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Chapter 9

CHAPTER IX.
THE STORY OF LAUNCELOT.- QUEEN GUENEVER'S PERIL.

IT happened at this time that Queen Guenever was thrown into great
peril of her life. A certain squire who was in her immediate
service, having some cause of animosity to Sir Gawain, determined to
destroy him by poison at a public entertainment. For this purpose he
concealed the poison in an apple of fine appearance, which he placed
on the top of several others, and put the dish before the queen,
hoping that, as Sir Gawain was the knight of greatest dignity, she
would present the apple to him. But it happened that a Scottish knight
of high distinction, who arrived on that day, was seated next to the
queen, and to him, as a stranger, she presented the apple, which he
had no sooner eaten than he was seized with dreadful pain, and fell
senseless. The whole court was of course thrown into confusion; the
knights rose from table, darting looks of indignation at the
wretched queen, whose tears and protestations were unable to remove
their suspicions. In spite of all that could be done the knight
died, and nothing remained but to order a magnificent funeral and
monument for him, which was done.
Some time after, Sir Mador, brother of the murdered knight,
arrived at Arthur's court in quest of him. While hunting in the forest
he by chance came to the spot where the monument was erected, read the
inscription, and returned to court determined on immediate and
signal vengeance. He rode into the hall, loudly accused the queen of
treason, and insisted on her being given up to punishment, unless
she should find, by a certain day, a knight hardy enough to risk his
life in support of her innocence. Arthur, powerful as he was, did
not dare to deny the appeal, but was compelled, with a heavy heart, to
accept it, and Mador sternly took his departure, leaving the royal
couple plunged in terror and anxiety.
During all this time Launcelot was absent, and no one knew where
he was. He had fled in anger from his fair mistress, upon being
reproached by her with his passion for the Lady of Shalott, which
she had hastily inferred from his wearing her scarf at the tournament.
He took up his abode with a hermit in the forest, and resolved to
think no more of the cruel beauty, whose conduct he thought must
flow from a wish to get rid of him. Yet calm reflection had somewhat
cooled his indignation, and he had begun to wish, though hardly able
to hope, for a reconciliation, when the news of Sir Mador's
challenge fortunately reached his ears. The intelligence revived his
spirits, and he began to prepare with the utmost cheerfulness for a
contest which, if successful, would insure him at once the affection
of his mistress and the gratitude of his sovereign.
The sad fate of the Lady of Shalott had ere this completely
acquitted Launcelot in the queen's mind of all suspicion of his
fidelity, and she lamented most grievously her foolish quarrel with
him, which now, at her time of need, deprived her of her most
efficient champion.
As the day appointed by Sir Mador was fast approaching, it became
necessary that she should procure a champion for her defence; and
she successively adjured Sir Hector, Sir Lionel, Sir Bohort, and Sir
Gawain to undertake the battle. She fell on her knees before them,
called Heaven to witness her innocence of the crime alleged against
her, but was sternly answered by all that they could not fight to
maintain the innocence of one whose act, and the fatal consequences of
it, they had seen with their own eyes. She retired, therefore,
dejected and disconsolate; but the sight of the fatal pile on which,
if guilty, she was doomed to be burned, exciting her to fresh
effort, she again repaired to Sir Bohort, threw herself at his feet,
and, piteously calling on him for mercy, fell into a swoon. The
brave knight was not proof against this. He raised her up, and hastily
promised that he would undertake her cause, if no other or better
champion should present himself. He then summoned his friends, and
told them his resolution; and as a mortal combat with Sir Mador was
a most fearful enterprise, they agreed to accompany him in the morning
to the hermitage in the forest, where he proposed to receive
absolution from the hermit, and to make his peace with Heaven,
before he entered the lists. As they approached the hermitage, they
espied a knight riding in the forest, whom they at once recognized
as Sir Launcelot. Overjoyed at the meeting, they quickly, in answer to
his questions, confirmed the news of the queen's imminent danger,
and received his instructions to return to court, to comfort her as
well as they could, but to say nothing of his intention of undertaking
her defence, which he meant to do in the character of an unknown
adventurer.
On their return to the castle they found that mass was finished, and
had scarcely time to speak to the queen before they were summoned into
the hall to dinner. A general gloom was spread over the countenances
of all the guests. Arthur himself was unable to conceal his dejection,
and the wretched Guenever, motionless and bathed in tears, sat in
trembling expectation of Sir Mador's appearance. Nor was it long ere
he stalked into the hall, and with a voice of thunder, rendered more
impressive by the general silence, demanded instant justice on the
guilty party. Arthur replied with dignity, that little of the day
was yet spent, and that perhaps a champion might yet be found
capable of satisfying his thirst for battle. Sir Bohort now rose
from table, and, shortly returning in complete armor, resumed his
place, after receiving the embraces and thanks of the king, who now
began to resume some degree of confidence. Sir Mador, growing
impatient, again repeated his denunciations of vengeance, and insisted
that the combat should no longer be postponed.
In the height of the debate there came riding into the hall a knight
mounted on a black steed, and clad in black armor, with his visor
down, and lance in hand. "Sir," said the king, "is it your will to
alight and partake of our cheer?" "Nay, sir," he replied; "I come to
save a lady's life. The queen hath ill bestowed her favors, and
honored many a knight, that in her hour of need she should have none
to take her part. Thou that darest accuse her of treachery stand
forth, for to-day shalt thou need all thy might."
Sir Mador, though surprised, was not appalled by the stern challenge
and formidable appearance of his antagonist, but prepared for the
encounter. At the first shock both were unhorsed. They then drew their
swords, and commenced a combat which lasted from noon till evening,
when Sir Mador, whose strength began to fail, was felled to the ground
by Launcelot, and compelled to sue for mercy The victor, whose arm was
already raised to terminate the life of his opponent, instantly
dropped his sword, courteously lifted up the fainting Sir Mador,
frankly confessing that he had never before encountered so
formidable an enemy. The other, with similar courtesy, solemnly
renounced all further projects of vengeance for his brother's death;
and the two knights, now become fast friends, embraced each other with
the greatest cordiality. In the meantime Arthur, having recognized Sir
Launcelot, whose helmet was now unlaced, rushed down into the lists,
followed by all his knights, to welcome and thank his deliverer.
Guenever swooned with joy, and the place of combat suddenly
exhibited a scene of the most tumultuous delight.
The general satisfaction was still further increased by the
discovery of the real culprit. Having accidentally incurred some
suspicion, be confessed his crime, and was publicly punished in the
presence of Sir Mador.
The court now returned to the castle, which, with the title of "La
Joyeuse Garde" bestowed upon it in memory of the happy event, was
conferred on Sir Launcelot by Arthur, as a memorial of his gratitude.
So far of the Story of Sir Launcelot. Let us turn now to the Story
of Sir Tristram of Lyonesse.

Thomas Bulfinch