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Launcelot and the Four Queens

         Part I.

Launcelot sleepeth under an apple-tree.

Where a little-trodden byway
Intersects the beaten highway
     Running downward to the river,
Stands an ancient apple-tree
In whose blossoms drowsily
     The bees are droning ever.

Back along the river's edge
Twists a tangled hawthorn hedge,
     In whose thickets lurks the thrush;
Broods the skylark in the meads,
Floats the teal among the reeds,
     The warm wild-roses flush;

The sundews clasp their glistening beads,
The sun in mid-sky reins his steeds,
     And languid noon enwraps the earth;
Scarce a living creature stirs,
Save some gadding grasshoppers
     That heedless prate their mirth.

'Neath the fruit-tree's latticed shade
An errant knight at length is laid,
     In opiate noon's deep slumber sunk;
His helm, well proved in conflicts stern,
Lies in a tuft of tender fern
     Against the mossy trunk.

A robin on a branch above,
Nodding by his dreaming love
     Whose four blue eggs are hatched not yet,
Winks, and watches unconcerned
A spider o'er the helm upturned
     Weaving his careful net.

The sleeper's hair falls curling fair
From off his forehead broad and bare,
     Entangling violets faint and pale;
Beside his cheek a primrose gleams,
And breathes her sweetness through his dreams,
     Till grown too sweet they fail.

                Part II.

And as he sleeps four queens come by
     And spy him 'neath the apple-tree.
Of his fair show enamored sore
     They 'prison him by sorcery.

Hark, the voices blithe and gay!
Four queens of great estate are they,
And riding come they up this way,--
     Come they up from out the river;
On four white horses do they ride,
And four fair knights do ride beside,
     As is their custom ever.

On upright spear each knight doth bear
One corner of an awning rare
Of silk, all green, and bordered fair
     With mystic-symbolled broidery;
And oe'r the ladies' milky-white
Soft shoulders falls the tinted light,
     And nestles tremblingly.

Now come they where they well may see
The blossom-veiléd apple-tree.
Quoth Eastland's queen,--"It grieveth me
     That on the branch but blossoms are!
If it were only autumn now,
And apples crowned the stooping bough,
     I'd deem it fairer far:

"Drooping so ripe and melting mellow,
Rind-streaked red and flecked with yellow,
Each one fairer that its fellow,
     Oh, methinks I see them now!"
Thus quoth she; but Morgane le Fay
Hath cast her eyne another way,
     And peereth 'neath the bough,

"Now swear I on my life," quoth she,
"Fairer fruit is 'neath the tree
Than e'er will be upon the tree.
     Se ye yon knight in armor black?
Can looks so brave and limbs so strong
To any lowlier knight belong
     Than Launcelot du Lac?

"Faith! we the fairest knight have found
That ever lady's arms enwound,
Or ever lady's kisses crowned;
     Myself can wish no royaller lover."...
"Nay! Think you then to choose for him,"
Quoth Eastland's queen, "while shadows dim
     His sheeny eyelids cover?

"Certes, 'twere discourtesie!
But put a spell of secrecy
Upon his drowsy eyne, till we
     May bring him to our magic towers;
Then let him choose which one of us
Shall deck for him the amorous,
     Deep, blossom-scented bowers."

They weave a spell of witchery
Above his drowsy eyne, till he
Is breathing slow and heavily;
     Then bear him homeward on his shield.
His war-horse neighs behind the hedge,
The duck drops back into the sedge,
     The lark into the field.

                Part III.

He waketh in a chamber high,
     With tapestries adornéd fair;
Unto a window climbeth up,
     And chanteth unto Guinevere.

In place of green o'ershadowing
     Launcelot sees above his head--
And, smiling, turns his magic ring--
A dragon fixed with brooding wing,
     And dismal claws outspread.

He gives the ring a prayerful turn,
     Which aye was wont to put to flight
All lying visions; but the stern,
Black dragon's eyeballs seem to burn
     With smouldering, inward light.

Now doth he slowly come aware
     No glamor 'tis, nor painted dream,
But oak, all carved with cunning care,
And for its eyes a sullen pair
     Of mighty jewels gleam.

From samite soft he lifts his head,
     Instead of earthly-scented moss;
Four walls he sees all fair bespread
With yellow satins, garnishéd
     With legends wrought across.

Half-hidden by a storied fold
     An archéd door he sees, shut close;
The sun, far sunken o'er the wold,
Through archéd windows sluicing gold
     In sloping, moted rows,

Gleameth upon the topmost tier
     Of armor on the farther walls;
Shimmers in gules and argent clear;
Bathes the carven rafters bare;
Then seeks adown the ocean sheer
     His sleepless azure halls.

Now paleth silver on the floor
     In place of gold upon the roof;
From a young moon the still gleams pour,
That from the sun, her paramour,
     Yet walketh not aloof.

