"What, coward, would you stop already? Shame upon you! Get up and fight."
"I shall not rise unless you take me as one who has yielded," answered the knight.
Then Sir Lancelot said:
"Traitor, I make you this offer: I will take off my helmet, unarm my left side, and tie my left hand behind my back. In that way I will fight with you."
Upon hearing this, Sir Malgrace rose to his feet, sure now of killing Sir Lancelot.
"My lord King," cried Sir Malgrace, "you have heard this offer. I accept."
The king was very sorry that Sir Lancelot had made the offer. However, it was impossible to withdraw it. A squire came and disarmed Sir Lancelot, so that his head and left side were without cover; and since he had only one arm to fight with, he could not use his shield.
Then Sir Malgrace dashed at him, aiming for his left side. Sir Lancelot waited till he was very near, and then lightly stepped aside. Before Sir Malgrace could turn, Sir Lancelot lifted his spear and struck his enemy such a blow that he broke his breastplate and pierced his heart.
The body of Sir Malgrace was carried off the field and taken to the castle of his good father; Queen Guinevere was proclaimed innocent of treason; and Sir Lancelot was honored more than ever by his king and his queen.
SIR LANCELOT AND ELAINE
Every year King Arthur's knights held a grand tournament among themselves, and contended in friendly combat for a prize. This prize was a diamond.
Once, in the early days of his kingship, Arthur was walking on a craggy hill, when he came upon the skeleton of a man who had once been a ruler. The skull still wore a gold crown set with nine large diamonds. King Arthur took the crown and had the diamonds unset. Each year at the friendly tournament he gave one of these diamonds as a prize.
There had been eight tournaments, and at each Sir Lancelot had won the diamond. The jewel that was to be given as a prize at the ninth tournament was the largest and most beautiful of all. Everyone, of course, expected that Sir Lancelot would win it, but only a few days before the contest he announced to the king that he would not compete.
Then the queen was vexed, for she loved Sir Lancelot more than all the other knights, and it gave her great joy to see him always successful in the tournaments. Therefore she urged him to change his decision.
"My queen," he said, "I told the king I would not fight."
The queen replied:
"My advice is that you go in disguise. The knights who contest with you do so but half-heartedly, for they know your great fame and feel sure of failure. If they did not know who you were, they would fight better and win more glory for themselves. Then fight as a stranger knight, and afterwards explain to the king."
Sir Lancelot took her advice. He rode away over the woods and hills till he came to the castle of Astolat, where he decided to stop and ask for a disguise. He knocked on the gate, which was opened by an old dumb servant, and entered the courtyard. The lord of Astolat came to meet him with his two sons, Sir Torre and Sir Lavaine, and his beautiful daughter Elaine. The lord of the castle said:
"Fair sir, whoever you are, you are welcome. You seem to me much like a Knight of the Round Table."
"That I am," said Sir Lancelot. "Hereafter I will tell you my name; at present I wish to remain unknown. I must enter the coming tournament as an unknown knight, and I should like to leave with you my great shield, for it is as well known in Camelot as I. Will you keep it and lend me another one?"
Then answered the Lord of Astolat:
"You may take the shield of my son Torre. He was hurt in his first tournament, and has not been able to fight since. My son Lavaine will gladly go with you to the tournament. Perhaps," added the lord, laughing, "he can win the diamond, and put it in his sister Elaine's hair."
"Nay, father, do not make me ashamed before this noble knight," said the young Lavaine. "I know I can never win the diamond for Elaine, but I can at least do my best to fight."
"Gladly will I take you for a companion," said Sir Lancelot, "and if you can, win the diamond for this fair maiden."
"Such a diamond," said Sir Torre, "is fit for a queen, and not for a simple girl."
Sir Lancelot smiled to himself. He was sure that he should win the diamond. Then he meant to give it with the eight others to Queen Guinevere. He spoke kindly, however, to the beautiful Elaine.
"In truth, this fair maiden is fit to be a queen."
Then Elaine lifted her eyes and looked at him. He was twice as old as she was. His face was cut and scarred with wounds which he had received in battle, but as she looked at him, she loved him, and felt that she would continue to love him till the day of her death.
