Read CHAPTER VI of The Tale of Balen , free online book, by Algernon Charles Swinburne, on

In autumn, when the wind and sea
Rejoice to live and laugh to be,
And scarce the blast that curbs the tree
And bids before it quail and flee
The fiery foliage, where its brand
Is radiant as the seal of spring,
Sounds less delight, and waves a wing
Less lustrous, life’s loud thanksgiving
Puts life in sea and land.

High hope in Balen’s heart alight
Laughed, as from all that clamorous fight
He passed and sought not Arthur’s sight,
Who fain had found his kingliest knight
And made amend for Balen’s wrong.
But Merlin gave his soul to see
Fate, rising as a shoreward sea,
And all the sorrow that should be
Ere hope or fear thought long.

“O where are they whose hands upbore
My battle,” Arthur said, “before
The wild Welsh host’s wide rage and roar?
Balen and Balan, Pellinore,
Where are they?” Merlin answered him:
“Balen shall be not long away
From sight of you, but night nor day
Shall bring his brother back to say
If life burn bright or dim.”

“Now, by my faith,” said Arthur then,
“Two marvellous knights are they, whose ken
Toward battle makes the twain as ten,
And Balen most of all born men
Passeth of prowess all I know
Or ever found or sought to see:
Would God he would abide with me,
To face the times foretold of thee
And all the latter woe.”

For there had Merlin shown the king
The doom that songs unborn should sing,
The gifts that time should rise and bring
Of blithe and bitter days to spring
As weeds and flowers against the sun.
And on the king for fear’s sake fell
Sickness, and sorrow deep as hell,
Nor even might sleep bid fear farewell
If grace to sleep were won.

Down in a meadow green and still
He bade the folk that wrought his will
Pitch his pavilion, where the chill
Soft night would let not rest fulfil
His heart wherein dark fears lay deep.
And sharp against his hearing cast
Came a sound as of horsehoofs fast
Passing, that ere their sound were past
Aroused him as from sleep.

And forth he looked along the grass
And saw before his portal pass
A knight that wailed aloud, “Alas
That life should find this dolorous pass
And find no shield from doom and dole!”
And hearing all his moan, “Abide,
Fair sir,” the king arose and cried,
“And say what sorrow bids you ride
So sorrowful of soul.”

“My hurt may no man heal, God wot,
And help of man may speed me not,”
The sad knight said, “nor change my lot.”
And toward the castle of Melyot
Whose towers arose a league away
He passed forth sorrowing: and anon,
Ere well the woful sight were gone,
Came Balen down the meads that shone,
Strong, bright, and brave as day.

And seeing the king there stand, the knight
Drew rein before his face to alight
In reverence made for love’s sake bright
With joy that set his face alight
As theirs who see, alive, above,
The sovereign of their souls, whose name
To them is even as love’s own flame
To enkindle hope that heeds not fame
And knows no lord but love.

And Arthur smiled on him, and said,
“Right welcome be thou: by my head,
I would not wish me better sped.
For even but now there came and fled
Before me like a cloud that flies
A knight that made most heavy cheer,
I know not wherefore; nor may fear
Or pity give my heart to hear
Or lighten on mine eyes.

“But even for fear’s and pity’s sake
Fain were I thou shouldst overtake
And fetch again this knight that spake
No word of answering grace to make
Reply to mine that hailed him: thou,
By force or by goodwill, shalt bring
His face before me.” “Yea, my king,”
Quoth Balen, “and a greater thing
Were less than is my vow.

“I would the task required and heard
Were heavier than your sovereign word
Hath laid on me:” and thence he spurred
Elate at heart as youth, and stirred
With hope as blithe as fires a boy:
And many a mile he rode, and found
Far in a forest’s glimmering bound
The man he sought afar around
And seeing took fire for joy.

And with him went a maiden, fair
As flowers aflush with April air.
And Balen bade him turn him there
To tell the king what woes they were
That bowed him down so sore: and he
Made woeful answer: “This should do
Great scathe to me, with nought for you
Of help that hope might hearken to
For boot that may not be.”

And Balen answered: “I were loth
To fight as one perforce made wroth
With one that owes by knighthood’s oath
One love, one service, and one troth
With me to him whose gracious hand
Holds fast the helm of knighthood here
Whereby man’s hope and heart may steer:
I pray you let not sorrow or fear
Against his bidding stand.”

The strange knight gazed on him, and spake:
“Will you, for Arthur’s royal sake,
Be warrant for me that I take
No scathe from strife that man may make?
Then will I go with you.” And he
Made joyous answer: “Yea, for I
Will be your warrant or will die.”
And thence they rode with hearts as high
As men’s that search the sea.

And as by noon’s large light the twain
Before the tented hall drew rein,
Suddenly fell the strange knight, slain
By one that came and went again
And none might see him; but his spear
Clove through the body, swift as fire,
The man whose doom, forefelt as dire,
Had darkened all his life’s desire,
As one that death held dear.

