The Song Of Arthur - Chapter VI
by S. Fowler Wright
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Morgan Le Fey.
Merlin, of human birth and demon sire,
Was therefore of delight and of desire
Different from those of human parents twain.
Never in damsel's arms his lust had lain;
Never his heart for any maiden's kiss
Had ached. But to another world than this
He turned, and in the eyes of Nimue
He sought the joys of common love to see.
She was his quest, and dark of hope, for she
Avoided ever, and her wiles of night
Were subtler than his wisdom, and her skill
Eluded his designing. Will to will
They clashed in ways that never mortals know.
This strife, he could not gain nor yet forgo,
Had issue that his prescience feared; and when
Not all the wisdom that is veiled from men,
Nor the deep lore of many an ancient pen,
Could turn desire, and from that strife unwon
He saw the danger that he would not shun,
He sought the king, to whom he spake: "On me
The shadow of disastrous night is near.
Against an evil which I will not flee,
No force is mine to strive, no craft to veer.
Either beyond my hope my wiles avail,
Or at the bitter price of life I fail.
And therefore to thy throne, the while I live,
Some counsels must I urge, some warnings give."
And answered Arthur: "If thy craft so well
Can pierce the womb of things unshaped, and tell
Their issuing substance, and the front they bear,
Canst thou not guard thee from this fate, aware
On what events its growth shall feed? For thee,
Good friend to all my race, and most to me,
I would not lose for half my realm. Thy care
So oft hath saved us. What can lure, that so,
The end foreseen, to chosen death you go?"
To which the seer: "The hazard of tourney strife
Why take you, knowing that death may chance? I seek
Mine own devoir, nor count the stake of life
Too great a gage. But while the field is set,
Ere joins the front, I would not first forget
The friendship thine; and though my power were weak,
Though live, to turn thee from the destined snare
That waits thee on thy purposed path, would yet
For that which comes your equal heart prepare.
"Bethink thee this, that though thy foes are thrown,
Thy friends sustained, thy kingdom owns thy right,
Thy strong allies are strengthened through thy throne,
There is no day but darkness ends: no night
But dawn shall cease. Nor hold I heaven so high
But in the dust of time its pride shall lie.
And though thy sun toward its noon ascend,
It shall not at the last its night deny.
All life that flowereth woos its hastened end,
That recreate life another scene may try.
"Yet long shall stand thy peace, if care be thine
That force nor guile shall wrest thy sword, nor take
Its mystic sheath until the waiting lake
Receive it at the last. But all I say,
And all thy caution, is but vain to stay
The fate foredoomed. For she that most you trust
(As many yet you will, and some you must)
Will steal it from thee."
With this warning said,
That she should fool him first where first his trust
Was stablished, from the precincts of the court
He passed, and by the way that Nimue fled
Followed, and passed the narrow seas, and sought
Throughout the bounds of Benoic, till he found
Where at the court of Ban awhile she stayed.
For well Elaine, Ban's constant queen, she knew,
Whose babe at earlier need her hands had laid
In that strange cradle where the waters sound
Their song unceasing, and the winds around
Mirage the shadowy lake from mortal view.
Here to the queen he spake, whose grief had way
For Claudas' war upon her lord and land,
To whom he counselled: "Let no weight of woe
Distress thee, that thy life be hindered so
From its full compass. Coming days to know
Were oft to know how vain forebodings are.
Regard thy son, whose lake-reflected star
Shall gain the height of heaven. For Galahad - he
Whom Lancelot of the Lake you fondly name,
Since faery-dowered from Nimue's care he came -
Doubt not that in his youthful strength shall lie
The prowess that should twice such foes defy
As ever restive on thy bounds shall be."
For when, long years before, the queen had fled
From Claudas first, and in her mortal dread,
Clasping her babe her weary arms within,
Heard of the near pursuit the rising cry,
Was one who crossed her path. That rout to see
No fear was in the eyes of Nimue.
Hasteless she spake: "It were no boot to fly
Pursuit so swift. But yield thy babe to me,
And at the dawn of better days to be
I will return him. Greater none than he
Shall shine where Christian knights their strengths compare."
"Hast thou such sight the further days to see?"
"Believe ye that. The future's destined wear
More than things present to mine eyes is bare."
So, in that need, his threatened life to save,
The babe to Nimue's outstretched hands she gave;
And in that instant all the path was clear,
While those who followed saw a darkening mere
Oppose their feet, that reins perforce thy drew,
And whom they saw not could no more pursue.
But Nimue bore the babe the lake below,
(If lake it were can never mortal know
Or such mirage as sorcerous spells will cast
On Afric's desert sands, as true men say;
Yet seemed it so; and so for years to last.)
There overhead the still lake-surface lay,
Translucent to the change of night and day,
But shadowed ever by the woods that grew
Tall on the marge. Within that charmed retreat
Not ever reached before by human feet,
The babe she reared. Not ever winds they knew,
Nor heat nor cold, but clothed in morning mist,
Or shortly by the sun's high glory kist,
Above them lay the waters, and around
Were shining caverns where nor light nor sound
Of earthly change invades; and tended here
Was Lancelot, till the ever varying year
Brought succour to King Bors, and brought to him
Valour of youthful heart, and strength of limb,
When Nimue sent him forth the world to know,
Where all of life he met, exalt or low,
And all that mortal thought will least esteem,
Wore the strange habit of a wondrous dream.
Such was the youth of Lancelot. Who was she
Who gave that rescue? Who was Nimue?
One was she with the life of lake and fell,
Of torrents and great woods. Of such men tell
Such proofless wonders as may none deny.
Nor they themselves may rede the mystery
That shrouds the hidden marvel of their birth.
How know they surely if their natures be
Or mortal or immortal? If they share
Redemption with the race of middle earth?
But wisdom holds that less of earth are they,
The manifest spirit of Nature, to last with her,
And with her passing doomed to pass away.
No mortal needs are theirs, and naught they own
Of the mean needs required of mortal man,
But are sufficient in themselves alone.
Yet mortal loves are theirs; and haply woe
Deeper than aught the hearts of mortals know.
Such was the one whom Merlin sought: to whom
(The demon offspring of a mortal womb)
No mortal woman could full comfort be.
And called he for his aid, nor called in vain,
Discarnates that the lightless deeps contain.
From demon-birth derived such powers he led,
Such snares against her carnal peace he spread,
That scarce the holiest sign had saved; but she,
Being more than mortal, and than mortal less,
Dissolved them to light air in swift redress.
For this hard joust the final lists were set
When Nimue at the Benoic court he met
And half in pleading wise, and half in threat,
He urged her yielding: "Were we joined," he said,
"As Heaven belike designed, and best should be,
Such powers were ours that all around we see
Should be transmuted by our empery,
As when the shadowy mists of midnight born
Shrink backward from the red release of dawn.
"Art thou not more than mortal? Am not I
Of might to foil the dooms by which men die?
What were we joined? Ourselves we could not say.
But partly may forecast how much we may.
"Yet think ye, while our separate strengths contend
Alike we lose; and to what likely end?
Thy wisdom, though from Earth's creation gained,
How slight to mine! And thine eluding skill
To mock me with thy transient wraith how frail,
If all the strong fiend-powers that wait my will
I called to aid! Should vaporous wiles avail
If strengths foundationed in the depths of Hell
Contained thy ways? Should any refuge show
In earth's recess, or any power dispel
Such leagues drawn? And if my wars delay
Their last assault, you may not hope that so
Of parley in the doubt of power they tell.
