Once upon a time there lived a king and queen who had only one child, a little girl, whom they named Una, and they all lived happily at home for many years till Una had grown into a woman.
It seemed as if they were some of the fortunate people to whom nothing ever happens, when suddenly, just as everything appeared going well and peacefully with them, a fearful dragon, larger and more horrible than any dragon which had yet been heard of, arrived one night, seized the king and queen as they were walking in the garden after the heat of the day, and carried them prisoners to a strong castle. Luckily, Una was at that moment sitting among her maidens on the top of a high tower embroidering a kirtle, or she would have shared the same fate.
When the princess learnt what had befallen her parents, she was struck dumb with grief, but she had been taught that no misfortune was ever mended by tears, so she soon dried her eyes, and began to think what was best to do, and to whom she could turn for help. She ran quickly over in her mind the knights who thronged her father’s court, but there was not one amongst them to whose hands their rescue could be entrusted. One spent his days in writing pretty verses to the ladies who were about the queen, another passed his time in putting on suits more brilliant than any worn by his friends, a third loved hawking, but did not welcome the rough life and hard living of real warfare; no, she must seek a champion out of her own country if her parents were to be delivered out of the power of the dragon. Then all at once she remembered a certain Red Cross Knight whose fame had spread even to her distant land, and, ordering her white ass to be saddled, she set forth in quest of him.
It were long to tell the adventures Una met with on the way, but at last she found the knight resting after a hard-won fight, and told him her tale.
‘Right willingly will I help you, princess,’ said he, ‘only you must ride with me and guide me to the castle, for I know nothing of the countries that lie beyond the sea;’ and Una heard his words with joy, and called softly to her ass, who was cropping the short green grass beside her.
‘Let us go forth at once,’ she cried gaily, and sprang into her saddle. The knight hastily fastened on his armour, and, placing a blood-red cross upon his breast, swung himself on to his horse’s back. And so they rode over the plain, a trusty dwarf following far behind, and a snow-white lamb, held by a golden cord, trotting by Una’s side.
After some hours they left the plain and entered a forest, where the trees and bushes grew so thick that no path could they see. At first, in their eagerness to escape the storm which was sweeping up the plain behind them, they hardly took heed where they were going; and besides, the beauty of the flowers and the sweet scent of the fruit caused them to forget the trouble they would have to find the road again. But when the sound of the thunder ceased, and the lightning no longer darted through the leaves, they were startled to perceive they had wandered they knew not whither. No sun could they see to show them which was east and which west, neither was there any man to tell them what they fain would know. At length they stopped, for before them lay a cave stretching far away into the darkness.
‘We can rest there this night,’ said the Red Cross Knight, leaping to the ground, and handing his spear to the dwarf; ‘and first, you, lady, shall remain, here, while I enter and make sure that no fierce or loathsome beasts lurk in the corners.’ But Una turned pale as she listened.
‘The perils of this place I better know than you,’ she answered gravely. ‘In this den dwells a vile monster, hated by God and man.’ And the voice of the dwarf cried also, ‘Fly, fly! this is no place for living men.’ They might have spared their warnings; when did youth ever heed them? The knight looked into the cave, and
Forth into the darksome hole he went.
His glistening armour made a little glooming light,
By which he saw the ugly monster plain,
Half like a serpent horribly displayed,
The other half did woman’s shape retain.
It was too late to turn back, even had he wished it; but indeed it was the monster who looked round, as if to find a way to flee. Before her stood the knight, his sword drawn, waiting for a fair chance to plunge it into her throat. Escape there was none, and she prepared for battle.
The knight fought valiantly, but never had he met a foe like this. The monster was so large and so scaly that he could not get round her, while his sword glanced, blunted, from off her skin. Blow after blow he struck, but they only served to increase her fury, till, gathering all her strength together, she wound her great tail about his body, pressing him close against her horny bosom.
‘Strangle her, else she sure will strangle thee,’ cried Una, who had been watching the combat as well as the darkness would let her; and the knight heard, and seized the monster by the throat, till she was forced to let go her hold on him. Then, grasping his sword, he cut her head clean from her body.
