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Sir Kay's Excuse

  King Marke of Cornwall, on a quiet noon,
When May was passing into leafy June,
Sat by his chamber window at the chess,
And moved the men to cure his idleness;
While all the air around his balcony
Was full and overflowed with melody.
The very birds were fit to rend their throats
In quaint concordance of their rarest notes;
The strong young leaves which wove above his head
Mellowed the glory which the sunlight shed;
The hounds lay sleeping in the court below,
Where the old warder strung a faithful bow;
The hawk upon his perch beside the wall
Ruffled his feathers at a distant call,
But smoothed them soon; the horses near at hand
Found their long respite hard to understand;
For never had a single trumpet's bray
Broken the stillness of that perfect day.
Yet, had King Marke the Cruel been aware
Of what was purposed by Ysolde the Fair,
He had not sat, with features grave and sage,
Playing at chess against his little page.
He would, in truth, have borne the story ill
Of how Sir Tristram had escaped his will;
And much I fear that luckless page had found
Himself as well as chessmen thrust around.
For kings, who have their way, as all must know,
Display their anger often by a blow.
Still, unsuspicious of a coming fate,
King Marke played on with countenance sedate.

    Within the turret, just above the trees,
Sir Tristram and Sir Kay abode at ease.
Dame Bragwaine and the fair Ysolde alone
Preserved the secret of this room of stone;
And that dull warden, who perchance could guess
How knights had entered clad in yeomen's dress.
So on this day they watched the king beneath
Tapping upon his jewelled dagger-sheath;
Pushing a bishop to an adverse square,
And taking back his move with crafty care;
Or else, with knitted brow and lip compressed,
Pondering whether this or that were best.
They saw the page, intent upon the game,
Yawn suddenly and dread an open shame--
Concealing with the plume upon his cap
As best he could this unforeseen mishap.
And then Sir Tristram and the mild Sir Kay
Choked with their laughter, even as they lay
Half out of window, peering through the leaves,
And so drew back more guiltily than thieves.
Then, while in merry mood upon the floor
They sat and talked, there entered at the door
Ysolde the Queen, the fairest lady known
Within a cottage or before a throne;
Whose bright, sweet presence caused the room to shine
As though it held some radiant gem divine.

    Even for her sake had Kay and Tristram stayed
A fortnight in this nook which she had made;
The while King Marke, with evil in his soul,
Scoured the whole land of which he had control;
And longed to slay Sir Tristram how he would,
But found no happy moment when he could.
They rose upon their feet, and, as they did,
Dropped from Kay's bosom letters which were hid--
Disclosing to Sir Tristram's startled sight
Ysolde's own writing on the crumpled white.
With one quick grasp he snatched them both away
And charged his baseness on the gentle Kay;
While fair Ysolde, whose pity wroght it all,
Fell in a swoon against the nearest wall;
For though she loved Sir Tristram first and best,
She had been sad to see Sir Kay distressed,
And, as a tender woman might, she sent
No other words than those for friendship meant.

    But Tristram, careless of all else beside,
Called on Sir Kay "to guard him, or he died;"
And, rushing on him while his rage was hot,
In one short second all his love forgot.
And Kay, beholding death thus soon and near,
Was strangely smitten so with grief and fear,
That through the opened sash he gave a spring,
And vaulted down upon the heedless king.

    The branches crashed, the table broke in twain,
The chessmen scattered, nor were found again;
The page ran howling down the turret stair
Into the chapel, and began a prayer;
The hawk screamed loudly, shaking all his bells;
The hounds bayed answer to the page's yells;
The horses neighed and snorted as they stood;
The warden cursed the noisy neighborhood;
And Kay the Mild, bewildered by his fall,
Stared on each side, nor feared King Marke at all.

    Then spoke the king, with his most awful frown,
"Who are you, fellow, that come hurling down
Out of that window, nearly on my head?"
"My lord the king," Sir Kay the Gentle said,
"It fortuned me that in that window-seat
I was asleep, whereby the summer heat
Caused me to slumber sounder than I use,
And so I fell -- and this is my excuse."
Then shouted stern King Marke without debate,
"Kick me this fellow through the castle gate!"

    That night Sir Tristram, while men's sleep was young,
Reached the great hall where weapons had been hung,
Got him equipment, and by dawn of day,
Was far beyond those portals on his way.