The Farewell of Lancelot and Guinevere

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The Farewell of Lancelot and Guinevere

from: Poems [by W. E. B. Henderson] (Pp. 83 - 94)  1908

(From an unpublished Drama)

SCENE.—The guest chamber in a convent at Ambresbury in Wiltshire. Doors on L. and at back

Enter at back the ABBESS and LANCELOT


ABBESS
And so, Sir Knight, thou dost desire to hold
Speech with this novice who so lately sought
And found admission to our sisterhood?

LANCELOT
Yea, madam: of thy courtesy I pray
Lead me to her that we may hold converse

ABBESS
Thy name?

LANCELOT
                    My name? Must I, then, tell my name?

ABBESS
Yea, of thy grace, for so our rules demand.

LANCELOT
My name is—Lancelot.

ABBESS
                              Thou ... Sir Lancelot—
And she—and she?

LANCELOT
                              She is—Queen Guinevere.

ABBESS
Ah, heaven, and art thou come to work on her,
To lure her hence with specious promises
And drag her back to shame? Dost thou not know
Her sin and thine is blazoned o'er the world
That thou com'st hither, shameless in thy shame,
Deeming thine infamy within these walls
Unknown, to thine unworthy purposes
Shaping our fancied ignorance?

LANCELOT
                                        God knows
I merit thy reproaches—every word—
For what is past, but, madam, I am come
To seek the Queen and bind her fast to me
In bonds of Holy Church before the world.
Thus may we make atonement for our sin.

ABBESS
Atonement? Ay, perchance in the eyes of men,
But in the eyes of God ... ? It may be best.
We do not hold a novice 'gainst her will ...
How may I know, e'en though she yield to thee,
That thou wilt wed her?

LANCELOT
                              Dost thou doubt my word?
(Sadly) Alas! It is no marvel if my sin
hath maimed my credit. If the Queen consent
Then let a priest be summoned, and thyself
A witness, he shall make us truly one
By all observances and holy rites.
          [ The ABBESS considers a moment, then claps
                    her hands twice
.

                    Enter a Nun

ABBESS
Child, wilt thou send the novice late arrived
Hither to me on the instant?

NUN
                                        Mother, I go.
                                        [The NUN goes out on L.

ABBESS
Sir Lancelot, thou shalt see her; I will touch
No more upon the past—that is for God
And not for me to weigh. It seems that I
Have done thee wrong, endued thy purposes
With unimagined baseness, for the which
I ask thy pardon.

LANCELOT
                    Madam, 'twas not strange
Thou should'st mistrust me, for my way of life
Hath forfeited my fame.

ABBESS
                              I do not think
Thou shalt prevail, for all her hopes are based
On silent meditation, ceaseless prayer,
Untiring vigil, and her soul is fed
By fasting of the flesh. Behold, she comes!
                    [ The ABBESS advances towards the door on
                              L., by which enter
GUINEVERE in
                              the garb of a novice. The
ABBESS
                              takes her arm.

GUINEVERE
Mother, thou would'st have speech of me?

ABBESS
                                                            My child—

GUINEVERE
(Seeing LANCELOT) Lancelot! Mother of Heaven!
                    [ She falls back into the ABBESS' arms in a
                              half swoon. The
ABBESS signing to
                              
LANCELOT to retire up stage, he
                              does so.

                                        What brings him here?
Thou knowest ... ? Nay, thou canst not, else thine arm
Had never twined about me. I am she
Who wrought such—

ABBESS
                              Peace, my daughter! I know all,
And therefore hold thee closer. He is come
With that which must be said to thee alone.
Courage! I shall be near thee—within hail.

GUINEVERE
(Clinging to the ABBESS) Ah, do not leave me!

ABBESS
(Gently disengaging herself) I shall be so near.
                                                  [ Exit ABBESS on L.
                    
[LANCELOT comes down stage and stands
                              before
GUINEVERE: a moment of
                              silence
.

GUINEVERE
Why art thou come to trouble my repose
Flooding my heart with memories?

LANCELOT
                                        Guinevere,
Word of that last grim battle in the West
Had scaled ere now these ancient convent walls.
Arthur is dead. Strange rumours of his end
Are blown about the world—a mystic barge
Wherein 'midst weeping Queens he passed away
Whither, who knows?—wild tales are ever rife
In that disruption wrought by the death of kings.
Arthur is dead: I saw him ere the end,
When naught might staunch his wound, and solemnly
He laid on me this charge, to bind myself
To thee in holy wedlock. Guinevere,
By all the saints I conjure thee—

GUINEVERE
                                        No more!
Why hast thou broken in upon my peace?
Why art thou come, uprooting from my heart
With ruthless hand this tender shoot of Hope
Planted by God and watered with such tears
As Mary showered upon the feet of Christ?
Why com'st thou hither, shattering with a glance
The wall which I had built 'twixt thee and me,
Each stone a prayer wrung from my tortured soul?
O with what painful and laborious steps
I trudged the daily path to grace—and now
The sight of thee, thou partner of my shame,
Awakes the awful voice that cries to heaven,
"Guinevere, thou art stained for evermore.
Seek not salvation: vain are all thy hopes."
O, by the passion that consumed us twain
And wrought such woe I charge thee, get thee hence
That I may look upon thy face no more!