They went into the great hall where a supper was laid. Sir Lancelot talked of King Arthur and his goodness and all his glorious deeds. Elaine thought that even Arthur could not be so brave as this wonderful lord. All night long she dreamed of him. In the morning she rose early and went down in the courtyard where Sir Lancelot and Sir Lavaine were mounting their horses.
"Fair lord," she said boldly to Sir Lancelot, "will you wear my token in your helmet?"
Then said Sir Lancelot:
"Fair maiden, I have never worn favor nor token for any lady in the tournaments. This is well known to be my custom."
"But if you wear my token," she said, "there will be far less likelihood of your being known by your fellow knights."
"That is very true, my child," he said. "Bring it to me. What is it?"
She held it out to him; it was a red sleeve embroidered with pearls. Sir Lancelot bound it in his helmet and said:
"I have never done so much before for any maiden."
Then he and Sir Lavaine bade Elaine farewell, and the beautiful maiden ran up to the tower of the castle and watched them from the window for a long time. When they were out of sight she asked the old dumb servant to carry Sir Lancelot's shield to the tower. It was a large shield of silver, with three lions emblazoned upon it in gold and blue, but its polished surface was covered with dents and scratches. Elaine knelt before it, and made a story for each scratch and mark, picturing to herself the contests in which the good shield had taken part. For many weeks she stayed near it all day long in the turret, watching for Sir Lancelot and her brother to return.
Meanwhile those two had ridden lightly to Camelot, and when they were almost there, Sir Lancelot told Sir Lavaine his name. The young man was astonished. He was very happy, too, to think that he was a companion to the great knight of whom he had heard so often.
When Sir Lancelot and Sir Lavaine arrived at the field where the tournament was to be held, they stood looking at the king, who sat upon the great carved chair which had dragons' heads for the arms and the back. On his red robe was embroidered a golden dragon, and a golden dragon was also on his crown. Above him, set in a canopy, was the ninth diamond. All about the king to left and right were rows of ladies whose robes gave to the pavilion in which they sat the brilliant hues of the rainbow.
Sir Lancelot said to young Sir Lavaine:
"Look at the king. You think I am great, but he is greater than I. I can fight better than he can, but his soul is greater than mine. Aim to become a Knight of the Round Table, and follow the example of goodness which Arthur sets for his knights."
At this moment the trumpets blew as a signal that the tournament was to begin. The knights spurred their horses forward, and in a moment their spears and shields clashed. Sir Lancelot rode lightly here and there, overthrowing everyone with whom he contested. All wondered at the skill of this unknown knight. Then Sir Lancelot's kinsmen, his nephew, Sir Lionel, and others, were angry and jealous.
"Our Sir Lancelot should be here," they said, "to overcome this stranger knight."
"Perhaps this is Sir Lancelot," said one. "Two knights cannot fight so well in this world. It must be Sir Lancelot."
"No, no," said the others; "Sir Lancelot would never wear a lady's favor, and this knight wears a red sleeve embroidered with pearls. Let us set on this man and teach him that if Sir Lancelot is not here, we, his kinsmen, will fight for his fame."
Then all together they bore down on Sir Lancelot. His horse went down in the shock, and he himself was wounded. A spear had pierced his breastplate and snapped off in his side.
Young Sir Lavaine rushed to help Sir Lancelot. The great knight rose slowly and, with the help of his friend, drove back his kith and kin to the far side of the field. Then sounded a great blare of trumpets, and the king proclaimed the stranger knight victor.
"Come forward," the herald cried, "and take your diamond."
But poor Sir Lancelot said:
"Talk not to me of diamonds. Give me air. I fear me I have received my death wound. Let me go hence, and I bid you follow me not."
Sir Lavaine helped him upon his horse, and they two rode slowly off the field. When they were near the neighboring forest the great knight fell from his horse and cried:
"Pull forth the spear-head which is in my side."
"Oh, my lord," said Sir Lavaine, "I am afraid you will die if I draw it forth."
"I shall die if you leave it," said Sir Lancelot.
So Sir Lavaine drew it forth quickly, causing Sir Lancelot to faint from the pain. Then a hermit who lived near by came to them, and bore the wounded knight into his hut, where for many a week Sir Lancelot lay between life and death.
