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A Forgotten Idyll

Of all King Arthur's court was Launcelot called
The bravest and the best; yet was he caught
Within the golden net of Guinevere,
And all his pride was prisoned in the mesh;
And, broken by his shame, with all his kin,
He journeyed over-seas to his own realm.
And soon thereafter was the Table Round
Naught but a memory. The knightly vows
Which Arthur ever practised and upheld
Were followed by a plague of evil things;
For those who later ruled were petty lords,
Or chiefs of robber bands, whose only law
Was lust; and there was none to cleanse the land
And build a court like that of Arthur's time.
But as a dung-hill sometimes may enrich
The roots of some fair plant whose blossoms seem
Of Paradise--their petals angel wings--
So, in the festering ruin of the realm,
Upgrew a youth, so sure of eye and hand,
So gracious in his mien and in his speech,
That all who knew Prince Launcelot were bemused
And whispered one to other the same thought--
"Sir Launcelot of the Lake, himself, is he
Or else the son of Launcelot and the Queen."
But whether bastard of the royal bed
Or strolling unknown knight it matters not,
For he e'er wrought upon the minds of all
Both by wise counsel and by knightly deed;
For he was wise as Merlin was of old;
And some would have it he had broke the spell
By Vivian cast on Merlin years before
And that the sage, aroused from living death,
Had given him, his rescuer, power
To know men's hidden thoughts as if revealed.
And, so the time went by and more and more
The people trusted him till came the day,
Appointed by the Fates when with one voice
They hailed him king and called him Arthur too
In praise of him who formed the Table Round.
And he, in emulation of that King,
Sought everywhere throughout the broken realm
To cast out evil, to restore the right,
To purify the land and so bring back
The goodly customs of the goodly times.
The King reclaimed the waste and barren lands
Where ever outlaws ruled to still misrule;
And Ulrich, the wild Earl, who cast his lot
With all those savage hordes, more beasts than men,
By his own hand had Arthur overthrown.
A later day to Camelot there came
To yield allegiance to the youthful King
The bandit chief. He came with sullen mien
And, though his tongue dropped honey, in his heart
Was gall.  He lodged with his own kith and kin,
Whose ancient hall was still a stronghold great
That crowned a hill outside the city wall;
And insolent he grew, forgetting quite,
The gift of life he had from Arthur's hand.
In his own land his wilful word was law,
Son of a son of earls and earl himself,
When more than boy yet somewhat less than man,
He counsel took of none but of himself.
That, which his heart desired, with his strong hand
He held; that which displeased him cast aside.
And though a subject of the new-crowned King
He held himself as equal; bandied words
With those who kept alive the scandal old
Of Guinevere and Launcelot; laughed aloud
At tales of Modred spying on the Queen,
And smiled, behind the cover of his hand,
Whene'er was told the story of Elaine.
Of that great King who formed the Table Round
He struck his fist into his palm and cried--
"He kept his board far better than his bed"
And of the younger Arthur would declare
"He may be son of Vivian, the bawd."
One day this Ulrich, in his evil mood,
Rode unattended through the forest ways
And, in his thought, seemed almost to himself
Like some wild creature of the lonely wood.
"For what is left," he thought, "to me who once
Had pride in life and pride in power and place,
Now that from being master I am slave,
Slave to this youthful Arthur, this new King,
Who overthrew me not so much by skill
Or strength of arm as by the creeping fear
That worked within my mind when fronting him,
That he indeed was Launcelot come once more
To battle for the throne! And that same fear
Which men before me had of that great knight
Fell over me. I thought if this be he
My sands are run, and woke from waking trance
To find myself unhorsed and asking life
From one of my own age, of lesser bulk,
Of lesser skill, of lesser strength and wit."
And, turning this and that within his mind,
The pleasant forest ways seemed ways of death
And Nature's touch, though gentle, seemed to smite
His quivering nerves; and with his mighty sword
He slashed at saplings growing in his path.
And thoughts of Thelda rose within his mind,
He seemed to see her as she looked that day
When he had sought her hand, pale, haughty, cold,
Distant as some white star. And once again
Her voice struck on his ear scathing yet low
As when she said him nay. "You call yourself,"
She cried, "The Earl of Doorn; and yet to me
You seem not earl or lord or knight or squire
Nor worthy page nor groom nor serving lad
Nor peer of any man upon this earth
Who holds his honor higher than his heel.
So, being what you are, I bid you go,
Since being as I am I will remain"
That was a twelve month gone and since that day
How often had he tried to capture her
By treachery, by promise of reform,
By every artifice his subtle mind
Could frame--till hopeless quite, and mad with rage,
He spread abroad a story that the maid
Had plotted treason 'gainst the youthful king
And would betray him even to his death.
He, the accuser, would defend the charge
"Where shall she find a champion" thought he
"To match against me, Ulrich of the Doorns?"
And in the thinking he exclaimed aloud
"The vixen shall be humbled in the dust"
But, even as he spoke, shrill laughter rose
From some dense thicket close beside the way
And a wild voice, scarce human in its note,
Replied--"Beware the Forest Knight, Earl Doorn."
He gave no sign of having heard the sound
And rode a goodly distance through the wood
Before he sought the darkening homeward path;
But, ere he reached his kinsman's lofty towers,
That elfish warning shrilly rang once more.

