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Peredur, the Son of Evrawc

Beyond the walls, past wood and twilight field,
The Usk slipped onward under wharf and wall
Of old Caerleon, rolling down, it seemed, –
Incarnadined with splendor of the west, –
The heathen blood of all of Arthur's wars.
So she had left him; and he stood alone
Within the carven casement, where a ray
Of sunset laid a bleeding spear athwart
The dark oak hall, and, on the arras gaunt
A crimson blade of battle red that dripped. –
And now life's bitterness took Peredur
By all his heart's strings, smiting. He would go,
Equipped for quest, through all the savagery
Of mountain and of forest. And this girl? –
Forget her! and her game of shuttlecock,
Of battledore and shuttlecock with his heart,
This Angharad! this child the Court had spoiled!
Now he remembered how he once had ridd'n,
Spurring his piebald stallion down the square,
Upon the King's quest, and a girl had laughed
From some be-dragoned balcony of walls
That faced the gateway; and in passing he
Had glimpsed her beauty. It was she. And then
He thought how she had haunted him for days,
For weeks; and how, returning to Caerleon,
His long quest ended, how it thus befell:
Deep snow had fallen and the winter wood
Lay carpeted with silence. And he rode
Into a vista where a raven lay
Slain of a hawk; some blood-drops dyed the snow.
He lost himself in quaint comparisons
Of how the sifted drift was as her skin;
The raven's feathers as her heavy hair;
And in her cheeks the health of maidenhood
Red as the blood-drops. So he sat and dreamed:
When one rode up in angry steel and spoke
Thrice to no answer, and in anger dashed
A gauntlet in his face and made at him:
And how he slew him and rode over him,
Fiercer than fire; then how he returned
To find her fairer than their Gwenddolen, –
Who, ere the coming of this loveliness,
Divided all men's hearts with Gwenhwyvar: –
Crowned beauty of the beautiful at Court,
With Gwenhwyvar, and fair among the fair.

Thus while he mused he thought he heard her voice:
Or was it fancy? teasing him with sounds
Of music and of words: or did he hear
Her lute below the creepered walls? whose leaves,
Crimson with autumn, reddened all the court,
Burning continual sunset, where she sat
Beside the ceaseless whisper of the foam
Of one faint fountain. Sweeter mockery
Had never held him: and he heard her sing: –

"Ask me not now to sing to thee
      Songs I have loved to sing before.
I love thee not; it can not be:
      The dream is done; the song is o'er.

"Come, hold my hands: look deep into
      The heartbreak of my eyes that bore
Glad welcome erst and now adieu;
      Adieu, adieu forevermore!

"Once more shalt kiss my mouth and brow;
      Once more my hair, – as oft of yore
When it was love and I and thou, –
      Then nevermore! ah, nevermore!

"Thou must not weep; I can not weep:
      I love thee not; should I regret? –
Nay! go; forget my face and sleep,
      Sleep and forget! sleep and forget!"

"Aye! that I will! thy face, thy form, thy voice,
O bird of spring! whose beak is in my heart.
Take out thy beak, and sing me back my soul!
O bird of spring," he said, "when flowers are dead
Thy wing will winter underneath the pine,
And hunger, for the summer that is gone,
Will slay thy music with the memory.
God give thou find no winter in thy heart
Whenas dost find the frost invades thy voice!
Ah, lovelier than thy song, there 's that in me
That harps and sings of thee; that troubadours
Thy beauty! ballades, sonnets it! and makes
A lyric of each heart-beat – all in vain:
Thou dost not heed, thou wilt not hear it sing.
Or, if thou dost, 'tis but in wantonness,
Indifference pretending interest: then praise,
A moiety, in mockery. And this
To one who 'd love thee over all belief,
Above all women and beyond all men."

She strummed her lute. He listened, and then laughed,
"God's life! our Dagonet might teach me sense,
The folly that I am! – What? have I slept
A sennight in the taking of the moon,
Or danced, sleep-footed, with the forest fays? –
One would imagine . . . No! . . . O silken Lust,
O Wantonness! whose soft, voluptuous skirts
Trail sweet contamination through these halls!
O lawless Love, whose evil influence
Haunts and parades Caerleon corridors!
O Vanity and Falsehood, throned within
The faithless Court, here is another soul,
Fresh, fragrant, like a wild-flower of the woods,
Ready and willing to be plucked and worn,
And placed among those soiled and hothouse flowers,
You long have worn, Isolt and Gwenhwyvar!
The forest flower, innocent as yet, –
The fairest, hence the more to be desired,
The quickest, too, to wither, – whose sweet name
Is Angharad! . . . Ho! page! my horse! my mail! –
God's wounds! my horse! my arms! – I will away!"

