THE KNIGHT’S TALE.
PALAMON AND ARCITE.
ONCE on a time there was a duke named Theseus, who was king of Athens. He was a great conqueror, and was often away from home fighting in foreign lands. He had conquered lawless countries and killed many savage monsters, and was more famous than any man alive. At last he rode to fight in Scythia, a country of the North, where a fierce race of women lived called Amazons.
These women fought like men, and were as strong as men, but Theseus conquered them and their queen, Hypolita, as he had conquered all before
Now, the young queen Hypolita was as beautiful as she was bold, so that Theseus loved her, and asked her to marry him. So they were married, with feasting and songs, and he brought her home across the sea to his own country, and with her her sister Emily, who was then only a little girl.
So Theseus and his queen Hypolita and little Emily, and the soldiers with their swords and spears, came riding back to Athens. It was now the queen’s home and Emily’s too, for they loved strong Theseus far too well ever to think of turning back to dreary Scythia to reign over those cruel women. All the army were so proud of great Theseus’ victories that they came with music playing all the way.
But it happened that as the duke drew near to the town, riding along in all his pride and glory, he looked on one side of the road and saw a company of ladies kneeling in the way. They knelt two and two in a long line, and were crying, and all dressed in black. They sobbed and cried so loud and piteously that the glad music stopped, and it was terrible to hear them when all else was silent.
They never ceased their cries, but caught with their thin arms at the bridle-reins, and the duke’s horse stood still.
‘Who are you?’ said Theseus. ‘And why do you disturb my glad return with cries and tears ? Do you envy me my honour and my joy ; or has anyone done you wrong ? Tell me why you are all clothed in black, and whether I can help you.’
Then the eldest of the ladies, fainting for grief, and pale as death, at last found words and said, ‘ Great lord and conqueror, we do not envy you your honour and your joy, and we are sorry to disturb your glad return with our cries and tears. We pray you to have pity on us, for you are pitiful, and ours is a sad lot Each one of us was once a duchess or a queen, and now we are but wretched widows, broken-hearted, as you see. All this fortnight we have been waiting and waiting for your coming in the Temple of Mercy, close at hand. My husband was the Prince Capaneus, who went to fight against the men of Thebes, the city of seven gates, where the King Creon reigns, and the husbands of these noble ladies went with him. But cruel Creon slew them one by one,
and brutally cast their poor bodies into a heap together, and would not bury them ; and, oh ! they are lying unburied and unburnt, and are torn and devoured by the crows and the dogs.’ At these words they burst into tears again, and fell on their faces, and cried aloud, ‘ Pity us, pity us, and make
King Creon give us our dead husbands’ bodies back.’
When Theseus heard this he felt very sorry for the poor ladies, and was angry to think of such a thing ; and he threw himself from his horse and raised them from their knees and comforted them, and swore a great oath and said, ‘I will march against Thebes this very day and find this wicked king and kill him. My people and all Greece shall remember how Theseus served Creon, and how richly Creon deserved his death.’
So Theseus did not wait— no, not half a day. He sent his bride, Queen Hypolita, with her young sister Emily, to live in Athens and wait for him there ; and he, with all his knights and the poor ladies, set out to ride to Thebes. Before him was carried his broad white banner, with a figure upon it of Mars, the War-god, shining red, and the fields glittered beneath it as they passed. And by the side of this great banner a smaller flag was borne, stamped with the picture of a fearful beast called the Minotaur. It used to eat children up alive, and Theseus had killed it long ago.
Now you know how this great duke looked as he rode with his army to Thebes, and if you had seen him riding there you would have said he was the noblest of them all.
It would take too long to tell you all that Theseus did at Thebes. It is enough for you to know that he fought a great battle, and killed the cruel king with his own sword. He restored the bones of their husbands to the poor ladies, and
gave them great comfort by the wonderful and glorious funeral which he made for those dead princes. And he took the city of Thebes, and pulled down the walls and houses. The beams and rafters clattered and fell, and the city was a heap of ruins.
Now, on the night of the last great battle the duke slept in his tent, in the same place where they had fought ; and all that night the plunderers were creeping about among the dead bodies to strip them of their armour and their clothes. As they were searching among a heap of bodies they found two young soldiers lying side by side, in armour, just alike, as if they were brothers ; and although
these young knights were covered with deep wounds they were not dead, but lay between death and life. By the gay coats which they wore over their armour the robbers thought they must be princes, and brought them softly to the tent of Theseus. Then, though the wounded men were senseless and could not speak to tell their names, the heralds soon knew them by the signs upon their coats, and said that their names were Arcite and Palamon, sons of two sisters, and cousins of King Creon.
Then Theseus, when he knew they were his and cousins of the hated king, sent them to Athens to be put in prison, and kept there all their lives. He would take no money to let them go.
So Theseus rode back to Athens more glorious than before, and lived with his dear queen in great delight But Palamon and Arcite were prisoners. They were shut up in a thick tower in Athens, and were very sad ; for year followed year, and day went by after day, and they knew that they should never go into the free sunshine any more. But after a time the gaoler let them go into a prison-
room at the top of the tower. It had a window shut in with thick iron bars, and they could only look through the squares between the bars; but still they could see over the beautiful city and look at the green trees underneath, for the dungeon-tower was built close to the duke’s palace and stood beside the palace garden, which was full of flowers and trees ; and this high window was a
little comfort to them in the summer days.