                                      * * * * *

Thelda, the fair, the queen of loveliness,
Was prisoned in the castle's strongest tower
Her only visitor old Dagonet,
Erst jester of the court and Table Round,
And sole survivor of those glorious days
When knighthood meant the service of the Lord.
"Mark you, fair Lady," quoth old Dagonet,
"How you and I, who always have appeared
The last extremes of beauty, now have met
As all extremes must meet; you, tall and straight;
I, little, crook'd and warped and growing old;
And yet, methinks my body's very twists
Are lines of curving beauty; my bald pate
A shining mirror is that but reflects
The light while, underneath its beaming curve,
My busy brain reflects and lights the world.
And we are both constrained and may not pass
Our prison doors. You find yourself enwrapped
By bolts and bars, a temporary gaol,
While I have found my body but a cell
Whose cruel walls have broke my Fancy's wings;
And in your danger we shall both be tried
For, if your champion and your cause o'erthrown
They give your beauty to the test of fire,
My heart, I think, will be a living coal
To burn me like a candle to the end.
I know, dear Thelda, I shall die with you.
If I might only take your place and go
Alone to join the King of my own youth
Where he is waiting for his twisted Fool
To make him merry in that distant Isle,
Avilion, while he bides his destined hour."
To him the maid replied--"Peace, my good Fool,
You may not take my place. It is not meet;
For God has fashioned all our shoulders so
They fit but to one cross. And that is ours
To bravely bear without complaint or fear.
How should I meet my father who was knight,
And not the least, of that proud Table Round
If I had cast, could it indeed be so,
My burden on your weak and crookèd back?
Nay, though I thank you for your loving thought,
I would not buy my soul's salvation thus.
And champions have I of the noble knights
That grace our goodly Court, and they have sworn
To bring this Ulrich to the very dust
And bend his pride and break his wicked power;
To one of them will I commit my cause."
"The ocean" Dagonet replied, "may bid
It's spume and spray to shatter some huge cliff
That blocks its onslaught on the peaceful shore;
The lightning may a waxen taper bid
To rend a giant oak that year by year
Has mocked its jaggèd stroke. But cliff and tree
Shall stand, as if no spume had ever blown,
As if no taper balefully had burned.
Of all the knights of all the court, my child,
There is not one whose perfect skill at arms
May overthrow Earl Doorn. Have you not marked
How, since he came to Camelot, every joust
Has seen him carry off the prize with ease;
In single fight has Ulrich been supreme,
And whatsoever party he doth lead
That party still prevails. The King himself
Has marvelled at this rude knight's matchless skill
And would, himself, have met him in the lists
If cares of state had not controlled his mind.
Of all the knights who would espouse your cause
Not one can clip this caitiff's haughty crest;
And though you trust your soul to God, sweet maid,
Trust not your life to any of these knights
Whose youthful ardor far outruns their skill.
And yet to Camelot there is lately come
A knight in whom the elements are met
To stand us in good stead--He is unknown
To all the Court save Ulrich and myself;
For penance are his titles laid aside.
His only name is now the Forest Knight."
And Thelda knew that Dagonet spake truth,
That not a gallant knight of all the realm,
Save only the young King, had faintest hope
To save himself or her 'gainst Ulrich's lance.
Herself had heard the elders ofttimes say
That even Launcelot, in his prime, had been
Scarce more than equal of the bandit Earl.
So it was planned as Dagonet desired;
Her honor and her life were placed with one
Unknown to her but still she trusted God.
Old Dagonet, the jester, went his way
And capered through the fields, as in his youth,
And capering he hummed this simple song--
"The day is all too short, the night too long,
And one shall win the fight and one shall fall,
Who wins shall lose; the loser shall win all."

