Historical Tales: 13—King Arthur - Charles Morris




The Contest of the Four Queens

Noon had passed by, but the day was still warm, and Lancelot lay yet in deep slumber, dreaming nothing of what had happened while he slept. But now there rode by the apple-tree under which he lay a royal and brilliant cavalcade. For in it were four queens of high estate, who were mounted on white mules, and attired in regal robes, while beside them rode four knights who bore on their spear-points a cloth of green silk, so held as to shield the queens from the heat of the sun.

As they rode by Lancelot's place of slumber they were startled by the loud neigh of a war-horse, and looking about them they became aware of the sleeping knight beneath the apple-tree. They drew near and looked upon his face, and at once knew him for Lancelot du Lake. Then they began pleasantly to strive as to which of them should have the sleeping knight for her lover.

"Let me settle this debate," said Morgan le Fay, who was one of the queens. "I shall by enchantment make his sleep hold for six hours to come, and shall have him borne to my castle. When he is safely within my power I shall remove the enchantment, and then he shall be made to choose which of us he will have for his love. If he refuse us all he shall pay the penalty."

She did as she had said. Lancelot was laid sleeping upon his shield and borne on horseback between two knights, and so brought to a castle named Chariot, where he was laid, still slumbering, in a chamber. At night-fall a fair damsel was sent to him with his supper ready prepared. By that time the enchantment was past, and Lancelot woke as the damsel came into his chamber and asked him how he fared.

"That I am not ready to say," answered Lancelot; "for I know not how I came into this castle unless it were by enchantment."

"As to that I cannot speak," she replied. "I can but bid you eat. If you be such a knight as men say, I shall tell you more to-morrow morn."

"Thanks, fair damsel," said Lancelot. "It pleases me to have your good will."

Little comfort had the good knight of that night's sleep; but early in the morning there came to him the four queens, each dressed in her richest attire, adorned with rare jewels, and as beautiful as art and skill could make them.

They bade him good morning and he returned their greeting, looking upon them with eyes of admiration, but not of love.

"You are our prisoner, sir knight," said Morgan. "We know you well. You are Lancelot of the Lake, King Ban's son. And well we understand that you are named the worthiest knight living, and that men say that no lady in the land but Queen Guenever can have your love. But this we would have you know, that you must choose one of us four as your heart's queen, for if you refuse you shall never see Arthur's queen again. I am Morgan le Fay, queen of the land of Gore, and here is the Queen of Northgalis, the Queen of East-land, and the Queen of the Out Islands. We bid you to forget Guenever and choose of us the one you will have for your love. If you choose not it will be worse for you, for I shall hold you in prison until death."

"This is a hard chance," said Lancelot, "that I must die in prison or profess a love that I do not feel. Let me tell you this, though I die twice in your dungeon I will have none of you, for you are false enchantresses and not true dames for honest men to love. As for dame Guenever, were I at liberty I would prove it on all the knights whom you command that she is of all ladies the truest to her lord."

"Is this, then, your answer," said Morgan, "that you disdain our love?"

"On my life it is!" cried Lancelot. "Such love as yours is not for honest knights; and my love is not to be had for the bidding."

"You may live to change your mind," said Morgan. "Prison life and prison fare may cure your pride."

With these words they departed, leaving Lancelot in gloom of mind but steadfastness of heart.

At noon, the damsel who had brought him his supper the night before came with his dinner, and asked him again how he fared.

"Never so ill," said Lancelot. "For never before was I held under lock and key, and never was worthy knight so shamefully entreated."

"It grieves me deeply to see you in such distress," she said. "If you will be ruled by me, and make me a promise, you shall be set free from this prison, though at the risk of my life."

"I will grant your wish if it be in my power," said Lancelot. "These queenly sorceresses have destroyed many a good knight, and I would give much to be out of their hands."

"They crave your love from what they have heard of your honor and renown," answered the damsel. "They say your name is Lancelot du Lake, the flower of knights, and your refusal of their love has filled their souls with anger. But for my aid you might die in their hands. The promise I ask is this. On Tuesday morning next there is to be a tournament between my father and the King of Northgalis. My father was lately overpowered by three of Arthur's knights, and if you will be there and help him in this coming fray I will engage to deliver you from your bondage at dawn to-morrow."

"Tell me your father's name," said Lancelot, "and then you shall have my answer."

