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Even at that distance
they knew him by his shield to be Lancelot du Lake.

"A noble and trusty friend he is, indeed, to come in such a fashion,"
said the queen. "Hard bested he must have been, to be forced to ride
hither in a woodman's cart."

As they looked, the cart came to the castle gates, and Lancelot sprang
from it to the ground, his heart full of rage and passion.

"Where art thou, traitor?" he cried, in a voice that rang throughout the
castle. "Come forth, thou disgrace to the Round Table fellowship! Come,
with all your men; for here am I, Lancelot du Lake, who will fight you
all single-handed on this question."

As he spoke he thrust the gates open with such force that the porter,
who sought to hold them shut, was hurled like a dead man to the earth.

When Meliagrance in the castle heard this loud defiance his cowardly
soul sank within him, for well he knew from whom it came, and he ran in
haste to the queen and fell on his knees before her, begging her to
forgive him and to cool the wrath of Lancelot. So pitifully did he
implore, that in the end Guenever was moved to compassion, and went with
her ladies to the castle court, where Lancelot stood furiously bidding
the traitor knight to come down and do battle.

"Why are you so moved, Lancelot?" asked the queen.

"Why should I not be?" he cried, in a rage. "The hound has killed my
horse and stolen my queen. Is this the thing to bear like a lamb?"

"He sorely repents his fault, and has moved me to forgive him," said the
queen. "Come in, then, peaceably, I beg you, for I have passed my word."

"You accord easily with this dog of a kidnapper," said Lancelot,
sourly. "Had I looked for this I might have spared my haste and saved my
horse."

"It is not through love or favor I have forgiven him," said the queen,
"but to check the voice of scandal."

"I am no fonder of scandal than yourself," said Lancelot. "Yet if I had
my will I would make this fellow's heart full cold before I left this
castle."

"I know that well, but beg that you will be ruled by me in this affair."

"Let it be so, if you have passed your word. But you are too soft of
heart Queen Guenever."

Then she took his hand, for he had taken off his gauntlet, and led him
into the castle, and to the chamber in which lay the ten wounded
knights, whose hearts warmed at his coming. From them he learned in full
what had occurred, a story which stirred his blood again into such a
flame, that only the soft hand of the queen hindered him from seeking
Meliagrance through the castle to slay him.

As they stood talking, Sir Lavaine rode furiously in at the gate,
crying,--

"Where is my lord, Sir Lancelot du Lake?"

"Here I am," cried Lancelot from a window. "All is well, Lavaine."

"I found your horse slain with arrows, and judged you were hard pushed."

"As for that, Lavaine, soft words have turned hard blows. Come in. We
shall right this matter at another time, when we best may."

For many a day thereafter, as the French book says, Lancelot was called
the Chevalier of the Cart, and many an adventure he had under that
homely name.

All went peacefully that night at the castle, but the next morning there
was new trouble. For one of the castle maidens brought word to
Meliagrance that she had found what seemed to be the print of a bloody
hand on the coverings of the queen's bed. Thither he hurried, full of
jealous anger, and found what appeared, indeed, to be the crimson print
of a man's hand. On seeing this he made a loud outcry, declaring that it
was the blood of one of the wounded knights, and fiercely accused
Guenever of having been false to her lord King Arthur.

When word of this accusation came to the wounded knights they were
filled with indignation, and cried that they would meet Meliagrance or
any man in the lists in defence of the queen's honor.

"Ye speak proudly," said Meliagrance. "Yet look here, and see if I have
not warrant for what I say."

When he showed them the red witness of his words they were abashed, and
knew not what to answer.

All this was told to Lancelot, and he came in haste and anger to the
queen's chamber.

"What is this?" he demanded.

"It is that the queen has proved false to her lord and husband, and this
I stand ready to prove with my body," said Meliagrance.

"Beware what you say, sir knight," cried Lancelot, "or you will find
your challenge taken."

"My lord Lancelot," answered Meliagrance, "good knight as you are, take
heed how you do battle in a wrong quarrel, for God will have a hand in
such a cause."

"This I say," answered Lancelot, hotly, "that you accuse the queen
wrongly, and these noble knights as falsely. This is the work of treason
or magic."

"Hold," said Meliagrance; "here is my glove, in proof that she is
traitress to the king, and that one of these wounded knights is her
leman."

"I accept your challenge," said Lancelot, "and will fight you to the
death in this cause. When shall we do battle?"

"Let it be in eight days from this," said Meliagrance, "in the field
beside Camelot."

