In Arthur's house whileome was I When happily the time went by In midmost glory of his days. He held his court then in a place Whereof ye shall not find the name In any story of his fame: Caerliel good sooth men called it not, Nor London Town, nor Camelot; Yet therein had we bliss enow. --Ah, far off was the overthrow Of all that Britain praised and loved; And though among us lightly moved A love that could but lead to death, Smooth-skinned he seemed, of rosy breath, A fear to sting a lady's lip, No ruin of goodly fellowship, No shame and death of all things good.
Forgive the old carle's babbling mood; As here I sit grey-haired and old, My life gone as a story told, Ye bid me tell a story too; And then the evil days and few, That yet were overlong for me Rise up so clear I may not see The pictures of my minstrel lore.
Well hearken! on a day of yore From prime of morn the court did ride Amidmost of the summertide To search the dwellings of the deer Until the heat of noon was near; Then slackening speed awhile they went Adown a ragged thorn-bushed bent At whose feet grew a tangled wood Of oak and holly nowise good: But therethrough with some pain indeed And rending of the ladies' weed They won at last, and after found A space of green-sward grown around By oak and holly set full close; And in the midst of it arose Two goodly sycamores that made A wide and little sun-pierced shade About their high boles straight and green: A fount was new-born there-between, And running on as clear as glass, Flowed winding on amid the grass Until the thick wood swallowed it. A place for happy folk to sit While the hot day grew hotter still Till eve began to work his will. --So might those happy people think Who grudged to see the red sun sink And end another day of bliss Although no joy tomorn should miss -- They laughed for joy as they drew nigh The shade and fount: but lo, thereby A man beside the fountain laid The while his horse 'twixt sun and shade Cropped the sweet grass: but little care Had these of guile or giant's lair, And scarce a foot before the Queen Rode Gawain o'er the daisied green To see what man his pleasure took; Who rose up in meanwhile and shook His tangled hair aback, as one Who e'en but now his sleep hath done. Rough-head and yellow-haired was he Great-eyed, as folk have told to me, And big and stout enow of limb: As one who thinks no harm he smiled, And cried out: "Well met in the wild, Fair King and Queen; and ye withal Sweet dames and damsels! Well befal This day, whereon I see thee nigh, O Lancelot, before I die! And surely shall my heart rejoice Sir Gawain, when I hear thy voice!"
Then Lancelot laughed: "Thou knowest us then Full well among a many men?"
"As quoth the lion to the mouse," The man said; "in King Arthur's House Men are not names of men alone, But coffers rather of deeds done."
The Queen smiled blithe of heart, and spake: "Hast thou done deeds for ladies' sake?"
"Nay Dame," he said, "I am but young; A little have I lived and sung And seen thy face this happy noon."
The King said: "May we hearken soon Some merry tale of thee? for I Am skilled to know men low and high And deem thee neither churl nor fool."
Said he, "My fathers went to school Where folk are taught a many things, But not by bliss: men called them kings In days when kings were near to seek; But as a long thread waxeth weak, So is it with our house; and now I wend me home from oaken bough Unto a stead where roof and wall Shall not have over far to fall When their last day comes." As he spake He reddened: "Nathless for their sake, Whom the world loved once, mock not me O King, if thence I bring to thee A morsel and a draught of wine, Though nothing king-like here thou dine."
Of some kind word King Arthur thought, But ere he spake the woodman caught His forest-nag and leapt thereon, And through the tangled brake was gone. Then leapt the King down, glad at heart, Thinking, This day shall not depart Without some voice from days that were; And lightly leapt down Guenevere, And man and maid lay presently Neath the bee-laden branches high, And sweet the scent of trodden grass Amid the blossoms' perfume was.
There long they lay, and little spake, As folk right loth the calm to break; Till lo upon the forest-breeze A noise of folk, and from the trees They came: the first-seen forester, A grizzled carle in such-like gear, And then two maidens poorly clad Though each a silver chaplet had And round her neck a golden chain: And last two varlets led a wain Drawn by white oxen well bedight With oaken boughs and lilies white; Therein there lay a cask of wine And baskets piled with bread full fine, And flesh of hart and roe and hare; And in the midst upon a chair Done over with a cloth of gold There sat a man exceeding old With long white locks: and clad was he No other than his company Save that a golden crown he bore Full fairly fashioned as of yore, And with a sword was girt about Such as few folk will see I doubt. Right great it was: the scabbard thin Was fashioned of a serpent's skin, In every scale a stone of worth; Of tooth of sea-lion of the north The cross was, and the blood-boot stone That heals the hurt the blade hath done Hung down therefrom in silken purse: The ruddy kin of Niblung's curse O'er tresses of a sea-wife's hair Was wrapped about the handle fair; And last a marvellous sapphire stone Amidst of the great pommel shone, A blue flame in the forest green. And Arthur deemed he ne'er had seen So fair a sword: nay not when he The wonder of the land-locked sea Drew from the stone that Christmas-tide.
