Tales from Chaucer, by Charles Cowden Clarke, , at sacred-texts.com
IN former days there lived a warrior named Theseus; he was the King of Athens, and in his time had been so famous in deeds of arms that he was the most renowned under the sun. He had conquered many a wealthy kingdom, and by his skill and knightly conduct had subdued the whole territory of the Amazons, which formerly was called Scythia. He married the young queen of that country (her name was Ippolita) , and brought her and her young sister, Emily, home with him to Athens in great pomp and solemnity. And thus accompanied by song and triumph I leave this valiant king riding into Athens surrounded by his host in arms.
And here, if it were not tedious to relate, I would describe to you fully the manner in which Theseus overcame the kingdom of the Amazons; also the great battle between the Amazons and the Athenians; how Ippolita, the fair and valiant Queen of Scythia, was besieged; of the feast that was held at her wedding; and of the temple that was raised upon her coming home to Athens: but I have other matter in hand, for my story will be found long enough; and as I would not willingly prevent every man in turn from telling his tale, I will continue mine, and let us see who shall win the supper.
This king of whom I made mention, riding along in his pride and prosperity, as he approached near to Athens
perceived kneeling in the highway a company of ladies, by two and two, clad all in black, who made so doleful a weeping and lamentation as the like was never heard: neither would they cease till they had laid hands upon his horse's bridle and stopped his procession.
"What people are ye," said Theseus, "who at my return home thus interrupt my festival with your grievous weeping? Are you envious of my honour and success that you thus wail and lament? or hath any one offended you? Let me know if your wrong can be repaired: likewise the reason of your being clad in this woful black."
The eldest lady of the party, whom it was ruth and pity to see and hear, then spake: "We do not grieve, my lord, at the success of your victory, your glory, and your honour; but we beseech of your mercy help and succour: have compassion upon our woe and our distress! In thy gentle nature let fall one drop of pity upon us wretched women; for of a truth, my lord, there is not one of us all but she has been either a duchess or a queen: now thanks to the falsehood of fortune, with whom no lot is steadfast, we are both miserable and desolate. For fifteen days past have we waited your home-coming here in the temple of the Goddess Clemency: let not our errand fail, but aid us since you have the power.
"I, miserable creature, was formerly wife to King Cassaneus who perished at Thebes; and all we who thus lament lost our husbands during the siege of that place: and yet old Creon, who, alas! is now King of Thebes, in his wrath and wickedness has wreaked his spite and tyranny on the dead bodies of our lords, which he ordered to be drawn together in a heap, and with no entreaty will
allow them to be burned or buried, but has left them a prey to the wild dogs." And with that speech they grovelled on the ground piteously weeping.
When this gentle conquerer heard them so speak his heart ached to think that those who were then before him in such a plight had been persons of high estate; so, leaping from his horse, he went and raised them from the ground, bidding them be comforted, for that upon the oath of a true knight he would so avenge them upon the tyrant Creon that all Greece should acknowledge the deserved death he would receive from the hand of Theseus.
Whereupon, without delay, or even entering Athens, he raised his banner, and with his host rode forth towards Thebes; the queen, Ippolita, and her young sister, the lovely Emily, he left in Athens awaiting his return. His broad white banner, embroidered in red with the figure of the God Mars, and his ensign, rich in gold tissue, embossed with that of the Minotaur, slain by him in Crete, went glittering through the distant plains. So rode this valiant chief, the flower of chivalry, till he arrived before the walls of Thebes. To shorten this part of my story, he fought with Creon hand to hand, slew him in fair battle, and routed his forces. Afterwards he carried the city by assault, rased its walls, and finally restored to the ladies the remains of their murdered husbands, that they might inter them with the customary rites and solemnity. I pass over the account of the dirge and lament made by those ladies at the funeral pyre, as well as the knightly conduct observed towards them by the noble Theseus when they took their departure.
After the fight Theseus remained all night upon the
field of battle, and disposed of the conquered territory in vassalage according to his pleasure. At the same time the plunderers busied themselves in ransacking the bodies of the slain, stripping them of their armour and clothes. It so happened that in one heap they found, grievously wounded, two young knights lying side by side, both dressed in the same armour, which was richly wrought. Palamon was the name of one knight and Arcite that of the other. The heralds recognised them as members of the royal family of Thebes; they were sons of two sisters. The plunderers drew them forth from the heaps of the slain, and bore them tenderly to the tent of Theseus, who soon had them conveyed to Athens and strictly confined in prison, rejecting every offer that was proposed for their ransom. The campaign being over, the king returned home with his army, crowned with the conqueror's laurels, and in joy and honour passed the remainder of his days. But in sorrow and anguish poor Palamon and Arcite were kept close prisoners in a tower, without hope of redemption; the power of gold was unavailing.
Thus passed day after day—year after year; till one May morning it happened that Emily, who was more beautiful to behold than the lily upon its tall and slender stalk of green, and fresher than the young flowers in May (for her complexion rivalled the blushing wild-rose), had arisen according to her custom at break of day to do honour to that sweet season of the year, for the slothful and ungentle heart claims no kindred with the lovely May. Her dress was elegant and precise, and her golden hair, braided in tresses, flowed down her back. As
the sun was climbing the heavens, she walked up and down the garden, gathering the many-coloured flowers to weave into a garland for her head, and like an angel she sang in the clear air of morning. The thick and strong walls of the tower which formed the dungeon-keep to the castle that confined these knights adjoined the garden in which Emily was taking her pleasure.