And many knights he passed, nor saw; who asked
What quest he rode. Inscrutable deeds behind
His visor, and along his sullen spear
Adventure bitter as a burning ray,
Into the night he galloped with the stars.

  .   .   .   .   .   .  .

And one lone night, two years thereafter, – lost
Within a forest wilder than wild Dean;
Where neither wind nor water shook the leaves,
That hung as turned to stone above the moss
And grass, that wrapped the scaly rocks, death-dry,
And barren torrents; where he had not found
Or man or hut, or slot of boar or deer,
Through miles and miles of lamentable trees
And twisted thorns; beneath the autumn moon, –
(Pale as a nun's face seen in cloistered walks) –
Above dead tree-tops, like the rugged rock
Of melancholy cliffs, he saw wild walls
Of some vague castle thrust gray battlements
And hoary towers, like a wizard's dream.
Great greedy weeds and burrs and briers packed
Its moat and roadway: at the very gate
Weeds higher than a man; their ancient stalks
Devoured with the dust and spider-webs,
Or smothered with the slime where croaked the toad.
And Peredur against the portal rode,
And with his spear-point beat upon its bolts
A sounding minute. But no wolf-hound bayed;
Only dull echoes of interior walls
And hollow rock that arched the empty halls.
And once again his truncheon shook the gate
And roused a round-eyed owl that screamed and blinked,
Like some fierce gargoyle, on the bartizan;
And from a crevice, like an omen, hurled
A frantic bat. And then he heard a grate,
Concealed within the gloomy battlements,
Slide slowly; and a lean, gaunt, red-haired youth,
Lit with a link, addressed him. And he saw
That famine had sunk hollows in his cheeks,
And fixed gaunt misery in mouth and eyes.
"What knight art thou?" he asked. "And whence dost come?" –
And Peredur replied, "First let me in.
I am of Arthur's Court. Long have I ridd'n
Through miles and miles of melancholy woods.
The night begins to storm. And I would rest."
Then said the youth, sad mirth about his mouth,
"Rest shalt thou; yea: and since thou, haply, hast
Fasted all day, thou shalt break bread with us." –
Then he retired from the grated slide:
Undid harsh chains and shot back stubborn bolts;
And, stiff with rust, the snarling hinges swung.
And Peredur rode armed into a court,
Neglected, and pathetic with strewn leaves
And offal, where the weed and wire-grass
Creviced with wisps the loose and broken stones:
And overhead, around the mournful walls,
Huge oaks thrust ancient boughs of mistletoe
And withered leaves, whose twisted wildness seemed
The beckoning arms of hunger, and the hands,
Hooked and distorted, darkly threatening,
Of murder; enemies that, pitiless,
Had laid long siege to that old forest hold.

And he dismounted. And in clanking mail
Strode down the hall. And in the hall beheld
Youths, lean and auburn-haired, around the hearth;
Some eighteen of an equal height, and clad
Alike in dingy garments that looked worn
And old. And these were like to him who first
Had bid him welcome. And they greeted him
And took his arms; and bade him to a seat.
And then an inner door flung wide; and, lo,
Five maidens, like five forest flowers, came;
Dark-eyed, dark-haired. Behold, the queen of these
Was Angharad. Clad in a ragged robe
Of faded satin that had once been rich.
She looked at Peredur, and he at her:
And with glad eyes once more his soul beheld
The hair far blacker than the bird that wings
Athwart the milk-white moon: the matchless skin,
Inviolably white as wind-flowers blown
Among the mighty gospels of the trees:
And in her cheeks, the rose of maidenhood
Red as round berries winter bushes dot
The dimpled drift with under loaded boughs.
She knew him not, or seemed to; or forgot
To speak his name whenas she looked at him
And, blushing, welcomed.

                                               And they sat and talked
Until the night waxed late. And as they talked
He marked that hunger had made hollow haunts
Of all their eyes; and so he longed to ask,
But courtesy forbade him. Late it grew,
And late and later; and at last there came
A knocking, and, as shadowy as two ghosts,
Two nuns came gliding; sandalled silence in
Frail footsteps, and pale caution on pale lips.
One brought a jar of wine, and one brought bread,
Six loaves of wheaten flour. And these said,
"God bear us witness, Lady, this is all!
Now is our Convent barren as thy board;"
And so departed. And they sat and ate.

  .   .   .   .   .   .  .

