Of the wrong my father did?
How long, how long, till spade and hearse
Put to sleep my mother's curse?
There was a round tower with a weather-cock on it. The weather-cock was a carrion crow, with an arrow in its beak to point to the wind.
There was a circular room at the top of the tower, curiously uncomfortable. It was draughty. There was a closet on the east side which had a hole in the floor. This hole commanded the outer doors of the tower, of which there were two, and people could drop stones through it when they were besieged. Unfortunately the wind used to come up through the hole and go pouring out of the unglazed shot-windows or up the chimney—unless it happened to be blowing the other way, in which case it went downward. It was like a wind tunnel. A second nuisance was that the room was full of peat-smoke, not from its own fire but from the fire in the room below. The complicated system of draughts sucked the smoke down the chimney. The stone walls sweated in damp weather. The furniture itself was uncomfortable. It consisted solely of heaps of stones—which were handy for throwing down the hole—together with a few rusty Genoese cross-bows with their bolts and a pile of turfs for the unlit fire. The four children had no bed. If it had been a square room, they might have had a cupboard bed, but, as it was, they had to sleep on the floor—where they covered thelmselves with straw and plaids as best they could.
The children had erected an amateur tent over their heads, out of the plaids, and under this they were lying close together, telling a story. They could hear their mother stoking the fire in the room below, which made them whisper for fear that she could hear. It was not exactly that they were afraid of being beaten if she came up. They adored her dumbly and uncritically, because her character was stronger than theirs. Nor had they been forbidden to talk after bedtime. It was more as if she had brought them up—perhaps through indifference or through laziness or even through some kind of possessive cruelty—with an imperfect sense of right and wrong. It was as if they could never know when they were being good or when they were being bad.
They were whispering in Gaelic. Or rather, they were whispering in a strange mixture of Gaelic and of the Old Language of chivalry—which had been taught to them because they would need it when they were grown. They had little English. In later years, when they became famous knights at the court of the great king, they were to speak English perfectly—all of them except Gawaine, who, as the head of the clan, was to cling to a Scots accent on purpose, to show that he was not ashamed of his birth.
Gawaine was telling the story, because he was the eldest. They lay together, like thin, strange, secret frogs, their bodies well-boned and ready to fill out into toughness as soon as they might be given decent nourishment. They were fair-haired. Gawaine's was bright red and Gareth's whiter than hay. They ranged from ten years old to fourteen, and Gareth was the youngest of the four. Gaheris was a stolid child. Agravaine, the next after Gawaine, was the bully of the family—he was shifty, inclined to cry, and frightened of pain. It was because he had a good imagination and used his head more than the others.
"Long time past, my heroes," Gawaine was saying, "before ourselves were born or thought of, there was a beautiful grandmother at us, called Igraine."
"She is the Countess of Cornwall," said Agravaine.
"Our grandmother is the Countess of Cornwall," agreed Gawaine, "and the bloody King of England fell in love with her."
"His name was Uther Pendragon," said Agravaine.
"Who is at telling this story?" asked Gareth angrily. "Close your mouth."
"King Uther Pendragon," continued Gawaine, "let send for the Earl and Countess of Cornwall—"
"Our Grandfather and Granny," said Gaheris.
"—and he proclaimed to them that they must stay with him at his house in the Tower of London. Then, when they were at staying with him therein, he asked our Granny that she would become the wife of himself, instead of being with our Grandfather at all. But the chaste and beautiful Countess of Cornwall—"
"Granny," said Gaheris.
Gareth exclaimed: "Sorrow take it, will you give us peace?" There was a muffled argument, punctuated by squeaks, bumps and complaining remarks.
"The chaste and beautiful Countess of Cornwall," resumed Gawaine, "spurned the advances of King Uther Pendragon, and she told our Grandfather about it. She said: 'I suppose we were sent for that I should be dishonoured. Wherefore, husband, I counsel you that we depart from hence suddenly, that we may ride all night to our own castle.' So they went out of the King's rath in the middle night—"
"At dead of night," Gareth corrected.
"—when all the people of the house had gone on sleep, and there they saddled their prancing, fire-eyed, swift-footed, symmetrical, large-lipped, small-headed, vehement steeds, by the light of a dark lantern, and they rode away into Cornwall, as fast as they could go."
"It was a terrible ride," said Gaheris.
"They killed the horses underneath them," said Agravaine.
"So they did not, then," said Gareth. "Our Grandfather and Granny would not have ridden any horses to kill them."
"Did they?" asked Gaheris.
"No, they did not," said Gawaine, after considering. "But they nearly did so."
He went on with the story.
"When King Uther Pendragon learned what had happened in the morning, he was wonderly wroth."
"Wood wroth," suggested Gareth.
"Wonderly wroth," said Gawaine. "King Uther Pendragon was wonderly wroth. He said, 'I will have that Earl of Cornwall's head in a pie-dish, by my halidome!' So he sent our Grandfather a letter which bid him to stuff him and garnish him, for within forty days he would fetch him out of the strongest castle that he had!"
