Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race
Page: 156Sir Kay and the Loathly Lady
Suddenly Sir Kay reined up his steed, amazed; his eye had caught the gleam of scarlet under the trees, and [Pg 277] as he looked he became aware of a woman, clad in a dress of finest scarlet, sitting between a holly-tree and an oak. “Good greeting to you, Sir Kay,” said the lady, but the steward was too much amazed to answer. Such a face as that of the lady he had never even imagined, and he took no notice of her salutation. By this time the rest of the knights had joined him, and they all halted, looking in astonishment on the misshapen face of the poor creature before them. It seemed terrible that a woman’s figure should be surmounted by such hideous features, and most of the knights were silent for pity’s sake; but the steward soon recovered from his amazement, and his rude nature began to show itself. The king had not yet appeared, and Sir Kay began to jeer aloud. “Now which of you would fain woo yon fair lady?” he asked. “It takes a brave man, for methinks he will stand in fear of any kiss he may get, it must needs be such an awesome thing. But yet I know not; any man who would kiss this beauteous damsel may well miss the way to her mouth, and his fate is not quite so dreadful after all. Come, who will win a lovely bride!” Just then King Arthur rode up, and at sight of him Sir Kay was silent; but the loathly lady hid her face in her hands, and wept that he should pour such scorn upon her.
Sir Gawayne was touched with compassion for this uncomely woman alone among these gallant and handsome knights, a woman so helpless and ill-favoured, and he said: “Peace, churl Kay, the lady cannot help herself; and you are not so noble and courteous that you have the right to jeer at any maiden; such deeds do not become a knight of Arthur’s Round Table. Besides, one of us knights here must wed this [Pg 278] unfortunate lady.” “Wed her?” shouted Kay. “Gawayne, you are mad!” “It is true, is it not, my liege?” asked Sir Gawayne, turning to the king; and Arthur reluctantly gave token of assent, saying, “I promised her not long since, for the help she gave me in a great distress, that I would grant her any boon she craved, and she asked for a young and noble knight to be her husband. My royal word is given, and I will keep it; therefore have I brought you here to meet her.” Sir Kay burst out with, “What? Ask me perchance to wed this foul quean? I’ll none of her. Where’er I get my wife from, were it from the fiend himself, this hideous hag shall never be mine.” “Peace, Sir Kay,” sternly said the king; “you shall not abuse this poor lady as well as refuse her. Mend your speech, or you shall be knight of mine no longer.” Then he turned to the others and said: “Who will wed this lady and help me to keep my royal pledge? You must not all refuse, for my promise is given, and for a little ugliness and deformity you shall not make me break my plighted word of honour.” As he spoke he watched them keenly, to see who would prove sufficiently devoted, but the knights all began to excuse themselves and to depart. They called their hounds, spurred their steeds, and pretended to search for the track of the lost stag again; but before they went Sir Gawayne cried aloud: “Friends, cease your strife and debate, for I will wed this lady myself. Lady, will you have me for your husband?” Thus saying, he dismounted and knelt before her.