The wind upon the forest and the rain
Upon the turrets. Had he heard a sigh
Or was it but the echo of his own,
Born of great weariness, that broke his rest? –
A dream! a dream! – The autumn storm is on,
And sows the wood with witchcraft, and the leaves
Are chased by imps of darkness through the hail
And hurling rain. The wind is wild with leaves.
Again he slept.

                            The rain among the trees,
The wind upon the turrets. Had he moaned,
Now that he lay awake and heard the wind
Hoot on the towers like a green-eyed owl?
The rain and wind. The night is black with rain.
Within the forest like a voice the wind;
And on the turrets, like swift feet, the rain.
Now was he sure 't was weeping; and arose,
And found her at his door; and took her hand,
That like a soft persuasion lay in his.
He felt long sobbings shake it. And he said,
"Tell me, my sister, wherefore dost thou weep?"
And Angharad, "Yea, I will tell it thee. –
My name is Angharad. My father held
An Earldom under Arthur, yea, the first
In all his Kingdom: and this Castle, too,
Was his with cantrevs to the west and east.
When I was but a girl Earl Addanc met
And loved me. Once, when hunting, he came here
And sought my father and demanded me.
He said he loved me, and would have but me
To grace his bed and board, this Earl! But I –
I did not love him, being but a child,
My father's only child; I could not love.
And so my father said this should not be.
The Earl was wroth. I heard his furious stride
Beneath my casement; double demons pinched
His evil eyes and twenty gnarled his face.
He cursed us ere he rode beyond our walls
Then to Caerleon was I sent; and there
Became a woman of young Gwenhwyvar,
Until my father's death two years agone,
When I returned, a Countess, to find war
And Addanc here around beleaguered walls.
So hath he stripped me of my appanage;
Save this one keep, whose strength hath held out long,
Manned by my foster brothers, brave and young,
Strong to endure, but lacking still in arms;
No match for knights like Addanc. Thou hast met
The eighteen youths whose valor will not yield.
But what avail their valor and their will
Against hard hunger, now our larder lacks,
And lacks the Convent, too, whereon we leaned?
And Addanc comes to-morrow morn; the truce
For our one day's deliberation done.
If he prevail – the thought is like hot hands
Here on my brain! – his oath is 'that the night
Shall see me given over to his grooms.' "
She wept with tremblings. Then said Peredur:
"Go, dry thy tears, my sister. And this Earl –
If he be early, call me not too late.
Fear not. I will not go until my sword
Hath crossed the sword of so much wickedness,
And proved this base ambition. Go and sleep."

  .   .   .   .   .   .  .

A morning gray with mist that gathered drops
Of drizzle on the ever dripping leaves.
And then the mist divided: ghostly mail,
Spears and limp pennons, and the shadowy steeds
Of shadowy knights and chieftains. And it seemed
A host of phantoms come to lay dim siege
To phantom walls whose warriors were ghosts.
Afar a bugle flourished in the fog,
Disconsolate; no echo of the wood
To bear its music burden. To the moat
Advanced a herald. And within the wall
The grate was opened; and the gaunt-eyed youth
Held parley with him: "How the Earl would make
End of the long dispute to-day, and leave,
'Twixt three a single combat to decide."
So Peredur bade arm him, and prepare
His horse for battle; and bade give the Earl
His answer for the Castle: "That one knight
Would try the hauberks of the banded three."
And he rode forth: and one rode up and scoffed, –
A knight in russet armor with loud words, –
"Small means to large results, forsooth! Thou boast!
A vicious palate hath thy appetite
That feasted long with hunger and must now
Conclude the banquet with three deaths! – Sir Death,
Here is thy death!" and hacked at Peredur
A heavy stroke that gashed his chain camail.
But, rising in stiff stirrups, ere he passed,
Two-handed swung the sword of Peredur,
And helm and head of him who fell were twain,
Halved like an apple. And the walls were glad.

Then came another, clad in silver mail,
As he were Galahad; and in the mist
Glimmered like moonlight. And with levelled spear
Demanded: "Whence and what art thou? this stroke
Was never fathered by long fasting." – Then
Quoth Peredur, "I am of Arthur's Court." –
Then sneered the other with a mocking laugh,
"A goodly service truly that of his,
Since all his knights, whom I have met, have died!" –
Quoth Peredur: "Thy falsehood choke thee dead!
Within thy throat thus do I nail thy lie!"
And at his gorget hurled his ponderous spear,
Ere that one met him, spurring at full speed,
Disdainful. And the desperate stroke of him
Who had wrought havoc with the Table Round,
Glanced shattering from the sloping shield, while he,
Bent backwards o'er his saddle, rolled – his tongue
Cleft at the root. And all the walls were glad.