But I would win thee in the gentler way,
Unviolenced, wilful in the like require.
For, wert thou mortal, had I not to thee
Come with invisible form and unfelt hand,
And foot that left no footprint on the sand,
Exploring all thy beauty, though thy heart
Believed itself alone, and thought apart?
Had I not known thy purpose ere thy thought
Its fashioned meaning to thyself had wrought?
Who couldst thy every close intent observe,
And conquer wholly whom I sue to serve?"
And Nimue answered: "Great thy boasts that scale
Such heights that there mine airier arts should fail.
I do not doubt thee wholly. Yet to yield
To that I know not, in such vaunts concealed,
Were wealth to barter for a proofless prize.
Saw I this power in such stupendous spell
As only genders from the fiends of Hell,
I then might meet thee in a different wise."
"Were we but one, I were not loth to show
The sudden wonders of the world I know;
But spells stupendous are not rashly wrought.
Beyond the world they reach, beyond the thought,
To no controlful end. But that I may
To gain thee will I grant."
"I ask thee naught
To change events from Heaven's destined way,"
She answered, lifting eyes whose quiet grey
Turned the last warning of his wits away.
"But if at last beyond my heart I yield,
What marvel wrought, or secret charm revealed,
Shall be the sign by which the bond is sealed?"
And Merlin, "Choose thy will."
"The charm," she said,
"The charm that none may name, the charm of dread,
That holds him from pursuit who has not fled."
"Why ask you that for which no need could be?"
"For I would wit these wondrous things," said she.
"They are but words," he said, "yet hold the power
To separate wholly from the changeful hour
That which they name, which after holds its place
In that which is, and yet which is not, space.
It is, but is not, death. And only he
Who spake the word can change that destiny."
The words he told.
"Their sound is dark," said she.
"And could this binding spell be wrought on me?"
"I know not surely, but suppose it so."
"That which I fear I ever would to know."
Swiftly she spake, and Merlin named; and he
Was there, but was not.
"I'll thy jest," he said.
"The words reversed will be the words unsaid."
"Then not by me, whose freedom is thy thrall."
"Alas, that simply in the snare I fall!
Hast thou no ruth?"
"Doth mercy bed with fear?
I prayed thee leave me, but you would not hear."
"Release me, and I will be ruled by thee."
"Content thee as thou art. It will not be."
"Power have I yet to use, who first implore."
"Thou art not here. I dread thy spells no more."
Thus from the void the voice of Merlin cried,
Pleading a hundred ways, and all denied.
Until she left him, in that weird to dwell
Till she relent, or else till Heaven and Hell
All Earth succeed, and all things fail beside.
King Arthur moved from Camelot to Carlisle,
Disturbed by rumours of unrest that grew
In the far north. For while that peace he knew
On southern plains, his mountained foes the while,
Those of North Gales and of the Longtainse Isle,
And Ireland, and Surluse, with Denmark's king.
Made a strong league; and such bold furnishing
Of mounted men and all the stores of war
Valour and hate and lust of plunder made,
As powerless to repulse Northumbria saw.
Ravening fair vales the rapine southward spread,
And Arthur, roused to wrath incontinent,
For Pellinor's aid an urgent signal sent,
Yet stayed not for his strength, but lightly led
Such knights as could his sudden haste array,
And turned from prudent words deaf ears away.
Nor went he single, for his recent bride,
Urged of high heart, that not his love denied,
But thanked it rather, rode her lord beside.
"Strength shall be in the joyous thought," said he,
"That here thou ridest, not at jeopardy,
But that thine eyes shall own my victory.
For in thy presence could I fail or flee?"
This the five kings were told, and one was there
Who counselled wisely: "Every passing hour
Brings him new succour and augments his power.
Valour and caution oft one cup will share.
Strike quickly, while the half his knights delay,
Strike hard, with all the gathered strength ye may.
Break ye by night, in sudden swift surprise
Where on the north of Humber's stream he lies.
Caught the deep flood and all our host between,
You gain a dead king and captived queen."
Hard marched they then by privy ways, that so
Their camp was made in thickets dense and low
Nearer to Arthur than he deemed, and there
They waited for the moonless dark.
Of vague disquiet which were ease to share,
Gawain, who shared with Griflet and with Kay
To guard the king's pavilion through the night,
Where in midhost beside his queen he lay,
Rose restless: "Do we keep our trust aright
Unarmed to lie?"
But answered Griflet: "Nay,
Their vanguard camps a five hours' march away
Our scouts have told, and swollen streams between
Their path would hinder though that path were seen
In daylight hours. With morn our camp we break
Themselves to seek." But even while he spake,
Through the still night the rending trumpet cried,
Clamorous, and ere one urgent note had died,
Loose, in full tide of tempest, broke the foe.
What rank? What rule? For separate lives they strove,
Haply content for one good stroke that clove
The slayer the while they fell. From out his tent
Came the roused king, and called his arms, and though
Were round him darkness and confusion dire,
His aspect and his voice were confident.
And though to all alert, of all aware,
He made its threat the less, till leapt in fire
The tented camp, and in the widening glare
A wounded knight fought toward him, crying the while:
"Lord, save thee! Closer toward thy tent they slay.
Thy flight alone their final aim may fail.
Bethink thine hostaged queen. Can aught prevail
But larger loss if longer here ye stay?"
Loth turned the king. With Gawain, Griflet, Kay
Guarding the queen, their hasty course he led
Where deep and downward through close boughs there fell
A path that reached the river; and haltered there
A barge that strained against the rising tide.
The black wave lapped along its seaward side
Menacing, it leapt in larger wrath the where
The wind was on the water. Frail and low
Seemed the slight barge the sheltered bank to leave
Yet with light laughter stept the queen therein.
"For simple choice I take, to drown or win,
Rather than hands of savage foes to know,
To feel their slaughter, or their scorned reprieve."
Yet Arthur paused to give the word to cast
The mooring loose. He had no mood to flee;
And that black tempest of relentless sea
Gave little surance that the barge would last
Beyond the bank's high shelter. "Sirs," he said
"When blindly in the night confusions spread,
Worse may be thought than that the light would show."
"Nay," said Sir Griflet, "but yourselves to flee
Were most to foil them. For yourselves would be
Their largest profit."
"Yet I would not go
While others strive. Nor that my queen should dare
The waves' high peril which I should not share."
Then stilled debate, for voices on the road
Above them louder grew, and horsemen showed
High-speared and dark against a lighter sky
Conscious of dawn's approach. They well might know
That the five kings were they; their words so high
Sounded, dispitious of a broken foe.
"Here," said Sir Kay, "our better chance appears,
To meet them boldly with our single spears,
And, ere support can reach, to overthrow."
Said Gawain: "Five are they, and four are we.
Is that good odds? Should Arthur stake his crown
On how a lance break, or a horse go down?"
"Yes," said Sir Griflet. "Lie we close."
"These are but kings; not champion knights are they.
Five say you? Let me meet the earlier two.
Not odds but equals shall be left to you."
Boldly he spake, as one whose later fame
Would likely rise to leave a loftier name
Than his at last should be, when grosser girth
Made sluggish blood, and noble deeds forbid.
