An Arthurian Miscellany at sacred-texts.com
THE CHRISTMAS OF SIR GALAHAD
ELIZABETH STUART PHELPS
When a fancy, fashioned neither after the inductive nor the deductive methods, attributable neither to natural selection nor to protoplasm, definable by no law of contradiction nor of excluded middle, presents itself to the public acquaintance nowadays, it is apt, as we all know, to receive rather a sorry welcome. And when, after the sadly tardy discovery of the Lady of Shalott, in South street, one of those remarkable rumors, credence to which is at once a danger and a delight, stole about town, it stole on tiptoe, looking over its shoulder meanwhile at corners with one soft sly eye on the police and another on the daily press, and a startled glance at the fashionable churches, and a tender shudder at the shadow of the "Institute," and its beautiful finger at its lips--making thus slow progress, and, for every warmhearted faith which it shook by the outstretched hand, leaving two doubts to close ranks behind it.
Such as it is, however, and for what it may mean, this is the whisper. It would be found, so it is said, had we the eyes that see or the ears that hear either signs or sounds of such a matter, that certain of the old romances which we have been accustomed to regard as finished and fated for all time are, in fact, re-enacting and repeating themselves, with a timidity amounting almost to stealth, in the chilling and alien climate of our modern civilization: that steam has not scorched out valor, nor the telegraph overtaken chivalry, nor universal suffrage extinguished loyalty; that the golden years did not go dumbly to their graves, as we are wont to think; that they have arisen, like Lazarus, with their chin-cloths on, acquainted with things unlawful to utter--reserved, still visitors, shunned and strange. It is breathed that there somewhere walks the earth to-day the Blameless King; it is hinted that there somewhere hides the Mismated Queen; it has been said that at times the Vanished Knights of the Round Table gather together in strange guise, to stranger conclave; that a student familiar with their story would be well puzzled should he stumble upon them; that Sir Percivale has been seen in a Pennsylvania coal-mine; that Bohort was discovered in New York one day, in a bricklayer's apron, with a trowel in his hand; that Isoude the Fair was all but identified in a hospital at Washington during the War of the Rebellion; that Launcelot, penitent and pale, may be heard, if one is so fortunate as to trace him, in the form of a certain street preacher, but little known, who gathers ill-favored men and women about him in an unsavory part of the town at the decline of the Sunday afternoon; that Guinevere is rumored to spend much time alone in a chamber looking toward the west, engaged in keeping a certain watch which has been set her, for a peril and a promise which no man knows; that Arthur himself filled a post of high official importance at Washington not long ago, and, escaping identification through two terms' service, disappeared suddenly and mysteriously from public life; that, in short, a Romance never died, nor ever will, but is adjudged to be the only immortal thing on earth, save the soul of man.
As much as this, in common with a few others, so far favored, I had heard and forgotten, till chance threw the whole chain of pretty dreams before me, by lassooing one link around my very hands. As much as this I found myself compelled to recall with more than common thoughtfulness when I came face to face with Sir Galahad at a butcher's stall, last Christmas morning.
Did you ever know a lost knight to be found until a woman tracked him? Is it, therefore, surprising that if it had not been for Rebecca Rock, Sir Galahad Holt would have escaped recognition completely, and the modest number of men and women now admitted to the secret of the discovery have gone the hungrier and the sadder for the loss?
It was always a matter of deep scientific speculation to Rebecca Rock why, when she came to town to find work in the neck-tie factory, she should have chosen lodgings in the second back corner of 16½ Primrose Court. She would say: "If I had hit on the western side!" or, "If I had been able to pay the rent of that room opposite the factory!" or, "How near I came to settling on the little south attic of 17!"
And she sat and mused upon it with a puzzled face. If, indeed! What an "If" it was! Such an If as there would have been in the world if that other Rebecca had taken the wrong road and missed of meeting Isaac in the desert at the set of the sun; or if Eve had lost her way in the shrubbery of Eden, and just happened not to find Adam till nobody knows when!
