Historical Tales: 13—King Arthur - Charles Morris




The Black, the Green, and the Red Knights

When Beaumains overtook the damsel, he received from her but a sorry greeting.

"How dare you follow me?" she said. "You smell too much of the kitchen for my liking. Your clothes are foul with grease and tallow, and I marvel much that King Arthur made a knight of such a sorry rogue. As for yonder knight whom you wounded, there is no credit in that, for it was done by treachery and cowardice, not by skill and valor. I know well why Kay named you Beaumains, for you are but a lubber and turner of spits, and a washer of soiled dishes."

"Say what you will, damsel," answered Beaumains, "you shall not drive me away. King Arthur chose me to achieve your adventure, and I shall perform it or die."

"Fie on you, kitchen knave! you would not dare, for all the broth you ever supped, to look the red knight in the face."

"Would I not? That is to be seen."

As they thus angrily debated, there came to them a man flying at full speed.

"Help me, sir knight!" he cried. "Six thieves have taken my lord and bound him, and I fear they will slay him if he be not rescued."

"Lead me to him," said Beaumains.

He followed the man to a neighboring glade, where he saw a knight bound and prostrate, surrounded by six sorry-looking villains. At sight of this the heart of Beaumains leaped with anger. With a ringing battle-cry he rushed upon the knaves, and with three vigorous strokes laid three of them dead upon the earth. The others fled, but he followed at full speed, and quickly overtook them. Then they turned and assailed him fiercely, but after a short fight he slew them all. He then rode back to the knight, whom his man had unbound.

The rescued knight thanked him warmly, and begged him to ride with him to his castle, where he would reward him for his great service. But Beaumains answered that he was upon a quest which could not be left, and as for reward he would leave that to God.

Then he turned and rode back to the damsel, who greeted him with the same contempt as before, bidding him ride farther from her, as she could not bear the smell of the kitchen.

"Do you fancy that I esteem you any the nobler for having killed a few churls? You shall see a sight yet, sir knave, that will make you turn your back, and that quickly."

Not much farther had they ridden when they were overtaken by the rescued knight, who begged them, as it was near night, and his castle close at hand, to spend the night there. The damsel agreed to this, and they rode together to the castle, where they were well entertained.

But at supper the knight set Beaumains before the damsel.

"Fie, fie! sir knight," she exclaimed. "This is discourteous, to seat a kitchen page before a lady of high birth. This fellow is more used to carve swine than to sit at lords' tables."

To this Beaumains made no answer, but the knight was ashamed, and withdrew with his guest to a side table, leaving her to the honor of the high table alone. When morning came they thanked the knight for their entertainment, and rode refreshed away.

Other adventures were ready for Beaumains before they had ridden far, for they soon found themselves at the side of a river that had but a single ford, and on the opposite side stood two knights, ready to dispute the passage with any who should attempt it.

"What say you to this?" asked the damsel. "Will you face yonder knights, or turn back?"

"I shall not turn; nor would I, if there were six more of them. You shall see that I can deal with knights as well as knaves."

Then he rode into the water, in the midst of which he met one of the knights, their spears breaking as they came fiercely together. They then drew their swords and began a fierce fight in the centre of the ford. But at last Beaumains dealt his opponent a blow on the helm that stunned him, and hurled him from his horse into the water, where he was quickly drowned.

Beaumains now spurred forward to the land, where the other knight rushed upon him as he touched shore, breaking his spear, but not shaking the young champion in his seat. Then they went at it with sword and shield, and with the same fortune as before, for Beaumains quickly cleaved the helmet and brain of his opponent, and left him dead on the ground.

He now turned and called proudly to the damsel, bidding her to ride forward, as he had cleared the ford for her passage.

"Alas!" she cried, "that a kitchen page should have the fortune to kill two valiant knights. You fancy you have done a doughty deed, but I deny it. The first knight was drowned through his horse stumbling, and the other one you struck a foul blow from behind. Never brag of this, for I can attest it was not honestly done."