But now his valours as his words were worth,
And that he boldly spake he boldly did.
His sudden charge the wareless group amid
Bore to the ground North Gales' twice-perjured king,
And near behind his ready comrades came,
And each bore one proud king to earth the same,
While he the fifth so hard on helm down-smit
That through the skull the blade unhindered bit.
There was swift end to that full conquering.
Back to his queen went Arthur. Who but Kay
Was praised by him, and praised the more by her?
If greatest were he called would none demur,
Nor would he doubt it.
With the opening day
The tide had turned. A slackening wind forebore
To drive the breakers on the Humber shore.
The further bank a closer prospect lay
Than in the darkness had they feared. To guess
Were hard how far apart their friends might flee,
How numerous might their foes around them be.
"Go," Arthur said, "in Griflet's care, and I
Will seek my comrades."
Gawain made reply,
Not craven, but of cautious prudence bred.
"Nay, for we know not how they stand," he said.
"But surely may we look more foes to see.
For in short time that here alone we be
Their flying squires will tell. To safety now
The barge will take ye, till with Pellinor's power
New ranks are ranged to face a fairer hour."
But Arthur answered: "Would ye have me so
To Pellinor sue? A king of kinghood bare,
His army wandered to he knows not where?
Himself in timorous flight? I tell thee no.
From these unleadered hordes we will not flee,
But seek our friends. For when the loss they see
Of those who ruled them in one heap aside
As refuse cast, if any heart to bide
Continue theirs, our gathered force anew
Shall slay two foes for one before they slew."
Then by the forest, through its closest screen,
Rode the three comrades, of their foes unseen,
Until such friends they found as had not fled,
Being still bold-hearted, though discomfited,
Whom Arthur ordered and arrayed anew.
Once more, high-toned, the British bugles blew
Defiant challenge, as the Table knights,
Constant in valour though their ranks were less,
Charged out on foes bewildered, leaderless.
Unsure of others or themselves were they:
The wolves of night were morning's sheep to slay.
So from reverse high heart its vantage caught.
Much praise had Kay, as of good right he ought.
Much praise alike had Griflet and Gawain.
Soon was his queen at Arthur's side again,
Glad-eyed his safety and success to see.
Lover of high far-shining deeds was she.
Cool at sharp need he knew her now to be,
And more approved her. Merlin's warning died
Wholly from one who saw with praiseful pride
How royal was the queen his choice had won.
Now from King Pellinor's host a courier came.
Blown and bemired his steed. "Lord king," he cried,
"Men in unseemly flight have rumour spread
Of outrage in the night and slaughter red;
Even they babbled that thyself hast died."
"Greet ye King Pellinor well, and thank his speed,
His loyal will that tells. But hasteful need
There is no longer, for our foes are sped.
He is but ten miles away? Then there should he
His camp arrange, and we will there proceed
To link our counsel, that the realm shall be
Brought by new kings to closer unity."
Next sought he of the cost of victory,
And found that darkness and confusion bred
Semblance of slaughter that the light denied.
Eight Table Knights in their pavilions died:
Two hundred warriors on the field were dead.
"Light was the cost of such a gain." He said,
"And thanks to Heaven our liberal hearts should pay.
Here shall be built an abbey fair and rich,
Dowered with wide lands, and stablished long to be
For weakness or for guilt God's sanctuary:
Haven for those who learn, or those who pray."
So was it done. An Abbey fair and good,
And titled with great lands and livelihood,
Rose by the Humber in near days to be.
Of High Adventure was it named, to tell
To future years what in the night befell,
And how reversed was panic's mastery
By those who would not fear, and would not flee.
Triumphant now in Camelot's halls the king
His Table called for such high banqueting
As well might hail the five-fold victory
Which welded his wide realm from sea to sea.
But when they gathered, of the glorious ring
Eight seats were vacant.
"Give me choice," he said
To Pellinor, who beside him sate, "of names
In no way meaner than the previous fames
Of those who by that sharp surprise are dead."
"Sire, my conceit is this. Good knights are here
- Right noble knights - who would not least appear
Even with thine own, and these more numerous far
Than at thy board the vacant spaces are.
Choose thee four knights from them of years discreet,
Alike for turmoil or for counsel meet;
And four of valour, but whose years are less,
Whose lack of counsel now will time redress:
Some of a constant strength to keep thy side,
And some more fit on arduous quests to ride."
"Wise were it so to do. What names are thine
To match thy precept?"
"Sire, if choice were mine,
King Urience, who hath held thy part, and wed
So near thy throne, were first; and next were said
Lancelot, though still of youthful years, who shows
Not valour alone, but such high nobleness
That all besides may prove at last the less,
And skilled to rule both camp and strife is he.
Herve and Galagar next I join. And then,
To find the younger four I first would name
Thy nephew, Gawain, though no friend to me.
For if I be good judge of stedfast men,
Though bitter in his hates, and hard is he
The spoils of life to take, he will not fail
To menace most thy foes; and chose I then
Griflet, for should his ardent youth avail
To guard his life through ventures wild and far,
Few may excel him at last. My third is Kay,
Whose fault of prideful boast should noway bar
Reward for that he did two kings to slay."
"I well approve it. Name thy last."
King Baudemagus. Stronger knights may be;
But keen and fearless as a flame is he.
Or if that not on him thy choice should fall,
Then might I speak of Tor, nor think it shame,
Whom, were he not my son, I well might call
Proved both in arm and heart, resolved and strong,
And loth alike to take or work a wrong."
"Yea, said the king, "I count him proved and true;
And slow to speak perchance, but swift to do;
And were his mother's race as proud as thine,
Haply not half these chosen knights of mine
Would equal. He this time preferred shall be;
And Baudemagus, little less than he
In knightly prowess, and no whit the less
Either in honour or in gentleness,
Shall have the seat that next shall vacant fall."
Then did the king those knights he favoured call
To take the vacant seats, and those who still
Crowded the lower boards, each chosen name
Applauded as he moved his place to fill.
But Baudemagus rose: "Lord King, I see
Is here no welcome, and no place for me,
However promptly at thy call I came."
He turned, not waiting for the king's reply,
Wood wroth that younger knights of less degree,
Near kin to those conferring kings, should be
So favoured to his own indignity,
Being himself of royal rank and style.
So to his household in that ire he went,
And bade them all to horse, to homeward ride.
Forth from the city, many a woodland mile,
Northward he led; his wrath incontinent,
Even from his train, he had no strength to hide,
Till cooler thoughts controlled: "Though wrong I feel
At this despite, yet more the shame were mine
Should anger at such shame my deeds reveal."
Whereat he halted at a crossway shrine,
Seeing how small a thing the shame he had
Beside the eternal glory symboled there.
And long he knelt devout in humblest prayer,
Till God's peace touched him, and his heart was glad.
Edged by the gold of sunset cold and clear,
The wide horizon of the silent mere
Showed silken sails full-breasted toward the land.
In that still air they felt no wind's command,
Owned nor controlling voice nor steering hand,
Yet winged they came toward that waiting strand
Where Arthur, Urience of the land of Gore,
And that young knight of Gaul, Sir Accolon,
Watched the white sails, and wondered what they bore.
Fair on the royal chase that morn had shone,
Fast the strong hart fled through the passing day,
By that broad water brought at last to bay,
And slain by these that followed. Only they
With toiling steeds that long pursuit sustained,
And lost them, foundered, as their chase was gained.
