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When he came to
himself again, he struck feebly at Lancelot as he lay, and cried
spitefully,--

"Thou false traitor, I am not yet slain. Come near me, and do this
battle to the uttermost."

"I shall do no more than I have done," said Lancelot. "When I see you on
your feet again I shall stand ready to fight you to the bitter end. But
to smite a wounded and prostrate man!--God defend me from such a shame."

And he turned and went towards the city, while Gawaine with spiteful
malice called him traitor, and vowed he would never cease to fight with
him till one of them was dead.

A month now passed away, during which Gawaine lay sick of his wound. As
he slowly recovered, the old battle-hunger for Lancelot's blood returned
to his heart, and he impatiently awaited the day when he could again
take the field. But before this day arrived, news came from England that
put a sudden end to the war; tidings of such threatening aspect that
King Arthur was forced to return in all haste to his own realm.




CHAPTER V.

THE STING OF THE VIPER.


Disastrous, indeed, were the news from England. King Arthur had made the
fatal mistake of placing a villain and dastard in charge of his realm,
for Mordred had taken advantage of his absence to turn traitor, and seek
to seize the crown and sceptre of England as his own.

News moved but slowly from over seas in those days, and Mordred, with
treasonable craft, had letters written as though they came from abroad,
which said that King Arthur had been slain in battle with Sir Lancelot.

Having spread this lie far and wide, he called the lords together to
London in parliament, and so managed that they voted him king. Then he
was crowned at Canterbury, and held a feast for fifteen days, after
which he went to Winchester, where Guenever was, and publicly declared
that he would wed his uncle's widow.

When word of this came to Guenever she grew heavy at heart, for she
hated the traitor to her soul's depth. But she was in his power, and was
forced to hide her secret hate. She therefore seemed to consent to his
will, and desired permission to go to London, where she might buy all
things that were necessary for the wedding. She spoke so fairly that he
trusted her, and gave her leave to make the journey.

But no sooner had she reached London than she took possession of the
Tower, and with all haste supplied it with provisions and garrisoned it
with men, and so held it as a fortress, many knights holding with her
against the usurper.

Mordred soon learned that he had been beguiled by the queen, and, moved
to fury, he hastened to London, where he besieged the Tower, assailing
it vigorously with great engines of war. But Guenever held out stoutly
against him, and neither by fair speech nor foul could he induce her to
trust herself into his hands again.

[Illustration: THE TOWER OF LONDON.]

There now came to Mordred the bishop of Canterbury, who said,--

"Sir, what would you do? Would you displease God and shame knighthood
by wedding the wife of your uncle, who has been to you as a father?
Cease this vile purpose, I command you, or I shall curse you with book,
and bell, and candle, and bring upon your head the vengeance of the
church."

"Do your worst, sir priest," said Mordred, angrily. "I defy you."

"I shall do what I ought; be sure of that. You noise about that the lord
Arthur is slain, no word of which I believe. You seek with a lie to make
mischief in this land. Beware, lest your vile work recoil upon
yourself."

"Peace, thou false priest," cried Mordred. "Chafe me no more, or I shall
order that thy head be stricken off."

Finding that words were useless, the bishop departed, and, as he had
threatened, laid the curse of the church on Mordred. Roused to rage by
this, the usurper sought him to slay him, and he fled in all haste to
Glastonbury, where he took refuge as a hermit in a chapel. But well he
knew that war was at hand, and that the rightful king would soon strike
for the throne.

Despite the anathema of the church, Mordred continued his efforts to get
Guenever into his power; but she held firmly to the Tower, repelling all
his assaults, and declaring openly that she would rather kill herself
than marry such a wretch. Soon afterwards he was forced to raise the
siege, for word came to him by secret messengers that Arthur had heard
of his treason, and was coming home with his whole host to revenge
himself on the usurper of his crown.

When Mordred heard this he made strenuous efforts to gather a large
army, and many lords joined him with their people, saying that with
Arthur there had been nothing but war and strife, but that with Mordred
they hoped for peace and a quiet life. Thus was evil said of the good
King Arthur when he was away from the land, and that by many who owed to
him their honors and estates. Mordred was thus quickly able to draw with
a great host to Dover, where he had heard that Arthur would land, for he
hoped to defeat and slay him before he could get firm footing on
England's soil.

