Arthurian and Grail Poetry

The True Story Of Guenever
By Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

   In all the wide, dead, old world of story, there is to me no wraith more piteously pursuant than the wraith of Guenever. No other voice has in it the ring of sweet harmonies so intricately bejangled; no other face turns to us eyes of such luminous entreaty from slow descents of despair; no other figure, majestic though in ruins, carries through every strained muscle and tense nerve and full artery so magnetic a consciousness of the deeps of its deserved humiliation the height of its lost privilege. One pauses as before an awful problem, before the nature of this miserable lady. A nature wrought, it is plain, of the finer tissues, since it not only won but returned the love of the blameless king. One follows her young years with bated breath. We see a delicate, high-strung, impulsive creature, a trifle mismated to a faultless, unimpulsive man. We shudder to discover in her, before she discovers it for or in herself, that, having given herself to Arthur, she yet has not given all; that there arises now another self, an existence hitherto unknown, unsuspected,--a character groping, unstable, unable, a wandering wind, a mist of darkness, a chaos, over which Arthur has no empire, of which he has no comprehension, and of which she--whether of Nature or of training who shall judge?--has long since discrowned herself the Queen. Guenever is unbalanced, crude, primeval woman. She must be at once passionately wooed and peremptorily ruled; and in wooing or in ruling there must be no despondencies or declines. There are no soundings to be found in her capacities of loving, as long as the mariner cares to go on striking for them. At his peril let him hold his plummet lightly or weary of the sweet toil taken in the measure of it; at his peril, and at hers.
   To Arthur love is a state, not a process; an atmosphere, not a study; an assurance, not a hope; a fact, not an ideal. He is serene, reflective, a statesman. The Queen is intense, ill-educated, idle. Undreamed of by the one, unsuspected by the other, they grow apart. Ungoverned, how shall Guenever govern herself? Misinterpreted, value herself? Far upon the sunlit moor, a speck against the pure horizon, Launcelot rides,--silent, subtle, swift, as Fate rides ever . . .
   Poor Guenever! After all, poor Guenever! Song and story, life and death are so cruel to a woman. To Launcelot, repentant, is given in later life the best thing left upon earth for a penitent man--a spotless son. To Launcelot is reserved the aureola of that blessed fatherhood form which sprang the finder of the Holy Grael, "pure in thought and word and deed." To Guenever is given the convent and solitary expiation; to Guenever disgrace, exile, and despair. Prone upon the convent floor, our fancy leaves her, kissing Arthur's kingly and forgiving, but departing feet, half dead for joy because he bids her hope that in some other world--in which she has not sinned--those spotless feet may yet return to her, her true and stronger soul return to him; but neither in this world--never in this. Poor soul! Erring, weak, unclean; but for that, and that, and that, poor soul! Poor soul! I can never bear to leave her there upon the convent floor. I rebel against the story. I am sure the half of it was never told us. It must be that Arthur went back some autumn day and brought her gravely home. It must be that penitence and patience and acquired purity shall sometime win the respect and confidence of men, as they receive the respect and confidence of God. It must be that at some distant but approaching day something of the tenderness of divine stainlessness shall creep into the instinct of human imperfection, and a repentant sinner become to human estimates an object sorrowful, appalling, but appealing, sacred, and sweet.
Who can capture the where, the how, the wherefore of a train of fancy? Was it because I thought of Guenever that I heard the story? Or because I heard the story that I thought of Guenever? My washwoman told it, coming in the bitter day at twilight and sitting by the open fire, as I had bidden her, for rest and warmth. What should she know of the Bulfinch and Ellis and Tennyson and Dunlop, that had fallen from my lap upon the cricket at her feet, that she should sit, with hands across her draggled knees, and tell me such a story? Or were Dunlop and the rest untouched upon the library shelves till after she had told it? Whether the legend drew me to the fact, or the fact impelled me to the legend? Indeed, why should I know? It is enough that I heard the story. She told it in her way. I, for lack of her fine, realistic manner, must tell it in my own.