The full sails furled them with no hand: no sound
Came from it as the light keel grazed aground:
No motion on that still deck stirred. The king
Laughed in good heart: "Now here be weirds," said he
"As ever I loved. More worth to seek and see
Than aught that wealths can spoil or wisdoms bring."
Lightly the side he clomb, but naught he saw.
The twain, of no weak hearts, but larger awe,
Behind him came. Some cabin space therein
They searched in vain. Though furnished all, and dight
Richly, and from its own pale heart alight,
A marvel, where no light was else - for now
The low sun had declined the western sky,
And no moon rose, and wide in heaven encamped
The starless dark - they might not there descry
One living mortal who that barque had brought.
But as they left, with eyes its light had lamped,
Facing again the darkness, darker so,
They stumbled in their blinded steps, and turned
To gain the guidance of that light, and lo!
The white strip glowed throughout a rosier flame,
And down its shining side twelve damsels came,
While seemed in molten fire the whole ship burned,
Yet by that fire uninjured, on the sands
Those damsels knelt. Low-voiced, with pleading hands,
The king's high favour and his grace they prayed
To deign his presence at their feast arrayed
Within the lighted barque.
"Fair maids," said he,
"Too much anhungered and bespent are we
To answer nay to that. But lead ye on,
I would not be the first that fire to tread."
"Nay, ye shall find it fair," the damsels said,
And through the unburning light that round them shone
Toward the wonder at its heart they led.
For in that ship, beyond the whole ship's size,
Came those three comrades with amazed eyes,
To where a hall of banquet, richly dight,
And princely furnished in all points aright,
Their ease assured. And meats and wines were brought,
Not as they asked, but all to match their thought,
Instant and best.
No better meal can be
Than when that that we long is that we see.
So thought the king, in fearless heart content;
And satiate when the evening hours were spent
He followed freely to a chamber fair
In all things furnished for his comfort there.
Sir Accolon also, and the King of Gore,
To separate rooms of royal state were led.
And found for wearied limbs so soft a bed
That well they slept.
But while they slept too well,
Moved to its end Queen Morgan's treasoned spell.
Warm waked King Urience, many a league away,
Halsed in the white arms of his wife, Le Fey;
But Arthur, cold in darkness, waked to hear
Cries of the marsh, and murmurs of the mere.
A narrow casement with a single bar
Dimly he saw, where seldom came a star,
And the moon crossed it in too brief a while
That showed no comfort. Through what glamorous guile
He was translated to that dungeon cell
He could not guess, but yet could surely tell
A foe had done it, and a foe to fear.
Nor was there comfort in the sounds that rose
Of lamentation round him. "Friends," he said,
"For friends I deem ye if alike misled
Ye here are brought against your wills as I,
Can any tell me by what enmity
This evil came?"
And with one voice replied
The twenty captive knights who round him lay:
"Are ye another? Was the gate so wide
Ye entered unduressed and ignorant?
Soon may ye enter here, and long repent.
But most who come were brought a different way."
"That would I learn," he said; "for naught I know."
"However came ye here to share our woe,
One are we by the like adversity,
And freely may we speak. Three years have gone
- Or more or less - three years of causeless thrall,
Since we, on whom God's light of morning shone,
Have languished in this gloom of narrowing wall,
And bars through which that single space of sky
Sees the sun never, and the stars go by.
"What was our fault? No fault these bonds belong,
Except we would not, to uphold a wrong,
On our vain swords against High God rely,
And by the verdict of His justice die."
"More would I hear."
"The tale is short to tell.
In this strong hold a caitiff knight doth dwell,
Sir Damas. Not the foulest sewer of Hell
Would find his worse. A very coward is he,
And false and treasoned to the like degree.
He hath a brother of a nobler sort,
Of loyal practice and of bold report,
Sir Outzlake, who doth dwell two leagues away,
Holding a manor, as by strength he may,
Which is but little to his right, for all
The wealth which at their father's death did fall
Into Sir Damas' hands, from greed and pride,
He would not as by rightful use divide.
"Against this wrong Sir Outzlake made appeal,
That either in fair combat, steel to steel,
He would God's verdict take, or else provide
A champion for his part. No knight alive
Could that decline. No craven, false as he,
Could dare to thus defend his perfidy.
A champion knight he sought, but found that none
Against Sir Outzlake in such cause would strive,
Even for much gold. In this extremity,
To seize good knights by craft he did not spare,
And hold them captive here, except they swear
His part to take. And so, with words of guile,
He doth the appointed combat-hour delay,
Year following year, and dungeoned here the while,
Shackled and starved that some have died thereby,
And some so weak from lengthened hunger lie
They may not stand, we in his danger stay,
Refusing freedom by his shameful way."
"Full evil is thy tale," the king replied,
"And simple of belief the while I share
The bondage that ye tell. To break the snare
Good hope must still be mine. I will not deem
But I can wake me from so foul a dream."
So spake they till the dawn the darkness slew,
What time a damsel to King Arthur drew,
Courteous of speech, and gentle-meined, who said:
"Fair lord, what cheer?"
"I would I surelier knew."
"Lord, thine the choice. A champion's part to play
Is all thy need. But else thy days are sped
Of freedom on fair height, or woodland way."
And Arthur answered lightly: "Liever I,
So foul my choice, in such vain strife would die
Than in these dungeons starve... Now grant I take
This combat for his need, will Damas break
The bondage of these knights? And well provide
Proved arms for peril, and sure steed to ride?"
"Yea, all thou wilt," she said, "he'll grant with speed,
So bold a knight to gain to meet his need."
"Damsel," he said, "thy face thy voice, suggest
Some doubtful memory mine..... In earlier quest,
Or at the court of Arthur, once we met?"
"Nay, for my youth in these strait towers hath grown.
Palace or wild alike I have not known.
Lord Damas' daughter I."
So smoothly lied
A damsel of Le Fey.
To Damas next
She went as falsely. Little thought was his
Of whom she served in secret. "Lord, there is
A strange knight taken in thy seat,
By whom Sir Outzlake should be shrewdly vexed,
If bribes or threats should gain him."
"Bring him here."
And when King Arthur came, a likely knight
He thought him, and solemn oath was plight
On Arthur's side to take that evil strife,
To gain for Damas or to loss of life;
At which consent Sir Damas straight released
The twenty captives that he held before.
For Arthur thought: "If wrong the cause I take
It will not triumph, but I dread me more
Such captive thrall than that my life were ceased
By God's high verdict; and these knights to free
Is one thing good; and better end may be
Than one who sees not to the last can see."
Sir Accolon wakened by a deep well-side,
Wherefrom a fountain flung a glittering tide
That backward into marble basins fell.
Therefrom he gazed in marvelled doubt around
And saw sloped lawns and sweeping walks that wound,
Twixt lawns and lake, and tamed and ordered well;
And by the lake a male swan preened his pride,
And from the further trees a peacock cried.
It was a fair wide pleasance, made for man;
Yet stilled it seemed as though, since time began,
Had no man moved therein, nor tempest stirred;
Or fey had formed it from a faery word.
But fear was his that altered scene to see,
As memory waked, and swift he rose. "Perde,"
Aloud he spake, "some strange enchantment here
With sight's delusion mocks, and sharp my fear
That those fair burdens of the faery boats
Have meant my lord but evil. Would my brand
Had slit the lying whiteness of their throats
The while they knelt before us on the strand."
