Her name was Elaine. But she was so fair that her father called her ‘Elaine the Fair,’ and she was so lovable that her brothers called her ‘Elaine the Lovable,’ and that was the name she liked best of all.
The country people, who lived round about the castle of Astolat, which was Elaine’s home, had another and a very beautiful name for her. As she passed their windows in her white frock, they looked at the white lilies growing in their gardens, and they said, ‘She is tall and graceful and pure as these,’ and they called her the ‘Lily Maid of Astolat.’
Elaine lived in the castle alone with her father and her two brothers, and an old dumb servant who had waited on her since she was a baby.
To her father Elaine seemed always a bright and winsome child, though she was growing up now. He would watch her serious face as she listened to Sir Torre, the grave elder brother, while he told her that wise maidens stayed at home to cook and sew. And he would laugh as he saw her, when Sir Torre turned away, run off wilfully to the woods.
Elaine spent long happy days out of doors with her younger brother Lavaine. When they grew tired of chasing the butterflies and gathering the wildflowers, they would sit under the pine-trees and speak of Arthur’s knights and their noble deeds, and they longed to see the heroes of whom they talked.
‘And the tournament will be held at Camelot this year,’ Lavaine reminded his sister. ‘If some of the knights ride past Astolat, we may see them as they pass.’ And Elaine and Lavaine counted the days till the tournament would begin.
Now Arthur had offered the prize of a large diamond to the knight who fought most bravely at the tournament.
But the knights murmured to each other, ‘We need not hope to win the prize, for Sir Lancelot will be on the field, and who can stand before the greatest knight of Arthur’s court?’
And the Queen heard what the knights said to each other, and she told Lancelot how they lost courage and hope when he came on to the field. ‘They begin to think some magic is at work when they see you, and they cannot fight their best. But I have a plan. You must go to the tournament at Camelot in disguise. And though the knights do not know with whom they fight, they will still fall before the strength of Lancelot’s arm,’ added the Queen, smiling up to him.
Then Lancelot disguised himself, and left the court and rode towards Camelot. But when he was near Astolat he lost his way, and wandered into the old castle grounds, where Elaine stood, with her father and brothers.
And as Elaine’s father, the old Baron, welcomed the knight, Lavaine and Elaine whispered together, ‘This is better than to see many knights passing on their way to Camelot.’
And Lancelot stayed at Astolat till evening, and he told many tales of Arthur’s court.
As Elaine and Lavaine listened to his voice, and looked at his face, with the scars of many battles on it, they loved him. ‘I will be his squire and follow him,’ thought Lavaine, and Elaine wished that she might follow the strange knight too. But Sir Torre, the grave elder brother, looked gloomily at the stranger, and wished he had not come to Astolat.
In the evening Sir Lancelot told the Baron how he was going in disguise to the tournament, and how, by mistake, he had brought his own shield with him. ‘If you can lend me another, I will leave my shield with you till I come back from Camelot,’ said the knight.
Then they gave him Sir Torre’s shield, for Sir Torre had been wounded in his first battle, and could not go to the tournament. And Elaine came running gladly to take the strange knight’s shield under her care. But none of them knew that it was Sir Lancelot’s shield, for he had not told them his name.
And Elaine, carrying the shield with her, climbed the tower stair, up to her own little room. And she put the shield carefully into a corner, thinking, ‘I will sew a cover for it, to keep it safe and bright.’ Then she went downstairs again, and saw that the knight was going, and that Lavaine was going too.
‘He has asked the knight to take him as his squire,’ she thought. ‘But although I cannot go,’ she murmured sadly, ‘I can ask him to wear my favour at the tournament.’ For in those days a knight often wore the colours of the lady who loved him.
Very shyly Elaine told the knight her wish. Would he wear her favour at the tournament? It was a red sleeve, embroidered with white pearls.
Lancelot thought how fair Elaine was, as she looked up at him with love and trust in her eyes, but he told her gently that he had never yet worn a lady’s favour, and that he could not wear hers.
‘If you have never worn one before, wear this,’ she urged timidly. ‘It will make your disguise more complete.’ And Lancelot knew that what she said was true, and he took the red sleeve embroidered with pearls, and tied it on his helmet.