When Arthur found that the unknown knight had gone, no one knew whither, he was sorry. He called the light-hearted Sir Gawain and said to him:
"Go forth, take this diamond and seek the stranger knight. Do not cease from your search till you have left the diamond in his hand."
Then Arthur went to the queen. She had been ill and had not attended the tournament. When the king told her all that had happened, she cried:
"A stranger knight! My lord, my lord! That was our dear Sir Lancelot. He was fighting in disguise."
"Alas! he is hurt," said the king. "Perhaps he is dying. He said that he would not fight. He should have told me that he meant to fight in disguise. The truth, my queen, is always best."
"Yes, my good lord, I know it," she said. "If I had but let our Lancelot tell the truth, perhaps he would not have been wounded. You would have called on his kinsmen to cease."
For many days the king and Guinevere waited in deep anxiety for news of Sir Lancelot. Meantime, Sir Gawain rode forth and sought for the great knight in vain. At last he came to the castle of Astolat, where he was welcomed by the lord and Sir Torre and the fair Elaine. He told them the result of the tournament, and how the stranger knight had won. They showed him Sir Lancelot's shield.
"Ah!" said Elaine, when he had told them the name of the unknown knight, "I knew that he must be great."
Sir Gawain guessed by the expression of her beautiful face that she loved Sir Lancelot. So he said:
"Fair maiden, when he returns here for his shield, give him this diamond, which is the prize he won. Perhaps he will prize it the more because you put it into his hand."
Then Sir Gawain bade them farewell and rode off, lightly singing. When he told Arthur what he had done, the king said:
"You should have done as I bade you, Gawain. Sir Lancelot deceived me about his disguise, and you have disobeyed me. The kingdom will surely fail if the king and his rules are not honored. Obedience is the courtesy due to kings."
Meanwhile the fair Elaine went to her father and said:
"Dear father, let me go and seek the wounded Sir Lancelot and my brother."
"Nay," said the lord, "it is not a fitting thing for a young maiden like you to seek a wounded knight. He is not your lover. It cannot be."
"I would give him his diamond," she said, "and since he is so sorely wounded, I would take care of him. It is not fitting, my father, but I cannot live unless I know where he is and how he does."
Then, because he loved his child very much and had never refused any request she made of him, the old lord let her go in care of Sir Torre. The two rode for a long time, until at last, near Camelot, they met Sir Lavaine. Elaine ran up to him and cried:
"Lavaine, take me to Sir Lancelot."
Sir Lavaine was much astonished that Elaine knew the name of the stranger knight. He was glad to see her, because he thought she could help his friend. Sir Lancelot seemed glad to see her, too, and the beautiful maiden cared for him so tenderly that the old hermit said he never could have recovered without her nursing. When he was well enough, they all rode to the castle of Astolat.
There Sir Lancelot remained for a few days; then he took his shield and prepared to return to Camelot. Before he went he asked Elaine if he could not do something for her in return for her care of him.
She grew very pale and then she said:
"I am going to say something which I should not. I love you. Take me with you to Camelot."
Sir Lancelot said very gently:
"My poor little maiden, if I had meant to take a wife, I should have wedded earlier. All the court knows that I love only the king and the queen. You do not really love me. Some day you will marry a young knight, and then I shall give you many castles and much land as a dowry."
"I will have nothing of all that," said Elaine.
She turned away and climbed up to the tower, while her father said to Sir Lancelot:
"I pray you, be discourteous in some way so that she will cease to love you. Such love is madness."
"It is not my habit to be discourteous," said Sir Lancelot. "However, when she stands at the turret window to wave me farewell, I will not look up at her."
Sir Lancelot rode sadly away, and did not look up at the window where Elaine stood. She watched him till he disappeared, and then she fell in a swoon. Day after day she pined away, and one morning she said to her father:
"Dear father, I am going to die. When I am dead, take my bed and cover it with rich draperies. Then dress me in my most beautiful clothes; put a letter I have here in my hand, and lay me on the bed. Set it on a barge, and let our dumb servant steer it down the river to Camelot."
Her father wept, and promised to do all that she asked.
Sir Lancelot had gone to the Court, where he was received with great rejoicing. For many days the knights and ladies held great feasting in his honor, and the king and the queen would hardly allow him to leave their presence. One day while the three stood looking out of the palace window, they saw a black barge come slowly down the river.