In that bright sun and clear morning, Palamon, the woful prisoner, had, as was his custom, with the permission of his gaoler, been taking his walk in an upper chamber of the castle, from whence he had a view of all the noble city, and could look immediately down upon the garden and all its fresh verdure.
The melancholy captive pacing his chamber to and fro, bitterly regretting his fate, by chance caught a sight of Emily through the massy bars of his chamber window, and suddenly started as though stung to the heart. This roused the attention of Arcite, who thinking that he was affected by some recollection of his former fortune, tenderly inquired why he had turned so pale. "My beloved cousin," said he, "for the love of heaven, take in patience our confinement—it cannot be helped; fortune has laid this adversity upon us, and we must endure it with constancy."
Palamon replied, "My dear cousin, you are mistaken in the cause of my grief: the bitter restraint of this prison has not wounded me upon the present occasion, but the beauty of a lady whom I see yonder walking in the garden has so stricken my heart that it will in all likelihood prove my bane. Whether she be woman or goddess, I know not; but if, O Venus," said he (and then he sunk
passionately on his knees), "it hath been thy will to be thus transfigured before me, a wretched and sorrowful creature, assist our escape from this prison: but if the eternal word of fate has doomed us here to die, have compassion upon our kindred, brought so low by oppression and tyranny."
At this moment Arcite also perceived the lady, and was as much affected as Palamon, and even more, by her surpassing beauty. "If," said he, "I may not be granted the blessing of even looking upon her again, my doom is fixed."
When Palamon heard these words he turned upon him fiercely and answered, "Is this said in soberness or in jest?"
"Seriously by my truth," said Arcite, "or evil befall me."
"Then," replied Palamon, knitting his brows, "it were no great honour to you to be false, and a traitor to me, your cousin and brother, who have so deeply sworn to each other that nothing but death should separate us and dissolve the pledge: that neither in love nor in any event we should cross each other, but that upon all occasions you should as faithfully serve me as I should forward your good fortune. This was our oath, and which you dare not gainsay. You are of my counsel, and yet falsely would presume to love the lady whom I love, and ever shall so long as I live. Truly, therefore, Arcite, I first loved her, and made you, my sworn brother, my confidant: as a true knight, then, are you bound to assist me according to the extent of your power; or else I dare to pronounce you false to your honour."
Arcite haughtily retorted upon him that he was the false one: "And false you are," said he; "I tell you utterly false. I first loved her. What! you, who even now could not say whether she were a woman or a goddess! Yours is a holy affection, mine for an earthly creature, and I therefore disclosed to you my mind, as to my cousin and sworn brother. Grant it even that you first loved her, have you forgotten that saying of the old writer, 'Who shall give laws to a lover? Love is itself a higher law than any framed by man!' All decrees, therefore, however stern, are daily broken in favour of the more positive commands of love. Whether maiden or widow, a man must needs love in spite of his head; he cannot help himself. There is no likelihood that you, any more than myself, shall ever stand in her favour, seeing that we are condemned to perpetual imprisonment without hope of ransom. We are but like the two hounds striving for a bone which, when they were spent with rage, a kite bore away from both. At the king's court, therefore, my brother, 'each man for himself,' say I. Love, if you are inclined, for I love, and ever shall. Here in this prison must we remain, and take what may befall us."
Great was the strife between them, which lasted longer than I have leisure to tell: but to my story. It happened one day that a worthy king named Perithous, who had been the companion of Theseus from their childhood, came to Athens upon a visit to his friend: for so great was the affection between them that, according to the old tradition, when one died, the other went down into Tartarus to seek him there. But this is beside my tale.
King Perithous entertained a strong regard for Arcite,
and had known him some years in Thebes. At the earnest entreaty, therefore, of Perithous, Theseus granted the young prisoner his liberty without ransom, to go where-ever he pleased, with this express provision, that if he ever after were discovered for one moment by day or by night, within any district of the territory belonging to Theseus, that he should lose his head without redemption.
Now were the perplexity and sorrow of Arcite at their height. Release from affliction had now become his bane: "Had I never known Perithous," said he, "I might still have been dwelling with Theseus, though fettered in his prison: I had then been in bliss, for the simple sight of her whom I serve, although I might never have merited the favour of her regard, would have been sufficient recompense to me. Yours is the victory, my dear Palamon, in this adventure: for you will remain in this blessed prison—prison did I call it?—a paradise. And now, since fortune has been so adverse to me, that I am to endure the absence from her, while you enjoy her sight, the possibility is that, being an honourable and valiant knight, you may hereafter by some farther favour of fortune be placed in the full attainment of all you desire, while I am exiled, and barren of her sweet favour. Farewell, dear lady! my life, my comfort, my gladness!"
Palamon, on the other hand, when he found his companion in durance gone from him—his cousin, brother, counsellor, and friend—grievously lamented his own fate, and made the great tower resound with lamentation: the very fetters on his legs were wet with bitter tears. "Alas!" said he, "Arcite, heaven knows that you
are now reaping the fruit of our contention. You are now wandering at large in your native Thebes, little heeding my distress. You may, in your wisdom and manhood, assemble all our kindred, and make so fierce an attack upon this country that, either by chance or treaty, you may be able to win my lady to wife. For, since you are now from bondage free, and a lord again, all the advantage is yours, while I am pining away in captivity."
