While Una was riding through forest and over plains, with her faithful lion for her guard, the knight whom she sought had given himself over into the care of Duessa (for such was the name of Sansfoy’s companion), by whom he was led to the gates of a splendid palace. The broad road up to it was worn by the feet of hosts of travellers; but though many peeped through the doors few returned. As the knight stood aside and watched, all manner of strange people passed before him, though none spoke. At length a man, but newly issued from the palace, and bearing a shield with the words ‘Sans joy’ written across it, stopped suddenly in front of the knight’s page, then snatched from his arm a shield like his own, bearing the name ‘Sansfoy.’ The page, overcome by the quickness of the action, did not resist, but a blow on the helmet from the Red Cross Knight made Sansjoy stagger where he stood.
The fight was fierce, and no one could tell with whom the victory lay till the queen of that place came by, and bade them cease their brawling, for on the morrow they should meet in the lists.
But the battle next day went against the Paynim, in spite of the presence of the queen and the counsel of the false Duessa. Short would have been his shrift had not thick darkness fallen about him, and when the Red Cross Knight cried to him to begin the fray afresh, only silence answered him.
Then the false Duessa, ever wont to take the side of him who wins, hurried up to him, and whispered, as she had whispered to Sansjoy, ‘The conquest yours, I yours, the shield and glory yours;’ but the knight did not heed her, for his eye was ever bent on the wall of thick darkness which shut in his foe. Indeed, so busy were his thoughts that he never knew that blood was streaming from his wounds, till the queen ordered him to be carried into the palace, and ointments to be laid on his body.
As was her custom, Duessa talked much and loudly of the care she would give him, and of his speedy cure under her hands; but when night fell she stole forth and came to the spot where Sansjoy lay, still covered with the enchanted cloud. Then, in an iron chariot, borrowed from the Queen of Darkness, she drove him down to the underworld, and across the river which divides the kingdom of the living from that of the dead. Here giving him into the hands of the oldest and greatest of physicians, she went her way to the bedside of the Red Cross Knight.
But for all that concerned that knight she might well have stayed in the kingdom of darkness; for in her absence the dwarf, wandering through the palace, had come upon a dungeon full of wretched captives, who filled the air with their wailings.
Filled with fear, the dwarf hastened back to his master and prayed him to flee that place before the sun rose. Which the young knight gladly did, creeping away through a secret postern, though it was hard to find a footing amidst the corpses piled up on all sides, which had come to a bad end by reason of their own folly.
And what had become of Una when she had fallen into the power of Sansloy? Well, trembling she had followed him into the midst of a forest, where, to her wonder, from every bush sprang a host of fauns and people of the wood, and ran towards her. When the Saracen beheld them, he was so distraught with fear that he galloped right away, leaving Una behind him. But she, not knowing what to fear the most, stood shaking with dread, till the wood folk pressed around her, and, kneeling on the ground stroked lovingly her hands and feet. Then she understood that she was safe amongst them, and let them lead her where they would, and smiled at their songs and merry dances. If she could not be with the Red Cross Knight, then it mattered little where she was, and it gave her a feeling of rest and safety to lie hidden among the woods, with a people who would let nothing harmful come near her.
So she stayed with them long, and taught them many things, while they in their turn showed her how to play on their pipes and to dance the prettiest and most graceful of their dances.
Time passed in this wise, when one day it chanced that a noble knight, Satyrane by name, came to seek his kindred among the woodfolk. He wondered greatly to find so lovely a maid among them, and still more to see how eagerly they listened to her teachings, and henceforth he formed part of the throng that sat at her feet when the heat of the day was over.
In this manner Una and the knight Satyrane soon became friends, and at length one day she poured out all her sad tale, and besought his help in her search for the Red Cross Knight. It was not easy to escape from the kind people who always thronged about her, and her heart was sore at the thought of leaving them, but she felt that for her captive parents’ sake, as well as for the knight’s, she could delay no longer.