LANCELOT
God knows I sinned in loving Arthur's Queen,
But Arthur is no more, and though his death
Was hastened through my sin, yet thou art free,
Come, let us make amends for what is past,
And after decent interval, ere yet
The year of thy noviciate be sped
Unite us in the bonds of Holy Church—

GUINEVERE
That we whose guilty passion slew the King
Should profit by his death, gloss o'er our sin,
Clutch at salvation through the sacred vows
Ordained by Holy Church for virgin souls!
What sacrifice were this, what offering
To lay before the Throne?

LANCELOT
                              O Guinevere,
'Twas Arthur's dying wish that we should wed.
Has that no force to work upon thy soul,
Battle thy scruples, woo thee to consent?
Not yet hast thou embraced the final vows ...
At last shalt thou and I be truly one,
And Time with slow, obliterating hand
Shall blur this horror that besets thy soul,
And we shall dwell at peace with God and man,
Each all-sufficient in the other's eyes.

GUINEVERE
Nay, nay, it could not be. How alien
Were the cold marble of reality
To this impetuous fiction of thy brain
Born of the moment, fathered by desire.
Ah, when the fire was dying from mine eye,
And ruthless Time had scored upon my brow
The chequered tracery of relentless years,
Death warrant of my youth, dumb testimony,
Then daily should I wake in terror, gaze
With pitiful intentness on thy face,
Dreading the soulless tolerance of those eyes
Which once had flamed to mine. For, Lancelot, thou
Didst love me for perfection of my form
My faultless flesh—accursed heritage
Of women when they wed not with the soul.
And thou would'st loathe me, beautiful no more,
Chafe at the bonds that held thee fast to me
Who waded to thine arms through Arthur's blood ...
(More quietly and sadly) No child was born of me unto the King—
No kiss of velvet lips about my breast,
No little helpless hands whereon our own
Might clasp in that vast tenderness which comes
Of deeper understanding ... tiny hands,
Yet strong enough to thrust thee from my side ...
How often, turning suddenly my head,
I found on me the sad and pensive gaze
Of Arthur. He would look away and sigh.
And I, to whom each glance was dumb reproach,
Assailed the Blessed Virgin with wild prayers,
Scarring with bitter, unavailing tears
My midnight couch—yet never babe of me
That might have held me faithful to the King.
(More wildly) Now he is dead, and it is thou and I
Have slain him! O, thy face brings back to me
That awful night at Camelot of doom
And blood and terror—Modred—Arthur's death.
                    [ She shudders, covering her face with her
                               hands: then bursts forth:

Hence! Get thee gone! O leave me with my dead!

LANCELOT
Guinevere, Guinevere, whither shall I go?
Must I endure, so utterly alone
To drag my life out, haunted evermore
By pale, accusing spectres of dead knights—
This life of mine which thou hast filled to the brim
With the rare vintage of thy loveliness?
I cannot leave thee. Pity my despair—
Guinevere!

GUINEVERE
                    Is it easy, thinkest thou,
For me to hear the music of thy voice
In wild entreaty—then to bid thee go
Out of my life for ever? Press me no more,
Thou shalt not shake me from my firm resolve
Wound me no further.

LANCELOT
                              Is there then no hope
On earth for me? My last appeal ... Ah, once
I had not pled in vain!

GUINEVERE
                              That hour is past
For ever. I am bride of Holy Church,
And I with tears, with fastings, and with prayer
Must purge away those years of sin with thee
But thou—go forth into the world, and seek
Some high-souled maid and wed her, for thy sin
To mine was light, and pray thou for my soul
As I for thine. Farewell.

LANCELOT
                              O Guinevere—

GUINEVERE
Help me a little—make it not too hard.
Come.
                    [ She leads him to the door at back. He
                              turns and takes both her hands
.

LANCELOT
          I have failed—then—Guinevere?

GUINEVERE
                                                  Thou has failed.

LANCELOT
O light and wine and glory of my life,
I, who on earth have won and lost my Heaven,
Unwillingly surrender thee to God.
Since thou, the flaming sun of all my hopes
Art set in this calm sea of penitence
And prayer, I, too, will take on me the vows.
No maid shall call me lord, for thou long since
With one sweet glance unpeopled all the world
Of women in mine eyes. Farewell ... Farewell.
          [ They stand gazing at each other for a moment,
                    then
LANCELOT goes out. GUINEVERE
                    stands motionless, then cries "Mother!
                    Mother!" The
ABBESS enters, and
                    
GUINEVERE falls weeping into her arms.
                    From without is heard a chorus of nuns
                    chanting in unison.


ABBESS
(Gently) Vespers, my child. Strengthen thy heart with prayer.
Come.
                    [ The ABBESS leads GUINEVERE off on L.


THE END