With this the fire of jealousy burst forth, and so maddened his brain that his hue became pale as dead ashes: and he cried aloud, "O ye implacable gods! that govern this world by the bond of your eternal word, and whose will and ordinances are graven on tables of adamant, what more in your sight are the race of mankind than sheep huddled in the fold? For, like another beast, man is slain and pounded in prison, and tormented: he suffers sickness, and great adversity, and often with a guiltless and unupbraiding heart." Many such impatient complaints did he continue to pour forth, but I must leave him for a time, and give you some tidings of Arcite.
The summer had passed away, and the long nights increased the distresses both of the lover and the prisoner. It were hard to say whose condition was the more deplorable. Palamon condemned to perpetual imprisonment, loaded with chains and fetters: Arcite exiled evermore from the country where his lady dwelt, and never again to behold her face. I put the question to you, who are lovers, which of these two had the harder lot; the one who is able to see his lady day by day, yet must ever remain in prison; or the other, who can go whither he pleases, but must never again look upon her whom he loves?
When Arcite returned to Thebes, his loss so pressed upon his heart that he became estranged from sleep and food: he grew lean and hollow-eyed, and his complexion was sallow and pale as ashes. Comfortless and desolate, he always remained alone, and if he happened to hear a song or instrument he would weep without avail, so feeble were his spirits, and he altogether so changed that his voice was strange to those who knew him.
After enduring for some time this distraction, he one night, in sleep, thought that the winged Mercury stood before him, and bid him be of good cheer. The god was arrayed as when he closed the eyes of Argus; his sleep-compelling wand he held upright before him, and upon his shining locks he wore a winged cap. "To Athens," said he, "shall you go; there will you see an end to all your grief."
With that word Arcite started and awoke. "Whatever ill befall me," said he, "to Athens will I go: no dread of death shall prevent my seeing the lady whom I love and serve: in her presence I care not to die." Then observing how much he was changed, both in appearance and colour, he thought that if he bore himself in lowly condition he might live unknown in Athens, and thus behold his lady almost every day. With this he changed his suit for that of a poor labourer, and all alone, except with one attendant who knew his secret and all his fortune, and was disguised as poorly as himself, to Athens he travelled straightway. One day he went to court, and at the gate proffered his services to do such menial work as might be required. To cut the matter short, he fell in with the chamberlain to the Lady Emily, who hired him
to hew wood and draw water, being young and large of bone.
Having served a year or two as page of the chamber to the fair Emily, under the name of Philostrate, he so wrought upon all who knew him at the court by the gentleness of his condition that all said it would be advisable for Theseus to raise him in his degree and give him honourable service in which he might prove his quality. And thus so enhanced was the fame of his conduct and fair speech, that Theseus promoted him to be near his person, and appointed him squire of his chamber, at the same time giving him gold to maintain his dignity. He also secretly received his rent from his own country, but he used it honourably and with such discretion that no man wondered how he had it. Three years he passed in this manner, and so conducted himself both in peace and war that Theseus prized no one more dearly than him. Having brought Arcite to this state of happiness, I will now return awhile to Palamon.
In a strong prison, and in horrible gloom, Palamon had sat for seven long years, wasting with love and sorrow. In the seventh year, however, during a night of May, it happened (whether by chance or destiny) that, through the aid of a friend, he broke from prison soon after midnight. He had so plied his gaoler with wine, drugged with narcotics, that he slept like death, and thus he was enabled to escape.
The night being short, and the day near at hand, he was compelled to lie hidden; his purpose being to remain close all day, and in the night to journey on towards Thebes, where, having arrived, he would rouse his
friends to help him war on Theseus, in which attempt he resolved either to die or win his Lady Emily. To a grove, then hard by, Palamon stalked with fearful foot.
The lark, the active messenger of day, had welcomed the grey dawn with its song, and the flaming sun had risen, rejoicing the whole heaven, and drying up with his fiery streams the silver drops that hung upon the leaves, when Arcite, who was then, as I have told you, principal squire in the royal court of Theseus, arose and looked upon the cheerful day. Ever pondering on the object of his love, he mounted his steed, restless and starting like flame, and rode forth from court a mile or two till he came to the grove already mentioned for the purpose of weaving a garland of woodbine and hawthorn in honour of the merry month, and all the way he sang a roundelay in the clear sunshine. Having dismounted, he wandered up and down near the spot where Palamon, alarmed lest he should be discovered, lay cowering in a bush. Little was he aware that Arcite was so nigh at hand, and the other was as unmindful as his companion of the close witness to all his words and actions that was there. Well may it be said that fields and woods have eyes and ears.
When Arcite had roamed about to his satisfaction, and finished his May-morning carol, he suddenly lapsed into a thoughtful study. These lovers, in their fantastic moods, are ever wavering. One minute they are swaying and dancing on the tip-top spray of ecstasy, the next grovelling among the thorns and briars: now up, now down, like a bucket in a well. They are like Friday, which seldom resembles the other days in the week—now rain, now shine. So the Goddess of Love overcasts the hearts
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of her worshippers, and makes them as variable as the complexion of the day devoted to her worship. *
When Arcite had sung his song he began thoughtfully to sigh at the remembrance of his native Thebes, warred on by the revengeful Juno. "Alas!" said he, "the royal blood of Cadmus and Amphion is confounded and scattered abroad—Cadmus, the founder of Thebes, and its first crowned king! and here I, who am descended from him, and am of the royal stock, am now so thralled a wretch as to be the mere squire of my mortal enemy, and am moreover compelled to conceal my real name. All my lineage, alas! are gone, with the exception of poor Palamon, whom Theseus keeps a martyr in bondage. And, to crown all my griefs, love for the fair Emily has so possessed my heart that these would fade away could I but render myself acceptable in her eyes."