Perhaps, too, such an If as there would have been if Heloise had never gone to school to Abelard, or Di Rimini had never seen her lover's face? The world would have lost a grand temptation. So much as that, Rebecca Rock, cutting "foundation" into strips for the public neck, eleven hours a day, confusedly felt; but she had never heard of Heloise, and if she had been obliged to sit beside Francesca Di Rimini in the necktie factory she would have shrunk in the wounded wonder of a snow-drift from a foot-mark.
How long it was before Galahad Holt, coming home from the organ factory at seven o'clock to his solitary ground-floor lodging at 16½, noticed the tall woman in the blanket shawl, who came a little later and passed his door in going up-stairs; how long before a sense of anything more than tallness and a shawl occurred to him; how soon he noticed the outline of her arm when the shawl fell from it, as she laid her large, strong hand upon the banisters; when he first observed the regular, calm echo which her step left upon the croaking stairs; when first he met her carrying a pail of water from the Court, and instead of feeling moved to carry it for her, only thought how evenly she carried it for herself; when first she smiled at suddenly observing him; when first he gravely said good-morning; when first he gravely joined her if they chanced upon the same side of the street in passing to and fro from work; how first he gravely learned to discuss with her the fall in wages, and the wind we had on Saturday, the rise in coal, and the sunset there would be to-night; and when first he gravely came to feel that wind and fuel, sun and pay-day were no longer common matters for the common world in consequence, but a heritage of his and her discovery, ownership, and wealth, is not accurately known.
Strictly speaking, he himself knew accurately nothing. He worked, he ate, he slept; he shut himself into his lonely lodging (it was so singular, said all the Court, in Sir Galahad to board himself!); suns rose and set; she smiled and came and went; but he knew distinctly nothing. Nothing till, once upon a Sunday afternoon, he followed her to a little mission church they knew, sat on a wooden bench and watched her sing; but left in the middle of the chorus, and went abruptly home. He shut and locked the door; he stood still in the middle of the room.
"God bless her!" he said aloud. But he sat down and covered his face with his grimy, princely hands, and flushed as if he had done her a deadly wrong.
Had he the right to take a woman into his swept and garnished heart, even long enough to bless her in God's name and let her go? "It would turn to curses," said Sir Galahad, "upon us both. I will not bless her." Now he turned his head, at this, and saw her coming up the Court. "I will not, will not!" said Sir Galahad. But all his soul rose up and went to meet her, and laid its hands upon her head in benediction. And when Sir Galahad felt within himself that this was so, he fell upon his knees, and there remained till midnight. And in the morning he arose with a countenance as calm as ever knight wore in love or death or victory, and went away in his blue overalls to work, with his dinner-pail upon his arm, and nodded gravely to Rebecca; but smiled little and spoke less.
And so the Lady Rebecca, grieved and puzzled in her heart, would have dropped a tear or two upon her foundation strips, but for a heat upon her cheeks that burned and dried them all the day; and so at night, being feverish and wakeful, and, stepping down into the Court at an early hour for fresh water, she came suddenly upon a woman clambering into Sir Galahad's low window.
So she dropped her pail, and, in the icy swash that fell about her feet, sat down to catch her breath.
There, in the mud-puddle which the chilly water made, Sir Galahad found her sitting, when he had shut his window, had turned the key in his door, had come out, and had stopped and stood beside her.
"That's my wife, Rebecca, I've just locked in, in there," said Sir Galahad, standing in the starlight. "Will you come to the window and take a look at her?"
"I'd rather not," said Rebecca from her mud-puddle; but she rose, and shook the spatter from her clothes.
"Very well," said Galahad.
"You never told me," said Rebecca, picking up her pail, "that you had a wife, Sir Galahad!" "I never thought of it till yesterday," said Galahad. "I ought to have. I ask your pardon, Miss Rebecca. She's crazy."
"Oh!" said the Lady Rebecca, stretching out her strong, large hand; but she drew it back, and hid it in her shawl.
