Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Part 4 Continued
JESSIE L. WESTON (1898)
Then the Green Knight made him ready, and grasped his grim weapon to smite Gawain. With all his force he bore it aloft with a mighty feint of slaying him: had it fallen as straight as he aimed he who was ever doughty of deed had been slain by the blow. But Gawain swerved aside as the axe came gliding down to slay him as he stood, and shrank a little with the shoulders, for the sharp iron. The other heaved up the blade and rebuked the prince with many proud words: "You art not Gawain," he said, "who is held so valiant, that never feared he man by hill or vale, but you shrink for fear ere you feel hurt. Such cowardice did I never hear of Gawain! Neither did I flinch from your blow, or make strife in King Arthur's hall. My head fell to my feet, and yet I fled not; but you didst wax faint of heart ere any harm befell. Wherefore must I be deemed the braver knight."
Said Gawain, "I shrank once, but so will I no more, yet an my head fall on the stones I cannot replace it. But haste, Sir Knight, by your faith, and bring me to the point, deal me my destiny, and do it out of hand, for I will stand you a stroke and move no more till your axe have hit me--my troth on it."
"Have at you, then," said the other, and heaved aloft the axe with fierce mien, as if he were mad. He struck at him fiercely but wounded him not, withholding his hand ere it might strike him.
Gawain abode the stroke, and flinched in no limb, but stood still as a stone or the stump of a tree that is fast rooted in the rocky ground with a hundred roots.
Then spoke gaily the man in green, "So now you have your heart whole it benefits me to smite. Hold aside your hood that Arthur gave you, and keep your neck thus bent lest it cover it again."
Then Gawain said angrily, "Why talk on thus? You dost threaten too long. I hope your heart misgives you."
"Truthfully," said the other, "so fiercely you speak I will no longer let your errand wait its reward." Then he braced himself to strike, frowning with lips and brow, 'twas no marvel that it pleased but ill him who hoped for no rescue. He lifted the axe lightly and let it fall with the edge of the blade on the bare neck. Yet he struck swiftly it hurt him no more than on the one side where it severed the skin. The sharp blade cut into the flesh so that the blood ran over his shoulder to the ground. And when the knight saw the blood staining the snow, he sprang forth, swift-foot, more than a spear's length, seized his helmet and set it on his head, cast his shield over his shoulder, drew out his bright sword, and spoke boldly (never since he was born was he half so blithe), "Stop, Sir Knight, bid me no more blows. I have stood a stroke here without flinching, and if you give me another, I shall requite you, and give you as good again. By the covenant made betwixt us in Arthur's hall but one blow falls to me here. Halt, therefore."
Then the Green Knight drew off from him and leaned on his axe, setting the shaft on the ground, and looked on Gawain as he stood all armed and faced him fearlessly--at heart it pleased him well. Then he spoke merrily in a loud voice, and said to the knight, "Bold sir, be not so fierce, no man here has done you wrong, nor will do, save by covenant, as we made at Arthur's court. I promised you a blow and you have it--hold yourself well paid! I release you of all other claims. If I had been so minded I might perchance have given you a rougher buffet. First I menaced you with a feigned one, and hurt you not for the covenant that we made in the first night, and which you didst hold truly. All the gain didst you give me as a true man should. The other feint I proffered you for the morrow: my fair wife kissed you, and you didst give me her kisses--for both those days I gave you two blows without scathe--true man, true return. But the third time you didst fail, and therefore had you that blow. For 'tis my weed you wear, that same woven girdle, my own wife wrought it, that do I know truthfully. Now know I well your kisses, and your conversation, and the wooing of my wife, for 'twas mine own doing. I sent her to try you, and in sooth I think you art the most faultless knight that ever walked earth. As a pearl among white peas is of more worth than they, so is Gawain, i' faith, by other knights. But you didst lack a little, Sir Knight, and were wanting in loyalty, yet that was for no evil work, nor for wooing neither, but because you loved your life--therefore I blame you the less."
Then the other stood a great while, still sorely angered and vexed within himself; all the blood flew to his face, and he shrank for shame as the Green Knight spoke; and the first words he said were, "Cursed be you, cowardice and covetousness, for in you is the destruction of virtue." Then he loosed the girdle, and gave it to the knight. "Lo, take there the falsity, may foul befall it! For fear of your blow cowardice bade me make friends with covetousness and forsake the customs of largess and loyalty, which befit all knights. Now am I faulty and false and have been afeared: from treachery and untruth come sorrow and care. I avow to you, Sir Knight, that I have ill done; do then your will. I shall be more wary hereafter."
