And Lancelot slowly rode his warhorse back To Camelot, and Sir Pelleas in brief while Caught his unbroken limbs from the dark field, And followed to the city. It chanced that both Brake into hall together, worn and pale. There with her knights and dames was Guinevere. Full wonderingly she gazed on Lancelot So soon returned, and then on Pelleas, him Who had not greeted her, but cast himself Down on a bench, hard-breathing. 'Have ye fought?' She asked of Lancelot. 'Ay, my Queen,' he said. 'And hast thou overthrown him?' 'Ay, my Queen.' Then she, turning to Pelleas, 'O young knight, Hath the great heart of knighthood in thee failed So far thou canst not bide, unfrowardly, A fall from him?' Then, for he answered not, 'Or hast thou other griefs? If I, the Queen, May help them, loose thy tongue, and let me know.' But Pelleas lifted up an eye so fierce She quailed; and he, hissing 'I have no sword,' Sprang from the door into the dark. The Queen Looked hard upon her lover, he on her; And each foresaw the dolorous day to be: And all talk died, as in a grove all song Beneath the shadow of some bird of prey; Then a long silence came upon the hall, And Modred thought, 'The time is hard at hand.'
The Last Tournament
Dagonet, the fool, whom Gawain in his mood Had made mock-knight of Arthur's Table Round, At Camelot, high above the yellowing woods, Danced like a withered leaf before the hall. And toward him from the hall, with harp in hand, And from the crown thereof a carcanet Of ruby swaying to and fro, the prize Of Tristram in the jousts of yesterday, Came Tristram, saying, 'Why skip ye so, Sir Fool?'
For Arthur and Sir Lancelot riding once Far down beneath a winding wall of rock Heard a child wail. A stump of oak half-dead, From roots like some black coil of carven snakes, Clutched at the crag, and started through mid air Bearing an eagle's nest: and through the tree Rushed ever a rainy wind, and through the wind Pierced ever a child's cry: and crag and tree Scaling, Sir Lancelot from the perilous nest, This ruby necklace thrice around her neck, And all unscarred from beak or talon, brought A maiden babe; which Arthur pitying took, Then gave it to his Queen to rear: the Queen But coldly acquiescing, in her white arms Received, and after loved it tenderly, And named it Nestling; so forgot herself A moment, and her cares; till that young life Being smitten in mid heaven with mortal cold Past from her; and in time the carcanet Vext her with plaintive memories of the child: So she, delivering it to Arthur, said, 'Take thou the jewels of this dead innocence, And make them, an thou wilt, a tourney-prize.'
To whom the King, 'Peace to thine eagle-borne Dead nestling, and this honour after death, Following thy will! but, O my Queen, I muse Why ye not wear on arm, or neck, or zone Those diamonds that I rescued from the tarn, And Lancelot won, methought, for thee to wear.'
'Would rather you had let them fall,' she cried, 'Plunge and be lost—ill-fated as they were, A bitterness to me!—ye look amazed, Not knowing they were lost as soon as given— Slid from my hands, when I was leaning out Above the river—that unhappy child Past in her barge: but rosier luck will go With these rich jewels, seeing that they came Not from the skeleton of a brother-slayer, But the sweet body of a maiden babe. Perchance—who knows?—the purest of thy knights May win them for the purest of my maids.'
She ended, and the cry of a great jousts With trumpet-blowings ran on all the ways From Camelot in among the faded fields To furthest towers; and everywhere the knights Armed for a day of glory before the King.
But on the hither side of that loud morn Into the hall staggered, his visage ribbed From ear to ear with dogwhip-weals, his nose Bridge-broken, one eye out, and one hand off, And one with shattered fingers dangling lame, A churl, to whom indignantly the King,
'My churl, for whom Christ died, what evil beast Hath drawn his claws athwart thy face? or fiend? Man was it who marred heaven's image in thee thus?'
Then, sputtering through the hedge of splintered teeth, Yet strangers to the tongue, and with blunt stump Pitch-blackened sawing the air, said the maimed churl,
'He took them and he drave them to his tower— Some hold he was a table-knight of thine— A hundred goodly ones—the Red Knight, he— Lord, I was tending swine, and the Red Knight Brake in upon me and drave them to his tower; And when I called upon thy name as one That doest right by gentle and by churl, Maimed me and mauled, and would outright have slain, Save that he sware me to a message, saying, "Tell thou the King and all his liars, that I Have founded my Round Table in the North, And whatsoever his own knights have sworn My knights have sworn the counter to it—and say My tower is full of harlots, like his court, But mine are worthier, seeing they profess To be none other than themselves—and say My knights are all adulterers like his own, But mine are truer, seeing they profess To be none other; and say his hour is come, The heathen are upon him, his long lance Broken, and his Excalibur a straw."'
Then Arthur turned to Kay the seneschal, 'Take thou my churl, and tend him curiously Like a king's heir, till all his hurts be whole. The heathen—but that ever-climbing wave, Hurled back again so often in empty foam, Hath lain for years at rest—and renegades, Thieves, bandits, leavings of confusion, whom The wholesome realm is purged of otherwhere, Friends, through your manhood and your fealty,—now Make their last head like Satan in the North. My younger knights, new-made, in whom your flower Waits to be solid fruit of golden deeds, Move with me toward their quelling, which achieved, The loneliest ways are safe from shore to shore. But thou, Sir Lancelot, sitting in my place Enchaired tomorrow, arbitrate the field; For wherefore shouldst thou care to mingle with it, Only to yield my Queen her own again? Speak, Lancelot, thou art silent: is it well?'
Thereto Sir Lancelot answered, 'It is well: Yet better if the King abide, and leave The leading of his younger knights to me. Else, for the King has willed it, it is well.'
Then Arthur rose and Lancelot followed him, And while they stood without the doors, the King Turned to him saying, 'Is it then so well? Or mine the blame that oft I seem as he Of whom was written, "A sound is in his ears"? The foot that loiters, bidden go,—the glance That only seems half-loyal to command,— A manner somewhat fallen from reverence— Or have I dreamed the bearing of our knights Tells of a manhood ever less and lower? Or whence the fear lest this my realm, upreared, By noble deeds at one with noble vows, From flat confusion and brute violences, Reel back into the beast, and be no more?'
He spoke, and taking all his younger knights, Down the slope city rode, and sharply turned North by the gate. In her high bower the Queen, Working a tapestry, lifted up her head, Watched her lord pass, and knew not that she sighed. Then ran across her memory the strange rhyme Of bygone Merlin, 'Where is he who knows? From the great deep to the great deep he goes.'
But when the morning of a tournament, By these in earnest those in mockery called The Tournament of the Dead Innocence, Brake with a wet wind blowing, Lancelot, Round whose sick head all night, like birds of prey, The words of Arthur flying shrieked, arose, And down a streetway hung with folds of pure White samite, and by fountains running wine, Where children sat in white with cups of gold, Moved to the lists, and there, with slow sad steps Ascending, filled his double-dragoned chair.
He glanced and saw the stately galleries, Dame, damsel, each through worship of their Queen White-robed in honour of the stainless child, And some with scattered jewels, like a bank Of maiden snow mingled with sparks of fire. He looked but once, and vailed his eyes again.
The sudden trumpet sounded as in a dream To ears but half-awaked, then one low roll Of Autumn thunder, and the jousts began: And ever the wind blew, and yellowing leaf And gloom and gleam, and shower and shorn plume Went down it. Sighing weariedly, as one Who sits and gazes on a faded fire, When all the goodlier guests are past away, Sat their great umpire, looking o'er the lists. He saw the laws that ruled the tournament Broken, but spake not; once, a knight cast down Before his throne of arbitration cursed The dead babe and the follies of the King; And once the laces of a helmet cracked, And showed him, like a vermin in its hole, Modred, a narrow face: anon he heard The voice that billowed round the barriers roar An ocean-sounding welcome to one knight, But newly-entered, taller than the rest, And armoured all in forest green, whereon There tript a hundred tiny silver deer, And wearing but a holly-spray for crest, With ever-scattering berries, and on shield A spear, a harp, a bugle—Tristram—late From overseas in Brittany returned, And marriage with a princess of that realm, Isolt the White—Sir Tristram of the Woods— Whom Lancelot knew, had held sometime with pain His own against him, and now yearned to shake The burthen off his heart in one full shock With Tristram even to death: his strong hands gript And dinted the gilt dragons right and left, Until he groaned for wrath—so many of those, That ware their ladies' colours on the casque, Drew from before Sir Tristram to the bounds, And there with gibes and flickering mockeries Stood, while he muttered, 'Craven crests! O shame! What faith have these in whom they sware to love? The glory of our Round Table is no more.'
So Tristram won, and Lancelot gave, the gems, Not speaking other word than 'Hast thou won? Art thou the purest, brother? See, the hand Wherewith thou takest this, is red!' to whom Tristram, half plagued by Lancelot's languorous mood, Made answer, 'Ay, but wherefore toss me this Like a dry bone cast to some hungry hound? Lest be thy fair Queen's fantasy. Strength of heart And might of limb, but mainly use and skill, Are winners in this pastime of our King. My hand—belike the lance hath dript upon it— No blood of mine, I trow; but O chief knight, Right arm of Arthur in the battlefield, Great brother, thou nor I have made the world; Be happy in thy fair Queen as I in mine.'