"You may say what you will," rejoined Beaumains. "Whoever seeks to hinder me shall make way or kill me, for nothing less than death shall stop me on my quest to aid your lady."

"You can boast loudly before a woman. Wait till you meet the knights I take you to, and you will be taught another lesson."

"Fair damsel, if you will but give me courteous language, I shall ask no more. As for the knights you speak of, let come what will come."

"I say this for your own good; for if you continue to follow me you will be slain. What you have done is by misadventure, not by prowess. If you are wise, you will turn back with what little honor you may claim."

"Say what you choose, damsel, but wherever you go there go I, and it will take more than insulting words to turn me back."

So they rode on till evening, she continuing to chide and berate him, and bid him leave her, and he answering meekly, but with no abatement of his resolution.

Finally a strange sight came to them. For before them they saw a black lawn, in whose midst grew a black hawthorn. On one side of this hung a black banner, and on the other a black shield, while near by stood a black spear of great size, and a massive black horse covered with silk. Near by was a knight armed in black armor, who was known as the Knight of the Black Lawn.

The damsel, on seeing this knight, bade Beaumains flee down the valley, telling him that he might still escape, for the knight's horse was not saddled.

"Gramercy," said Beaumains, "will you always take me for a coward? I fly not from one man, though he be as black as ten ravens."

The black knight, seeing them approach, thus addressed the damsel,—

"So, my lady, you are here again! Have you brought this knight from King Arthur's court to be your champion?"

"Hardly so, fair sir. This is but a kitchen knave, who was fed in Arthur's court through charity, and has followed me as a cur follows his master."

"Why comes he then in knightly guise? And what do you in such foul company?"

"I cannot get rid of him, sir. He rides with me in my despite. I bring him here that you may rid me of the unhappy knave. Through mishap and treachery he killed two knights at the river ford, and did other deeds that might have been of worth were they fairly done. Yet he is but a sorry poltroon."

"I am surprised," said the black knight, "that any man of worth will fight with him."

"They knew him not," she answered, "and fancy him of some credit from his riding with me, and from his brave show of armor."

"That may be," said the black knight. "Yet, knave or not, he looks like a strong fellow. This much I shall do to relieve you of him. I shall put him on foot, and take from him his horse and armor. It would be a shame to do him more harm."

Beaumains had heard all this, biting his lips in anger. He now scornfully replied,—

"Sir knight, you are liberal in disposing of my horse and armor, but beware you do not pay a fair price for them. Whether you like it or not, this lawn I shall pass, and you will get no horse or armor of mine till you win them in open fight. Let me see if you can do it."

"Say you so? You shall yield me this lady, or pay dearly for it; for it does not beseem a kitchen page to ride with a lady of high degree."

"If you want her, you must win her," said Beaumains, "and much comfort may you get from her tongue. As for me, I am a gentleman born, and of higher birth than you; and will prove this on your body if you deny it."

Then in hot anger they rode apart, and came together with a sound of thunder. The spear of the black knight broke, but Beaumains thrust him through the side, the spear breaking in his body, and leaving the truncheon in his flesh. Yet, despite his wound, he drew his sword and struck with strength and fury at his antagonist. But the fight lasted not long, for the black knight, faint with loss of blood, fell from his horse in a swoon, and quickly died.

Then Beaumains, seeing that the horse and armor were better than his own, dismounted and put on the dead knight's armor. Now, mounting the sable horse, he rode after the damsel. On coming up she greeted him as before.

"Away, knave, the smell of thy clothes displeases me. And what a pity it is that such as you should by mishap slay so good a knight! But you will be quickly repaid, unless you fly, for there is a knight hereby who is double your match."

"I may be beaten or slain, fair damsel," said Beaumains; "but you cannot drive me off by foul words, or by talking of knights who will beat or kill me. Somehow I ride on and leave your knights on the ground. You would do well to hold your peace, for I shall follow you, whatever may happen, unless I be truly beaten or slain."

So they rode on, Beaumains in silence, but the damsel still at times reviling, till they saw approaching them a knight who was all in green, both horse and harness. As he came nigh, he asked the damsel,—

"Is that my brother, the black knight, who rides with you?"