It stopped at the palace door, and the king, going down, saw on it the beautiful maiden Elaine, pale in death. She was dressed in white satin, and bore a lily in her left hand and a letter in her right. The king ordered two of his knights, the good Sir Galahad and Sir Perceval, to carry Elaine into his great hall. Then Arthur read the letter, which said:
"Most noble lord, Sir Lancelot of the Lake: I, Elaine, the maid of Astolat, come to take my last farewell of you, for you left me without a farewell. I loved you, and my love had no return, and so I died."
The knights and ladies wept. Sir Lancelot said to Arthur:
"My king, I grieve for the death of this maiden, but as I did not love her, I could not wed her."
The king answered:
"You are not to blame, Sir Lancelot. The world has in it much that is sad as well as much that is joyous. There are happenings for which no human being can be blamed. It would be a fitting deed, however, if you had this maiden richly buried."
Sir Lancelot ordered a splendid funeral, such as should be given to a queen. Over Elaine's grave was raised a beautiful tomb on which was carved her figure, with the left hand holding a lily; at her feet lay the shield of Sir Lancelot, and the sad story of her death was written on the tomb in letters of gold and blue.
THE SEARCH FOR THE HOLY GRAIL
In Arthur's Court there were many virtuous knights and ladies, but the best of all was a beautiful maiden, sister to Sir Perceval. She was so good that the evil in the world oppressed her, and she could be happy only when she was praying for all people to be made better.
Once a good old man told her what was meant by the Holy Grail.
"Grail," he said, "is the word for the cup out of which our Lord Jesus drank, the night that he held the last supper with his disciples. Therefore, it is called holy. There is a tradition which says that for a long time after the death of Christ the Holy Grail remained on earth, and any one who was sick and touched it was healed at once. But then people grew to be so wicked that it disappeared from earth. It is said that if a person in our day were only good enough, he could see the Holy Grail."
"Really see it?" asked the maiden, eagerly, "or see it in a vision?"
"I do not know," answered the good old man, "but either one would be a great happiness. For a real sight of it, or a vision, would show the person who saw it that he was sinless."
Then the beautiful maiden prayed more than ever. She became so thin and pale that it seemed as if she were almost transparent, and at last she lay dying. One morning she sent for her brother, Sir Perceval, and for his friend, Sir Galahad.
Sir Perceval and Sir Galahad were the two best knights in Arthur's Court. They were not so powerful as Sir Lancelot or Sir Geraint or Sir Gareth, but they had purer souls than these. When they came to the bedside of the maiden, she said:
"Oh, my brother and my friend, I have seen the Holy Grail. Last night I was awakened by a sound like the music of a silver horn across the hills. It was more beautiful music than any I have ever heard. Then through my window shone a long cold beam of silver light, and slowly across that beam came the Holy Grail. It was red like a beautiful rose, and the light reflected from it covered all the walls with a rosy color. And then it vanished. Now I beg you to seek it; and go to the hall of Arthur and tell all the other knights to take the quest. If they can but see the Grail, it will be a sign that they are good, and that the world is growing better."
As she spoke, Sir Galahad's face wore an expression so like her own that Sir Perceval was amazed. But the maiden took from the side of her bed a sword-belt, and gave it to Sir Galahad.
"Fair knight," she said, "I have made this golden belt of my hair, and woven on it, in crimson and silver thread, the device of the Holy Grail. Put on this belt, bind your sword to it, and go forth; for you, too, shall see the Holy Grail."
Then Sir Galahad and Sir Perceval went away quietly, for they saw that the beautiful maiden had not long to live. That night they went to Arthur's hall. The king was absent with the queen, but most of the knights of the Round Table were there, and to them Sir Galahad and Sir Perceval told the vision that Sir Perceval's sister had seen.
As they spoke, suddenly the torches in the hall were extinguished; there was a loud sound like thunder and a sudden cracking of the roof. Then a beam of light, seven times stronger than day, streamed into the room. Across the beam stole the Holy Grail. But it was covered by a luminous cloud, so that its shape could not be seen. Slowly it vanished away.