And dying he turned his face and said,
“Lo now thy warrant that my head
Should fall not, following forth where led
A knight whose pledge hath left me dead.
This darkling manslayer hath to name
Garlón: take thou my goodlier steed,
Seeing thine is less of strength and speed,
And ride, if thou be knight indeed,
Even thither whence we came.

“And as the maiden’s fair behest
Shall bid you follow on my quest,
Follow: and when God’s will sees best,
Revenge my death, and let me rest
As one that lived and died a knight,
Unstained of shame alive or dead.”
And Balen, wrung with sorrow, said,
“That shall I do: my hand and head
I pledge to do you right.”

And thence with sorrowing heart and cheer
He rode, in grief that cast out fear
Lest death in darkness yet were near,
And bore the truncheon of the spear
Wherewith the woful knight lay slain
To her with whom he rode, and she
Still bare it with her, fain to see
What righteous doom of God’s might be
The darkling manslayer’s bane.

And down a dim deep woodland way
They rode between the boughs asway
With flickering winds whose flash and play
Made sunlight sunnier where the day
Laughed, leapt, and fluttered like a bird
Caught in a light loose leafy net
That earth for amorous heaven had set
To hold and see the sundawn yet
And hear what morning heard.

There in the sweet soft shifting light
Across their passage rode a knight
Flushed hot from hunting as from fight,
And seeing the sorrow-stricken sight
Made question of them why they rode
As mourners sick at heart and sad,
When all alive about them bade
Sweet earth for heaven’s sweet sake be glad
As heaven for earth’s love glowed.

“Me lists not tell you,” Balen said.
The strange knight’s face grew keen and red
“Now, might my hand but keep my head,
Even here should one of twain lie dead
Were he no better armed than I.”
And Balen spake with smiling speed,
Where scorn and courtesy kept heed
Of either: “That should little need:
Not here shall either die.”

And all the cause he told him through
As one that feared not though he knew
All: and the strange knight spake anew,
Saying: “I will part no more from you
While life shall last me.” So they went
Where he might arm himself to ride,
And rode across wild ways and wide
To where against a churchyard side
A hermit’s harbour leant.

And there against them riding came
Fleet as the lightning’s laugh and flame
The invisible evil, even the same
They sought and might not curse by name
As hell’s foul child on earth set free,
And smote the strange knight through, and fled,
And left the mourners by the dead.
“Alas, again,” Sir Balen said,
“This wrong he hath done to me.”

And there they laid their dead to sleep
Royally, lying where wild winds keep
Keen watch and wail more soft and deep
Than where men’s choirs bid music weep
And song like incense heave and swell.
And forth again they rode, and found
Before them, dire in sight and sound,
A castle girt about and bound
With sorrow like a spell.

Above it seemed the sun at noon
Sad as a wintry withering moon
That shudders while the waste wind’s tune
Craves ever none may guess what boon,
But all may know the boon for dire.
And evening on its darkness fell
More dark than very death’s farewell,
And night about it hung like hell,
Whose fume the dawn made fire.

And Balen lighted down and passed
Within the gateway, whence no blast
Rang as the sheer portcullis, cast
Suddenly down, fell, and made fast
The gate behind him, whence he spied
A sudden rage of men without
And ravin of a murderous rout
That girt the maiden hard about
With death on either side.

And seeing that shame and peril, fear
Bade wrath and grief awake and hear
What shame should say in fame’s wide ear
If she, by sorrow sealed more dear
Than joy might make her, so should die:
And up the tower’s curled stair he sprang
As one that flies death’s deadliest fang,
And leapt right out amid their gang
As fire from heaven on high.

And they thereunder seeing the knight
Unhurt among their press alight
And bare his sword for chance of fight
Stood from him, loth to strive or smite,
And bade him hear their woful word,
That not the maiden’s death they sought;
But there through years too dire for thought
Had lain their lady stricken, and nought
Might heal her: and he heard.

For there a maiden clean and whole
In virgin body and virgin soul,
Whose name was writ on royal roll,
That would but stain a silver bowl
With offering of her stainless blood,
Therewith might heal her: so they stayed
For hope’s sad sake each blameless maid
There journeying in that dolorous shade
Whose bloom was bright in bud.

No hurt nor harm to her it were
If she should yield a sister there
Some tribute of her blood, and fare
Forth with this joy at heart to bear,
That all unhurt and unafraid
This grace she had here by God’s grace wrought.
And kindling all with kindly thought
And love that saw save love’s self nought,
Shone, smiled, and spake the maid.

“Good knight of mine, good will have I
To help this healing though I die.”
“Nay,” Balen said, “but love may try
What help in living love may lie.
I will not lose the life of her
While my life lasteth.” So she gave
The tribute love was fain to crave,
But might not heal though fain to save,
Were God’s grace helpfuller.