"No," she replied. "Your brother is dead. This unhappy kitchen knave has slain him through mishap."

"Alas!" cried the green knight, "has so noble a warrior as he been slain by a knave! Traitor, you shall die for your deed!"

"I defy you," said Beaumains. "I slew him knightly and not shamefully, and am ready to answer to you with sword and spear."

Then the knight took a green horn from his saddle-bow, and blew on it three warlike notes. Immediately two damsels appeared, who aided him in arming. This done, he mounted his steed, took from their hands a green spear and green shield, and stationed himself opposite Beaumains.

Setting spurs to their horses they rode furiously together, both breaking their spears, but keeping their seats. Then they attacked each other, sword in hand, and cut and slashed with knightly vigor. At length, in a sudden wheel, Beaumains's horse struck that of the green knight on the side and overturned it, the knight having to leap quickly to escape being overthrown.

When Beaumains saw this, he also sprang to the earth and met his antagonist on foot. Here they fought for a long time, till both had lost much blood.

"You should be ashamed to stand so long fighting with a kitchen knave," cried the damsel at last to the green knight. "Who made you knight, that you let such a lad match you, as the weed overgrows the corn?"

Her words of scorn so angered the green knight that he struck a wrathful blow at Beaumains, which cut deeply into his shield. Beaumains, roused by this and by the damsel's language, struck back with such might on the helm of his foe as to hurl him to his knees. Then, seizing him, he flung him to the ground, and towered above him with upraised sword.

"I yield me!" cried the knight. "Slay me not, I beg of you."

"You shall die," answered Beaumains, "unless this damsel pray me to spare your life," and he unlaced his helm, as with intent to slay him.

"Pray you to save his life!" cried the damsel, in scorn. "I shall never so demean myself to a page of the kitchen."

"Then he shall die."

"Slay him, if you will. Ask me not to beg for his life."

"Alas!" said the green knight, "you would not let me die when you can save my life with a word? Fair sir, spare me, and I will forgive you my brother's death, and become your man, with thirty knights who are at my command."

"In the fiend's name!" cried the damsel, "shall such a knave have service of thee and thirty knights?"

"All this avails nothing," said Beaumains. "You shall have your life only at this damsel's request," and he made a show as if he would slay him.

"Let him be, knave," said the damsel. "Slay him not, or you shall repent it."

"Damsel," said Beaumains, "your request is to me a command and a pleasure. His life shall be spared, since you ask it. Sir knight of the green array, I release you at the damsel's request, for I am bound by her wish, and will do all that she commands."

Then the green knight kneeled down and did homage with his sword.

"I am sorry, sir knight, for your mishap, and for your brother's death," said the damsel. "I had great need of your help, for I dread the passage of this forest."

"You need not," he replied. "To-night you shall lodge at my castle, and to-morrow I will aid you to pass the forest."

So they rode to his manor, which was not far distant. Here it happened as it had on the evening before, for the damsel reviled Beaumains, and would not listen to his sitting at the same table with her.

"Why deal you such despite to this noble warrior?" said the green knight. "You are wrong, for he will do you good service, and whatever he declares himself to be, I warrant in the end you will find him to come of right noble blood."

"You say far more of him than he deserves," she replied. "I know him too well."

"And so do I, for he is the best champion I ever found; and I have fought in my day with many worthy knights."

That night, when they went to rest, the green knight set a guard over Beaumains's chamber, for he feared some harm to him from the bitter scorn and hatred of the damsel. In the morning he rode with them through the forest, and at parting said,—

"My lord Beaumains, I and my knights shall always be at your summons, early or late, or whatever be the service you demand."

"That is well said. When I require your service it will be to yield yourself and your knights to King Arthur."

"If you bid us do so, we shall be ready at all times."

"Fie on you!" said the damsel. "It shames me to see good knights obedient to a kitchen knave."

