The Knight’s Tale : Palamon and Arcite 4

All this was inside the second of the three temples which Duke Theseus made around the battle-place. But there was another temple, as I said, upon the north side of the wall, and this was built in honour of Diana, the queen of hunting, and the guardian of young maidens. This temple was made of alabaster and red coral, and the walls were painted with pictures of the woeful things which this bright goddess had done to those who had not paid her due honour.

There was the picture of Callist changed into a bear, and Daphne turned to a laurel. There was painted, too, the tale of the young hunter named Actaeon, who peeped through the bushes, and saw the goddess bathing in a pool. He did
not guess how she would punish him for looking, till he suddenly felt hard horns sprouting from his forehead. He was forced to drop upon his hands,
and in a moment he was changed into a stag, and ran in terror through the wood. He ran, but he could not escape, for his own hounds caught and
tore him in pieces, for they could not know their master any more. That was the tale of Actaeon.

There was Atalanta, too, hunting the wild boar, before she had ever seen the golden apples or run her final race. There is no time to tell all the stories of old times which covered the walls of this third temple that Theseus made, but in the middle of it was the goddess-maid herself, the great Diana, riding on a hart. Her statue was clothed in palest green, and round her feet were carved her
little hounds. Beneath her feet was a crescent moon. Her bow was on her shoulder, and her arrows in their case.

The lists and the three temples were finished, and cost more money than you could count or think of, and Theseus was well pleased with them.

And now the time of May was coming round again, and everybody, both in town and country, talked all day about the coming fight, for the fame of it had gone through all the land.

Faithfully, before the appointed day, Arcite and Palamon came back to Athens, each with his hundred knights, and every man and woman, and girl and boy, ran out to look at them. All the brave and noble men in the world had heard
the tale of the two cousins and their sweet lady love, and had begged to fight on one side or the other, and many a one had ridden sorrowfully away because a stronger or more skillful knight had been chosen instead of him ; for be sure that Arcite and Palamon chose the best men they could. Those chosen were very proud and glad. They came from many distant lands, and they
had strange weapons, and no two were armed alike.

The chief of the knights who came with Palamon was Lycurgus, the mighty king of Thrace. He had a manly face, with a black beard. His great eyeballs glared like a wild beast’s, half yellow and half red, and he looked like a lion with his matted hair hanging over his brow. He was large of limb and broad-shouldered, and his arms were long and round. He stood, after the manner
of his country, high on a golden car, drawn by four milk-white bulls, and wore for a surcoat the skin of a bear, as black as coal. His long hair curled behind his back as dark and glossy as a raven’s feather; and a golden crown was on his head, thick and heavy, and blazing with rubies and diamonds. Round his car ran a score of deer hounds, with muzzles and collars of gold, each as big as a calf, fit to hunt the lion or bear.

This king of Thrace came to fight for Palamon, and a hundred lords, with stout hearts, came with him.

With Arcite, too, there came a hundred knights, and chief among them rode Emetrius, king of India, on a bay horse with steel trappings, and covered with cloth of gold. He wore a coat over his armour, embroidered with large round pearls, and his saddle was of burnished gold, fresh from the workman’s hammer. Upon his shoulder hung a short cloak, set with rubies, which sparkled like fire. His yellow hair was crisp, with curls, and glittered like the sun. His nose was hooked, and his eyes tawny ; his lips were round, and his
face was ruddy, with a freckle here and there. He seemed about five and twenty, for his beard was grown. His voice was loud and clear, like
a trumpet On his head was a crown of green laurel, and on his fist he carried a tame eagle, as white as any lily. A hundred lords, as I said, rode with Arcite, bareheaded, richly armed. Many a duke, and earl, and king, besides Emetrius, were gathered there to fight in honour of this noble lover, and round the King Emetrius there ran lions and leopards tame as dogs.