There was silence in the hall for a long time; the knights were awe-struck and could not speak. At last Sir Perceval rose in his seat and said in a low tone:
"My sister saw the vision of the Holy Grail, but I, because I am more sinful, have seen it covered with a cloud. Yet because I wish to see it, I vow to spend twelve months and a day in search of it. I will pray, and live as holy a life as I can, and perhaps this vision will be mine."
Then good Sir Bors, the cousin of Sir Lancelot, made the same vow, as did also Sir Galahad and Sir Lancelot and Sir Gawain and many others. After the vows had been taken, King Arthur entered. When all had been explained to him, his face grew sorrowful.
"If I had been here," he said, "I should not have allowed you to swear the vow. None of you really saw the Grail; you say it was covered with a cloud."
Then Sir Galahad cried out:
"My king, I saw the Grail, all crimson like a ruby, and I heard a voice which said, 'O Galahad, O Galahad, follow me!'"
"Ah, Galahad," said the king, tenderly, "you are fit for this quest, this search, but the others are not. Sir Lancelot is our strongest warrior, but he is not like Sir Galahad. Most of you, my knights, are men with strength and will to right wrongs; that is the work you are fitted for. You have fought in twelve great battles with the heathen, but only one of you is fit for this holiest of visions. Yet go, and fulfill your vow."
The faces of the knights were downcast. The king continued:
"While you are gone, I shall need your strength here at home, but you will be following a wandering fire. Many of you will never return."
All the company felt sad. The next day when the knights departed upon their quest, the king could hardly speak for grief, and many of the knights and ladies wept. Those who had sworn the vow went together to the great gate of the city of Camelot, and there they separated.
During the next twelvemonth many a poor laborer who had been wronged came to Arthur's Court to find a knight who would fight for him, and many a poor widow and maiden. But because so many of the knights of the Round Table were absent there was little help to be had, and Arthur's face grew sadder and sadder as time went on.
At last, after the twelvemonth and the day had passed, those in Camelot began to look for the return of the knights who had taken the vow. Alas, though they waited all day long, only Sir Gawain, Sir Bors, Sir Perceval, and Sir Lancelot returned. In the evening the knights of the Round Table assembled in the great hall. When each was seated, the king rose, and said to those who had been upon the quest:
"My lords, I need only look at your faces to know that you have fared ill. I dare not think of those of you who have not come back. And now, Perceval, my knight who, next to Galahad, has the purest soul, tell me what has happened to you."
Sir Perceval rose slowly from his chair and said:
"Dear my liege, when I left your court on the sad morning that we all set forth, I did not feel the grief that many of the other knights felt. I had been fighting so well, so many lances had gone down before my stroke, that I was full of confidence in what I could do.
"I rode happily, planning all the great victories I should win. I was sure if I righted a great many wrongs, I should soon see the Grail. But after many days I began to grow weary. I was riding through rough forests, and the branches bruised me and my horse; there seemed to be no great deeds to do. I could not even slay wild beasts, and so be of use to the poor country people. My bed was on the hard ground, and my food was wild berries.
"One day I came to a great castle, and here I decided to rest. When I entered, I was warmly greeted and brought to the princess of the castle. I found her to be one whom I had loved long ago in her father's court. I was but a young squire and she was a great princess, and so I had gone away without telling her how dear I held her.
"She greeted me kindly, and after a time she began to love me. Soon I wondered whether I was fit to see the Holy Grail. I thought perhaps I was one of those who were pursuing a wandering fire. And then the people of the castle begged me to marry their princess, and be their lord and live a happy and easeful life.
"One night I awoke, and thought longingly of the Holy Grail. Whether I were fit to see the vision or not, I had at least sworn to seek it for a year and a day. And yet, I had not tried two months! I rose hastily, dressed, and left the castle. Then for many days I prayed and mourned. At last I sought a holy hermit, and told him all I had done and thought since I had left Arthur's Court.
"The good hermit, after a short silence, said: 'My son, you have not true humility. You have been too proud of your strength, and too sure in the beginning that you were fit for the vision. You have always thought first of yourself and your own glory, and not of the good you could do.'
"I went into the chapel of this hermit, and prayed to be relieved of the sin of pride. As I prayed, Sir Galahad entered. He was clad in silver armor, and his face looked like that of an angel.
