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The Last Meeting of Sir Launcelot and Guinevere
The Last Meeting of Sir Launcelot and Guinevere
Over the sea, from Castle Joyous Garde,
Once more to England came Sir Launcelot back,
Hearing King Arthur was so sore beset
By traitor Mordred, who had dared to lift
His wistful eyes towards the peerless queen,
And with his treacherous sword to shake the throne,
As once his troublous tongue had stirr'd the heart --
The grand, large heart -- of him who sat thereon,
By whispering of the love she bore to Launcelot!
But when with seven kings he landed there,
The people told him of the battle past,
And how that Arthur died that fearful day.
"Ah, woe is me! I would a man might weep!"
The brave knight said, and clutch'd his broad shield close;
"For ne'er to me such heavy tidings came!
Fair lords, I thank ye all for your good will
That bore ye with me to this country here,
Wherein we came too late, for both are kill'd, --
The princely gentleman we came to save,
The damnéd traitor that we came to slay!
My life will not be long enough to grieve
In sore repentance for our lacking speed;
But 'gainst the death that robb'd my vengeful steel
No man may dare rebel! And, sith 'tis so,
I ride myself to seek my ladye-queen,
Who, sick and sad, has fled towards the west;
I go alone; nay, when knew Launcelot fear?
And if for me the realm be perilous
That once was my dear home, I wear my sword,
And still can lift an arm'd man from the ground.
Await ye here for just a fortnight's space;
And if I come not then, take all your ships
And go again to your own lands; for I
Will do as I have told you heretofore.
Farewell, kind comrades! tried, true friends, adieu!"
So, Launcelot unto Almesbury came,
Not knowing Guinevere abided there,
And rested him in prayer before the shrine;
Then, as he walk'd adown the cloister'd aisle,
Sudden he met the queen, all white and weak,
For she had seen him doff his casque and kneel,
And swoon'd three times or ere she trembling rose,
And bade the nuns stand far the while she went
And talk'd with her old love once more.
Pallid as she; for all his heart leap'd up
With one quick, passionate throb to greet
The woman whom he loved; and yet respect
For her great grief, her sacred garb, controll'd
To knightly homage his first eager thrill.
His strong arms yearn'd to fold her to his breast,
His parching lips to kiss that quivering mouth
Into the crimson of its former smile,
Or close those heavy lids with fond caress;
He was athirst to see that precious face,
So wan and changed, yet dearer for the change,
Upturn'd to his with one sweet look of yore!
But, check'd, subdued by those sad eyes, that robe,
He stoop'd with courtly mien to touch her hand.
She held it back beneath her coarse serge sleeve, --
The little hand that used to meet his own,
Palm close to palm, in such delicious clasp,
In those old times at Camelot, when he wore
Her silken scarf at tournament or joust!
Something that seem'd a tear flash'd o'er his sight!
Was it a dream that she had loved him once?
Was it a dream when the soft voice, kept cold
By her stern will, bade him return again
To his own land, that nevermore her soul
Might be in peril from her sight of him?
Was it a dream that she accused their love
Of all the evils that the kingdom mourn'd,
And, sighing, told "her life was vowed to prayer"?
He listen'd as if one of Merlin's spells
Had bound his sense in silence, till she said,
Her hand upon her heart, "That he should wed;
That he would soon forget, in his fair realm,
A fading queen reft of her grace and state;
Or if sometimes, when, for a little space,
He thought of her and all their guilty past,
He but would pray God's peace on her the while
He had grown happy with a gentle wife,
She thought that she might die without regret!
And if -- oh, if -- "
Here sobs broke up her speech,
And Launcelot knelt as one that takes an oath,
While she, half bending, dropp'd upon his brow
Hot tears, that stirr'd his manhood into words!
"My heart's one love! thou knowest ne'er on earth
Shall other love than thine be aught to me!
O Guinevere, hast thou forgot how oft
I promised thee I would be always leal?
Was Launcelot ever false unto his vows?
I am as true as when I told my love,
And thou didst come into my waiting arms,
Blushing and trembling with life's perfect bliss!
Ah, no, -- my queen, -- no wife for me, -- no land,
No hope in this world left! I, too, will give
My coming days to prayer; wilt thou, too, pray
That we may meet again beyond the grave?
My love will live e'en there, -- O Guinevere!
My love! my own, own love!"
And here he stoop'd
And kiss'd her sandall'd foot. With one great cry,
One look to heaven, she turn'd to flee from him;
And he fell prostrate, moaning with despair!
For one long minute, like an age of strife,
She battled with the wild, wild wish to lift
His head upon her bosom as of yore, --
To live again, e'en though 'twas deadly sin,
One hour of love, and then -- then die of joy!
She almost knelt to touch his clustering hair,
Her pale cheek flush'd, her panting breath came fast, --
When, like the voice of God, the vesper-hymn
Gave her weak woman's heart to angels' charge.
Their love, -- the present, -- her youth's lover there, --
Seem'd to grow dim before the cross of Christ;
Her agony was o'er; the thorns upon her brow
Became a crown of light through passion slain!
She found the Sancgreal in that trial-hour!
A vision of unspoken glory fill'd
Her raptured view, and, when it died away,
It left her face as 'twere the face of one
Who might have talk'd with God!
And Launcelot rose,
And look'd upon her countenance, and knew
He was no more to her!
And yet he craved,
Ere he should go from her for evermore,
That he might kiss her once, but only once,
For sake of their old love and his long truth!
She waved her hand, as when upon the throne
She would dismiss a minstrel or a squire;
Nor did he dare to ask again the boon
He long'd to take: "her life was vowed to heaven!"
But, fading slowly through the twilight dim,
Pass'd from her sight into the outer world;
And mid the stillness sang the solemn choir,
"Kyrie Eleison! Christe, exaudi nos!"