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Maid Avoraine

SIR GAWAIN rode in fretful spleen
Thro' yellow meadows of wheat and bean,
And thro' green wood and glade;
The balmy peace he found not then
Among the busy haunts of men,
            He sought in summer shade,
And all day long as thus he rode
Unrest within his heart abode.
In sober samite he was drest,
No shining mail was on his breast,
            Nor sword nor spear had he;
His heart within was heavy as lead,
And as he rode his helmless head
            He hung dejectedly,
And as he rode from place to place
The sun burnt blushes on his face.
Sir Gawain said, "I leave behind
The fever of the warlike mind,
            And seek a calm repose;
Unhelm'd upon my path I set,
Quitting those arts wherewith I met
            Mine honorable foes;
And far away across the plain
I go to woo Maid Avoraine.
"Within the palace of the king
The sweet-eyed syrens smile and sing,
            Brittle and bright as glass;
Like clouds that part with softest airs,
A languid loveliness is theirs:
            So from the court I pass,
And, poor and pale, I go to gain
The country-bred Maid Avoraine.
"She knows no lust of pomp or pelf,
And she will love me for myself,
            And share my lowly lot;
For she is innocent and fair,
And wears within her yellow hair
            The blue forget-me-not
Myself did place there, in my pride,
When last we wandered side by side.
"Her heart is like a bird with wings,
That soars above the world and sings
            For joy the spring is here;
And she will love me though I cast
Mine ancient honour to the blast,
            And break both sword and spear.
Her heart is humble.  For the rest,
My strength shall put her to the test.
"What time I rode in mail like fire,
Close followed by my meek esquire,
            Home from the tilt and fight,
And rode beside a running stream
With golden helm that made a gleam
            Of noonday in the night,
I halted late upon the plain,
And saw the sweet Maid Avoraine.
"Rude russet woof her peasant's dress,
But all the rest was loveliness
            As sweet and white as milk;
She gave me food, she brought me wine,
She sang me songs, and placed in mine
            A hand more soft than silk.
I spoke no word.  At break of day,
Gloomy with doubt, I rode away.
"But morn and night, in peace or fight,
While I have dwelt, a warlike knight,
            Where merry men carouse,
The memory of the country maid
Has darkened on me, like the shade
            Of trembling forest boughs
On waters where the sun doth fall
And twinkle in a golden ball.
"So half ashamed, forlorn, and weak,
Doubting the joy I go to seek,
            Moody I ride and slow;
The honours fallen from my head
Cling roundabout my feet like lead,
            And gall me as I go,
With fretful heart and questioning brain,
To country-bred Maid Avoraine."
Sir Gawain rode thro' sun and shade,
O'er yellow hill, thro' gay green glade,
            And by the river's side;
He left King Arthur's bright abode
Hemmed round with harvest.  As he rode,
            Dark-browed and pensive-eyed,
Shades of the court behind his back
Grew darker in Sir Gawain's track.
And once or twice he pulled the reign
As if to journey back again;
            And, though his heart was firm,
Shame tingled on him as a whip,
And a thin scorn upon his lip
            Was writhing like a worm;
For he was thinking, more or less,
Of the sweet maiden's lowliness.
Then on the forehead of a hill
He halted, gazing on the still
            Green vale that lay below,
Where thro' wild banks of bush and brake
The river like a silver snake
            Drew glistening coils – and lo!
Just underneath him in the plain,
The cottage of Maid Avoraine.
With music in her ears, that crept
Into her blood and then outleapt
            In joyful blushes bright,
Just at the threshold sat the maid,
Singing and spinning in the shade,
            And in her eyes was light;
For like a gem she wore the fair
Forget-me-not in her yellow hair.
Whereat the knight rode on, grown less
Proud of the meanness of his dress,
            Half doubtful, half in shame, --
Saying, "She honoured me of old,
But I am poorer twentyfold
            And have a meaner name;
Perchance she will not know me now
Mine honours fall from off my brow."
But as he rode Maid Avoraine
Ran out to meet him on the plain,
            Full of soft joys and fears;
Then, starting back, she looked in dread
On his mean dress and helmless head,
            And her eyes filled with tears;
And shrinking from his kiss she gazed
Upon him, trembling and amazed.
Then Gawain thought, "She loves me not;"
Adding aloud, "Hast thou forgot
            The man, no longer knight,
Whom thou didst swear to love? – Behold,
Stript of my sword and coat of gold,
            In miserable plight,
I come unto thee seeking rest!"
She brightened, blushed, was on his breast.
"Nay, Avoraine," Sir Gawain cried,
And thrust her roughly from his side,
            "Say, dost thou love me still?"
"Ay." "Art thou willing, sweet, to prove
That thou dost very truly love?"