At these words up started Palamon, like one who had suddenly felt a cold sword glide through his heart. With a face pale from rage (as a maniac's) he rushed from the thick brake, and cried, "Now you are caught, false Arcite! wicked traitor! You, who are of my blood, and my sworn counsellor, still hold your affection for my Lady Emily, that has caused my greatest sorrow. You have deceived King Theseus and changed your name. Either I or thou shalt die; for no one but myself, while I live, shall love my lady. I, Palamon, your mortal foe, swear this; and though I have no weapon in this place, having newly made my escape from prison, either relinquish the Lady Emily or die. Choose at once, for there is no escape for you."
When Arcite had recognized him, and listened to his speech, with a lion's rage he drew his sword and said, "By the great Jove, who sitteth above us, were it not that you are mad for love, and are weaponless, you should never quit this grove alive. I deny the pledge and bond which you pretend I made with you. Fool! again I tell you, love is free; and, in your despite, love her I will. But as you are a worthy knight, and of gentle * blood, and desire to win her by battle, I here give you my word of honour that to-morrow, without disclosing the affair to any other being, I will not fail to be found here equipped as a knight, and I will bring accoutrements for you, and you shall select according to your pleasure. Moreover, I will now bring you food and covering for the coming night. If, in this wood, you slay me and win my lady, the prize is your own." Palamon accepted his challenge, and so they separated until the morrow. Truly is it said that neither love nor royalty can endure fellowship in dominion: and so found Palamon and Arcite.
The younger knight had ridden back into the town, and on the morrow, before daybreak, having secretly provided two complete equipments of armour, ready for their contest, he rode forth alone, carrying the whole on his horse before him. In the grove, and at the time and place appointed, they met. The colour fled from their faces at the first exchange of looks—like a Thracian hunter, who stands in a gap with his spear, waiting for the roused bear or lion, and hears him coming through the underwood, crushing boughs and leaves in his passage,
and thinks, "Here comes my mortal enemy, whom without fail I must kill, or he will take my life": so it was with these from the moment either caught sight of the other. No salutation, no compliment, passed at meeting, but each helped to arm his antagonist as friendly as he would his own brother; and then, with their sharp strong spears they long lashed and strove for victory. Palamon fared in the fight like a raging lion and Arcite a hungry tiger. They rushed together with the obstinate fury of wild boars, panting and foaming, while the blood flowed to their feet. And so I leave them fighting while I bring you the news of Theseus.
This famous king had so great a love for hunting that scarcely the day dawned which did not find him ready with hounds and horn to follow the stag of largest limb: it was his chief delight. Having fulfilled his duty to the god of battle, he joined the train of Diana.
On this same day then, Theseus, with his Queen Ippolita and the fair Emily, all clad in green, had ridden forth to the chase, and towards this very grove where he had heard of some game. He therefore made for an open plain through which the deer was wont to take flight, and over a brook, and so right on his way. When the king had arrived at this open space, he looked under the level beams of the morning sun and beheld the combatants, like two bulls, fighting furiously. Their bright swords glanced to and fro like lightning, and fell with hideous might. He, ignorant of their quality, put spurs to his horse, and at a start was between them both. "Ho!" cried he, drawing his sword, "no more, on pain of death. By mighty Mars, he that strikes another blow does it with
penalty of his head. But say, who are ye who are thus boldly fighting here, as if in the actual lists, without judge or other officer?"
To whom Palamon answered hastily, "Sir, there need few words. We have both deserved death: we are two unfortunate wretches burthened with our lives; as, therefore, you are a just judge, grant us neither refuge nor mercy. Slay me first, but let him follow—or rather let him first die; for, though you little know it, this is Arcite, your mortal foe, whom you banished from Athens: this, his return, alone merits death. This same Arcite came to your gate and passed under the name of Philostrate. For years has he put this deceit upon you; he has been promoted to be your chief squire, and presumes to love the fair Lady Emily. And since the day is come that I myself shall die, I plainly confess that I am that woful Palamon who has just broken from bondage—your mortal enemy, and the devoted lover of the Lady Emily, in whose sight and service I could at this moment yield my breath. Give me therefore present judgment and death; yet let not my companion go free, for both merit this reward."
The king answered him, "This matter has been quickly concluded: the confession of your own mouth has condemned you, and it shall be so recorded. You shall not, however, die the felon's death, but, by the blood-red Mars, the sword shall fulfil your destiny."
Then did the queen, the Lady Emily, and their train, in their womanly hearts, begin to weep; for they thought it a grievous chance to befall two gentlemen of so high estate, whose only misfortune was that they had loved too well. And when they looked upon their gaping
wounds, they implored his mercy upon their knees, till his mood began to soften (for pity soon finds its way to the noble heart); and though he at first trembled for wrath, yet when he shortly considered with himself the cause of their trespass, his reason excused them, however his anger had chafed at their offence. He thought that every man will, if possible, help himself in love, and that he will seize the chance of escape from prison. Moreover, he had compassion on the weeping women, and he concluded that it were a shame to a lord of gentle heart, who will have no mercy, but still maintains a lion-heart both in word and deed, as well towards him who repents as to the unrelenting man that stiffly maintains his first determination: he can have little discretion who would confound pride and humility. When therefore the clouds of his anger had passed away, he looked up with light and beaming eyes, and thus addressed the assembly.
