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The Temptation of Arthur

Where to the sea the woodlands fair dropped down,
So close, that ever when the moon was full
Sea-fairies came and joined the wood-nymphs' dance,
The king walked musing through the summer morn;
For in the night strange dreams had vexed his sleep;
And sad pathetic voices haunted him;
And dim forms beckoned him to glorious deeds;
So that he started up with haggard eyes,
And would have no man's comfort.
                                                 Far and near,
The blossom-laden boughs were all astir,
And with delicious murmur filled the land;
Like playful children prattling on the beach,
The waves came up and hung around his feet;
Above, the sea-birds cried and flapped their wings;
Behind, the herons piped across the plain;
Through the dim wood a lark sang clear and shrill.

The wind-fanned woodlands and the peaceful sea
Were the familiar objects of his eye,
Herein naught beautiful or strange he saw;
But when the lark sang clearly through the woods,
And a deep stillness crept o'er sea and land,
He paused and listened to the bird's sweet notes.

Then said the king, "No common bird is this,
But some rare spirit poising like a lark,
And calling me to do some glorious deed
Which shall ennoble all my Table Round,
Making me worthiest of worthy knights."

Now, far and near, the lark sang clear and shrill.
"O sad, but happy spirit!" said the king,
"No tones of earth in those sweet notes find place;
Thou art of finer mould than our poor forms,
Which move but with the birth of new desires,
And are of constant elements devoid;
Thou dwellest somewhere in this happy place,
And I will search for thee, and find thy home.

"Now the great boughs bend as I pass along;
With silver heads upreared, snakes hiss at me;
Now through the deepening gloom glow many eyes,
And voices murmur like the midnight sea."

Soon, far away, he spied a little grove,
Through whose twined branches streamed the morning sun
Upon the soft green grass that waved beneath;
And hastening on, and quickly reaching here,
Behold, there sat upon a fallen tree
A maiden weeping.
                          In her saddened face
The lily and the rose each other vied;
Her eyes were violets hung with dewy tears;
Caressed by careless winds, her yellow hair
Lay like a web of gold above the grass;
Along her naked feet and soft white hands
The tangled brambles cruelly had trailed;
A samite mantle from her shoulders hung,
And hid the sleeky roundness of her arms;
At two spears' length there stood a milk-white steed,
Who neighed and watched the maid with blood-shot eyes.

The king drew near, and took her by the hand,
Whereat she shrank afraid, and would have fled,
But, looking up, and seeing a goodly knight,
She blushed, and bent her head, and plucked a flower;
Then, gathering strength, she spoke to him, and said:
"O art thou one of those who yester-eve
Slew my dear father and my brethren seven,
And wasted all our lands with fire and sword?"

To which the king: "Alas! most desolate maid!
Whose beauty seems as peerless as the skies;
Whose sorrows are as early flowers which droop
When frost-charms glitter in their chilly eyes;
Were these the chances strange which drove thee here
All unattended, save by this sad steed?"

Then, looking up to him, she said: "Fair knight!
Thy voice is soft, and low, and free from guile;
Thy eyes seem full of pity to behold
How I have fallen from my good estate;
For hither fled I through the weary night,
My purpose to escape these savage men,
And come to Guinevere at Camelot;
For then, indeed, some noble knight, intent
On deeds of valour, might adventure forth,
And re-instate me and my sisters dear,
Who now are held in bondage by our foes."

To which, with eager gladness, said the king:
"Gather thy garments round thee: dry thy tears:
Mount thy good steed, and lead me to the place.
For never yet adventure have I had
So full of wonder, and of promise too;
My heart feels younger, fresh blood through my brains
Rolls madly like a river in the spring;
Now through my mind there ever come and go
Dim visions which the magic mirror threw
When Merlin showed me all my life to be
Stretched out before us like a landscape fair;
Then felt I as I now feel -- never man
Was moved so much, if the intent were small."

Now high in heaven the lark sang clear and shrill,
While these twain wandered in the trackless woods;
And ever as they went upon their way,
In soft sweet syllables she told him all,
While on her face he looked, and she on his.
And like the moon, which comes while yet 'tis day,
Hanging upon the edge of some dark cloud
Which serves to throw its saddened beauty forth;
So she did place her hands upon her face,
Hiding her eyes, whose brightness shone the more
The more she strove their brightness to conceal.

"What eyes are these," he asked, "which shine so bright?
These are not eyes, but surely two bright stars
Which glimmer through the mists of coming eve."
"Fair knight," she said, "you blame, but flatter me;
These are but eyes: you do not blame the stars
Because the spirits of the moonlit sea
Do sing to them: the stars are not to blame.
So blame not me; and if my eyes seem bright
To your vain fancy, say it is the gloom
Which makes them seem so, or the happy fate
Which led me to you; and, my heart being full,
My thanks must needs be spoken by my eyes."

To which the king: "Thine eyes more glorious grow,
And fill me with strange wonder and strange doubts."
Then she, in anxious haste: "Far off I see
A glimmer in the east, it is the moon;
And, see, the trees are fewer, and beyond
The open country; further on the wood,
Where was my father's castle: let us on."

Then through the daisied meadows, where the flowers,
Whispering "Beware!" looked shyly at the king;
Along the banks of many languid pools,
From which came slimy things to gloat at them;
By gloomy groves, whence came the mocking sound
Of "Cuckoo! Cuckoo!" all the livelong day;
And round the wave-washed melancholy coast,
O'er which the gathering clouds kept awful watch,
While sea-gulls wheeled and shrieked around the cliffs;
And by the plains where many herons piped,
He went with her; until, at length, they came
Unto the borders of a dismal wood.
She took his hand, and led him to a path
Which ran between two rows of savage pines;
And down this path she went, and he with her.

Cooing of ringdoves calling to their mates
Betokened that the day was waning fast.
Soon the drear forest and the evening shades
Enfolded them; and night came on apace.
Then dark clouds hemmed the sad and passionful moon,
And not one single ray of gentle light
Lingered amid that weird and awful place.
Ere long they came to where a mountain gorge
Lay coiled beneath a dreadful precipice,
All thick with firs and many a mountain yew,
High in the sky; and as the tempest rose
The branches bent and broke, and thickly fell
Around them; and huge rocks forsook the cliffs
And crashed and thundered down the dismal gorge;
And from afar a noise of waters came
Like the dull rolling moan of many seas;
And leaping cataracts foamed and hissed along,
And tumbled to the plains somewhere below.

Close to his face he felt her tangled hair
In snake-like folds twining around his neck,
While wan as wintry dawn did seem his face.
Then, when a hollow gust swept down the gorge,
Moaning and mocking like a thing of sin,
In melancholy mood she crept to him,
And hid her cold face close to his, and looked
Into his wildered eyes, and clung to him
And "Arthur!" cried, and all the mountain sides
Echoed "Arthur!" Then when calmer grown,
Because the storm was passed and it was light,
She murmured "Not far off my land doth lie--
Soft lawns, cool streams, and woodlands wondrous.
Come, prithee, sweet, and let us leave this place."
So ever on they went, until they came
To a rare valley nestled 'mid the hills
Like a sweet thought within a lover's heart;
Wherein there was a little wood all filled
With choicest scents and most delicious sounds,
Which the sad clouds withdrew far off to hear;
While full of love the tender moon came forth.
"All this is mine, and may be thine," said she.

To which the king, a melancholy man:
"Is this thy father's castle? Where are they,
Thy brethren seven and thy sad sisters three?
For whose dear sakes, and thine, and to add fame
Unto my name and to the Table Round,
Hither came I, led by thy guileful tongue.
This is no earthly place: these sights and sounds
Are most unholy; prithee, lead me forth
And leave me to myself, and let me go
To my brave knights and to my Guinevere!"

And even as he spoke this well-loved name
His mind ran back unto the happy day
When all the land was filled with holy joy
Because he called his Guinevere "Dear wife!"
But when he cast his eyes upon the ground
And they met hers which passionately uplooked,
A sickly sadness came and stayed with him.

Which seeing, she with anxious tone outspoke:
"Now, good sir knight, I trow thou art not pleased,
And wherefore? For these woods have sights to please,
And all of them are mine; say what thou wilt.
Should'st thou be merry?--then in truth no lack
Of food for merriment shall here be found.
And why not merry? I am never sad,
Who most have cause to be; for now, alas!
I see thou lov'st me not."

                                    To which the king:
"Woman with flame-like hair and lustful eyes,
Thy pretty syllables and dainty smiles,
Nought heed I; for I know now who thou art.
Not many moons have spent their mellow strength
Since by such arts as thine was Merlin trapped;
But, know thou that I am not one of those
Whose passions are their masters, not their serfs;
Soft arms and speechful eyes and rosy lips
I hold as nothing; therefore let me go!"

To which the guileful damsel, creeping close,
And twining both her arms about his neck,
And hiding his still face amid her hair,
And pressing her hot lips upon his lips,
With many a tearful start, replied, and said:
"Some there are who are sad, and, yet, therein
Find greater pleasure than in all their joys.
So be it, sweet, with you when you are sad.
And wherefore sad? Answer, ye moonlit woods!
O sweet! for thou art sweeter than the dawn,
Sweeter than violets by south winds kissed,
Sweeter than coo of doves when love is young,
Or than the moon when she is in her prime.
I love thee! For it fell upon a day
That coming up to Camelot at the jousts
(When deeds of daring thick as daisies were)
I saw thee with thy true and goodly knights,
And then I swore that I would make thee mine
Ere the young moon had burnt herself away."

While this she said, behold the mellow moon
Grew wan and wanner; and the happy stars
Slid from the sky like smiles from some fair face;
All unattended came the simple dawn;
The forest was astir with many sounds--
Birds, brooks, and fairy footfalls everywhere,
And gleeful laughter only half suppressed:
Then high in heaven a lark sang sadly shrill,
Like a lost spirit in a world of woe.

Then he: "If good things in this place there be,
Or in the heavens above, or earth below,
Who have of knighthood charge, I pray their aid."
Thereat she smiled a weird and hollow smile,
And put her lips close to his clammy brow,
And strove to comfort him with honeyed words.

To which the king: "Thy tender voice I hear
Sounding like whispers from the underworld;
Thy eyes of flame my weary senses pierce;
Thy snake-like tresses coil around my neck;
Upon my parched lips hot kisses fall;
And soft arms fold me in a fond embrace:--
But not thy gleeful words, thy eyes of flame,
Nor tangled hair which coils around my neck,
Nor kisses hot, nor arms which fondly twine,
Can make me break mine all-accustomed vows;
For I am cold as stone, and cannot melt
Before the white heat of a woman's love.

          *     *     *     *     *     *

And thou wilt give me all these wondrous woods,
And make me lord of many tables round!
O wily snakes, that show your speckled sides,
Ye are not wily as a woman's tongue!
Take off thy lips, they seem as hot as flame,
And when they fall upon my haggard face
Do hiss like sparks that fall into a pool.

          *     *     *     *     *     *

Come forth, O sun! and cheer me, or I faint.
Afar thou shinest in the happy south,
But shunnest this sad place. O, Guinevere!
Mine own dear wife! where art thou? Tristram, too,
The truest knight of all my Table Round;
And thou, most gentle Lady of the Lake,
Who gavest me my sword, and bid me forth
To consecrate the right and cleave the wrong,
Where, too, art thou, when most thy aid I need?"

Now high in heaven a lark sang very clear.
"Hush! what! that sound? Do'st hear it? 'Tis the lark
Which called me forth to this adventure sad,
And now, perchance, doth come to lead me back,
Sent by the gentle Lady of the Lake."

And now the birds stopped half-way in their song,
The weird sad voices died amid the woods,
And sudden silence dropped around the place.
A little breeze up-sprang, and tossed her hair
In savage splendour round about her face;
Her lips were cold and bloodless; with both hands
She thrust him from her, while with stony eyes
She gazed at him; then, hissing through closed teeth,
"Fool!" turned away and fled among the woods.

Then high in heaven sang the happy lark,
And dropped and dropped, until it rested safe
Within the spreading branches of an oak.
And, as with eager haste he raised his hands
To catch the bird, he heard a rustling sound,
And, turning round, with wondering eyes he saw
Sir Tristram and the Lady of the Lake.

She took his hand, and led him forth to where
The silly sea toyed with the tangled weed;
And in this quiet creek a vessel lay.
Embarking here with Tristram, from afar
Up-sprang fair winds; so that in one day's space
He found his wistful knights at Camelot.
And all these wondered where the king had been,
And marvelled how much older he had grown;
But none knew, save those twain who led him forth,
Sir Tristram and the Lady of the Lake.