And Tristram round the gallery made his horse Caracole; then bowed his homage, bluntly saying, 'Fair damsels, each to him who worships each Sole Queen of Beauty and of love, behold This day my Queen of Beauty is not here.' And most of these were mute, some angered, one Murmuring, 'All courtesy is dead,' and one, 'The glory of our Round Table is no more.'
Then fell thick rain, plume droopt and mantle clung, And pettish cries awoke, and the wan day Went glooming down in wet and weariness: But under her black brows a swarthy one Laughed shrilly, crying, 'Praise the patient saints, Our one white day of Innocence hath past, Though somewhat draggled at the skirt. So be it. The snowdrop only, flowering through the year, Would make the world as blank as Winter-tide. Come—let us gladden their sad eyes, our Queen's And Lancelot's, at this night's solemnity With all the kindlier colours of the field.'
So dame and damsel glittered at the feast Variously gay: for he that tells the tale Likened them, saying, as when an hour of cold Falls on the mountain in midsummer snows, And all the purple slopes of mountain flowers Pass under white, till the warm hour returns With veer of wind, and all are flowers again; So dame and damsel cast the simple white, And glowing in all colours, the live grass, Rose-campion, bluebell, kingcup, poppy, glanced About the revels, and with mirth so loud Beyond all use, that, half-amazed, the Queen, And wroth at Tristram and the lawless jousts, Brake up their sports, then slowly to her bower Parted, and in her bosom pain was lord.
And little Dagonet on the morrow morn, High over all the yellowing Autumn-tide, Danced like a withered leaf before the hall. Then Tristram saying, 'Why skip ye so, Sir Fool?' Wheeled round on either heel, Dagonet replied, 'Belike for lack of wiser company; Or being fool, and seeing too much wit Makes the world rotten, why, belike I skip To know myself the wisest knight of all.' 'Ay, fool,' said Tristram, 'but 'tis eating dry To dance without a catch, a roundelay To dance to.' Then he twangled on his harp, And while he twangled little Dagonet stood Quiet as any water-sodden log Stayed in the wandering warble of a brook; But when the twangling ended, skipt again; And being asked, 'Why skipt ye not, Sir Fool?' Made answer, 'I had liefer twenty years Skip to the broken music of my brains Than any broken music thou canst make.' Then Tristram, waiting for the quip to come, 'Good now, what music have I broken, fool?' And little Dagonet, skipping, 'Arthur, the King's; For when thou playest that air with Queen Isolt, Thou makest broken music with thy bride, Her daintier namesake down in Brittany— And so thou breakest Arthur's music too.' 'Save for that broken music in thy brains, Sir Fool,' said Tristram, 'I would break thy head. Fool, I came too late, the heathen wars were o'er, The life had flown, we sware but by the shell— I am but a fool to reason with a fool— Come, thou art crabbed and sour: but lean me down, Sir Dagonet, one of thy long asses' ears, And harken if my music be not true.
'"Free love—free field—we love but while we may: The woods are hushed, their music is no more: The leaf is dead, the yearning past away: New leaf, new life—the days of frost are o'er: New life, new love, to suit the newer day: New loves are sweet as those that went before: Free love—free field—we love but while we may."
'Ye might have moved slow-measure to my tune, Not stood stockstill. I made it in the woods, And heard it ring as true as tested gold.'
But Dagonet with one foot poised in his hand, 'Friend, did ye mark that fountain yesterday Made to run wine?—but this had run itself All out like a long life to a sour end— And them that round it sat with golden cups To hand the wine to whosoever came— The twelve small damosels white as Innocence, In honour of poor Innocence the babe, Who left the gems which Innocence the Queen Lent to the King, and Innocence the King Gave for a prize—and one of those white slips Handed her cup and piped, the pretty one, "Drink, drink, Sir Fool," and thereupon I drank, Spat—pish—the cup was gold, the draught was mud.'
And Tristram, 'Was it muddier than thy gibes? Is all the laughter gone dead out of thee?— Not marking how the knighthood mock thee, fool— "Fear God: honour the King—his one true knight— Sole follower of the vows"—for here be they Who knew thee swine enow before I came, Smuttier than blasted grain: but when the King Had made thee fool, thy vanity so shot up It frighted all free fool from out thy heart; Which left thee less than fool, and less than swine, A naked aught—yet swine I hold thee still, For I have flung thee pearls and find thee swine.'
And little Dagonet mincing with his feet, 'Knight, an ye fling those rubies round my neck In lieu of hers, I'll hold thou hast some touch Of music, since I care not for thy pearls. Swine? I have wallowed, I have washed—the world Is flesh and shadow—I have had my day. The dirty nurse, Experience, in her kind Hath fouled me—an I wallowed, then I washed— I have had my day and my philosophies— And thank the Lord I am King Arthur's fool. Swine, say ye? swine, goats, asses, rams and geese Trooped round a Paynim harper once, who thrummed On such a wire as musically as thou Some such fine song—but never a king's fool.'
And Tristram, 'Then were swine, goats, asses, geese The wiser fools, seeing thy Paynim bard Had such a mastery of his mystery That he could harp his wife up out of hell.'
Then Dagonet, turning on the ball of his foot, 'And whither harp'st thou thine? down! and thyself Down! and two more: a helpful harper thou, That harpest downward! Dost thou know the star We call the harp of Arthur up in heaven?'
And Tristram, 'Ay, Sir Fool, for when our King Was victor wellnigh day by day, the knights, Glorying in each new glory, set his name High on all hills, and in the signs of heaven.'
And Dagonet answered, 'Ay, and when the land Was freed, and the Queen false, ye set yourself To babble about him, all to show your wit— And whether he were King by courtesy, Or King by right—and so went harping down The black king's highway, got so far, and grew So witty that ye played at ducks and drakes With Arthur's vows on the great lake of fire. Tuwhoo! do ye see it? do ye see the star?'
'Nay, fool,' said Tristram, 'not in open day.' And Dagonet, 'Nay, nor will: I see it and hear. It makes a silent music up in heaven, And I, and Arthur and the angels hear, And then we skip.' 'Lo, fool,' he said, 'ye talk Fool's treason: is the King thy brother fool?' Then little Dagonet clapt his hands and shrilled, 'Ay, ay, my brother fool, the king of fools! Conceits himself as God that he can make Figs out of thistles, silk from bristles, milk From burning spurge, honey from hornet-combs, And men from beasts—Long live the king of fools!'
And down the city Dagonet danced away; But through the slowly-mellowing avenues And solitary passes of the wood Rode Tristram toward Lyonnesse and the west. Before him fled the face of Queen Isolt With ruby-circled neck, but evermore Past, as a rustle or twitter in the wood Made dull his inner, keen his outer eye For all that walked, or crept, or perched, or flew. Anon the face, as, when a gust hath blown, Unruffling waters re-collect the shape Of one that in them sees himself, returned; But at the slot or fewmets of a deer, Or even a fallen feather, vanished again.
So on for all that day from lawn to lawn Through many a league-long bower he rode. At length A lodge of intertwisted beechen-boughs Furze-crammed, and bracken-rooft, the which himself Built for a summer day with Queen Isolt Against a shower, dark in the golden grove Appearing, sent his fancy back to where She lived a moon in that low lodge with him: Till Mark her lord had past, the Cornish King, With six or seven, when Tristram was away, And snatched her thence; yet dreading worse than shame Her warrior Tristram, spake not any word, But bode his hour, devising wretchedness.
And now that desert lodge to Tristram lookt So sweet, that halting, in he past, and sank Down on a drift of foliage random-blown; But could not rest for musing how to smoothe And sleek his marriage over to the Queen. Perchance in lone Tintagil far from all The tonguesters of the court she had not heard. But then what folly had sent him overseas After she left him lonely here? a name? Was it the name of one in Brittany, Isolt, the daughter of the King? 'Isolt Of the white hands' they called her: the sweet name Allured him first, and then the maid herself, Who served him well with those white hands of hers, And loved him well, until himself had thought He loved her also, wedded easily, But left her all as easily, and returned. The black-blue Irish hair and Irish eyes Had drawn him home—what marvel? then he laid His brows upon the drifted leaf and dreamed.
He seemed to pace the strand of Brittany Between Isolt of Britain and his bride, And showed them both the ruby-chain, and both Began to struggle for it, till his Queen Graspt it so hard, that all her hand was red. Then cried the Breton, 'Look, her hand is red! These be no rubies, this is frozen blood, And melts within her hand—her hand is hot With ill desires, but this I gave thee, look, Is all as cool and white as any flower.' Followed a rush of eagle's wings, and then A whimpering of the spirit of the child, Because the twain had spoiled her carcanet.
