Arthurian and Grail Poetry

The Pleading of Dagonet
By Oscar F. Adams

ARGUMENT.

The King of Spades,
He kiss'd the maids,
Which vex'd the Queen full sore.
The Queen of Spades,
She beat those maids,
And turn'd them out of door.
The Knave of Spades
Grieved for those jades,
And did for them implore.
The Queen so gent,
She did relent,
And vow'd she'd ne'er strike more.

The time had come when slowly-dying Rome,
Feeling the death-chill creeping near her heart,
Call'd all the legions home from far-off lands
That haply they might save the life of her
Who once was nam'd the mistress of the world.
So they, home summon'd, swarm'd from over seas,
Climb'd Alps or cross'd the drifting sands that stretch'd
Between them and the much-lov'd mother land,
And left their hard-won conquests to their fate,
An easy prey to lustful heathen hosts.
And bitter was the lot of Britain's isle,
Deserted by the legions seeking Rome,
Till Arthur came and drave the heathen back
That swept from out the North, and made secure
A realm of peace and reign'd there as its king.

But ere such happy ending had been reach'd,
The land was torn with battle, and the streams
Ran blood, and all the fertile fields were waste,
For none were had to till, and all the isle
Seem'd likelier to be the home of beasts
Than quiet kingdom of a peaceful king.
And once eleven fierce and wolfish kings
'Gainst Arthur join'd their strengths and prest him sore
And gave his arméd men no rest by night
Or day, and truly, as it seem'd, the light
Of Christ had been extinguish'd in the isle,
Had Arthur sent not out a cry for help
That rang across the straits and echo found
In wave-beat Brittany and distant Gaul.
King Ban of Benwick--counted bravest knight
In all the world, had not his brother king
And brother in the flesh, Bors, King of Gaul,
Been reckon'd equal in men's sight--first heard
The cry, and sent a messenger to Bors
To bid him arm his hosts and speed with him
To aid the king of Britain in his need.
So these twain, Ban of Benwick, Bors of Gaul,
Past o'er the straits and sprang to Arthur's help,
And all the might of the eleven kings
Was broken, and themselves were slain, and none
Were left who own'd not Arthur for their lord.

Now when the powers of the eleven kings
Were scatter'd, and the noise of battle ceas'd
King Ban of Benwick, with his brother Bors,
Laden with Arthur's many graceful gifts,
Again past over straits each to his realm.
A wifeless palace was the home of Bors,
But ban was wedded unto Margaret,
A peasant's daughter who her first estate
Had long ere this forgot, and fair was she
As many women are, yet not so fair
But there were those with whom her face compar'd
As canker in the hedge to garden rose,
Or moonlight unto dazzling ray of sun;
And this she knew, and rag'd for jealousy
Within when women fairer than herself
Caught even a passing glance from Ban, her lord.

Now when King Ban return'd from Britain's isle,
His dark face darker yet from sun and wind
Than when he left his realm at Arthur's need,
It chanc'd that in the tale of those who serv'd
Within the palace were two lately come,
Sisters in blood, in age the same, and fair
To look upon as sunlight on gold waves
Of crinkling wheat. Not yet Queen Margaret
Was 'ware that they were of her retinue,
And therefore was it that Ban saw them first.
The time was summer, and a morn of June
Made music in the veins, the scent of flowers
Past down the breeze; the birds for very joy
Stopt in their songs to circle in mid air,
Began once more and once more broke the strain
For gladness' sake, so full their happy hearts,
While joy and summer reign'd o'er all the world.
It was the morning of a royal hunt,
And Ban the King, array'd as for the chase,
Was passing hastily to palace hall,
To join his knights and squires who stay'd him there,
When sudden music checkt his kingly haste,
And leaning from a window that o'erlookt
The palace court, he saw the sisters twain
At work and singing, like the birds, for joy.
No man but might not at that sight have felt
His heart beat quicker, were he old or young;
And all forgetting those his waiting knights,
Ban, being human, stay'd to gaze and list.
It was a simple song they sang, of joy
And dole, and ever as one sister paus'd,
The other caught the music's flying thread
And answer'd her, and these the words they sang:--

"In life and love, if love in life be ours,
Smiling and weeping ne'er were equal powers;
Yet smiles thro' tears are sweetest smiles of all.

"It is the little tear that smiles confute,
That soon or late makes lovers' voices mute,
Yet ever gathering surely saddens all.

"It is the little tear no smiles refute,
Or fleeting smiles of joy all destitute,
That in the heart's life surely saddens all.

