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An Arthurian Miscellany at





"Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
      How does your garden grow?
Silver bells and cockle shells
      And fair maids all in a row."

Isolt the White, the daughter of a king,
Hoel of Brittany, the same who wed
Sir Tristram of the Woods, who lov'd her not,
Within a shadowy hall sat by herself,
Upon an autumn midnight drencht with rain
And loud with shrieking of the gale, and mus'd
How her white hands had been too weak to hold
Her lord, Sir Tristram, who had sworn to love
But her, then lightly broken, for the man
Was light, his promis'd word. He first had call'd
Her by that name, Isolt of the White Hands,
When those white hands had heal'd him of his hurt
Got in some tourney held in Brittany,
And she had lov'd him for the name, and thought,
"Full surely is he mine as I am his;"
And this had lasted but the waxing old
Of the same moon that crescive saw them wed.
Then he had left her taking slight farewell,
And over seas had come no word from him
Of bale or comfort, and a year was past.
Now as she mus'd on love, and musing felt
Aweary of her life because no love
Was had for her, the tempest-driven rain
Beat at the casement, and small puffs of wind
Flutter'd the flame that burnt upon the hearth,
And stirr'd the many-coloured tapestries
That lin'd the wall; and once a fiercer gust,
It seem'd, drave ope the door, and with the wind
And rain there came one trailing dripping weeds
Of samite after. Then Isolt thereat
Rais'd eyes amist with tears, and thro' these saw
Her cousin, sharp of tongue, sharper of face,
Of all men call'd Maid Marian the curst,
And gave a doubtful welcome. Thereupon
The sharp-fac'd damsel, clanging to the door,
Laught shrilly, crying out the while:

                                             "Your guest,
Good cousin, is not to your mind, meseems."
Thereat Isolt, as stung to courtesy
Perforce, would fain have call'd for lights, and food
And all things needful, had not she, the maid,
Shook off in haste constraining hands and cried:
"I care not for your simple kindnesses,
Cousin Isolt;" then louder, "I have news
Of him you call your Tristram, so much yours
Indeed as any knight may be the prize
Of one among a score of maidens whom
He loves and leaves."
                                  By this, Isolt the White,
Trembling to hear what she for long had fear'd
To hear, had murmur'd, "False, my cousin, false,"
But that Maid Marian shrill'd it once again:
"Ay! yours and hers, and woman's else
On whom his fancy lights," and crying out
On all false lovers, fled into the dark
That clos'd about her, and Isolt was left
To such small comfort as her prayers might yield.

But when the morrow brake upon a world
Washt clean with tempest, light'd by a sun
That drave the mists before in streaming lines
Of golden vapour, she, the white Isolt,
Out of a tender heart was fain to doubt
The word Maid Marian brought, had not the maid
Stood once again before her crying, "Come!
Sad cousin, and behold your lord."

                                                    So they,
The twain, took ship, past over seas, and came
To where Tintagel with its crown of towers,
Defies with frowning might of splinter'd crag
The stormful tossing seas of Lyonnesse.
There, favour'd by the tangl'd arms of trees
That stretcht deep shadows on the landward side
Of the huge castle, went they by a path
That led with many windings to the tower
Of Queen Isolt of Britain, she men call'd
The Fair. Within her bower she lay asleep
Upon an azure-broider'd silken couch,
And half her robe had slipt aside and show'd
A silver skin glossy as satin, fair
As none was fair before in all that land.

At her Maid Marian pointed hissing, "See!
The false queen whom false Tristram loves." Then she,
Isolt of the White Hands beholding Queen
Isolt the Fair, belov'd of Tristram, knew
That never would he leave that woman there,
That woman in the high tide of her youth,
That woman with the glory in her hair,
For her, his faded wife of Brittany,
For her, his pale Isolt of the White Hands,
And bitter was this knowledge unto her,
And bitter, too, the cry within her heart
At thought of it.

