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Launcelot's Vigil

Launcelot du Lake, that had been bravest knight,
Launcelot du Lake, whom Guinevere had loved,
Launcelot du Lake, whom all the world had praised,
For very sorrow threw aside his sword,
And folded o'er his slowly-breaking heart
A monk's coarse robe, and in a narrow cell
Forgot the world, and learn'd to serve his God!
And thither came to him, to share alike
Penance and fasting, seven other lords,
Whose armor rusted in the chapel vaults
The while they pray'd together at the shrine, --
His old-time friends, that in the storied days
Had with each other jousted, jested, rode,
And pledged their ladies' names at merry feasts,
And lived the thoughtless life that scars the soul.
Launcelot the monk, changed from the gallant sir
That never met his peer in field or hall,
Slumber'd, and saw a vision as he slept, --
Saw once again, amid the dreams of night,
The woman's face that was his earthly fate, --
The queen's, -- but not as she had used to come
Into his sleeping thoughts that brought so oft
Her tender tones, her clinging kiss, her eyes
Looking in his with love's fond, rapturous gaze,
But as a man whose deep, repentant zeal
Has scourged the flesh, till passion, pride of life,
And all base things are banish'd from the soul
That sees, through pain, the glory of the Lord;
Or with the spirit, freed from mortal taint,
With other spirits holds communion strange.
She bent above his worn and pallid cheek,
That flush'd not now to feel her mouth so near,
And mid the solemn silence call'd his name,
And bade him unto Almesbury haste,
To find her dead; from thence to bear her forth
And bury her beside her husband, the great king,
Who would forgive her when she came once more
To rest beside him on his royal couch;
For prayer and penitence had purged her life
From her youth's sin, and she could meet him now!

So Launcelot rose ere it was day, and went, --
The seven others with him, -- went once more
Journeying together in the open air,
Feeble and weak who once were stout and strong,
And smiled not as of yore to see afar
The spires of Camelot glitter in the sun.
And when they enter'd at the nunnery gate,
The ladies told them that the queen was dead,
Ane murmur'd, ere her voice was hush'd in death,
That Launcelot thither came to read her mass.
And as they talk'd, his hot tears fell adown,
And faltering words ask'd if aught else she spake;
And gentle hearts held back unwelcome truth,
Until he urged the answer: --"That she pray'd,
Till her last breath, that nevermore her eyes
With living sight might see Sir Launcelot's form!"
And Launcelot turn'd his face towards the wall,
That those near by should mark not in his look
Or mortal agony the sudden throe.

They laid her in the broad aisle of the church,
Before the altar, and lit all the lights;
And o'er the bier, instead of sable pall,
They cast the purple cloak she wore that day
She fled from throne and strife for shelter there.
And Launcelot kept the midnight watch alone --
The last -- with her, -- with Guinevere, -- the dead!
He sang her dirge who erst had whisper'd words
Into those willing ears had thrill'd her heart, --
That heart whose throbbing pulses then had leap'd
In burning blushes when he came anear,
And stirr'd the very velvet that now lay
So still upon the silent shape; the while
He breathed her name, her dear name, in such tones
As might have reach'd her in the deepest grave!
He read her mass, and wept between the prayers,
Imploring God, for Christ's incarnate sake,
To give her peace, to take her to His rest,
That so, when Arthur met her as she walk'd
White-robed, with angels, in the golden street,
He might forget her human sin, and know
That God's forgiveness seal'd her his true wife!

And, when his sacred duty was all done,
He rose from kneeling 'neath the host, and look'd
Once more upon her face, -- and then -- and then
His full heart broke! He thought of all the past;
He saw her, as at first, a fair, young bride,
Regal, yet shy of state, and glad to be
Apart from court, and laughing with her maids,
Or riding 'neath green boughs with loosen'd hair,
Or dancing changing measure with rare grace.
He felt again the thrill that fired his blood
When first her soft palm, trembling, press'd his own;
He saw the drooping lash, the dewy mouth
Waiting his proud caress in other times,
And lived again each hour of passionate joy,
Sweeter for being secret, save that now
Each left upon his soul the weight of crime!
He bow'd to kiss her lips, -- to clasp again
Those marble hands. A sort of fierce delight
Flash'd through his frame to think that his should be
The last warm touch should ever linger there!
Ah, no! ah, no! he dared not! She had gone
To be forgiven: it was not meet that she
Should bear in Eden seal of former shame.
She had o'erlived her love: he had no right
Even to look upon her with the olden thoughts,
Since that was lost had sanctified their guilt!
Renunciation was his office's oath!
It was God's justice he should suffer this!
And she slept there, so cold, so pale, so still, --
And he stood by, so shaken with his grief,
Memories, remorse, all passions that can war
In a man's mind, -- and over both the cross.
He deem'd if he had seen her only once,
Once more before she died, and heard her say
His love was pardon'd, and the ill it wrought, --
If her last sigh had only pass'd away
Upon his breast, -- he could have borne to know
That he must live without her in the world!
But she had plead to see him nevermore!
Was it, perchance, because she fear'd to feel
The old dream wake again in her last hours?
He quiver'd with the hope, and eager sought
To catch upon the stony brow one trace
Of the dear look that thrall'd him in his youth.
Not there! -- not there! -- she loved her husband now,
And in the sight of God she gazed on him
With those sweet eyes, all purified by death!
And Launcelot paced the lonely aisles, and fought
With his own soul until he tamed his woe,
And went not mad with anguish that long night!
Then, just at dawn, he knelt beside the corpse,
And pray'd that, if so be he yet should win
A place in paradise, it might be where,
In Christ's wide heaven, she ne'er might see his face!
For, as he cast such sorrow on her life,
He would not shadow her immortal bliss
Even by memories he would cherish still
Through all eternity apart from her!

And the next day they laid her in the earth
Beside the king, and in the open tomb
Sir Launcelot saw them lying side by side,
And swoon'd to think that he had loved her so,
And yet should be so far away from her
When at the resurrection-morn they two
To the last judgment would together rise!
So, day by day, he came unto the grave,
And mourn'd and faded, till his strength no more
Could bear him from his couch, and then he died, --
Died with a smile upon his lips, like one
Who takes into his dreams a lingering kiss!

And all his seven fréres had sworn to him
That they would bury him at Joyous Garde;
And, as he lay in state in his own land,
With the queen's scarf cross'd on his shrunken breast,
That he so oft at tournaments had worn,
Sir Ector spoke his requiem with tears: --
"Lie there, Sir Launcelot, head of Christian knights!
That never yet was match'd by earthly peer,
The courtliest lord that ever bore a shield,
The noblest friend that ever shared the salt,
The truest lover ever couch'd a spear!
Thou wert the gallantest that ever rode, --
The goodliest person in the press of knights, --
The kindest man to ladies in the hall,
The sternest to thy mortal foe in field!
Lie there, Sir Launcelot, and in future days,
When men shall seek example for their sons,
They shall but say, 'Be brave as Launcelot was, --
Launcelot, who was the bravest, gentlest knight
In all King Arthur's court, -- in all the world!
Flower of chivalry, servant of his God!"