"I am agreed," said Lancelot.

"Then let us go to dinner," said Meliagrance, "and afterwards you and
the queen and her knights may ride to Camelot."

Yet fairly as he spoke his heart was full of treachery, and before going
to the table he asked Lancelot if he would care to see the rooms and
passages of the castle.

"If you wish to show them," said Lancelot.

Then they went from chamber to chamber, Lancelot having no fear of peril
or thought of treason. But as they traversed a long and dark passage the
false-hearted host trod on a spring, and down fell a trap-door, giving
Lancelot a fall of more than ten fathoms into a dark cell, whose floor
was covered deeply with straw. This done, Meliagrance hastened away,
after replacing the trap, and ordered one of his men to remove Lavaine's
horse from the stable.

When the knights came to dinner all were surprised that Lancelot was not
present.

"Is this one of his old tricks?" asked the queen. "He has a fashion of
thus departing suddenly, without warning."

"But not on foot," said Lavaine, and left the room.

When he returned, it was to say that his horse had vanished from the
stable, and that doubtless Lancelot had taken it and ridden off. So they
sat quietly at dinner, and afterwards set out for the court, the wounded
knights being carried under care of Lavaine, in easily litters.

When the court was reached, and Arthur was told of what had occurred, he
was full of wrath.

"So this traitor Meliagrance chooses first to kidnap my queen, and then
to accuse her of treason?" he cried. "By my crown, I would deal with him
in another fashion only that Lancelot has taken the challenge. I fancy
the fellow will have his hands full, without my care. But where is
Lancelot?"

"That we know not," said the knights. "It is like him to go off in this
hasty way. He took Sir Lavaine's horse, and left us without a word of
parting."

"Let him he," said the king. "He will come in good time,--unless he be
trapped by some treachery."

Little dreamed they of Lancelot's true situation at that moment. He had
been sorely bruised by his fall, and lay in great pain in the cave,
visited only by a lady, who came to him daily with food. Yet it
happened, as had occurred so often to Lancelot, that the lady fell in
love with his handsome face. Meliagrance had made a foolish choice in
sending a woman with a soft heart to his prisoner, and was likely to pay
dearly for his folly. Yet days passed on, and Lancelot continued deaf to
her sighs and blind to her languishing looks.

"Sir Lancelot," she at length said, "do you not know that your lady,
Queen Guenever, will be burnt at the stake unless you be there at the
day of battle?"

"God forbid that such a disaster should come to pass!" cried Lancelot.
"Yet if I should not be there, all men of worship will know that I am
dead, sick, or in prison, for men know me well enough to know that
nothing less would keep me away. Therefore, some knight of my blood or
of my fellowship will take up this battle, and fight bravely in the
queen's cause."

"I shall set you free, Sir Lancelot, to fight your own battle, if you
will but give me your love; for truly I love you with my whole heart."

"I am sorry that I cannot return it," said Lancelot. "But I cannot lie
to you in such a cause, even for life or honor."

"Take heed what you say, Sir Lancelot. Shame will be your lot if any but
you fight this battle."

"As for the world's shame, may Christ defend me. As for my distress of
heart, it is welcome, if God sends it."

The lady went away full of sorrowful thoughts. But on the morning of the
day fixed for the battle she came to him again, and said, gently,--

"Sir Lancelot, I deem you hard-hearted and cruel; yet I love you too
truly to see you disgraced. If you will solace my heart-pain with but
one kiss, I will set you free, and deliver to you your armor, and the
best horse in the castle stables."

"Surely there is no dishonor in a kiss; and well will you earn it by
such service," said Lancelot. "You offer me new life, fair lady."

Then he kissed her; and with a face half glad, half gloomy, she led him
from the prison by a secret passage to the chamber where his armor had
been left. And when he was armed she conducted him privily to a stable
where stood twelve good horses, and bade him make his choice.

Lancelot chose a white courser, whose size and spirit pleased him most,
and this he deftly saddled and bridled. Then, with spear in hand and
sword by side, he commended the lady to God, saying,--

"Lady, for this good deed I shall do you ample service if ever it be in
my power. If not, may God reward you."

This said, he rode with proud mien from the castle, and galloped at
headlong speed away, while she, with sad eyes and sighing lips, stood
looking with loving regard on his departing form.

Sadly was his coming needed, for imminent was the peril of the queen. At
the place fixed for the combat knights and lords had early gathered, and
Meliagrance, feeling sure that Lancelot could not appear to do battle,
put on a haughty mien, and loudly demanded justice, or the combat.



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