Where bars the window-niche emboss,
     Launcelot, climbing, chanteth clear;
His song it floateth soft across
The dreaming trees that fringe the foss,
     And seeketh Guinevere:
"Hearken, Guinevere!
    Hear me, oh, my love!
Waketh thy soul wistfully?
    Hither let it rove;
Hither tripping swift
    O'er the silvered meadows,
With whispers for my prisoned ears
    Fill the vacant shadows

"Hearken, Guinevere!
    Warm about my neck
Might I feel thy claspéd arms,
    Little would I reck
Prisonment or chains;
    Bitterer bonds hast thou
Link'd of rippled locks upon me,
    And I kiss them now,

"Hearken, Guinevere!
    Spake thine eyes in silence,
As a stream that fareth softly
    Thorough summer islands;
Uttered suddenly
    What I never guess'd--
How I could betray my king
    At his queen's behest,

"Hearken, Guinevere!
    Magic potenter
Than hath brought me to this plight
       Hath thy bosom's stir;
Subtler witchery
    Hath thy whispering,
To make me foul before my God
    And false unto my king,

                Part IV.

The queens essay to have his love;
    Denies he them disdainfully
A damsel comes and pledges her
    For service due to set him free.

A dewy breeze laughs through the bars,
    With meadow scents and early light;
And soon appear the ladies fair;
    In silken vestures richly dight;
"The noblest knight of Arthur's court
    We know thee for, Sir Launcelot!
Who, save for Lady Guinevere,
    For lady carest not.

"And now thou art our prisoner,
    And shalt lose her, and she lose thee;
So it behoveth thee to choose
     One of us four for thy ladye.
And choose thou not, here shalt thou die.
    So choose: I am Morgane le Fay,
Here Eastland's queen, there she of the Isles,
    North Wales accepts her sway."

Saith he: "This is a grievous case,
    That either I must quit sweet life
Or keep it bitter with one of ye;
    Yet liefer will I death to wife
With worship, than a sorceress,
     As ye are each, I'll lay me by.
What boots it that one's body live
    An' his dear honor die!"

"Is this your answer?" question they.
    "Yea, is it," laughs he carelessly.
Then go they sorely sorrowing,
    Leaving his spirit only free.
And training that to lonely flight,
    He seats him on his couch's side,
Till scent and song are heavy-winged
    About the hot noontide.

A breeze slips in refreshingly,
    As slowly swings the oaken door,--
swings slow and lets a damsel in
    Bearing a most enticing store
Of fare to cheer his sinking heart,
    And set his slackened strings in tune,--
Collops of meat that taste of the woods,
    And mead that smells of June.

"Ill fareth it with thee, Sir Knight!"
    "Ne'er spakest though a truer word,
Fair Damsel," said he, heavily,
    While up the walls the arras stirred.
Saith she: "This magic-bred mischance
    Shall vaunt not to have mastered thee;
I'll see thee clearly quits with it
    And thou'lt be ruled by me."

"What service wouldst though?" asketh he.
    "To help my father Tuesday next,
Who hath agreed a tournament
    Him and North Wales's king betwixt;
For Tuesday last we lost the field."
    "Fair maid, who may thy father be?
Needs is it that thou tell me this,
    Then will I answer thee."

"King Bagdemagus is his name."
    Saith he: "A knightly knight, and true,
And gentle; by my body's faith
    I will thee willing service do."
She turns, and lifts the trencher up,
    And seeks the door with paces steady:
"When dripping Phosphor flickers gray
    Be ready."

                Part V.

When western folds are flocked with stars,
    And larks are quivering up the blue,
Four clampéd doors, eleven locks,
    And seven gates, she leads him through.

The blue has killed the gray;
White fleeces swiftly stray
From the shepherd feet of day
     Over their azure pasture;
To their morning baths addrest,
The gusts with wrinkling zest
Over the river's breast
     Are following fast and faster.

The door swings open wide,
And quickly side by side
Adown the steps they glide
     To an iron-bolted gateway;
What Magic makes Truth mars;
And through her fortunate stars
These hell-forged bolts and bars
     Open before her straightway.

She brings him to his steed,
Hidden with mindful heed,
Where mossy foot-paths lead
     From a broken pier on the river;
He draws his saddle-girth,
And tries his lance's worth,
Then canters with lightsome mirth
     Out from the thickets that quiver

*     *     *     *     *     *

In primal sympathy
All nature laughed with glee,
Shouted to feel him free,
     Drank of his breath and kissed him;
Nothing of sound and scent,
Color and coolness blent,
Nothing the morning meant
     In its myriad speeches missed him.

Over a knoll or two,
Grassy, and drenched with dew,
His blossomed pathway drew
     Till a screen between had risen;
Then in his iron shoes
He rose and waved his "adieus:
"Methinketh neither I'll choose,
     Nor die in your witches' prison."