Back to top

Gawain and Marjorie


"See, saw, Margery Daw:
Sold her bed and lay on straw."

The first born son of Lot and Bellicent,
Gawain, in far-off days of striplinghood,--
Before men call'd him "false" or "light of love,"
And yet the same, for as the boy, the man,--
Half-aimless wandering upon a day
In sweet mid-summer of the Orcades,
Slack-footed under heat and thirst, had come
To a lone fountain in the woods, and bode,
List'ning the tinkling fall of waters cool
And watching the swift arrow-flight of birds.
Tall as a man was Gawain, yet in sooth
The prince was but a lad in years, and all
The curves of his lithe body spoke the boy;
But let a twelvemonth pass and these would pass.
So stood the time with restless Gawain, who
By fits and starts chaf'd at the island ways,
And gladly would have left the court of Lot
For lands to southward, but that Bellicent
Had pray'd him "Stay a little," and again,
"O stay!"
                   Now, as it hapt, to quiet lull'd
By fall of waters and by stir of leaves,
He past the gates of sleep before he knew,
And woke to find the shadows trebl'd, while
A face was looking into his with eyes
Darker than water in a sunless pool:
A maid scarce two years younger than himself.
A gown clung round her, leaving feet and arms
Bare to the summer's sun, and down her back
There roll'd the rippling blackness of her hair
That sparkl'd like the feathers of the daw.

All this young Gawain saw, half won from sleep,
And then his marvel had found tongue, but she,
The maid, a little drawing to one side,
Took up a lute, and twanging all the strings
A moment's space, sent out her voice in song
That maz'd the hearer, who had never known
There might be aught so sweet this side of heaven.

      "Wind, sun, and rain! and sweet the murmurs be
      Of rill and runlet tinkling to the sea:
      Yet not so sweet as sweet Love's voice to me.

      "Rain, wind, and sun! and dear the wood paths are,
      And dear the glimmering of the evening star,
      But not so dear as Love's step heard from far.

      "Sun, rain, and wind! and fair all blossoms shine;
      Fairer are moonbeams thro' the quivering vine:
      Fairer are Love's eyes looking into mine.

      "Fair, sweet, and dear! and light of heart am I!
      Dear, fair, and sweet! I cannot choose but cry.
      Sweet, fair, and dear! Oh, love me, or I die!"

So ran the words, and when the lute had twang'd
Itself to silence, and the song had end,
The maid had turn'd to pass adown the wood
Without a word in parting. Gawain then--
"Fair, sweet, and dear, so seems thy song to me:
What may they call thee, singer?"

The maid gave answer. Then the prince: "Thou art
No maid of Orkney, with such eyes and hair."
To which the other:
                                     "No, but since my life
Was pluckt from welter of down-streaming seas
In some wild storm, so they that sav'd me say,
None other home than Orkney have I known."
Then by degrees in question and reply,
Did Gawain learn the maiden's history,
Simple enough and like the maid herself:
For after that chance rescue from the sea,
The rough shore folk, kind after their rough kind,
Had made her welcome unto all they had,
And she, content, had dwelt with them till now.
And once a damsel from King Arthur's court
Had taught her songs; she knew not what they meant,
But lov'd to sing them to the damsel's lute.
She ceased and turn'd on Gawain a full face,
And crying, "An it please you, sir, farewell,"
Was gone as lightly as the thistle-down
Is blown along upon a summer breeze.
Then Gawain, rising, strode back slow to court,
Musing the while upon the maid whose hair
Outmatch'd the daw's for blackness, and whose eyes
Gleam'd like the water in a sunless pool,
And on the morrow sought the forest fount,
And on the the morrow after, and again
Until a week was past, yet never saw
Her whom he would, and day by day grew sick
At heart, till all the court had talk of it.
The queen alone, out of her mother wit
At last made happy hazard of the cause,
And drew from him the story of his love;
And, for she hoped this love might keep the prince
At Orkney ever, set herself to find
The maid, and finding, brought her to the court
To serve as maid of honour till the time
Were ripe for her and Gawain to be wed.
Then, thinking, "All is well for them and me,"
Bided content.

         Months sped till twelve wore past,
And still Maid Marjorie bode at the court;
And Gawain likewise bode, till through his blood
Ran sudden promptings like to drive him hence
Ere long, forgetful of Maid Marjorie
Or Bellicent. Now, as it hapt, there came
Rumours of Arthur to the Orkney court,
And how he beat the heathen down, and how
He fain would build a kingdom in the south
And rear a throne and reign for love of Christ,
And how all brave knights crav'd to serve with him.
This Gawain heard, and, fir'd with knightly zeal,
Past in an hour from boy to man, and took
His armour from the hall, and girt his sword
Upon his thigh, mounted his horse and rode
Away to Arthur in the far southwest,
With scarce a word of parting.

                                       Then the maid,
Who until Gawain went knew not her heart,
Felt that her heart was reft from her, and droopt
Like some dark lily in an August noon;
And all the court were ware and pitied her,
Save one, who fain had drawn Prince Gawain's love
To her, and failing, hated all men sore,
But most the maid in favour at the court.