Therefore one morning, when the wood folk had gone to hold a feast in the forest, she rode away in company with Satyrane, and issuing from the forest soon reached the open plain. Towards evening they met a weary pilgrim, whose clothes were worn and soiled, and so true a pilgrim did he look, that Una did not know him to be the wizard Archimago. The knight instantly drew rein, and asked what tidings he could impart, and Una begged with faltering voice that he would tell her aught concerning a knight whose armour bore a red cross.
‘Alas! dear dame,’ answered he slowly, ‘these eyes did see that knight, both living and eke dead;’ and with that he told her all his story.
When he had finished, it was Satyrane who spoke.
‘Where is that Paynim’s son, that him of life, and us of joy hath reft?’ And the pilgrim made answer that he was hard by, washing his wounds at a fountain.
Satyrane wasted no more words, but went right straight to the fountain, where he found Sansloy, whom he challenged instantly to fight. Sansloy hastily buckled on his armour, and cried that, though he had not slain the Red Cross Knight, he hoped to lay his champion in the dust. Then, both combatants being ready, the battle began.
The sight was too dreadful for Una to bear, and she galloped away, not knowing that her deadliest foe, the wizard Archimago, was following her.
Meanwhile Duessa had left the splendid palace, and was riding over the country in pursuit of the Red Cross Knight, for it was bitter to her to see any escape, who had ever been under her thrall. Her good fortune, which never seemed to forsake her, before long led her to his side, where he lay resting on the banks of a stream, and he greeted her gladly.
The sun was hot, and the water rippling clear over the stones seemed inviting. The knight was tired, and leaned down to drink, never knowing that the stream was enchanted. But in a moment his strength seemed to fail, and his arms grew weak as a child’s, though he felt nothing till a horrible bellowing sounded in the wood. At the dreadful sound he started up and looked around for his armour, but before he could reach it a hideous giant was upon him.
The fight did not take long, and in a short while the Red Cross Knight was a prisoner in the hands of the giant, who, accompanied by the false Duessa, carried his captive to a dungeon of his castle. After the door was safely locked and barred, the two then retired into the large hall, where they ate and made merry.
From that day the giant brought forth his choicest treasures with which to deck Duessa. Her robes were purple, and a triple crown of gold was on her head, and, what she liked not so well, he gave her a seven-headed serpent to ride on.
Now the faithful dwarf had watched the fate of his master, and when he saw him borne away senseless by the giant, he took up the armour which had been lain aside in the hour of need, and set out he knew not whither.
He had gone but a little distance when he met Una, who read at a glance the evil tidings he had brought. She fell off her ass in a deadly swoon, and the dwarf, whose heart was nigh as sore, rubbed her temples with water and strove to bring her back to life. But when she heard the tale of all that had befallen the Red Cross Knight since last she had parted from him, she would fain have died, till the thought sprang suddenly into her mind that perhaps she might still rescue him. So with fresh hope she took the road to the giant’s castle, but the way was far, and she was woefully tired before even its towers were in sight. Brave though she was, the maiden’s courage failed her at last, and she began to weep afresh, when her eyes happened to light upon a good knight riding to meet her. He was clad in armour that shone more than any man’s, and well it might, as it had been welded by the great enchanter Merlin. On the crest of his helmet a golden dragon spread his wings: and in the centre of his breast-plate a precious stone shone forth amidst a circle of smaller ones, ‘like Hesperus among the lesser lights.’
As he drew near, and saw before him a lady in distress, he reined in his horse, and with gentle words drew from her all her trouble.
‘Be of good cheer,’ he said, when the tale was ended, ‘and take comfort; for never will I forsake you till I have freed your captive knight.’
And, though she knew him not, at his promise Una took heart of grace, and bade the dwarf lead them to the giant’s castle.
Conducted by the dwarf and followed by the squire, the knight and lady soon reached the castle. Bidding Una to await him outside, and calling to his squire to come with him, they both walked up to the gates, which were fast shut, though no man was guarding them.
‘Blow your horn,’ said the knight, and the squire blew a blast. At the sound, the gates flew open, and the giant came foaming from his chamber to see what insolent thief had dared disturb his peace.
And the giant did not come alone. Close after him rode Duessa, ‘high mounted on her many-headed beast’; and at this sight the knight raised his shield and eagerly began the attack.