   Queen Guenever had the toothache. Few people can look pretty with the toothache. The cheeks of royalty itself will swell, and princely eyelids redden, and queenly lips assume contours as unaesthetic as the kitchen-maids', beneath affliction so plebeian. But Guenever looked pretty.
   She abandoned herself to misery, to begin with, in such a royal fashion. And, by the way, we may notice that in nothing does blood "tell" more sharply than in the endurance of suffering. There is a vague monotony in the processes of wearing pleasure. Happy people are very much alike. In the great republic of joy we find tremendous and humiliating levels. When we lift our heads to bear the great crown of pain, all the "points" of the soul begin to make themselves manifest at once.
   Guenever yielded herself to this vulgar agony with a beautiful protest. She had protested, indeed, all winter, for that tooth had ached all winter; had never even told her husband of it till yesterday. She had flung herself upon the little crocheted cricket by the sitting-room fire, with her slender, tightly-sleeved arm upon the chintz-covered rocking-chair, and her erect, firm head upon her arm. Into the palm of the other hand the offending cheek crept, like a bird into its nest; with a caressing, nestling movement, as if that tiny hand of hers were the only object in the world to which Guenever did not scorn to say how sorry she was for herself. The color of her cheeks was high but fine. Her eyes--Guenever, as we all know, had brown eyes, more soft than dark--were as dry as they were iridescent. Other women might cry for the toothache! All the curves of the exhausted attitude she had chosen, had in them the bewitching defiance of a hard surrender to a power stronger than herself, with which certain women meet every alien influence, from a needle-prick to a heartbreak. She wore a white apron and a white ribbon against a dress of a soft dark brown color; and the chintz of the happy chair, whose stiff old elbows held her beautiful outline, was of black and gold, with birds of paradise in the pattern. There was a stove, with little sliding doors, in Guenever's sitting-room. Arthur thought it did not use so very much more wood to open the doors, and was far healthier. Secretly he liked to see Guenever in the bird-of-paradise chair, with the moody firelight upon her; but he had never said so--it was not Arthur's "way." Launcelot, now, for instance had said something to that effect several times.
   Launcelot, as all scholars of romantic fiction know, was the young bricklayer to whom Arthur and Guenever had rented the spare room when the hard times came on,--a good-natured, inoffensive lodger as one could ask for, and quite an addition, now and then, before the little sliding doors of the open stove, on a sober evening, when she and Arthur were dull, as Guenever had said. To tell the truth, Arthur was often dull of late, what with being out of work so much, and the foot he lamed with a rusty nail. King Arthur, it is unnecessary to add, was a master carpenter.
   King Arthur came limping in that evening, and found the beautiful, protesting, yielding, figure in the black and golden chair. The Queen did not turn as he came in. One gets so used to one's husband! And the heavy, uneven step he left upon the floor jarred upon her aching nerves. Launcelot, when he had come, about an hour since, to inquire how she was, had bounded down the stairs as merrily as a school-boy, as lightly as a hare, and turned his knightly feet a-tip-toe as he crossed the room to say how sorry he felt for her; to wonder were she lonely; to say he liked her ribbon at her throat; to say he liked a hundred things; to say it quite unmanned him when he saw her suffer; to start as if he would say more to her, and turn as if the would have touched her, and fly as if he dared not, and out into the contending, mad March night. For the wind blew that night! To the last night of her life Queen Guenever will not forget the way it blew!
   "Take some Drops," said Arthur. What a tiresome manner Arthur had of putting things! Some Drops, indeed! There was nothing Guenever wanted to take. She wanted, in fact, to be taken; to be caught and gathered to her husband's safe, broad breast; to be held against his faithful heart; to be fondled and crooned over and cuddled. She would have her aching head imprisoned in his healthy hands. And if he should think to kiss the agonizing cheek, as she would kiss a woman's cheek if she loved her and she had the toothache? But Arthur never thought! Men were so dull at things. Only women knew how to take care of one another. Only women knew the infinite fine languages of love. A man was tender when he thought of it, in a blunt, broad way.
