K ING ARTHUR'S Round Table had lasted many years, and the knights had done much to help the people of the country; yet there were traitors to the king among his own subjects. One of these traitors made war in a distant part of the kingdom, and Arthur went with most of his knights to punish him. His nephew, Sir Modred, the brother of Sir Gawain and Sir Gareth, ruled in his stead at Camelot.
Now Sir Modred was a wicked knight. He hated the king and the queen, and Sir Lancelot. Since King Arthur was absent a long time, Sir Modred had the opportunity of doing much harm. He let evil go unpunished; he allowed bad customs to come into the country; and at last he raised a rebellion against the good king.
When Arthur returned to Camelot to quell this rebellion, he had lost many of his faithful knights. Sir Hector was dead, and Sir Ulfius and Sir Brastias; Sir Kay was dead, and Sir Bors, and Sir Gawain. Sir Lancelot was far away. Sir Bedivere alone remained of those who had been with Arthur since he had first ruled in Wales and Britain.
The king and Sir Bedivere, with the help of such knights as still were faithful, tried to put down those rebels. They drove the traitors back until they came at length to Lyonnesse by the sea. Here the last great battle took place.
The night before the battle, Sir Bedivere heard the king praying. Then Arthur slept, and when he awakened he called to his friend:
"Sir Bedivere," he said, "I have had a dream. I thought that Sir Gawain came to me and told me that to-morrow I should die."
"My lord, it is but a dream," answered Sir Bedivere. "You are great; you have done much good which will last forever, and you will live many years yet to perform many gracious acts. The day will soon dawn, and you will win the battle."
Arthur shook his head.
"This is not like my other battles. I have no heart for it. It is hard to slay my own people, even if they are traitors."
Day came, but no sun. A cold white mist lay over land and sea. It chilled the knights to the bone. And when the battle began, the mist was so thick that no one could see with whom he was fighting. Friends slew each other, not knowing whom they killed. Some could not fight at all, for it seemed to them that those moving on the battle-field were ghosts of warriors long since slain. There was many a noble deed and many a base one done in that mist. The fighting went on with clashing of lances and shields throughout the afternoon, and then the sounds grew fainter, till there was silence. At last, towards sunset, a wind from the west blew the mist away. Then Arthur, with Sir Bedivere by his side, looked over the field of battle. He saw but one man standing; all the rest were dead on the seashore. And the tide had risen, and was swaying the helpless hands, and tumbling up and down the hollow helmets and the broken spears that once had fought with Rome. The king's face was white, and his voice was low as he said to Sir Bedivere:
"There lie my slain, who have died for me. I am king only of the dead."
"Nay, lord," said Bedivere. "You are king everywhere still. Now strike a kingly stroke against the one traitor who still stands."
Sir Bedivere pointed at the one other living man, and the king saw that it was Sir Modred. Arthur threw down his scabbard and lifted his good Excalibur. Then he sprang upon the traitor. Sir Modred struck the king on the helmet, which had been worn thin in many battles. The stroke cut through the steel, and wounded Arthur mortally, but he used his ebbing strength for one last blow with Excalibur, and killed Sir Modred.
The king sank to the ground, but Sir Bedivere lifted him, and bore him to a ruined chapel near the seashore. When he had laid him down by the broken cross in the chancel, Arthur said:
"You know well that my Excalibur was given to me by the Lady of the Lake. I have used it like a king. And now the time has come to obey the writing on the blade. So take my sword Excalibur, and throw it far out into the lake".
Sir Bedivere took the sword and went out from the ruined chapel. He walked amid the graves of ancient knights over which the sea wind was singing. He passed the barren cliffs and chasms, and reached the lake at last.
He lifted Excalibur, and as he did so the moon came from behind the clouds. The light fell on the hilt of the sword, and all the jewels shone. Sir Bedivere looked until his eyes were dazzled; he could not throw the beautiful weapon away. So he hid it in the weeds upon the shore of the lake, and returned to the king."
"What did you see or hear?" asked Arthur.
Sir Bedivere replied:
"I heard the ripple washing in the reeds, and the wild water lapping on the crags."
King Arthur, faint and pale, said:
"You have betrayed me. You have acted a lie. Had you thrown the sword, something would have happened, some sign would have been given. Go back now, and throw it into the lake."
Sir Bedivere went back and again picked up Excalibur. As he looked at it he said aloud:
"Surely it is not right to throw away such a precious thing. It would please the eyes of people forever. I know it is wrong to disobey the king. Yet he is sick; perhaps he does not know what he is doing. If I keep Excalibur and store it in a great treasure-house, people will look at it throughout all the coming years, and feel great reverence for the king who fought with it."
So again Sir Bedivere hid the sword and returned to the king, who asked:
"What have you seen or heard?"
And Sir Bedivere replied:
"I heard the water lapping on the crag, and the long ripple washing in the reeds."
Then the king was very angry.
"Ah, unkind!" he cried. "You, too, are a traitor. Because I am dying, I have no authority. You refuse to obey me, you who are the last of my knights! Yet it is possible for a man to fail in his duty twice, and succeed the third time. Go now, and throw Excalibur."
Sir Bedivere ran quickly and seized the sword, shutting his eyes that he might not see its beauty. He whirled it round his head and threw it far out over the lake. It flashed in the moonlight and fell. But before it reached the surface of the water, an arm, clothed in pure white, rose and caught it, brandished it three times, and then drew it under the water.
When Sir Bedivere went back to Arthur, the king knew that he had been obeyed.
"I am dying," he said. "Lift me on your back and carry me to the lake."
Then Sir Bedivere carried the helpless king, walking quickly through the place of tombs, and over the crags, and past the chasms, till he came to the smooth shining lake. There beside the bank was a barge, all black. The deck was covered with stately figures of people clad in mourning. Among them were three fair queens with crowns of gold—the three queens who were to help Arthur at his need.
They had come to take him away, Sir Bedivere did not know where. When they saw the wounded king, they gave a cry of grief that seemed to rise to the stars. Then they lifted him into the barge. The tallest put his head on her knees, and took off his broken helmet. She called him by name, weeping bitterly.
Poor Sir Bedivere cried:
"Oh, my lord Arthur, you are leaving me. Where shall I go? The great Round Table is broken up forever. What shall I do?"
Then Arthur answered:
"Old customs pass and new ones come. God makes his world better in many ways. The Round Table did its work and now has disappeared; but something else will surely come to advance the cause of truth and justice. Pray for me and for yourself. More things are done by prayer than this world dreams of. And now, farewell! You shall never see me again, my Bedivere. My work is done; yours, too, is nearly over[should have period.]Farewell!"
then the barge moved slowly away, while those on board lamented. Sir Bedivere watched it till it disappeared amid the shadows over the lake. Then he rose slowly and wandered back to Lyonnesse.
After a time he went to Camelot. There was a new king there, who was good, and new customs, also good. But Sir Bedivere was too old to change his way of life. He spent the rest of his days in Camelot, but he lived only in the past, dreaming of the time when King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table ruled in the land.