Masefield's Midsummer Night

THE FIGHT ON THE WALL

MODRED was in the Water Tower
At Caerleon-on-Usk,
He saw Queen Gwenivere the flower
Go by at dusk.

She was disguised, but Modred knew her,
No cloak could veil such grace:
She was Queen Gwenivere: what drew her
To such a place?

She passt beneath the phare new-lighted,
He spied a red-gold tress
And gems upon a hand that righted
The wind-blown dress.

"Aha," he said, "My golden plover . .
What go you out to do?
Queen, you are going to your lover;
I will go, too."

He dogged her through the unbuilt quarter,
Past heaps of brick and slate,
Scantlings and smoking lime and mortar,
To the East Gate.

Behind the East Gate turret-curtain
A rushlight flickered dim.
"Lancelot's room," he said; "It's certain
She goes to him."

He crouched behind her as she listened
And watched, to know all clear.
He thought: "You think it safe. It isn't . . .
Go on, my dear."

Then with a little clink, her sandal
Trod on the East Gate stair . . .
At turret-door one held a candle;
Her Knight was there,

"Lancelot," Modred said. "We take him;
His golden Queen and he;
Arthur will burn the slut and break him.
What joy for me."

Back to the palace Modred fareth
And there he finds Gawaine,
With's brothers Gaheris and Gareth
And Agravaine.

When Agravaine had learned the matter,
He said: "Knights, hearken here:
You thought my charges wicked chatter
Of Gwenivere.

Now she is trulling with her master,
That Lancelot of fame,
This spotless Queen of alabaster  . . .
It is a shame . . .

It is a shame to them who do it
And worse to us who see.
I say, tell Arthur: let them rue it.
Do you agree?"

Then Gawaine said: "Be silent, brother,
And move no more in this:
Leave evil-speaking to another,
Leave it as 'tis."

Gareth and Gaheris replying
Said: "We will take no part
In dirty treacheries and spying
Foul as your heart."

"But I," Sir Modred answered sour,
"I will make one with you.
Arthur shall know within the hour
About these two.

You dainty Knights of spotless honour
May watch your Queen's disgrace,
But we will bring a judgment on her
And brand her face.

And Lancelot, that peer of traitors,
Shall be a public show."
Gawaine said: "You accursed haters
About it: go.

But know, that what you do will issue
In every grief made worse.
The present world of men will hiss you,
The future curse."

Gawaine and's brothers left in anger:
King Arthur entered in.
Modred said: "Take your Queen and hang her,
She lives in sin.

She trulls with Lancelot the splendid
Atop the East Gate stair;
Attack them now and they'll be ended,
Caught unaware."

"If it be so," said Arthur, "surely
The pair of them shall die.
Take men and bind the two securely."
Modred said "Ay."

Modred took Kolgrevance and's brothers
Kurslin and Petipase,
Galleron, Joure and seven others,
They went their ways . . .

They crosst the city's narrow alleys,
Now dark, the shops being shut;
They heard the night-wind in the salleys,
The fox in rut:

They heard the screech-owl at his calling
That charms the wood-mouse' ears,
And the tinkle of the water falling
At the bridge piers.

Soon they were near the East Gate tower;
A small light showed aloft.
"See," Modred said, "they're in our power:
Now creep in soft.

There's where the deer lies in her cover,
The red stag keeping guard:
Now we shall take her with her lover.
Bind them both hard."

They tiptoed up the winding stairway,
But Modred tiptoed last.
The jackdaw in the archer's airway
Blinkt as they passt.

They crept out on the paven landing
Atop the city wall.
It had a parapet and banding
Lest men should fall.

Between these ridges ran the footing
To where the tower rose;
The East Gate flanking-tower for shooting,
Loopholed for bows.

Thither they crept and stood there, straining
Their ears at the barred door:
The wind-cock up above complaining,
Creaked and gave o'er.

A silence was within the tower,
Naught touched on wood or stone;
Joure whispered: "This may be the bower,
The birds are flown."

They listened: then, within the hiding,
Gwenivere's voice said: "No . . .
It was the wind-cock spindle griding
As the flaws blow . . .

Lancelot answered: "Not the spindle . . .
No; but another sound."
The listeners felt their spirits kindle,
The game was found.

Then beating on the door in fury,
They cried: "You traitor Knight!
You are taken now. We're judge and jury,
Come out and fight.

Come out!" and at the panels rashing
They strove to beat a way,
As through the scrum a pack goes crashing
In football play.

The door held to its bolts, being oaken.
"Come out," the dozen cried.
They rashed again: no bolts were broken,
No hinges wried.