He dreamed; but Arthur with a hundred spears Rode far, till o'er the illimitable reed, And many a glancing plash and sallowy isle, The wide-winged sunset of the misty marsh Glared on a huge machicolated tower That stood with open doors, whereout was rolled A roar of riot, as from men secure Amid their marshes, ruffians at their ease Among their harlot-brides, an evil song. 'Lo there,' said one of Arthur's youth, for there, High on a grim dead tree before the tower, A goodly brother of the Table Round Swung by the neck: and on the boughs a shield Showing a shower of blood in a field noir, And therebeside a horn, inflamed the knights At that dishonour done the gilded spur, Till each would clash the shield, and blow the horn. But Arthur waved them back. Alone he rode. Then at the dry harsh roar of the great horn, That sent the face of all the marsh aloft An ever upward-rushing storm and cloud Of shriek and plume, the Red Knight heard, and all, Even to tipmost lance and topmost helm, In blood-red armour sallying, howled to the King,
'The teeth of Hell flay bare and gnash thee flat!— Lo! art thou not that eunuch-hearted King Who fain had clipt free manhood from the world— The woman-worshipper? Yea, God's curse, and I! Slain was the brother of my paramour By a knight of thine, and I that heard her whine And snivel, being eunuch-hearted too, Sware by the scorpion-worm that twists in hell, And stings itself to everlasting death, To hang whatever knight of thine I fought And tumbled. Art thou King? —Look to thy life!'
He ended: Arthur knew the voice; the face Wellnigh was helmet-hidden, and the name Went wandering somewhere darkling in his mind. And Arthur deigned not use of word or sword, But let the drunkard, as he stretched from horse To strike him, overbalancing his bulk, Down from the causeway heavily to the swamp Fall, as the crest of some slow-arching wave, Heard in dead night along that table-shore, Drops flat, and after the great waters break Whitening for half a league, and thin themselves, Far over sands marbled with moon and cloud, From less and less to nothing; thus he fell Head-heavy; then the knights, who watched him, roared And shouted and leapt down upon the fallen; There trampled out his face from being known, And sank his head in mire, and slimed themselves: Nor heard the King for their own cries, but sprang Through open doors, and swording right and left Men, women, on their sodden faces, hurled The tables over and the wines, and slew Till all the rafters rang with woman-yells, And all the pavement streamed with massacre: Then, echoing yell with yell, they fired the tower, Which half that autumn night, like the live North, Red-pulsing up through Alioth and Alcor, Made all above it, and a hundred meres About it, as the water Moab saw Came round by the East, and out beyond them flushed The long low dune, and lazy-plunging sea.
So all the ways were safe from shore to shore, But in the heart of Arthur pain was lord.
Then, out of Tristram waking, the red dream Fled with a shout, and that low lodge returned, Mid-forest, and the wind among the boughs. He whistled his good warhorse left to graze Among the forest greens, vaulted upon him, And rode beneath an ever-showering leaf, Till one lone woman, weeping near a cross, Stayed him. 'Why weep ye?' 'Lord,' she said, 'my man Hath left me or is dead;' whereon he thought— 'What, if she hate me now? I would not this. What, if she love me still? I would not that. I know not what I would'—but said to her, 'Yet weep not thou, lest, if thy mate return, He find thy favour changed and love thee not'— Then pressing day by day through Lyonnesse Last in a roky hollow, belling, heard The hounds of Mark, and felt the goodly hounds Yelp at his heart, but turning, past and gained Tintagil, half in sea, and high on land, A crown of towers.
Down in a casement sat, A low sea-sunset glorying round her hair And glossy-throated grace, Isolt the Queen. And when she heard the feet of Tristram grind The spiring stone that scaled about her tower, Flushed, started, met him at the doors, and there Belted his body with her white embrace, Crying aloud, 'Not Mark—not Mark, my soul! The footstep fluttered me at first: not he: Catlike through his own castle steals my Mark, But warrior-wise thou stridest through his halls Who hates thee, as I him—even to the death. My soul, I felt my hatred for my Mark Quicken within me, and knew that thou wert nigh.' To whom Sir Tristram smiling, 'I am here. Let be thy Mark, seeing he is not thine.'
And drawing somewhat backward she replied, 'Can he be wronged who is not even his own, But save for dread of thee had beaten me, Scratched, bitten, blinded, marred me somehow—Mark? What rights are his that dare not strike for them? Not lift a hand—not, though he found me thus! But harken! have ye met him? hence he went Today for three days' hunting—as he said— And so returns belike within an hour. Mark's way, my soul!—but eat not thou with Mark, Because he hates thee even more than fears; Nor drink: and when thou passest any wood Close vizor, lest an arrow from the bush Should leave me all alone with Mark and hell. My God, the measure of my hate for Mark Is as the measure of my love for thee.'
So, plucked one way by hate and one by love, Drained of her force, again she sat, and spake To Tristram, as he knelt before her, saying, 'O hunter, and O blower of the horn, Harper, and thou hast been a rover too, For, ere I mated with my shambling king, Ye twain had fallen out about the bride Of one—his name is out of me—the prize, If prize she were—(what marvel—she could see)— Thine, friend; and ever since my craven seeks To wreck thee villainously: but, O Sir Knight, What dame or damsel have ye kneeled to last?'
And Tristram, 'Last to my Queen Paramount, Here now to my Queen Paramount of love And loveliness—ay, lovelier than when first Her light feet fell on our rough Lyonnesse, Sailing from Ireland.'
Softly laughed Isolt; 'Flatter me not, for hath not our great Queen My dole of beauty trebled?' and he said, 'Her beauty is her beauty, and thine thine, And thine is more to me—soft, gracious, kind— Save when thy Mark is kindled on thy lips Most gracious; but she, haughty, even to him, Lancelot; for I have seen him wan enow To make one doubt if ever the great Queen Have yielded him her love.'
To whom Isolt, 'Ah then, false hunter and false harper, thou Who brakest through the scruple of my bond, Calling me thy white hind, and saying to me That Guinevere had sinned against the highest, And I—misyoked with such a want of man— That I could hardly sin against the lowest.'
He answered, 'O my soul, be comforted! If this be sweet, to sin in leading-strings, If here be comfort, and if ours be sin, Crowned warrant had we for the crowning sin That made us happy: but how ye greet me—fear And fault and doubt—no word of that fond tale— Thy deep heart-yearnings, thy sweet memories Of Tristram in that year he was away.'
And, saddening on the sudden, spake Isolt, 'I had forgotten all in my strong joy To see thee—yearnings?—ay! for, hour by hour, Here in the never-ended afternoon, O sweeter than all memories of thee, Deeper than any yearnings after thee Seemed those far-rolling, westward-smiling seas, Watched from this tower. Isolt of Britain dashed Before Isolt of Brittany on the strand, Would that have chilled her bride-kiss? Wedded her? Fought in her father's battles? wounded there? The King was all fulfilled with gratefulness, And she, my namesake of the hands, that healed Thy hurt and heart with unguent and caress— Well—can I wish her any huger wrong Than having known thee? her too hast thou left To pine and waste in those sweet memories. O were I not my Mark's, by whom all men Are noble, I should hate thee more than love.'
And Tristram, fondling her light hands, replied, 'Grace, Queen, for being loved: she loved me well. Did I love her? the name at least I loved. Isolt?—I fought his battles, for Isolt! The night was dark; the true star set. Isolt! The name was ruler of the dark—Isolt? Care not for her! patient, and prayerful, meek, Pale-blooded, she will yield herself to God.'
And Isolt answered, 'Yea, and why not I? Mine is the larger need, who am not meek, Pale-blooded, prayerful. Let me tell thee now. Here one black, mute midsummer night I sat, Lonely, but musing on thee, wondering where, Murmuring a light song I had heard thee sing, And once or twice I spake thy name aloud. Then flashed a levin-brand; and near me stood, In fuming sulphur blue and green, a fiend— Mark's way to steal behind one in the dark— For there was Mark: "He has wedded her," he said, Not said, but hissed it: then this crown of towers So shook to such a roar of all the sky, That here in utter dark I swooned away, And woke again in utter dark, and cried, "I will flee hence and give myself to God"— And thou wert lying in thy new leman's arms.'
Then Tristram, ever dallying with her hand, 'May God be with thee, sweet, when old and gray, And past desire!' a saying that angered her. '"May God be with thee, sweet, when thou art old, And sweet no more to me!" I need Him now. For when had Lancelot uttered aught so gross Even to the swineherd's malkin in the mast? The greater man, the greater courtesy. Far other was the Tristram, Arthur's knight! But thou, through ever harrying thy wild beasts— Save that to touch a harp, tilt with a lance Becomes thee well—art grown wild beast thyself. How darest thou, if lover, push me even In fancy from thy side, and set me far In the gray distance, half a life away, Her to be loved no more? Unsay it, unswear! Flatter me rather, seeing me so weak, Broken with Mark and hate and solitude, Thy marriage and mine own, that I should suck Lies like sweet wines: lie to me: I believe. Will ye not lie? not swear, as there ye kneel, And solemnly as when ye sware to him, The man of men, our King—My God, the power Was once in vows when men believed the King! They lied not then, who sware, and through their vows The King prevailing made his realm:—I say, Swear to me thou wilt love me even when old, Gray-haired, and past desire, and in despair.'
