This, Gareth hearing from a squire of Lot
With whom he used to play at tourney once,
When both were children, and in lonely haunts
Would scratch a ragged oval on the sand,
And each at either dash from either end —
Shame never made girl redder than Gareth joy.
He laughed; he sprang. ‘Out of the smoke, at once
I leap from Satan’s foot to Peter’s knee —
These news be mine, none other’s — nay, the King’s —
Descend into the city:’ whereon he sought
The King alone, and found, and told him all.
‘I have staggered thy strong Gawain in a tilt
For pastime; yea, he said it: joust can I.
Make me thy knight — in secret! let my name
Be hidden, and give me the first quest, I spring
Like flame from ashes.’
Here the King’s calm eye
Fell on, and checked, and made him flush, and bow
Lowly, to kiss his hand, who answered him,
‘Son, the good mother let me know thee here,
And sent her wish that I would yield thee thine.
Make thee my knight? my knights are sworn to vows
Of utter hardihood, utter gentleness,
And, loving, utter faithfulness in love,
And uttermost obedience to the King.’
Then Gareth, lightly springing from his knees,
‘My King, for hardihood I can promise thee.
For uttermost obedience make demand
Of whom ye gave me to, the Seneschal,
No mellow master of the meats and drinks!
And as for love, God wot, I love not yet,
But love I shall, God willing.’
And the King
‘Make thee my knight in secret? yea, but he,
Our noblest brother, and our truest man,
And one with me in all, he needs must know.’
‘Let Lancelot know, my King, let Lancelot know,
Thy noblest and thy truest!’
And the King —
‘But wherefore would ye men should wonder at you?
Nay, rather for the sake of me, their King,
And the deed’s sake my knighthood do the deed,
Than to be noised of.’
Merrily Gareth asked,
‘Have I not earned my cake in baking of it?
Let be my name until I make my name!
My deeds will speak: it is but for a day.’
So with a kindly hand on Gareth’s arm
Smiled the great King, and half-unwillingly
Loving his lusty youthhood yielded to him.
Then, after summoning Lancelot privily,
‘I have given him the first quest: he is not proven.
Look therefore when he calls for this in hall,
Thou get to horse and follow him far away.
Cover the lions on thy shield, and see
Far as thou mayest, he be nor ta’en nor slain.’
Then that same day there past into the hall
A damsel of high lineage, and a brow
May-blossom, and a cheek of apple-blossom,
Hawk-eyes; and lightly was her slender nose
Tip-tilted like the petal of a flower;
She into hall past with her page and cried,
‘O King, for thou hast driven the foe without,
See to the foe within! bridge, ford, beset
By bandits, everyone that owns a tower
The Lord for half a league. Why sit ye there?
Rest would I not, Sir King, an I were king,
Till even the lonest hold were all as free
From cursed bloodshed, as thine altar-cloth
From that best blood it is a sin to spill.’
‘Comfort thyself,’ said Arthur. ‘I nor mine
Rest: so my knighthood keep the vows they swore,
The wastest moorland of our realm shall be
Safe, damsel, as the centre of this hall.
What is thy name? thy need?’
‘My name?’ she said —
‘Lynette my name; noble; my need, a knight
To combat for my sister, Lyonors,
A lady of high lineage, of great lands,
And comely, yea, and comelier than myself.
She lives in Castle Perilous: a river
Runs in three loops about her living-place;
And o’er it are three passings, and three knights
Defend the passings, brethren, and a fourth
And of that four the mightiest, holds her stayed
In her own castle, and so besieges her
To break her will, and make her wed with him:
And but delays his purport till thou send
To do the battle with him, thy chief man
Sir Lancelot whom he trusts to overthrow,
Then wed, with glory: but she will not wed
Save whom she loveth, or a holy life.
Now therefore have I come for Lancelot.’
Then Arthur mindful of Sir Gareth asked,
‘Damsel, ye know this Order lives to crush
All wrongers of the Realm. But say, these four,
Who be they? What the fashion of the men?’
‘They be of foolish fashion, O Sir King,
The fashion of that old knight-errantry
Who ride abroad, and do but what they will;
Courteous or bestial from the moment, such
As have nor law nor king; and three of these
Proud in their fantasy call themselves the Day,
Morning-Star, and Noon-Sun, and Evening-Star,
Being strong fools; and never a whit more wise
The fourth, who alway rideth armed in black,
A huge man-beast of boundless savagery.
He names himself the Night and oftener Death,
And wears a helmet mounted with a skull,
And bears a skeleton figured on his arms,
To show that who may slay or scape the three,
Slain by himself, shall enter endless night.
And all these four be fools, but mighty men,
And therefore am I come for Lancelot.’
Hereat Sir Gareth called from where he rose,
A head with kindling eyes above the throng,
‘A boon, Sir King — this quest!’ then — for he marked
Kay near him groaning like a wounded bull —
‘Yea, King, thou knowest thy kitchen-knave am I,
And mighty through thy meats and drinks am I,
And I can topple over a hundred such.