Another maid in later Mays
Won with her life that woful praise,
And died. But they, when surging day’s
Deep tide fulfilled the dawn’s wide ways,
Rode forth, and found by day or night
No chance to cross their wayfaring
Till when they saw the fourth day spring
A knight’s hall gave them harbouring
Rich as a king’s house might.

And while they sat at meat and spake
Words bright and kind as grace might make
Sweet for true knighthood’s kindly sake,
They heard a cry beside them break
The still-souled joy of blameless rest.
“What noise is this?” quoth Balen. “Nay,”
His knightly host made answer, “may
Our grief not grieve you though I say
How here I dwell unblest.

“Not many a day has lived and died
Since at a tournay late I tried
My strength to smite and turn and ride
Against a knight of kinglike pride,
King Pellam’s brother: twice I smote
The splendour of his strength to dust:
And he, fulfilled of hate’s fierce lust,
Swore vengeance, pledged for hell to trust,
And keen as hell’s wide throat.

“Invisible as the spirit of night
That heaven and earth in depth and height
May see not by the mild moon’s light
Nor even when stars would grant them sight,
He walks and slays as plague’s blind breath
Slays: and my son, whose anguish here
Makes moan perforce that mars our cheer,
He wounded, even ere love might fear
That hate were strong as death.

“Nor may my son be whole till he
Whose stroke through him hath stricken me
Shall give again his blood to be
Our healing: yet may no man see
This felon, clothed with darkness round
And keen as lightning’s life.” Thereon
Spake Balen, and his presence shone
Even as the sun’s when stars are gone
That hear dawn’s trumpet sound.

“That knight I know: two knights of mine,
Two comrades, sealed by faith’s bright sign,
Whose eyes as ours that live should shine,
And drink the golden sunlight’s wine
With joy’s thanksgiving that they live,
He hath slain in even the same blind wise:
Were all wide wealth beneath the skies
Mine, might I meet him, eyes on eyes,
All would I laugh to give.”

His host made answer, and his gaze
Grew bright with trust as dawn’s moist maze
With fire: “Within these twenty days,
King Pellam, lord of Lystenayse,
Holds feast through all this country cried,
And there before the knightly king
May no knight come except he bring
For witness of his wayfaring
His paramour or bride.

“And there that day, so soon to shine,
This knight, your felon foe and mine,
Shall show, full-flushed with bloodred wine,
The fierce false face whereon we pine
To wreak the wrong he hath wrought us, bare
As shame should see and brand it.” “Then,”
Said Balen, “shall he give again
His blood to heal your son, and men
Shall see death blind him there.”

“Forth will we fare to-morrow,” said
His host: and forth, as sunrise led,
They rode; and fifteen days were fled
Ere toward their goal their steeds had sped.
And there alighting might they find
For Balen’s host no place to rest,
Who came without a gentler guest
Beside him: and that household’s hest
Bade leave his sword behind.

“Nay,” Balen said, “that do I not:
My country’s custom stands, God wot,
That none whose lot is knighthood’s lot,
To ride where chance as fire is hot
With hope or promise given of fight,
Shall fail to keep, for knighthood’s part,
His weapon with him as his heart;
And as I came will I depart,
Or hold herein my right.”

Then gat he leave to wear his sword
Beside the strange king’s festal board
Where feasted many a knight and lord
In seemliness of fair accord:
And Balen asked of one beside,
“Is there not in this court, if fame
Keep faith, a knight that hath to name
Garlón?” and saying that word of shame,
He scanned that place of pride.

“Yonder he goeth against the light,
He with the face as swart as night,”
Quoth the other: “but he rides to fight
Hid round by charms from all men’s sight,
And many a noble knight he hath slain,
Being wrapt in darkness deep as hell
And silence dark as shame.” “Ah, well,”
Said Balen, “is that he? the spell
May be the sorcerer’s bane.”

Then Balen gazed upon him long,
And thought, “If here I wreak my wrong,
Alive I may not scape, so strong
The felon’s friends about him throng;
And if I leave him here alive,
This chance perchance may life not give
Again: much evil, if he live,
He needs must do, should fear forgive
When wrongs bid strike and strive.”

And Garlón, seeing how Balen’s eye
Dwelt on him as his heart waxed high
With joy in wrath to see him nigh,
Rose wolf-like with a wolfish cry
And crossed and smote him on the face,
Saying, “Knight, what wouldst thou with me? Eat,
For shame, and gaze not: eat thy meat
Do that thou art come for: stands thy seat
Next ours of royal race?”

“Well hast thou said: thy rede rings true;
That which I came for will I do,”
Quoth Balen: forth his fleet sword flew,
And clove the head of Garlón through
Clean to the shoulders. Then he cried
Loud to his lady, “Give me here
The truncheon of the shameful spear
Wherewith he slew your knight, when fear
Bade hate in darkness ride.”

