
To bicker thus, with deaths which would not be
By Arthur's will, or had ye heed of me,
I will send message to implore the king
That he nor Gawain to such strife intrude,
Lest larger mischief than hath been should bring
This Christian empire down."
But answer rude,
And burdened with contempt, he gained thereby,
That Gawain framed: "For Gareth's death to die
Is thine, but not to choose by whom shall be
That stroke of justice dealt."
No more he tried
The course of fate to change: "Must God decide.
Tomorrow shall our marshalled outrage see."
Not craven were the thousand knights who flew
Bright pensels on the front of Arthur's war.
Their comrades' valour as their own they knew
Of tenfold proof. But when the ranks they saw
Outriding from the gates of Joyous Garde,
Well might they doubt their vigour to retard
The mightiest names that once were Arthur's. Who
Should match with Lancelot? Were there more than few
Who with his closest kin could hold debate?
And Palomides was a name of weight:
And Persuant's Indian pennon, mauve and white;
The white wide-pinioned swans of Persides:
Urra's black gryphon, open-beaked to seize
Its weaker prey; were warnings that the might
That once was Arthur's, now in sunder split,
Would on itself its refluent rampage fling
To dubious issue, and the pride of it
Would its own pride to dust and darkness bring.
Out rode Sir Gawain to the front. He sought
To meet Sir Lancelot, and to bring to naught
That difference in one bout. But Lionel
Led the confronting line, as keen as he.
Crouched to a shield well-dressed, with lance at knee,
On Orkney's lord he rode. They matched too well
For either's gain. In one flung heap they fell,
Midst flashing hooves and rolling steeds. Men bore
Sir Lionel backward through the gates, no more
A steed to mount till winter's months were done;
While Gawain, bleeding from a wound as sore,
Was to his tent conveyed. High boasts to tame
On either side, while scarce had strife begun
Should such quick falls suffice; but widely now
Roared the fierce front of war, where tide by tide
Was thwarted, and its own advance denied
By that which felt denial.
Now was all
The town's wide compass, save the seaward wall,
Circled with clamour of contending foes.
High in the sunlit air the dust arose,
Dimming the gaudy flaunts of plume and crest,
And windblown pennons, in its dark arrest,
And deadly flurries that arose, as though
The tides were eddied by the rocks below.
So strove they, while the voice of Lancelot
Restrained and weakened those who else had been
More valiant than they were, more bold of mien.
"Heed ye the king," he cried, "to harm him not."
So, by this license, and his eager will,
Came Arthur through consenting ranks, until
He faced Sir Lancelot, with one thought, to end
That fatal strife, and with no heed that he
Never as Lancelot in such bout could be,
He rode upon him. Sword by sword was met.
But though Sir Lancelot did not blench nor bend,
Nor ground he gave, did never sword descend
More lightly on a foeman's helm, the while
The king assailed with swerve and feint and blow
Of deathly purpose, thrusting loft and low,
Sir Lancelot with such ready craft replied
As broke the blow, or turned the thrust aside,
But never with his customed fury fought,
With swift deluding sleight, or sharp retort.
This saw Sir Bors, and to his thought it seemed
A treason to all those who dared to die
To hold the part of Lancelot. Were they deemed
Of less regard than those whose gain would be
The loss of that for which they staked so high?
He pushed between them. Of no mood was he
For subtle swordplay. With one downward blow
He clave Pendragon's crest, and humbled so,
To earth King Arthur at their mercy fell.
Down leapt Sir Bors. "Now if he yield or die,
Alike this moment will our grief dispel."
But Lancelot leapt alike, and cried on high:
"I charge thee, by God's love, no more to do.
For either shamed or slain he shall not be,
From whom my knighthood came."
He raised the king,
And caught his horse's rein. "My liege," he said,
"I pray thee, for past days, thy mind to free
From rancorous counsels, nor a path pursue
Which will not honour nor contentment bring.
Recall my service at sharp need afore,
Not only to thyself, but largely more
To her who now divides us. Stint this strife,
And yet some haven of accord may be."
But Arthur answered naught. His eyes were blind
With tears that recollection brought, and woe
That the high summer of succeeded life
Should meet the autumn of this overthrow.
With heart to find some path of peace inclined,
He bade the trumpets of retreat to blow
Along a slackening line, and either side,
Unloth their wearying bicker to divide,
To camp or gate withdrew.
But Gawain rose,
At the next morn, despite his wound, aware
That Arthur faltered in his wrath, and bent
The more on vengeance. As his lance he chose,
He thought: 'This hour may make my heart content.
