The Knight’s Tale : Palamon and Arcite 2

Do you think Arcite was happy when he heard might go free ? Ah no — he was full of sorrow, and seemed to feel death in his heart. He groaned and lamented piteously, and at first he watched for a time when he might kill himself.

He said to himself, * I wish I had never been born ; I wish I had never known Perithous ; for then I should not have had this misery, or should have lived still in this prison evermore. This prison is better and brighter than the happy fields, for while I am here I can see every morning the lady that I love, and it would have been enough to make me happy to see her every day although she
might have never known my name. O dear cousin Palamon/ he said, ‘you have won the day; — you may stay on happy in prison — In prison ? No, in paradise, for you will see her, and I shall be far away. Fortune is changeable, and you are a strong and noble knight, and by some strange chance you may happen to get all that you desire, because you live so near her ; but nothing can comfort me. I
am banished for ever. I must despair and die. Not earth, or air, or fire, or anything in the whole wide world, can make me happy again.’

‘Ah, why do we complain so of our present state, when God has so often provided for us better than we could provide for ourselves ? Many a man
has escaped from prison only to be murdered by his own servants when he at last got home. We know not what to pray for. We are no wiser than a drunken man. He knows he has a house, but cannot find the way, and all the roads seem slippery ; — just so we want to be happy, but cannot find the way. In the foolishness of my heart I longed for liberty. I said, ” If only I could escape from
prison, then I should have all I want,” and now I find that my liberty is only banishment. I may not see you, Emily, and that is as bad as death.’

But Palamon, when he knew Arcite was gone, made the great tower of his prison echo to his cries of misery, and wetted with his salt tears the very
fetters on his legs. And though Arcite was far away he called aloud, ‘Ah, cousin Arcite, after our long quarrel, you have won, and I have lost the prize. You are walking about the streets of Thebes, just where you like, and take no thought of what I suffer here. You, who are such a wise and brave man, can call round you all the bold men of our father’s house, and make so sharp a war against
this town of Athens and the Duke, that, by some lucky chance in battle, or some treaty, you may win the lady Emily to be your wife, while I weep, and wail, and pine like a caged bird.’

So spoke the knight Palamon, when he thought how Arcite was now a great lord and free. He was so mad and burnt up with jealousy that his face would grow ashy pale, and then he would say : ‘ O cruel goddess Fortune ! we are all your slaves. You take no more count of men than if they were a flock of sheep that huddle in the fold. Men pine in prison, and lie on beds of pain, and pass from trouble to trouble, and yet they have often done nothing wrong. Why ! men are worse off than the beasts, for the beasts may do just what they like,
but men for duty’s sake must not; and when a beast is dead he has no pain, but men may come to misery both in this world and the next How God can let this be I cannot tell. I only know the world is full of sorrow, and that many an ugly
serpent and many a wicked thief go free, while I who am innocent am left in prison.’

And now let us leave Palamon for awhile, and see how it went with Arcite.

The summer of that year passed by, and the weary winter nights made their sadness doubly sad both for the prisoner and the banished man. Arcite,
remembering that he should never see his dear lady any more, did not care for food or drink, and hardly ate enough to keep himself alive. He lay awake
in the night thinking of Emily, and had no sleep or rest He grew lean and hollow-eyed, and pale and wan, and kept by himself alone, and many a night
he passed in wandering dismally in the darkness ; and if he heard anyone sing softly, or heard sweet music play, then he could not help his tears, he was so weak and sad. He was quite changed from what he used to be, so that nobody could even recognise his voice.

Arcite lived on at Thebes in this unhappiness for a year or two. At last, one night, as he lay sleeping, he thought he saw a beautiful youth come to his bedside. He wore strange shoes upon his feet, for these shoes had little wings, and seemed to carry him where he liked. In his hand he carried a wand twined round with two thin snakes, and when he shook this wand all creatures slept On his head he wore a pointed hat, and on the hat, as on the shoes, were little wings. The figure stood by Arcite in the night, and said, ‘ Arcite, be sad no
longer, but go your way to Athens, for there your troubles shall end.’