            "With God's good help, I will;
Say, Gawain, say, what shall I do
To prove my maiden love is true?"
Sir Gawain hung the head awhile,
And gnawed his beard with crafty smile,
            Then moodily he cried:
"Two summer days beneath the sun
In page's dress I'd have thee run
            At my swift horse's side,
Thro' brush, thro' brake, thro' thorny woods,
And swimming over swollen floods.
"The ladies of the court I leave
Are false and fair, - their smiles deceive
            The foolish and the mad;
But I would have thee prove thyself
Above that lust of pomp or pelf
            Which makes the proud dames glad."
Maid Avoraine to the soul was stirred;
She blushed consent and spake no word.
Then, blushing in her page's dress
For shame of her own loveliness,
            Across the tangled plain,
O'er bush, thro' briar, thro' thorny woods,
And swimming over swollen floods,
            Sped sweet Maid Avoraine,
Panting and falling in her speed,
Splashed by the hoofs of Gawain's steed.
They rested in the silent night,
Then bounded on at morning light
            O'er wood and field and flood;
The sharp thorns made her rich veins flow
Like wine that drops in cups of snow,
            And her white limbs ran blood;
And evermore, with face like fire,
She blushed for shame of her attire.
Two summer days the mounted man
Rode dumbly, while the maiden ran
            Panting behind his horse;
Thro' thickest woods his way he took,
Thro' many a deep and chilly brook,
            And foamy water-course,
Two summer days; then on the plain
He halted with Maid Avoraine.
When at the cottage door they stopt,
Down at his feet the maiden dropt,
            Worn with the weary race;
But Gawain leapt to earth in bliss,
And caught her to him with a kiss
            That burned the tearful face, --
Saying aloud, "At last 'tis plain
Thou lovest me well, Maid Avoraine.
"Yet, listen.  From the court I fled,
Casting mine honours from my head,
            The mail from off my breast,
I broke my sword, I broke my spear,
And, sore with doubt, I journeyed here
            To put thee to the test,
And prove if utter love for me
Would vindicate thy low degree.
"Truth dwells not in the court, nor love;
But, by yon stainless heaven above,
            I swear that thou art true!
Thy beauty warms my blood like wine –
Lo, with this kiss I make thee mine!"
            But the white maiden drew
Aside, and hid her face in woe,
And slowly murmured "Nay, not so."
"Dost thou not love me as before?"
Then she, "I love thee more and more
            Because thou art unkind."
"Nay, by mine honour" – but she cried
"Swear not by that thou has denied
            With heart as weak as wind,
 And touch me not, for thus I tear
The blue forget-me-not from my hair.
"I am a woman lowly born,
A thing they trample on and scorn,
            But Love is blind as sleep;
And had you truly deemed me dear,
And loved with holy love, you ne'er
            Would hold my love so cheap,
As to have cast away thy worth
In pity for my lowly birth.
"You had been welcome stricken down
By wrath of man and fortune's frown,
            In scorn of pomp or pelf.
But further, for thy wisdom, hear –
Love hath no time to doubt or fear
            Its object or itself;
In faithful service Love can live,
Certain of what it has to give.
"Nay, Gawain.  Love must ever be
Blind in its own sufficiency,
            Its creed is to aspire;
And hadst thou honoured my pure name
Thou wouldst have pardoned me the shame
            Of this forlorn attire:
Love cannot stoop so, to despise
The thing its nature magnifies.
"Love is not love when disallied
From the white amulet of pride, --
            'Tis proud in its degree;
In pity to my lowly birth,
Thou wouldst have honoured thine own worth
            Hadst thou but honoured me;
And thus, thou lovest me not."  "O stay!"
But pale Maid Avoraine fled away.
Gnawing his ragged beard in wrath,
Sir Gawain took the summer path
            Back to the haunts of men;
With stubborn heart and fretful spleen,
Thro' yellow meadows of wheat and bean,
            He journeyed back again –
Sick with the world, for in his brain
Sharp conscience jangled like a chain.
"Lo, I have put her to the test!
Her heart is hollow as the rest,
            And I am sadly wise;
I was a fool and I am chid, --
Her hollow falsehood lifts the lid
            Of folly from mine eyes --
Once more I in my sword shall find
A charm against all womankind."
But when Sir Gawain left the spot,
She put the pale forget-me-not
            Into her hair again:
"'Tis fading now, no matter why,
But I will wear it till I die,"
            Said pale Maid Avoraine –
And thus she wore it, hour by hours,
Till both were faded, maid and flower.
She said, "The love I bore and bear
Is like the pale flower in my hair,
            And hath as sad a dower;
For though it fade and in the spring
Become a miserable thing,
            The flower is still a flower;
It is a flower, though bloom hath fled,
And Love is Love, though hope be dead."