   There might be men-- One judged somewhat from voices; and a tender voice-- Heaven forgive her! Though he spoke with the tongues of all angels, and the music of all spheres, and the tenderness of all loves, what was any man's mortal voice to her--a queen, the wife of Arthur, blameless king of men?
   The wife of Arthur started from the old chair whereon the birds of paradise seemed in the uneven firelight to be fluttering to and fro. The color on her cheeks had deepened painfully, and she lifted her crowned head with a haughty motion towards her husband's face.
   "I'm sure I'd try the Drops," repeated Arthur.
   "I'll have it out!" snapped Guenever. "I don't believe a word of its being neuralgia. I'll have them all out, despite him!"
   Guenever referred to the court dentist.
   "I'll have them out and make a fright of myself once for all, and go mumbling round. I doubt if anybody would find it made any difference to anybody how anybody looked."
   It cannot be denied that there was a certain remote vagueness in this remark. King Arthur, who was of a metaphysical temperament, sighed. He was sorry for the Queen--so sorry that he went and set the supper-table, to save her from the draughts that lurked even in the royal pantry that mad March night. He loved the Queen--so much that he would have been a happy man to sit in the bird-of-paradise rocking-chair and kiss that aching, sweet cheek of hers till supper-time to-morrow, if that would help her. But he supposed, if she had the toothache, she would n't want to be touched. He knew he should n't. So, not knowing what else to do, he just limped royally about and got the supper, like a dear old dull king as he was.
   If Queen Guenever appreciated this little kingly attention, who can say? She yielded herself with a heavy sigh once more to the arms of the chintz rocking-chair, and ached in silence. Her face throbbed in time to the pulses of the wind. What a wind it was! It seemed to come from immense and awful distances, gathering slow forces as it fled, but fleeing with a compressed, rebellious roar, like quick blood chained within the tissues of a mighty artery, beating to and fro as it rushed to fill the heart of the black and lawless night.
   It throbbed so resoundingly against the palace windows that the steps of Lancelot, blending with it, did not strike the Queen's ears till he stood beside her, in the firelight. Arthur, setting the supper table, had heard the knightly knock, and bidden their friend and l odger enter (as King Arthur bade him always) with radiant, guileless eyes.
   Sir Launcelot had a little bottle in his hand. He had been to the druggist's. There was a druggist to the king just around the corner from the palace.
   "It's laudanum," said Launcelot. "I got it for your tooth. I wish you'd try it. I could n't bear to see you suffer."
   "I'm half afraid to have Guenever take laudanum," said Arthur, coming up. "It takes such a mite of anything to influence my wife. The doctor says it is her nerves. I know he would n't give her laudanum when her arm was hurt. But it's just as good in you, Sir Launcelot."
   Guenever thought it very good in him. She lifted her flushed and throbbing face to tell him so; but, in point of fact, she told him nothing. For something in Sir Launcelot's eyes, the wife of Arthur could not speak.
She motioned him to put the bottle on the shelf, and signified by a slight gesture peculiar to herself--a little motion of the shoulders, as tender as it was imperious--her will that he should leave her.
   Now Launcelot, we see, was plainly sorry for Guenever. Was it then a flitting tenderer than sorrow that she had seen within his knightly eyes? Only Guenever will ever know; for Arthur, on his knees upon the crocheted cricket before the palace fire, was toasting graham bread.
   Guenever, on her knees before the rocking-chair, sat very still. Her soft brown eyes, wide open, almost touched the cool, smooth chintz where the birds of paradise were flying on a pall-black sky. It seemed to her strained vision, sitting so, that the birds flew from her as she looked at them, and vanished; and that the black sky alone was left. The eyes that watched the golden birds departing were fair and still, like the eyes of children just awake. It was a child's mouth, as innocent and fair, that Guenever lifted just that minute suddenly to Arthur, with a quick, unqueenly, appealing smile.
