Stories from Old English Poetry/The Two Noble Kinsmen

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For works with similar titles, see The Knight's Tale.
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After Theseus, duke of Athens, had married Hypolita, the fair and brave queen of the Amazons, all Greece dwelt for a time in peace and happiness. Hypolita herself shone in peace no less than in war, and was a noble ornament in the palace of the duke.

But Theseus was not a warrior to remain long idle. Very shortly after he had safely bestowed on his queen the half of his royal throne, chivalry called him to Thebes to avenge the wrongs some fair women had suffered at the hands of the Theban king. And after devastating that city, and slaying King Creon in honorable battle, the duke came back to Greece, again a conqueror.

Then the merry-making that was seen in Athens cannot now be told; nor how the queen Hypolita proudly greeted her victorious lord—nor how the ladies of the court vied to do him honor. All this you must fancy while you hear of sadder things.

In Thebes had lived two noble kinsmen, cousins by birth, named Palamon and Arcite. These two, covered with wounds on the battle-field, had Theseus taken prisoner, and nursing their hurts carefully, had cured them, so they were able to be brought to Athens in the train of the conqueror. Now in one prison were the two shut up together to bewail the cruel stars which had spared their lives only that they might live in such misery.

The prison tower in which they were kept, overlooked the garden of the palace. Through the bars the sunlight slanted in, and the songs of the birds outside mocked them with thoughts of freedom. Sometimes, by standing on tiptoe, they caught glimpses of the garden paths, and saw where the many colored flowers blossomed below.

One beautiful May morning, sweet Lady Emelie, the youngest sister of Hypolita, who was like the queen in fairness as the soft evening star is like the full-orbed moon, must needs go walking in this very garden to pick flowers for a Mayday wreath. Herself fairer than May, and sweeter than the roses, which were glad to borrow their red from her cheeks, she sang, as she wove her garland, a little song which fell like a bird’s from her fair throat.

While she sang thus, Palamon, straining to catch a glimpse of the sun through his prison

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bars, beheld her in the garden path. At that moment he uttered a cry as if some sharp pain had stabbed him suddenly.

“What ails thee, dear cousin?” asked Arcite, coming hurriedly to his side.

“Indeed I know not if I dream, but something walks in the garden below; whether she is maid or a goddess I cannot tell, but I think none but Venus could so walk, or look thus.”

Then, sinking on his knees, Palamon prayed,—“Sweet goddess (if it be indeed thy divine self I have seen), help us, thy servants, to escape these prison bars and find a way out of our captivity.”

Burning with curiosity, Arcite meanwhile raised himself to the gratings and beheld Emelie. But his eye, less reverent than Palamon’s, knew her at once for a mortal like himself.

“O lovely maiden,” he cried piteously, “either I must have thy grace, or I am dead henceforth. All my life and all the deeds that my knighthood may yet be found worthy of, I lay at thy feet.”

At this Palamon started up in anger.

“What dost thou say, Arcite?” he questioned. “The lady is my love. I saw her first.”

“What of that?” rejoined Arcite, “Are not my eyes free to love her too?”

“ No honorable knight loves the lady of his sworn brother,” cried Palamon, fiercely.

“ But you adored her as a goddess,” said Arcite; “ I loved her at once as a fair woman, and by all the stars and all the laws of knighthood, I will love her with all my heart till I die.”

On this the quarrel between these two cousins, who had been so dear to each other that no manly friendship had ever exceeded theirs, became so hot, that, if it had not been for their unarmed condition, they would have fought till one was killed. And all the time the sweet Lady Emelie walked and sang in the garden below, and heard nothing and dreamed not of the two knights who quarreled for her sweet sake over her head.

From this time forth, day after day, month after month, the two cousins had no other hope than to espy Emelie in the garden under their prison tower. And still they contended with each other which had the right to love her, and each claimed her as his own lady.

Judge how mad this strife was, when both were locked in walls so thick that no hope of escape could pierce them. But fortune changed a little for one of the kinsmen. A noble duke, who was a friend to Theseus, had known and loved Arcite in Thebes. He interceded for his release, and after a time Theseus let him go, on condition that he should instantly leave Athens, and never again set foot there on pain of death. Then it was hard to tell which of the two kinsmen made the most moan,—Arcite, that he must quit the prison where he might still behold Emelie, and depart her country forever, or Palamon, that he must remain alone behind his bars while his cousin went free.

Arcite left Athens and went straight to Thebes. But now Thebes was a prison, and liberty was bondage, because he was shut out from the sight of Emelie. He grieved so over the thought that he might never see her more, that his form became wasted, his eyes sunken and haggard, his locks hung disheveled, and his whole countenance was changed. In this plight it occurred to him that he was so altered that no one would recognize him if he should go to Athens in some other guise, and by that means see Emelie again.

So he put off his knightly attire, and wearing the coarser dress of a squire, he went to Athens. Fortune so favored him that he got a place in the duke’s palace, and had leave to attend Emelie. He was known as Philostrate, and because his manners and bearing were so far above his feigned condition, he became famed throughout all the court, and at length attracted the notice of Theseus. Yet for all this he dared not reveal himself nor own his love to Emelie, lest he should instantly be put to death.