"Hail to the mighty God of Love!—nothing can withstand his power. The wonders he achieves proclaim him a god, for he makes all hearts subservient to his will. This Palamon and Arcite, who had wholly escaped from my prison, have lived here, in Athens, knowing me to be their mortal enemy and that their lives were in my power; yet hath love, in spite of their heads, brought them both here to die. Who but a fool would be in love? Look at their wounds, see how they bleed: thus hath the god they worship rewarded them for their service: and yet they, in their wisdom, will obey his dictates, happen what may. But the greatest folly of all is, that she, for whom there has been all this hot fare, knew as little of it as myself. But, young or old, man will at one time be a
fool. As I have myself, however, in times past, engaged in the same service, and know the sore straits to which one may be brought through love, I here, at the request of my kneeling queen, and dear sister Emily, wholly acquit you, knights, of your trespass; and in return you both shall swear to me that you will never more disturb my dominion by night or by day, but to your utmost be my friends and allies." They accepted his oath, and in granting their pardon he thus said to them:
"As regards my sister Emily, on whose account you maintain this jealousy and strife, though she were a queen or princess, either of you, by virtue of royal descent or wealth, is worthy to wed her. Since, however, she can marry but one, and that the other must be doomed to pipe his loss under an ivy leaf, each of 'you shall abide the fate destined for him, and after the following fashion. You shall go forth freely wherever you list, without ransom or danger from me; and by this day fifty weeks each shall have collected from far and near a hundred knights, armed 'all in proof' for the lists, ready to contend in battle for the hand of the lady: and this promise I hold you upon the truth of my knighthood, that whichever shall slay his opponent, or drive his hundred from the lists, on him will I bestow the hand of Emily to wife."
Who was now light of heart but Palamon? who bounded for joy but Arcite? and who can describe the rejoicings which were made when Theseus granted this fair favour? All, as well as the two Thebans, went on their knees and thanked him with grateful hearts. And so blithely the knights took leave, and rode home towards Thebes.
I must not omit to recount the great expense at which Theseus erected the lists. A nobler theatre I may say the world never beheld. It was a full mile in circuit, walled with stone, and without the wall ran a moat. The shape was circular, with seats all round, sixty feet in height, raised one above another, so that no one could deprive his neighbor of beholding the spectacle. Eastward and westward in the circle was erected a gate of white marble. Every craftsman and artisan, even to the sculptor of images, was employed by Theseus to raise and adorn this structure, so that in the like space the earth did not contain so fair a theatre. Upon the east gate were raised an altar and an oratory to Venus, the Goddess of Love; and upon the western one another in honour of Mars: northward also, in a turret on the wall, was a rich oratory of alabaster and white and red coral, in worship of Diana the chaste.
Nor should I leave out the noble carving and the paintings in these three oratories. First, in the temple of Venus might be seen displayed upon the wall, personified in piteous array, the broken sleeps, cold sighs, the sacred tears and lamentings that love's servants endure in this life: pleasure, hope, desire, fool-hardiness, youth and beauty, riches, jealousy, and flattery; feasting and dancing, carols and instruments, and many more than I can enumerate. And there was painted her famed dwelling on Mount Citheron: nor were forgotten the histories of fair Narcissus, the folly of King Solomon, Hercules’ might, the enchantment of Medea and Circe, the fierce courage of Turnus, or the base servitude of Croesus. The figure of the goddess, glorious to behold, was seen naked
floating in the wide sea: half her form hidden by the bright green waves. In her hand she bore a harp, and on her head a fresh garland of roses: above it were her doves hovering. Before her stood her son Cupid, winged and hoodwinked. He carried a bow with bright and keen arrows.
The interior of the mighty Mars’ temple was painted like the famous one in Thrace, that frosty region where the god holds his chief dwelling. First upon the wall was depictured a forest, that harboured neither man nor beast, full of old barren trees, gnarred and stubby; through which a storm was roaring as if it would crash every bough. At the bottom of a hill stood the temple of the god, wrought of tempered steel, the entrance to which was long, narrow, and dreary. The light shone in at the door, for there were no windows. The door was of adamant, clamped with iron, and the pillars were iron, massive and shining.
There was to be seen the dark imagining and completion of Felony; cruel Wrath, red as a conflagration; pale Fear; the Smiler with the knife under his cloak; buildings in flame; murderings treacherously in bed; open war; ghastly wounds; contention with its sharp menace and bloody knife. There was the suicide, his hair bathed in gore; and cold death, with the mouth upright, gaping. In the midst of the temple, and over all, sat Mischance, with sorry aspect. Madness was also there, laughing in his rage; injustice, complaint, and fierce outcries: the tyrant with his prey carried off by force: the town destroyed, and nothing left.
The statue of Mars, armed and of grim aspect, was
standing upright in a chariot, and at his feet was a wolf, with fiery eyes, eating the body of a man.
And now to finish shortly with the temple of the chaste Diana. The walls were adorned with deeds of hunting and shamefaced chastity. There was the unfortunate Calistope, whom for wrath Diana changed into a bear, and afterwards she became the polar star. Dane, also, turned to a tree. Acteon, too, changed by Diana to a deer, in punishment for his having surprised the goddess. His own hounds were worrying him, not knowing that he was their master. Then followed the description of Atalanta hunting the wild boar, with Meleager, and many besides, for which Diana wrought them sore affliction.
The goddess was seated on high upon a hart, surrounded by a pack of hounds, and underneath her feet was the moon. Her statue was clad in bright green, and she had a bow in hand with a quiver of arrows. Her eyes were bent downwards towards the dark region of Pluto (of which dominion she was also queen). A woman in great need lay before her, imploring the aid of Lucina. *
The lists, with the temples and theatre, being finished at a great cost, I will leave speaking of Theseus for a time, and turn to Palamon and Arcite.