"Kiss me, dear?" said Guenever, somewhat disconnectedly.
"Why, yes!" said Arthur.
He was n't able to follow the train of thought exactly. It was never clear to him why Guenever should want to be kissed precisely in the middle of a slice of toast. And the graham bread was burned. But he kissed the Queen, and they had supper; and he eat the burnt slice himself, and said nothing about it. That, too, was one of Arthur's "ways."
   "Only," said Guenever, as the King contentedly finished the last black crust, "I wish the wind would stop."
   "What's the trouble with the wind?" asked Arthur. "I thought it was well enough."
   "It must be well enough," said the Queen, and she shook her little white fist at the window. "It shall be well enough!"
   For the pulse of the wind ran wildly against the palace and Guenever was speaking, and throbbed and bounded and beat, as if the heart of the March night would break.
   All this was long, long, long ago. How long Guenever can never tell. Days, weeks, months,--few or many, swift or slow,--of that she cannot answer. Passion takes no count of time; peril marks no hours or minutes; wrong makes its own calendar; and misery has solar systems peculiar to itself. It seemed to her years, it seemed to her days, according to her tossed, tormented mood.
   It is in the nature of all passionate and uncontrolled emotion to prey upon and weaken the forces of reflective power, as much as it is in the nature of controlled emotion to strengthen them. Guenever found in herself a marked instance of this law. It seemed to her sometimes that she knew as little of her own story as she did of that of any erring soul at the world's width from her. It seemed to her that her very memory had yielded in the living of it, like the memory of a person in whose brain insidious disease had begun to fasten itself. So subtle and so sure had been the disease which gnawed at the Queen's heart, that she discovered with a helpless terror--not unlike that one might feel in whom a cancerous process had been long and undetected working--that her whole nature was lowering its tone in sympathy with her special weakness. She seemed suddenly to have become, or to feel herself become, a poisoned thing.
   We may wonder, does not the sense of guilt--not the sensitiveness to, but the sense of guilt--come often as a sharp and sudden experience? Queen Guenever, at least, felt stunned by it. Distinctly, as if it and she were alone in the universe, she could mark the awful moment when it came to her. Vivid as a blood-red rocket shot against her stormy sky, that moment whirred and glared before her.
   It was a fierce and windy night, like that in which she had the toothache, when she and the King had eaten such a happy supper of burnt toast (for hers was burnt, too, although she would n't have said so for the world, since the King had got so tired and warm about it). How happy they had been that night! Sir Launcelot did not come again after supper, dimly feeling, despite the laudanum, that the Queen had dismissed him for the evening. She and Arthur had the evening to themselves. It was the first evening they had been alone together for a long time. Arthur sat in the chintz rocking-chair. He held her in his lap. He comforted her poor cheek with his huge, warm hand. His shinning, kingly eyes looked down on her like stars from Heaven. He said:--
   "If it was n't for your tooth, little woman, how happy we would be."
   And Guenever had laughed and said: "What's a toothache? I'm content, if you are." And then they laughed together, and the golden birds upon the old chair had seemed to flit and sing before her; and brighter and sweeter, as they watched her, glimmered Arthur's guileless eyes.
The stars were fallen now; the heavens were black; the birds of paradise had flown; the wind was abroad mightily and cold; there was snow upon the ground; and she and Launcelot were fleeing through it and weeping as they fled.
   Guenever, at least, was weeping. All the confusion of the miserable states and processes which had led her to this hour had cleared away, murky clouds from a lurid sky. Suddenly, by a revelation awful as some that might shock a soul upon the day of doom, she knew that she was no longer a bewildered or a pitiable, but an evil creature.
