Every year King Arthur’s knights held a grand tournament among themselves, and contended in friendly combat for a prize. This prize was a diamond.
Once, in the early days of his kingship, Arthur was walking on a craggy hill, when he came upon the skeleton of a man who had once been a ruler. The skull still wore a gold crown set with nine large diamonds. King Arthur took the crown and had the diamonds unset. Each year at the friendly tournament he gave one of these diamonds as a prize.
There had been eight tournaments, and at each Sir Lancelot had won the diamond. The jewel that was to be given as a prize at the ninth tournament was the largest and most beautiful of all. Everyone, of course, expected that Sir Lancelot would win it, but only a few days before the contest he announced to the king that he would not compete.
Then the queen was vexed, for she loved Sir Lancelot more than all the other knights, and it gave her great joy to see him always successful in the tournaments. Therefore she urged him to change his decision.
“My queen,” he said, “I told the king I would not fight.”
The Queen replied:
“My advice is that you go in disguise. The knights who contest with you do so but half-heartedly, for they know your great fame and feel sure of failure. If they did not know who you were, they would fight better and win more glory for themselves. Then fight as a stranger knight, and afterwards explain to the king.”
Sir Lancelot took her advice. He rode away over the woods and hills till he came to the castle of Astolat, where he decided to stop and ask for a disguise. He knocked on the gate, which was opened by an old dumb servant, and entered the courtyard. The lord of Astolat came to meet him with his two sons, Sir Torre and Sir Lavaine, and his beautiful daughter Elaine. The lord of the castle said:
“Fair sir, whoever you are, you are welcome. You seem to me much like a Knight of the Round Table.”
“That I am,” said Sir Lancelot. “Hereafter I will tell you my name; at present I wish to remain unknown. I must enter the coming tournament as an unknown knight, and I should like to leave with you my great shield, for it is as well known in Camelot as I. Will you keep it and lend me another one?”
Then answered the Lord of Astolat:
“You may take the shield of my son Torre. He was hurt in his first tournament, and has not been able to fight since. My son Lavaine will gladly go with you to the tournament. Perhaps,” added the lord, laughing, “he can win the diamond, and put it in his sister Elaine’s hair.”
“Nay, father, do not make me ashamed before this noble knight,” said the young Lavaine. “I know I can never win the diamond for Elaine, but I can at least do my best to fight.”
“Gladly will I take you for a companion,” said Sir Lancelot, “and if you can, win the diamond for this fair maiden.”
“Such a diamond,” said Sir Torre, “is fit for a queen, and not for a simple girl.”
Sir Lancelot smiled to himself. He was sure that he should win the diamond. Then he meant to give it with the eight others to Queen Guinevere. He spoke kindly, however, to the beautiful Elaine.
“In truth, this fair maiden is fit to be a queen.”
Then Elaine lifted her eyes and looked at hem. He was twice as old as she was. His face was cut and scarred with wounds which he had received in battle, but as she looked at him, she loved him, and felt that she would continue to love him till the day of her death.
They went into the great hall where a supper was laid. Sir Lancelot talked of King Arthur and his goodness and all his glorious deeds. Elaine thought that even Arthur could not be so brave as this wonderful lord. All night long she dreamed of him. In the morning she rose early and went down in the courtyard where Sir Lancelot and Sir Lavaine were mounting their horses.
“Fair lord,” she said boldly to Sir Lancelot, “will you wear my token in your helmet?”
Then said Sir Lancelot:
“Fair maiden, I have never worn favor nor token for any lady in the tournaments. This is well known to be my custom.”
“But if you wear my token,” she said, “there will be far less likelihood of your being known by your fellow knights.”
“That is very true, my child,” he said. “Bring it to me. What is it?”
She held it out to him; it was a red sleeve embroidered with pearls. Sir Lancelot bound it in his helmet and said:
“I have never done so much before for any maiden.”
Then he and Sir Lavaine bade Elaine farewell, and the beautiful maiden ran up to the tower of the castle and watched them from the window for a a long time. When they were out of sight she asked the old dumb servant to carry Sir Lancelot’s shield to the tower. It was a large shield of silver, with three lions emblazoned upon it in gold and blue, but its polished surface was covered with dents and scratches. Elaine knelt before it, and made a story for each scratch and mark, picturing to herself the contests in which the good shield had taken part. For many weeks she stayed near it all day long in the turret, watching for Sir Lancelot and her brother to return.
Meanwhile those two had ridden lightly to Camelot, and when they were almost there, Sir Lancelot told Sir Lavaine his name. The young man was astonished. He was very happy, too, to think that he was a companion to the great knight of whom he had heard so often.
When Sir Lancelot and Sir Lavaine arrived at the field where the tournament was to be held, they stood looking at the king, who sat upon the great carved chair which had dragons’ heads for the arms and the back. On his red robe was embroidered a golden dragon, and a golden dragon was also on his crown. Above him, set in a canopy, was the ninth diamond. All about the king to left and right were rows of ladies whose robes gave to the pavilion in which they sat the brilliant hues of the rainbow.
Sir Lancelot said to young Sir Lavaine:
“Look at the king. You think I am great, but he is greater than I. I can fight better than he can, but his soul is greater than mine. Aim to become a Knight of the Round Table, and follow the example of goodness which Arthur sets for his knights.”
At this moment the trumpets blew as a signal that the tournament was to begin. The knights spurred their horses forward, and in a moment their spears and shields clashed. Sir Lancelot rode lightly here and there, overthrowing every one with whom he contested. All wondered at the skill of this unknown knight. Then Sir Lancelot’s kinsmen, his nephew, Sir Lionel, and others, were angry and jealous.
“Our Sir Lancelot should be here,” they said, “to overcome this stranger knight.”
“Perhaps this is Sir Lancelot,” said one. “Two knights cannot fight so well in this world. It must be Sir Lancelot.”
“No, no,” said the others; “Sir Lancelot would never wear a lady’s favor, and this knight wears a red sleeve embroidered with pearls. Let us set on this man and teach him that if Sir Lancelot is not here, we, his kinsmen, will fight for his fame.”
Then all together they bore down on Sir Lancelot. His horse went down in the shock, and he himself was wounded. A spear had pierced his breastplate and snapped off in his side.
Young Sir Lavaine rushed to help Sir Lancelot. The great knight rose slowly and, with the help of his friend, drove back his kith and kin to the far side of the field. Then sounded a great blare of trumpets, and the king proclaimed the stranger knight victor.
“Come forward,” the herald cried, “and take your diamond.”
But poor Sir Lancelot said:
“Talk not to me of diamonds. Give me air. I fear me I have received my death wound. Let me go hence, and I bid you follow me not.”
Sir Lavaine helped him upon his horse, and they two rode slowly off the field. When they were near the neighboring forest the great knight fell from his horse and cried:
“Pull forth the spear-head which is in my side.”
“Oh, my lord,” said Sir Lavaine, “I am afraid you will die if I draw it forth.”
“I shall die if you leave it,” said Sir Lancelot.
So Sir Lavaine drew it forth quickly, causing Sir Lancelot to faint from the pain. Then a hermit who lived near by came to them, and bore the wounded knight into his hut, where for many a week Sir Lancelot lay between life and death.
When Arthur found that the unknown knight had gone, no one knew whither, he was sorry. He called the light-hearted Sir Gawain and said to him:
“Go forth, take this diamond and seek the stranger knight. Do not cease from your search till you have left the diamond in his hand.”
Then Arthur went to the queen. She had been ill and had not attended the tournament. When the king told her all that had happened, she cried:
“A stranger knight! My lord, my lord! That was our dear Sir Lancelot. He was fighting in disguise.”
“Alas! he is hurt,” said the king. “Perhaps he is dying. He said that he would not fight. He should have told me that he meant to fight in disguise. The truth, my queen, is always best.”
“Yes, my good lord, I know it,” she said. “If I had but let our Lancelot tell the truth, perhaps he would not have been wounded. You would have called on his kinsmen to cease.”
For many days the king and Guinevere waited in deep anxiety for news of Sir Lancelot. Meantime, Sir Gawain rode forth and sought for the great knight in vain. At last he came to the castle of Astolat, where he was welcomed by the lord and Sir Torre and the fair Elaine. He told them the result of the tournament, and how the stranger knight had won. They showed him Sir Lancelot’s shield.
“Ah” said Elaine, when he had told them the name of the unknown knight, “I knew that he must be great.”
Sir Gawain guessed by the expression of her beautiful face that she loved Sir Lancelot. So he said:
“Fair maiden, when he returns here for his shield, give him this diamond, which is the prize he won. Perhaps he will prize it the more because you put it into his hand.”
Then Sir Gawain bade them farewell and rode off, lightly singing. When he told Arthur what he had done, the king said:
“You should have done as I bade you, Gawain. Sir Lancelot deceived me about his disguise, and you have disobeyed me. The kingdom will surely fail if the king and his rules are not honored. Obedience is the courtesy due to kings.”
Meanwhile the fair Elaine went to her father and said:
“Dear father, let me go and seek the wounded Sir Lancelot and my brother.”
“Nay,” said the lord, “it is not a fitting thing for a young maiden like you to seek a wounded knight. He is not your lover. It cannot be.”
“I would give him his diamond,” she said, “and since he is so sorely wounded, I would take care of him. It is not fitting, my father, but I cannot live unless I know where he is and how he does.”
Then, because he loved his child very much and had never refused any request she made of him, the old lord let her go in care of Sir Torre. The two rode for a long time, until at last, near Camelot, they met Sir Lavaine. Elaine ran up to him and cried:
“Lavaine, take me to Sir Lancelot.”
Sir Lavaine was much astonished that Elaine knew the name of the stranger knight. He was glad to see her, because he thought she could help his friend. Sir Lancelot seemed glad to see her, too, and the beautiful maiden cared for him so tenderly that the old hermit said he never could have recovered without her nursing. When he was well enough, they all rode to the castle of Astolat.
There Sir Lancelot remained for a few days; then he took his shield and prepared to return to Camelot. Before he went he asked Elaine if he could not do something for her in return for her care of him.
She grew very pale and then she said:
“I am gong to say something which I should not. I love you. Take me with you to Camelot.”
Sir Lancelot said very gently:
“My poor little maiden, if I had meant to take a wife, I should have wedded earlier. All the court knows that I love only the king and the queen. You do not really love me. Some day you will marry a young knight, and then I shall give you many castles and much land as a dowry.”
“I will have nothing of all that,” said Elaine.
She turned away and climbed up to the tower, while her father said to Sir Lancelot:
“I pray you, be discourteous in some way so that she will cease to love you. Such love is madness.”
“It is not my habit to be discourteous,” said Lancelot. “However, when she stands at the turret window to wave me farewell, I will not look up at her.”
Sir Lancelot rode sadly away, and did not look up at the window where Elaine stood. She watched him till he disappeared, and then she fell in a swoon. Day after day she pined away, and one morning she said to her father:
“Dear father, I am going to die. When I am dead, take my bed and cover it with rich draperies. Then dress me in my most beautiful clothes; put a letter I have here in my hand, and lay me on the bed. Set it on a barge, and let our dumb servant steer it down the river to Camelot.”
Her father wept, and promised to do all that she asked.
Sir Lancelot had gone to the Court, where he was received with great rejoicing. For many days the knights and ladies held great feasting in his honor, and the king and queen would hardly allow him to leave their presence. One day while the three stood looking out of the palace window, they saw a black barge come slowly down the river.
It stopped at the palace door, and the king, going down, saw on it the beautiful maiden Elaine, pale in death. She was dressed in white satin, and bore a lily in her left hand and a letter in her right. The king ordered two of his knights, the good Sir Galahad and Sir Perceval, to carry Elaine into his great hall. Then Arthur read the letter, which said:
“Most noble lord, Sir Lancelot of the Lake: I, Elaine, the maid of Astolat, come to take my last farewell of you, for you left me without a farewell. I loved you, and my love had no return, and so I died.”
The knights and ladies wept. Sir Lancelot said to Arthur:
“My King, I grieve for the death of this maiden, but as I did not love her, I could not wed her.”
The king answered:
“You are not to blame, Sir Lancelot. The world has in it much that is sad as well as much that is joyous. There are happenings for which no human being can be blamed. It would be a fitting deed, however, if you had this maiden richly buried.”
Sir Lancelot ordered a splendid funeral, such as should be given to a queen. Over Elaine’s grave was raised a beautiful tomb on which was carved her figure, with the left hand holding a lily; at her feet lay the shield of Sir Lancelot, and the sad story of her death was written on the tomb in letters of gold and blue.