The day draws near for their returning, when each should bring his hundred knights to Athens to try the battle, as I have already said. Those who accompanied Palamon were variously appointed according to their several fancies. Some were clad in a light coat of mail, with a short cassock and breastplate; some in two simple plates of armour and a shield; others well defended their
limbs, and were armed with an axe or mace of steel. In his train also was seen Lycurgus, the great King of Thrace, of manly aspect, with thick black beard and piercing eyes, that glowed in his head like stars. He was large of limb, broad-shouldered, and his arms were round, long, and firm. Aloft upon a golden chariot he stood, drawn by four white bulls, and as he passed along he-looked about him like an eagle. Instead of coat-armour he wore a bear-skin, coal-black. His long hair flowed behind his shoulders and shone against the sun like a raven's wing. A golden coronet of enormous weight, studded with diamonds and rubies, circled his brows. About his chariot went twenty or more mastiff-hounds that he employed in lion-hunting. They followed in leashes, muzzled, and collared with golden collars. A hundred lords were in his company, armed cap-à-pie and stout of heart.
The great Emetrius, King of India, accompanied Arcite. He came riding like the God Mars upon a bay steed clad in steel, covered with cloth of gold: the saddle was inlaid with finely-wrought gold. His coat armour was made of silk, trimmed with fair large pearls, and from his shoulders hung a short mantle thickly embroidered with rubies glowing like fire. His crisp yellow hair danced in ringlets around his neck like sunbeams. He had a high and arched nose, eyes of a bright hazel colour, full and round lips, and a sanguine complexion. Moreover, his face was sprinkled with a few freckles of a mingled dark and light yellow hue. His manner of looking round him was like that of a lion. His beard was young and vigorous (he appeared to be about five and twenty years of age),
and the tone of his voice pierced the air like a trumpet. He was crowned with a fresh and lusty garland of laurel, and upon his fist sat a tame eagle, purely white as a lily. A hundred knights attended him, all richly caparisoned and, save their heads, in complete armour: for earls, dukes, and kings joined in this train through love, and for the increase of chivalry. Tame lions and leopards also gamboled around the royal car. After such fashion and order did all these nobles arrive at the city early in the morning, and alight within its walls.
Theseus entertained them, each according to his rank, with full honour and knightly courtesy. If I did not wish to bring you to the effect and point of my tale, I would describe to you all the service at the high feasting, the minstrelsy, the rich presents and the largess to both high and low, the appointment and rich array of the palace, the falcons disposed around on their perches, and the hounds lying here and there upon the floor, quietly expecting the feasters’ casual superfluity: I would tell you of the fairest dames and the best dancers; the songs, the gallantry, and the more earnest love-making.
Before daybreak, and as soon as the lark had begun to sing, Palamon, with a devout and courageous heart, bent his steps towards the Temple of Venus that was erected in the lists: where he knelt down and besought her help to gain him possession of his Lady Emily, in whose service he fain would die. "And if, O goddess! mine," said he, "thou grant that I may have my love, I will evermore worship in thy temple, and offer daily sacrifice upon thine altar. But if thou turn thy face from me, lady sweet! I pray that on the morrow Arcite's spear may cleave my
heart; for, my life being gone, I reck not his better fate in winning her to wife." When his prayer and sacrifice were concluded, the statue of the goddess shook, and made a sign which, although somewhat delayed, he accepted as a boon that his prayer had been heard favourably: so home he went, light of heart.
At sunrise Emily arose and, attended by her maidens, went forth to the Temple of Diana, taking with them the fire and the incense, the garments and the horns of mead, fit to perform sacrifice. The preparation for the holy ceremony, by the purifying of her body at a well-spring, being attended to, and the sacred place being fumed with odorous gums, the maiden princess (gentle and debonair of heart) , having her head crowned with a garland of oak and her bright hair untressed and flowing down her back, proceeded to kindle two fires on the altar. After, she addressed the goddess of the green woods, the protectress of maidenhood and queen of the deep dark realm of Pluto. "O chaste goddess!" said she, "thou knowest the desire of my heart, that I should all my days remain a maiden, taking delight in the wild woods and the cry of the hunters. Help me now, lady queen of night, since thou canst help; send peace between this Palamon and Arcite, who now strive for love of me. Quench the busy torment and fire of their hearts, and turn their love towards another. Behold, O goddess of bright maidenhood, and consider the tears upon my cheeks: I would still follow in thy train, and end my life a maiden in thy service. But if my destiny have so befallen that I am doomed to be the wife of one, then grant me him who most sincerely loveth me."
While she was in her prayer the fires upon the altar were burning clearly: but, suddenly, a strange sight arose to her view; one of the fires sank and kindled again; the other became extinct, with a whistling noise like the burning of moist brands, and at their ends ran forth as it were drops of blood. Emily, aghast at the sight, shrieked like one distracted, not knowing how to divine the manifestation of the oracle. At this moment the goddess herself appeared, with her bow in hand and dressed like a huntress. "Daughter," said she, "stay thy sorrow. The eternal word of the great gods hath confirmed that thou shalt be wedded to one of those who for thy sake have undergone so much care and pain. To which of them I may not tell thee. The fires upon the altar have already signified the conclusion and manner of thine adventure."