So Elaine was glad, and after the knight and Lavaine had ridden away, she went up the turret stair again to her little room. She took the shield from the corner, and handled the bruises and dints in it lovingly, and made pictures to herself of all the battles and tournaments it had been through with her knight.
Then Elaine sat down and sewed, as Sir Torre would have wise maidens do. But what she sewed was a beautiful cover for the shield, and that Sir Torre would not have her do, for he cared neither for the strange knight nor his shield.
Lancelot rode on towards Camelot, with Lavaine as his squire, till they came to a wood where a hermit lived. And they stayed at the hermitage all night, and the next morning they rode on till they reached Camelot.
And when Lavaine saw the King sitting on a high throne, ready to judge which knight was worthy to have the diamond, he did not think of the grandeur of the throne, nor of the King’s marvellous dress of rich gold, nor of the jewels in his crown. He could think only of the nobleness and beauty of the great King’s face, and wish that his fair sister Elaine might see him too.
Then many brave knights began to fight, and all wondered why Sir Lancelot was not there. And they wondered more at the strange knight, with the bare shield and the red sleeve with pearls on his helmet, who fought so bravely and overthrew the others one by one.
And the King said, ‘Surely this is Sir Lancelot himself.’ But when he saw the lady’s favour on the knight’s helmet, he said, ‘No, it cannot be Sir Lancelot.’
When at last the tournament was over, the King proclaimed that the strange knight who wore the red sleeve embroidered with pearls had won the prize, and he called him to come to take the diamond.
But no one came, and the knight with the red sleeve was nowhere to be seen. For Sir Lancelot had been wounded in his last fight, and when it was over, had ridden hastily from the field, calling Lavaine to follow. And when they had ridden a little way into the wood, Sir Lancelot fell from his horse. ‘The head of the spear is still in my side,’ he moaned; ‘draw it out, Lavaine.’
At first Lavaine was afraid, for he thought of the pain it would give the knight, and he was afraid too that the wound would bleed till his knight bled to death. But because Sir Lancelot was in great suffering, Lavaine at last took courage, and pulled the head of the spear out of Lancelot’s side. Then he, with great difficulty, helped the knight on to his horse, and slowly and painfully they rode towards the hermitage.
They reached it at last, and the hermit came out and called two of his servants to carry the knight into his cell; and they unarmed him and put him to bed. Then the hermit dressed the knight’s wound and gave him wine to drink.
When King Arthur found the strange knight had disappeared, and heard that he was wounded, he said that the prize should be sent to so gallant a victor. ‘He was tired and wounded, and cannot have ridden far,’ said the King. And turning to Sir Gawaine, he gave him the diamond, and told him to go and find the knight and give him the prize he had won so bravely.
But Sir Gawaine did not want to obey the King. He did not want to leave the feasting and merriment that followed the tournament. Yet since all Arthur’s knights had taken a vow of obedience, Gawaine was ashamed not to go, so sulkily, like no true knight, he left the feast.
And Sir Gawaine rode through the wood and past the hermitage where the wounded knight lay; and because he was thinking only of his own disappointment, his search was careless, and he did not see the shelter Sir Lancelot had found. He rode on till he came to Astolat. And when Elaine and her father and her brother Sir Torre saw the knight, they called to him to come in and tell them about the tournament, and who had won the prize.
Then Sir Gawaine told how the knight with the red sleeve embroidered with white pearls had gained the prize, but how, being wounded, he had ridden away without claiming it. He told too how the King had sent him to find the unknown knight and to give him the diamond.
But because Elaine was very fair, and because he did not greatly wish to do the order of the King, Sir Gawaine lingered there, wandering in the old castle garden, with ‘the Lily Maid of Astolat.’ And he told Elaine courtly tales of lords and ladies, and tried to win her love, but she cared for no one but the knight whose shield she guarded.
One day, as Elaine grew impatient with the idle Sir Gawaine, she said she would show him the shield the strange knight had left with her. ‘If you know the arms engraved on the shield, you will know the name of the knight you seek, and perhaps find him the sooner,’ she said.
And when Sir Gawaine saw the shield he cried, ‘It is the shield of Sir Lancelot, the noblest knight in Arthur’s court.’
