Stories from Chaucer Told to the Children - Janet Kelman




Emelia—The Knight's Tale

Emelia the Radiant lived in a great castle in Athens.

Hippolyta, Emelia's sister, had once been queen of the Warrior Women, and had led her armies to battle. But Emelia had never fought in these battles. When she was still a child, Duke Theseus of Athens had fought with Hippolyta and conquered her. Instead of sending his royal captive to prison, Theseus married her, and took her home to Athens with him. When he took her there, he took Emelia with her. He was very kind to them both, and the castle in Athens was a happy home for Hippolyta and her little sister.

As Emelia grew up she became most beautiful. She was more graceful than a lily on its stem, and the flush on her cheeks was more delicate than the hue of the rose-petals in the old Greek castle garden. Her golden hair fell in heavy masses round her face, and lay in a great plait down her back. It caught all the light that fell on it, and sent it out again to make glad the hearts of those who looked on her. So men called her Emelia the Radiant, and all who met her smiled for joy at the sight of so beautiful a maid.

[Illustration] from Stories from Chaucer by Janet Kelman

SHE THOUGHT OF THE TWO YOUNG PRINCES WHO WERE PRISONERS THERE.


One May morning Emelia went into the castle garden to bathe her face in the early dew. Everything was dim and grey in the twilight. She looked up at the great dungeon tower which overshadowed the garden, and thought of the two young princes who were prisoners there. Duke Theseus had brought them from Thebes. He was very proud of them, and would not give them up, although the people of their land offered to give him gold and jewels for their ransom. The princes were cousins, and were the last of the royal line of Thebes. In the stillness Emelia murmured their names to herself, "Palamon and Arcite, Palamon and Arcite." How miserable they must be in their narrow cell! she thought. Then she sighed that life should be so sad for them while it was so bright for her!

As she roamed up and down and gathered roses white and red to make a garland for her hair, the sun broke through the mist and shone into the garden. Once more she raised her eyes to the Tower. This time she did not look at it, but at the sunlit clouds beyond. The light from the east fell on her. Her hair shone like gold, and her face was radiant with happiness.

Palamon at that moment came to the narrow iron-barred window through which alone he and his cousin could see the sky and the fields and the city. He saw the morning light fall on the fair buildings of Athens, and on the plains and hills beyond. Then a glad song which burst from Emelia's happy heart floated up to him. He looked down. Before him stood the maiden bathed in sunlight.

She seemed to him the very Spirit of Beauty. He thought of all the joy and life and freedom that he could never have. He started back from the window and cried aloud.

His cousin Arcite sprang from his couch and said, "My cousin, what aileth thee? I pray thee that thou bear our imprisonment in patience. Sad it is in truth, but we must abide it. We can do nought else."

But Palamon said: "Thou art mistaken. Prison walls drew not that cry from me. An arrow hath entered my heart through mine eye, and I am wounded. What life can give is bound up for me in the fairness of a maiden who roams in yonder garden. Be she Spirit or woman I know not! But this I know, was never woman nor Spirit half so fair before."

"Spirit of Beauty," he cried, "if thou choosest to take the form of a radiant woman here before me in this garden, pity my wretchedness! Save us from this prison, and if that may not be, have pity on our country and help our fallen friends."

Arcite pressed forward and leant over Palamon's shoulder. The window was only a narrow slit, and the wall through which it was cut was thick, so it was not easy for Arcite to see into the garden. At last he caught a glimpse of Emelia.

"Oh, how lovely she is!" he said. "I shall die of my wish to serve her. Most beautiful of maidens she is, truly!"

When Palamon heard this, he turned on Arcite, looked coldly at him and asked, "Sayest thou so in earnest or in jest?"

Nay, truly in earnest, my cousin; "I have little will to jest!"

Palamon looked fiercely at him and said, "Little honor to thee then! Hast thou forgotten thine oath of truest brotherhood to me, and mine to thee? Hast thou forgotten thy promise to help me in all I do? How, then, canst thou dream of claiming to love my lady? This thou shalt not do, false Arcite! I loved her first, and told thee, and thou must help me to win her if ever we escape. Thine honor demands this of thee. Otherwise thou art no true knight."

But Arcite drew himself up scornfully and said, "Rather it is thou that art false! A moment ago thou didst not know whether she were maiden or Spirit! I loved her first for what she is, and told thee as my brother! But even if thou hadst loved her first, could I, because of that, refuse to love the fairest of maidens? Besides, why should we strive? Thou knowest too well that thou shalt never win her smile, nor yet shall I! These prison walls so thick and black leave no hope for us. We fight as did the fabled dogs for the bone. They fought all day, yet neither won. There came a kite while they raged, and carried off the bone. Love thou the maid if thou wilt. I shall love her till I die."