So, on a Sunday, all these knights, with Arcite and Palamon, came riding early into Athens, and were the guests of Theseus, who lodged and feasted them most royally. I have no time to tell of the rich array of Theseus’ palace, or who sat first or last in hall, what ladies were fairest or danced most gracefully, or who told the sweetest tales of love, while their bright-eyed hawks looked down
from their perches, and the hounds lay watching their masters from the floor.

That Sunday night, before it was day, Palamon lay awake. Although it was two hours before dawn, the lark was singing ; and as soon as Palamon heard her earliest notes, he rose with a brave heart to go to the temple of Venus, which I have told you of. He went into the temple, and there he knelt down and humbly prayed, and said : ‘ O Lady Venus, fairer than all mortal women, you are a goddess, and yet you have felt the pain of love. You shed bitter tears over your dear Adonis, when he was gored by the wild boar. Have pity, then, upon my tears, and hear my prayer. You know what I desire, though I have no words to tell you my trouble. I do not care for victory, or for a soldier’s glory. I only ask for Emily, to have her for my own. Let him have victory, if only I may have Emily. Hear me, O Venus, great goddess of love. But if that cannot be, sweet lady, let me die soon. Let Arcite kill me to-morrow, and then let him marry her. I shall not care or know ; I shall be dead in my grave.’

So prayed Palamon, and paid the proper sacrifices, and left nothing undone of all the strange customs and ceremonies ; but as yet there was no sign that his prayer was heard. At last he saw the statue of Venus shake, and there came a sign which made him glad, for he thought, ‘ No matter if it did not come at first. I have waited so long in my life, I can wait now. Sooner or later I shall
get my wish.’ So he went home content.

Meanwhile, the sun had risen, and with the sun rose Emily, and went with her maidens to the temple of Diana. They brought with them fire and incense, and all things needful for the due ceremonies. Then the Princess Emily washed herself in pure well water. Her bright hair was brushed smooth, and hung unbound, and her women placed upon her head a crown of young oak leaves.

She lighted two fires, and when the flames burnt clear, she prayed, and said : * Pure goddess of the greenwood, queen of earth and sky, and of the dark places underground, I have been your true maiden many a year. You know what I desire. Be not angry with me as you were with Actaeon, who deserved his death. I should like to be a maiden all my life, and not to love a man or be a
bride. I would rather hunt the stag, and walk in the wild woods. Now help me, lady, and grant me what I ask for. As for Palamon my lover, and Arcite who loves me too, I pray you to send love and peace between them, and turn their
hearts from me. Let all their hot love for me be quenched, or make them love some other maid. But if you will not grant me this, and I must have one of these two princes, give me to him who loves me best’

While Emily thus spoke, the two fires she had lit as a sign of her two lovers were burning clearly, but suddenly she saw a wonderful sight. One of
the fires was quenched for a moment, and then burnt bright again, and afterwards the other fire was put out with a hissing sound, as if the sticks
were wet, and from the ends of the sticks there ran drops of blood. Emily was almost beside herself with fright, and sobbed and cried most piteously.
She did not know what it all meant, but she cried for fear. Thereupon, she saw a figure coming towards her, dressed like a huntress with a bow
in her hand, who said : — ‘Daughter, do not be sorrowful. The gods have
determined that you shall marry one of the two, but I must not tell you which. You have seen what befel the fires, and will one day understand.
Farewell, I may not stay.’

With these words the goddess turned to go. The arrows on her shoulder clattered and rang, and she vanished no one could tell where.

 

Emily was filled with wonder. ‘I put myself under thy protection, great goddess/ she said ; and so she went home again the nearest way.

Next Arcite went to make his prayer to fiery Mars. He walked to the temple, and made his offerings, and said : —

‘O, strong God, Lord of the black North ! You hold all nations in check as it were with a bridle, and give the battle as you please. Accept my humble sacrifice. Remember my youth and my strength, which I devote to you. You too have felt love’s pain when you loved the fair queen Venus ; then pity mine, for I am young and ignorant, and desperate with love if ever man was.
She whom I love cares not a bit whether I sink or swim, and I know well she will not have mercy on me unless I win her by strength, and my own strength avails not without your help and grace.

