So they agreed to fight next day, and parted. Palamon stayed hidden in the grove, and Arcite rode back to the town to get all the things which he had promised.
Thus this story shows you that love makes enemies of friends, for a man will have his lady all alone, and love is stronger than friendship or kindred, and is lord of all.
The next morning, before daybreak, Arcite rode out of the city secretly, and on his horse before him he carried swords, and spears, and daggers, and armour, fit for himself and Palamon ; and so he came to the woodside.
Palamon stood there to meet him, but neither spoke a word. They wished no ‘ good morning ‘ or ‘good day/ but looked at each other, and grew red and pale by turns, for each of them thought, ‘ He or I must die.’ .Each stood as stands some Indian hunter in a gap, waiting with his spear, who hears the branches crackling and the leaves rustling, and knows a bear or a lion is coming through the wood, and thinks, ‘Here comes my mortal enemy, and I must kill him or he me.’
So stood and so thought the two cousins. They helped to arm each other in silence. No one would have imagined they meant to fight to the death, for each helped the other as friendly and carefully as though he were arming his
brother to fight against the same enemy side by side,
Then, when all was ready, a dreadful battle began. They thrust at each other with their strong sharp spears. Palamon was like some maddened Hon, Arcite like a fierce tiger; or rather they were like two wild boars, that clash their tusks together, frothing with white foam. Now one, now the other got a wound, and the grass under their feet grew red with blood.
The birds were frightened, and forsook the little wood, and these two cousins fought on, while the bright May sun was creeping up the sky, and gilding the quiet leaves above their heads.
Meanwhile, at the royal palace in the city, no one had missed Arcite, but soon after sunrise there was a bustle of servants and a clatter of horses’ hoofs, for Duke Theseus rode to hunt the hart every morning in the month of May. Always by break of day he was dressed, and ready to ride with horn and hounds. And so, this morning that I tell about, the Duke rode gaily out. The day was clear, and there rode with him the beautiful Queen Hypolita and her sister Emily, dressed all in green, and many huntsmen and fine ladies with them.
By a strange chance, the Duke rode straight to the very grove where the two Thebans fought. He had been told that a great hart was there, and he thought that he would hunt him with his hounds ; but when he came to a clear place
among the trees, the Duke saw something glittering, and heard a clashing sound.
The sun was in his face, but he shaded his eyes with his hand, and saw Arcite and Palamon fighting furiously, more like wild beasts than men. Their bright swords went to and fro, giving such hideous blows as would have felled an oak. He did not know who these men were, or why they were fighting, but he spurred his horse and dashed between them with his naked sword, and shouted, ‘ No more ! Death to either of you who strikes another blow. Now, tell me who are you, that dare to fight here without a judge or witness ? ‘
Then Palamon answered hastily : ‘ Sire, we are both wretches who are tired of our lives ; and, indeed, we deserve death, both of us ; and I pray you, as you are a just and righteous lord, show us no mercy. Slay me first, for God’s sake, but slay my fellow too. Or rather slay him first, for although you do not know him, this is your mortal foe Arcite, whom you banished from your land
on pain of death. He came to your palace gate, and called himself Philostratus, and has fooled you so for years that you have made him your chief squire. This is the man that loves the princess, Emily the bright. And now, since the day has
come when I too must die, I make my free confession that I am the ill-fated Palamon, who broke from your prison two days ago. Like Arcite, I am your mortal foe, and I love Emily so well that now I count it my best happiness to die here in her sight. I ask for instant judgment, but slay my fellow too, for we have both deserved our death.’
The Duke answered shortly, ‘ Your own mouth has spoken your doom in the hearing of us all. There is no need to have you bound and brought to trial, for now, by the red War-god, I will slay you both.’
Then the fair Hypolita began to cry for pity, and so did Emily and the other ladies, for they thought how that Arcite and Palamon were born great princes, and that their trouble and their death were all for love ; and when they saw the two cousins bleeding from their wounds they all begged Duke Theseus to show mercy, and knelt to him, and made such earnest petition that the anger of the Duke died away, for pity quickly comes in noble hearts.
He seemed to see all at once the whole sad story of these cousin princes, and the cause of their offence against him. It was true they had despised his command, baffled his wisdom, and defied his power, and when he thought of this, and how their very fight so near his Court was an insult to his majesty, the Duke’s anger was fierce. But soon, as I have said, he had a milder mood, when he remembered that a man will do anything for love, and is sure to get out of prison if he can. And then the entreaties and the tears of the ladies kneeling round him counted for something, for men are always sorry when they see girls and women cry. Duke Theseus remembered too that Palamon had not spoken proudly, and made up his mind to show that a great and noble lord can regard the humble, and is ready to be merciful. So Theseus looked kindly at the cousins, and spoke loud for all to hear him.
‘The Lord of love,* he said, ‘ is stronger than dukes or kings, for he turns the hearts of men, and no voice nor arm can hinder him ; he drives men often to their own destruction, and turns their wisdom into folly.
‘ Look here on Arcite and Palamon. They were as free as swallows, and had no need to dread my prison any more. They might have lived in Thebes like kings. They knew that I hated them as my enemies, and could kill them if I caught
them, and yet they have come to face death here with their eyes wide open. What man is so wise that love cannot make him a fool ? See how they bleed. They have been love’s servants for years, and he has only paid them with pain; yet no doubt these two knights think themselves wise men. And the strange thing is, that she for whose sake they are so jealous knew no more about it
than that cuckoo singing in the wood, and might have never known.