The prison had been narrow and bare and cold before, but now it seemed ten times more dismal. The world from which it shut them in was so much more sweet because of the maiden who dwelt there, and the friendship for each other which had cheered them through many evil days was broken.

But Emelia the Radiant sang her gay songs and stepped lightly amongst the flowers, with never another thought of the weary eyes that watched her.

One day the greatest friend that Duke Theseus of Athens had, came to see him. This friend had known Arcite in Thebes, and had loved the handsome boy. He begged Theseus to forgive him, and to let him go free. Theseus was glad to find something he could do to please his dear friend, so one morning he took him with him to the prison where Palamon and Arcite were. The attendants could scarcely follow, for the royal robes filled all the dingy little space! A streak of light from the window fell on the Duke's mantle and on his jewels. They looked strangely bright in that dark room beside the faded clothes of the two young prisoners.

Arcite and the friend of Theseus greeted each other joyously, and the heart of Arcite beat wildly with hope, but when he heard the words of Theseus the Duke it sank like lead.

"Arcite," said he, "by the desire of my friend, I grant to thee thy freedom. I grant it on one condition only. Thou must wander away far beyond my kingdom. If ever thou art seen for one moment on any furthest corner of my land, that moment shall be thy last. By the sword thou shalt die."

Homeward to Thebes sped Arcite with a sad heart.

"Woe is me for the day that I was born!" he moaned; "woe is me that ever I knew the end of Theseus! Had he not known me, I might even now be gazing on the maiden I serve, from the window in the Duke's tower. Ah, Palamon, thou art the victor now! Day by day thou gazest on her, and kind fortune may grant to thee thy freedom and her favor while I am banished forever! Ah, why do we complain against our fortune? We know that we seek happiness, but know not the road thither! Think how I dreamt and longed for freedom, and thought that if I were only out of prison my joy would be perfect. Behold, my freedom is my banishment, and my hope my undoing!"

As for Palamon, when he saw that Arcite was gone, he made the great tower walls re-echo with his howls of misery. The very fetters on his ankles were wet with his salt tears.

"Alas," he groaned, "Arcite, my cousin, thou hast borne off the prize in this strife of ours! Thou walkest now at liberty in Thebes. Little thou thinkest of me and of my sorrow! Strong thou art, and wise. Doubtless thou art even now gathering together the people of Thebes to invade this land and win the sister of the Duke for thy wife, while I die here in this prison like a caged lion. The prison walls heed my weeping and my wailing not at all."

He could not even rejoice in the sight of Emelia when she walked in the garden, so fearful was he lest Arcite should win her.

Meanwhile Arcite passed his days in Thebes in grief. He wandered about alone, and wailed and made moan to himself. He cared not to eat, and sleep forsook him. His spirits were so feeble that the sound of music brought fresh tears to his eyes. He grew gaunt and thin, and his voice was hollow with sadness.

At last, when he was nearly dazed with sorrow, he dreamt one night that a beautiful winged boy with golden curls stood before him. "Go thou to Athens," said the boy; "the end of all thy sorrow awaits thee there!"

Arcite started up wide awake and said, "I Will to Athens, to my lady. It were good even to die in her presence."

He caught up a mirror. He had not cared to look in one for many months, but now that he meant to return to his lady, he wished to see if he looked strong and young as ever. At first he was shocked to see how great a change had passed over his face. Then he thought, "If I do not say who I am, I may live unknown in Athens for years. Then I shall see my lady day by day."

Quickly he called to him a squire, and told him all his will, and bound him to keep his name a secret and to answer no questions about himself or his master. Then Arcite sent his squire to find clothes such as the laborers in Athens wore. When he returned, Arcite and he put on the clothes and set out by the straight road to Athens.

In Athens no one took any notice of the two poor men. Before they came to the castle the squire left his master and found a house to live in, where he could do Arcite's bidding at any time. But Arcite hurried on to the court-yard gate. There he waited till the master of the servants who waited on Emelia came out. Then he said to him, "Take me, I pray thee, into thy service. Drudge I will and draw water, yea, and in all thou dost command I will obey."

The master of the servants asked Arcite what was his name. "Philostrate, my lord," said Arcite, and as "Philostrate" he entered that part of the castle where Emelia's home was.

He could hew wood and carry water well, but he was not long left to do such rough work. The master of the house saw that whatever he trusted to Philostrate's care was rightly done, so he gave him less humble work to do, and made him a page in the house of Emelia. The lords and ladies of the castle began to notice what a gentle and kind page this Philostrate was. They spoke to Theseus about him, and said that he deserved to have a higher place that he might show his goodness and courage in knightly deeds. To please them, Theseus made him one of his own squires. Seven years passed away, and Palamon was still in prison. This year, however, in the May time, a friend of his, who heard where he was, helped him to escape. During the short night he fled as fast as he could, but when the early dawn began to break he strode tremblingly to a grove of trees, that he might hide there all day. When the darkness fell once more he meant to go on again to Thebes, there to gather his old armies to make war on Theseus. He wished either to win Emelia or to die. He cared little for his life if he might not spend it with her.