So passed the time for these poor prisoners, and their chief help was that they loved each other more than if they had been brothers, and often swore that they would always help each other till they died.
Now, Emily, the sister of Hypolita, was grown to be no more a little girl, but she still woke early in the bright mornings, as little children do; and one May morning, before the dark was gone, she woke and wished so much to wander in the garden that she loved, to hear the twitter of the waking birds, and see the first sunbeams strike upon the grey dew and the flowers, that she rose at sunrise and went into the palace garden all alone. Her yellow hair was braided in a tress behind, and fell a full yard down her back. She was as fair as a lily on its green stem and as fresh as the month of May, and the roses she was picking were not brighter than she. She gathered roses ; she wove herself a crown of white and red, and as she tripped along she sang like any angel out of heaven. She did not know of Arcite and Palamon, or if she had known about them once she had long since forgotten them ; but they were in the dungeon-tower that stood by the garden-wall.
The sun was bright on this clear morning, and Palamon had been awake before the earliest birds, for prisoners cannot sleep like other men. He was in the high room that overlooked the garden and the town, and as he cast his tired eyes, that seemed more tired after sleep, upon the May sunshine that
was outside his window-bars, suddenly he saw sweet Emily with her yellow hair wandering up and down the garden-paths.
Then Palamon loved her so with all his heart that he cried out, ‘ Ah ! ‘ as if he had been stung with some sharp pain.
Now, Arcite was sleeping ; but when he heard his cousin call out like one in pain he started up and said, ‘What ails you, Palamon, that you cried out so loud and are as pale as death ? Who can have harmed you here ? Or are you only thinking of our misery that we are to be chained here in prison all our lives ? Have patience, dear cousin. We were, doubtless, born under an evil star. If
all this sorrow was to happen, happen it must ; it is no fault of ours ; we should bear it patiently like men.’
‘Ah ! no, cousin,’ answered Palamon again. ‘You are all wrong. It was not that I thought about our prison and our chains. It was the lovely lady that I see walking there in the garden below. Her beauty has passed into my eyes and into my heart, and my heart will be sore for love of her evermore. Is she a real woman or some fairy queen who has slid down from heaven to be kind to us perhaps ? Oh, she must be the very queen of beauty and of love — she is the goddess Venus whom I see.’ And Palamon knelt down beseechingly, and stretched out his hands to the Princess Emily, and cried with piteous voice, ‘ O Venus, gracious lady, if indeed you have deigned to appear in mortal form, have mercy on us woeful prisoners, and help us to escape this dreary prison and to see our homes again ; or, if we must die here, and there is no help or hope, have pity, then, upon our father’s house, that is brought so low by tyranny.’
Then as Palamon was speaking, his cousin Arcite for the first time had sight of the fair lady roaming to and fro, and was smitten with love of her as much as Palamon, or more ; and he sighed piteously, and said, ‘ I am pierced to the heart by the fresh beauty of her who is walking yonder. I must have her love, or at least see her near, else I shall die.’
Then Palamon gave Arcite angry looks, and said, ‘ You do not speak in earnest but in play.’
But Arcite answered, ‘ I am in no mood for play. I love her with all my heart’
Then Palamon knit his brows and frowned, and called Arcite a traitor and false friend, and said: ‘Did we not swear — have we not sworn many a time — never to hinder each other all our lives, but each to help the other in all things until our death? How can you dare to say you love the lady that I serve ? — for I will serve her faithfully to my last breath. I loved her first, and told my love to you, because I thought you were my brother and friend ; and now you are bound as a true and honest man to help me as much as you are able, or else I shall call you a traitor and false friend.’
But Arcite answered again as angrily : ‘ You are false, not I, for I loved her first, and you are bound to help me. You thought she was a goddess, not a woman, and so you might worship, but you could not love her, but the moment I saw her I loved her as a man loves a woman, and told my love to you as to my friend and brother. And even if you had. loved her first, could I help loving too? for love is stronger than any rules or laws. Oh, Cousin Palamon, why should we quarrel any more ? Surely we are like the two dogs that fought all day for a bone, and then, when they were tired out with fighting, a hawk came and flew off with the bone from between them. We are prisoners here, and
no money will buy our freedom, and if we quarrel ever so much, still neither of us will have the chance to win her favour or her pity.’
They often said it was no use to quarrel, but none the less the two cousins grew more jealous of each other day by day.
Now it happened that one day an old friend of Duke Theseus came to see him, and his name was Perithous. He was a great duke like Theseus, and they had been great friends ever since they were little children. Now Perithous had known Arcite, and been a friend to him before Arcite had fallen into prison, when he was a famous young prince in his own home at Thebes. So when Perithous heard of Arcite’s bad fortune, he asked Duke Theseus to let him go free. Then Theseus, because of his great friendship with Perithous, gave him what he asked, and said that Arcite should be set free, and that he would ask no money for him ; but he warned him that if ever he was found, by night
or day, within the kingdom of Athens, his head should be cut off, so let him beware how he came back again.