Now came a third: a black knight and a black
Enormous steed. No words he wasted. But,
The fierce spears splintered, from the baldrics burned
Swift blades: and Battle held his breath a while
To see the great shields rock beneath great blows,
Oppose, deploy, as hilt to hilt they hewed
At heaume and gorget. While the conflict dripped
Between the splintered greaves from many wounds.
Then Peredur, his whole strength wrenching at
Unyielding shelter of his foeman's shield,
Beat down his guard and smote. – And Addanc lay
Beneath the son of Evrawc, whose swift hands
Razed off his casque and laid a blind blade bare
Across hot eyes, and set a heel of steel
Upon his throat and said: "Thou coward curse!
What woman wilt thou war with now? – 'Tis well
Thy features are thus evil and might breed
Nightmares among the kestrels, kites, and crows,
Else hadst thou been, ere this, – so says my sword, –
A head the shorter! and that head hung high
Upon the highest battlement. What now!
What wilt thou do for thy vile life? what now!
Speak! or I smite! O thou base villainy,
Out on thy ugly mouth! – Speak!" Cursing, he,
A striken bulk, growled, "Let me live! And I,
Upon my knighthood, swear that I will make
Unto this woman, Angharad, returns
For all her losses. Let me live." – And so
The sword slid from his eyes and from his neck
The heel. And he arose – to make in full
Due restitution of her lands to her
He had so robbed and harassed. And in time
This was fulfilled.

                                 But Peredur remained, –
For, to be near her and do for her
Was all his happiness, – until the land
Acknowledged her with all obedience.
Her rights established, what more now remained
To lend excuse unto his long delay? –
And so he went to her, and led her from
Amid her maidens, and bespoke her how
"He would ride hence and would but say farewell."

A while she gazed at him. And when she spoke
The springs of tears seemed starting in her throat,
Crystal and quivering. But with steady gaze,
"Dost thou, my knight, desire then to go?
Methought that thou wouldst tarry yet a while. –
A little while. – Well hast thou fought for me."

A moment was he silent; turning then,
Ground iron strides along the lofty hall,
And so returned with iron strides and said:
"Ay, by my God! Who knows I have not fought
For thee but still against thee. 'T is my curse,
To love thee, love thee, love thee all these years! –
I came not here to woo. Thou wouldst but laugh. –
Haply thou hast forgotten me – thou hast! –
Yea, hast forgotten, aye long, long ago,
That son of Evrawc, Evrawc of the North,
Who wooed thee once! . . . Hast memory of him yet? . . .
Look in his eyes once more and say farewell."

"My soul, my soul!" she said; "O my true soul!
This shall not be, my soul!" – He heard her low
Voice pleading softly, and, deep in his heart,
New life leapt up, and sang in every pulse,
"She loves me! yea, she loves me!" – And it seemed
He heard her as men hear the voice of hope
Upon despair's black brink; and see one star
Bloom, like a lily with a heart of fire
Throbbing within it, slowly out of night.
Each syllable the petal of a flower,
A rose of music, welcome as the star,
The first the eve gives silvery utterance to;
Or as the firstling bud, the wildwood rose,
Dropped from the rosy lips of laughing Spring: –
"I have remembered. Think'st thou I have not? –
O son of Evrawc, thou who couldst not see,
'Neath bells of folly and a merry mask,
A girl's dear secret through her tinsel acts. –
Or was thy love but fancy? – Ah, too soon,
I heard the vapid ending of a tale
Coquetry had begun for other end. –
But, if thou wilt, we can resume the tale;
The beautiful story of true love. – Tell on!
Tell on, my heart! Or have we reached the end?
And is it wedlock? – Both were wrong. The one:
Because his love was blind, impetuous,
Nor saw the love that would have proved 't was love
Not lust, before surrender. The other: that
She sought for wisdom in the frivolous,
And so made falsehood of her dearest truth,
Deceived more than deceiving. – Wilt thou go?"

He had no rhetoric to make reply:
Only his arms about her, and his eyes
Upon her eyes, and kisses on her mouth.
Long time they stood. – Outside, the sunset flung
Barbaric glory on the autumn wood. –
And lifting up her face he said to her:
"Hast thou thy lute still? Then come sing to me;
That song again, that pleased me once so ill –
Two years ago at parting. If it please
No better now, straitway I will depart,
And – thou with me. Yea, on one steed, if needs,
We will ride forth together to the Queen,
To old Caerleon, and King Arthur's Court;
And Gwenhwyvar shall kiss thee and confess
Thou art her loveliest flower, my own wild rose,
And give thee to me who will wear thee here."