Now forth the forest youth did ride, Leapt down beside the King, and spake: "King Arthur for thy greatness' sake My grandsire comes to look on thee; My father standeth here by me; These maidens are my sisters twain; My brethren draw out from the wain Somewhat thy woodland cheer to mend."
Thereat his sire the knee did bend Before the King, who o'er the brown Rough sleeve of the man's homespun gown Beheld a goodly golden ring: And fell to greater marvelling When he beheld how fine and fair The woodman's kneeling sisters were. And all folk thereby deemed in sooth That (save indeed the first seen youth) These folk were nobler e'en than those Of Arthur's wonder of a house.
But now the elder drew anigh, By half a head was he more high Than Arthur or than Lancelot, Nor had eld bent him: he kneeled not Before the King, but smiling took His hands in hands that nowise shook; And the King joyed as he who sees One of his fathers' images Stand glad before him in a dream.
Then down beside the bubbling stream They sat together, and the King Was loth to fall a questioning; So first the elder spake and said:
"It joys me of thy goodlihead O great king of our land; and though Our blood within thee doth not flow, And I who was a king of yore May scarcely kneel thy feet before, Yet do I deem thy right the best Of all the kings who rule the West. I love thy name and fame: behold, King Arthur, I am grown so old In guilelessness, the Gods have sent, Be I content or uncontent, This gift unto my latter days That I may see as through a haze The lives and deeds of days to come: I laugh for some, I weep for some -- I neither laugh nor weep for thee, But trembling through the clouds I see Thy life and glory to the end; And how the sweet and bitter blend Within the cup that thou must drink. Good is it that thou shalt not shrink From either: that the afterdays Shall still win glory from thy praise And scarce believe thee laid asleep When o'er thy deeds the days lie deep."
He ceased but his old lips moved still, As though they would the tale fulfil His heart kept secret: Arthur's eyes Gleamed with the pride that needs would rise Up from his heart, and low he said: "I know the living by the dead I know the future by the past." Wise eyes and kind the elder cast Upon him; while a nameless fear Smote to the heart of Guenevere, And, fainting there, was turned to love: And thence a nameless pain did move The noble heart of Lancelot, The store of longing unforgot. -- And west a little moved the sun And noon began, and noon was done.
But as the elder's grey eyes turned On Guenevere's, her sweet face burned With sweet shame; as though she knew He read her story through and through. Kindly he looked on her and said: "O Queen, the chief of goodlihead, Be blithe and glad this day at least When in my fathers' house ye feast: For surely in their ancient hall Ye sit now: look, there went the wall Where yon turf ridge runs west-away: Time was I heard my grand-dame say She saw this stream run bubbling down The hall-floor shut in trench of stone; Therein she washed her father's cup That last eve e'er the fire went up O'er ridge and rafter and she passed Betwixt the foeman's spears the last Of all the women, wrapping round This sword the gift of Odin's ground."
He shook the weapon o'er his knee, Thereon gazed Arthur eagerly. "Draw it, my lord," quoth Guenevere, "Of such things have we little fear In Arthur's house." And Lancelot rose To look upon the treasure close. But grimly smiled the ancient man: "E'en as the sun arising wan In the black sky when Heimdall's horn Screams out and the last day is born, This blade to eyes of men shall be On that dread day I shall not see --" Fierce was his old face for a while: But once again he 'gan to smile And took the Queen's slim lily hand And set it on the deadly brand Then laughed and said: "Hold this, O Queen, Thine hand is where God's hands have been, For this is Tyrfing: who knows when His blade was forged? Belike ere men Had dwelling on the middle-earth. At least a man's life is it worth To draw it out once: so behold These peace-strings wrought of pearl and gold The scabbard to the cross that bind Lest a rash hand and heart made blind Should draw it forth unwittingly."
Blithe laughed King Arthur: "Sir," said he, "We well may deem in days by gone This sword, the blade of such an one As thou hast been, would seldom slide Back to its sheath unsatisfied. Lo now how fair a feast thy kin Have dight for us and might we win Some tale of thee in Tyrfing's praise, Some deed he wrought in greener days, This were a blithesome hour indeed."
