Historical Tales: 13—King Arthur - Charles Morris

The Chapel Perilous

Lancelot rode onward day after day, passing through many strange and wild countries, and over many rivers, and finding but sorry cheer and ill lodging as he went. At length fortune brought him to a comfortable wayside mansion, where he was well received, and after a good supper was lodged in a chamber over the gateway.

But he had not been long asleep when he was aroused by a furious knocking at the gate. Springing from his bed, he looked from the window, and there by the moonlight saw one knight defending himself against three, who were pressing him closely. The knight fought bravely, but was in danger of being overpowered.

"Those are not fair odds," said Lancelot. "I must to the rescue, and the more so as I see that it is my old friend, Sir Kay, who is being so roughly handled."

Then he hastily put on his armor, and by aid of a sheet lowered himself from a window to the ground.

"Turn this way," he cried to the assailants, "and leave that knight. Three to one is not knightly odds."

At these words they turned upon him, all three striking at him together, and forcing him to defend himself. Kay would have come to his aid, but he cried out,—

"I will have none of your help. Stand off and leave me alone, or fight them yourself."

At this Kay stood aside, and Lancelot attacked the three miscreants so fiercely that within six strokes he felled them all to the ground. They now begged for mercy, yielding to him as a man of matchless skill.

"I will not take your yielding," he replied. "Yield to Sir Kay, here, whom you foully over-matched."

"You ask too much of us, fair sir. It is not just that we should yield to him whom we would have vanquished but for you."

"Think well," returned Lancelot. "You shall yield or die. The choice is yours."

"That is a choice with but one side. Yield we must, if death is the alternative."

"Then I bid you on Whitsunday next, to present yourselves to Queen Guenever at King Arthur's court, and put yourselves in her grace and mercy, saying that Sir Kay sent you there as prisoners."

This they took oath to do, each knight swearing upon his sword; whereupon Lancelot suffered them to depart.

He now knocked at the gate with the pommel of his sword, till his host came, who started with surprise on seeing him there.

"I thought you were safe a-bed," he said.

"So I was. But I sprang from the window to help an old fellow of mine."

When they came to the light, Kay recognized Lancelot, and fell on his knees to thank him for saving his life.

"What I have done is nothing but what duty and good fellowship demanded," said Lancelot. "Are you hungry?"

"Half starved," answered Kay.

"Mayhap our good host can find you food."

Meat was thereupon brought, of which Kay ate heartily, after which he and Lancelot sought their beds in the gate chamber.

But in the morning Lancelot rose while Kay was still asleep, and took his guest's armor and shield, leaving his own. Then he proceeded to the stable, mounted his horse, and rode away. Shortly afterwards Kay awoke, and quickly perceived what his comrade had done.

"Good," he said, with a laugh. "Lancelot is after some sport. I fancy that more than one knight will get more than he bargains for if he thinks he has me to deal with. As for me, with Lancelot's armor and shield, I shall be left to ride in peace, for few, I fancy, will trouble me."

Kay thereupon put on Lancelot's armor, and, thanking his host, rode away. Meanwhile Lancelot had ridden on till he found himself in a low country full of meadows and rivers. Here he passed a bridge at whose end were three pavilions of silk and sendal, and at the door of each a white shield on the truncheon of a spear, while three squires stood at the pavilion doors. Lancelot rode leisurely by, without a word and hardly a look.

When he had passed, the knights looked after him, saying to one another, "That is the proud Kay. He deems no knight so good as he, though it has often been proved otherwise."

"I shall ride after him," said one. "We shall see if his pride does not have a fall. Watch me, comrades, if you would see some sport."

He sped but poorly, as it proved, for within a short time he was hurled grovelling to the earth. Then the two others rode in succession against the disguised knight, and both met with the same sorry fate.

"You are not Kay, the seneschal," they cried. "He never struck such blows. Tell us your name and we will yield."

"You shall yield, whether you will or not," he replied. "Look that you be at court by Whitsunday, and yield yourselves to Queen Guenever, saying to her that Sir Kay sent you thither as prisoners."