And gladly, bright with grief made glad,
She gave the truncheon as he bade,
For still she bare it with her, sad
And strong in hopeless hope she had,
Through all dark days of thwarting fear,
To see if doom should fall aright
And as God’s fire-fraught thunder smite
That head, clothed round with hell-faced night,
Bare now before her here.

And Balen smote therewith the dead
Dark felon’s body through, and said
Aloud, “With even this truncheon, red
With baser blood than brave men bled
Whom in thy shameful hand it slew,
Thou hast slain a nobler knight, and now
It clings and cleaves thy body: thou
Shall cleave again no brave man’s brow,
Though hell would aid anew.”

And toward his host he turned and spake;
“Now for your son’s long-suffering sake
Blood ye may fetch enough, and take
Wherewith to heal his hurt, and make
Death warm as life.” Then rose a cry
Loud as the wind’s when stormy spring
Makes all the woodland rage and ring:
“Thou hast slain my brother,” said the king,
“And here with him shalt die.”

“Ay?” Balen laughed him answer. “Well,
Do it then thyself.” And the answer fell
Fierce as a blast of hate from hell,
“No man of mine that with me dwell
Shall strike at thee but I their lord
For love of this my brother slain.”
And Pellam caught and grasped amain
A grim great weapon, fierce and fain
To feed his hungering sword.

And eagerly he smote, and sped
Not well: for Balen’s blade, yet red
With lifeblood of the murderous dead,
Between the swordstroke and his head
Shone, and the strength of the eager stroke
Shore it in sunder: then the knight,
Naked and weaponless for fight,
Ran seeking him a sword to smite
As hope within him woke.

And so their flight for deathward fast
From chamber forth to chamber passed
Where lay no weapon, till the last
Whose doors made way for Balen cast
Upon him as a sudden spell
Wonder that even as lightning leapt
Across his heart and eyes, and swept
As storm across his soul that kept
Wild watch, and watched not well.

For there the deed he did, being near
Death’s danger, breathless as the deer
Driven hard to bay, but void of fear,
Brought sorrow down for many a year
On many a man in many a land.
All glorious shone that chamber, bright
As burns at sunrise heaven’s own height:
With cloth of gold the bed was dight,
That flamed on either hand.

And one he saw within it lie:
A table of all clear gold thereby
Stood stately, fair as morning’s eye,
With four strong silver pillars, high
And firm as faith and hope may be:
And on it shone the gift he sought,
A spear most marvellously wrought,
That when his eye and handgrip caught
Small fear at heart had he.

Right on King Pellam then, as fire
Turns when the thwarting winds wax higher,
He turned, and smote him down. So dire
The stroke was, when his heart’s desire
Struck, and had all its fill of hate,
That as the king fell swooning down
Fell the walls, rent from base to crown,
Prone as prone seas that break and drown
Ships fraught with doom for freight.

And there for three days’ silent space
Balen and Pellam face to face
Lay dead or deathlike, and the place
Was death’s blind kingdom, till the grace
That God had given the sacred seer
For counsel or for comfort led
His Merlin thither, and he said,
Standing between the quick and dead,
“Rise up, and rest not here.”

And Balen rose and set his eyes
Against the seer’s as one that tries
His heart against the sea’s and sky’s
And fears not if he lives or dies,
Saying, “I would have my damosel,
Ere I fare forth, to fare with me.”
And sadly Merlin answered, “See
Where now she lies; death knows if she
Shall now fare ill or well.

“And in this world we meet no more,
Balen.” And Balen, sorrowing sore,
Though fearless yet the heart he bore
Beat toward the life that lay before,
Rode forth through many a wild waste land
Where men cried out against him, mad
With grievous faith in fear that bade
Their wrath make moan for doubt they had
Lest hell had armed his hand.

For in that chamber’s wondrous shrine
Was part of Christ’s own blood, the wine
Shed of the true triumphal vine
Whose growth bids earth’s deep darkness shine
As heaven’s deep light through the air and sea;
That mystery toward our northern shore
Arimathean Joseph bore
For healing of our sins of yore,
That grace even there might be.

And with that spear there shrined apart
Was Christ’s side smitten to the heart.
And fiercer than the lightning’s dart
The stroke was, and the deathlike smart
Wherewith, nigh drained of blood and breath,
The king lay stricken as one long dead:
And Joseph’s was the blood there shed,
For near akin was he that bled,
Near even as life to death.

And therefore fell on all that land
Sorrow: for still on either hand,
As Balen rode alone and scanned
Bright fields and cities built to stand
Till time should break them, dead men lay;
And loud and long from all their folk
Living, one cry that cursed him broke;
Three countries had his dolorous stroke
Slain, or should surely slay.