Fain would they now leave the dreadful wood which had been the nurse of such an evil creature, and by following a track where the leaves grew less thickly, they at last found themselves on the other side of the plain, just as the sun was sinking to rest. They pushed on fast, hoping to find a shelter for the night, but none could they spy. The plain seemed bare, save for one old man in the guise of a hermit who was approaching them.
Him the Red Cross Knight stopped and asked if he knew of any adventures which might await him in that place. The old man, who was in truth the magician Archimago, the professor of lore which could read the secrets of men’s hearts, answered that the hour was late for the undertaking of such things, and bade them rest for the night in his cell hard by. So saying, he led them into a little dell amidst a group of trees, in which stood a chapel and the dwelling of the hermit.
It was but a short space before both knight and lady were sleeping soundly on the beds of fern which the hermit told them he had always at hand for the entertainment of guests. But, for himself, he crept unseen to a little cave inside a rock, and taking out his magic books he sought therein for mighty charms to trouble sleepy minds!
He soon found what he wanted, and repeated some strange words aloud. In an instant there fluttered round him a crowd of little sprites awaiting his bidding, but he motioned all aside except two — one of whom he kept with him and the other he sent on a message to the house of Morpheus, the god of sleep.
‘I come from Archimago the wizard,’ said the sprite when he reached his journey’s end. ‘Give me, I pray you, as swiftly as may be, a bad dream, that I may carry it back to him.’
Slowly the god rose up, and, going to his storehouse, where lay dreams of all sorts — dreams to make people happy, dreams to make people miserable, dreams to stir people to good, and dreams to move them to every kind of wickedness — he took from the shelf a small but very black little dream, which the sprite tied round his neck, and hurried to the cave of Archimago.
The wizard took the dream in silence, and, going into the den where the knight was sleeping, laid it softly on his forehead. In a moment his face clouded over; evil thoughts of Una sprang into his mind, till at length, unable to bear any longer the grief of mistrusting her he so loved and honoured, the knight called to the dwarf to bring him his horse, and together they rode away. But when Una woke and found both of her companions departed she wept sorely. Then, mounting her milk-white ass, she set out to follow them.
Meanwhile the Red Cross Knight was wandering he knew not whither, so deep were the wounds in his heart. He rode on with his bridle hanging loosely on his horse’s neck, till a bend in the path brought him face to face with a mighty Saracen, bearing on his arm a shield with the words ‘Sans foy’ written across it. By his side, mounted on a palfrey hung with golden bells, was a lady clad in scarlet robes embroidered with jewels, who chattered merrily as they passed along.
It was she who first perceived the approach of an enemy, and, turning to Sansfoy, bade him begin the attack. He, nothing loth, dashed forward to meet the knight, who had barely time to steady himself to receive the blow, which caused him to reel in his saddle. The blow was indeed so hard that it would have pierced the knight’s armour had it not been for the cross upon his breast; which, when the Saracen saw, he cursed the power of the holy emblem, and prepared himself for a fresh attack.
But either the Christian knight was the more skilful swordsman, or the cross lent new strength to his arm, for the fight was not a long one. Only a few strokes had passed between them, when the boastful Sansfoy fell from his horse, and rolled heavily to the ground. The lady hardly waited for the issue of the combat, and galloped off lest she too should be in danger. But the knight did not wage war on ladies, and, calling to the dwarf to bring the Saracen’s shield as a trophy, he spurred quickly after her.
He did not take long to come up with her for, in truth, she intended to be overtaken, and turned a woeful countenance to the young knight, who listened, believing, to the false tale she told. Pitying her from his heart, he assured her of his care and protection, and while they are faring through the woods together, let us see what had become of Una.
The maiden was herself wandering distraught, seated on her ‘unhastie beast,’ when with a fearful roar a lion rushed out from a thicket with eyes glaring and teeth gleaming, seeking to devour his prey. But at the sight of Una’s tender beauty he stopped suddenly, and, stooping down, he kissed her feet and licked her hands.
