The Breaking of the Links
|The Breaking of the Links
written by John Masefield
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THEY told King Arthur how the Knights were killed,
He saw the bodies carried by on biers
By torchlight, among faces, under spears;
He knew what misery had been begun;
The doors and shutters banged: the city thrilled.
"The mob will murder Gwenivere," he thought.
The Queen sat haggard like a soul distraught.
"Courage," he whispered; "Much may yet be done."
He led her quaywards as the forum filled.
And while the rabble gathered in the square,
He set her in his galley and bade sail.
He watched the galley whitening a trail
Down eddied Usk for towered Camelot.
"But Lancelot," he thought, "they will not spare,
These widows and these takers of the feud.
He must begone at once before pursued."
Therefore he sent Sir Bors to Lancelot,
Who drew him north, the townsfolk unaware.
Soon, when the colour-giving dawn had come,
The kinsfolk of the dead came, crying all
For vengeance on the killer, to the hail.
"Bring out this royal harlot and her man.
These ruiners of all shall pay for some.
Where are they, Arthur? Bring them out," they cried.
"Where are this strumpet and her homicide?
Burn them, the traitor and his harridan;
Punish their murderings by martyrdom."
Then Arthur said, "Keep silence here; the Queen
Is gone from here: so Lancelot has gone.
As to the killings, we shall think thereon
At ripest leisure." Modred answered "No.
No royalty or loyalty can screen
Treason like theirs; their hot adulteries,
Their plots that sought the Kingdom for a prize,
Their slaughterings, that laid our kinsmen low."
"No," the crowd yelled, "they shall not get off clean."
"No," Modred said. "For, King, you cannot know
The truth of this. Last night at your behest
I went, with friends, with warrant, to arrest
This Lancelot for treasons to the crown.
We summoned him to court: he would not go.
We strove to take him, he resisted: then,
Doing their duty, all those dozen men,
Man after man, were harshly beaten down.
Not by the killer's greater manhood; no . . .
No, but because within that narrow hold
Only one man could reach him at a time;
Nor was the Queen inactive in the crime . . .
Those dozen sworders held her in regard;
Her presence helped the one a hundredfold;
She helped to arm him; being armed, she stood
So that we dared not tackle nor make good
Our comrades' efforts; our approach was barred,
We must have wounded her had we been bold.
True, harsher captains might indeed have laid
Hands on the Queen and dragged her headlong thence;
But with what scandal and with what offence?
Mad as we were, we would not shame her thus.
Besides, the only purpose of the raid
Was to take Lancelot; we held no brief
To touch the partner, but arrest the chief . . .
So, holding back, destruction fell on us.
They have escaped, but God will see us paid."
Then Gawaine said: "What need was there to send
Armed men upon the Queen and Lancelot,
The King's wife and King's cousin, as all wot?
The two are daily in the palace here;
At one word spoken, either would attend.
But I perceive that jealousy begins
To conquer wisdom by imputing sins . . .
With Lancelot away and Modred near,
A royal bastard's fortune might amend. . .
I will not silence, I will speak my word
To you, my cousin Arthur, and to one
At once my mother's and my cousin's son,
Who, with twelve captains, made a night surprise;
Against one lion, thirteen in a herd,
(Or fourteen was it?) By the starry skies
God made His vision of the matter plain.
Yet here this mongrel Modred dares complain. . .
I say he should be branded and unspurred."
Then Arthur said, "But I support him, I.
Against your cavils in the present cause;
He served against a breaker of the laws
At his life's peril, among comrades killed.
And proven treasons, not a jealousy,
Make the foundations upon which we build.
Treasons that amply justified arrest.
As Fate has fallen, I have judged it best
To wait a certain season crc we try. . .
Therefore the two accused are banisht hence,
Awaiting trial. Meanwhile Modred did,
Or strove to do, exactly as I bid."
"Ay," the crowd shouted, "everybody knows
Gawaine can argue in a trot's defence.
He takes their part." Gawaine said, "I suppose
My cousin-brother now will govern us.
Now I remember what the ship-rat does . . .
When ships begin to leak, he scuttles thence.
Therefore, my cousin Arthur, chief and King,
I say good-bye: I say you are misled
By plottings from this misbegotten head.
Not lightly will this cloud of evil pass.