Then with a wider-seeking gaze he knew
Those distant towers, dove-white, that broke the blue,
Where once had Morgan held him lightly thralled
In willing bondage. Now his thought recalled
How, for more favours than indeed he knew,
(For memory of the most her arts withdrew,
So that the truth was dream, and dreams were true),
His pledge she held her champion's part to do.
Then at his side a white-clad dwarf appeared,
Wide-mouthed, flat-visaged, monstrous as the feared
Elves of the Caves.
"The queen I serve," he said,
"Morgan Le Fey, sends greeting, bids you know
The test you pledged is here. If now you show
The fearless valour that approved your vow
Her guerdon will not fail. If do you now
Battle to the utterance, being most merciless,
That her most foe he fallen beyond redress
(Thy private promise when some grace she gave),
Then to thy chosen damsel who shall bring
His off-hewn head she will such largesse dower
Of wide estate and strength of sheltering tower
That she shall greet thee next as queen to king,
Yet soft of mood to be thine underling.
"Who serves Le Fey hath little need to fear.
Behold, to guard thy life she sends thee here
King Arthur's sword, his own Excalibar.
Much in the trenchant blade its virtues are,
But in the scabbard most its safety lies,
For who shall wear it finds the quick blood dries
As instant as the wounding steel retires."
Sir Accolon answered: "Not for hell's hot fires
My given word were changed. But say what time
This combat joins?"
"Tomorrow's hour of prime."
"When did you see the queen?"
"An hour ago."
"Commend me to her grace, and say that so,
Even as thy words have been, shall all things be.
I only would it were my part to see
Herself once more, who still to thrall me seems
A thought of God incarnate, reached in dreams,
But lost to wakeful days; and that she wills
Shall neither heavenly boons nor earthly ills
Divert me to denial.... I well suppose
That these enchantments had no purpose else
But here my presence for this strife to bring?"
"You likely may suppose a likely thing."
Even as the dwarf retired, his purpose done,
There came a knight in peaceful garb, who brought
His lady with him, both who fair besought
Sir Accolon's favour at their hall to bide.
And he unloth in grateful words replied,
At which their squires a void horse forward led,
And he went with them.
In short time they came
Where a fair manor by a priory stood,
Between a broad stream and a branching wood.
Here to his guest Sir Outzlake gave his name,
Which Accolon had not heard. Next hour was brought
Word from Sir Damas of no peaceful sort.
"I have a champion for my need," he wrote,
"Who at tomorrow's prime in field will stand
To stint the clamour from thy slandering throat.
Do thou be there, or never more expand
Thy bray of valour, or thy whine of wrong."
"Now," said Sir Outzlake, "is my chance, and lo!
A wound unhealed is mine - doth Damas know? -
Which makes me for such bout awhile unfit.
Yet for my honour and lands to venture it
Needs would I, though the strength to stand upright
I scantly know. To find a champion knight
Never my brother's need as mine today!"
Then spoke Sir Accolon: "The need you say
Be mine to fill. A royal sword I bear
Intended surely for the overthrow
Of not thine only but my lady's foe."
Sir Outzlake said: "Whatever sword you wear
It is not stouter than thy heart, to take
A strife not thine; and for what lady's sake
I know not, but for equal thanks I know
Who is not hence thy friend hath twice a foe."
Then sent he to Sir Damas bold reply:
"A champion for the morn alike have I.
May God the right to His conclusion bring."
So came at next day's prime the captived king
To meet Sir Accolon, while neither knew
Whose hand the opposing sword of conflict drew,
Yet each believed a makeless sword he bore.
For Arthur, of his cause less confident,
Was of his sword assured, for Morgan sent
That morn to him a secret messenger.
With sheath and sword that seemed Excalibar.
Why should he doubt of it? Or doubt of her?
His sister, wedded to a king who gave
Allegiance to his throne? He grasped the glaive
With grateful words, and cast his own away,
Not pausing in that haste to charge her say
How of his sudden need Queen Morgan knew.
So in the lists for that stern ordeal set,
Knightly with urge of rushing steeds they met.
Held the great lances, guided straight and well:
Chargers and knights alike reversed and fell,
And rose alike, and while their squires withdrew
The struggling steeds, the champions' swords were bare.
Clattering they met. Strong hearts, strong arms were there
To take or deal, and still the strife renew.
For Accolon thought beyond that victory
The mistress of his fevered dream to see,
Nor doubt of error in his cause had he.
And Arthur thought: 'No noble part have I.
Yet think I am not in these toils to die.'
Not reason, but high heart, upheld him now
To sanguine sureness that he should not fall
From his great place in this unlikely brawl.
Nor least in that good sword, Excalibar,
His trust was set, although that sword he felt
Not in his hand, but by the blows it dealt.
Soon was his need for constant heart increased,
For vainly on his foeman's helm he beat,
But Accolon's sword was harder steel to meet.
For every stroke that reached him, most or least,
Reddened his mail; until the truth he guessed
With sickening heart, although he failed to see
By what strange dealings could such treason be.
Yet not his crest, and not his sword therefor
He lowlier held, but with heart more high
He conquered that cold doubt. 'For, last or die,'
He thought, 'Pendragon from no field shall flee.
Slain if I must, but shamed I will not, be.'
Aloud Sir Accolon now, exulting cried:
But Arthur silent, with such stroke replied:
That Accolon bent, and some short space withdrew.
But then, in woundless strength, he rushed anew,
On Arthur, and that stroke in kind repaid.
Now Arthur stooped, but still his desperate blade,
Powerless to wound, the threatening end delayed.
While the great crowd that watched with wonder saw
That though, from out so many wounds he bled
That all his arms and all the ground were red,
He did not from the assailing sword withdraw,
Whereat much pity and much praise was said.
There was a damsel at Sir Damas' side,
One of the hundreds, lord and knight and dame
Of the bright crowd who to that conflict came.
Silent she watched the while the strife was tried,
With quiet eyes aloof from all she saw,
As one who naught contemned, and naught could awe.
Now to Sir Damas spake she, cool and low;
"Fair lord, you near an end you do not know.
Thy champion falters. To thy gain it were
To cease this trial, and the wrong repair
Which will not longer wait its time."
Warned in such sort, who knew not Nimue,
Short answer gave: "My champion holds his place,
And yet may conquer."
"If he gain for thee,
Thy more defeat is in that victory.
Be it as thou wilt."
No further heed she gave
To one she vainly warned; but all her care
Was now for Arthur. He, short breath to save,
Drew somewhat back, and for some resting-space
He called, as warriors by consent would do,
To pause awhile and then the strife renew,
If equal valour should its end delay.
But Accolon answered: "Nay, for more thy need.
Thou art mine by many wounds to save or slay.
Resume or yield;" and Arthur, wrothed thereby,
Swung up his sword, and made his hard reply
On Accolon's helm, who reeling backward went.
But Arthur larglier might that stroke repent,
For snapt the sword beneath the hilt. He held
The pommel only. Fear he needs must feel;
Yet still against despair his heart rebelled,
And with his covering shield he faced his foe.
"Now yield ye recreant, or your life forgo."
"I may not," said the King; "mine oath is sworn
To strive while life shall last, and that would I
Though with bare hands, and were I slain thereby
A hundred times, for shamed I would not live."