The while I ride, my laming wound is naught.
May all the lance-craft that the years have taught
Avail me now, for Gareth's life to take
A fatal price.'
But while his mind was set
To find Sir Lancelot, one alike he met
Of fixed resolve to end that strife. Sir Bors,
Regarding Gawain as its source and cause,
From when the Benoic knights he outward led,
Whose way was from the northern gateway, sought
The white ger-falcon as an only prey,
Ranging therefor as Gawain ranged, and they
Met ere Sir Lancelot from the central port,
With Urra and Lavaine and Persides,
Extended a continuous front.
Sir Lancelot only," as he turned away
Sir Gawain said.
"But here I bid thee stay,"
Sir Bors replied. "My brother's hurt decrees
Our meeting now."
As rival bulls contend
Amidst the passive herd, that waits to see
Which shall have death, and which its master be,
So, while the general strife delayed to close,
Did these strong champion knights their spears oppose,
And hurtled forward in the sight of all,
So grim of mind alike, so set to slay,
That when their lances held, not only they,
But their great chargers were alike to fall.
As thus they foundered, forward, tide to tide,
Closed the contentious ranks from either side,
And rescuing hands the fallen raised, and gave
Such comfort as availed their lives to save.
But Bors long weeks to heal his hurt would lie,
And Gawain, wounded twice, must now put by
Immediate vengeance from his own devoir.
Deep hurts were his that time and care would cure,
But longer sojourn at that siege to make
Were loss unbalanced.
Soon his train would take
The Carlisle road, while those who watched to see
From the high wall, of blither heart would be
As the ger-falcon left untaken prey,
And slow the mule-drawn litter moved away.
When with a second wound Lord Gawain fell,
The battle-front, which scarce had joined, became
Less eager, burning with a shorter flame,
Less deadly, conscious whence its impulse grew,
And ware that Gawain from the field withdrew
With no light cause therefor. Contention changed,
Not thinking to be slain unless to slay,
But more for feats of skill, as good knights may,
And honour's fragile wreath, the field they ranged,
Till thinner grew the lines, as either side,
Wearied, retired, and none their gaps supplied.
On the next morn, the sieging host was still,
And closed the wide-walled girth of Joyous Garde.
No marshalled ranks advanced of Arthur's will,
Nor Lancelot's word the triple gates unbarred.
The winds of autumn in that bleaker land
Caused those who in the chill pavilions lay
To warmer homes to turn their thoughts astray,
As Arthur heard. No winter siege he planned.
The great host struck their tents, and moved away.
Scattering throughout the Christian pale. But he,
Having no heart his vacant halls to see,
Once Camelot's crowded pride, remained awhile
Within the straiter compass of Carlisle,
While Gawain mended of his wound, and there,
As men with jocund hearts, of Yule aware,
Piled the log-fires, and slew the beeves, and made
Large garnish for the feast of God's goodwill,
There came to Arthur one whose life obeyed
The easy yoke of Christ. A priest was he
Of Rochester, who ruled the Kentish see,
And who to Rome had made a pilgrimage,
And journeyed back in haste, enjoined to bring
A bull of stern import, that charged the king
A war of Christless kind no more to wage,
Lest heathen inroads should the realm confound.
"Good father," said the king, when this was read,
"Is it on only me doth blame abound?
Where is my queen? Would any king allow
A subject's license of her use and bed?
Leave her alone awhile, and ask not how
She spent her leisure, when twelve knights were slain,
That one found with her should his freedom gain?
Or rest in peace while rebel walls contain
The adulteress, and him with whom she fled?
This sharp rebuke should find more just resort,
Not to the wronged, but they the wrong who wrought."
Answered the priest: "To save her life she fled,
As most, however it were forfeited,
Would choose to do. But should she make return,
Were there good warrant that she should not burn?
Would she her place and honoured state resume?"
To which the king: "If freely back she came,
It were her strong defence. No earlier blame
Would harm her, nor her regal place prevent."
Forthright to Joyous Garde, with this consent,
Journeyed the priest, and, being welcomed well,
Was bold his mission and command to tell,
With warning that the Church's curse might fall
On who should flout it.
Lancelot made reply:
"Nay, but my mind is like to thine, for I
Would the same end. It is my foes can stay
That which they brought to birth, and only they.
Seek ye the king."
"I come from Arthur. He
Will heed the Church's rule, and take the queen
Back to the honour of her sovranty.