Gwenivere whispered to her lover:
"Alas, we both are lost."
Lancelot had no arms nor cover,
A cloak at most.

"Alas, my Queen," Lancelot muttered,
"That I should die thus tamed;
Snuffed, like a candle that has guttered,
Leaving you shamed."

The arm-chest in the chamber angle
Was bare of points and blades,
He had two hands with which to strangle:
No other aids.

"Come out," the dozen cried: "No quarter
If we are forced to storm."
"Go, Joure," said Modred, "to the dorter . . .
Bring up a form . . .

We're bringing up a form to batter
The door about your ears . . .
We'll have your head upon a platter,
My prince, sans peers.

And you, my red-haired quean, your trollop,
Let you make no mistake,
Shall go in smock like a cook's collop
To burn at stake."

Lancelot said: "This filthy crying
Is more than I can stand:
Better than hearing this were dying
Death out of hand.

O Queen," he said, "the times are over
That you and I have known.
Belovèd Queen, I am your lover,
Body and bone,

Spirit and all of me, past knowing,
Most beautiful, though sin.
Now the old lovely days are going
And bad begin.

I shall die here, but whatsoever
May come of me, my friends
Will stand to succour you forever
Until life ends.

Farewell, beloved beauty peerless,
My star since I began;
You were my light when life was cheerless,
You made me man.

In many a foray, many a stour,
In many a deathy place,
Your thought has blesst me like a flower
And given me grace.

Now would that I had arms upon me
Until my powers fail,
What I would do before they won me
Would make a tale."

At this, the running twelve came battering
Their form against the door,
A panel yielded to the shattering,
They staved two more . . .

They cried: "Three more, and we shall take him,
This captain of the King;
Let this one hit the bolt and break him
Together . . . Ding."

Lancelot said: "Give over knocking,
I will unbar: let be . . .
I will undo . . . I am not mocking . . .
Come capture me."

He drew the bolt and opened to them
And stared into the dark,
By the thin taper's light he knew them
All he could mark.

Even as wolf-hounds snarl and cower
About the wolf at bay,
Those shrank till Kolgrevance of Gower
Leapt at his prey.

Kolgrevance shouted: "Now I have him,"
And slashed, but the cut misst.
Then Lancelot a buffet gave him
With the clencht fist:

A brain-pan blow that laid him sprawling
Dead on the turret floor:
Lancelot, while the corpse was falling
Bolted the door.

Bolted it just before the others
Charged with their blows, too late.
Lancelot said: "You misst me, brothers,
Now you must wait."

Then as they beat the panels, railing
Like dogs the stag has gored,
Lancelot donned the corpse's mailing
And took his sword.

Modred and Agravaine together
Cried: "Out, you traitor, out."
Lancelot answered: "Cease your blether;
You need not shout.

Go from the door: I promise truly
That if you go from here,
Naming your place and hour, duly
I will appear

Before the Court in judgment sitting
Against what charge you bring
I'll answer all, to my acquitting
From him the King."

"Arthur has damned you both already,
To death," Modred replied,
"To death by us, and we are ready,
So come outside."

"If that be so," he answered, "surely
My portion is but hard.
I warn you, keep yourselves securely" . . .
Then he unbarred.

Then storming armoured from his prison
He strode out to the wall.
Since the man's death the moon had risen:
He saw them all.

There was no room in that grim alley
For more than two abreast.
The meyny charged him at his sally,
They smote his crest.

But ducking from their swords uplifted,
He grappled those who led--
Agravaine, Lot's son, called The Gifted,
Lovel the Red.

Agravaine cried to those behind him:
"Stand back, friends; give us room."
He felt a sudden lightning blind him,
He felt Death's doom;

Knew not how Lancelot had stricken,
But felt the blow destroy
The gifts that made his hearers quicken
From calm to joy.

Stumbling, he saw bright waters gleaming
With star-gleams spark on spark,
Then he struck stone, then all was seeming,
Then all was dark.

Before he clanged upon the paving,
Lovel the Red was in,
Crying: "Come, friends; he's ours past saving . . .
Die in your sin . . .

Die," and he struck, struck twice, but tamely,
Being too near his mark.
Lancelot, dosing, gripped him gamely
And struck him stark,

And swung him as a shield before him
As guard to Kurslin's axe, 'Which struck
Sir Love! fair and tore him
As cards tear flax.

Lovel fell back upon his slayer
But Kurslin thrust him clear:
He cried, "Where is this Queen's betrayer?
I'll kill him here."

But Lovel's body made him stumble,
And Lancelot cried: "Not so . . .
I betray no one, friend, be humble,
Get out, man . . . go."