Then Tristram, pacing moodily up and down, 'Vows! did you keep the vow you made to Mark More than I mine? Lied, say ye? Nay, but learnt, The vow that binds too strictly snaps itself— My knighthood taught me this—ay, being snapt— We run more counter to the soul thereof Than had we never sworn. I swear no more. I swore to the great King, and am forsworn. For once—even to the height—I honoured him. "Man, is he man at all?" methought, when first I rode from our rough Lyonnesse, and beheld That victor of the Pagan throned in hall— His hair, a sun that rayed from off a brow Like hillsnow high in heaven, the steel-blue eyes, The golden beard that clothed his lips with light— Moreover, that weird legend of his birth, With Merlin's mystic babble about his end Amazed me; then, his foot was on a stool Shaped as a dragon; he seemed to me no man, But Michael trampling Satan; so I sware, Being amazed: but this went by— The vows! O ay—the wholesome madness of an hour— They served their use, their time; for every knight Believed himself a greater than himself, And every follower eyed him as a God; Till he, being lifted up beyond himself, Did mightier deeds than elsewise he had done, And so the realm was made; but then their vows— First mainly through that sullying of our Queen— Began to gall the knighthood, asking whence Had Arthur right to bind them to himself? Dropt down from heaven? washed up from out the deep? They failed to trace him through the flesh and blood Of our old kings: whence then? a doubtful lord To bind them by inviolable vows, Which flesh and blood perforce would violate: For feel this arm of mine—the tide within Red with free chase and heather-scented air, Pulsing full man; can Arthur make me pure As any maiden child? lock up my tongue From uttering freely what I freely hear? Bind me to one? The wide world laughs at it. And worldling of the world am I, and know The ptarmigan that whitens ere his hour Woos his own end; we are not angels here Nor shall be: vows—I am woodman of the woods, And hear the garnet-headed yaffingale Mock them: my soul, we love but while we may; And therefore is my love so large for thee, Seeing it is not bounded save by love.'
Here ending, he moved toward her, and she said, 'Good: an I turned away my love for thee To some one thrice as courteous as thyself— For courtesy wins woman all as well As valour may, but he that closes both Is perfect, he is Lancelot—taller indeed, Rosier and comelier, thou—but say I loved This knightliest of all knights, and cast thee back Thine own small saw, "We love but while we may," Well then, what answer?'
He that while she spake, Mindful of what he brought to adorn her with, The jewels, had let one finger lightly touch The warm white apple of her throat, replied, 'Press this a little closer, sweet, until— Come, I am hungered and half-angered—meat, Wine, wine—and I will love thee to the death, And out beyond into the dream to come.'
So then, when both were brought to full accord, She rose, and set before him all he willed; And after these had comforted the blood With meats and wines, and satiated their hearts— Now talking of their woodland paradise, The deer, the dews, the fern, the founts, the lawns; Now mocking at the much ungainliness, And craven shifts, and long crane legs of Mark— Then Tristram laughing caught the harp, and sang:
'Ay, ay, O ay—the winds that bend the brier! A star in heaven, a star within the mere! Ay, ay, O ay—a star was my desire, And one was far apart, and one was near: Ay, ay, O ay—the winds that bow the grass! And one was water and one star was fire, And one will ever shine and one will pass. Ay, ay, O ay—the winds that move the mere.'
Then in the light's last glimmer Tristram showed And swung the ruby carcanet. She cried, 'The collar of some Order, which our King Hath newly founded, all for thee, my soul, For thee, to yield thee grace beyond thy peers.'
'Not so, my Queen,' he said, 'but the red fruit Grown on a magic oak-tree in mid-heaven, And won by Tristram as a tourney-prize, And hither brought by Tristram for his last Love-offering and peace-offering unto thee.'
He spoke, he turned, then, flinging round her neck, Claspt it, and cried, 'Thine Order, O my Queen!' But, while he bowed to kiss the jewelled throat, Out of the dark, just as the lips had touched, Behind him rose a shadow and a shriek— 'Mark's way,' said Mark, and clove him through the brain.
That night came Arthur home, and while he climbed, All in a death-dumb autumn-dripping gloom, The stairway to the hall, and looked and saw The great Queen's bower was dark,—about his feet A voice clung sobbing till he questioned it, 'What art thou?' and the voice about his feet Sent up an answer, sobbing, 'I am thy fool, And I shall never make thee smile again.'
Queen Guinevere had fled the court, and sat There in the holy house at Almesbury Weeping, none with her save a little maid, A novice: one low light betwixt them burned Blurred by the creeping mist, for all abroad, Beneath a moon unseen albeit at full, The white mist, like a face-cloth to the face, Clung to the dead earth, and the land was still.
For hither had she fled, her cause of flight Sir Modred; he that like a subtle beast Lay couchant with his eyes upon the throne, Ready to spring, waiting a chance: for this He chilled the popular praises of the King With silent smiles of slow disparagement; And tampered with the Lords of the White Horse, Heathen, the brood by Hengist left; and sought To make disruption in the Table Round Of Arthur, and to splinter it into feuds Serving his traitorous end; and all his aims Were sharpened by strong hate for Lancelot.
For thus it chanced one morn when all the court, Green-suited, but with plumes that mocked the may, Had been, their wont, a-maying and returned, That Modred still in green, all ear and eye, Climbed to the high top of the garden-wall To spy some secret scandal if he might, And saw the Queen who sat betwixt her best Enid, and lissome Vivien, of her court The wiliest and the worst; and more than this He saw not, for Sir Lancelot passing by Spied where he couched, and as the gardener's hand Picks from the colewort a green caterpillar, So from the high wall and the flowering grove Of grasses Lancelot plucked him by the heel, And cast him as a worm upon the way; But when he knew the Prince though marred with dust, He, reverencing king's blood in a bad man, Made such excuses as he might, and these Full knightly without scorn; for in those days No knight of Arthur's noblest dealt in scorn; But, if a man were halt or hunched, in him By those whom God had made full-limbed and tall, Scorn was allowed as part of his defect, And he was answered softly by the King And all his Table. So Sir Lancelot holp To raise the Prince, who rising twice or thrice Full sharply smote his knees, and smiled, and went: But, ever after, the small violence done Rankled in him and ruffled all his heart, As the sharp wind that ruffles all day long A little bitter pool about a stone On the bare coast.
But when Sir Lancelot told This matter to the Queen, at first she laughed Lightly, to think of Modred's dusty fall, Then shuddered, as the village wife who cries 'I shudder, some one steps across my grave;' Then laughed again, but faintlier, for indeed She half-foresaw that he, the subtle beast, Would track her guilt until he found, and hers Would be for evermore a name of scorn. Henceforward rarely could she front in hall, Or elsewhere, Modred's narrow foxy face, Heart-hiding smile, and gray persistent eye: Henceforward too, the Powers that tend the soul, To help it from the death that cannot die, And save it even in extremes, began To vex and plague her. Many a time for hours, Beside the placid breathings of the King, In the dead night, grim faces came and went Before her, or a vague spiritual fear— Like to some doubtful noise of creaking doors, Heard by the watcher in a haunted house, That keeps the rust of murder on the walls— Held her awake: or if she slept, she dreamed An awful dream; for then she seemed to stand On some vast plain before a setting sun, And from the sun there swiftly made at her A ghastly something, and its shadow flew Before it, till it touched her, and she turned— When lo! her own, that broadening from her feet, And blackening, swallowed all the land, and in it Far cities burnt, and with a cry she woke. And all this trouble did not pass but grew; Till even the clear face of the guileless King, And trustful courtesies of household life, Became her bane; and at the last she said, 'O Lancelot, get thee hence to thine own land, For if thou tarry we shall meet again, And if we meet again, some evil chance Will make the smouldering scandal break and blaze Before the people, and our lord the King.' And Lancelot ever promised, but remained, And still they met and met. Again she said, 'O Lancelot, if thou love me get thee hence.' And then they were agreed upon a night (When the good King should not be there) to meet And part for ever. Vivien, lurking, heard. She told Sir Modred. Passion-pale they met And greeted. Hands in hands, and eye to eye, Low on the border of her couch they sat Stammering and staring. It was their last hour, A madness of farewells. And Modred brought His creatures to the basement of the tower For testimony; and crying with full voice 'Traitor, come out, ye are trapt at last,' aroused Lancelot, who rushing outward lionlike Leapt on him, and hurled him headlong, and he fell Stunned, and his creatures took and bare him off, And all was still: then she, 'The end is come, And I am shamed for ever;' and he said, 'Mine be the shame; mine was the sin: but rise, And fly to my strong castle overseas: There will I hide thee, till my life shall end, There hold thee with my life against the world.' She answered, 'Lancelot, wilt thou hold me so? Nay, friend, for we have taken our farewells. Would God that thou couldst hide me from myself! Mine is the shame, for I was wife, and thou Unwedded: yet rise now, and let us fly, For I will draw me into sanctuary, And bide my doom.' So Lancelot got her horse, Set her thereon, and mounted on his own, And then they rode to the divided way, There kissed, and parted weeping: for he past, Love-loyal to the least wish of the Queen, Back to his land; but she to Almesbury Fled all night long by glimmering waste and weald, And heard the Spirits of the waste and weald Moan as she fled, or thought she heard them moan: And in herself she moaned 'Too late, too late!' Till in the cold wind that foreruns the morn, A blot in heaven, the Raven, flying high, Croaked, and she thought, 'He spies a field of death; For now the Heathen of the Northern Sea, Lured by the crimes and frailties of the court, Begin to slay the folk, and spoil the land.'