"His name is King Bagdemagus."

"I know him well," said Lancelot. "He is a noble king and a good knight. By the faith of my body, I promise to give him what aid I can."

"A hundred thanks, dear sir," she said. "Be ready to-morrow early. I shall be here to deliver you, and take you to where you can find your horse and armor. Within ten miles of this castle is an abbey of white monks. There I beg you to stay and thither I shall bring my father to you."

"As I am a true knight you can trust me," said Lancelot.

With this the damsel departed. But at early dawn of the next day she came again, as she had promised, and found Lancelot ready and eager for flight. Then they crept through hall and passage, with heedful tread and bated breath, until she had opened twelve locked doors and reached the castle yard.

The sun was just giving its rose tints to the east when she brought him to the place where his horse and armor were kept, and with hasty fingers helped him to arm. Then, taking a great spear and mounting his noble steed, Lancelot rode forth, saying cheerily,—

"Fair damsel, by the grace of God I shall not fail you."

And still slumber lay deep upon the castle, and not one of the queens nor a soul of those who dwelt therein was wakened by the sound.

But not far had the escaping knight departed from the castle before he entered a thick forest, in whose depths he wandered lost all that day, finding no high road, and no trace of the abbey of white monks. Night at length came upon him, and now he found himself in a valley where he saw a pavilion of red sendal.

"Fortune aids me," said Lancelot. "Whoever owns that pavilion, it shall give me shelter for the night."

He thereupon alighted, tied his horse to a tree near by, and entered the pavilion, in which was a comfortable bed. Disarming, he laid himself therein, and very soon was lost in heavy slumber.

Within an hour afterwards the knight who owned the pavilion came thither, and laid himself upon the bed without noticing that it was already occupied. His entrance wakened Lancelot, who, on feeling this intrusion, sprang in quick alarm from the bed and grasped his sword. The other knight, no less alarmed, did the same, and sword in hand they rushed out from the pavilion into the open air, and fell into mortal combat by the side of a little stream that there ran past.

The fight was quickly at an end, for after a few passes the knight of the pavilion fell to the earth, wounded nearly unto death.

"I yield me, sir knight," he cried. "But I fear I have fought my last."

"Why came you into my bed?" demanded Lancelot.

"The pavilion is my own," said the knight. "It is ill fortune that I should die for seeking my own bed."

"Then I am sorry to have hurt you," said Lancelot. "I have lately been beguiled by treason, and was in dread of it. Come into the pavilion. It may be that I can stanch your blood."

They entered the pavilion, where Lancelot, with skilful hands, dressed the knight's wound and stopped the bleeding. As he did so the knight's lady entered the pavilion, and fell into deep lamentation and accusal of Lancelot, on seeing how sorely her lord was hurt.

"Peace, my lady and love," said the knight. "This is a worthy and honorable gentleman. I am in fault for my hurt, and he has saved my life by his skill and care."

"Will you tell me what knight you are?" asked the lady.

"Fair lady," he replied, "my name is Lancelot du Lake."

"So your face and voice told me," she replied, "for I have seen you often, and know you better than you deem. And I would ask of your courtesy, for the harm you have done to my lord Beleus and the grief you have given me, that you will cause my lord to be made a Knight of the Round Table. This I can say for him, that he is a man of warlike prowess, and the lord of many islands."

"Let him come to the court at the next high feast," said Lancelot; "and come you with him. I shall do what I can for him, and if he prove as good a knight as you say, I doubt not but King Arthur will grant your request."

While they still talked the night passed and the day dawned. Then Lancelot armed himself, and asking of them the way to the abbey, rode thither, where he arrived within the space of two hours.

As Lancelot rode within the abbey yard, the damsel to whom he owed his deliverance from the prison of Morgan le Fay sprang from a couch and ran to a window, roused by the loud clang of hoofs upon the pavement.

Seeing who it was, she hurried gladly down, and bade some of the men to take his horse to the stable, and others to lead him to a chamber, whither she sent him a robe to wear when he had laid off his armor.

[Illustration] from King Arthur I by Charles Morris

OLD ARCHES OF THE ABBEY WALL


Then she entered the chamber and bade him heartily welcome, saying that of all knights in the world he was the one she most wished to see. Ordering breakfast to be prepared for the hungry knight, she sent in haste for her father, who was within twelve miles of the abbey. Before eventide he came, and with him a fair following of knights.