Elaine touched the shield lovingly, and murmured, ‘The noblest knight in Arthur’s court.’
‘You love Sir Lancelot, and will know where to find him,’ said Sir Gawaine. ‘I will give you the diamond, and you shall fulfil the King’s command.’
And Sir Gawaine rode away from Astolat, kissing the hands of the fair Elaine, and leaving the diamond with her. And when he reached the court he told the lords and ladies about the fair maid of Astolat who loved Sir Lancelot. ‘He wore her favour, and she guards his shield,’ he said.
But when the King heard that Sir Gawaine had come back, without finding the strange knight, and leaving the diamond with the fair maid of Astolat, he was displeased. ‘You have not served me as a true knight,’ he said gravely; and Sir Gawaine was silent, for he remembered how he had lingered at Astolat.
When Elaine took the diamond from Sir Gawaine she went to her father. ‘Let me go to find the wounded knight and Lavaine,’ she said. ‘I will nurse the knight as maidens nurse those who have worn their favours.’ And her father let her go.
With the grave Sir Torre to guard her, Elaine rode into the wood, and near the hermitage she saw Lavaine.
‘Take me to Sir Lancelot,’ cried the Fair Elaine. And Lavaine marvelled that she knew the knight’s name.
Then Elaine told her brother about Sir Gawaine, and his careless search for Lancelot, and she showed him the diamond she brought for the wounded knight.
‘Take me to him,’ she cried again. And as they went, Sir Torre turned and rode gloomily back to Astolat, for it did not please him that the Fair Elaine should love Sir Lancelot.
When Lavaine and Elaine reached the hermitage, the hermit welcomed the fair maid, and took her to the cell where Lancelot lay.
‘The knight is pale and thin,’ said Elaine; ‘I will nurse him.’
Day by day and for many nights Elaine nursed him tenderly as a maiden should, till at last one glad morning the hermit told her she had saved the knight’s life.
Then when Sir Lancelot grew stronger, Elaine gave him the diamond, and told him how the King had sent him the prize he had won so hardly. And Lancelot grew restless, and longed to be at the King’s court once more.
When the knight was able to ride, he went back to Astolat with Elaine and Lavaine. And as he rested there, he thought, ‘Before I go, I must thank the Lily Maid, and reward her for all she has done for me.’
But when he asked Elaine how he could reward her, she would answer only that she loved him, and wished to go to court with him, as Lavaine would do.
‘I cannot take you with me,’ said the knight courteously; ‘but when you are wedded, I will give you and your husband a thousand pounds every year.’
But Elaine wanted nothing but to be with Sir Lancelot.
‘My Lily Maid will break her heart,’ said her father sadly, ‘unless the knight treats her less gently.’
But Sir Lancelot could not be unkind to the maid who had nursed him so tenderly. Only, next morning when he rode away, carrying his shield with him, though he knew Elaine watched him from her turret window, he neither looked up nor waved farewell. And Elaine knew she would never see Sir Lancelot again.
Then day by day she grew more sad and still. ‘She will die,’ said her father sadly, as he watched her; and the grave Sir Torre sobbed, for he loved his sister dearly.
One day Elaine sent for her father to come to her little turret room.
‘Promise me that when I die you will do as I wish. Fasten the letter I shall write tightly in my hand, and clothe me in my fairest dress. Carry me down to the river and lay me in the barge, and, alone with our old dumb servant, let me be taken to the palace.’
And her father promised. And when Elaine died there was great sadness in Astolat.
Then her father took the letter and bound it in her hand, and by her side he placed a lily. And they clothed her in her fairest dress, and carried her down to the river, and laid her in the barge, alone with the old dumb servant.
And the barge floated quietly down the stream, guided by the old dumb man.
Then when it reached the palace steps, it stopped, and the King and the Queen and all the knights and ladies came to see the strange sight.
And the King took the letter from the fair maid’s hand and read it aloud.
‘I am the Lily Maid of Astolat, and because Sir Lancelot left me, I make unto all ladies my moan. Pray for my soul.’
When they heard it the lords and ladies wept with pity.
And Sir Lancelot buried Elaine sadly. And sometimes when those who loved him were jealous and unkind, he thought tenderly of the pure and simple love of the Lily Maid of Astolat.