After they had parted she turned to Beaumains, and said, despitefully,—

"Why wilt thou follow me, lackey of the kitchen? Cast away thy spear and shield and fly while you may, for that is at hand which you will not easily escape. Were you Lancelot himself, or any knight of renown, you would not lightly venture on a pass just in advance of us, called the pass perilous."

"Damsel," said Beaumains, "he who is afraid let him flee. It would be a shame for me to turn back, after having ridden so far with you."

"You soon shall, whether it be to your liking or not," replied the damsel, scornfully.

What the damsel meant quickly appeared, for in a little time they came in sight of a tower which was white as snow in hue, and with every appliance for defence. Over the gateway hung fifty shields of varied colors, and in front spread a level meadow. On this meadow were scaffolds and pavilions, and many knights were there, for there was to be a tournament on the morrow.

The lord of the castle was at a window, and as he looked upon the tournament field he saw approaching a damsel, a dwarf, and a knight armed at all points.

"A knight-errant, as I live!" said the lord. "By my faith, I shall joust with him, and get myself in train for the tournament."

He hastily armed and rode from the gates. What Beaumains saw was a knight all in red, his horse, harness, shield, spear, and armor alike being of this blood-like color. The red knight was, indeed, brother to those whom Beaumains had lately fought, and on seeing the black array of the youth, he cried,—

"Brother, is it you? What do you in these marshes?"

"No, no, it is not he," said the damsel, "but a kitchen knave who has been brought up on alms in Arthur's court."

"Then how got he that armor?"

"He has slain your brother, the black knight, and taken his horse and arms. He has also overcome your brother, the green knight. I hope you may revenge your brothers on him, for I see no other way of getting rid of him."

"I will try," said the red knight, grimly. "Sir knight, take your place for a joust."

Beaumains, who had not yet spoken, rode to a proper distance, and then the two knights rushed together with such even force that both horses fell to the ground, the riders nimbly leaping from them.

Then with sword and shield they fought like wild boars for the space of two hours, advancing, retreating, feigning, striking, now here, now there, till both were well weary of the fray. But the damsel, who looked on, now cried loudly to the red knight,—

"Alas, noble sir, will you let a kitchen knave thus endure your might, after all the honor you have won from worthy champions?"

Then the red knight flamed with wrath, and attacked Beaumains with such fury that he wounded him so that the blood flowed in a stream to the ground. Yet the young knight held his own bravely, giving stroke for stroke, and by a final blow hurled his antagonist to the earth. He had raised his sword to slay him, when the red knight craved mercy, saying,—

"Noble, sir, you have me at advantage, but I pray you not to slay me. I yield me with the fifty knights at my command. And I forgive you all you have done to my brothers."

"That will not suffice," said Beaumains. "You must die, unless the damsel shall pray me to spare your life." And he raised his sword as if for the fatal blow.

"Let him live, then, Beaumains. He is a noble knight, and it is only by a chance blow that you have overcome him."

"It is enough that you ask it," said Beaumains. "Rise, sir knight, and thank this damsel for your life."

The red knight did so, and then prayed that they would enter his castle and spend the night there. To this they consented, but as they sat at supper the damsel continued to berate her champion, in such language that their host marvelled at the meekness of the knight.

In the morning the red knight came to Beaumains with his followers, and proffered to him his homage and fealty at all times.

"I thank you," said Beaumains, "but all I ask is, that when I demand it you shall go to Arthur's court, and yield yourself as his knight."

"I and my fellowship will ever be ready at your summons," replied the red knight.

Then Beaumains and the damsel resumed their journey, while she, as if in a fury of spite, berated him more vilely than ever before.

"Fair lady," he said, with all meekness, "you are discourteous to revile me as you do. What would you have of me? The knights that you have threatened me with are all dead or my vassals. When you see me beaten, then you may bid me go in shame and I will obey, but till then I will not leave you. I were worse than a fool to be driven off by insulting words when I am daily winning honor."

"You shall soon meet a knight who will test your boasted strength. So far you have fought with boys. Now you have a man who would try Arthur's self."

"Let him come," said Beaumains. "The better a man he is, the more honor shall I gain from a joust with him."