And now it happened that, after many trials, Palamon escaped from prison. He determined to go at once to Thebes, and, if possible, stir up his friends to war against Theseus, that in this way he might force him to bestow Emelie on him as his wife. Just outside the city of Athens was a wood where Arcite was wont to walk and lament the cruel fate which placed him so near Emelie as her serving-man, while it forbade him to speak to her as a true knight who loved her. On the very eve that Palamon had escaped, he walked by himself in this wood and recounted aloud the sighs he had breathed, the pangs he had suffered, and all that had befallen him since his return to Athens. Now in this very spot Palamon was hiding to wait for the next day’s dawn to go on his journey, and from a leafy covert he heard all Arcite’s complaints. At the close of his speech he suddenly burst out upon him.

“ False traitor! he cried. “ Stain on fair knighthood! Perjured Arcite! Darest still to love my lady, for whose sweet sake I have burst through stone walls and iron bars? If I had a weapon I could slay thee, but weaponless as I am, I defy thee here. Choose, then, if thou wilt give up Emelie or die.”

At this Arcite answered more mildly,—“ Be it so, cousin; I am willing to test this with the sword. Rest thee here to-night, for thou art still weak and prison-worn. I will bring here to this wood, food and a couch for to-night’s comfort. To-morrow, or ere the rising of the sun, I will be here with two sets of armor, and swords for both. Thou shalt choose the best and leave the other for me. And we will fight till one of us is dead from his wounds.”

Arcite kept his word in every point, and next day at early dawn he was in the wood with two sets of armor, and swords to match them. Palamon awaited him eagerly, and with all courtesy each helped the other buckle on his harness and make ready for the affray. Soon the clashing of their swords smote sparks of fire so thick that they shone in the green wood like myriads of fire-flies.

Suddenly, in the middle of their deadly sport, the knights heard the sharp bay of hounds, the blast of the horns, the rush of many steeds; and, looking up, they saw themselves surrounded by a royal hunting party. There was the noble Duke Theseus, and by his side Hypolita, with snow-white falcon on her wrist, while foremost among the ladies of the court, all clad in green, rode Emelie, the unconscious cause of all this strife.

When the duke demanded the reason of this affray, and their drawn weapons, there was no other way for the knights than to confess the truth, and tell the cause of their quarrel. This Palamon did, not hiding that he had broken loose from his strong prison, and accusing Arcite of having forsworn himself in returning to Athens to live as a menial in the palace of the duke.

When all this story had been told, the listeners were much moved. The hardy queen, more used to battles than to tears, wept for very womanhood; and Emelie, rosy with blushes that these two knights should so boldly avow their love for her, must needs cool the burning of her cheeks with overrunning crystal tears.

And the duke, while all cried out upon him to be merciful, at length gave this as his decree.

First, he exacted of the two kinsmen that they should promise never more to make war on his country, nor to plot any mischief against him; and when they had pledged this, he said,—“Now, though Emelie be a worthy match for any knight in Christendom, yet she cannot marry both, be your deserts equally great. Therefore ye shall abide the test of honorable combat. In one year’s time, at Athens here, we will hold a tourney, at which both Palamon and Arcite, with each a hundred bravest knights, shall enter the lists, and he who comes off conqueror, shal wed the lady. The other must do as he best can.”

To this, with many praises of the duke’s goodness, all assented.

Now, all the year Theseus was building the lists for the tournament. Never since the world began, were there such brave preparations. The field was made a circle, and walled about with stone. At three points in the walls a fair temple was built. One of pure marble, in honor of Venus, queen of Love and Beauty. The second, shining with gold, was to Mars, god of war. The third, of red and white coral, beautiful beyond compare, was dedicated to Diana, at whose altar sweet Emelie worshipped.

When the year was at an end, into Athens came Palamon with his hundred knights, each the flower of chivalry. First came the brave Lycurgus, of Thrace, riding in his golden chariot, drawn by four milk-white bulls. His long black hair streamed over his shoulders, and on his head he wore a heavy crown of gold, gleaming with jewels. Beside his car walked ten huge white mastiffs, each nearly as large as a steer, close muzzled to their very throats.

At the same hour, through another gate of the city, entered Arcite. With him came Emetrius, king of Ind, leading his hundred warriors.

Emetrius bestrode a horse whose trappings were all of gold. His cloak also was cloth of gold, embroidered closely with great pearls, and a little mantle over his shoulder shone like a flame, so thick it was sown with fire-red rubies. Over his crisp curls of bright brown he wore a green laurel wreath, and his blue eyes glittered like steel, in his eagerness for the affray.

The morning dawned brightly,—such another May morning as that in which Palamon and Arcite first saw the Lady Emelie walking in the garden beside their prison walls. Two hours before day broke, Palamon had risen and gone into the Temple of Venus, and laid gifts on her altars. And after he had asked her aid, the goddess had smiled on him, and nodded in answer to his supplications. Emelie, too, as was her wont, went to the Temple of Diana, and the huntress queen then told her that one of the knights should be her wedded lord, but which one not even Emelie might know till the tourney was over.