Not long had he been there when a great fleet of ships, galleys, and
carracks appeared upon the sea, bearing the king's army back to their
native realm. On the beach stood Mordred's host, drawn up to prevent the
landing of the king's army. As the boats came to the shore, laden with
noble men-of-arms, a fierce struggle ensued, in which many a knight was
slain, while full many a bold baron was laid low on both sides. But so
courageous was the king, and so fierce the onset of his knights, that
the opposing host could not hinder the landing of his army. And when
they had gained a footing on the land, they set on Mordred with such
fury that he and all his host were driven back and forced to fly,
leaving Arthur master of the field.

After the battle, the king ordered that the dead should be buried and
the wounded cared for. Among the latter Sir Gawaine was found lying in a
great boat, where he had been felled with a deadly wound in the bitter
strife. On hearing this direful news, Arthur hastened to him and took
him in his arms, with great show of grief and pain.

"In you and in Lancelot I had my highest joy," moaned the king. "Now I
have lost you both, and all my earthly happiness is gone."

"My death is at hand," said Gawaine, "and I owe it all to my own hate
and bitterness for I am smitten on the old wound that Lancelot gave me,
and feel that I must die. Had he but been with you this unhappy war
would never have begun. Of all this I am the cause, and have but
received my deserts. Therefore I pray you, dear uncle, let me have
paper, pen, and ink, that I may write to Sir Lancelot with my own hand."

These were brought him, and Gawaine wrote a moving and tender letter to
Lancelot, blaming himself severely for his hardness of heart.

In this wise it ran,--

"Unto Sir Lancelot, flower of all noble knights, I, Sir Gawaine, son of
King Lot of Orkney, and sister's son unto the noble King Arthur, send
greeting; and also these sad tidings, that on the tenth day of May I was
smitten on the old wound which you gave me at Benwick, and thus through
this wound have I come to my death. And I would have all the world know
that I, Sir Gawaine, Knight of the Round Table, have met with death not
through your ill-will, but from my own seeking; therefore I beseech you
to come in all haste to this realm, to which you have heretofore done
such honor. I earnestly pray you, Sir Lancelot, for all the love that
ever was betwixt us, make no tarrying, but come over the sea in all
haste, that thou mayest with thy noble knights rescue that royal king
who made thee knight, for he is hard bested with a false traitor, my own
half-brother, Sir Mordred, who has had himself crowned king, and would
have wedded Queen Guenever had she not taken refuge in the Tower of
London. We put him to flight on our landing, on the tenth day of May,
but he still holds against us with a great host. Therefore, I pray you
to come, for I am within two hours of my death; and I beg that you will
visit my tomb, and pray some prayer, more or less, for my soul."

When Sir Gawaine had finished this letter he wept bitter tears of sorrow
and remorse, and Arthur wept beside him till they both swooned, the one
from grief, the other from pain. When they recovered, the king had the
rites of the church administered to the dying knight, who then prayed
him to send in haste for Lancelot, and to cherish him above all other
knights, as his best friend and ally.

Afterwards, at the hour of noon, Gawaine yielded up his spirit. And the
king had him interred in Dover castle, where men to this day may see his
skull, with the wound thereon that Lancelot gave him in battle.

Word was now brought to King Arthur that Mordred had pitched a new camp
on Barham Down. Thither in all haste he led his army, and there a second
great battle was fought, with much loss on both sides. But at the end
Arthur's party stood best, and Mordred fled, with all his host, to
Canterbury.

This second victory changed the feeling of the country, and many people
who had held aloof joined the king's army, saying that Mordred was a
traitor and usurper. When the dead had been buried and the wounded cared
for, Arthur marched with his host to the sea-shore, westward towards
Salisbury. Here a challenge passed between him and Mordred, in which
they agreed to meet on a down beside Salisbury, on the day after Trinity
Sunday, and there fight out their quarrel.

Mordred now made haste to recruit his army, raising many men about
London, for the people of that section of the country held largely with
him, and particularly those who were friendly to Lancelot. When the time
fixed came near, the two armies drew together and camped on Salisbury
Down.

And so the days passed till came the night of Trinity Sunday, when the
king dreamed a strange dream, for it seemed to him that he sat in a
chair that was fastened to a wheel, and was covered with the richest
cloth of gold that could be made. But far beneath him he beheld a
hideous black pool, in which were all manner of serpents, and vile
worms, foul and horrible.



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