‘Then help me, lord, in the battle-place tomorrow, and give me victory. I will take all the toil, the glory shall be all yours. I will hang my banner in your temple, with all the arms of the great knights who fight for me, and I will keep burning before you a perpetual fire until the day I die. And this, too, I promise. My beard and my long hair that never yet has felt the razor or the shears, I will cut off in your honour, and be your true servant all my days. Give me victory,
I ask no more.’

The prayer of Arcite was over,- and hark ! the iron rings upon the temple doors began to clatter, and the doors to shake, so that Arcite, for all his strength and courage, felt afraid. The fire upon the god’s altar burnt so brightly that the dark temple was filled with light A sweet smell rose from the ground, and at last the armour on the statue of Mars began to sound and ring, and amidst
the sound was heard a murmur, low and dim, saying, ‘Victory/ and then all was still. Glad and hopeful was Arcite, and came back as merry as a bird in the bright sunshine.

How should the promises of all these gods come true ? The gods who lived on the clear mountaintops of Greece, above the silver clouds, and who wandered at dawn in the lonely glades, where flowers sprang under their feet, or strayed in the blue spaces of the air, and made their palaces behind the skies of sunset ; — these gods in bygone times dealt strangely with men. They quarrelled
among themselves just as men do, and had each their own favourites, and Jupiter, who was their king, had much to do to settle their quarrels, and
keep them all at peace.

And now you shall hear the end of all this tale.

Great was the feast in Athens all that Monday, and all went to rest that night, meaning to be up early on the morrow to see the famous fight. And on the morrow, at daybreak, there was the clatter of horses everywhere, and the ring of iron arms, and horsemen came riding to the palace on their chargers and palfreys. Then you might see strange armour with wonderful work of inlaid gold and steel, bright shields and helmets, coats made of iron rings, and embroidered cloaks ; lords and knights and squires making spears ready and
buckling helmets on, and fitting shields with thongs. All were busy to a man. Horses were pawing the ground and champing their golden bits, armourers
were spurring to and fro with file and hammer, to rivet on the armour, and servants with short sticks in their hands were running about on foot as thick
as flies.

You might hear the sound of trumpets and clarions and pipes. The palace was full of people hurrying up and down, or standing about in knots, talking of the battle, and discussing whether they thought Arcite would win or Palamon. • Ah/ said one, ‘you will see that the black-bearded knight will win.’ ‘ No/ said another, * look at the fair-haired knight — I hold by him/ ‘Ah, but the other
looks so fierce and grim, and his battle-axe must weigh twenty pounds/ So everywhere throughout the hall they guessed and wondered how the fight
would go.

Duke Theseus was the only man that was not up at daybreak. He lay sleeping until the music and the noise at last awoke him, but even then he did not come from his rich chamber until he heard that the two Theban princes had been brought to the palace with equal honour. Then he came and sat down at an open window in rich robes. The people pressed to see him, and pay him re-
verence, and hear what he decreed. High on a platform stood the herald of the Duke, and called to the people to be still until there was a great silence, and then he gave out what Theseus had decreed.

‘The Duke, 1 he said, ‘of his wisdom and mercy has considered that it would be too great a loss for noble knights to fight in this quarrel to the death. Therefore, to save their lives, he has altered his first purpose. Therefore, hear. No man upon pain of death shall shoot another in this fight, nor bring into the lists any axe or knife or any short sword for stabbing. No man shall ride against another with a sharp spear more than once ; after one fall he must fight on foot. And once a man is fallen and disabled he shall not be killed, but be made prisoner, and dragged to the stakes that are at each end of the ground, and there he must stay until the fight be done. And if Arcite or Palamon
is slain or dragged to the stake, then all shall stop fighting ; that shall make an end. Go now and fight your fill with sword and mace.’

So spoke the herald, and the people shouted, so that the sound went far into the sky, and they praised the goodness of the Duke for his care to prevent bloodshed.