But, horrible though the serpent was, he was not the sole foe that the knight had to fight with. The giant’s only weapon was his club, but that was as thick as a man’s body, and studded with iron points besides. Luckily for the knight, this was not the first giant to whom he had given battle, and ere the mighty blow could fall he sprang lightly to one side, and the club lay buried so deep in the ground that before the giant could draw it out again, his left arm was smitten off by the knight’s sword.
The giant's roars of pain might have been heard in the uttermost parts of the kingdom, and Duessa quickly guided her baleful beast to the help of her wounded friend. But her way was barred by the squire, who, sword in hand, ‘stood like a bulwark’ between his lord and the serpent. Duessa, full of wrath at being foiled, turned the serpent on him, but not one foot would the squire move till, beside herself with anger, the witch drew out her cup and sprinkled him with the poisonous water. Then the strength went out of his arms and the courage from his heart, and he sank helpless on the ground before the snake, who fain would have trampled the life out of him, and it would have fared ill with him had not the knight rushed swiftly to his rescue, and dealt the snake such a wound that the garments of Duessa were all soaked in blood. She shrieked to the giant that she would be lost if he did not come to her aid, and the giant, whose one arm seemed to have gained the strength of two, struck the knight such a blow on the helmet that he sank heavily on the ground.
The giant raised a shout of joy, but he triumphed too soon. The knight, in falling, caught the covering of his shield upon his spear, and rent it from top to toe. The brilliance that flowed from it burnt into the eyes of the giant, so that he was ‘blinded by excess of light,’ and sank sightless on the ground. At a fresh cry from Duessa he struggled to his feet, but all in vain. He had no power to hurt nor to defend, and fell back so heavily that the very earth shook beneath him, and was an easy prey for his foe, who smote his head from his body.
Duessa, as we know, never stayed with those with whom the world went ill, and she was stealing away quietly, when once more the squire stopped her.
‘You are captive to my lord,’ he said, and, holding her firmly, led her back.
Then Una came running full of grateful words, but when she saw Duessa a cloud of fierce wrath passed over her face.
‘Beware lest that wicked woman escape,’ cried she, ‘for she it is who has worked all this ill, and thrown my dearest lord into the dungeon. Oh, hear how piteously he calls to you for aid!’
‘I give her into your keeping,’ answered the knight, turning to the squire, ‘and beware of her wiles, for they are many;’ and, leaving the rest behind him, he strode into the castle, meeting no man as he went.
At last there crept forth from one corner an old, old man with a huge bunch of rusty keys hanging from his arm. The knight asked him in gentle speech whence had gone all the people who dwelt in the castle, but he answered only that he could not tell, till the knight waxed impatient, and took the keys from him.
The doors of all the rooms opened easily enough, and inside he found the strangest medley. Everywhere blood lay thick upon the floors, while the walls were covered with cloth of gold and splendid tapestry. No signs were there of any living creature, yet he knew that in some hiding-place in the castle the captive lay concealed.
The knight had come to the last door of all. It was of iron, and no key on the bunch would open it. On one side was a little grating, and through it he called loudly, lest perchance any man might hear his voice.
At that there answered him a hollow empty sound, and for a while he could not make out any words. Then from out the wailing in the darkness something spoke:
‘Oh, who is that which brings me happy choice of death? Three moons have waxed and waned since I beheld the face of heaven? Oh, welcome, welcome art thou who hast come to end my weary life!’
The moaning sound of the voice thrilled the brave champion with horror. Putting his shoulder to the iron door, he gave a mighty heave, and the hinges gave way. Nothing could he see, for the darkness was terrible, and his foot, which he stretched cautiously inward, touched no floor. And, besides, the foul smells rushed out, poisoning him with their fumes.
But when he had grown in some measure used to the darkness and the odours, he began to think how he could best deliver the Red Cross Knight from the pit into which he had fallen. To this end he sought through the castle till he found some lengths of rope, which he carried back with him, as he did not know how deep the pit might be. He knotted three or four together and let the rope down, but even when a faint cry from the captive told him that it had reached the bottom, his labours were not ended yet. Twice the knots gave way, by good fortune, before the man was more than a foot or two from the ground, and other pieces of rope had to be fetched. Then, when all was made fast, the prisoner had grown so weak that he could scarce draw himself up; and again the knight feared greatly lest he himself should not have strength to hold fast the rope. But at length his courage and patience prevailed, and the Red Cross Knight, hollow-eyed, and thin as a skeleton, looked once more upon the sun.
