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The Passing of the Sages


Three wise men of Gotham
   Went to sea in a bowl;
      If the bowl had been stronger
         My story had been longer.

Sir Valence, son of Eglamour, and last
Of ten tall sons who made their father's name
A name of all men honor'd ere he past
From out the kindly winter of his age
To judgment and the unseen life beyond,
Mus'd on a mournful midnight o'er the fate
That left him, almost ere his beard was grown,
Alone, the last of all his race. For these,
His stalwart brothers, fell on that great day
In Lyonnesse, and he, returning home
From embassage to Breton court, had miss'd
By passage of a few days the chance of death
In battle for his lord. So, coming late
To that lone field of combat by the sea,
He found nor living friend nor foe, but thick
As wave-wash'd pebbles on a wintry shore
Forsaken by a faithless ebbing tide,
Lay dead his foes and friends. Then past in grief
Sir Valence to the chapel nigh the field
Where Bedivere the wounded Arthur bore,
And all the man within was broken up,
And like a sudden fountain flow'd his tears,
And like a bitter wailing were his words.
"O nevermore," moaned Valence, "on this earth
Shall I the Table Round or Arthur see,
For Modred's host have slain the men I lov'd,
Not sparing one; and tho' they say our lord,
King Arthur, cannot die, and tho' he lies
Not dead upon the field, yet he is gone,
Yea, he is gone, and all my house are dead.
And what henceforth is left to me?"
                                      Thus he
In loneliness of spirit moan'd aloud,
And after past without the chapel down
The splinter'd crags to that great water's marge
Beneath, thinking the while, "Here will I die."
But while he stood on a wave-eaten rock
That thrust itself from shore so far beyond
Its fellows that its base was sunk from sight
Nine fathoms, and there pois'd himself in act
To leap into the surge, an arm arose
From out the flashing surface of the lake,
"Cloth'd in white samite, mystic, wonderful,"
And pointed northward, while a great cry shrill'd
Thro' all the winter silence, warning him
Therefrom. And when the echoes of that cry
Had lost themselves among the barren crags,
A voice that seem'd to come from east and west
And north and south at once, with murm'ring fill'd
His ears, but clearer grown, resolv'd itself
To this:
             "Thy lord, King Arthur, is not dead,
But past into Avilion valleys where
There falleth neither rain nor snow, nor blows
The gale; but know, Sir Valence, that the way
To his blest presence is not by this gate
That thou wouldst open."
                            After this the voice
Became a murmur once again and sank
To silence, and the mystic arm slipt down
Into the bosom of the lake, and night
Came striding o'er the hills, and all was dark.

Thus warn'd, yet little comforted, the knight,
His pathway later lit by waning moon,
Past upward from the lake, and thence by slow
Removes to lands of his near Cameliard.
There he, sole heir to all his father's house
Possesst in these its latest, saddest days,
A batter'd castle and a ruined tow'r,
And scanty leagues of marsh thro' which there wound
A sullen river, slipping toward the sea,
Past languid days of listless idleness
Among the few retainers of his house,
And gladly would have died if that might be,
But fear'd to end his life, remembering
The voice. So joyless past the time until
A mournful midnight came, sobbing with wind
And rain, and while Sir Valence sadly mus'd
Beside a fitful, slowly sinking fire,
There stood before him Ban, his seneschal,
An aged man with a thousand-wrinkl'd face,
Saying a traveller at the castle gate
Craved food and shelter for the night.
                                                           "Yea, let
Him in," Sir Valence said, "and bring him here,
And set before us bread and meat and wine."

Thereat old Ban departed, but return'd
A moment after with a stranger knight,
Upon whose bearded face Sir Valence gaz'd
An instant doubtfully before he spoke
In way of courtesy, because half deem'd
He that he knew the man.
                                         Then said the knight:
"Thou know'st me not, Sir Valence, but thy sire
Was known to me, and likewise all thy house
But thee. Sir Sagramour am I, now bent
On errand northward to the court of Lot,
But brought by old-time yearning to thy halls
To welcome seek from son of Eglamour."

"Thou hast it, sweet Sir Sagramour," then spoke
Sir Valence courteously, "albeit I
Have little left to entertain a knight
Of such fair presence as he may deserve,
Yet what I have is freely thine; I pray
You use it willingly as such."
The thousand-wrinkl'd man had laid the board,
And placed thereon a pasty, manchet bread,
And gleaming flagons of red wine.
Sir Valence pointed, and the twain sat down,
And warm'd their hearts with wine, and nurs'd the while
A growing friendship each for other till
The fire by Ban re-kindl'd wan'd again.
Then Valence, pushing back his chair, began:
"I have not seen so glad a time as this
Since I return'd from Breton court, and I
Bessech you, sweet Sir Sagramour, to bide
With me such time as thy affairs allow."
Then made the other answer, graciously,
"I find no other pleasure but my host's
Within my heart, and therefore will I bide
And gladly, here a little space."
                                                 So he,
Sir Sagramour, abode, and brighter seem'd
The castle for his presence, and the heart
Of Valence lighter grew: and Sagramour
Perceiving this told merry tales, and oft
Provok'd his host to mirth: and once the tale
Was in this fashion told.
                                       "Ere Arthur came,"
So ran the words of sweet Sir Sagramour,
"A petty princedom lying east from here,
Held on its seaward border one small town
Call'd Gotham, full of strange mad folk, and three
There were esteem'd as wise as Merlin was
At court of Camelot: and yet the three
Were madder than the rest. Now as it chanced
These Gotham sages all at once were fill'd
With wild desire to travel on the sea
Before their doors, and many plans they laid
To bring to pass fulfilment of desire;
But all were fruitless, till one happy day
The maddest of the three within his brain
Conceiv'd the fancy of a giant bowl
Of wood which might be sent upon the sea,
Whilst they within, all jubilant, might ride.
So half the men in Gotham set at work
To make the bowl; and when 'twas done and launch'd,
The sages, sitting on the bowl's sharp edge,
Their voices lifted high in gleeful song.

"'O sun, that shinest sweetest on the wise,
O moon, that flingst a veil across our eyes,
Shine softly: now our bowl hath toucht the sea.

"'O poppies red that lull us quick to sleep,
O poppies red that drowsy secrets keep,
Blow softly; twice our bowl hath dipt the sea.

"'O owls, that carol in the fearsome dark,
O owls, that carol sweeter then the lark,
Sing softly: twice our bowl hath dipt the sea.'

"So sang the Gotham wise men, while the bowl
Upon an ebbing tide mov'd from the shore,
And as their figures blurr'd with distance, sang
Again, and fainter both the tune and words.

"'O sea-bowl, tossing on the watery crest,
O sea-bowl, with three sages in thy breast,
Toss gently, thrice our bowl hath dipt the sea.'
"Thereafter," said Sir Sagramour, "there came
A fierce, wild gale from out the north,"--then paus'd
As one whose tale is done.

                                         "What then?" here spoke
The host, impatient of the pause.
The other:
               "Longer far had been my tale
If Gotham's giant bowl had stronger been.
But come, we waste the hours; I pray you go
With me to Orkney. In a month we will