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The Best Knight

For a great tilt the lists were all array'd;
And in the gallery, beside the queen,
Truncheon in hand, the crown upon his head,
King Arthur sat, the umpire of the joust;
And back and forth upon th' allotted sward
Arm'd knights upon arm'd steeds rode swift and slow,
To try their chargers' mettle, or to gain
From ladies' eyes some longed-for, envied glance;
For each upon his helmet token wore
Of favor won or hoped through gallant deeds;
And there were whisperings round the throne, from lips
Dewy and red, that soon might pale with fear,
Which made the queen smile slyly to her lord.

But, while all waited for the signal trump,
Mid wondering looks, a litter forward came,
Whereon a sick man lay, and at whose side
An aged dame walk'd with a weary step,
And paused before the king, at whose command
The ladye told her story and her quest.
"From Hungary, sire, the last of many sons
To Spanish tournament went bravely forth,
Strong with rare strength and confident with youth,
And there opposed the proudest knight of Spain,
And, ere he slew him, got these seven wounds.
See, sire, how still they bleed!" And Guinevere
Shut from her shuddering sight the crimson drops
That stained the matted hair and broider'd quilt,
While Arthur question'd why the wounds were fresh.
"The mother of Sir Alphegus that died
Was a great sorceress, of subtle craft,
And, for her grief was much -- God mend her pain!
I would have done the same had I been she
That saw my dear son dead, and had her power! --
She wrought by secret arts her vengeance thus:
Sir Urre should ne'er be well of these deep cuts
Until the world's best knight had search'd his wounds.

And so, to have him heal'd, for seven years
We two have pass'd through all the Christian lands.
Our last hope is in this: if here we fail,
We will go home again, and pray for death!"
And, ere the king could answer, Guinevere --
Who liked no tilt where Launcelot did not ride,
And trembled always at the blows and groans --
Out of her woman's heart, with woman's wit,
Urged that the joust might be postponed a day,
And all the knights prove value on this test, --
A surer trial than with shields and swords,
And more to England's honor, if perchance
The best knight in the world graced Arthur's court!
And Arthur laid the sceptre in her hand,
And said, "Well, be it so! myself the first --
Not thus presuming on my own poor worth,
But to encourage others to the same --
Will touch for this sore evil; and God help
The patient mother to her son's good weal!"
And so the king, -- the brave king, -- high in heart
And pure in soul, and noble through grand thoughts,
Gently essay'd to close the gaping wounds,
That bled the more for handling, and grew worse,
Till Arthur said, -- a sadness in his eyes, --
"Some flaw is in mine acts: some better man
Must wear the name not Britain's king can boast!"
And, rising, took his ermined mantle off
And laid it on the shoulders of the dame,
Who shiver'd in the fresh spring air that bore
The faint, sweet fragrance of some meadow near.
And one by one they came, princes and dukes,
Knights of the Table Round, all famed and tried:
Of the hundred and fifty, ten were gone
Upon their own adventures far from court.
And all the while, with each attempt that fail'd,
The queen had thought of Launcelot, and her heart
Had murmur'd o'er, "The best in all the world!
This honor is for him! Why comes he not?"
For he had sent her private word that morn,
Though he could not be back in time to tilt,
He would be there ere night, to tread with her
One measure ere he dream'd of her last smile.

And now the shades were lengthening on the plain;
Sir Urre grew faint with bleeding, and the knights
That still remain'd untested were but few.
And Guinevere impatient watch'd the scene,
Pale with expectance, anxious with one hope,
Till the last trial left the wounds agape,
And the poor mother bow'd her wither'd face
Upon her son's well hand, and sobb'd with grief;
While all the men look'd silent on, and felt
A sort of pain and shame to see her weep.

Then, as the queen still strain'd her waiting sight,
Her heart's great throb was echoed by a shout,
That gladly broke the stillness with one name;
And, as Sir Lancelot rode within the lists,
The sceptre roll'd from out her nerveless hand
Upon the earth, close to King Arthur's foot,
Who gently said, -- nor meant his words to sting,
Haply unconscious of her conscious ill, --
"You hold your royalty but light, my queen!
See how my sceptre is dust-sullied now,
And nigh to blood! I will take back the charge
Those white, small hands were all too weak to hold."
And, as he knelt in homage, Launcelot deem'd
The blush upon her cheek his welcome back.

And then the sovereign told him of the test,
Bidding him do as all the rest had done;
But the bold knight shrank back, and humbly spoke,
"My monarch, bid me wield my sword or lance
In equal combat, or 'gainst fearful odds,
And not one foot of ground my foot will yield,
Till bravest prowess wins the battle's end!
But ask me not to try so high a deed
Where all these lords have failed! Though I be strong
Against my foes, I am but weak 'gainst sin;
For strength is fortune's accident, but worth
Lies in a man's own soul! And what am I,
That I should work a miracle like Christ?
I am not worthy, sire!"
                                          But here there broke
Upon his words the mother's weeping voice,
That plead, for her dear sake who gave him birth,
He yet would grant her hope this one chance more.
And Launcelot could not bear a woman's tears,
But knelt beside the couch, and bow'd his head,
Saying thus secretly in his own heart:
"O Blessed Trinity, I do beseech
Of Thy great mercy, work this grace through me;
Use me for good, that never of myself
May dare to heal another soul's sore ill,
But trust in Thy great power and my faith!"
And here he touch'd the wounds, that sudden closed
Beneath his hand to hurtless scars, that seem'd
As though they had been well for seven years!
And as the happy mother kiss'd his cheek,
And Arthur hail'd him best knight in the world,
Sir Launcelot brush'd aside a sparkling tear,
And Urre of Hungary leap'd from off his couch,
And wound his arm about his healer's neck,
And vow'd to serve him through the life he gave;
While, from the very fulness of her joy,
The queen could keep her still no more, but ask'd,
In playful tone, "What spell Sir Lancelot used?
What magic unto stouter knights unknown?"
And Launcelot simply said, "I pray'd to God!"