At this kindness on the part of the great creature, Una bent her head and wept grievously. ‘He, my lion and my noble lord, how does he find it in his cruel heart to hate her that him loved?’ she moaned sadly, and the lion again looked pityingly at her, and at last the maiden checked her sobs and bade her ass go on, the lion walking by her side during the day, and sleeping at her feet by night.
They had travelled far and for many days, through a wilderness untrodden by either man or beast, when at the foot of a mountain they spied a damsel bearing on her shoulder a pot of water. At sight of the lion she flung down the pitcher, and ran to the hut where she dwelt, without once looking behind her. In the cottage sat her blind mother, not knowing what could be the meaning of the shrieks and cries uttered by her daughter, who shut the door quickly after her, and caught trembling hold of her mother’s hands.
It was the first lion the girl had ever seen, or she would have known that if he was determined to enter, it was not a wicket-gate that would prevent him. As neither mother nor daughter replied to Una’s gentle prayer for a night’s lodging, her ‘unruly page’ put his paw on the little door, which opened with a crash. The maiden then stepped softly over the threshold, begging afresh that she might pass the night in one corner, and receiving no answer — for the women were still too terrified to speak — she curled herself up on the earthen floor with the lion beside her.
About midnight there arrived at the door, which Una had refastened, a thief laden with spoils of churches, and whatever else he had managed to pick up by stealth. To spend the night in thieving was his custom, and hither he brought his spoils, as he thought none would suspect a blind woman and her daughter of harbouring stolen goods.
Many times he called, but the two women were in grievous dread of the lion, and durst not move from the corner where they were crouching; at last the man grew angry, and burst the door asunder, as the lion had done before him. He entered the hut, and straightway beheld the dreadful beast, with glaring eyes and gleaming teeth, as Una had first beheld him. But Kirkrapine (such was his name) had neither beauty nor goodness to still the lion’s rage, and in another moment his body was rent in a thousand pieces.
The sun had scarce sent his first beams above the horizon when Una left the hut, mounted on her ass, and, followed by the lion, again began her quest of the Red Cross Knight. But, alas! though she found him not, she met her ancient foe, the magician Archimago, who had taken on himself the form of him whom she sought. Too true and unsuspecting was she, to dream of guile in others, and the welcome she gave him was from her whole heart. In the guise of the knight, Archimago greeted her fondly, and bade her tell him the story of her woes, and how came she to take the lion for her companion. And so they journeyed, the flowers seeming sweeter and the skies brighter to Una, as they went, when suddenly they beheld
One pricking towards them with hasty heat;
Full strongly armed, and on a courser free.
On his shield the words ‘Sans loy’ could be read, written in letters of blood.
Now, though Archimago had clad himself in the outward shape of the Red Cross Knight, he lacked his courage and his skill in war; and his heart was faint from fear, when the Saracen reined back his horse and prepared for battle. In the shock of the rush the wizard was borne backwards, and the blood from his side dyed the ground.
‘The life that from Sansfoy thou tookest, Sansloy shall from thee take,’ cried the Paynim, and was unlacing the vizor of the fallen man to deal him his death-stroke when a cry from Una stayed his hand for a moment, though it was not her prayers for mercy that would have kept him from drawing his sword, but the sight of the hoary head beneath the helmet, which startled him.
‘Archimago!’ he stammered, ‘what mishap is this?’ And still Archimago lay on the ground stunned, and answered nothing.
For a moment Una gazed in amazement at the strange sight before her, and wondered what was the meaning of these things. Then she turned to fly, but, quick as thought, the Saracen plucked at her robe to stop her.
Now when the lion, her fierce servant, saw that Paynim knight lay hands on his sovereign lady, he sprang on him with gaping jaws, and almost tore the shield from his arm. But the knight leapt swiftly back, and swinging his sword plunged it into the heart of the faithful creature, who rolled over and died amidst the tears of his mistress.
After which the knight set Una on his steed before him and bore her away.
[Spenser’s Faerie Queene.]
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57