As Palamon lay beside a bush in the grove, he watched the sunbeams drying up the dew-drops on the leaves and flowers near him, and listened to the joyous song of a lark that poured forth its welcome to the morning.

The same lark that Palamon heard awakened Arcite. He was now the chief knight in the Duke's house, and served him with honor in peace and war. He sprang up and looked out on the fresh green fields. Everything called to him to come out. He loosed his horse from the stall and galloped over hill and dale. He came to the edge of a grove, and tied up his steed to a tree. Then he wandered down a woodland path to gather honeysuckle and hawthorn to weave a garland for himself. Little he thought of the snare into which he was walking.

As he roamed he sang—

"O May, of every month the queen,

With thy sweet flowers and forests green,

Right welcome be thou, fair fresh May."

The grove was the one in which Palamon lay beside a pool of water. When he heard the song of Arcite, cold fear took hold on hint. He did not know that it was Arcite who sang, but he knew that the horse must belong to a knight of the court, and he crouched down to the ground lest he should be seen and taken back to prison.

Soon Arcite's joyous mood passed away, and he grew sorrowful. He sighed and threw himself down not far from the spot where Palamon lay.

"Alas, alas!" said Arcite, "for the royal of Thebes! Alas that I should humbly serve my mortal enemy! Alas that I dare not claim my noble name, but must be known, forsooth, as Philostrate, a name worth not a straw! Of all our princely house not one is left save only me and Palamon, whom Theseus slays in prison. Even I, free though I am, am helpless to win Emelia. What am I to her but an humble squire?"

[Illustration] from Stories from Chaucer by Janet Kelman

PALAMON LAY BESIDE A POOL OF WATER.


Palamon was so angry when he heard this, that he forgot his own danger. He started out from his hiding-place and faced Arcite.

"False Arcite," he cried, "now art thou caught indeed! Thou hast deceived Duke Theseus and hast falsely changed thy name, hast thou? Then surely I or thou must die. I will suffer no man to love my lady, save myself alone. For I am Palamon, thy mortal foe. I have no weapon in this place, for only last night did I escape from prison. Yet I fear thee not. Thou shalt die, or thou shalt cease to love my lady. Choose as thou wilt!"

Then Arcite rose up in his wrath and drew his sword. He said, "Were it not that thou art ill and mad with grief, and that thou hast no weapon here, thou shouldest never step from where thou standest. I deny the bond thou claimest! Fool! how can I help thee to win the lady I fain would wed myself? But because thou art a worthy knight and a gentle, and art ready to fight for thy lady, accept my promise. To-morrow I will not fail to wait thee here without the knowledge of any other. Also I will bring armor and weapons for thee and me, and thou shalt choose of them what thou wilt, ere I arm myself! Food and drink will I bring to thee this night into the grove. If so be that thou slay me here to-morrow, then indeed thou mayest win thy lady if thou canst!"

Then Palamon answered, "Let it be so."

Next morning Arcite rode to the wood alone. He met Palamon on the woodland path where the flowers he had gathered the day before lay withered on the ground. No word nor greeting passed between them, but each helped to arm the other in silence. As the buckles were tightened and the armor slipped into its place, the color came and went in the faces of the two princes. They deemed that this would be the last of all fights to one of them.

When they were ready they fenced together for a little, and then the real fight began. So fierce was it that the men seemed like wild animals in their rage. Palamon sprang at Arcite like a strong lion, and Arcite glanced aside and darted at him again like a cruel tiger. In the midst of this they heard a sound of the galloping of horses that brought the royal hunters to the spot. In a moment the sword of Theseus flashed between the fighters, and his voice thundered out, "Ho! no more, on pain of death. Who are ye who dare to fight here alone, with none to see justice done?"

The princes turned and saw Theseus, Duke of Athens. Behind him rode Hippolyta with her sister, Emelia the Radiant, and many knights and ladies. Palamon answered the Duke's question swiftly, before Arcite had time to speak. "Sire, what need of words? Both of us deserve death. Two wretches are we, burdened with our lives. As thou art a just judge, give to us neither mercy nor refuge, but slay us both. Thou knowest not that this knight, Philostrate, is thy mortal foe, whom thou hast banished. He is Arcite, who hath deceived thee for that he loveth Emelia. And I too love her. I too am thy mortal foe, for I am Palamon, and I have broken from my prison. Slay us then, here before fair Emelia."

"That is easily granted," said Theseus. "Ye judge yourselves. Ye shall die."

Then the queen began to weep, and Emelia too. They were sad to think that these two princes should die so young, and all for the service they wished to do to the queen's sister.

