Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race

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Sir Gawayne, but when she had recovered a little she spoke: “Alas! Sir Gawayne, I fear you do [Pg 279] but jest. Will you wed with one so ugly and deformed as I? What sort of wife should I be for a knight so gay and gallant, so fair and comely as the king’s own nephew? What will Queen Guenever and the ladies of the Court say when you return to Carlisle bringing with you such a bride? You will be shamed, and all through me.” Then she wept bitterly, and her weeping made her seem even more hideous; but King Arthur, who was watching the scene, said: “Lady, I would fain see that knight or dame who dares mock at my nephew’s bride. I will take order that no such unknightly discourtesy is shown in my court,” and he glared angrily at Sir Kay and the others who had stayed, seeing that Sir Gawayne was prepared to sacrifice himself and therefore they were safe. The lady raised her head and looked keenly at Sir Gawayne, who took her hand, saying: “Lady, I will be a true and loyal husband to you if you will have me; and I shall know how to guard my wife from insult. Come, lady, and my uncle will announce the betrothal.” Now the lady seemed to believe that Sir Gawayne was in earnest, and she sprang to her feet, saying: “Thanks to you! A thousand thanks, Sir Gawayne, and blessings on your head! You shall never rue this wedding, and the courtesy you have shown. Wend we now to Carlisle.”

The Journey to Carlisle

A horse with a side-saddle had been brought for Sir Gawayne’s bride, but when the lady moved it became evident that she was lame and halted in her walk, and there was a slight hunch on her shoulders. Both of these deformities showed little when she was seated, but as she moved the knights looked at one another, shrugged their shoulders and pitied Sir Gawayne, whose courtesy had bound him for life to so deformed [Pg 280] a wife. Then the whole train rode away together, the bride between King Arthur and her betrothed, and all the knights whispering and sneering behind them. Great was the excitement in Carlisle to see that ugly dame, and greater still the bewilderment in the court when they were told that this loathly lady was Sir Gawayne’s bride.

The Bridal

Only Queen Guenever understood, and she showed all courtesy to the deformed bride, and stood by her as her lady-of-honour when the wedding took place that evening, while King Arthur was groomsman to his nephew. When the long banquet was over, and bride and bridegroom no longer need sit side by side, the tables were cleared and the hall was prepared for a dance, and then men thought that Sir Gawayne would be free for a time to talk with his friends; but he refused. “Bride and bridegroom must tread the first dance together, if she wishes it,” quoth he, and offered his lady his hand for the dance. “I thank you, sweet husband,” said the grim lady as she took it and moved forward to open the dance with him; and through the long and stately measure that followed, so perfect was his dignity, and the courtesy and grace with which he danced, that no man dreamt of smiling as the deformed lady moved clumsily through the figures of the dance.

Sir Gawayne’s Bride

At last the long evening was over, the last measure danced, the last wine-cup drained, the bride escorted to her chamber, the lights out, the guests separated in their rooms, and Gawayne was free to think of what he had done, and to consider how he had ruined his whole hope of happiness. He thought of his uncle’s favour, [Pg 281] of the poor lady’s gratitude, of the blessing she had invoked upon him, and he determined to be gentle with her, though he could never love her as his wife. He entered the bride-chamber with the feeling of a man who has made up his mind to endure, and did not even look towards his bride, who sat awaiting him beside the fire. Choosing a chair, he sat down and looked sadly into the glowing embers and spoke no word.

“Have you no word for me, husband? Can you not even give me a glance?” asked the lady, and Sir Gawayne turned his eyes to her where she sat; and then he sprang up in amazement, for there sat no loathly lady, no ugly and deformed being, but a maiden young and lovely, with black eyes and long curls of dark hair, with beautiful face and tall and graceful figure. “Who are you, maiden?” asked Sir Gawayne; and the fair one replied: “I am your wife, whom you found between the oak and the holly-tree, and whom you wedded this night.”

Sir Gawayne’s Choice

“But how has this marvel come to pass?” asked he, wondering, for the fair maiden was so lovely that he marvelled that he had not known her beauty even under that hideous disguise. “It is an enchantment to which I am in bondage,” said she. “I am not yet entirely free from it, but now for a time I may appear to you as I really am. Is my lord content with his loving bride?” asked she, with a little smile, as she rose and stood before him. “Content!” he said, as he clasped her in his arms. “I would not change my dear lady for the fairest dame in Arthur’s court, not though she were Queen Guenever herself. I am the happiest knight that lives, for I thought to save my uncle and help a hapless lady, and I have won my [Pg 282] own happiness thereby. Truly I shall never rue the day when I wedded you, dear heart.” Long they sat and talked together, and then Sir Gawayne grew weary, and would fain have slept, but his lady said: “Husband, now a heavy choice awaits you. I am under the spell of an evil witch, who has given me my own face and form for half the day, and the hideous appearance in which you first saw me for the other half. Choose now whether you will have me fair by day and ugly by night, or hideous by day and beauteous by night. The choice is your own.”