And Lancelot struck him surely straightway
Over the gangway wall,
Down to the entrance of the gateway
Men heard the fall.

And at the crash the party wavered
And fell back to the stair;
Having four champions dead, they quavered;
He watched them there.

Then Mador, of the White Rock Leaguer
That guards the Wye Mouth Ford,
Lured by the smile of death was eager
And tosst his sword,

And cried: "Now, Lancelot, my brother,
Have at you, with good heart,
One of us two will kill the other
Before we part.

Remember now our ancient quarrel
About that pasture-right.
Now one of us shall earn a laurel:
Have at you . . . fight."

Then rushing as the wild boar rushes
In some oak glade of Dean,
He scored his gashes with his tushes
So bitter keen.

Two slashes right and left made fire
On Lancelot's armour bright:
Lancelot's sword fell like a geier
From heaven's height,

A geier, that aloft in heaven
Stares at the sun unblind . . .
Then plunges headlong like the leven
Upon the hind:

So swept the broadsword from its eyry
Shrieking to seek its own,
Beating its port and clanging fiery
Through steel, through bone,

Through marrow to the life, so sweeping
Lancelot's smiting scored . . .
And Mador's soul had done with keeping
The swift Wye ford.

And Mador drooped and toppled over,
That loud-voiced ward of Wye,
To feed no more on the green clover
The white-faced kye,

To hear no more sand-raddled Severn
Pass out to sea in song,
But fill a grass-plot at St. Keverne
Not six feet long.

And seeing Mador dead, the seven
Cried: "All together . . . now,
Down with the traitor: help us heaven,
Pull stroke, pull bow."

Petipase led their meyny shouting
The cries of the sea host,
He being a sailor tanned from scouting
The Saxon coast.

He had a short axe poised for striking
Lancelot's skull apart,
Lancelot sent his sword-point spiking
Athwart his heart.

And leaping, Petipase remembered
The red sails of his ships,
Then he collapsed like one dismembered
And in eclipse.

But knew among the gleams and crying
Through which his soul was wrencht,
That other men than he were dying
And that they blencht.

For Lancelot, his point withdrawing,
Struck Florens with the edge
Over the brow, that he fell clawing
Against the ledge.

Then as Joure sprang, the great Knight quickly
So smote him with his shield,
That Joure's manhood was made sickly,
He drooped, he reeled,

And straight, before he fell, the ravage
Of the sharp sword-edge came
Swift as the coming of the savage
Who goes in flame.

And Joure fell and clanged in falling,
But heard before he died
The ring of the triumphant calling
Lancelot cried:

For as the shaken four were backing,
Lancelot cried his cry
That led like trumpets in attacking
To victory,

And charging as he cried, he drove them
Back to the winding stair,
Where two men making stand, he clove them,
Maelgon and Gare.

Then leaping down the steps pursuing,
He cut down Galleron:
But he who set the trouble brewing,
Modred, was gone . . .

Gone screaming in his dread to cover
Across the sleeping town.
Lancelot turned him to his lover
And sat him down.

Then after all that crash of warring
Came silence, without thrill:
Kolgrevance quiet on the flooring,
The lovers still.

Outside, the city slept; the water
Moaned at the bridge's piers,
The moonlight blancht that place of slaughter,
The dew dripped tears.

The white mist, from the river wreathing,
Shrouded the river ground:
But for the dew and the two breathing,
There was no sound.

Gwenivere spoke at last: "O glory
Of all Knights among men,
This of to-night will be a story
Not matched agen."

A silence followed in the tower
Save for the Knight's deep breath.
Horror had followed on the power
Of dealing death.

By the dim flicker of the taper
Sir Lancelot discerned
How in her face as white as paper
The Queen's eyes burned.

Deep in the panels of the walling
He heard the death-tick knock,
The dewdrops from the aspens falling
Ticked like a clock.

Then in the convent tower a tolling
Called nuns into the tower.
Lancelot said: "Past man's controlling
Are place and hour.

I had no quarrel with the meyny
Nor did I know them all,
But Life is not at peace with any
And her blows fall.

Now all our hours of joy together
Are past, our share henceforth
Will be but bitterness, with weather
Out of the north.

This day, beginning in the quire
Where now the ladies sing,
Will make our glory of desire
Another thing.

For I foresee the Kingdom breaking
Asunder from all this:
Out of the welter of man's making
What must be is.

Here is the prelude to the story
That leads us to the grave.
So be it: we have had a glory
Not many have.

Though what to-morrow may discover
Be harsh to what has been,
No matter, I am still your lover
And you my queen."