And when she came to Almesbury she spake There to the nuns, and said, 'Mine enemies Pursue me, but, O peaceful Sisterhood, Receive, and yield me sanctuary, nor ask Her name to whom ye yield it, till her time To tell you:' and her beauty, grace and power, Wrought as a charm upon them, and they spared To ask it.
So the stately Queen abode For many a week, unknown, among the nuns; Nor with them mixed, nor told her name, nor sought, Wrapt in her grief, for housel or for shrift, But communed only with the little maid, Who pleased her with a babbling heedlessness Which often lured her from herself; but now, This night, a rumour wildly blown about Came, that Sir Modred had usurped the realm, And leagued him with the heathen, while the King Was waging war on Lancelot: then she thought, 'With what a hate the people and the King Must hate me,' and bowed down upon her hands Silent, until the little maid, who brooked No silence, brake it, uttering, 'Late! so late! What hour, I wonder, now?' and when she drew No answer, by and by began to hum An air the nuns had taught her; 'Late, so late!' Which when she heard, the Queen looked up, and said, 'O maiden, if indeed ye list to sing, Sing, and unbind my heart that I may weep.' Whereat full willingly sang the little maid.
'Late, late, so late! and dark the night and chill! Late, late, so late! but we can enter still. Too late, too late! ye cannot enter now.
'No light had we: for that we do repent; And learning this, the bridegroom will relent. Too late, too late! ye cannot enter now.
'No light: so late! and dark and chill the night! O let us in, that we may find the light! Too late, too late: ye cannot enter now.
'Have we not heard the bridegroom is so sweet? O let us in, though late, to kiss his feet! No, no, too late! ye cannot enter now.'
So sang the novice, while full passionately, Her head upon her hands, remembering Her thought when first she came, wept the sad Queen. Then said the little novice prattling to her, 'O pray you, noble lady, weep no more; But let my words, the words of one so small, Who knowing nothing knows but to obey, And if I do not there is penance given— Comfort your sorrows; for they do not flow From evil done; right sure am I of that, Who see your tender grace and stateliness. But weigh your sorrows with our lord the King's, And weighing find them less; for gone is he To wage grim war against Sir Lancelot there, Round that strong castle where he holds the Queen; And Modred whom he left in charge of all, The traitor—Ah sweet lady, the King's grief For his own self, and his own Queen, and realm, Must needs be thrice as great as any of ours. For me, I thank the saints, I am not great. For if there ever come a grief to me I cry my cry in silence, and have done. None knows it, and my tears have brought me good: But even were the griefs of little ones As great as those of great ones, yet this grief Is added to the griefs the great must bear, That howsoever much they may desire Silence, they cannot weep behind a cloud: As even here they talk at Almesbury About the good King and his wicked Queen, And were I such a King with such a Queen, Well might I wish to veil her wickedness, But were I such a King, it could not be.'
Then to her own sad heart muttered the Queen, 'Will the child kill me with her innocent talk?' But openly she answered, 'Must not I, If this false traitor have displaced his lord, Grieve with the common grief of all the realm?'
'Yea,' said the maid, 'this is all woman's grief, That she is woman, whose disloyal life Hath wrought confusion in the Table Round Which good King Arthur founded, years ago, With signs and miracles and wonders, there At Camelot, ere the coming of the Queen.'
Then thought the Queen within herself again, 'Will the child kill me with her foolish prate?' But openly she spake and said to her, 'O little maid, shut in by nunnery walls, What canst thou know of Kings and Tables Round, Or what of signs and wonders, but the signs And simple miracles of thy nunnery?'
To whom the little novice garrulously, 'Yea, but I know: the land was full of signs And wonders ere the coming of the Queen. So said my father, and himself was knight Of the great Table—at the founding of it; And rode thereto from Lyonnesse, and he said That as he rode, an hour or maybe twain After the sunset, down the coast, he heard Strange music, and he paused, and turning—there, All down the lonely coast of Lyonnesse, Each with a beacon-star upon his head, And with a wild sea-light about his feet, He saw them—headland after headland flame Far on into the rich heart of the west: And in the light the white mermaiden swam, And strong man-breasted things stood from the sea, And sent a deep sea-voice through all the land, To which the little elves of chasm and cleft Made answer, sounding like a distant horn. So said my father—yea, and furthermore, Next morning, while he past the dim-lit woods, Himself beheld three spirits mad with joy Come dashing down on a tall wayside flower, That shook beneath them, as the thistle shakes When three gray linnets wrangle for the seed: And still at evenings on before his horse The flickering fairy-circle wheeled and broke Flying, and linked again, and wheeled and broke Flying, for all the land was full of life. And when at last he came to Camelot, A wreath of airy dancers hand-in-hand Swung round the lighted lantern of the hall; And in the hall itself was such a feast As never man had dreamed; for every knight Had whatsoever meat he longed for served By hands unseen; and even as he said Down in the cellars merry bloated things Shouldered the spigot, straddling on the butts While the wine ran: so glad were spirits and men Before the coming of the sinful Queen.'
Then spake the Queen and somewhat bitterly, 'Were they so glad? ill prophets were they all, Spirits and men: could none of them foresee, Not even thy wise father with his signs And wonders, what has fallen upon the realm?'
To whom the novice garrulously again, 'Yea, one, a bard; of whom my father said, Full many a noble war-song had he sung, Even in the presence of an enemy's fleet, Between the steep cliff and the coming wave; And many a mystic lay of life and death Had chanted on the smoky mountain-tops, When round him bent the spirits of the hills With all their dewy hair blown back like flame: So said my father—and that night the bard Sang Arthur's glorious wars, and sang the King As wellnigh more than man, and railed at those Who called him the false son of Gorlois: For there was no man knew from whence he came; But after tempest, when the long wave broke All down the thundering shores of Bude and Bos, There came a day as still as heaven, and then They found a naked child upon the sands Of dark Tintagil by the Cornish sea; And that was Arthur; and they fostered him Till he by miracle was approven King: And that his grave should be a mystery From all men, like his birth; and could he find A woman in her womanhood as great As he was in his manhood, then, he sang, The twain together well might change the world. But even in the middle of his song He faltered, and his hand fell from the harp, And pale he turned, and reeled, and would have fallen, But that they stayed him up; nor would he tell His vision; but what doubt that he foresaw This evil work of Lancelot and the Queen?'
Then thought the Queen, 'Lo! they have set her on, Our simple-seeming Abbess and her nuns, To play upon me,' and bowed her head nor spake. Whereat the novice crying, with clasped hands, Shame on her own garrulity garrulously, Said the good nuns would check her gadding tongue Full often, 'and, sweet lady, if I seem To vex an ear too sad to listen to me, Unmannerly, with prattling and the tales Which my good father told me, check me too Nor let me shame my father's memory, one Of noblest manners, though himself would say Sir Lancelot had the noblest; and he died, Killed in a tilt, come next, five summers back, And left me; but of others who remain, And of the two first-famed for courtesy— And pray you check me if I ask amiss— But pray you, which had noblest, while you moved Among them, Lancelot or our lord the King?'
Then the pale Queen looked up and answered her, 'Sir Lancelot, as became a noble knight, Was gracious to all ladies, and the same In open battle or the tilting-field Forbore his own advantage, and the King In open battle or the tilting-field Forbore his own advantage, and these two Were the most nobly-mannered men of all; For manners are not idle, but the fruit Of loyal nature, and of noble mind.'
'Yea,' said the maid, 'be manners such fair fruit?' Then Lancelot's needs must be a thousand-fold Less noble, being, as all rumour runs, The most disloyal friend in all the world.'
To which a mournful answer made the Queen: 'O closed about by narrowing nunnery-walls, What knowest thou of the world, and all its lights And shadows, all the wealth and all the woe? If ever Lancelot, that most noble knight, Were for one hour less noble than himself, Pray for him that he scape the doom of fire, And weep for her that drew him to his doom.'
'Yea,' said the little novice, 'I pray for both; But I should all as soon believe that his, Sir Lancelot's, were as noble as the King's, As I could think, sweet lady, yours would be Such as they are, were you the sinful Queen.'
So she, like many another babbler, hurt Whom she would soothe, and harmed where she would heal; For here a sudden flush of wrathful heat Fired all the pale face of the Queen, who cried, 'Such as thou art be never maiden more For ever! thou their tool, set on to plague And play upon, and harry me, petty spy And traitress.' When that storm of anger brake From Guinevere, aghast the maiden rose, White as her veil, and stood before the Queen As tremulously as foam upon the beach Stands in a wind, ready to break and fly, And when the Queen had added 'Get thee hence,' Fled frighted. Then that other left alone Sighed, and began to gather heart again, Saying in herself, 'The simple, fearful child Meant nothing, but my own too-fearful guilt, Simpler than any child, betrays itself. But help me, heaven, for surely I repent. For what is true repentance but in thought— Not even in inmost thought to think again The sins that made the past so pleasant to us: And I have sworn never to see him more, To see him more.'