"'Oh, my brother,' he said, 'have you not seen the Grail?' And after I had answered, he said:
"'From the moment when I left the court of our king, the vision has been with me. It is faint in the daytime, but at night it shines blood red. I see it on the mountains, and in the lakes, and on the marshes. It has made me so strong that everywhere I am able to do good. I have broken down many evil customs. I have fought with pagan hordes and been victor, all because of this blessed vision. Perceval, I have not long to live. I am going to the great city above, which is more beautiful than any earthly city. Come out with me this night, and before you die you shall see this vision.'
"Then I followed Sir Galahad out of the chapel. We climbed a hill which was steep and rugged, Sir Galahad going first, and his silver armor guiding me. When we came to the top, a storm broke over us, and the lightning seemed to follow us as we descended the hill on the other side. At the bottom of it there was a great black swamp, leading to the sea. It was crossed by a huge bridge built by some forgotten king. Here Sir Galahad left me and ran over the bridge till he reached the sea. His armor shone like a star, far away at the edge of the water. And then I saw him no more.
"I knelt on the black ground and wept, and wished that I were as good as Sir Galahad, and could do deeds as he did, not to win glory, but to help those who needed help. And as I wept, I was aware of a great light over me. I looked up and saw a silver beam, and across it slowly moved the Holy Grail. It was no longer muffled in a cloud, but shone crimson as a ruby.
"I made my way back to the chapel and prayed all the rest of the night. In the morning I found Sir Galahad's body by the sea. He was beautiful as a saint, though he was worn and thin from long self-sacrifice. I buried him and then turned my steps to Camelot.
"And now, my lord Arthur, I shall never fight again. I shall become a monk and pass my life in prayer as my sister did. Among my brother monks, there will be very many little deeds of service I can do. Thus will I spend my life."
All the knights were very much moved and the king looked affectionately at Sir Perceval, but he did not speak to him. He turned to Sir Gawain and said:
"Sir Gawain, was this quest for you?"
Then Sir Gawain, always light-hearted and easily turned away from one thing to another, said:
"Nay, my king, such a search is not for one like me. In a little time I became tired. I talked to a holy man who told me that I was not fit for such a vision. So I journeyed till I came to a field with silk pavilions and very many knights and ladies. And with them I lived happily for the year."
The good king looked displeased, but his face grew tender as he turned to Sir Bors.
"Bors," he said, "good, faithful, and honest you have ever been. Tell me what you have seen."
Sir Bors, who stood near Sir Lancelot, said:
"My lord Arthur, after I had started on the quest, I was told that madness had fallen upon my kinsman, Sir Lancelot. This so grieved me that I had but little heart to seek for the Holy Grail. Yet I sought for it. I believed that if God meant me to see the vision he would send it.
"I traveled till I came to a people who were heathen. They knew much of magic, but nothing of God. I stayed with them, and tried to teach them our faith, but they were angry because I would not believe in their gods, and they put me into prison.
"I was there many months in darkness and cold. But I tried to be patient, and prayed that my patience would count for something, although I could not do any good deeds. I had at least been faithful though I failed.
"One night a stone slipped from my prison wall, and I could see a space of sky, with seven stars set across it. Then slowly across the space glided the Holy Grail. My happiness was great, for I had seen the vision.
"The next morning, a maiden who had been secretly converted to our religion released me from prison, and I came hither."
Then the king spoke to Sir Lancelot.
"My Lancelot, the mightiest of us all, have you succeeded in this quest?"
Then Sir Lancelot groaned.
"O, king!" he cried, "your mightiest, yes; and yet, far better it would be if I were like Sir Galahad. A great sin is on my soul, and it was to be rid of this sin that I undertook the quest of the Holy Grail. A hermit told me that only by putting this sin away should I ever see the vision. I strove so hard against it that my old sickness came upon me. I became mad, and rode up and down among waste places, fighting with small men who overthrew me. The day has been when the very sound of my name would have made them tremble.
"At last I came to the sea and saw a boat anchored near the shore. I stepped into it, loosed the anchor, and floated away. For seven days I sailed, and at last I came to an old castle. I entered and heard a voice singing. I followed it up, up for a thousand steps. At last I came to a door, which burst open before me. Perhaps I dreamed, and yet I believe I saw the Holy Grail, though it was veiled and guarded by great angels. I thought I saw all this, and then I swooned away. When I came to myself, I was alone in the room. It was many days before I made my way back to Camelot."