"Love is not worth your weeping: let it go.
Ah, is it? Tell me, dearest, is it so?
Dear love is richest when 'tis all in all."

Sweet were the voices of the sisters fair,
And he who listen'd might not say which voice
Had most of music in it, more than might
One hark'ning to two nightingales that sing
Out of their full hearts in a moonlit night,
All blossom-scented, of the waning May.
So, with the music ringing in his ears,
King Ban past down the stairway to the court;
But ere he came within the sister's sight,
One of the twain had taken up the song
Again, and intermingling with the words,
And like a buttress to some lofty wall,
There ran along beside the singer's notes
Her sister's murmurous monotones of song,

"My life, once mine, now thine, is surelier mine,
For love, if love be thine, such love were mine,
And death, if death be thine, that death were mine,
Dear love is richest when 'tis all in all."

The song was ended and the maids arose,
And rising turn'd, and turning saw the King.
Then on the cheek of either flusht the white
To red that slowly pal'd again to white,
And flee they might not, rooted there by fear.
Then he, who saw their fear and sought to calm,
Said gently:--
"Maids, I pray you, be of cheer,
Such songs as yours are sweet unto mine ears,
And therefore make I payment in such wise
As best beseems a king when maids are fair."
So saying, Ban of Benwick stoopt and kiss'd
The rounded cheeks that seem'd for kisses made,
So like the peach-bloom in their tenderness,
Then lightly turn'd away to join his knights,
His lips still playing with the song's refrain,
"Dear love is richest when 'tis all in all."
Scarce had the echo of his footsteps died,
And still the wonder linger'd in the eyes
Of these King Ban had kiss'd, when Margaret,
The Queen, swept down upon the sisters twain;
For she from out her bower had seen the King
Salute the maids, and like an angry sea
Her rising tide of temper swell'd and surg'd,
To break in fury on the heads of these.
No word spake Margaret, but with a hand
Made hard by anger smote the maids on arm
And shoulder, and full harshly drave them forth
From palace doors, and all in dole they went.

Now in the palace of King Ban was there
A bitter-tongued yet not unkindly dwarf,
Dark-haired and swart of hue, one Dagonet,
Who oft at royal banquets flasht his wit
Like nimble lightnings thro' the heavy clouds
Of dullness that opprest the wine-soakt brains
And chase-worn limbs of stalwart squires and knights,
And he returning from some trifling quest
Beheld the weeping damsels driven forth,
And in a moment's space had guess'd the cause,
While all his heart was mov'd and pitiful.
But these on whom the anger of the Queen
Had fallen heavily beheld him not
Thro' mists of tears till he full kindly spoke
And question'd of their grief, and so drew forth
In fragments, marr'd with many sobs and tears,
Their woful tale. This heard, Sir Dagonet,
Eying them tenderly as mothers eye
A child heart-broken for some pleasurel lost,
Shook merrily his cap and bells, and made
Some jest that brought the laughter to their lips,
And gave thereafter counsel they should bide
Nigh to the palace till the queen had ruth.
Then Dagonet made haste and sought and found
The Queen, and shaking gleefully his bells
Broke into sudden laughter. Then the Queen:
"Why laugh you now, Sir Fool?"
And quickly came
The answer back, "I laugh, good mistress fool,"
To think a queen should be a woman too."
Then Margaret, starting quick aside as one
Who finds a stinging insect on his arm
And would be freed from it, said scornfully,
"Why call me 'fool'? I am no kin of thine."
"Thou art my sister fool," quoth Dagonet,
"For Queens are gracious unto all that live,
But baser women know no note but hate
To sound in presence of their waiting maids
Who win a fleeting favour from their lord.
And therefore do I call thee sister fool,
And therefore is it that I laugh so loud."
When Dagonet had ceas'd, a silence came
Upon the jester and the jealous Queen,
And either fear'd to speak: the one for shame
That she, a Queen, had so her state forgot
And beaten cruelly two harmless maids
For no fault greater than a simple song,
The other doubtful if his words were wise.
But ere the shadow of the dial mov'd
A hair's-breadth onward toward the close of day,
The dwarf found voice again and begg'd the Queen
To pity those her wrath had driven forth;
And mov'd by pleadings of the sharp tongued dwarf,
Or by repentant working of her soul,
The Queen melted to pity and the maids
Forgave, and in the rush of feeling vow'd
Her hand should ne'er strike no more. Thus Dagonet
O'ercame the wrath of Margaret and saw
The maids restor'd, and in the next year went
As sign of friendly bonds between the kings
To dwell at Arthur's court in Camelot.