The moment Arcite heard the words he started from his sleep, but there was no one there. Then Arcite thought ‘ It was Mercury, the messenger of heaven, who comes sometimes in dreams. I will obey his word, and go to Athens, and will not dread to die, for I shall see my lady that I love and serve, and where she is it will be sweet to die.’ Then a new thought came into his mind, and he
caught up a looking-glass, a large round mirror fit for the room of a prince, and saw that the colour had gone from his face, and that by his long illness
he looked like another man. So he thought with joy that if he made himself like a poor man he might live in Athens, and no one would know him. Then he might see his lady day by day.

So Arcite lost no time, but clothed himself like some poor labourer, and set out for Athens by the nearest road.

He went alone except for one squire, who knew all his secret, and was clothed poorly like himself.

In due time he came to the Court of Duke Theseus. He stood at the palace gate, and offered to lift or carry for anyone who would hire him. He worked like this as a porter for some time, and because he was wise he soon found out which of the servants of the Court served the Lady Emily. Then he hired himself to be her man, to cut wood and carry water.

Arcite was young and strong, and big-boned, and could do more work than any of his fellows, and yet he was so kind and gentle that no man was jealous of him, but all the other servants loved him, and he grew to be the most famous serving-man in all the Court, and all spoke well of him.

Thus for a year or two, he was the servant of the bright Lady Emily, and he used to say his name was Philostratus, and he was known by none to be a prince. At last his good services and his nobleness grew to be so famous that all the Court said it would be right and gracious of the Duke to put him to more fit and honourable work. And true enough his good deeds and noble speech
brought him soon to be the Duke’s own squire, and the Duke gave him gold to buy horses and rich clothes, and all that was proper for the squire of so great a man. And besides the gold that Duke Theseus gave him, his own faithful servants brought Arcite plenty of money, year by year, from Thebes ; but he spent these riches cunningly and well, and
no one wondered why he was so rich.


So for three years Arcite was prosperous and happy, for although he was the humble squire of his greatest foe, he was near to Emily, the lady of his heart ; and he bore himself so well in war-time and in peace that Theseus, not knowing who he was, held him in great favour.

All this time the miserable Palamon had lived in the darkness of his strong prison. Almost seven years it was since he had passed through the door-
way of that thick tower, and now that Arcite was gone away, his loneliness and his jealousy and his love for Emily were wasting him away, and he was fast falling into madness. But now when the gay spring came round again, the very time when Palamon had first loved Emily, a strange thing happened to him ; for in the seventh year of his captivity, in May, on the third night, soon after
midnight, he escaped from his prison. A friend at last had come to help him, and Palamon had given his gaoler a draught of wine, drugged with the
juices of wonderful leaves, which make those sleep who drink of them. The friend of Palamon had brought this drink from Thebes, and, while the
gaoler lay in a deep sleep, this friend helped the prisoner from his chains, and between them they opened the doors of the thick tower. Still the gaoler (jailer) slept so that no hand could wake him, and Palamon escaped into the night.

As I said, it was past midnight, and the May nights were short and Palamon felt so strange in the fresh air and under the stars, and was so overcome with joy and terror, that he did not take the shortest way, and he had not gone far, when he saw the sky grow grey with the coming dawn. He stopped in fear, and listened for the steps of his pursuers, but there was no sound to be heard. The
daylight was at hand, and at all costs he must hide himself. He looked all round, and then he went a little way out of the road to a thick grove of trees and bushes, and there he walked up and down in terror waiting for the night to come. He thought, ‘ I will wait until it is dark again, when no one can know me, and then I will take the way to Thebes, and when I am there I will beg all my friends to help me to make war on Theseus, and I will either win Emily or lose my life/ So thought Palamon as he hid himself among the leafy bushes. He did not know what would befal him soon.