   A gossip in the street, an old neighbor who used to borrow eggs of her, had spoken in her hearing, as she and Launcelot passed swiftly through the dark, unrecognized, at the corner of the Palace Court, and had said:--
   "Guenever has fled with Launcelot. The Queen has left the King. All the world will know it by to-morrow."
   These words fell upon the Queen's ear distinctly. They tolled after her through the bitter air. She fled a few steps, and stopped.
   "Launcelot!" she cried, "what have we done? Why are we here? Let me go home! Oh! what have I done?"
   She threw out her arms with that tender, imperious gesture of hers--more imperious than tender now--which Launcelot knew so well.
   Strange! Oh! strange and horrible! How came it to be thus with her? How came she to be alone with Launcelot in the blinding night? The Queen fled from the King? Guenever false to Arthur?
   Guenever, pausing in the cruel storm, looked backward at her footsteps in the falling snow. Her look was fixed and frightened as a child's. Her memory seemed to her like snow of all that must have led her to this hour.
She knew not what had brought her hither, not the way by which she came. She was a creature awakened from a moral catalepsy. With the blessed impulse of the Prodigal, old as Earth's error, sweet as Heaven's forgiveness, she turned and cried: "I repent! I repent! I will go home to my husband, before it is too late!"
   "It is too late!" said a bitter voice beside her. "It is too late already for repentance, Guenever."
   Was it Launcelot who spoke, or the deadly wind that shrieked in passing her? Guenever could never say. A sickening terror took possession of her. She felt her very heart grow cold, as she stood and watched her foot-prints, on which the snow was falling wild and fast.
   It was a desolate spot in which she and Launcelot stood. They had left the safe, sweet signs of holy human lives and loves behind them. They were quite alone. A wide and windy moor stretched from them to a forest, on which a horror of great darkness seemed to hang. Behind them, in the deserted distance, gleamed the palace lights. Within these the Queen saw, or fancied that she saw, the shadow of the King, moving sadly to and fro, against the drawn curtain, from behind which the birds of paradise had fled forever.
   From palace to wilderness her footsteps lay black in the falling snow. As she gazed, the increasing storm drifted, and here and there they blurred and whitened over and were lost to sight.
   So she, too, would whiten over her erring way. Man was not more merciless than Nature.
   "I will retrace them all!" cried Guenever.
   "You can never retrace the first of them," said again bitterly beside her Launcelot or the deathly wind. "Man is more merciless than Nature. There is no way back for you to the palace steps. In all the kingdom, there is no soul to bid you welcome, should you dare return. The Queen can never come to her throne again."
   "I seek no throne!" wailed Guenever. "I ask for no crown! All I want is to go back and to be clean. I'll crawl on my knees to the palace, if I may be clean."
   But again said sneeringly to her that voice, which was either Launcelot or the wind:--
   "Too late! too late! too late! You can never be clean! You can never be clean!"
   "Launcelot," said Guenever, rallying sharply and making as it seemed, a mighty effort to collect control over the emotion which was mastering her, "Launcelot, there is some mistake about this. I never meant to do wrong. I never said I would leave the King. There is some mistake. Perhaps I have been dreaming or have been ill. Let me go home at once to the King!
   "There is no mistake," said once more the voice, which seemed neither of Launcelot nor of the wind, but yet akin to both; "and you are not dreaming and you can never return to the King. The thing that is done is done. Sorrow and longing are dead to help you. Agony and repentance are feeble friends. Neither man nor Nature can wash away a stain."
   "God is more merciful!" cried Guenever, in the tense, shrill voice of agony, stung beyond endurance. It seemed to her that nature could bear no more. It seemed to her that she had never before this moment received so much as an intellectual perception of the guiltiness of guilt. Now mind and heart, soul and body throbbed with the throes of it. She quivered, she struggled, she rebelled with the accumulated fervors and horrors of years of innocence. But it seemed to her as if the soil of sin eat into her like caustic, before whose effects the most compassionate or skillful surgeon is powerless. She writhed with her recoil from it. She shrank from it with terror proportioned to her sense of helplessness and stain.