For a long time there was silence in the hall, and then Sir Gawain said:
"Sir king, I can fight, and I always shall fight for you. But I do not believe in this vision. All the knights were mad, like Sir Lancelot. They did not really have the vision; it was but fancy."
Then the king spoke gravely to Sir Gawain.
"Sir Gawain, you are indeed not fit for such a vision, but you should not doubt that others have seen it. I was right, my knights, when I said that most of you would follow a wandering fire. How many of those who left me have not returned, and never will!"
The knights looked at the empty chairs. The king went on:
"Sir Galahad was the only one who completely saw the vision. He was indeed blessed, and fit for such a quest. You who were unfit should have stayed with me to help govern this land."
The knights were silent and sad; then the king said:
"My dear knights whom I love, always remember this: whether you seek for a vision, or do humble service as Sir Perceval will for his fellow-monks, or fight to right wrongs as Sir Lancelot does, whatever you do your aim must be to make yourself useful to the world by the work for which you are best fitted."
The king rose from the Round Table and left the company, Sir Lancelot following him. Then the other knights departed, one by one, and the great hall was left empty, with its shields glimmering in the moonlight.
THE DEATH OF ARTHUR
King Arthur's Round Table had lasted many years, and the knights had done much to help the people of the country; yet there were traitors to the king among his own subjects. One of these traitors made war in a distant part of the kingdom, and Arthur went with most of his knights to punish him. His nephew, Sir Modred, the brother of Sir Gawain and Sir Gareth, ruled in his stead at Camelot.
Now Sir Modred was a wicked knight. He hated the king and the queen, and Sir Lancelot. Since King Arthur was absent a long time, Sir Modred had the opportunity of doing much harm. He let evil go unpunished; he allowed bad customs to come into the country; and at last he raised a rebellion against the good king.
When Arthur returned to Camelot to quell this rebellion, he had lost many of his faithful knights. Sir Hector was dead, and Sir Ulfius and Sir Brastias; Sir Kay was dead, and Sir Bors, and Sir Gawain. Sir Lancelot was far away. Sir Bedivere alone remained of those who had been with Arthur since he had first ruled in Wales and Britain.
The king and Sir Bedivere, with the help of such knights as still were faithful, tried to put down those rebels. They drove the traitors back until they came at length to Lyonnesse by the sea. Here the last great battle took place.
The night before the battle, Sir Bedivere heard the king praying. Then Arthur slept, and when he awakened he called to his friend:
"Sir Bedivere," he said, "I have had a dream. I thought that Sir Gawain came to me and told me that to-morrow I shall die."
"My lord, it is but a dream," answered Sir Bedivere. "You are great; you have done much good which will last forever, and you will live many years yet to perform many gracious acts. The day will soon dawn, and you will win the battle."
Arthur shook his head.
"This is not like my other battles. I have no heart for it. It is hard to slay my own people, even if they are traitors."
Day came, but no sun. A cold white mist lay over land and sea. It chilled the knights to the bone. And when the battle began, the mist was so thick that no one could see with whom he was fighting. Friends slew each other, not knowing whom they killed. Some could not fight at all, for it seemed to them that those moving on the battle-field were ghosts of warriors long since slain. There was many a noble deed and many a base one done in that mist.
The fighting went on with clashing of lances and shields throughout the afternoon, and then the sounds grew fainter, till there was silence. At last, towards sunset, a wind from the west blew the mist away. Then Arthur, with Sir Bedivere by his side, looked over the field of battle. He saw but one man standing; all the rest were dead on the seashore. And the tide had risen, and was swaying the helpless hands, and tumbling up and down the hollow helmets and the broken spears that once had fought with Rome. The king's face was white, and his voice was low as he said to Sir Bedivere:
"There lie my slain, who have died for me. I am king only of the dead."
"Nay, lord," said Sir Bedivere. "You are king everywhere still. Now strike a kingly stroke against the one traitor who still stands."