Thus having spoken, at the quick clattering of her quivered arrows, she vanished from the view of the astonished Emily, who, placing herself under the protection of the goddess, returned home pondering the mystery of the oracle and of the vision.
Closely following upon Emily, Arcite went to the Temple of Mars to perform his sacrifice. Having finished all the rites, he intreated the god of arms, whom he constantly served, to grant him the victory on the ensuing day; in the event of which he vowed to offer at his shrine his flowing hair and beard, that had never felt the edge of shears or razor. "This will I dedicate to thee, O strong god of arms! together with my banner and the accoutrements of all my company, which I will hang up in thy temple, and until the day of my death will I burn before thee eternal fire upon thine altar."
His petition being ended, the rings upon the temple doors clattered, the fire upon the altar burned with a strange brightness, and a sweet smell steamed forth from the ground: when in acknowledgment of the omen, having cast fresh incense upon the flame and performed other rites, the statue of the god rang upon his hauberk, after which a low dim sound murmured "Victory!"
Arcite gave glory and honour to Mars, and returned home as glad as a bird is of the bright sun.
This day was passed in Athens in great feasting, jousting, and dancing: but as the revellers were to rise early on the morrow to behold the fight, they were early at rest. And by day-spring in the morning the noise of horses and harness was heard in every quarter, and lords upon their palfreys were thronging to the palace.
There might be seen the arranging of armour, uncommon and rich, wrought with steel and gold-smithry; bright shields, head-pieces, trappings, golden helmets, hauberks, and coat-armoury; lords in gay furniture on their coursers; knights and squires in retinue; the fixing of spear-heads, and buckling of helmets, polishing of shields, and lacing of thongs: foaming steeds, gnawing their golden bits. The armourers, too, riding hither and thither with files and hammers "to accomplish the knights"; yeomen on foot and commoners in throngs with short staves; pipes, trumpets, and clarions, that blow the bloody sounds of war; the palace full of people driving to and fro, or standing in dozens, discussing the merits of the Theban knights; some favouring him with the black beard, others with the thick; the one they said had a fierce look and would fight bravely, and that the
other wielded an axe with a weight of twenty pounds.
Thus was the hall full of surmises and conjectures long after sunrise. The great Theseus, who had been awakened by the music and the thronging, remained in private till the two Theban knights had been brought to the palace, and both received due and equal honours.
The king was seated at a window, and looked like a god enthroned. When the people had assembled round, a herald commanded silence, and thus signified the royal will.
"To prevent the needless destruction of gentle blood by fighting after the manner of mortal battles, the king decrees that no man, upon pain of death, shall take into the lists any halberd, short sword, or knife; that no one shall ride more than one course, with a sharp spear, against his antagonist; that if he choose, he may defend himself on foot; and any one who by mischance shall be taken alive, and brought to the stake, agreed upon by both sides, shall remain there till the strife be concluded: and lastly, if the chieftain on either side be taken or slain, the tournament shall straightway cease."
Up went the trumpets with their rousing tones, and the whole company rode forth to the lists, which were hung all round with cloth of gold. Theseus went first, and on either side the two Thebans; the queen and Emily followed, and after them the company according to their rank.
When these were all seated, the populace. crowded in and were ranged in order. Then from the west gate, under Mars, entered Arcite and his hundred partisans, bearing a red banner; at the same moment, on the east
side, under Venus, and bearing a white banner, Palamon entered, with confident and courageous bearing. Never were two companies so matched, both in worthiness of deeds, estate, and age. After they had been arranged in order, and their names called over to prevent the taking of undue advantage, the gates were shut and the cry was made, "Now, young and proud knights, do your duty."
The heralds ceased riding up and down, and now the trumpets and clarions sound to the charge. In went the spears sadly to their rests, and the sharp spurs were dashed into the horses’ sides. Now might be seen shaft handles shivered upon the bucklers, and spears whirled aloft into the air. Out flew the swords, gleaming like polished silver, and helmets were hewn or rolled upon the earth. Some force their passage through the thickest ranks with mighty maces, smashing skulls and limbs. Here lay one stark dead, pierced to the heart; another sobbing out his life with the stern tide of blood. The strongest chargers are overthrown, and men and horses are hurtling together upon the ground in mad confusion.
Frequently during the conflict the two Theban encountered, and like wild beasts bereft of their young, or mad with hunger, thirsted for each other's blood. But while they were engaged, the King Emetrius seized hold of Palamon, whose sword had made a bitter wound in Arcite's flesh, and with the strength of twenty men was dragging him to the stake. Lycurgus, in rushing to his rescue, was borne down; and Emetrius himself, notwithstanding all his might, was borne a sword's length from his saddle by a blow from Palamon before he could be taken. Yet all was in vain—his hardy heart could not
bestead him, and he was brought by force to the stake.
When Theseus beheld this event, he arose and put an end to the conflict, declaring that Arcite of Thebes had won the fair Emily. At this, the shouting of the multitude burst forth, and seemed to rock the lists to their foundations. When the noise of these, the sounding of the trumpets, and the proclamation of the heralds had ceased, a wondrous event happened which changed the fortune of the victor.
As Arcite, with his helmet off to show his face, was pacing down the lists, and looking upward at his prize, the lovely Emily—who on her side, by a favouring glance, gave him to heed that she was all his own, both in heart as well as by the fortune of battle—suddenly a fury, sent from the infernal regions by Pluto, started out of the ground before his horse, which made him leap aside for fear; and foundering as he leaped, Arcite was thrown upon his head, and his breast was crushed with the saddle-bow. Being carried to the palace of Theseus, and his armour cut off, he was softly laid upon a bed, the name of Emily all the while hanging upon his lips.