This they swore to do, in dread of worse handling, and Lancelot rode on, leaving them to help themselves as best they might. Not far had he gone when he entered a forest, and in an open glade of this saw four knights resting under an oak. He knew them at sight to be from Arthur's court, two of them being Gawaine and Uwaine; the other two Hector de Maris, and Sagramour le Desirous.

They, as the three previous knights had done, mistook Lancelot for Kay, and Sagramour rode after him, vowing that he would try what skill the seneschal had. He quickly found, for horse and man together were hurled to the ground, while Lancelot sat unmoved in his saddle.

"I would have sworn that Kay could not give such a buffet as that," said Hector. "Let us see what I can do with him."

His luck was even worse, for he went to the earth with a spear-hole in his shoulder, his shield and armor being pierced.

"By my faith!" said Uwaine, "that knight is a bigger and stronger man than Kay. He must have slain the seneschal and taken his armor. He has proved himself a hard man to match, but if Kay has been slain it is our duty to revenge him."

He thereupon rode against Lancelot, but with as ill fortune as his fellows, for he was flung so violently to the earth that he lay long out of his senses.

"Whoever he be," cried Gawaine, "he has overturned my comrades, and I must encounter him. Defend yourself, sir knight."

Then the two knights rode fiercely together, each striking the other in the midst of the shield. But Gawaine's spear broke, while that of Lancelot held good, and struck so strong a blow that the horse was overturned, Gawaine barely escaping being crushed beneath him.

This done, Lancelot rode slowly on, smiling to himself, and saying, "God give joy to the man that made this spear, for a better no knight ever handled."

"What say you of this knight, who with one spear has felled us all?" said Gawaine. "To my thinking, it is Lancelot or the devil. He rides like Lancelot."

"We shall find out in good time," said the others; "but he has left us sore bodies and sick hearts, and our poor horses are the worse for the trial."

Lancelot rode on through the forest, thinking quietly to himself of the surprise he had given to his late assailants, and of the sport it would thereafter make in the court. But new and stranger adventures awaited him, for he was now coming into a land of enchantment, where more than mere strength would be needed.

What he saw, after he had ridden long and far, was a black brachet, which was coursing as if in the track of a hurt deer; but he quickly perceived that the dog was upon a trail of fresh blood. He followed the brachet, which looked behind as it ran, as if with desire to lead him on. In time he saw before him an old manor, over whose bridge ran the dog. When Lancelot had ridden over the bridge, that shook beneath his hoofs as if it was ready to fall, he came into a great hall, where lay a dead knight whose wounds the dog was licking. As he stood there a lady rushed weeping from a chamber, and wrung her hands in grief as she accused him of having slain her lord.

"Madam, it was not I," said Lancelot. "I never saw him till his dog led me here, and I am sorry enough for your misfortune."

"I should have known it could not be you," she said. "I was led by my grief to speak wildly. For he that killed my husband is sorely wounded himself, and I can promise him this, that he will never recover. I have wrought him a charm that no leech's skill can overcome."

"What was your husband's name?" asked Lancelot.

"Sir Gilbert," she replied. "As for him that slew him, I know not his name."

"God send you better comfort," said Lancelot. "I am sorry for your misfortune."

Then he rode again into the forest, and in a short space met a damsel who knew him well, for his visor was up and his face shown.

"You are well found, my lord Lancelot," she said. "I beg you of your knighthood to help my brother, who lies near by sorely wounded, and never stops bleeding. He fought to-day with Sir Gilbert and slew him in fair battle, and now is dying through foul enchantment. Not far from here dwells a lady sorceress, who has wrought this harm, and who told me to-day that my brother's wounds would never heal till I could find a knight who would go into the Chapel Perilous, and bring thence the sword of the slain knight and a piece of the bloody cloth that he is wrapped in. My brother will die unless his wounds are touched with that sword and that cloth, for nothing else on earth will stop their bleeding."

"This is a marvellous tale," said Lancelot. "Who is your brother?"

"His name is Meliot de Logres."

"Then he is one of my fellows of the Round Table, and I will do all I can to help him. What and where the Chapel Perilous is I know not, but I do not fear its perils."