I charge thee therefore - "
"Nay, thy words restrain,
Lest that I gladly do be falsely seen
As compassed by duress. I was not fain
To snatch the queen, nor do I hold her here.
She is prevented by her natural fear."
"But Arthur's hand and seal are here below
His written pledge, and all his kingdom know
He doth not lie."
"The written word is clear
In quittance of the queen, and none would doubt
The faith of Arthur. But it leaveth out
Mine own attachment to his throne and him."
"I will be plain in that. King Arthur said
That Gawain, rising from his wounds, had sworn
For Gareth's death, until himself be dead,
He will pursue thee, that thy pride be shorn
Of all its previous boast. Companioned so
By one the buttress of his throne, can he
Restore the concord and integrity
Of his great Table? Only time will show
What peace can follow from prevented war."
"That must we rest with God. But this believe.
Not by my license shall dissension grieve
Our Christian realm. But in good hour the queen
Shall join her lord. For here she had not been
Except that from the fear of death she fled."
Unloth, Guenever knew the treaty made
Which gave again her interrupted place
As queen and consort. When the choice she weighed
With bold presumption that her life would be
Licentious as before, and likely free,
She saw such vantage that her heart took grace
And joyance at the thought.
A day was set
When Arthur at Carlisle would wait his queen
In formal expectation to be met.
And when Sir Lancelot asked: "Our part to do,
How ride we fitly, and most fair beseen?"
As light on leaves she willed it, gold on green,
Dawn-light on leaves of spring, new hope to show,
Raising all hearts as rose her own, and so
The long gay process to Carlisle that drew
Rode bare of steel or any shine of spears,
Lady and knight and following train alike
Clothed in the colours of the youth of years,
That haply might its joyous portent strike
All gazers, and belike in concord close
A strife that made of friends unnatured foes.
Wan eve had faded from the winter sky
When outward from the strong integrity
Of Joyous Garde they rode, that through the night
Their course should be, and with the morning light
Carlisle be reached. Through rain-wet woods, they went,
Sad woods, that only through the night-bird's cry
Were vocal: where the noiseless winds went by
Lost in the dark; until the hooves aloud
Of the thin process of the mounted train
(By such strait paths as wooded wastes contain
Lengthened perforce) with clang regardless drowned
The sounds that love the silence.
Sight nor sound -
Night silence, nor the woods' black depths - could awe
The queen's blithe mood exultant, as she saw
How many famous knights were round her now,
Assumptive of her previous right, who bore
No front of spears, nor any harness wore,
Re-entering Arthur's peace. What more to dread
Should vex? To Lancelot at her rein she said:
"As David from the fear of Absolom
Last year we fled to Joyous Garde. Today
Should Modred ponder on Ahithophel:
Not longer should his hanging hour delay."
But Lancelot rose not to her mood. He thought:
'Lord Gawain's hate will bring accord to naught.
We face the darkness of an ended day.'
Yet when they rode through Carlisle gates, and through
The narrow streets, where flags of welcome flew,
And slowly through the cheering crowds they pressed,
That eager greetings gave, Sir Lancelot's heart
Was somewhat raised, until they reached the seat
Where Arthur waited, with his noble knights
Arrayed around him. many a weeping eye
Saw that fair sight, and deemed a clearing sky
Portended, whence the flailing storm had beat
But the king no motion made
Of greeting, and before his seat they stayed
Till Lancelot, as King Arthur's cold regard
He marked, and Gawain's hostile glance and hard,
At length, and breaking that deep silence, spake:
"Lord, and my king! By Christ's command and thine,
As right requireth, and my heart accords,
I bring thy queen, who never hand of mine
Had held, except against those treacherous lords
Who urged her death, and moved thee to it, and then
What choice was mine?... I had not stirred, except
Through clamour of false tongues thy justice slept.
For had their thoughts been clean, their purpose true,
I had not triumphed in that hard ado,
Who was not armed nor purposed. Cold they lie
Who made their clamour and their boast so high.
Hath not God judged between us?... Naught I knew
Of what the queen required. To speak or do
There was no time before the noise arose
Of those so long my almost-open foes,
Who called me traitor with such threats as showed - "
"They called thee right," said Gawain.
"By thy leave,
Their end was proof... Lord king, ye heeded men
Careless of honour and of faith, and through
Vain hate imputing that they nowise knew,
And hence came treasons, and such thoughts stirred
As change the casual glance, the heedless word,
To proof of that they looked for. These you heard.