Then the other laughed and said gaily, "I know I am whole of the hurt I had, and you have made such free confession of your misdeeds, and have so borne the penance of mine axe edge, that I hold you absolved from that sin, and purged as clean as if you had never sinned since you were born. And this girdle that is wrought with gold and green, like my raiment, do I give you, Sir Gawain, that you may think upon this chance when you go forth among princes of renown, and keep this for a token of the adventure of the Green Chapel, as it chanced between chivalrous knights. And you shall come again with me to my dwelling and pass the rest of this feast in gladness." Then the lord laid hold of him, and said, "I know we shall soon make peace with my wife, who was your bitter enemy."
"Nay, forsooth," said Sir Gawain, and seized his helmet and took it off swiftly, and thanked the knight: "I have fared ill, may bliss betide you, and may He who rules all things reward you swiftly. Commend me to that courteous lady, your fair wife, and to the other my honored ladies, who have beguiled their knight with skilful craft. But 'tis no marvel if one be made a fool and brought to sorrow by women's wiles, for so was Adam beguiled by one, and Solomon by many, and Samson all too soon, for Delilah dealt him his doom; and David thereafter was wedded with Bathsheba, which brought him much sorrow--if one might love a woman and believe her not, 'twere great gain! And since all they were beguiled by women, methinks 'tis the less blame to me that I was misled! But as for your girdle, that will I take with good will, not for gain of the gold, nor for samite, nor silk, nor the costly pendants, neither for weal nor for worship, but in sign of my frailty. I shall look upon it when I ride in renown and remind myself of the fault and faintness of the flesh; and so when pride uplifts me for prowess of arms, the sight of this lace shall humble my heart. But one thing would I pray, if it displease you not: since you art lord of yonder land wherein I have dwelt, tell me what your rightful name may be, and I will ask no more."
"That will I truly," said the other. "Bernlak de Hautdesert am I called in this land. Morgain le Fay dwelleth in mine house, and through knowledge of clerkly craft has she taken many. For long time was she the mistress of Merlin, who knew well all you knights of the court. Morgain the goddess is she called therefore, and there is none so haughty but she can bring him low. She sent me in this guise to yon fair hall to test the truth of the renown that is spread abroad of the valor of the Round Table. She taught me this marvel to betray your wits, to vex Guinevere and fright her to death by the man who spoke with his head in his hand at the high table. That is she who is at home, that ancient lady, she is even your aunt, Arthur's half-sister, the daughter of the Duchess of Tintagel, who afterward married King Uther. Therefore I bid you, knight, come to your aunt, and make merry in your house; my folk love you, and I wish you as well as any man on earth, by my faith, for your true dealing."
But Sir Gawain said nay, he would in no wise do so; so they embraced and kissed, and commended each other to the Prince of Paradise, and parted right there, on the cold ground. Gawain on his steed rode swiftly to the king's hall, and the Green Knight got him wheresoever he would.
Sir Gawain who had thus won grace of his life, rode through wild ways on Gringalet; oft he lodged in a house, and oft without, and many adventures did he have and came off victor full often, as at this time I cannot relate in tale. The hurt that he had in his neck was healed, he bare the shining girdle as a baldric bound by his side, and made fast with a knot 'neath his left arm, in token that he was taken in a fault--and thus he came in safety again to the court.
Then joy awakened in that dwelling when the king knew that the good Sir Gawain was come, for he deemed it gain. King Arthur kissed the knight, and the queen also, and many valiant knights sought to embrace him. They asked him how he had fared, and he told them all that had chanced to him--the adventure of the chapel, the fashion of the knight, the love of the lady--at last of the lace. He showed them the wound in the neck which he won for his disloyalty at the hand of the knight, the blood flew to his face for shame as he told the tale.
"Lo, lady," he said, and handled the lace, "this is the bond of the blame that I bear in my neck, this is the harm and the loss I have suffered, the cowardice and covetousness in which I was caught, the token of my covenant in which I was taken. And I must needs wear it so long as I live, for none may hide his harm, but undone it may not be, for if it has clung to you once, it may never be severed."
Then the king comforted the knight, and the court laughed loudly at the tale, and all made accord that the lords and the ladies who belonged to the Round Table, each hero among them, should wear bound about him a baldric of bright green for the sake of Sir Gawain. And to this was agreed all the honor of the Round Table, and he who ware it was honored the more thereafter, as it is testified in the best book of romance. That in Arthur's days this adventure befell, the book of Brutus bears witness. For since that bold knight came here first, and the siege and the assault were ceased at Troy, I know
Many a venture herebefore
Has fallen such as this:
May He that bare the crown of thorn
Bring us unto His bliss.
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