And even in saying this, Her memory from old habit of the mind Went slipping back upon the golden days In which she saw him first, when Lancelot came, Reputed the best knight and goodliest man, Ambassador, to lead her to his lord Arthur, and led her forth, and far ahead Of his and her retinue moving, they, Rapt in sweet talk or lively, all on love And sport and tilts and pleasure, (for the time Was maytime, and as yet no sin was dreamed,) Rode under groves that looked a paradise Of blossom, over sheets of hyacinth That seemed the heavens upbreaking through the earth, And on from hill to hill, and every day Beheld at noon in some delicious dale The silk pavilions of King Arthur raised For brief repast or afternoon repose By couriers gone before; and on again, Till yet once more ere set of sun they saw The Dragon of the great Pendragonship, That crowned the state pavilion of the King, Blaze by the rushing brook or silent well.
But when the Queen immersed in such a trance, And moving through the past unconsciously, Came to that point where first she saw the King Ride toward her from the city, sighed to find Her journey done, glanced at him, thought him cold, High, self-contained, and passionless, not like him, 'Not like my Lancelot'—while she brooded thus And grew half-guilty in her thoughts again, There rode an armed warrior to the doors. A murmuring whisper through the nunnery ran, Then on a sudden a cry, 'The King.' She sat Stiff-stricken, listening; but when armed feet Through the long gallery from the outer doors Rang coming, prone from off her seat she fell, And grovelled with her face against the floor: There with her milkwhite arms and shadowy hair She made her face a darkness from the King: And in the darkness heard his armed feet Pause by her; then came silence, then a voice, Monotonous and hollow like a Ghost's Denouncing judgment, but though changed, the King's:
'Liest thou here so low, the child of one I honoured, happy, dead before thy shame? Well is it that no child is born of thee. The children born of thee are sword and fire, Red ruin, and the breaking up of laws, The craft of kindred and the Godless hosts Of heathen swarming o'er the Northern Sea; Whom I, while yet Sir Lancelot, my right arm, The mightiest of my knights, abode with me, Have everywhere about this land of Christ In twelve great battles ruining overthrown. And knowest thou now from whence I come—from him From waging bitter war with him: and he, That did not shun to smite me in worse way, Had yet that grace of courtesy in him left, He spared to lift his hand against the King Who made him knight: but many a knight was slain; And many more, and all his kith and kin Clave to him, and abode in his own land. And many more when Modred raised revolt, Forgetful of their troth and fealty, clave To Modred, and a remnant stays with me. And of this remnant will I leave a part, True men who love me still, for whom I live, To guard thee in the wild hour coming on, Lest but a hair of this low head be harmed. Fear not: thou shalt be guarded till my death. Howbeit I know, if ancient prophecies Have erred not, that I march to meet my doom. Thou hast not made my life so sweet to me, That I the King should greatly care to live; For thou hast spoilt the purpose of my life. Bear with me for the last time while I show, Even for thy sake, the sin which thou hast sinned. For when the Roman left us, and their law Relaxed its hold upon us, and the ways Were filled with rapine, here and there a deed Of prowess done redressed a random wrong. But I was first of all the kings who drew The knighthood-errant of this realm and all The realms together under me, their Head, In that fair Order of my Table Round, A glorious company, the flower of men, To serve as model for the mighty world, And be the fair beginning of a time. I made them lay their hands in mine and swear To reverence the King, as if he were Their conscience, and their conscience as their King, To break the heathen and uphold the Christ, To ride abroad redressing human wrongs, To speak no slander, no, nor listen to it, To honour his own word as if his God's, To lead sweet lives in purest chastity, To love one maiden only, cleave to her, And worship her by years of noble deeds, Until they won her; for indeed I knew Of no more subtle master under heaven Than is the maiden passion for a maid, Not only to keep down the base in man, But teach high thought, and amiable words And courtliness, and the desire of fame, And love of truth, and all that makes a man. And all this throve before I wedded thee, Believing, "lo mine helpmate, one to feel My purpose and rejoicing in my joy." Then came thy shameful sin with Lancelot; Then came the sin of Tristram and Isolt; Then others, following these my mightiest knights, And drawing foul ensample from fair names, Sinned also, till the loathsome opposite Of all my heart had destined did obtain, And all through thee! so that this life of mine I guard as God's high gift from scathe and wrong, Not greatly care to lose; but rather think How sad it were for Arthur, should he live, To sit once more within his lonely hall, And miss the wonted number of my knights, And miss to hear high talk of noble deeds As in the golden days before thy sin. For which of us, who might be left, could speak Of the pure heart, nor seem to glance at thee? And in thy bowers of Camelot or of Usk Thy shadow still would glide from room to room, And I should evermore be vext with thee In hanging robe or vacant ornament, Or ghostly footfall echoing on the stair. For think not, though thou wouldst not love thy lord, Thy lord hast wholly lost his love for thee. I am not made of so slight elements. Yet must I leave thee, woman, to thy shame. I hold that man the worst of public foes Who either for his own or children's sake, To save his blood from scandal, lets the wife Whom he knows false, abide and rule the house: For being through his cowardice allowed Her station, taken everywhere for pure, She like a new disease, unknown to men, Creeps, no precaution used, among the crowd, Makes wicked lightnings of her eyes, and saps The fealty of our friends, and stirs the pulse With devil's leaps, and poisons half the young. Worst of the worst were that man he that reigns! Better the King's waste hearth and aching heart Than thou reseated in thy place of light, The mockery of my people, and their bane.'
He paused, and in the pause she crept an inch Nearer, and laid her hands about his feet. Far off a solitary trumpet blew. Then waiting by the doors the warhorse neighed At a friend's voice, and he spake again:
'Yet think not that I come to urge thy crimes, I did not come to curse thee, Guinevere, I, whose vast pity almost makes me die To see thee, laying there thy golden head, My pride in happier summers, at my feet. The wrath which forced my thoughts on that fierce law, The doom of treason and the flaming death, (When first I learnt thee hidden here) is past. The pang—which while I weighed thy heart with one Too wholly true to dream untruth in thee, Made my tears burn—is also past—in part. And all is past, the sin is sinned, and I, Lo! I forgive thee, as Eternal God Forgives: do thou for thine own soul the rest. But how to take last leave of all I loved? O golden hair, with which I used to play Not knowing! O imperial-moulded form, And beauty such as never woman wore, Until it became a kingdom's curse with thee— I cannot touch thy lips, they are not mine, But Lancelot's: nay, they never were the King's. I cannot take thy hand: that too is flesh, And in the flesh thou hast sinned; and mine own flesh, Here looking down on thine polluted, cries "I loathe thee:" yet not less, O Guinevere, For I was ever virgin save for thee, My love through flesh hath wrought into my life So far, that my doom is, I love thee still. Let no man dream but that I love thee still. Perchance, and so thou purify thy soul, And so thou lean on our fair father Christ, Hereafter in that world where all are pure We two may meet before high God, and thou Wilt spring to me, and claim me thine, and know I am thine husband—not a smaller soul, Nor Lancelot, nor another. Leave me that, I charge thee, my last hope. Now must I hence. Through the thick night I hear the trumpet blow: They summon me their King to lead mine hosts Far down to that great battle in the west, Where I must strike against the man they call My sister's son—no kin of mine, who leagues With Lords of the White Horse, heathen, and knights, Traitors—and strike him dead, and meet myself Death, or I know not what mysterious doom. And thou remaining here wilt learn the event; But hither shall I never come again, Never lie by thy side; see thee no more— Farewell!'
And while she grovelled at his feet, She felt the King's breath wander o'er her neck, And in the darkness o'er her fallen head, Perceived the waving of his hands that blest.
Then, listening till those armed steps were gone, Rose the pale Queen, and in her anguish found The casement: 'peradventure,' so she thought, 'If I might see his face, and not be seen.' And lo, he sat on horseback at the door! And near him the sad nuns with each a light Stood, and he gave them charge about the Queen, To guard and foster her for evermore. And while he spake to these his helm was lowered, To which for crest the golden dragon clung Of Britain; so she did not see the face, Which then was as an angel's, but she saw, Wet with the mists and smitten by the lights, The Dragon of the great Pendragonship Blaze, making all the night a steam of fire. And even then he turned; and more and more The moony vapour rolling round the King, Who seemed the phantom of a Giant in it, Enwound him fold by fold, and made him gray And grayer, till himself became as mist Before her, moving ghostlike to his doom.
