Stories from Old English Poetry/The Knight's Dilemma

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ONE of the nobles of King Arthur’s court had grievously transgressed the laws of chivalry and knightly honor, and for this cause had he been condemned to suffer death. Great sorrow reigned among all the lords and dames, and Queen Guinevere, on bent knees, had sued the king’s pardon for the recreant knight. At length, after many entreaties, Arthur’s generous heart relented, and he gave the doomed life into the queen’s hands to do with it as she willed.

Then Guinevere, delighted at the success of her suit with her royal husband, sent for the knight to appear before her, in her own bower, where she sat among the ladies of her chamber.

When the knight, who was called Sir Ulric, had reached the royal lady’s presence, he would have thrown himself at her feet with many thanks for the dear boon which she had caused the king to grant him. But she motioned him to listen to what she had to say, before she would receive his gratitude.

“Defer all thanks, Sir Knight,” said the queen, “until first I state to thee the conditions on which thou yet holdest thy life. It is granted thee to be free of death, if within one year and a day from this present thou art able to declare to me what of earthly things all women like the best. If in that time thou canst tell, past all dispute, what this thing be, thou shalt have thy life and freedom. Otherwise, on my queenly honor, thou diest, as the king had first decreed.”

When the knight heard this he was filled with consternation and dismay too great for words. At once in his heart he accused the king of cruelty in permitting him to drag out a miserable existence for a whole year in endeavoring to fulfill a condition which in his thoughts he at once resolved to be impossible. For who could decide upon what would please all ladies best, when it was agreed by all wise men that no two of the uncertain sex would ever fix upon one and the same thing?

With these desponding thoughts Sir Ulric went out of the queen’s presence, and prepared to travel abroad over the country, if perchance by inquiring far and wide he might find out the answer which would save his life.

From house to house and from town to town travelled Sir Ulric, asking maid, and matron young or old, the same question. But never from any two, did he receive a like answer. Some told him that women best loved fine clothes; some that they loved rich living; some loved their children best; others desired most to be loved; and some loved best to be considered free from curiosity, which, since Eve, had been said to be a woman’s chief vice. But among all, no answers were alike, and at each the knight’s heart sank in despair, and he seemed as if he followed an ignis fatwus which each day led him farther and farther from the truth.

One day, as he rode through a pleasant wood, the knight alighted and sat himself down under a tree to rest, and bewail his unhappy lot. Sitting here, in a loud voice he accused his unfriendly stars that they had brought him into so sad a state. While he spoke thus, he looked up and beheld an old woman, wrapped in a heavy mantle, standing beside him.

Sir Ulric thought he had never seen so hideous a hag as she who now stood gazing at him, She was wrinkled and toothless, and bent with age. One eye was shut, and in the other was a leer so horrible that he feared her some uncanny creature of the wood, and crossed himself as he looked on her.

“Good knight,” said the old crone, before he could arise to leave her sight, “tell me, I pray thee, what hard thing ye seek. I am old, and have had much wisdom. It may happen that I can help you out of the great trouble into which you have come.”

The knight, in spite of her loathsomeness, felt a ray of hope at this offer, and in a few words told her what he was seeking.

As soon as she had heard, the old creature burst into so loud a laugh that between laughing and mumbling Sir Ulric feared she would choke herself before she found breath to answer him.

“You are but a poor hand at riddles,” she said at length, “if you cannot guess what is so simple. Let me but whisper two words in your ear, and you shall be able to tell the queen what neither she nor her ladies nor any woman in all the kingdom shall be able to deny. But I give my aid on one condition,—that if I be right in what I tell, you shall grant me one boon, whatever I ask, if the same be in your power.”

The knight gladly consented, and on this the old hag whispered in his ear two little words, which caused him to leap upon his horse with great joy and set out directly for the queen’s court.

When he had arrived there, and given notice of his readiness to answer her, Guinevere held a great meeting in her chief hall, of all the ladies in the kingdom. “Thither came old and young, wife, maid, and widow, to decide if Sir Ulric answered aright.

The queen was placed on a high throne as judge if what he said be the truth, and all present waited eagerly for his time to speak. When, therefore, it was demanded of him what he had to say, all ears stretched to hear his answer.

“Noble lady,” said the knight, when he saw all eyes and ears intent upon him, “I have sought far and wide the answer you desired. And I find that the thing of all the world which pleaseth women best, is to have their own way in all things.”

When the knight had made this answer in a clear and manly voice, which was heard all over the audience chamber, there was much flutter and commotion among all the women present, and many were at first inclined to gainsay him. But Queen Guinevere questioned all thoroughly, and gave fair judgment, and at the end declared that the knight had solved the question, and there was no woman there who did not confess that he spoke aright.

On this Ulric received his life freely, and was preparing to go out in great joy, when suddenly as he turned to go, he saw in his way the little old woman to whom he owed the answer which had bought his life. At sight of her, more hideous than ever, among the beauty of the court ladies, who looked at her in horror of her ugliness, the knight’s heart sank again. Before he could speak she demanded of him her boon.

“What would you ask of me?” said Ulric, fearfully.

“My boon is only this,” answered the hag, “that in return for thy life, which my wit has preserved to thee, thou shalt make me thy true and loving wife.”

Sir Ulric was filled with horror, and would gladly have given all his goods and his lands to escape such a union. But not anything would the old crone take in exchange for his fair self; and the queen and all the court agreeing that she had the right to enforce her request, which he had promised on his knightly honor, he was at last obliged to yield and make her his wife.

Never in all King Arthur’s court were sadder nuptials than these. No feasting, no joy, but only gloom and heaviness, which, spreading itself from the wretched Sir Ulric, infected all the court. Many a fair dame pitied him sorely, and not a knight but thanked his gracious stars that he did not stand in the like ill fortune.

After the wedding ceremonies, as Ulric sat alone in his chamber, very heavy-hearted and sad, his aged bride entered and sat down near him. But he turned his back upon her, resolving that now she was his wife, he would have no more speech with her.

While he sat thus inattentive, she began to speak with him, and in spite of his indifference, Sir Ulric could but confess that her voice was passing sweet, and her words full of wit and sense. Ina long discourse she painted to him the advantage of having a bride who from very gratitude would always be most faithful and loving. She instanced from history and song all those who by beauty had been betrayed, and by youth had been led into folly. At last she said,—

“Now, my sweet lord, I pray thee tell me this. Would you rather I should be as I am, and be to you a true and humble wife, wise in judgment, subject in all things to your will, or young and foolish, and apt to betray your counsels. Choose now betwixt the two.”

Then the knight, who had listened in much wonder to the wisdom with which she spoke, and had pondered over her words while speaking, could not help being moved by the beauty of her conversation, which surpassed the beauty of any woman’s face which he had ever seen. Under this spell he answered her:—

“Indeed I am content to choose you even as you are. Be as you will. A man could have no better guidance than the will of so sensible a wife.”

On this his bride uttered a glad cry.

“Look around upon me, my good lord,” she said; “since you are willing to yield to my will in this, behold that I am not only wise, but young and fair also. The enchantment, which held me thus aged and deformed, till I could find a knight who in spite of my ugliness would marry me, and would be content to yield to my will, is forever removed. Now, I am your fair, as well as your loving wife.”

Turning around, the knight beheld a lady sweet and young, more lovely in her looks than Guinevere herself. With happy tears she related how the enchantments had been wrought which held her in the form of an ancient hag until he had helped to remove the spell. And from that time forth they lived in great content, each happy to yield equally to each other in all things.

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