And so came hate between us. Lord, remind
Thy nobler thoughts how oft, in times behind
These discords, while the common voice of men
Impeached her falsely, at thy treaty then,
I staked my life to clear her. Could I less,
Her need appealing in that worst distress
From condemnation with my name allied?
Isled on my faith, whereother might she flee
The rising tide of that surrounding sea
Had I held backward then?"
Sir Gawain said:
"The queen is guiltless, and her name is clear.
But thou art recreant judged, to come not here
Henceafter. By thy hands our best are dead
Through envious malice. Even those who bare
No arms against thee. None thy sword would spare,
But those who rather to thyself would cling
Than give full leigance to their land and king."
Answered Sir Lancelot: "Am I held so meek
To meet this weight of charge, but I should speak
Once mine avaunt? Not Arthur's self alone,
Since first my father stayed a shaking throne,
Hath made this realm and loved it. Stand I here
Resting my strength upon a lonely spear -
Repute of old adventures? Those who drew
Around me when this rending feud they knew,
Are they less noble than Pendragon's kin?
Have they had less to lose, or more to win?
Am I not king in Benoic? Might I not,
Were equal hatred mine, were love forgot,
Call thousands clamouring to the field of death?
"I speak not humbly of my friends, nor think
They would be fearful on the dangerous brink
Of harder battle than thy best could show.
"But for those deaths that brought unpurposed woe,
To all good knights who hear I make appeal,
The while God's treaty sheathes our swords, to say
If ever wrought I by false craft to deal,
Or ever for my foes in ambush lay.
"I would the dead might judge me! He was still
Too noble-natured to account of ill,
Though ill were wrought against him. Could he now,
With living lips his open choice avow,
There were no feud with Gareth. Nor would he,
Gaheris, so misdeem; for whom I slew,
By most mischance, from Turquin's mastery
I saved afore. To turn those strokes aside,
I, by the truth of God, had gladly died,
So that the queen were rescued... Yet to do
That which I can, and that my most demands,
Right have ye to require it at my hands,
And that I may I proffer... Please the king,
I will full penance serve in journeying
From Sandwich to Carlisle with feet unshod,
And resting each ten mile beside the way,
There will I found and dower a house of God,
A home of mercy and prayer: a sanctuary
For weakness worsted. That methinks would be
A nobler issue, thus our feud to stay,
Than waste the land with unavailing war."
He ceased. His eyes from Gawain turned away,
Seeking the king's, who gave no sign, but they
Gazed as would friends across a sundering sea,
That both would cross, but may not. Those who saw,
Except ill profit from that strife who made,
Bent heads for ruth that wept, or peace that prayed.
For those who loved their land, and noble life,
Were heavy of heart, and those who sought in strife
Their meaner gains were glad, as once again
Sir Gawain answered: "Must the king decide,
Between us twain resolving who shall ride
Henceafter as the buckler at his side,
The faithful or the faithless. While I live,
Till strength to strive, till power of utterance end,
The names of traitor in thy throat I give:
Adulterer: murderer of a fenceless friend."
And Lancelot: "Nay, my lord Sir Gawain, nay!
For scorns there be that wrath and grief may say,
And patience pass them. But to cast at large
So false, so heavy, and so foul a charge -
Now must I pray ye pardon me that now
Must swords resolve it."
Gawain answered cold:
"Full loud and lately hath thy vaunt been told.
Why challenge while our common oaths allow
No strife to follow? Ere you came, the king
Took counsel of those knights whose truth is shown
By other ways than thine. I tell thee now
That all who heard have straitly sworn that thou
No more dissension to the realm shalt bring.
For thou art exiled from this hour. A grace
Of fifteen days shall be thy breathing space;
But shouldst thou tarry for a further day
Thou shalt be outlawed for who will to slay,
Awake or sleeping, or at board or bed."
"It were not from such fear," Sir Lancelot said,
"That I would leave this land, but wit ye well
There like had been another tale to tell
Had I been that ye call me. Think ye so
That I had brought the queen, or held her yet?
Let all men judge by that which all men know."
But to the king another doubt was woe,
Of how his queen that exile heard, whereat
He looked toward her with straight glance, and met
The dread-waked hatred of her eyes, and knew
That all his heart had feared was less than true.
So that fair morn to sombre evening drew.
Beneath resuming rain, with short delay,
Some gear to seek, some parting word to say,
The knights of Lancelot and their dames, anew
Grouped at the eastern gate, and rode away.
End of Chapter XXIII