Then she stretched out her arms and cried aloud 'Oh Arthur!' there her voice brake suddenly, Then—as a stream that spouting from a cliff Fails in mid air, but gathering at the base Re-makes itself, and flashes down the vale— Went on in passionate utterance:
'Gone—my lord! Gone through my sin to slay and to be slain! And he forgave me, and I could not speak. Farewell? I should have answered his farewell. His mercy choked me. Gone, my lord the King, My own true lord! how dare I call him mine? The shadow of another cleaves to me, And makes me one pollution: he, the King, Called me polluted: shall I kill myself? What help in that? I cannot kill my sin, If soul be soul; nor can I kill my shame; No, nor by living can I live it down. The days will grow to weeks, the weeks to months The months will add themselves and make the years, The years will roll into the centuries, And mine will ever be a name of scorn. I must not dwell on that defeat of fame. Let the world be; that is but of the world. What else? what hope? I think there was a hope, Except he mocked me when he spake of hope; His hope he called it; but he never mocks, For mockery is the fume of little hearts. And blessed be the King, who hath forgiven My wickedness to him, and left me hope That in mine own heart I can live down sin And be his mate hereafter in the heavens Before high God. Ah great and gentle lord, Who wast, as is the conscience of a saint Among his warring senses, to thy knights— To whom my false voluptuous pride, that took Full easily all impressions from below, Would not look up, or half-despised the height To which I would not or I could not climb— I thought I could not breathe in that fine air That pure severity of perfect light— I yearned for warmth and colour which I found In Lancelot—now I see thee what thou art, Thou art the highest and most human too, Not Lancelot, nor another. Is there none Will tell the King I love him though so late? Now—ere he goes to the great Battle? none: Myself must tell him in that purer life, But now it were too daring. Ah my God, What might I not have made of thy fair world, Had I but loved thy highest creature here? It was my duty to have loved the highest: It surely was my profit had I known: It would have been my pleasure had I seen. We needs must love the highest when we see it, Not Lancelot, nor another.'
Here her hand Grasped, made her vail her eyes: she looked and saw The novice, weeping, suppliant, and said to her, 'Yea, little maid, for am I not forgiven?' Then glancing up beheld the holy nuns All round her, weeping; and her heart was loosed Within her, and she wept with these and said,
'Ye know me then, that wicked one, who broke The vast design and purpose of the King. O shut me round with narrowing nunnery-walls, Meek maidens, from the voices crying "shame." I must not scorn myself: he loves me still. Let no one dream but that he loves me still. So let me, if you do not shudder at me, Nor shun to call me sister, dwell with you; Wear black and white, and be a nun like you, Fast with your fasts, not feasting with your feasts; Grieve with your griefs, not grieving at your joys, But not rejoicing; mingle with your rites; Pray and be prayed for; lie before your shrines; Do each low office of your holy house; Walk your dim cloister, and distribute dole To poor sick people, richer in His eyes Who ransomed us, and haler too than I; And treat their loathsome hurts and heal mine own; And so wear out in almsdeed and in prayer The sombre close of that voluptuous day, Which wrought the ruin of my lord the King.'
She said: they took her to themselves; and she Still hoping, fearing 'is it yet too late?' Dwelt with them, till in time their Abbess died. Then she, for her good deeds and her pure life, And for the power of ministration in her, And likewise for the high rank she had borne, Was chosen Abbess, there, an Abbess, lived For three brief years, and there, an Abbess, past To where beyond these voices there is peace.
The Passing of Arthur
That story which the bold Sir Bedivere, First made and latest left of all the knights, Told, when the man was no more than a voice In the white winter of his age, to those With whom he dwelt, new faces, other minds.
For on their march to westward, Bedivere, Who slowly paced among the slumbering host, Heard in his tent the moanings of the King:
'I found Him in the shining of the stars, I marked Him in the flowering of His fields, But in His ways with men I find Him not. I waged His wars, and now I pass and die. O me! for why is all around us here As if some lesser god had made the world, But had not force to shape it as he would, Till the High God behold it from beyond, And enter it, and make it beautiful? Or else as if the world were wholly fair, But that these eyes of men are dense and dim, And have not power to see it as it is: Perchance, because we see not to the close;— For I, being simple, thought to work His will, And have but stricken with the sword in vain; And all whereon I leaned in wife and friend Is traitor to my peace, and all my realm Reels back into the beast, and is no more. My God, thou hast forgotten me in my death; Nay—God my Christ—I pass but shall not die.'
Then, ere that last weird battle in the west, There came on Arthur sleeping, Gawain killed In Lancelot's war, the ghost of Gawain blown Along a wandering wind, and past his ear Went shrilling, 'Hollow, hollow all delight! Hail, King! tomorrow thou shalt pass away. Farewell! there is an isle of rest for thee. And I am blown along a wandering wind, And hollow, hollow, hollow all delight.' And fainter onward, like wild birds that change Their season in the night and wail their way From cloud to cloud, down the long wind the dream Shrilled; but in going mingled with dim cries Far in the moonlit haze among the hills, As of some lonely city sacked by night, When all is lost, and wife and child with wail Pass to new lords; and Arthur woke and called, 'Who spake? A dream. O light upon the wind, Thine, Gawain, was the voice—are these dim cries Thine? or doth all that haunts the waste and wild Mourn, knowing it will go along with me?'
This heard the bold Sir Bedivere and spake: 'O me, my King, let pass whatever will, Elves, and the harmless glamour of the field; But in their stead thy name and glory cling To all high places like a golden cloud For ever: but as yet thou shalt not pass. Light was Gawain in life, and light in death Is Gawain, for the ghost is as the man; And care not thou for dreams from him, but rise— I hear the steps of Modred in the west, And with him many of thy people, and knights Once thine, whom thou hast loved, but grosser grown Than heathen, spitting at their vows and thee. Right well in heart they know thee for the King. Arise, go forth and conquer as of old.'
Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere: 'Far other is this battle in the west Whereto we move, than when we strove in youth, And brake the petty kings, and fought with Rome, Or thrust the heathen from the Roman wall, And shook him through the north. Ill doom is mine To war against my people and my knights. The king who fights his people fights himself. And they my knights, who loved me once, the stroke That strikes them dead is as my death to me. Yet let us hence, and find or feel a way Through this blind haze, which ever since I saw One lying in the dust at Almesbury, Hath folded in the passes of the world.'
Then rose the King and moved his host by night, And ever pushed Sir Modred, league by league, Back to the sunset bound of Lyonnesse— A land of old upheaven from the abyss By fire, to sink into the abyss again; Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt, And the long mountains ended in a coast Of ever-shifting sand, and far away The phantom circle of a moaning sea. There the pursuer could pursue no more, And he that fled no further fly the King; And there, that day when the great light of heaven Burned at his lowest in the rolling year, On the waste sand by the waste sea they closed. Nor ever yet had Arthur fought a fight Like this last, dim, weird battle of the west. A deathwhite mist slept over sand and sea: Whereof the chill, to him who breathed it, drew Down with his blood, till all his heart was cold With formless fear; and even on Arthur fell Confusion, since he saw not whom he fought. For friend and foe were shadows in the mist, And friend slew friend not knowing whom he slew; And some had visions out of golden youth, And some beheld the faces of old ghosts Look in upon the battle; and in the mist Was many a noble deed, many a base, And chance and craft and strength in single fights, And ever and anon with host to host Shocks, and the splintering spear, the hard mail hewn, Shield-breakings, and the clash of brands, the crash Of battleaxes on shattered helms, and shrieks After the Christ, of those who falling down Looked up for heaven, and only saw the mist; And shouts of heathen and the traitor knights, Oaths, insults, filth, and monstrous blasphemies, Sweat, writhings, anguish, labouring of the lungs In that close mist, and cryings for the light, Moans of the dying, and voices of the dead.
Last, as by some one deathbed after wail Of suffering, silence follows, or through death Or deathlike swoon, thus over all that shore, Save for some whisper of the seething seas, A dead hush fell; but when the dolorous day Grew drearier toward twilight falling, came A bitter wind, clear from the North, and blew The mist aside, and with that wind the tide Rose, and the pale King glanced across the field Of battle: but no man was moving there; Nor any cry of Christian heard thereon, Nor yet of heathen; only the wan wave Brake in among dead faces, to and fro Swaying the helpless hands, and up and down Tumbling the hollow helmets of the fallen, And shivered brands that once had fought with Rome, And rolling far along the gloomy shores The voice of days of old and days to be.
Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere, And whiter than the mist that all day long Had held the field of battle was the King:
'Hearest thou this great voice that shakes the world, And wastes the narrow realm whereon we move, And beats upon the faces of the dead, My dead, as though they had not died for me?— O Bedivere, for on my heart hath fallen Confusion, till I know not what I am, Nor whence I am, nor whether I be King. Behold, I seem but King among the dead.'
Then spake the bold Sir Bedivere: 'My King, King everywhere! and so the dead have kings, There also will I worship thee as King. Yet still thy life is whole, and still I live Who love thee; but who hates thee, he that brought The heathen back among us, yonder stands, Modred, unharmed, the traitor of thine house.'