"Then must I slay thee, though I lack the will."
"Shame will be thine a swordless knight to kill."
"Thy life thy knowest that I may not give
Except you recreant yield. I will not spare,
Unless Sir Damas' claim you all forswear."
"That will I never."
"Thine the choice."
His sword he raised as one who ruth forgat.
But Arthur dived the coming stroke below,
And hard his shield upthrust at Accolon's chin,
While with the hilt he dealt so shrewd a blow
That Nimue, watching with calm eyes, as naught
Their depths could trouble with disturbing thought,
Saw that which men have guessed she willed to see.
For stumbled both, and Arthur to his knee
Went down; but fell from Accolon's bruise-numbed hand
The enchanted sword, and Arthur snatched the brand
Even as it fell, and as its hilt he knew
The truth was plain: "Oh, truant sword," he cried,
"Much evil hast thou done me!" Ere he smote.
He snatched the scabbard from Sir Accolon's side,
And cast it far: "Oh, knight," he said, "to you
All that you gave me can I now restore.
On thine own head shall fall thy precepts now.
Sayest thou the swordless I of right should slay?"
Steel of strong helm, and lift of sheltering shield
The great sword countered in midstroke, but shore
Unhindered way. His stumbling foeman fell
Sore wounded from that sorcerous strife, and lay
The king's point offering at his throat, that well
Might now its own enforced treason pay.
"Bethink you," said the King, "except you yield
I thrust." And Accolon answered: "That you may.
Light is the toil a fallen knight to slay;
And well from that sword-changing chance I see
That God is on thy part, and not with me.
I ask thee naught. Mine oath is pledged too deep
My life in recreance from this field to keep,
Were death more far."
But Arthur answered: "Nay,"
- For half it seemed that distant voice he knew -
"But speak thou first thy name, lest wrath fordo
That ruth might save."
The fallen answered: "I
Who here death-hurt beyond thy danger lie,
Beyond alike thy threats or mercy, well
Might all refuse, but that I choose to tell.
Accolon of Gaul, and Arthur's knight am I."
King Arthur heard and knew. With swift dismay,
His thought recalled the barque, the dungeon cell,
The sword his sister sent. He answered: "Say
How to your hand Excalibar came?"
That magic sword hath been, myself to slay."
"I doubt it naught; but answer."
"Queen le Fey
Sent me that sword but yestermorn. I show
More than I need, the fuller truth to tell.
Because I love her, and she loves me well,
She sent it, charging me this strife to take,
And slay thee surely (whom I do not know;
Or know thee only as her chosen foe).
But earlier in my hands that sword hath been,
And destined for more treasonous use. The Queen
Waited the chance when, for her dearest sake,
I might King Arthur find apart and slay;
When would she likewise with King Urience deal,
And be the whole land's ruler. Then should I
Be owned her lover with no more conceal,
And reign beside her. But I think to die
Of this deep wound; and now that dream is through
I ask no other than thy name to learn,
For whom did Heaven this strife against me turn,
And of what court ye be."
"You know not that?"
"I swear I know not."
"That you thought to do
You did most nearly. Arthur's self am I."
"Oh, gracious lord, forgive! I all confess
Of plotted evil, but did not guess
That thou didst front me here."
"I that believe;
And therefore somewhat would thy fault reprieve,
And that the more because at last I know
My sister's falsehood to its depth, and grieve
Her subtle crafts, that can, with lustful bait,
Corrupt good knights who on her favours wait:
Favours less certain than their wage of woe.
Well may I mercy find to pardon them,
Who must myself for kindred fault condemn.
"Have I not trusted her as none beside,
As castellan preferred to friend or bride
To keep this sword on which may life depend,
Heedless to warning word from bride or friend?
Vengeance I should not and I shall not spare
Shall pass thee by, who laid her treason bare."
Then to the Keepers of the Field he called:
"Behold," he said, "this strife yourselves have seen
Hath been full bitter, yet it had not been
Had we two knights been told of whom we were
By those who knew, and did its end contrive -
An end of treason which there will not be."
Then from the ground Sir Accolon spake: "Give heed,
All ye who hear me. Here before you stands
The lord of all our lives and all our lands,
Arthur, our gracious sovereign, liege and king.
Dying, by God's high boon from falsehood freed,
I here declare it, and repent full sore
That guiled I fell to such misfortuning."
Then wondered all who heard, but feared the more
The kingdom's lord in such a pass to see.
"Mercy, good lord, for who the truth could tell,
Or guess their liege in Damas' arms should be?"
"Mercy," the King replied, "is lightly thine,
For errant chance, that brought this knight of mine
To such contention, to our equal bane,
Is not your guilt. But ere my wounds prevail
Hear how I fought, and why I did not fail:
False was my cause, but treason held the field.
God's judgements will not to such treasons yield,
And hence I conquered. By that victory
All that Sir Damas claimed hath come to be
His proven right. That right I first allow;
But as your king I give my judgement now
On other issues that mine eyes have seen.
"Sir Damas, by whose hands good knights have been,
Through thy much violence and thy villany,
Dungeoned without offence, without appeal,
Mercy I grant on three observances.
First, thou shalt all these twenty knights restore
Not to mere freedom, but content them more
With horse and harness than they owned before,
And all that knighthood needs. If only one
To Camelot bring complaint that less be done
Knight will I send who shall thy life require
In mortal field, and of such bold repute
That champion for thy part thou shalt not hire,
Nor shalt thou practice to that strife delay -
The day he cometh shall be thine ending day.
"Next, thou shalt swear upon the sacred page
Thou wilt no further in such toils engage
By-wandering knights; and if thou dost again,
Thou shalt be surely by my justice slain.
"Last, to Sir Outzlake shall thou grant anew
The manor-lands he held, his seemly due.
But he shall pay thee as their rent agreed
A yearly palfrey of a peaceful breed;
For not a charger, great of heart and thew,
Thy meagre knighthood needs."
To Outzlake next
He spake: "Because men call thee bold, nor less
Of good regard for truth and gentleness,
Thou shalt with me to Camelot ride, and there,
Be thy deeds equal, and thy fame as fair
As these report, by God's good grace will I
So serve thee that short time shall testify
Thy greater worship and thy more domain
Than Damas boasteth, or such crafts obtain."
"Go will I gladly at thy side."
How far from Camelot am I snatched astray?"
"A two days' journey when the roads are dry."
"Then must I rest me first. What place is nigh
Of worship for mine ease?"
"Three miles away
There is an abbey of nuns of high degree,
King Uther founded. There thy rest should be
Secure, and bruise and hurt well comforted."
"There will I," said the king, "and bid prepare
A litter for Sir Accolon. Harboured there,
He shall be tended well, and leeched with care,
For he was by most sorcerous arts misled.
Because my sister would my life betray.
I will not vengeance on her instrument."
So to that Abbey's kindly roof they went
Victims alike of Morgan's lustful guile.
There Arthur well revived his strength forespent,
But Accolon, less of good blood drained, the while
Died as men die whose hope is past.
Death found him, memories that her art had blurred
Returned, but is such sort that all he saw
Was outward seeming, of himself as she
Seduced him to her wanton, ruthless will....
The noon was summer and the woods were still.
Relaxed in sleep her body's grace unclad
Gleamed in the deep cool greenness of the glade.