As soon as King Bagdemagus reached the abbey, he went straight to the room where were Lancelot and his daughter in conversation, and took Lancelot in his arms, bidding him warmly welcome.

In the talk that followed, Lancelot told the king of his late adventures, the loss of his nephew Lionel, his own betrayal, and his rescue by the maiden, his daughter: "For which," he said, "I owe my best service to her and hers while I live."

"Then can I trust in your help on Tuesday next?" asked the king.

"That I have already promised your daughter," said Lancelot. "I shall not fail. But she tells me that in your last bout you lost the field through three of King Arthur's knights, who aided the King of Northgalis, and that it is against these knights you need assistance. What knights were they?"

"They were Sir Mador de la Porte, Sir Mordred, and Sir Gahalatine. Do what we could, neither I nor my knights could make head against them."

"I would not have them know me," said Lancelot. "My plan, therefore, is this. Send me here three of your best knights, and see that they have white shields, with no device, and that I also have such a shield. Then shall we four, when the fight is well on, come out of a wood into the midst of the fray, and do what we can to defeat these champions."

This plan was carried out as Lancelot had devised. On the day fixed for the tournament he, with his three white-shielded companions, placed himself in ambush in a leafy grove near where the lists were raised. Around the field were rows of benches where the spectators might sit, and richly-adorned seats for the lords and ladies who were to adjudge the combat and award the prize of skill and valor.

Then into the lists rode the King of Northgalis, with a following of fourscore knights, and attended by the three knights of Arthur's court, who stood apart by themselves. Into the opposite side of the lists rode King Bagdemagus, with as many knights in his train.

When all were in place the signal for the onset was given, and the knights put their spears in rest and rode together with a great rush, and with such fatal fortune that twelve of the party of Bagdemagus and six of that of Northgalis were slain at the first encounter, while the knights of King Bagdemagus were driven back in disorder.

At this critical juncture Lancelot and his companions broke from their concealment and rode into the lists, forcing their horses into the thick of the press. Then Lancelot did deeds of such marvellous strength and skill that all men deeply wondered who could be the valiant knight of the white shield. For with one spear he smote down five knights, with such force that four of them broke their backs in the fall. Then turning on the King of Northgalis, he hurled him from his horse and broke his thigh.

The three knights of Arthur's court, who had not yet joined in the fray, saw this, and rode forward.

"A shrewd guest that," said Mador. "Let me have at him."

But his fortune was not equal to his hopes, for Lancelot bore down horse and man, so that Mador's shoulder was put out of joint by the fall.

"Now is my turn," said Mordred.

He rode fiercely on Lancelot, who turned nimbly and met him in full career, Mordred's spear shivering unto his hand when it struck the firm white shield. But Lancelot gave him so shrewd a buffet that the bow of his saddle broke, and he was flung over his horse's tail with such violence that his helmet went more than a foot into the earth. Fortune saved him from a broken neck, but he lay long in a swoon.

Then Gahalatine and Lancelot rode together with all their force, the spears of both breaking, but both keeping their seats. They now drew their swords, and struck each other many a keen blow. At length Lancelot, with a burst of wrath, smote Gahalatine so fierce a stroke on the helm that blood burst from his nose, mouth, and ears, and his head drooped on his breast. His horse ran in fright from the fray, while he fell headlong from his saddle to the ground.

Lancelot now drew back and received from the attendants a stout, strong spear, and with this rode again into the fray. Before that spear broke he had unhorsed sixteen knights, some of them being borne from their saddles, while others were hurled horse and man together to the earth. Then getting another spear he unhorsed twelve more knights, some of whom never throve afterwards. This ended the tournament, for the knights of Northgalis refused to fight any longer against a champion of such mighty prowess, and the prize was awarded to King Bagdemagus.

Lancelot now rode with King Bagdemagus from the lists to his castle, where they had great feasting and rejoicing, and where Lancelot was proffered rich gifts for the noble service he had rendered. But these he refused to accept.

On the following morning Lancelot took his leave, saying that he must go in search of Lionel, who had vanished from his side during his sleep. But before going he commended all present to God's grace, and said to the king's daughter,—

"If you have need any time of my service I pray you let me know, and I shall not fail you, as I am a true knight."

And so Lancelot departed, having had strange adventures and won much renown since he had parted from his nephew Lionel.