‘Ah, well ! I was young myself years ago, and have gone through love’s folly and pain. I suppose a man must pass through all life’s hard and pleasant places, and so I quite forgive you both, at the asking of my queen, and of my dear sister Emily. But you shall swear to me never to make war on me by night or day, but to be my faithful friends.’
Arcite and Palamon swore the oath, and asked the Duke to forgive their deeds and plots against him, and he forgave them all.
Then Theseus said again : ‘ Palamon, and you, Arcite, you are both rich and the sons of kings, so that by wealth and birth you are both fit to wed with any lady in the land, even if she were a queen or a princess. But as to my sister Emily, about whom you have been jealous all these years, you know yourselves that you cannot both marry her. One of you must do as best he can without her.
‘Now what can I do ? I will give you each an even chance of wedding her. Listen, now, how I have determined to end your jealousy and strife. I speak here plainly, that all may hear; and I will hold to what I say, and will end your quarrel. Each of you may have his chance, and God shall rule the issue. I have passed my judgment I will not alter it You are both free to go away without ransom or punishment, and on this very day next year, no sooner and no later, you shall come back to this same spot You shall each bring a hundred knights with you, ready armed for a battle in the lists, and you shall fight for Emily, Whichever of you first kills the other, or drives him from the lists, or takes him prisoner, he shall have the Princess Emily. As I said, the lists shall be in this place, where I have found you fighting, and as I shall judge fairly between
you, so may God judge me. What do you think of my purpose ? ‘
Oh to see the gladness on the face of Palamon, and how Arcite sprang up for joy ! The queen and the other ladies, and the knights who rode with them, all praised the goodness of the Duke, and there was a loud murmur of delighted voices. I do not know all the thoughts of the Princess Emily, but she was glad that the young knights were not to be killed. Arcite and Palamon thanked Theseus on their knees with all their heart many times, and then at last they took their leave, and full of hope, with glad hearts and glad faces, they rode homewards in the sun together until they came to the great grey walls of Thebes.
Soon near the once solitary grove there was the sound of workmen working and talking all the summer days, and when the winter came they had made a wonderful place fit for the fight that was to be in the next spring-time. There was a space of smooth grass a mile round closed in by a stone wall and a ditch. They made sixty great steps going up and up to the top of the wall from the
inside, so that the people could sit on the steps and look over the heads of those who sat below them, and see all that was going on in the great grassy space. In the east, towards the sunrise, they made a great gateway of white marble, and
another towards the sunset, in the west, and on the top of these white gateways there were two wonderful buildings, which I will tell you about,
and another on the north side of the wall. There was not a clever man in all the land to make and build, or paint pictures, or carve things in wood and stone, that Theseus did not bring to work for him. He gave them plenty to eat and drink, and wages besides.
Above the gateway, on the eastern side, was a temple built to Venus, the queen of love. Inside this temple the walls were painted with figures and pictures of strange tales. There were pictures of men and women waking and weeping in the night time all for love, pictures of lovers’ troubles, of their beauty and their pleasure, and their hope and rashness. Some were painted speaking flattery and lies, others with young and hopeful faces. There was a picture, too, of Jealousy, painted like a woman wearing a garland of the yellow marigold,
and a cuckoo sitting on her hand. All this and more was painted in honour of the great goddess Venus, queen of love, and because it was through
love that Arcite and Palamon had been brought to fight for Emily. Then on the wall was painted the mountain of Venus, where most she loved to dwell,
and her gardens and her pleasure houses. Nor was the porter left out, whose name was Idleness. And there were pictures of great men of old times, who
had gone through sorrow and danger for their lady loves. There was Solomon, who had so many wives, strong Hercules and rich Croesus, Medea, who slew her babes, and Circe, who turned her lovers to swine, and all manner of people whom you will one day hear about. All this was to show that love is stronger than beauty, wisdom, wealth, or power. In the middle of the temple, glorious
to see, was the statue of Venus, floating in the wide waters half covered by the clear green waves. In her right hand she had a little lute, and on her head a wreath of roses fresh and sweet, and overhead fluttered her doves. Beside his mother stood her little blind son Cupid, with wings upon his shoulders, and his bow and arrows in his hands.
This was the temple above the eastern gate, and on the western gate was another, as I said, built in honour of the war-god Mars. It was a copy of the great temple which stood in the frosty North, and on the wall inside was a picture of this strange far temple. There you might see a desolate forest, a place so horrible that no man nor beast could live there. The trees were grey with age, with branches knotted and gnarled and bare of leaves, and their trunks were jagged and hideous to behold. And through this forest a moaning
wind strained and stirred as if it would crash every bough.
There under a hill stood the temple of Mars wrought of burnished steel. The entrance was long and strait and ghastly, and from it came a raging blast, which shook the gates, although these gates were strong and crossed with iron clamps. The temple had no window, and was all dark, but that the northern light shone in at the door. The iron pillars of this dreadful house were like huge tuns, and shone as glass. There were painted all the sights that most please the cruel god ; anger red as fire, robbers and white frightened faces. There was the assassin smiling falsely with his knife under his cloak. There were ships burning, with black smoke, and dead men with gaping mouths. There was a madman laughing in his rage ; there was a corpse with its throat cut lying in the bushes ; a carter crushed beneath the wheels ; a huntsman strangled by a bear ; a fierce sow devouring a little child as it lay in its cradle, and horrible sights more than you could think of. There was a great conqueror
sitting on his throne, but above his head a sharp sword hung by a single thread.
Many deaths of famous men were painted there — of Caesar, and Nero, and Anthony, and many more.
The statue of Mars himself stood in a chariot, armed, and grim, and over his head there shone two stars, and beneath his feet stood a red-eyed wolf devouring a man.