Thy promise, King,’ and Arthur glancing at him,
Brought down a momentary brow. ‘Rough, sudden,
And pardonable, worthy to be knight —
Go therefore,’ and all hearers were amazed.
But on the damsel’s forehead shame, pride, wrath
Slew the May-white: she lifted either arm,
‘Fie on thee, King! I asked for thy chief knight,
And thou hast given me but a kitchen-knave.’
Then ere a man in hall could stay her, turned,
Fled down the lane of access to the King,
Took horse, descended the slope street, and past
The weird white gate, and paused without, beside
The field of tourney, murmuring ‘kitchen-knave.’
Now two great entries opened from the hall,
At one end one, that gave upon a range
Of level pavement where the King would pace
At sunrise, gazing over plain and wood;
And down from this a lordly stairway sloped
Till lost in blowing trees and tops of towers;
And out by this main doorway past the King.
But one was counter to the hearth, and rose
High that the highest-crested helm could ride
Therethrough nor graze: and by this entry fled
The damsel in her wrath, and on to this
Sir Gareth strode, and saw without the door
King Arthur’s gift, the worth of half a town,
A warhorse of the best, and near it stood
The two that out of north had followed him:
This bare a maiden shield, a casque; that held
The horse, the spear; whereat Sir Gareth loosed
A cloak that dropt from collar-bone to heel,
A cloth of roughest web, and cast it down,
And from it like a fuel-smothered fire,
That lookt half-dead, brake bright, and flashed as those
Dull-coated things, that making slide apart
Their dusk wing-cases, all beneath there burns
A jewelled harness, ere they pass and fly.
So Gareth ere he parted flashed in arms.
Then as he donned the helm, and took the shield
And mounted horse and graspt a spear, of grain
Storm-strengthened on a windy site, and tipt
With trenchant steel, around him slowly prest
The people, while from out of kitchen came
The thralls in throng, and seeing who had worked
Lustier than any, and whom they could but love,
Mounted in arms, threw up their caps and cried,
‘God bless the King, and all his fellowship!’
And on through lanes of shouting Gareth rode
Down the slope street, and past without the gate.
So Gareth past with joy; but as the cur
Pluckt from the cur he fights with, ere his cause
Be cooled by fighting, follows, being named,
His owner, but remembers all, and growls
Remembering, so Sir Kay beside the door
Muttered in scorn of Gareth whom he used
To harry and hustle.
‘Bound upon a quest
With horse and arms — the King hath past his time —
My scullion knave! Thralls to your work again,
For an your fire be low ye kindle mine!
Will there be dawn in West and eve in East?
Begone! — my knave! — belike and like enow
Some old head-blow not heeded in his youth
So shook his wits they wander in his prime —
Crazed! How the villain lifted up his voice,
Nor shamed to bawl himself a kitchen-knave.
Tut: he was tame and meek enow with me,
Till peacocked up with Lancelot’s noticing.
Well — I will after my loud knave, and learn
Whether he know me for his master yet.
Out of the smoke he came, and so my lance
Hold, by God’s grace, he shall into the mire —
Thence, if the King awaken from his craze,
Into the smoke again.’
But Lancelot said,
‘Kay, wherefore wilt thou go against the King,
For that did never he whereon ye rail,
But ever meekly served the King in thee?
Abide: take counsel; for this lad is great
And lusty, and knowing both of lance and sword.’
‘Tut, tell not me,’ said Kay, ‘ye are overfine
To mar stout knaves with foolish courtesies:’
Then mounted, on through silent faces rode
Down the slope city, and out beyond the gate.
But by the field of tourney lingering yet
Muttered the damsel, ‘Wherefore did the King
Scorn me? for, were Sir Lancelot lackt, at least
He might have yielded to me one of those
Who tilt for lady’s love and glory here,
Rather than — O sweet heaven! O fie upon him —
To whom Sir Gareth drew
(And there were none but few goodlier than he)
Shining in arms, ‘Damsel, the quest is mine.
Lead, and I follow.’ She thereat, as one
That smells a foul-fleshed agaric in the holt,
And deems it carrion of some woodland thing,
Or shrew, or weasel, nipt her slender nose
With petulant thumb and finger, shrilling, ‘Hence!
Avoid, thou smellest all of kitchen-grease.
And look who comes behind,’ for there was Kay.
‘Knowest thou not me? thy master? I am Kay.
We lack thee by the hearth.’
And Gareth to him,
‘Master no more! too well I know thee, ay —
The most ungentle knight in Arthur’s hall.’
‘Have at thee then,’ said Kay: they shocked, and Kay
Fell shoulder-slipt, and Gareth cried again,
‘Lead, and I follow,’ and fast away she fled.
But after sod and shingle ceased to fly
Behind her, and the heart of her good horse
Was nigh to burst with violence of the beat,
Perforce she stayed, and overtaken spoke.
‘What doest thou, scullion, in my fellowship?
Deem’st thou that I accept thee aught the more
Or love thee better, that by some device
Full cowardly, or by mere unhappiness,
Thou hast overthrown and slain thy master — thou! —
Dish-washer and broach-turner, loon! — to me
Thou smellest all of kitchen as before.’