I, like the swallow, joined you in your spring,
When first the daisies whitened all the grass;
Now autumn spiders come and leaves are blowing,
The summer being gone, I must be going."
Then Bors and Hector strode into the ring.
Bors said, "I brought Sir Lancelot away
For Gloucester and the north, as I was told.
The time has come for speakers to be bold.
Why was our captain banisht without trial?
Who sent the gang, commanding them to slay?
Since when were Tablers subject to espial?
I say, as Gawaine says, you take advice
From one whose plottings shall not use me twice.
Since Modred governs, I shall not obey."
Sir Hector said, "I do not ask the cause . . .
For men who fling the best and keep the worst
Are men whose fortunes are about to burst,
As yours are, Arthur, acting as you do.
A golden eagle cannot sort with daws,
Nor will this mongrel Modred sort with you;
Nor we with him, by heaven, so farewell.
We choose the Queen and Lancelot and hell,
And leave you folly, Modred and the laws."
Then out the three defiant captains strode.
Their friends and kin, the party of the Queen,
Followed them out: all silent was the scene;
All present knew what breaking of the links
That bound the provinces together bode:
Nothing was heard except the little clinks
Of spurs on flagstones: then the horses sparred,
Sidling from men who mounted in the yard;
Then the slow horse-hoofs died along the road.
And while their going sounded, men were still.
Then Agravaine's gaunt widow, white with hate,
Cried, "Shall our murdered darlings' spirits wait
Thus long for simple justice for their death?"
Then horse-hoofs clattered to the portal-sill,
A rider tottered to them spent for breath;
He cried, "I've galloped from the Kentish prince,
I have not drank these thirty hours since.
Get ready for a second Badon Hill."
Then he sank, panting, till they gave him wine
And splashed his face with water; then he said:
"King Iddoc says this is no common raid,
No, but an over-swarming, such as comes
Only when blazing comets give the sign
And banded nations seek elysiums . . .
Three hundred ships were counted at the first,
More follow fast, we haven't toucht the worst.
They made our army snap like broken twine.
Who are they? Why, the manhood of a race
Or races, banded by an oath to seize
A Kingdom for themselves beyond the seas:
The summer pirates join with them besides.
Our ships attacked them at the landing-place,
Their ships destroyed them; now their navy rides
Holding the ocean to Augusta tower.
King Iddoc fought them in an evil hour.
They thrashed us out of knowledge and gave chase.
Briefly, the width of Kent is overrun;
They hold the Channel; beyond any doubt
They will advance before the moon is out
And toss your men-at-arms like meadow-hay;
They are fell fighters, every mother's son.
But will you muster with what men you may
And join King Iddoc? If the truth be told,
Whatever line we take we cannot hold;
They are our masters, Arthur, we are done."
Then Arthur said, "Whatever fair success
These pirates have, I never knew it last.
For when they seem the worst the worst is past;
They conquer first, then suffer for supply.
Therefore be comforted in your distress,
We suffer first and conquer by-and-by.
I start for Camelot at once from here;
By harvest we will have the Kingdom dear
Whatever Iddoc's fears are, I say yes.
Come, Modred, we must sail for Camelot
Within the hour, or we lose the tide.
Dismiss the court, the other things must bide."
But as he passt, that wraith of Agravaine's
Cried, "You have trickt us, Modred misbegot,
You killed our loves and leave us to our pains.
You shall not go until our cause is heard."
Here the guards seized her, but her witch's gird
Rang through the hall and was forgotten not.
"Modred betrayed us, it is all laid bare.
He used our husbands only to disgrace
The Queen and Lancelot and take their place.
And all our lovely lovers are laid dead,
While he removes to Camelot to share
King Arthur's favour; curses on his head.
But you shall perish by the plots begun,
Son by the sire, sire by the son,
Before one swallow seeks the southern air."
But now King Arthur was aboard his ship,
Rushing from Usk athwart the Severn stream;
War lay ahead, the rest was but a dream:
Modred beside him shared his busy brain.
His galley took a white bone in her grip,
The running bubbles made a noise like rain;
And though he missed two comrades from of old,
His son was by him and his heart was bold
To break the raid by this new comradeship.
|Works by this author are in the public domain in countries where the copyright term is the author's life plus 51 years or less.|