                                      * * * * *

The King was seated on the dragon throne
In which the elder Arthur oft had sat
To judge his knights, and round him were the lords
And ladies of the Court. The place was gay
With banners and with flowers. Trumpets blared
And all was merriment. The hour seemed made
For love and light and life. The common herd
Gaped at the brilliant scene in which the King
A living jewel seemed mid lesser gems;
Compelling magnet to the eye of all
Was youthful Arthur in his lofty seat--
But when the lovely Thelda, under guard,
(Attended only by an ancient dame,
The faithful servant of her fallen house)
Appeared, the multitude saw neither King
Nor lords nor valiant knights nor ladies fair,
But only her. She seemed an angel's ghost
So regal was she, yet so pale and still,
And clothed in black, a white rose at her breast,
Less maid than shadow drifting to the night.
The trumpets loudly blared and all was still
The while the royal herald loud proclaimed
The charge of treason laid against the maid,
Upheld and laid by Ulrich, Earl of Doorn;
And, as his name was called, straight by the throne
The accuser rode, his visor fully raised.
Dark was his visage and his wayward soul
Glanced in the lightning of his burning eye;
Black was his charger and the trappings black;
Black was his helm and black his nodding plumes.
He loomed a Prince of Darkness as he passed,
Who came to strike a gracious spirit down.
The trumpets blared again; the herald cried--
"The Lady Thelda doth deny the charge;
The Forest Knight, her champion, gives the lie
To prove it upon Ulrich, Earl of Doorn."
The herald's voice had scarcely died away
When Thelda's champion rode adown the lists.
A golden chestnut was his stallion proud
And burnished leaves of autumn seemed to gleam
O'er trappings and o'er housings' plaited fold.
The Forest Knight himself was gaily armed,
A silver spear in rest; a silver shield
Of lilies pale he bore; and on his helm
Were lilies graved. His visor down was sign
That penance gave him right to veil his face.
His breast-plate was of burnished ruddy gold,
So wrought, by cunning hand, that fronded ferns
Seemed dancing on the mail. His lofty plumes,
Like vines and wild-flowers, bent to every breeze;
Contrasted with his sombre foe he was
Like sunlight flashing on a shaded pool.
The warning trumpet blew; they rode to place.
It sounded once again and down the lists,
Each charger maddened for the fray, they flew;
They swerved and passed each other; whirled once more
And met, at full speed, in the middle field.
The Earl of Doorn scarce seemed to feel the shock;
His mighty lance had pierced his rival's breast
And low, upon the turf, the Forest Knight
Lay dying, while his gushing life blood stained
The pallid lilies of his shield and helm.
The giant Earl bent o'er him, sword in hand,
To give the final stroke; but the young King
Made sign that knightly mercy should be shown
The vanquished. At command his knights then bore
The dying man to where he sat enthroned.
Down stept the King and kneeling by the knight
Caught his cold hands and chafed them in his own
And loosed his broken helmet; staunched his wounds
With his own priceless robe and beat his breast
And cried--"The bravest of my realm is slain,
Slain by this wolf that masketh as an Earl."
And all who heard him were amazed until
They saw him hold the knight against his breast
And knew him, stripped of casque and leafy shield,
For Dagonet, the jester, loved of all;
And when they knew that Dagonet was armed
With naught but plaited leaves, his shield but twigs,
His silver lance but silver birchen bough,
His breastplate leaves, his burnished helm but flowers,
Such anger rose as Camelot never saw
And ne'er shall see again. But Dagonet,
His stiffening lips pressed close to Arthur's ear,
Low whispered--"Let him go if Thelda lives!
And if, my King, you grant not this my prayer,
How may I pray for you--who kill my faith,
When I shall reach Avilion that fair isle
Where Arthur, my own prince, doth beckon me?"
By this the loyal party of the King
Had gathered where he knelt by Dagonet,
And Ulrich's kin, men big of limb and bone,
Encircled him. And from that iron wall
The vengeful maddened crowd recoiled and fled
As shattered breakers from a rockbound shore;
And civil strife seemed near; when from his friends,
Alone, his helmet doffed, outrode the Earl;
And near to where King Arthur stood he came,
Dismounted and advanced on foot. "Great Prince,"
Said he, "in this undreamt of hour I come
To aid you solve this riddle, which you must
Solve rightly if you still would have it said
That Merlin's wisdom guides your even mind.
The law is still the law! The test of fire,
Her champion overthrown, must Thelda dare.
Were I the king the laws might go their way
Or I would bend them till they met my mood;
But you are fashioned in far different mold;
A life, e'en though your own, would never count
The weight of one poor hair against the law.
And so, in this extremity, I say
A perjured knight am I; and treason's charge
I laid against the maid I loved is false;
And more--I am o'erthrown by this poor Fool;
My life is reft; for, while his birch-wood lance
Scarce touched my breast, his valiant deed struck home.
And he shall live the hour! But ere the bell
Shall toll his death mine own hour shall have struck;
And then shall he be victor of the field
As well as victor in his purpose high."
He ceased and Arthur moved to where he stood
And, fixedly regarding him, he spoke--
"It was my purpose to avenge his death
With my own hand, if God had willed it so,
And yet, such is your courage and your skill
That once I hoped, before it was too late,
Your soul might prove your wayward temper's guide.
Too late for such a hope! So get you gone
Before I slay you even where you stand."
The Earl's hand for a moment sought his sword
Then dropped, as lifeless to his side. He turned
And lightly mounting fled the fatal field.
Near Camelot is a stream which cuts its way
Between its limestone walls; and whence it comes
And where it goes shall no one ever know.
It gushes from the side of a great hill
To lose itself in a dark rocky cave
A league away; and thither Ulrich rode.
The knights that followed saw his coal black steed
Pause for an instant on the river's bank,
Then leap out o'er the stream. They gained the place
And saw the river racing from the hill
To hide itself within the rocky cave;
Naught else they saw--and Ulrich came no more.

Additional Information:
Written for the 129th Anniversary Dinner of the Worcester Fire Society.