Then spake the King: 'My house hath been my doom. But call not thou this traitor of my house Who hath but dwelt beneath one roof with me. My house are rather they who sware my vows, Yea, even while they brake them, owned me King. And well for thee, saying in my dark hour, When all the purport of my throne hath failed, That quick or dead thou holdest me for King. King am I, whatsoever be their cry; And one last act of kinghood shalt thou see Yet, ere I pass.' And uttering this the King Made at the man: then Modred smote his liege Hard on that helm which many a heathen sword Had beaten thin; while Arthur at one blow, Striking the last stroke with Excalibur, Slew him, and all but slain himself, he fell.
So all day long the noise of battle rolled Among the mountains by the winter sea; Until King Arthur's Table, man by man, Had fallen in Lyonnesse about their lord, King Arthur. Then, because his wound was deep, The bold Sir Bedivere uplifted him, And bore him to a chapel nigh the field, A broken chancel with a broken cross, That stood on a dark strait of barren land: On one side lay the Ocean, and on one Lay a great water, and the moon was full.
Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere: 'The sequel of today unsolders all The goodliest fellowship of famous knights Whereof this world holds record. Such a sleep They sleep—the men I loved. I think that we Shall never more, at any future time, Delight our souls with talk of knightly deeds, Walking about the gardens and the halls Of Camelot, as in the days that were. I perish by this people which I made,— Though Merlin sware that I should come again To rule once more; but, let what will be, be, I am so deeply smitten through the helm That without help I cannot last till morn. Thou therefore take my brand Excalibur, Which was my pride: for thou rememberest how In those old days, one summer noon, an arm Rose up from out the bosom of the lake, Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful, Holding the sword—and how I rowed across And took it, and have worn it, like a king; And, wheresoever I am sung or told In aftertime, this also shall be known: But now delay not: take Excalibur, And fling him far into the middle mere: Watch what thou seest, and lightly bring me word.'
To him replied the bold Sir Bedivere: 'It is not meet, Sir King, to leave thee thus, Aidless, alone, and smitten through the helm— A little thing may harm a wounded man; Yet I thy hest will all perform at full, Watch what I see, and lightly bring thee word.'
So saying, from the ruined shrine he stept, And in the moon athwart the place of tombs, Where lay the mighty bones of ancient men, Old knights, and over them the sea-wind sang Shrill, chill, with flakes of foam. He, stepping down By zigzag paths, and juts of pointed rock, Came on the shining levels of the lake.
There drew he forth the brand Excalibur, And o'er him, drawing it, the winter moon, Brightening the skirts of a long cloud, ran forth And sparkled keen with frost against the hilt: For all the haft twinkled with diamond sparks, Myriads of topaz-lights, and jacinth-work Of subtlest jewellery. He gazed so long That both his eyes were dazzled as he stood, This way and that dividing the swift mind, In act to throw: but at the last it seemed Better to leave Excalibur concealed There in the many-knotted waterflags, That whistled stiff and dry about the marge. So strode he back slow to the wounded King.
Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere: 'Hast thou performed my mission which I gave? What is it thou hast seen? or what hast heard?'
And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere: 'I heard the ripple washing in the reeds, And the wild water lapping on the crag.'
To whom replied King Arthur, faint and pale: 'Thou hast betrayed thy nature and thy name, Not rendering true answer, as beseemed Thy fealty, nor like a noble knight: For surer sign had followed, either hand, Or voice, or else a motion of the mere. This is a shameful thing for men to lie. Yet now, I charge thee, quickly go again, As thou art lief and dear, and do the thing I bade thee, watch, and lightly bring me word.'
Then went Sir Bedivere the second time Across the ridge, and paced beside the mere, Counting the dewy pebbles, fixed in thought; But when he saw the wonder of the hilt, How curiously and strangely chased, he smote His palms together, and he cried aloud:
'And if indeed I cast the brand away, Surely a precious thing, one worthy note, Should thus be lost for ever from the earth, Which might have pleased the eyes of many men. What good should follow this, if this were done? What harm, undone? Deep harm to disobey, Seeing obedience is the bond of rule. Were it well to obey then, if a king demand An act unprofitable, against himself? The King is sick, and knows not what he does. What record, or what relic of my lord Should be to aftertime, but empty breath And rumours of a doubt? But were this kept, Stored in some treasure-house of mighty kings, Some one might show it at a joust of arms, Saying, "King Arthur's sword, Excalibur, Wrought by the lonely maiden of the Lake. Nine years she wrought it, sitting in the deeps Upon the hidden bases of the hills." So might some old man speak in the aftertime To all the people, winning reverence. But now much honour and much fame were lost.'
So spake he, clouded with his own conceit, And hid Excalibur the second time, And so strode back slow to the wounded King.
Then spoke King Arthur, breathing heavily: 'What is it thou hast seen? or what hast heard?'
And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere: 'I heard the water lapping on the crag, And the long ripple washing in the reeds.'
To whom replied King Arthur, much in wrath: 'Ah, miserable and unkind, untrue, Unknightly, traitor-hearted! Woe is me! Authority forgets a dying king, Laid widowed of the power in his eye That bowed the will. I see thee what thou art, For thou, the latest-left of all my knights, In whom should meet the offices of all, Thou wouldst betray me for the precious hilt; Either from lust of gold, or like a girl Valuing the giddy pleasure of the eyes. Yet, for a man may fail in duty twice, And the third time may prosper, get thee hence: But, if thou spare to fling Excalibur, I will arise and slay thee with my hands.'
Then quickly rose Sir Bedivere, and ran, And, leaping down the ridges lightly, plunged Among the bulrush beds, and clutched the sword, And strongly wheeled and threw it. The great brand Made lightnings in the splendour of the moon, And flashing round and round, and whirled in an arch, Shot like a streamer of the northern morn, Seen where the moving isles of winter shock By night, with noises of the Northern Sea. So flashed and fell the brand Excalibur: But ere he dipt the surface, rose an arm Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful, And caught him by the hilt, and brandished him Three times, and drew him under in the mere. And lightly went the other to the King.
Then spoke King Arthur, drawing thicker breath: 'Now see I by thine eyes that this is done. Speak out: what is it thou hast heard, or seen?'
And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere: 'Sir King, I closed mine eyelids, lest the gems Should blind my purpose, for I never saw, Nor shall see, here or elsewhere, till I die, Not though I live three lives of mortal men, So great a miracle as yonder hilt. Then with both hands I flung him, wheeling him; But when I looked again, behold an arm, Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful, That caught him by the hilt, and brandished him Three times, and drew him under in the mere.'
And answer made King Arthur, breathing hard: 'My end draws nigh; 'tis time that I were gone. Make broad thy shoulders to receive my weight, And bear me to the margin; yet I fear My wound hath taken cold, and I shall die.'
So saying, from the pavement he half rose, Slowly, with pain, reclining on his arm, And looking wistfully with wide blue eyes As in a picture. Him Sir Bedivere Remorsefully regarded through his tears, And would have spoken, but he found not words; Then took with care, and kneeling on one knee, O'er both his shoulders drew the languid hands, And rising bore him through the place of tombs.
But, as he walked, King Arthur panted hard, Like one that feels a nightmare on his bed When all the house is mute. So sighed the King, Muttering and murmuring at his ear, 'Quick, quick! I fear it is too late, and I shall die.'
But the other swiftly strode from ridge to ridge, Clothed with his breath, and looking, as he walked, Larger than human on the frozen hills. He heard the deep behind him, and a cry Before. His own thought drove him like a goad. Dry clashed his harness in the icy caves And barren chasms, and all to left and right The bare black cliff clanged round him, as he based His feet on juts of slippery crag that rang Sharp-smitten with the dint of armed heels— And on a sudden, lo! the level lake, And the long glories of the winter moon.
Then saw they how there hove a dusky barge, Dark as a funeral scarf from stem to stern, Beneath them; and descending they were ware That all the decks were dense with stately forms, Black-stoled, black-hooded, like a dream—by these Three Queens with crowns of gold: and from them rose A cry that shivered to the tingling stars, And, as it were one voice, an agony Of lamentation, like a wind that shrills All night in a waste land, where no one comes, Or hath come, since the making of the world.
Then murmured Arthur, 'Place me in the barge.' So to the barge they came. There those three Queens Put forth their hands, and took the King, and wept. But she, that rose the tallest of them all And fairest, laid his head upon her lap, And loosed the shattered casque, and chafed his hands, And called him by his name, complaining loud, And dropping bitter tears against a brow Striped with dark blood: for all his face was white And colourless, and like the withered moon Smote by the fresh beam of the springing east; And all his greaves and cuisses dashed with drops Of onset; and the light and lustrous curls— That made his forehead like a rising sun High from the dais-throne—were parched with dust; Or, clotted into points and hanging loose, Mixed with the knightly growth that fringed his lips. So like a shattered column lay the King; Not like that Arthur who, with lance in rest, From spur to plume a star of tournament, Shot through the lists at Camelot, and charged Before the eyes of ladies and of kings.
Then loudly cried the bold Sir Bedivere: 'Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go? Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes? For now I see the true old times are dead, When every morning brought a noble chance, And every chance brought out a noble knight. Such times have been not since the light that led The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh. But now the whole Round Table is dissolved Which was an image of the mighty world, And I, the last, go forth companionless, And the days darken round me, and the years, Among new men, strange faces, other minds.'