The other ladies of the court begged the Duke to forgive the fighters. "Have mercy, sire," they urged, "on us women, and save the princes!"

At first Theseus was too angry to listen to them, but soon he thought that he would have done as the princes had done, if he had been in their place, so he said, "Arcite and Palamon, ye could both have lived in peace and safety in Thebes, yet love has brought you here to Athens into my power, who am your deadly foe. Here then for the sake of Hippolyta, my queen, and of Emelia the Radiant, our dear sister, I forgive you both. Promise never to make war on my land, but to yield me your friendship evermore." Joyfully the princes promised this, and thanked the Duke for his grace.

Then Theseus said, "Both of you are noble. Either might wed Emelia the Radiant, but she cannot wed you both. Therefore I appoint a tournament in this place a year hence. Come here then, ye Princes of Thebes, each of you, with hundred knights of the bravest, and that one of you, who shall slay or capture the other, he shall wed Emelia."

Whose face could be brighter than was Palamon's when he heard those words, and who could step more lightly than did Arcite? Every one thanked the Duke for his kindness to the princes, while they rode off to Thebes with high hopes and light hearts.

When the day of the tournament came, great buildings stood in a circle on the plain beside the grove. Within them stretched an immense arena in which the knights must fight. Great marble gates opened on to the space at either side.

Palamon and Arcite found it easy to bring a hundred knights to Athens. So splendid were the preparations for the tournament that everyone was eager to fight in it.

Emelia alone was sad as the day of the fighting came nearer. Her maidens heard her say, "Oh that I might not wed at all! I love the free life of the woods. I love to hunt, and to ride, and to roam. Why cannot Palamon and Arcite love each other as they used to do long ago, and leave me free?"

On the morning of the tournament Duke Theseus and his queen sat with Emelia on a high seat overlooking the lists. When the trumpet sounded, Arcite and his knights rode in through the western gate. His red banner shone bright against the white marble pillars. At the same moment Palamon entered from the east, and his white banner floated out against the blue sky.

Soon the heralds ceased galloping up and down, and the whole space was left to the warriors.

The trumpets sounded "Advance," and the fray began. Through the bright sunshine they fought, advancing here, and beaten back there, till at last Palamon was hurled from his horse and taken prisoner.

The trumpets sounded, and all stood still while Theseus called out, "Ho! no more. All is over. Arcite of Thebes shall wed Emelia." Then the people shouted till it seemed that the great marble gates would fall.

In the eagerness of the fight Emelia had begun to like the warriors who fought for her, and her liking grew ever stronger as they showed their worth. When Arcite rode towards her with glowing face she was proud of him, and leant forward to welcome him gladly.

But as he galloped, his horse started aside and he was thrown to the ground. He was too much hurt to rise. So he was lifted by his knights and carried to the palace. There he was cared for in every way, but nothing could save him.

Before he died, he called for Emelia and Palamon.

"No words can tell the sorrow I bear because I must leave thee, my lady! Alas, death tears me from thee! Farewell, my wife! farewell, my Emelia! Ah, take me softly in thine arms, and listen while I speak! For years I have had strife with my dear cousin Palamon. Yet now I say to thee, in all this world I never have met with one so worthy to be loved as Palamon, that hath served thee, and will serve thee, his life long. Ah, if ever thou dost wed, let it be Palamon!"

His voice began to fail. "Emelia!" he said, and died.

Emelia mourned sadly for her valiant knight. As for Palamon, all his old love for Arcite came back, and he wept for him as bitterly as he had bewailed his own sorrow in the dungeon.

When all the Greeks had ceased to mourn for Arcite, Palamon still grieved for the death of his friend, and for the strife that had been between them.

After two years Theseus sent one day for Palamon and Emelia. Palamon came to the court in his black robes of mourning; but Emelia was dressed in white, as she had been on the May morning in the garden years before. She had ceased to mourn for Arcite, and was Emelia the Radiant once more.

Palamon caught his breath. He had not seen her since they parted after Arcite's death.

Duke Theseus said, "Sister, I desire thee now to take the noble knight Palamon to be thy husband. Have pity on his long service, and accept him."

Then he said to Palamon, "It will not need much speech to gain thy consent! Come, take thy lady by the hand."

Then, in the presence of all the court, they were wed. When all was over, Emelia fled from the noise and tumult of the hall, and beckoned to Palamon to follow. Out at the great hall doors she led him, and down the pathway to the garden beneath the tower. When he joined her, she pointed to the dungeon window, and told him of the day when she had looked at the prison in the morning mist, and murmured to herself the names of the captive princes, "Palamon and Arcite, Palamon and Arcite."

But it was not till many years of joyous life had passed over their home that Palamon told Emelia that he had seen her first on that very morning when she had thought so sadly of his misery.