His parents might have gazed on him and not known him for their child, but Una’s heart leapt when the unknown knight brought him to her.
‘Welcome,’ she said, ‘welcome in weal or woe. Your presence I have lacked for many a day,’ and fain would she have heard the tale of his sufferings, had not the knight, who knew that men love not to speak of their sorrows, begged her to tend the captive carefully, so that his forces might come to him again. Further, he bade them remember that they had in their power the woman who had been the cause of all their grief, and the time had come to give sentence on her.
‘I cannot slay her, now she is mine to slay,’ answered Una, ‘but strip her robe of scarlet from off her, and let her go whither she will.’
With her robes and her jewels went all the magic arts that gave her youth and beauty. Instead of the dazzling maiden who had wrought so much havoc in the world, there stood before them an old bald-headed shaking crone, that seemed as ancient as the earth itself. Silently they gazed, then turned away in horror, while Duessa wandered into paths of which she alone knew the ending.
It was not until they had rested themselves awhile in the castle that the stranger knight told who he was and why he came there. He was, he said, Arthur, the ward of Merlin, and had ridden far and long in quest of the Faerie Queen. And having fulfilled his vow to Una, in delivering the Red Cross Knight out of the power of the giant, he bade both farewell, leaving behind him, as a remembrance of their friendship a diamond box containing a precious ointment, which would cure any wound, however deep or poisonous.
So they parted, but not yet was the Red Cross Knight able to face the monstrous dragon who held captive Una’s royal parents. For some weeks therefore he rested in the castle till his strength came back, then once more he and Una rode forth side by side.
They had not gone far when they beheld an armed knight galloping fast towards them, and as he went ever glancing over his shoulder as if fearful of some dread thing behind. His matted hair streamed in the wind and the fingers which grasped the reins were like the claws of an eagle. Stranger than all, round his neck was tied a hempen rope. ‘He seems to be afraid of himself,’ thought the Red Cross Knight as he checked his horse to offer help to the flying man before him.
At first it seemed as if his words fell on dumb ears, but patiently he repeated them over and over again, and at length an answer came from the shaking figure:
‘For God’s sake, Sir Knight, do not, I pray you, stay me, for look, HE comes, HE comes fast after me;’ and as he spoke he urged on his horse afresh. But the Red Cross Knight caught his bridle and bade him fear nothing, as he was safe with him, and to tell him why such awful fear possessed his soul.
At last the stricken man poured forth his tale, and the Red Cross Knight learned that once he was happy and free, like other men, till on an ill-starred day he and a friend had fallen in with a cursed wight who called himself ‘Despair,’ who had plucked all hope from their breasts, and bade them seek death, the one with a rope, the other with a knife. His friend, whose love had been disdained by a proud lady, fell an easy prey to the persuasions of the giant, and it was the sight of his corpse lying weltering in his blood that drove this man to ride away while yet the rope hung loose. ‘O sir,’ he added when the sad tale was told —‘O sir, be warned by me, and never let yourself stray into his presence! His subtle tongue, like dropping honey, melts into the heart, and ere one be aware, his power is gone and weakness doth remain.’
But the Red Cross Knight made answer that he would never rest till he had seen with his own eyes that baleful being, and begged the stranger, whose name was Trevisan, to guide him hither.
‘I will ride back with you, as you ask it of me,’ said Sir Trevisan unwillingly, ‘but not for all the gold in the world will I stay with you when you reach his cave, for sooner would I die than see his deadly face!’
‘Ride on, then, and I will follow,’ answered the Red Cross Knight.
The cave lay in the side of a cliff, and was dark and gloomy as a tomb. The only sounds they heard were the hooting of an owl and the wails and howls of wandering ghosts; the only sights were the corpses of men hanging on trees or lying stark upon the ground. Sir Trevisan turned his horse’s head and would fain have fled, but the Red Cross Knight stopped him.
‘You are safe with me,’ he said confidently, and the other, who was ever weak of will, waited.
They entered the cave, and found the doer of all that evil seated on the floor, his eyes as the eyes of a dead man, and his body well nigh as much a skeleton as any of his victims. On the grass beneath him lay a body that was still warm, and in its bleeding wound a rusty knife still stood. The sight stirred the blood in the knight’s veins, and he challenged the murderer to fight where he stood.
‘Are you distraught, you foolish man,’ was all his answer, ‘that you should talk in this wild way? It was his own guilt which drove him to his end. He loathed his life, why should he then prolong it? Is it not the part of a friend to free his feet when they stick fast in the mud, and to point to the door that leads to rest, even if some little pain must be suffered in the passage? Is not short pain well borne that brings long ease — sleep after toil, port after stormy seas?’
The Red Cross Knight listened wonderingly. Then he answered:
‘The soldier may not cease to watch nor leave his stand until his captain bid.’
But the cursed wight replied boldly, ‘The longer life, I wot, the greater sin. The greater sin, the greater punishment. Therefore, I pray you go no further, but lie down and betake you to your rest. A longer life means old age and sickness, and every kind of sorrow. So lay it down while things are yet well with you.’
In spite of Sir Trevisan’s warning, the fair-sounding words found an echo in the heart of the Red Cross Knight, as they had done in the hearts of many men before him. The miscreant saw that his courage was wavering, and forthwith he brought forth a store of swords, ropes, poisons, and a brazier of fire, and bade him choose what manner of death he would prefer. The knight gazed at them all, like one who walks in sleep, but touched none of them, and the miscreant, beholding this, chose out a dagger bright and new, and thrust it in his shaking hand. The young man looked at it, his face reddened and then grew pale again, and slowly, as if against his will, he lifted the dagger.
A shriek from Una, who had only just reached the cave, caused him to drop his arm again, and in an instant she had snatched it from his limp fingers, and had flung it on the ground.
‘Come away, come away,’ she cried, ‘let no vain words bewitch you! What have you to do with despair, after all the brave deeds you have done? Arise, Sir knight, arise and leave this cursed place. Have you forgotten that other work awaits you?’
The voice of Una broke the spell which had possessed him. Once more his eye grew bright and his arm strong. He mounted his horse and rode away by Una’s side without ever looking behind him. If he had, he would have seen that the miscreant had placed a rope round his own neck, and hanged himself on a tree. But even so he could not die; the death to which he drove others remained far from him.
The ease with which the Red Cross Knight had been mastered by the wily talk of the gloomy miscreant in the cave showed Una that his mind, if not his body, was still weak from his long imprisonment in the dungeon. She saw that before he could fight the dragon who had carried off her parents he needed yet more repose, and luckily she knew of a house not far off where they would be made welcome for as long as they chose to stay. Hither they fared, and for many weeks the knight’s armour was laid away, and the ladies who dwelt in that place gave him all the strength and counsel that they could think of. Then, when at last he had become what he had been of yore, Una bade farewell to her hosts with great thanks, and set out for the royal castle. After three days the walls of a high tower might be seen dimly across the plain.
‘It is there that my parents are kept imprisoned by the dragon,’ said Una, pointing to it with her hand, ‘and I see the watchman watching for good tidings, if haply such there be. Ah, he has waited long!’
As she spoke, a roaring hideous sound was heard that seemed to shake the ground and to fill all the air with terror. Turning their heads, they beheld on their right a huge dragon, lying stretched upon the sunny side of a great hill, himself like a great hill. But no sooner did he see the shining armour of the knight than he roused himself and made ready for battle.
Hastily the Red Cross Knight bade Una withdraw herself to another hill, from which she could see the fight without herself being in danger. Crouching behind a rock, she watched the dreadful beast approaching, half flying and half walking as he went. Run he could not, his size was too vast.
Her heart sank as she looked, for how could mortal man get the better of such a creature! Besides the brazen scales which thickly covered his body, his wings were like two sails, and at the tip of each huge feather was a many-pronged claw; while his back was hidden with the folds of his tail, which lay doubled in a hundred coils, and in his mouth were three rows of sharp-pointed teeth. Una could look no more; she shut her eyes and waited.
The knight felt that if he was to win the victory at all it must be by means of his lightness of foot, as the monster was so large he could not turn himself about quickly. So, getting a little behind his head, he tried to pierce his neck between the scaly plates, but the spear glanced off harmlessly, and a stroke from the tip of the tail laid both him and his horse on the ground.
They rose again instantly, and returned to the charge, but a second blow met with no better fate. Then the dragon in wrath spread wide his sails and rose heavily above the earth, till, suddenly and swiftly darting down his head, he snatched both horse and man off the ground. But here the knight had the advantage, for with his spear he stung the beast so sore that the monster speedily set his captives again on the earth.
Not giving the dragon time to gather himself up, the knight dealt him a blow under the left wing. With a roar of agony, the beast snapped the spear asunder with his claws, and pulled out the head. At that a sea of blood gushed from the wound which would have turned a water-mill, and in his pain and rage flames of fire gushed from his mouth.
Unwinding his tail from his back, he coiled it like lightning about the legs of the horse, which fell to the ground with his rider. But in an instant the knight was on his feet, and by the mere force of his blows forced his enemy to reel, though the brazen scales were still unpierced. Though his courage was as great as ever, the young man began to lose patience, when of a sudden he noticed that the monster could no longer rise into the air by reason of his wounded wing. That sight gave him heart, and he drew near once more, only to be scorched by the deadly fire from the dragon’s jaws. Half blinded and suffocated, he staggered, which the dragon seeing, he dealt the knight such a blow that he fell backwards into a well that lay behind.
‘So that is the end of him,’ said the dragon to himself; but, if he had only known, it was the beginning, for the well into which the knight had fallen was the well of life, which could cure all hurts and heal all wounds.
All night Una watched at her post, for darkness had come before the knight received his final blow. In the morning, before the sun had risen above the plain, she was looking for the knight, who was lying she knew not where. Her eyes dropping by chance on the well, she was sore amazed to see him rise out of it fairer and mightier than before. With a rush he fell upon the dragon, who had gone to sleep, safe in the knowledge of his victory, and, taking his sword in both hands, he drove right through the brazen scales, and wounded him deep in his skull. In vain did the monster roar and struggle; the blows rained thick and fast, and most of his tail was cut from his body.
Again and again the knight was overthrown, and again and again he rose to his feet, and laid about him as valiantly as ever. But while the fight was still hanging in the balance, the dragon thrust his head forward with wide-open jaws, thinking to swallow his enemy and make an end of him. Quick as thought the knight sprang aside, and, thrusting his sword in the yawning gulf up to the hilt, gave the dragon his death-blow.
Down he fell, fire and smoke gushing from his nostrils — down he fell, and men thought some mighty mountain must have cast up rocks on the earth.
The victor himself trembled, and it was long ere Una dared draw near, dreading lest the direful fiend should stir. But when at last she knew him dead, she came joyfully forth, and, bursting into happy tears, faltered her gratitude for the good he had wrought her.
There is little more to be told of Una and the Red Cross knight.
The watchman on the wall, who had seen the dreadful battle, was the first to tell the king and queen that the dragon was dead and that they were free. Then the king commanded the trumpets to sound and the people to assemble, so that fitting rejoicings might be made at the destruction of their foe.
This being done, a mighty procession came down, headed by the king and queen, to lay laurel boughs at the feet of the victor, and to set a garland of bay on the head of the maiden. Once more Duessa and Archimago sought to prevent the betrothal of the Red Cross Knight and Una by a plot to send the wizard in the guise of a messenger, proclaiming the knight to have been already bound to the daughter of the emperor, but the false tale was easily seen through, and Archimago thrown into a dungeon.
After that the king himself performed the marriage rite, and a solemn feast was held through the land, but the wedded pair were not long left together. A vow the knight had made when he received his spurs to do the Faerie Queen six years of service called him from Una’s side, and, sad though the parting might be, both held their word too high ever to break it.
[From The Faerie Queene.]
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57