Slow wan'd the months, and scant the tidings brought
Of Gawain till a year had past, and then
A rumour blown about the court proclaim'd
The prince was yet with Arthur, and was made
One of the Table Round, and now was fam'd
As much for conquest in the court of Love
As service in the field or tournament.
Many a noble maid, so blew about
The word, had caught the young knight's fancy, caught,
But failed to hold, save for a week or month,
And he had gone his way and left the maid
To grieve, and all men call'd him "light of love,"
"False Gawain," too, but naught did Gawain care.
Now when the accusing whisper reach'd the queen,
She laid command no tongue should tell the tale
To Marjorie; but one, the vengeful maid
Past o'er by Gawain, brought the flying word
To Marjorie, and, fierce with spite, told all.

This when the damsel Gawain first had lov'd
Heard but still clung to hope, she straightway came
To Bellicent beseeching that the queen
Would grant her escort of some faithful squire,
That she might go herself to Arthur's court
Of Camelot; and pitying Bellicent,
Making no question, knowing well the cause,
Granted the boon, but swell'd it till the maid
Was 'compani'd befitting one of rank.

Then followed weary days, for first there came
The passage over seas, and journey rough
By ways of peril next, until they drew
Nigh unto Arthur's city of the West,
The hundred-tower'd Camelot.

                                                  It hapt
That day the king rode forth alone, and met
The damsel and her train; she knew him not,
But staying him besought his kingly grace
To tell her if Prince Gawain yet abode
Within that city. These were all her words,
Yet her whole hist'ry trembl'd in her voice,
Flusht in the rose upon her cheek.

                                                  Then he,
The blameless king, thought in himself, "This maid
Is one our Gawain light has lightly lov'd;"
And then to her:--"The knight of whom you ask
Is absent far upon a quest of mine;
Not for a month will he return--but bide
You here at court that space. I am the king."

So Marjorie abode with Guinevere,
To whom the king that night unbarr'd his thought
And added, "When the prince returns, those twain
Shall be made one by Dubric, shall they not?"
And she: "Your will is ever mine, my lord,"
And set herself to bring the thing to pass.

Now when the month had end and he came not,
And yet another month and still he lagg'd,
Maid Marjorie, boding ill, crav'd to be free,
To go and seek him; and the kindly king,
Doubtful, but fearing to deny the maid,
Let her go forth in charge of good Sir Bors.
Three days they rode, till on an eventide
They came to a lone castle on a crag,
Empty in seeming while the gate swung wide,
And, for they needed shelter, enter'd. Scarce
The band had clear'd the archway, ere the gate
Clang'd to behind them, and an evil host
Who made that dismal place their robbers' nest
Fell on the slender train with swarming force,
Disarm'd and bound them, though Sir Bors fought hard.

Then Marjorie, who in woman-fear had cower'd
Till now within her litter, drew aside
The hangings. Mov'd by her strange beauty, yet
Still more by her sweet voice beseeching them,
The host, scarce knowing why, made pause. Then she,
Fing'ring her lute, sang as she once had sung
To Gawain on that day when first they met.
And when the song was done, she crav'd from these
Freedom for all her train, and in exchange
Offer'd her litter and rich hangings. They,
Won by the sweetness of the song, or fill'd
With sudden madness never felt before,
Gave all she ask'd and set their captives free.

That night they lay on damp and mouldy straw
Within a lowly hovel in the wood,
And on the morrow would have gone once more
Upon their quest had not a fever seiz'd
The maid and held her fast; and good Sir Bors,
Knowing the deadly fever of that land,
Was ware the end was near.

                                     So past two days,
And on the third they heard the jingling reins
Of horses, and a train of knights and dames
Drew near and stay'd to rest. Sir Bors, alert,
Amongst them spying Gawain close to one
Whose name was lightly tost about the court,--
The subtle Vivien,--pluckt him by the sleeve,
Crying, "Come hence with me!" And Gawain went
And after them stole Vivien, and the three,
Ent'ring the hovel, came where Marjorie lay
Moaning with fever on her bed of straw.
She, feeling subtly the fine Gawain's eyes
Upon her bent in wonder, open'd hers,
Half rais'd herself, and stretching out her arms
Toward him, gave a joyful cry, and past
Without more utterance where no soul is vext
With sighing or the myriad pains of earth.
So died the maid Prince Gawain first had lov'd.

He, when he saw the damsel dead, and heard
The voice of good Sir Bors, "Your work, my Prince!"
Had felt a pain much like remorse within,
And would have stay'd to see that all was done
Fitting the time and her, but Vivien came
And wound her arms about his neck, and said
This thing and that thing of her wiliness:
So maz'd by Vivien was light Gawain's thought
That he departed leaving all to Bors.

Four days had end, and into Camelot
Light Gawain rode with Vivien beside,
But all the walls were hung with black, and all
The bells made music doleful from their towers.
Forth from the palace came a train of maids
Chanting a hymn, and after, on a bier
Pall'd all in samite blackness, lay the maid
Whose love had been her doom. King, queen, and court
Pac'd slowly after, and King Arthur bent
A brow of gloom on Gawain, but said naught.
Then Gawain turn'd and follow'd the dark train
Till all was done, the while the music roll'd
Sadly above the head of Marjorie.
Then, for the man was light, he past once more
To his light loves; and all that was, became
Erewhile to him as that which never hapt.
Such honour Gawain did to Arthur's court.