Meantime the king, with all his company, returned to the city, and were feasted by him three days; during which time the wounded were dressed; and when the time for parting arrived, he accompanied them a long journey from his town, every one turning his own way home.
Arcite's injury continued to increase, for the inward bleeding could not be stopped on account of the bursting of the blood-vessels in his lungs. When he found that his death was near, he sent for Emily and his dear cousin,
[paragraph continues] Palamon, and addressed to them the following tender and noble farewell.
"My woful heart cannot declare to you the sum of the sorrows it has endured in your behalf, my best beloved lady! but I bequeath to you, above all the world, my spirit's service, since my life here may no longer remain. Alas the woe! alas the sharp trials that I have so long suffered for you! alas the death! alas my Emily! alas the departing of our company! alas, queen of my heart! alas my wife! lady of my heart! closer of my days! What is this world? and what doth man desire?—now with his love, and now in his cold grave—alone—without any company. Farewell, my sweet! farewell my Emily! And now, for the love of heaven, take me softly in your arms, and hearken to what I say.
"For a long time I have been at strife and rancour with my cousin Palamon here, and all through love and jealousy on your account: now, Jove guide my mind to speak properly and truly of a rival, and with all circumstance: that is to say, with a feeling of all that belongs to truth, honour, and knighthood, wisdom, humility, estate, and lofty kindred; so Jove receive my spirit, as I know no man now in this world so worthy to be beloved as my cousin Palamon, who has served you, and will do till his death: if therefore you ever resolve to become a wife, do not forget Palamon the gentleman."
And with that word his speech began to fail; for the chill of death was rising from his feet up to his breast. His arms too were losing their vital power; the intellect alone remained, when his sighing heart began to fail with the sense of death: his breath shortened, his eyes
became dim, yet still he kept them fixed on her, and his last words were, "Mercy! Emily!"
Theseus bore his fainting sister from the corpse. Palamon wept, and all the city lamented the untimely death of this unfortunate and brave young knight.
In due time the king gave orders for the funeral, and commanded that the ceremony should be performed at that same grove where he and Palamon had striven for love of Emily. A funeral pile was raised of many trees, felled for the purpose, and upon a bier, covered with cloth-of-gold, Arcite was laid (his face uncovered) clad in a suit of the same material. His head was crowned with green laurel, his white gloves were upon his hands, and one of them held his own good sword.
Then came the mourner Palamon, with dishevelled hair and beard, in a black suit, bedropped with his tears, and, excepting Emily, the ruefullest of the train.
After these came three steeds, caparisoned with glittering steel, adorned with the arms of Arcite. Their riders bore his shield, his spear, and his bow, the case and furniture of which were of burnished gold. They rode forth towards the grove at a solemn pace. The bier was supported upon the shoulders of the noblest Greeks, and the great street of the city through which they passed was hung with black. Theseus, accompanied by old Egeus, followed the train, bearing golden vessels containing money, milk, blood, and wine. Emily, in accordance with the custom of the time, carried the fire for the funeral service. I need not tell you all that was done at the ceremony. Of the felling of the trees, of the spicery and the garlands, the myrrh and the incense: how Arcite lay
among all this; nor what store of costliness was heaped about his body; and how Emily set fire to the pile; nor what she said, nor how she swooned; nor of the jewels, the shields, the spears, and the vestments, the cups of wine, and milk, and blood which were cast into the fire; nor how the Greeks with loud shouts rode three times round the pile on the left hand; three times clashing their spears; or the three wails of the women; the burning of the body to ashes, and the funeral games of the Greeks when all was over. Therefore, to bring my long story to an end: after a decent process of time, when the mourning for Arcite had ceased, Theseus sent for Palamon who, unmindful of the cause, appeared in his sable dress. Emily also came at the same message. After fixing his eyes upon them for some time, and that all the company was hushed, he made a grave discourse, which he concluded in the following manner. "Why are we sad, that good Arcite, the flower of chivalry, has departed with high honour from the thraldom of life? Why do his wife and cousin here regret his welfare?—they who loved him so well. My purpose before we leave this place is to convert this double sorrow into a perfect and lasting joy: and therefore, dear sister, with the assent of my whole council here, it is my full wish that your own knight, the gentle Palamon, who, from the time he first saw your face, hath served you with good will and faithful heart, receive your favour and become your lord and husband. He is son to a king's brother, and therefore not unworthy of you; but if he were no more than a poor bachelor, since he hath served you for so many years through sharp adversity you should consider and recompense
his deserts. Give me here your hand." Then turning to Palamon, he said, "Methinks there is little need to entreat your assenting to my purpose. Draw near and take your lady by the hand."
Then was the bond of marriage drawn up by the council, and Palamon wedded his Emily. Long did he live in bliss, health, and riches, Emily loving him tenderly, and he serving her with so much gentleness that no word of strife or jealousy was ever heard between them.
So ends the history of Palamon and Arcite, and God save all this fair company.
HERE ENDS THE KNIGHT'S TALE;
AND NEXT BEGINS
33:* Friday was devoted to the worship of the Goddess Venus. The Romans entitled it "The day of Venus"—"Dies Veneris."
34:* The ancient term gentle was used only to imply high breeding. A gentle knight was a knight of high family. In some parts of England, to this day, the best white bread is called "gentle bread," to distinguish it from the brown or common.
41:* Diana, in the old mythology, passed also under the name of Lucina.