Meanwhile, Arcite must have sometimes remembered Palamon when he looked at the prison tower, but in thinking night and day of Emily he soon almost forgot him ; and this very morning, when Palamon was hidden in the grove, Arcite had risen early, fresh and glad, and never knew that before the day was done an end would come to his new happy life.

The busy lark, the messenger of day, had greeted with her song the grey morning, and the fiery sun uprose so bright that the eastern hills seemed to laugh beneath his beams ; he rose higher and higher, and dried up the silver drops that were hanging on the leaves. Arcite rose from his bed, and looked at the clear weather, and thought he would get up early and go a-Maying. So he
mounted his fiery horse, and rode out of the city, a mile or two into the sunny fields, until he chanced to remember the grove where Palamon was hidden,
and thought he would go there to gather woodbine and hawthorn, and look for early flowers. He rode on gently, singing loud and clear

May ! May !

So green and gay,

With daisies and cuckoo buds all the way,

Give me, oh, give me some green to-day.

So, when he reached the grove, he leapt from his horse with a merry heart, and merrily sprang into the little wood, and wandered up and down a by-
path looking for flowers.

Now Palamon was hidden among thick bushes, and feared for his life when he saw an armed follower of Duke Theseus walking in the wood. He little knew it was Arcite, but kept as still as he could, so as not to stir the leaves. In a little while, Arcite would have gone, and the two cousins might have never met, but alas! Arcite found it true what wise men have said long ago, ‘ Field hath eyes and wood hath ears.’

He sung his song about the beauty and the freshness of the May, and when he had finished the last line, and was tired of hunting after flowers, suddenly he became sad — for lovers have odd ways, and are as changeable as the weather — and sat down to think of his Lady Emily.

He spoke aloud, for he thought he was far from any human ears. ‘Alas the day that I was born/ he said. ‘ How long, how long will God that sits in heaven plague the ancient city of Thebes. Years ago they built it, Cadmus and Amphion, the first of Theban kings ; but the royal race of Cadmus is all ruined now. Am I not a prince of that great house ? and yet I have sunk to be the poor squire of my mortal foe. I dare not even own my proper name. My father and mother named me Arcite, but now I have to call myself Philostratus, and pass for little better than a beggar. I alone am left of all our noble family, except the
wretched Palamon, who wears his life away in Duke Theseus’ dungeon tower. And, besides all this, I am dying of a burning love, that torments me night and day. O Emily ! Emily ! your two bright eyes pierce my heart ! I could bear all else easily if only I could help you, or do anything to please you.’

Palamon heard plainly all these words, and felt as if a cold sword had suddenly glided through his heart. Trembling with anger, he started from his
hiding-place in the thick bushes, with his face as pale as a dead man, and said : ‘ Arcite, you false wicked traitor, now you are caught, for you confess that you love my lady, though you are my cousin and sworn friend You have tricked
Duke Theseus, and serve him under a false name. You shall not love her, my Lady Emily! No man but I shall love her. I am Palamon, your mortal foe, and one of us two must die. I have no sword. I am just escaped from prison by God’s help, and yet I make no doubt to kill you presently, unless you will give up Emily.’

Arcite glared at him, and hardly listened to the words he said, but he soon knew Palamon and what he meant, and had in mind their old and bitter quarrel. Then he looked as fierce as any lion, and pulled out his sharp sword, and said : ‘ Palamon, by God that sits above, I have a mind never to let you go out of this wood alive, only I know that you are mad with love, and have no sword. As for the promise which you say I made to help you in love and in all
else, — fool! remember, love is free. Love her I will, for all your threats. But you are a worthy knight, Palamon, and want to win her in fair fight; so now I give you my word, as a true man, that I will come to-morrow to this very place, and bring arms for you and me. You shall choose the best, and leave the worst for me. And I will bring you food and drink and cloths to make a bed for you to-night, and in the morning we will fight for Emily ; and if you kill me here, why then you may be welcome to my lady, for I shall be dead and cold.’