‘Damsel,’ Sir Gareth answered gently, ‘say
Whate’er ye will, but whatsoe’er ye say,
I leave not till I finish this fair quest,
Or die therefore.’
‘Ay, wilt thou finish it?
Sweet lord, how like a noble knight he talks!
The listening rogue hath caught the manner of it.
But, knave, anon thou shalt be met with, knave,
And then by such a one that thou for all
The kitchen brewis that was ever supt
Shalt not once dare to look him in the face.’
‘I shall assay,’ said Gareth with a smile
That maddened her, and away she flashed again
Down the long avenues of a boundless wood,
And Gareth following was again beknaved.
‘Sir Kitchen-knave, I have missed the only way
Where Arthur’s men are set along the wood;
The wood is nigh as full of thieves as leaves:
If both be slain, I am rid of thee; but yet,
Sir Scullion, canst thou use that spit of thine?
Fight, an thou canst: I have missed the only way.’
So till the dusk that followed evensong
Rode on the two, reviler and reviled;
Then after one long slope was mounted, saw,
Bowl-shaped, through tops of many thousand pines
A gloomy-gladed hollow slowly sink
To westward — in the deeps whereof a mere,
Round as the red eye of an Eagle-owl,
Under the half-dead sunset glared; and shouts
Ascended, and there brake a servingman
Flying from out of the black wood, and crying,
‘They have bound my lord to cast him in the mere.’
Then Gareth, ‘Bound am I to right the wronged,
But straitlier bound am I to bide with thee.’
And when the damsel spake contemptuously,
‘Lead, and I follow,’ Gareth cried again,
‘Follow, I lead!’ so down among the pines
He plunged; and there, blackshadowed nigh the mere,
And mid-thigh-deep in bulrushes and reed,
Saw six tall men haling a seventh along,
A stone about his neck to drown him in it.
Three with good blows he quieted, but three
Fled through the pines; and Gareth loosed the stone
From off his neck, then in the mere beside
Tumbled it; oilily bubbled up the mere.
Last, Gareth loosed his bonds and on free feet
Set him, a stalwart Baron, Arthur’s friend.
‘Well that ye came, or else these caitiff rogues
Had wreaked themselves on me; good cause is theirs
To hate me, for my wont hath ever been
To catch my thief, and then like vermin here
Drown him, and with a stone about his neck;
And under this wan water many of them
Lie rotting, but at night let go the stone,
And rise, and flickering in a grimly light
Dance on the mere. Good now, ye have saved a life
Worth somewhat as the cleanser of this wood.
And fain would I reward thee worshipfully.
What guerdon will ye?’
Gareth sharply spake,
‘None! for the deed’s sake have I done the deed,
In uttermost obedience to the King.
But wilt thou yield this damsel harbourage?’
Whereat the Baron saying, ‘I well believe
You be of Arthur’s Table,’ a light laugh
Broke from Lynette, ‘Ay, truly of a truth,
And in a sort, being Arthur’s kitchen-knave! —
But deem not I accept thee aught the more,
Scullion, for running sharply with thy spit
Down on a rout of craven foresters.
A thresher with his flail had scattered them.
Nay — for thou smellest of the kitchen still.
But an this lord will yield us harbourage,
So she spake. A league beyond the wood,
All in a full-fair manor and a rich,
His towers where that day a feast had been
Held in high hall, and many a viand left,
And many a costly cate, received the three.
And there they placed a peacock in his pride
Before the damsel, and the Baron set
Gareth beside her, but at once she rose.
‘Meseems, that here is much discourtesy,
Setting this knave, Lord Baron, at my side.
Hear me — this morn I stood in Arthur’s hall,
And prayed the King would grant me Lancelot
To fight the brotherhood of Day and Night —
The last a monster unsubduable
Of any save of him for whom I called —
Suddenly bawls this frontless kitchen-knave,
“The quest is mine; thy kitchen-knave am I,
And mighty through thy meats and drinks am I.”
Then Arthur all at once gone mad replies,
“Go therefore,” and so gives the quest to him —
Him — here — a villain fitter to stick swine
Than ride abroad redressing women’s wrong,
Or sit beside a noble gentlewoman.’
Then half-ashamed and part-amazed, the lord
Now looked at one and now at other, left
The damsel by the peacock in his pride,
And, seating Gareth at another board,
Sat down beside him, ate and then began.
‘Friend, whether thou be kitchen-knave, or not,
Or whether it be the maiden’s fantasy,
And whether she be mad, or else the King,
Or both or neither, or thyself be mad,
I ask not: but thou strikest a strong stroke,
For strong thou art and goodly therewithal,
And saver of my life; and therefore now,
For here be mighty men to joust with, weigh
Whether thou wilt not with thy damsel back
To crave again Sir Lancelot of the King.
Thy pardon; I but speak for thine avail,
The saver of my life.’
And Gareth said,
‘Full pardon, but I follow up the quest,
Despite of Day and Night and Death and Hell.’