"This highway will bring you to it, and at no great distance," she replied. "I shall here await your return. I know no knight but you who can achieve this task, and truly you will find it no light one, for you have enchantment and sorcery to encounter."

Little was Lancelot downcast by these words, and he rode on to the Chapel Perilous with no dread in his bold heart. Reaching the building indicated, he alighted and tied his horse beside the gate. Then he entered the church-yard, and there he saw on the chapel front many shields hung upside down, some of them being well known to him.

But his eyes were quickly drawn from these, for suddenly there appeared before him thirty gigantic knights, all clad in jet-black armor, and every man of them a foot higher than common men. All bore swords and shields, and as they stood there they grinned and gnashed at him with baleful faces.

Dread came into Lancelot's heart on seeing this frightful throng of black warriors, with their demon-like countenances. But commending his soul to God, he took his sword in hand and advanced resolutely upon them. Then, to his surprise and gladness, when they saw this bold advance they scattered right and left before him, like dead leaves before the wind, and gave him open passage to the chapel, which he entered without further opposition.

Here was no light but that of a dim lamp, and on a bier in the centre of the aisle there lay a corpse that was covered with a cloth of silk. On coming up, Lancelot gazed upon the face and saw that it was that of Sir Gilbert, whose dead body he had seen but lately in the hall of the manor-house.

Then he bent over the corpse and cut away a piece of the silk, and as he did so he felt the floor to sink and rock beneath him as if the earth had quaked. This gave him a thrill of dread, and seizing the sword that lay by the side of the corpse he hastened out of the chapel.

When he reached the chapel-yard the black knights thronged again in his pathway, and cried to him with voices of thunder,—

"Knight, yield us that sword, or you shall die!"

"Whether I live or die, it will need more than loud words to force me to yield it. You may fight for it if you will. And I warn you, you will need to fight hard."

Then, as before, they scattered before his bold advance, and left him free passage. Lancelot strode resolutely on through the chapel-yard, but in the highway beyond he met a fair damsel, who said to him,—

"Sir Lancelot, you know not what risk you run. Leave that sword, or you will die for it."

"I got it not so easy that I should leave it for a threat," he replied.

"You are wise," she answered. "I did but test your judgment. If you had yielded the sword you would never have looked on Queen Guenever again."

"Then I would have been a fool indeed to leave it."

"Now, gentle knight, I have but one request to make of you ere you depart. That is, that you kiss me."

"Nay," said Lancelot, "that God forbid. I save my kisses till my love is given."

"Then are you beyond my power," she cried, with a groan of pain. "Had you kissed me your life would have ended; but now I have lost my labor, for it was for you and Gawaine that I prepared this chapel with its enchantments. Gawaine was once in my power, and at that time he fought with Sir Gilbert and struck off his left hand. As for you, I have loved you these seven years. But I know that none but Guenever will ever have your love, and so, as I could not have you alive, I wished to have you dead. If you had yielded to my wiles I should have embalmed and preserved your body, and kissed it daily in spite of Guenever, or any woman living. Now farewell, Lancelot; I shall never look upon your face again."

"I pray to Heaven you shall not. And may God preserve me from your vile craft."

Mounting his horse, Lancelot departed. Of the lady, we are told by the chronicles that she died within a fortnight of pure sorrow, and that she was a sorceress of high renown.

Lancelot rode on till he met the sister of the wounded knight, who clapped her hands and wept for joy on seeing him safely returned. Then she led him to a castle near by, where Sir Meliot lay. Lancelot knew him at sight, though he was pale as death from loss of blood.

On seeing Lancelot, he fell on his knees before him, crying, in tones of hope,—

"Oh, my lord Lancelot, help me, for you alone can!"

"I can and will," rejoined the knight, and, as he had been advised, he touched his wounds with the sword and rubbed them with the bloody cloth he had won.

No sooner was this done, than Meliot sprang to his feet a whole and sound man, while his heart throbbed with joy and gratefulness. And he and his sister entertained their noble guest with the best the castle afforded, doing all in their power to show their gratitude.