                      Now, as they drew behind
The silken hangings of the room, the queen
Awoke, a step came up the circling stair,
And Tristram enter'd, whom all women lov'd.
On him the twain gaz'd through the narrow rents
That time had worn within the hangings' folds
And saw him stoop to greet the queen with kiss
Such as he never yet had laid upon
The lips of her of Brittany, and heard
Those false ones utter their adult'rous love
Till gloom had fallen, and King Mark, whom none
Remember'd, softly stole into the bower
And from behind false Tristram clove his skull
From crown to nape. So died the sinful knight
Belov'd of women, slain by him he wrong'd.
But she, Isolt the Fair, beholding him
She lov'd dead at her feet, and him she loath'd
Holding the sword, rais'd such a storm as husht
The outcry of those twain in hiding there,
And swiftly moving to the casement's edge,
And shrieking, "Him I follow whom I love,"
Leapt into that white surge which foam'd below,
And past to judgement as the sinful pass.

Then came the white Isolt with Marian
Forth from her place, and stood beside the dead
Sir Tristram, crying, "He is mine, none else
May claim him dead, for he was mine, not hers;"
Whereat the king star'd full upon her. Face
And voice alike he knew not, but some thought
That she too was by Tristram wrong'd, mov'd him
To growl in churlish answer,

                                          "Woman, take
The man you claim, if you will have him dead
Who living little lov'd you, as I deem,"
Then turn'd and past adown the stair, but sent
No long time after two stout churls to bear
Dead Tristram forth where these two women will'd.

So white Isolt bore home her murder'd lord
Across the sea to Brittany, and there
Entomb'd him piously like some dead saint,
And made a pleasaunce all about where vine
And flower grew thickly, and would walk therein
At morning, noon, and even, silently,
Till three slow twelvemonths past, when there was dole
In Brittany. So hers they made the tomb
She built for sinful Tristram of the Woods,
And after that long sorrow follow'd peace.

But one whom Tristram lov'd in earlier times,
Maid Marian, when she was fair as she
That wedded Mark, came when Isolt was dead
And pac'd the pleasaunce silently at morn
And noon and even, sowing seeds of some
Strange plant from far-off lands, that bloom'd when next
The summer came, in fair white silver bells
Of fragrance such as no man in that land
Had knowledge of, and by the tomb of him
All women lov'd she laid the fiery-edg'd
And many-wrinkl'd shells that hold within
Themselves the voices of the sea. And when
The autumn tempests came upon that shore,
Driven from streaming seas, she flitted through
Her wind-torn, faded, dripping pleasaunce like
Some wan leaf flying before the gale. And high
At such times shrill'd her voice in broken song,
That seem'd the harsh note of some bird at sea.

"False life! false love! Oh, why was I deceiv'd?
False heart! false love, that I, poor maid, believ'd!
False life! false love, that me of hope bereav'd!
                                    False heart, false love!

False lips! false tongue that spake false vows to me!
False face! false eyes, whence truth did turn and flee!
False hand! false heart that brake sweet love's decree!
                                    False life! false love!"

But when the spring was nigh there came to her
A little comfort from the budding leaf,
As still she pac'd the pleasaunce sowing seeds
Of that strange plant, and year by year there bloom'd
Within it such a wilderness of branch
And flower and wandering vine as none had seen
The like. Now fifty tides of Martinmas
Were past and over when there came a gale
Fiercer than any on that wind-swept coast,
And in the night above the storm some heard
The song that ancient Marian sang at whiles
Of false love and false life, and hearing shook
With fear of some dread thing.

                                But those who stirr'd
Upon the morrow earliest beheld
Within the pleasaunce, on the tomb of him
All women lov'd, the dead maid Marian.
About her brows was wound a faded scarf
That dead Sir Tristram wore as knight of hers
Full sixty dusty summers back at some
Forgotten tourney held in Brittany,
And in her hand was claspt a golden chain
That he had given her, and some there were
Who held that death had made her fair again,
Working a miracle for very ruth.
So past her soul to judgment and its rest.
But when three days were past there stood ten maids
Arow within the pleasaunce strewing blooms
Of latest autumn on the tomb disturb'd
Once more to hold the dust of Marian.

Full quickly glide the years, and none of all
Who knew that land in those dim days are left,
Yet still the pleasaunce shows an isle of green
Midmost of a wide, open, herbless space,
A desolate, waste country no man tills.

Next: The Ballad of Glastonbury, by Henry Alford [1853]