"And takes opium," said Galahad Holt, patiently, "and is up to pretty much everything. It's going on six year now sence she left me. But she keeps a coming on me unexpected. The ground floor's saved a deal of talk and shame, I think; don't you? I thought I'd best keep house for her, all things taken in't the count; don't you? Sometimes I think she'll slick herself up a little and stay. But in a day or two she's off. She's got the Old Un in her head to-night," said Galahad.
"It's very hard; it's very, very hard!" Rebecca moaned.
"Rebecca Rock," said Sir Galahad, solemnly, "it's a curious place and time to say it; but I think there'll never come a better--"
"Oh! no," said Rebecca.
"And I may as well out with it, my girl, first as last, and once for all, and tell you how, if you'd been my wife, instead of her, I couldn't have loved you truer nor more single in my heart than I love you in the sight of God and these here stars this wretched night. And I'm a married man!"
"Oh! yes, yes!" said Rebecca.
"But I'm a married man," said he.
"People unmarry," said she.
She looked in a frightened way about the Court, at the stars, at the pump, at the mud-puddle; she gasped and thrust her hand out, but drew it back within her shawl. Sir Galahad did not touch it.
"I suppose," said Sir Galahad, very slowly, "as I could get divorced from Merry Ann. I've thought o't. I thought o't yesterday a long while. But if seems to me as if I'd better not. She'd be a coming back, ye see. Anyways, she'd be a living on this living arth. We might be meeting her face to face most any day. It seems to me, Rebecca, as if it was agin Natur for me to marry any woman while Merry Ann's a living creetur. How does it seem to you?"
"Galahad Holt," said Rebecca, "I'm not so good as you, and I'm very fond of you."
"For God's sake, don't tell me o't!" cried Sir Galahad.
"Well, I won't," said Rebecca.
"For, if it's agin Natur," said Sir Galahad, lifting his face to the stars above Primrose Court, "it's agin God. And rather than be agin them two I'd be on't the safe side, it seems to me."
"Very well," said Rebecca.
"So I think we'll wait," said Sir Galahad, taking off his hat and holding out his hand.
"Is the safe side always the right side, Galahad?" asked Rebecca.
"I don't exactly know," said Sir Galahad, with a puzzled face.
"Nor I," said Rebecca; "but I think we'll wait."
"Some folks wouldn't," said Sir Galahad. "But I don't see as that makes any odds."
"No," said Rebecca. So they shook hands, while Sir Galahad stood with his hat off beneath the stars; and the Lady Rebecca picked up her pail from the mud-puddle, and went up-stairs; and Sir Galahad went to the grocer's to get a little tea for his wife; and the world ran on as if nothing had happened.
Now the world had been running on quite as if nothing would ever happen again for four years, when Sir Galahad's Christmas came. And the Lady Rebecca had walked alone to the neck-tie factory; and Galahad had kept house on the ground floor; and Rebecca had lain sick of a deadly fever, and Sir Galahad had lost six months' wages in a strike; and the man's face had grown gaunt, and the woman's old, and his had pinched and hers had paled:--yet their hands had never met since they stood by the pump in the starlight; nor had Sir Galahad's knightly foot once crossed the croaking stairs which bore the regular, calm feet of the Lady Rebecca to the solitary second back corner of 16½; nor had he said, God bless her! when she sung at the little church, lest, indeed, his whole soul should rise up perforce, and choose cursing for blessing and death for life.
And if Di Rimini had worked beside Rebecca at the neck-tie factory, she would have learned a royal lesson. And Abelard might well have sat at the feet of Galahad, making organs with his grimy hands. And if Eve or Isaac had wandered into the first floor front, or second back corner of 16½, on a lonesome, rainy evening, they would have wept for pity, and smiled for blessing, and mused much.
