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Chapter 7

CHAPTER VII.
THE STORY OF LAUNCELOT.- THE ADVENTURE OF THE CART.

SO it befell in the month of May, Queen Guenever called unto her
knights of the Table Round, and she gave them warning that early
upon the morrow she would ride on maying into the woods and fields
beside Westminster. "And I warn you that there be none of you but that
he be well horsed, and that ye be all clothed in green, either in
silk, either in cloth, and I shall bring with me ten ladies, and every
knight shall have a lady behind him, and every knight shall have a
squire and two yeomen, and I will that ye all be well horsed." So they
made them ready in the freshest manner, and these were the names of
the knights: Sir Kay the seneschal, Sir Agravaine, Sir Brandeles,
Sir Sagramour le Desirus, Sir Dodynas le Sauvage, Sir Ozanna le Cure
Hardy, Sir Ladynas of the Forest Savage, Sir Perseant of Inde, Sir
Ironside that was called the knight of the red lawns, and Sir
Pelleas the lover; and these ten knights made them ready in the
freshest manner to ride with the queen. And so upon the morn they took
their horses, with the queen, and rode on maying in woods and meadows,
as it pleased them, in great joy and delight; for the queen had cast
to have been again with King Arthur at the furthest by ten of the
clock, and so was that time her purpose. Then there was a knight, that
knight Meleagans, and he was son unto King Bagdemagus, and this knight
had at that time a castle, of the gift of King Arthur, within seven
miles of Westminster; and this knight Sir Meleagans loved passing well
Queen Guenever, and so had he done long and many years. And he had
lain in a wait for to steal away the queen, but evermore he forbore,
because of Sir Launcelot, for in no wise would he meddle with the
queen if Sir Launcelot were in her company, or else if he were near at
hand to her. And at that time was such a custom the queen rode never
without a great fellowship of men of arms about her; and they were
many good knights, and the most part were young men that would have
worship, and they were called the queen's knights, and never in no
battle, tournament, nor joust, they bare none of them no manner of
acknowledging of their own arms, but plain white shields, and
thereby they were called the queen's knights. And then when it
happed any of them to be of great worship by his noble deeds, then
at the next feast of Pentecost, if there were any slain or dead, as
there was no year that these failed, but some were dead, then was
there chosen in his stead the most men of worship that were called the
queen's knights. And thus they came up all first, or they were
renowned men of worship, both Sir Launcelot and the remnant of them.
But this knight, Sir Meleagans, had espied the queen well and her
purpose, and how Sir Launcelot was not with her, and how she had no
men of arms with her but the ten noble knights all arrayed in green
for maying. Then he provided him a twenty men of arms and an hundred
archers, for to destroy the queen and her knights, for he thought that
time was the best season to take the queen. So as the queen had
mayed and all her knights, all were bedashed with herbs, mosses, and
flowers, in the best manner and freshest. Right so came out of a
wood Sir Meleagans with an eightscore men well harnessed, as they
should fight in a battle of arrest, and bade the queen and her knights
abide, for maugre their heads they should abide. "Traitor knight,"
said Queen Guenever, "what castest thou for to do? Wilt thou shame
thyself? Bethink thee how thou art a king's son, and knight of the
Table Round, and thou to be about to dishonor the noble king that made
thee knight; thou shamest all knighthood and thyself, and me. I let
thee wit, me shalt thou never shame, for I had lever cut my throat
in twain than thou shouldst dishonor me." "As for all this
language," said Sir Meleagans, "be it as it may, for wit you well,
madam, I have loved you many a year, and never or now could I get
you at such an advantage as I do now, and therefore I will take you as
I find you." Then spake all the ten noble knights at once, and said:
"Sir Meleagans, wit thou well ye are about to jeopard your worship
to dishonor, and also ye cast to jeopard our persons; howbeit we be
unarmed, ye have us at great avail, for it seemeth by you that ye have
laid watch upon us; but rather than ye should put the queen to
shame, find us all, we had as lief to depart from our lives, for if we
other ways did we should be ashamed forever." Then Sir Meleagans said,
"Dress you as well as you can, and keep the queen." Then all the ten
knights of the Table Round drew their swords, and the other let run at
them with their spears, and the ten knights manly abode them, and
smote away their spears, that no spear did them none harm. Then they
lashed together with swords, and anon Sir Kay, Sir Sagramour, Sir
Agravaine, Sir Dodynas, Sir Ladynas, and Sir Ozanna were smitten to
the earth with grimly wounds. Then Sir Brandiles, and Sir Persant, Sir
Ironside, and Sir Pelleas fought long, and they were sorely wounded;
for these ten knights or ever they were laid to the ground slew
forty men of the boldest and best of them. So when the queen saw her
knights thus dolefully wounded, and needs must be slain at the last,
then for pity and sorrow she cried, "Sir Meleagans, slay not my
noble knights, and I will go with thee upon this covenant, that thou
save them, and suffer them to be no more hurt, with this, that they be
led with me wheresoever thou leadest me; for I will rather slay myself
than I will go with thee, unless that these my noble knights may be in
my presence." "Madam," said Meleagans, "for your sake they shall be
led with you into mine own castle, with that ye will be ruled and ride
with me." Then the queen prayed the four knights to leave their
fighting, and she and they would not part. "Madam," said Sir
Pelleas, "we will do as ye do, for as for me I take no force of my
life nor death." for Sir Pelleas gave such buffets that none armor
might hold him.
Then by the queen's commandment they left battle, and dressed the
wounded knights on horseback, some sitting, some overthwart their
horses, that it was pity to behold them. And then Sir Meleagans
charged the queen and all her knights that none of all her
fellowship should depart from her; for full sore he dreaded Sir
Launcelot du Lac lest he should have any knowledging. All this
espied the Queen and privily she called unto her a child of her
chamber, that was swiftly horsed, to whom she said, "Go thou, when
thou seest thy time, and bear this ring to Sir Launcelot du Lac, and
pray him, as he loveth me, that he will see me, and rescue me if
ever he will have joy of me; and spare thou not thy horse," said the
queen, "neither for water nor for land." So the child espied his time,
and lightly he took his horse with the spurs, and departed as fast
as he might. And when Sir Meleagans saw him so flee he understood that
it was by the queen's commandment for to warn Sir Launcelot. Then they
that were best horsed chased him, and shot at him, but from them all
the child went suddenly; and then Sir Meleagans said unto the queen,
"Madam, ye are about to betray me, but I shall ordain for Sir
Launcelot that he shall not come lightly to you." And then he rode
with her and them all to his castle in all the haste that he might.
And by the way Sir Meleagans laid in an ambushment the best archers
that he might get in his country, to the number of thirty, to await
upon Sir Launcelot, charging them that if they saw such a manner of
knight come by the way upon a white horse, that in any wise they
slay his horse, but in no manner of wise have not ado with him bodily,
for he was overhard to be overcome. So this was done, and they were
come to his castle, but in no wise the queen would never let none of
the ten knights and her ladies out of her sight, but always they
were in her presence. So when the child was departed from the
fellowship of Sir Meleagans, within awhile he came to Westminster. And
anon he found Sir Launcelot. And when he had told him his message, and
delivered him the queen's ring, "Alas!" said Sir Launcelot, "now am
I shamed forever, unless that I may rescue that noble lady from
dishonor." Then eagerly he asked his armor, and ever the child told
Sir Launcelot how the ten knights fought marvellously, and how Sir
Pelleas, and Sir Ironside, and Sir Brandiles, and Sir Persant of
Inde fought strongly, but as for Sir Pelleas there might none
withstand him, and how they all fought till at last they were laid
to the earth, and then the queen made appointment for to save their
lives, and go with Sir Meleagans. "Alas!" said Sir Launcelot, "that
most noble lady that she should be so destroyed! I had lever," said
Sir Launcelot, "than all France that I had been there well armed."
So when Launcelot was armed and upon his horse, he prayed the child of
the queen's chamber to warn Sir Lavaine how suddenly he was
departed, and for what cause,- "and pray him, as he loveth me, that he
will hie him after me, and that he stint not until he come to the
castle where Sir Meleagans abideth or dwelleth, for there," said
Launcelot, "shall he hear of me if I am a man living, and rescue the
queen and, her ten knights, the which he traitorously hath taken,
and that shall I prove upon his head, and all them that hold with
him."
Then Sir Launcelot rode as fast as he might, and he took the water
at Westminster, and made his horse to swim over Thames at Lambeth. And
then within a while he came to the place where the ten knights had
fought with Sir Meleagans, and then Sir Launcelot followed that
track until he came to a wood, and there was a straight way, and there
the thirty archers bade Sir Launcelot turn again, and follow no longer
that track. "What commandment have ye thereto," said Sir Launcelot,
"to cause me, that am a knight of the Round Table, to leave my right
way?" "This way shalt thou leave, or else thou shalt go it on thy
foot, for wit thou well thy horse shall be slain." "That is little
mastery," said Launcelot, "to slay my horse, but as for myself, when
my horse is slain, I give right nought for you, not if ye were five
hundred more." So then they shot Sir Launcelot's horse, and smote
him with many arrows. And then Sir Launcelot avoided his horse and
went on foot; but there were so many ditches and hedges betwixt them
and him that he might meddle with none of them. "Alas, for shame,"
said Sir Launcelot, "that ever one knight should betray another
knight, but it is an old saw, 'A good man is never in danger but
when he is in danger of a coward.'" Then Sir Launcelot went a while,
and then he was foul cumbered of his armor, his shield, and his spear,
and all that belonged to him. Wit ye well he was sore annoyed, and
full loth he was to leave anything that belonged to him, for he
dreaded sore the treason of Sir Meleagans. And then by fortune there
came by a cart that came thither for to fetch wood.
Now at this time carts were but little used save for carrying
offal or such like, and for conveying criminals to execution. But
Sir Launcelot took no thought save of rescuing the queen. "Say me,
carter," said he, "what shall I give thee for to suffer me to leap
into thy cart, and that thou shalt bring me unto a castle within
this two mile?" "Thou shalt not come within my cart," said the carter,
"for I am sent for to fetch wood for my lord Sir Meleagans." "With him
would I speak." "Thou shalt not go with me," said the carter. Then Sir
Launcelot lept to him, and "gave him such a buffet that he fell to the
earth stark dead. Then the other carter, his fellow, thought to have
gone the same way, and then he cried, "Fair lord, save my life, and
I shall bring you where you will."
So then Sir Launcelot placed himself in the cart, and only
lamented that with much jolting he made but little progress. Then it
happened Sir Gawain passed by, and seeing an armed knight travelling
in that unusual way, he drew near to see who it might be. Then Sir
Launcelot told him how the queen had been carried off, and how, in
hastening to her rescue, his horse had been disabled, and he had
been compelled to avail himself of the cart rather than give up Then
Sir Gawain said, "Surely it is unworthy of a to travel in such
sort!" but Sir Launcelot heeded him not.
At nightfall they arrived at a castle, and the lady thereof came out
at the head of her damsels to welcome Sir Gawain. But to admit his
companion, whom she supposed to be a criminal, or at least a prisoner,
it pleased her not; however, to oblige Sir Gawain, she consented. At
supper Sir Launcelot came near being consigned to the kitchen, and was
only admitted to the lady's table at the earnest solicitation of Sir
Gawain. Neither would the damsels prepare a bed for him. He seized the
first he found unoccupied, and was left undisturbed.