Last of all, Arcite went to the Temple of Mars, and flinging sweet incense on his altar, prayed to him with many supplications. The statue of the god had clashed its glittering arms, and murmured “ Victory.” At which, full of hope, Arcite rose up to go and array himself for the combat.

Meanwhile, in the court of Jupiter, king of gods and of men, there was a great contention, To Mars, Jupiter had promised the victory for his chosen knight; but Venus, her lovely eyes red with weeping, besought that her favored suitor, young Palamon, might have Emelie for his bride. While she thus prayed the stern Jupiter, her breast heavy with sighs, and her cheeks wet with silver tears, Saturn, oldest of the gods, thus whispered her,—“ Grieve not, O fairest of the daughters of the gods. To Jupiter and Mars belong victory in war and honor among men; to me, dark treason and black pestilence; mine is the drowning in the lonely sea, the strangling rope, the deadly poison, and all means of sudden death. Weep no more, for I promise thy pleasure shall yet be done, and Palamon shall have Emelie.”

Now in the broad daylight, Athens is all astir. Now is heard the clattering of hoofs; the ringing of hammers, which rivet together the links of the armor; the tramping of hurried feet; the sharp word of command, and the knights calling on their squires. Now is seen the glitter of gold and the flash of steel, the waving of plumes and fluttering of mantles. Now each man has fastened the last buckle and helped his master mount, and the steeds champ their shining bits, impatient to be gone.

Inside the walls of the tourney-ground, under a canopy, sit Theseus and his court. Among all the ladies, none so lovely as Emelie. She is clad all in white, with her yellow hair garlanding her head; and so fair is she, that the very air seems to breathe her praises. And now Theseus gives aloud, by the mouth of the herald, the rules by which the tourney shall be conducted. First, in order to prevent loss of life, no man shall carry into the lists either bow and arrows, nor poleaxe, nor short sword. Neither shall he ride but one course with sharp-pointed spear.

If any transgress these rules, they shall be taken out from the lists, and stand at the stake till the tourney is ended. If either chieftain be overthrown or conquered, the victory is declared.

The weapons shall be only spears, lances, and the mace.

Now the heralds have cried aloud the charge, and the trumpets and clarions have blown, and the drums beat, and the fierce onset begun. The lances shiver, swords gleam, the maces ring heavily on steel helmets. Now this brave knight is unhorsed, and meets his enemy in fierce grapple; now one is trampled under foot; now clouds of dust hide all like a thick smoke; here they struggle unfairly and are led to the stake, till the affray is over; there one is borne bleeding from the field.

Many times the heralds sound the trumpets for a breathing-space in the battle, and again and again they return to the charge. But alas for Palamon! just at evening he is overcome, when he would go to the help of the brave Lycurgus, who is unhorsed, and fighting bravely; and Theseus cries out that Arcite has the victory, and Palamon must yield himself conquered.

Then Palamon’s heart sinks like lead in his breast, and by the throne of Jupiter, on high Olympus, Venus wrings her hands, in anguish of his defeat. But who is more proud than Arcite, and whose eyes beam so tenderly as Emelie’s, since, woman-like, her heart is already moved with love for the victorious hero.

Now he rides forward, the dust on his armor, many a stain of red blood on his waving mantle, his plumes nodding proudly, his eyes full of gladness. Now Emelie bends forward, with the laurel wreath in her hand, when, alas that I must write it! the fiery steed of Arcite starts, plunges forward and then back, and over his arched neck flings Arcite on the stone pavement in front of the royal dais. Thus has Saturn redeemed his pledge to Venus, and sudden death overtaken the victor under the shadow of the laurel wreath.

They cleared the brave knight of his armor, and still he lingered a little, always crying for Emelie. Then he died, and his fair lady and Palamon wept together at his bedside. Over all the land was great mourning. Theseus would hardly be comforted for the loss of this brave heart, and Hypolita bewailed this flower of knighthood rudely cut off in his prime. All the maidens cry by his bier, “ Alas, alas! Arcite, why didst thou die thus? Hadst thou not gold enough, and Emelie?

At last they made a great funeral pyre of all rare and costly woods, and Emelie herself lighted the torch which consumed it to ashes. After this she mourned him for a long time in deep widowhood; but when the period of mourning had been prolonged a year, Theseus called both Palamon and Emelie to his presence.

“ It is not good to grieve always,” he said to Emelie. “ Arcite was a noble gentleman, and loved you dear, but you cannot call him back with grieving. Here is his kinsman, not less brave, who has loved you as long and as dearly. What say you to him, Emelie? As for Palamon, I warrant he will not say me nay.”

And with these words, Theseus placed the hand of his sister in that of the knight, and Emelie looked at Palamon and smiled up in his face with a smile which made sunshine in his sad heart.

Then there was a royal wedding at the palace and never was a more loving pair than these two no husband more tender, no wife more true. No grief ever came between them, and no shadow fell on their lives till death came to take them apart.

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