Well knew she none would pass that path unstayed
While thus she lay. No watchful need was hers
Her lure to prove. But waking eyes forbad
What sleep might yield, nor larger need imply.
No adder on the sunwarmed path might lie
Deadlier, nor less the coming foot to care,
Than in that shadowed glade beside the way
The sorceress slept.
The pacing hooves were still.
The steel, toiled-heated, stayed content. The noise
Of silenced birds returned the boughs. Nor dare
To wake this goddess of the woods, nor will
To leave such sight his heart could hold, until
She stirred, and eyes that seeming sleep had hid
Were on him, shameless with abrupt desire.
So watched he with cold heart the deed he did
With hotter pulses at her lustful lure.
Shrank his shamed thoughts therefrom, so base a hire
To own, and saw fair death, the waiting cure.
Divided from his previous self was he
By God's accepted light his sin to see.
Then Arthur to the gate of Morgan sent
The corse of Accolon. 'Behold,' he wrote,
'How vainly by the craft his life is spent!
Take the poor barter of thy sorcerous trade.
Mine is the sheath again, and mine the blade.'
But ere they reached, Queen Morgan, deeming sure
The death of Arthur in that nameless guise,
Rose with the morn, and looked with hateful eyes
On Urience sleeping. In short words she bid
One of those damsels who her treasons did
His sword to fetch: "No better time than now
To end his life," she said, "will fate allow."
"Oh, madam, if our noble lord we slay,
No art will save us, but our lives will pay."
"Nay, fetch the sword. You all misdeem. To me
The rule remains. But those who first obey
Will be the first their bright reward to see."
With no more words the damsel turned. She went
To where Ewaine in morning slumber lay.
"Oh, wake," she cried, "or else, our curse to be,
A deed of shame your mother seeks to do,
Which long we might, and all our land repent,
And no one will she heed, or only you."
"Well," said Ewaine, "to do the Queen's commands
Is thine, who else may long her vengeance feel.
Go by the way she wills, and let me deal."
No more the damsel said. With trembling hands
To Morgan's firmer grasp the sword she bore,
Who from the sheath the long bright blade outslid,
And cool and well-assured in all she did
Went boldly to the bed, and stood beside,
Pausing one moment only to decide
Where best the point to drive as Urience lay.
But as she raised the sword, a hand she felt
Grasping her wrist. Appalled, and hard, and low
The voice she heard: "Ah, fiend, and wouldst thou so?
Men say that Merlin had a fiend for sire,
But I may say a devil's womb I knew."
She loosed the sword, against his feet she knelt.
"Ah, son, fair son, Ewaine, as God is true
It was not of my will. Such moods of woe
At times possess me that I think to do
That which I would not. Hadst thou not been here
I had but feigned it, and the sword put by."
"Ah, mother, but for that dear name," he said,
"It were this moment that would see you dead.
But now I know not what were right to do."
"Fair son, have mercy, as by God I swear
I will that moment's evil thought repair
By loving service to my lord and you.
Only reveal not what hath been! For so
Would all my honour and my worship go."
"Might I so much believe - "
"Fair son, you may.
Thee have I always loved, and all I say
Will for thy sake be done."
"Ah, well!" Said he,
"God grant it!"
All the while their words they kept
So low, that all unware King Urience slept.
Queen Morgan read the scroll King Arthur sent.
She looked at Accolon, whom to death she led.
Nigh burst her heart with grief, but naught she said,
Nor showed that grief with which her heart was rent.
But well the shortness of her life she guessed
If Arthur caught her now. She sought the Queen.
"I have such tidings that I may not rest
Until I right them. Give me grace to go."
Guenever answered: "Nay, ye would not so
Till Arthur join us? From this strange delay
It is not likely that a longer day
Will hold him."
"Haste is mine. I must not stay."
"Well, as thou wilt."
That night, with all her train,
Queen Morgan passed the gate. All day she rode,
Longing the safety of the towers of Gore.
Yet subtly swerving from the nearer way,
Came to the nunnery where King Arthur lay.
Deep in Southgales, beside its wintry lake.
The steeds were weary, and she did not know,
Till there she lighted, that the king was there.
Then said she: "Doth he rest? For his dear sake
Hard have I ridden, since I heard of how
He wounded lay."
They answered: "Nay but now
From long dis-ease he sleeps."
"Then do not wake.
I will beside him watch, as sisters may."
With light assent she passed to where he lay,
Thinking the sword once more to gain, but he
Slept with it in his hand, as well might be
After such mischief from its loss afore.
To wake him was a risk she did not dare.
She took the scabbard; and her weary train
Roused from their hope of rest to ride again.
King Arthur waked, and cried aloud: "Perde,
Where is that scabbard which I do not see?"
They told him what had been. Wood wroth was he.
"Is none to trust?"
"Lord, when thy sister came,
Who were we, to deny so great a name?"
"Well, what is done will never words recall.
What use is wrath? I had not thought so bold
Even my sister at her chance should be,
Or more had warned. But stir Sir Outzlake now.
And fetch me two good steeds, the best of all
Your stables hold. For on her trace will we
Ride at such pace as never those who flee
Shall equal, though the spurs of fear they ply.
What train was hers?"
"Her following knights were ten."
"Then two should drive them. Never valorous men
Doth sorcery breed, nor gold of treason buy."
Then Arthur armed him at all points, and thus
With Outzlake and good squires, the chase he took
Southward and westward on the road to Gore.
For well he guessed that Morgan's eyes would look
With longing for the rocky height that bore
King Urience' towers. Yet not to risk too far
What doubt must be, when, by a cross of stone,
They saw a poor man resting, there they reined.
"Have any passed thee?"
"Lord, and hour ago,"
The cowherd answered, "came a headlong rout,
With lashed and jaded steeds, a lady led.
Ten knights full armed were there; and thirty more
The steeds her baggage and her menials bore.
Southward they turned where forks the road ahead."
"Now must we prove our speed," King Arthur said,
"An hour is little, for they ride but ill."
Faster they rode, awhile by heath and hill,
Awhile through forest wastes, until they saw
The dust of those they chased, which wintry boughs
Were leafless to conceal; and Morgan too
Had seen. She said: "When faster steeds pursue,
What flight avails? Yet narrowing time allows
To foil my brother of his end." She took
The splendid sheath, and on the shelving bank
Of a dark lake she stayed. She flung it far.
Weighted with gold and gems, too deep it sank
For quest of man to gain it. "Now may look
King Arthur where he will," she laughed, and so
They left the shore of that dark lake, to ride
A drear wide vale and bare, stone-strewn and dry,
Where drifts of mist beneath the low grey sky
Were all too thin their further flight to hide.
And in that fear increased, as fast she fled,
There crossed her thought an ancient charm she read
In early nunnery days, by which she changed
Herself and all the knights that round her ranged
To semblance of the stones they rode. And those
In close pursuit beheld their panting foes
So change, and rode among them, and could not say
Which were the stones before, and which were they.
"Here," said the King, "God's vengeance, as I ween,
Hath fallen, and no more my sister-queen
Will, with her sorcerous arts, on earth be seen.
Yet should the scabbard in this vale be found."
Thereat they searched the stones, and all around,
And found all searching, as it must be, vain;
And slowlier to the nunnery rode again.