Next morning he saw from the turrets of the castle a train
accompanying a lady, whom he imagined to be the queen. Sir Gawain
thought it might be so, and became equally eager to depart. The lady
of the castle supplied Sir Launcelot with a horse, and they
traversed the plain at full speed. They learned from some travellers
whom they met that there were two roads which led to the castle of Sir
Meleagans. Here therefore the friends separated. Sir Launcelot found
his way beset with obstacles, which he encountered successfully, but
not without much loss of time. As evening approached he was met by a
young and sportive damsel, who gayly proposed to him a supper at her
castle. The knight, who was hungry and weary, accepted the offer,
though with no very good grace. He followed the lady to her castle,
and ate voraciously of her supper, but was quite impenetrable to all
her amorous advances. Suddenly the scene changed, and he was
assailed by six furious ruffians, whom he dealt with so vigorously
that most of them were speedily disabled, when again there was a
change, and he found himself alone with his fair hostess, who informed
him that she was none other than his guardian fairy, who had but
subjected him to tests of his courage and fidelity. The next day the
fairy brought him on his road, and before parting gave him a ring,
which she told him would by its changes of color disclose to him all
enchantments, and enable him to subdue them.
Sir Launcelot pursued his journey, being but little troubled save by
the taunts of travellers, who all seemed to have learned by some means
his disgraceful drive in the cart. One, more insolent than the rest,
had the audacity to interrupt him during dinner, and even to risk a
battle in support of his pleasantry. Launcelot, after an easy victory,
only doomed him to be carted in his turn.
At night he was received at another castle, with great apparent
hospitality, but found himself in the morning in a dungeon and
loaded with chains. Consulting his ring, and finding that this was
an enchantment, he burst his chains, seized his armor in spite of
the visionary monsters who attempted to defend it, broke open the
gates of the tower, and continued his journey. At length his
progress was checked by a wide and rapid torrent, which could only
be passed on a narrow bridge, on which a false step would prove his
destruction. Launcelot, leading his horse by the bridle, and making
him swim by his side, passed over the bridge, and was attacked, as
soon as he reached the bank, by a lion and a leopard, both of which he
slew, and then, exhausted and bleeding, seated himself on the grass,
and endeavored to bind up his bounds, when he was accosted by
Brademagus, the father of Meleagans, whose castle was then in sight,
and at no great distance. The king, no less courteous than his son was
haughty and insolent, after complimenting Sir Launcelot on the valor
and skill he had displayed in the perils of the bridge and the wild
beasts, offered him his assistance, and informed him that the queen
was safe in his castle, but could only be rescued by encountering
Meleagans. Launcelot demanded the battle for the next day, and
accordingly it took place, at the foot of the tower, and under the
eyes of the fair captive. Launcelot was enfeebled by his wounds, and
fought not with his usual spirit, and the contest for a time was
doubtful; till Guenever exclaimed, "Ah, Launcelot! my knight, truly
have I been told that thou art no longer worthy of me!" These words
instantly revived the drooping knight; be resumed at once his usual
superiority, and soon laid at his feet his haughty adversary.
He was on the point of sacrificing him to his resentment when
Guenever, moved by the entreaties of Brademagus, ordered him to
withhold the blow, and he obeyed. The castle and its prisoners were
now at his disposal. Launcelot hastened to the apartment of the queen,
threw himself at her feet, and was about to kiss her hand, when she
exclaimed, "Ah, Launcelot! why do I see thee again, yet feel thee to
be no longer worthy of me, after having been disgracefully drawn about
the country in a-" She had not time to finish the phrase, for her
lover suddenly started from her, and bitterly lamenting that he had
incurred the displeasure of his sovereign lady, rushed out of the
castle, threw his sword and his shield to the right and left, ran
furiously into the woods, and disappeared.
It seems that the story of the abominable cart, which haunted
Launcelot at every step, had reached the ears of Sir Kay, who had told
it to the queen, as a proof that her knight must have been dishonored.
But Guenever had full leisure to repent the haste with which she had
given credit to the tale. Three days elapsed, during which Launcelot
wandered without knowing where he went, till at last he began to
reflect that his mistress had doubtless been deceived by
misrepresentation, and that it was his duty to set her right. He
therefore returned, compelled Meleagans to release his prisoners, and,
taking the road by which they expected the arrival of Sir Gawain,
had the satisfaction of meeting him the next day; after which the
whole company proceeded gayly towards Camelot.

Thomas Bulfinch