Sir Bedivere pointed at the one other living man, and the king saw that it was Sir Modred. Arthur threw down his scabbard and lifted his good Excalibur. Then he sprang upon the traitor. Sir Modred struck the king on the helmet, which had been worn thin in many battles. The stroke cut through the steel, and wounded Arthur mortally, but he used his ebbing strength for one last blow with Excalibur, and killed Sir Modred.
The king sank to the ground, but Sir Bedivere lifted him, and bore him to a ruined chapel near the seashore. When he had laid him down by the broken cross in the chancel, Arthur said:
"You know well that my Excalibur was given to me by the Lady of the Lake. I have used it like a king. And now the time has come to obey the writing on the blade. So take my sword Excalibur, and throw it far out into the lake."
Sir Bedivere took the sword and went out from the ruined chapel. He walked amid the graves of ancient knights over which the sea wind was singing. He passed the barren cliffs and chasms, and reached the lake at last.
He lifted Excalibur, and as he did so the moon came from behind the clouds. The light fell on the hilt of the sword, and all the jewels shone. Sir Bedivere looked until his eyes were dazzled; he could not throw the beautiful weapon away. So he hid it in the weeds upon the shore of the lake, and returned to the king.
"What did you see or hear?" asked Arthur.
Sir Bedivere replied:
"I heard the ripple washing in the reeds, and the wild water lapping on the crags."
King Arthur, faint and pale, said:
"You have betrayed me. You have acted a lie. Had you thrown the sword, something would have happened, some sign would have been given. Go back now, and throw it into the lake."
Sir Bedivere went back and again picked up Excalibur. As he looked at it he said aloud:
"Surely it is not right to throw away such a precious thing. It would please the eyes of people forever. I know it is wrong to disobey the king. Yet he is sick; perhaps he does not know what he is doing. If I keep Excalibur and store it in a great treasure-house, people will look at it throughout all the coming years, and feel great reverence for the king who fought with it."
So again Sir Bedivere hid the sword and returned to the king, who asked:
"What have you seen or heard?"
And Sir Bedivere replied:
"I heard the water lapping on the crag, and the long ripple washing in the reeds."
Then the king was very angry.
"Ah, unkind!" he cried. "You, too, are a traitor. Because I am dying, I have no authority. You refuse to obey me, you who are the last of my knights! Yet it is possible for a man to fail in his duty twice, and succeed the third time. Go now, and throw Excalibur."
Sir Bedivere ran quickly and seized the sword, shutting his eyes that he might not see its beauty. He whirled it round his head and threw it far out over the lake. It flashed in the moonlight and fell. But before it reached the surface of the water, an arm, clothed in pure white, rose and caught it, brandished it three times, and then drew it under the water.
When Sir Bedivere went back to Arthur, the king knew that he had been obeyed.
"I am dying," he said. "Lift me on your back and carry me to the lake."
Then Sir Bedivere carried the helpless king, walking quickly through the place of tombs, and over the crags, and past the chasms, till he came to the smooth shining lake. There beside the bank was a barge, all black. The deck was covered with stately figures of people clad in mourning. Among them were three fair queens with crowns of gold—the three queens who were to help Arthur at his need.
They had come to take him away, Sir Bedivere did not know where. When they saw the wounded king, they gave a cry of grief that seemed to rise to the stars. Then they lifted him into the barge. The tallest put his head on her knees, and took off his broken helmet. She called him by name, weeping bitterly.
Poor Sir Bedivere cried:
"Oh, my Lord Arthur, you are leaving me. Where shall I go? The great Round Table is broken up forever. What shall I do?"
Then Arthur answered:
"Old customs pass and new ones come. God makes his world better in many ways. The Round Table did its work and now has disappeared; but something else will surely come to advance the cause of truth and justice. Pray for me and for yourself. More things are done by prayer than this world dreams of. And now, farewell! You shall never see me again, my Bedivere. My work is done; yours, too, is nearly over. Farewell!"
Then the barge moved slowly away, while those on board lamented. Sir Bedivere watched it till it disappeared amid the shadows over the lake. Then he rose slowly and wandered back to Lyonnesse.
After a time he went to Camelot. There was a new king there, who was good, and new customs, also good. But Sir Bedivere was too old to change his way of life. He spent the rest of his days in Camelot, but he lived only in the past, dreaming of the time when King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table ruled in the land.