Now, it was on a rainy evening, with melting snow upon the ground and melting chills upon the wind, that the Lady Rebecca, crooked and crouching by her little lamp, sat darning stockings for Sir Galahad--a questionable exercise of taste, we must admit. She had not even offered to embroider him a banner, nor to net him a silken favor, nor to fringe so much as a scarf for the next tournament to be held in Primrose Court. She had only said: "Will it be proper?" And he said: "Ask the landlady." And the landlady had said: "Law, yes!" And the Lady Rebecca had said: "Bring all you have." And Sir Galahad said: "I haven't got but two pairs to my name." And so here she was, crouching and darning and crooked, by her little lamp, when a knock startled the door of the second back corner of 16½ till it shook for fright to its sunken hinges, and the Lady Rebecca shook for sympathy till she opened the door, and shook on her on account when she had.
For Sir Galahad Holt stood in the door, erect and pale.
"I did not hear you on the stairs!" gasped the Lady Rebecca.
"I couldn't come up them stairs in my boots someway," said Sir Galahad, very huskily. Now the Lady Rebecca did not altogether understand in her own mind what Sir Galahad meant; but she saw that his feet lay bare and white upon her threshold--since, indeed, poor man! she had his stockings--and a fancy as of patient pilgrims came to her, and a dream of holy ground. But she said:
"Did you come to get the stockings?" But Sir Galahad answered solemnly:
"Did you think I'd cross the stairway till I came for you? Merry Ann's down below, Rebecca. Will you be afraid to step down with me?"
Where would Rebecca have been afraid to step with him? She followed him down the stairs, which would have croaked, it seemed, but could not, beneath Sir Galahad's solemn, shining feet.
Merry Ann was below, indeed--at length upon Sir Galahad's floor, before the cook-stove, a sickening, silent heap. A little shawl was tied about her head, and her face was hidden on her arm.
"I but just come in and found her," said Sir Galahad, in his commonplace, unromantic way; "and I thought I'd tell you what had happened, Rebecca, before the coroner was called. I don't think it was a fit. She'd walked a distance, I can't but think, and hoped to have catched a look at me. Poor Merry Ann!"
"Poor Merry Ann!" said Rebecca Rock, with all her heart. She had fallen on her knees beside the dead, and had dropped her face into her hands.
"And now, Rebecca," said Sir Galahad. "Now, Rebecca--" But when he saw her on her knees he dropped beside her and said no more. And when the landlady came in they did not ask her if it were proper; but she said "Law, yes!" as if they had, and turned her face away.
"And now Rebecca," said Sir Galahad again--"now the grave is covered decent, and the room is swept, and the storm is over, and I've waited four years for you honest, in the sight of God and the stars o' Heaven, and Christmas comes o' Monday--"
"Very well," said Rebecca.
"I don't seem," said Sir Galahad, "to have the words I thought I had to say, my girl. I'd got so used waiting; hadn't you? I do not rightly see my way to take it natural and safe. I think I'd not like, nor dare, my dear, to have it any other day than Christmas Day; would you?"
I was glad there was no wind on Christmas, and that the snow lay drifted over from a little, laughing storm; and that the sun brooded with golden wings in the Primrose Court; and that the town was full of holly; and that the Lady Rebecca had a spray of myrtle in her large, firm hand, when she walked with Sir Galahad to the minister's front door.
And when I met Sir Galahad at the meat-stall, buying steak for dinner, and saw the eyes and smile he carried in the sight of God and Christmas Day, I bethought me of the records of the Spotless Knight; how he--tried, stainless, and alone--was found worthy to be the guardian ("pure in thought and word and deed") of the blessed cup from which our Lord drank the last wine which should touch his lips till he drank it new in the kingdom of the Father; how his mortal eyes beheld it, palled in red samite, treasured by "a great fellowship of angels"; how his mortal hand laid hold of it and Heaven, and his mortal name grew to be a holy thing upon the lips of men forever; and how since then "was there never one so hardy as to say that he had seen the Sangreal on earth any more."
"Sir Galahad," said I, "you have found the Sangreal, and I have found you!"
But he, smiling, shook his head.
"I don't feel altogether sure. It seems to me a man don't know what he's found till he's learned to bear his happiness as he bore his longing for't, and his waiting, and his loss. But I can't help hoping, somehow, that I'm fit to be married on a Christmas Day."
Next: The Lady of Shalott, by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps