Everyone knows about the famous knight Sir Guy, the slayer of the great Dun Cow which had laid waste the whole county of Warwick. But besides slaying the cow, he did many other noble deeds of which you may like to hear, so we had better begin at the beginning and learn who Sir Guy really was.
The father of Guy, Segard the Wise, was one of the most trusty councillors of the powerful earl of Warwick and Oxford, who was feared as well as loved by all, as a man who would suffer no wrong through the lands which he governed.
Now the earl had long noted the beauty and strength of Segard’s young son, and had enrolled him amongst his pages and taught him all manner of knightly exercises. He even was versed in the art of chess-playing, and thus whiled away many a wet and gloomy day for his master, and for his daughter the fair Felice, learned in astronomy, geometry, and music, and in all else that professors from the schools of Toulouse and Spain could teach a maiden.
It happened one Pentecost that the earl of Warwick ordered a great feast, followed by a tourney, to be held in the open space near the castle, and tents to be set up for dancing and players on the lute and harp. At these tourneys it was the custom of every knight to choose out his lady and to wear her token or colours on his helmet, as Sir Lancelot did the red sleeve of Elaine, and oftentimes, when Pentecost and the sports were over, marriages would be blessed by the priest.
At this feast of Pentecost in particular, Guy stood behind the chair of his master the earl, as was his duty, when he was bidden by the chamberlain of the castle to hasten to the chamber of the Lady Felice, and to attend upon her and her maidens, as it was not thought seemly for them to be present at the great feast.
Although, as we have said, the page had more than once been called upon to amuse the young damsel with a bout of chess, she had ever been strictly guarded by her nurse and never suffered to exchange a word with the youth whose place was so much below hers. On this evening, however, with none to hinder her, she chattered and laughed and teased her ladies, till Guy’s heart was stolen from him and he quite forgot the duties he was sent to fulfil, and when he left her presence he sought his room, staggering like one blind.
Young though he was, Guy knew — none better — how wide was the gulf that lay between him and the daughter of his liege lord. If the earl, in spite of all his favour, was but to know of the passion that had so suddenly been born in him, instant death would be the portion of the over-bold youth. But, well though he knew this, Guy cared little, and vowed to himself that, come what might, as soon as the feast was over he would open his heart to Felice, and abide by her answer.
It was not easy to get a chance of speaking to her, so surrounded was she by all the princes and noble knights who had taken part in the tourney; but, as everything comes to him who waits, he one day found her sitting alone in the garden, and at once poured forth all his love and hopes.
‘Are you mad to think that I should marry you?’ was all she said, and Guy turned away so full of unhappiness that he grew sick with misery. The news of his illness much distressed his master, who bade all his most learned leeches go and heal his best-beloved page, but, as he answered nothing to all they asked him, they returned and told the earl that the young man had not many days to live.
But, as some of our neighbours say, ‘What shall be, shall be’; and that very night Felice dreamed that an angel appeared to her and chided her for her pride, and bade her return a soft answer if Guy again told her of his love. She arose from her bed full of doubts and fears, and hurried to a rose bower in her own garden, where, dismissing her ladies, she tried to set her mind in order and find out what she really felt.
Felice was not very successful, because when she began to look into her heart there was one little door which always kept bursting open, though as often as it did so her pride shut it and bolted it again. She became so tired of telling herself that it was impossible that the daughter of a powerful noble could ever wed the simple son of a knight, that she was about to call to her maidens to cheer her with their songs and stories, when a hand pushed aside the roses and Guy himself stood before her.
‘Will my love ever be in vain?’ he asked, gasping painfully as he spoke and steadying himself by the walls of the arbour. ‘It is for the last time that I ask it; but if you deny me, my life is done, and I die, I die!’ And indeed it seemed as if he were already dead, for he sank in a swoon at Felice’s feet.
Her screams brought one of her maidens running to her. ‘Grammercy, my lady, and is your heart of stone,’ cried the damsel, ‘that it can see the fairest knight in the world lying here, and not break into pieces at his misery? Would that it were I whom he loved! I would never say him nay.’
‘Would it were you, and then I should no more be plagued of him,’ answered Felice; but her voice was softer than her words, and she even helped her maiden to bring the young man out of his swoon. ‘He is restored now,’ she said to her damsel, who curtseyed and withdrew from the bower; then, turning to Guy, she added, half smiling:
‘It seems that in my father’s court no man knows the proverb, “Faint heart never won fair lady.” Yet it is old, and a good one. My hand will only be the prize of a knight who has proved himself better than other men. If you can be that knight — well, you will have your chance with the rest.’
The soul of the youth leaped into his eyes as he listened; for he knew that this was much for the proud Felice to say. But he only bowed low, and with new life in his blood he left the castle. In a few days he was as strong as ever he had been, and straightway sought the earl, whom he implored to bestow on him the honour of knighthood.
‘Right gladly will I do so, my page,’ answered Rohand, and gave orders that he would hold a solemn ceremony, when Guy and twenty other youths should be dubbed knights.
Like many young men, Sir Guy thought that his first step on the road was also to be his last, and instantly sought the presence of Felice, whom he expected to find in the same softened mood as he had left her. But the lady only laughed his eagerness to scorn.
‘Think you that the name of knight is so rare that its ownership places you high above all men?’ asked she. ‘In what, I pray you tell me, does it put you above the rest who were dubbed by my father with you to-day? No troth of mine shall you have until your name is known from Warwick to Cathay.’
And Sir Guy confessed his folly and presumption, and went heavily unto the house of Segard.
‘O my father,’ he began before he had let the tapestry fall behind him, ‘I would fain cross the seas and seek adventures.’
‘Truly this is somewhat sudden, my fair young knight,’ answered Sir Segard, with a mocking gleam in his eyes, for Guy’s father had not been as blind as fathers are wont to be.
‘Other knights do so,’ replied Guy, drawing figures on the floor with the point of his sword. ‘And I would not that I were behind them.’
‘You shall go, my son,’ said Segard, ‘and I will give you as companions the well-tried knights Sir Thorold and Sir Leroy, and Héraud, whom I have proved in many wars. Besides these, you shall have men-at-arms with you, and such money as you may need.’
Before many days had passed, Sir Guy and his friends had sailed across the high seas, and had made their way to the noble city of Rouen. Amidst all that was strange and new to him, there was yet much that was familiar to his eyes, for there were certain signs which betokened a tournament, and on questioning the host of the inn he learned all that he desired. Next morning a tourney was to be held by order of the emperor and the prize should be a white horse, a milk-white falcon, and two white greyhounds, and, if he wished it, the hand of the princess Whiterose, the emperor’s daughter.
Though he had not been made a knight a month ago, Sir Guy knew full well the customs of chivalry, and presented a palfrey, scarcely less beautiful than the one promised as a prize, to the teller of these happy tidings. Then he put on his armour and rode forth to the place of the tourney.
In the field over against Rouen was gathered the flower of Western chivalry. The emperor had sent his son, and in his train came many valiant knights, among them Otho duke of Pavia, hereafter to be Sir Guy’s most bitter enemy. The fights were long and sore, but one by one the keenest swordsmen rolled in the dust, and the prize was at length adjudged to the youngest knight there present.
Full courteously he told all who might wish to hear that he might not wed Whiterose, the princess, for his faith was already plighted to another across the sea. And to Felice and to her father he sent the falcon and horse and greyhounds as tokens of his valour. After that he and his friends journeyed to many lands, fighting tournaments when there were any tournaments to fight, till the whole of Christendom rang with the name of Sir Guy.
‘Surely I have proved my worth,’ he said, when a whole year had gone by. ‘Let us go home’; and home they went.
Joyful was the welcome bestowed on him by every one he met — joyful, that is, from all but Felice.
‘Yes, you have done well,’ she said, when he knelt before her, offering some of the prizes he had won. ‘It is truly spoken among men that there are not twelve knights living as valorous as you. But that is not good enough for me. It matters not that you are “one of the best”; my husband must be “the best of all.”’
In vain Sir Guy pleaded that with her for his wife his strength would be doubled, and his renown also.
‘If you cannot conquer all men for my sake now, you will never do it after,’ she answered; and Sir Guy, seeing his words were useless, went out to do her bidding.
The wrath of his father and mother was great when their son came to tell them he was going to seek a fresh quest, but, though his heart was sore rent with their tears, he only embraced them tenderly, and departed quickly, lest he should make some promise he might not keep.
For long he found no knight whose skill and strength were equal to his own, and he was beginning to hope that the day was drawing nigh that should see him stand without a peer, when, in a tourney near the city of Benevento, his foe thrust his lance deep into his shoulder, and for many days Sir Guy lay almost senseless on his bed.
Now Otho duke of Pavia had neither forgotten nor forgiven his overthrow by the young knight at Rouen, more than a year agone, and he resolved to have his revenge while his enemy was still weak from loss of blood. So he hid some men behind some bushes, which Sir Guy would needs pass while riding along the road to the north, ‘and then,’ thought he, ‘I will cast him into prison, there to await my pleasure.’
But though his plans were well laid, the fight went against him, and in the end Sir Guy, nearly fainting with weariness and loss of blood, was again the victor, and Otho’s best knight, Sir Guichard of Lombardy, owed his life to the swiftness of his horse. His victory, however, was to Sir Guy as sad as many defeats, for his constant companions lay dead before him.
‘Ah, Felice, this is your doing,’ said he.
Long were it to tell of the deeds done by the noble knight Sir Guy; of the tourneys that he won, of the cities that he conquered — even at the game of chess he managed to be victorious! Of course many men were sorely jealous of him and his renown, and wove plots for his ruin, but somehow or other he contrived to escape them all.
By this time Sir Guy had grown to love wandering and fighting so well that he had well-nigh forgotten who had sent him from his native land, and why he was not dwelling in his father’s castle. Indeed, so wholly had the image of Felice faded from his memory, that when Ernis emperor of Constantinople, under whose banner he was serving, offered him the hand of his only daughter and half of his dominions, Sir Guy at once accepted his gifts.
The sight of the wedding-ring brought him back to his allegiance. He no longer loved Felice it is true, and he did love a younger and gentler maiden. But he must abide by the oath he had sworn, though it were to his own undoing.
His grief at the loss of the princess Lorette sent Sir Guy to his bed for many days, but as soon as the fever left him he felt that he could stay at court no longer, and began to make plans to seek other adventures in company with his friend Héraud and a lion which he had saved from the claws of a dragon.
Since that day this lion had never quitted his side, except at his master’s bidding, and he always slept on the floor by his master’s bed. The emperor and all his courtiers were fond of the great beast, who moved among them as freely as a kitten, but Sir Morgadour, the chief steward of the emperor of the West, who was visiting the court, had ever been Sir Guy’s mortal enemy, and one evening, thinking himself unseen, gave the lion a mortal wound as he was sleeping quietly in the garden. He had just strength enough to drag himself to Sir Guy’s feet, where he died, and a damsel who had marked the cruel deed proclaimed loudly that it was done by Sir Morgadour. In an instant Sir Guy’s dagger was buried in his breast; but when he grew calmer he remembered that his presence at court might bring injury upon Ernis, as the emperor of the West would certainly seize the occasion to avenge the death of his steward. So the next day he left the city, and slowly turned his face towards England.
It was some months before he arrived there, so many adventures did he meet with on the way. But directly he landed he hastened to York to throw himself at the feet of Athelstan the king.
‘Ah, welcome indeed, fair son,’ cried he; ‘the fame of your prowess has reached us these many years past, and we have just received the news that a fearful and horrible dragon, with wings on his feet and claws on his ears, is laying waste our county of Northumberland. He is as black as any coal, and as rough as any foal, and every man who has gone out to meet him has been done to death ere he has struck a blow. Go, therefore, with all speed and deliver us from this monster, for of dragons you have slain many, and perchance this one is no more evil than the rest.’
The adventure was one after Sir Guy’s own heart, and that very day he rode northwards; but even his well-proved courage failed somewhat at the sight of the dragon, ten times uglier and more loathsome than any he had ever beheld. The creature roared hideously as he drew near, and stood up at his full length, till he seemed almost to stretch as far as Warwick. ‘Verily,’ thought Sir Guy to himself, ‘the fight of old with the great Dun Cow was as the slaying of a puppy in comparison with this!’
The dragon was covered thickly with scales all over his body, his stomach as well as his back. They were polished and shiny and hard as iron, and so closely planted that no sword could get in between them.
‘No use to strike there,’ muttered Sir Guy, ‘a thrust down his throat is my only chance.’
But if Sir Guy knew this, the dragon knew it much better, and, though the knight managed to jump aside and avoid the swoops of his long neck and the sudden darting of his sharp claws, he had not even tried to strike a blow himself for fear lest his sword should break in two against that shining horny surface. This was not the kind of warfare to which the dragon was accustomed, and he began to grow angry, as anyone might have seen by the lashings of his tail and the jets of smoke and flame that poured out of his nostrils. Sir Guy felt that his chance would soon come, and waited patiently, keeping his eye for ever fixed on the dragon’s mouth.
At length the monster gave a sudden spring forward, and if Sir Guy had not been watching he could scarcely have leaped out of the way. The failure to reach his prey enraged the dragon more than ever, and, opening his mouth, he gave a roar which the king heard on his throne at York. He opened his mouth; but he never shut it again, for Guy’s sword was buried in it. The death struggles were short; and then Sir Guy cut off the head and bore it to the king.
After this, his first thought was for his parents, who, he found, had died many years agone, and having said a prayer over their graves, and put his affairs in order, he hurried off to Warwick to see Felice, and tell her that he had fulfilled the commands she had given him long years ago, when he was but a boy. He also told her of the ladies of high degree whose hands he had won in fair fight — won — and rejected. ‘All of them I forsook for thee, Felice,’ he said.
He had kept his word; but he had left his heart in Constantinople. Perhaps Felice did not know this, or perhaps she did not set much store by hearts, and cared more for the renown that Sir Guy had won throughout Christendom. Anyhow, she received him gladly and graciously, and so did her father, and the marriage was celebrated with great pomp, and for a space Sir Guy remained at home, and after a time a son was born to him.
But at the day of his son’s birth Sir Guy was far away. In the quiet and idleness of the castle he began to think, and his conscience pricked him sore, that all the years of his life he had done ill to many a man
And slain many a man with his hand,
Burnt and destroyed many a land.
And all was for woman’s love,
And not for God’s sake above.
‘The end should be different from the beginning,’ he said, and forthwith he put on the dress of a pilgrim, and took ship for the Holy Land, carrying with him a gold ring, given him by Felice.
Once more he came back, an old man now, summoned by Athelstan, to deliver the city of Winchester out of the hands of the Danes, who were besieging it. Once more he returned to Warwick, and, unseen, watched Felice training her son in all the duties of knighthood, and once more he spoke with her, when, dying in his hermitage, he sent her the ring by his page, and prayed her to come and give him burial.
[Early English Metrical Romances.]
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57