Queen Morgan watched the baffled king depart,
And by reversal of her sorcerous art
Restored the animation of her train.
"You saw the king?" She asked.
"We saw," they said,
"Such fury in his eyes, and those he led
Were of such perilous kind, that hadst thou not
Constrained us by thy spells we fast had fled."
"I well believe it."
Silent then she fell,
Contriving as she rode a subtler plot
Than those that failed her, till her thought returned
To present chancings, as a knight they met
Who to his own another charger's rein
Had joined, for thus a blindfold knight and bound
He led in shameful wise.
"I charge ye tell,"
Queen Morgan asked, "what recreant deed hath earned
This hard reproach?"
The knight replied: "The debt
His bonds requite not, but their strength assures
That payment will not fail. When cast and drowned
In the near lake, no more the lewd allures
Of my false wife will cause his heart forget
What friendship owes."
"What friendship owes? Perde,
But little friendship in those bonds I see.
Why should his grace have been the more to thee
Than thine is now to him? Or wherefore set
Friendship aside, thy chosen friend to slay,
Because a woman goes her natural way?"
"I have a wrong that only death can pay.
That will she find her natural way to be."
"You all misvalue. Send them hence unslain.
Enough of damsels for thy use remain.
It may be fairer, and as fain as she."
"But she was mine. Her honour pledged to me."
"Doth she allow the fault?"
"She all denies,
With the sharp fear that spurs a wanton's lies."
"Doth he admit?"
"He swears it is not true.
Each time more perjured as he swears anew."
"Bound knight, how didst thou in this danger fall?"
"He bound me in my sleep, reversing all
The rules of honour. Had I waked to deal,
He were but carrion for a vulture's meal."
"How friendship thrives when women sport! But say
Who and from whence thou art?"
"A knight of Gaul,
Manassen, now of Arthur's Court am I,
Sir Accolon's cousin."
"Not for Arthur's sake,
But for thy cousin's name, those bonds to break
I must not fail. Good friends, his cords untie,
And he who bound him serve an equal way.
That which Manassen felt himself should feel."
So was it done. Her knights surrounding laid
Strong sudden hands on him whose foul arrest
A sleeping friend had snared. The knight, dismayed,
Fury and fear despite, and loud protest,
Was quickly bound. Queen Morgan laughed to see.
"Now wilt thou fight him, friend, or what shall be?"
"I would deal with him as he meant with me."
"Friendship endures! But wert thou false or true,
Not so would honour or good knighthood do
As he with thee. And who should bid thee nay,
If his the coin you use the debt to pay?"
They rode to that deep lake's high-shelving shore,
Wherein the scabbard had been cast before,
And there they drowned him. Were it right or wrong
Queen Morgan cared not. But a jesting word
She gave Manassen: "She he would not share
May now be wholly thine, except she heard
Thine oath that for her best thou dost not care,
And trusts thee less another oath to swear.
Such gods be with thee as thy barter needs!...
But wilt thou to the court at Camelot bear
A sister's message? Tell him naught I fear,
For men I make as stones, or stones appear
As though strong knights of marshalled strength they were.
Tell him I wait my time, and then will do
More than his wit will turn, or Merlin knew."
Next morn, Queen Morgan gained the towers of Gore,
And all her land she armed, and strengthened well.
For said she: "As Pendragon wrought before
Against my father, so belike with me
His son would deal. But more than earthly skill
To foil him from my secret lore will be
The viewless girdle of the walls I man."
Meanwhile King Arthur to the court returned,
Whereof all Camelot and the Queen were glad,
Marvelling as of that strange event they learned,
And all the perils and the pains he had.
"There hath not been, since Christian days began,
So false a queen," they said. "Good sight it were
Her stake-bound body in clean fire to see,
For her much treason and adultery."
Then to the court Manassen came, to bear
Such witness as a dubious tale arrayed.
Morgan's high taunt he to the king conveyed,
Who answered: "What my sister's plots intend
I do not doubt, but yet, with God to aid,
I am not barren of a strengthful friend."
When spring released from winter's colder claim
The leafless woodlands, and the mounting sun
Surrender of the willing earth had won,
A fair-clad damsel from Queen Morgan came
With innocent eyes, and words of peace, and prayer
For concord: "All her evil crafts misdone
Shall be amended to thy will: she pleads
Thy mercy, and repents her earlier deeds.
Rich gifts in protest of her meaning fair
Before thy throne I spread. She prays thee wear
This garment, princely as thyself."
A mantle at his feet of ermine rare,
And set with gems of price beyond compare
Of aught the court contained, or Arthur's eyes
Had seen till then; and half he thought to rise
And take a gift so great, and half afraid
Of Morgan's guile, his outstretched hand he stayed,
Then rose resolved to take. But haply he
Paused at the warning voice of Nimue:
"Lord king, you may not from the gift divide
The hand that gives it. Let this cloak be tried
On her who brought it hither."
That damsel's cheek
Paled at the words, but ready speech and meek
Was her to meet it: "Good my lord," she said,
"Most gladly would I please thy grace, but I,
Mean-born, the bearer of the gift, should die
At Morgan's wrathful hand if word misled
Her hastier mood, to judge I soiled thereby,
Impelled by pride, a thing so priced; or worse,
As scorning of her princely gift were read
So strange a deed. And, for myself, beside,
Maid am I, and may not for repute reverse
For kingly garb the maiden zone I wear."
He answered: "Ill you plead. So great her pride,
You deem she would not own my right, but dare
To slay thee for obedience given? I know
The love she showed that wrought her recent woe;
And that thieved sword my mind recalls. Do thou,
And with swift hands, the thing I speak, for now
You stand suspect of treason."
Still she stood,
Appalled, and glancing right and left, as though
For Morgan's sorcerous aid, and Arthur signed
To force her. Then, as one to death resigned,
The cloak she loosely round her shoulders drew.
No further word she spake. To ground she sank
Smouldering as one of liquid fire who drank;
Till she, and that she wore, were burnt away,
And smoking cinders told of where she lay.
"Now," said the King, "my sister's heart I see,
For that swift death was surely meant for me.
How can I rest in peace, or ride secure,
While any of her part around me be?
Though (to King Urience now he spake) I know
Thou art not of her kind nor she to thee
Her favour gives, for Accolon, ere he died,
Confessed that with my death for thine beside
She practiced...... But thy son is hers also.
I will not wrong him with a proofless slur,
But lest of natural blood he hold to her,
I will that distant from the court he ride,
Until fair deeds his loyal heart shall show."
Said Urience: "While that smoking ash we see,
I may not urge thee, though I count Ewaine
Gentle to all, and wholly bound to thee."
"Nay," said Gawain, "but I alike will go.
For he is natured, as a child should know,
No evil to devise, or wrong sustain."
Nor would he pause the king's quick wrath to stay,
But at his cousin's side he rode away.
"For doubt of one we take the loss of two,"
Gaheris said: "and, save, the king, were few
But of Ewaine's fair faith were confident."
To which the king gave answer: "Think ye so?
So may I alike, yet not my word repent.
For if untouched by any taint he be
Of treason either to my throne or me,
Then will he wander in wild lands afar
Where strange great scenes and many ventures are,
Meeting occasions to advance his name,
And making for ourselves from whence he came,
A more reputed and a farther fame;
And only if his heart to treason stir
Will he ride backward to her hold and her."
End of Chapter VI