"Sir," said the elder, "little need To pray me hereof. Please ye dine And drink a cup of woodman's wine, Surely meantime some tale shall stir Within my heart of days that were."
Then to their meat they gat and there Feasted amid the woodland fair The fairest folk of all the land. Ah me when first the Queen's fair hand Drew near the kneeling forest youth New-wrought the whole world seemed in sooth And nothing left therein of ill. So at the last the Queen did fill A cup of wine, and drank and said: "In memory of thy fathers dead I drink, fair lord, drink now with me And then bethink thee presently Of deeds that once won prize and praise The glory of thy fathers' days." He drank and laughed and said," Nay, nay, Keep we the peace-strings whole today. This draught from where thy lips have been Within mine old heart maketh green The memory of a love full true, The first recorded deed that drew My fathers' house from dark to light.
If thus my grandame told aright, A rougher place our land was then, Quoth she, than with us living men, And other trees were in the wood And folk of somewhat other blood Than ours: then were the small-eyed bears More plenty in the woodland lairs Than badgers now: no holiday It was to chase the wolves away, Yea there were folk who had to tell Of lyngworms lying on the fell, And fearful things by lake and fen, And manlike shapes that were not men. Then fay-folk roamed the woods at noon, And on the grave-mound in the moon Faint gleamed the flickering treasure-flame. Days of the world that won no fame, Yet now, quoth she, folk looking back Across the tumult and the wrack And swelling up of windy lies And dull fool-fashioned cruelties, Deem that in those days God abode On earth and shared ill times and good And right and wrong with that same folk Their hands had fashioned for the yoke. Quoth she, of such nought tells my tale, Yet saith that such as should prevail In those days o'er the fears of earth Must needs have been some deal of worth, And saith that had ye seen a kin Who dwelt these very woods within Them at the least ye would have told For cousins of the Gods of old. Amongst all these it tells of one, The goodman's last-begotten son, Some twenty summers old: as fair As any flower that blossomed there In sun and rain, and strong therewith And lissom as a willow withe. Now through these woods amidst of June This youngling went until at noon From out of the thicket his fair face Peered forth upon this very place; For he had been a-hunting nigh And wearied thought a while to lie Beside the freshness of the stream. But lo as in a morning dream The place was changed, for there was dight A fair pavilion blue and white E'en where we play, and all around Was talk of men and diverse sound, Tinkling of bit and neigh of steed Clashing of arms and iron weed. For round about the painted tent Armed folk a many came or went, Or on the fresh grass lay about. Surely our youth at first had doubt If 'twere not better to be gone Than meet these stranger folk alone -- But wot ye well such things as these Were new to him born mid the trees And wild things: and he thought, Maybe The household of the Gods I see: Who for as many tales as I Have heard of them, I ne'er saw nigh. If they be men, I wotted not That such fair raiment men had got; They will be glad to show them then.
For one thing taught these woodland men Whatever wisdom they let fall Men since have won Fear nought at all.
So from the holly brake he strode Shouldering the while his hunter's load, A new slain roe; but there arose To meet him half a score of those Whom in fair words he greeted well.
Now was he clad in a sheep's fell And at his back his quiver hung, His woodknife on his thigh: unstrung His bow he held in a staff's stead. An oaken wreath was round his head From whence his crispy locks of brown Well nigh unto his belt hung down, And howso frank his eyes might be A half-frown soothly might you see As these men handled sword or spear And cried out, "Hold, what dost thou here?" "Ah," said he, "then no Gods ye are. Fear not, I shall not make you war." Therewith his hunting-knife he drew And the long blade before them he threw. Then loud they laughed; one sheathed his sword: "Thanks, army-leader, for that word! We are not Gods e'en as thou say'st, Nor thou a devil of the waste But e'en a devil's a friend belike." Something [of] hate hereat did strike Unto the woodsman's unused heart, Yet he spake softly for his part: "What men are ye and where dwell ye? What is the wondrous house I see?" "In the fair southland is our home Yet from the north as now we come," Said one: then with a mocking smile, "And in our house there dwells awhile A very Goddess of the north. But lo you, take a thing of worth For that thy quarry, and begone."
But as he spake another one Spake softly in his ear: and so The word from this to that did go, With laughing that seemed nowise good Unto the dweller of the wood, Who saying nought moved toward the tent. But they came round him as he went And said: "Nay, pagan, stay thy feet; Thou art not one our dame to greet ...