   "They who are only afflicted know nothing of misery!" moaned Guenever. "There is no misery but guilt!"
   She flung herself down in the storm upon the snow.
   "God loves!" cried Guenever. "Christ died! I will be clean!"
   It seemed then suddenly to the kneeling woman, that He whose body and blood were broken for tempted souls appeared to seek her out across the desolated moor. The Man whose stainless lips were first to touch the cup of the Holy Grael, which all poor souls should after Him go seeking up and down upon the earth, stood in the pure white snow, and, smiling, spoke to her.
"Though your sins," he said, "are scarlet, they shall be white."
   He pointed, as he spoke, across the distance; past the safe, sweet homes of men and women, toward the palace gates. It seemed to Guenever that he spoke again and said:--
   "Return!"
   "Through those black footsteps?" sobbed the Queen.
   But when she looked again, behold! each black and bitter trace was gone. Smooth across them all, fair, pure, still, reposed the stainless snow. She could not find them, though she would. They were blotted out by Nature, as they were forgiven of God. Alas! alas! if man were but half as compassionate or kind. If Arthur--
   She groveled on the ground where the sacred Feet had stood, which now were vanished from her. Wretched woman that she was! Who should deliver her from this bondage to her life's great holy love? If Arthur would but open the door for her in the fair distance, where the palace window shone; if he would take a single step toward her where she kneeled within the wilderness; if he would but loiter toward her where that Other had run swiftly, and speak one word of quiet to her where He had sung her songs of joy! But the palace door was shut. The King took no step toward the wilderness. The King was mute as death and cold as his own white soul. On Arthur's throne was never more a place for Guenever.
   Guenever, in the desert, stretched her arms out blindly across the blotted footprints to the palace lights.
   Oh! Arthur. Oh! Arthur, Arthur, Arthur. . .
   "Why, Pussy!" said Arthur. "What's the matter?"
   However unqueenly, Pussy was one of the royal pet names.
   "My little woman! Guenever! My darling! Why do you call me so?"
   Why did she call him indeed? Why call for anything?
   Why ask or need or long? In his great arms he held her. To his true breast he folded her. Safe in his love he sheltered her. From heaven the stars of his eyes looked down on her. As those may look who wake in heaven, whose anguished soul had thought to wake in hell, looked Guenever. She was his honored wife. There was no Launcelot, no wilderness. The soul which the King had crowned with his royal love was clean, was clean, was clean!
   She hid her scarlet face upon his honest heart and seemed to mutter something about "dreams." It was all that she could say. There are dreams that are epochs in life.
   "But it was n't a dream, you see," said Arthur. "We've had a scare over you Guenever. You took the laudanum, after all."
"Launcelot's laudanum! Indeed, no! I took the drops, as I told you, Arthur."
   "The bottles stood together on the shelf, and you made the blunder," said Arthur, anxiously. "We think you must have taken a tremendous dose. I've sent Launcelot for the Doctor. And Nabby Jones, she was in to borrow eggs, and she said a little camphire would be good for you. She just went home to get it. But I've been frightened about you, Guenever," said Arthur. Arthur spoke in his own grave and repressed manner. But he was very pale. His lips, as the Queen crept, sobbing, up to touch them, trembled.
"Well, well," he said, "we won't talk about it now." Guenever did not want to talk. She wished Nabby Jones would stay away, with her camphire. She wished Launcelot would never come. Upon her husband's heart she lay.
   Within her husband's eyes the safe, home fire-light shone. Across the old chintz chair the birds of paradise were fluttering like birds gone wild with joy.
   Without, the wind had lulled, the storm had ceased, and through the crevices in the windows had sifted tiny drifts of cool, clean snow.
   And this, know all men henceforth by these presents, is the true story of Guenever the Queen.