"There were two castles at him," said Agravaine haughtily. "They were the Castle Tintagil and the Castle Terrabil.
"So the Earl of Cornwall put our Granny in Tintagil, and he himself went into Terrabil, and King Uther Pendragon came to lay them siege."
"And there," cried Gareth, unable to contain himself, "the king pight many pavilions, and there was great war made on both parties, and much people slain!"
"A thousand?" suggested Gaheris. "Two thousand at least," said Agravaine. "We of the Gael would not have slain less than two thousand. In truth, it was a million probably."
"So when our Grandfather and Granny were winning the sieges, and it looked as if King Uther would be utterly defeated, there came along a wicked magician called Merlyn—"
"A nigromancer," said Gareth.
"And this nigromancer, would you believe it, by means of his infernal arts, succeeded in putting the treacherous Uther Pendragon inside our Granny's Castle. Granda immediately made a sortie out of Terrabil, but he was slain in the battle—"
"And the poor Countess of Cornwall—"
"The chaste and beautiful Igraine—"
"—was captured prisoner by the blackhearted, southron, faithless King of the Dragon, and then, in spite of it that she had three beautiful daughters already whatever—"
"The lovely Cornwall Sisters." "Aunt Elaine." "Aunt Morgan." "And Mammy."
"And if she had these lovely daughters, she was forced into marrying the King of England—the man who had slain her husband!"
They considered the enormous English wickedness in silence, overwhelmed by its denouement. It was their mother's favourite story, on the rare occasions when she troubled to tell them one, and they had learned it by heart. Finally Agravaine quoted a Gaelic proverb, which she had also taught them.
"Four things," he whispered, "that a Lothian cannot trust—a cow's horn, a horse's hoof, a dog's snarl, and an Englishman's laugh."
They moved in the straw uneasily, listening to some secret movements in the room below.
The room underneath the story-tellers was lit by a single candle and by the saffron light of its peat fire. It was a poor room for a royal one, but at least it had a bed in it—the great four-poster which was used as a throne during the daytime. An iron cauldron with three legs was boiling over the fire. The candle stood in front of a sheet of polished brass, which served as a mirror. There were two living beings in the chamber, a Queen and a cat. Both of them had black hair and blue eyes.
The black cat lay on its side in the firelight as if it were dead. This was because its legs were tied together, like the legs of a roe deer which is to be carried home from the hunt. It had given up struggling and now lay gazing into the fire with slit eyes and heaving sides, curiously resigned. Or else it was exhausted—for animals know when they have come to the end. Most of them have a dignity about dying, denied to human beings. This cat, with the small flames dancing in its oblique eyes, was perhaps seeing the pageant of its past eight lives, reviewing them with an animal's stoicism, beyond hope or fear.
The Queen picked up the cat. She was trying a well-known piseog to amuse herself, or at any rate to pass the time while the men were away at the war. It was a method of becoming invisible. She was not a serious witch like her sister Morgan le Fay—for her head was too empty to take any great art seriously, even if it were the black one. She was doing it because the little magics ran in her blood— as they did with all the women of her race.
In the boiling water, the cat gave some horrible convulsions and a dreadful cry. Its wet fur bobbed in the steam, gleaming like the side of a speared whale, as it tried to leap or to swim with its bound feet. Its mouth opened hideously, showing the whole of its pink gullet, and the sharp, white cat-teeth, like thorns. After the first shriek it was not able to articulate, but only to stretch its jaws. Later it was dead.
Queen Morgause of Lothian and Orkney sat beside the cauldron and waited. Occasionally she stirred the cat with a wooden spoon. The stench of boiling fur began to fill the room. A watcher would have seen, in the nattering peat light, what an exquisite creature she was tonight: her deep, big eyes, her hair glinting with dark lustre, her full body, and her faint air of watchfulness as she listened for the whispering in the room above.
Gawaine said: "Revenge!"
"They had done no harm to King Pendragon."
"They had only asked to be left in peace."
It was the unfairness of the rape of their Cornish grandmother which was hurting Gareth—the picture of weak and innocent people victimized by a resistless tyranny—the old tyranny of the Gall—which was felt like a personal wrong by every crofter of the Islands. Gareth was a generous boy. He hated the idea of strength against weakness. It made his heart swell, as if he were going to suffocate. Gawaine, on the other hand, was angry because it had been against his family. He did not think it was wrong for strength to have its way, but only that it was intensely wrong for anything to succeed against his own clan. He was neither clever nor sensitive, but he was loyal—stubbornly sometimes, and even annoyingly and stupidly so in later life. For him it was then as it was always to be: Up Orkney, Right or Wrong. The third brother, Agravaine, was moved because it was a matter which concerned his mother. He had curious feelings about her, which he kept to himself. As for Gaheris, he did and felt what the others did.
The cat had come to pieces. The long boiling had shredded its meat away until there was nothing in the cauldron except a deep scum of hair and grease and gobbets. Underneath, the white bones revolved in the eddies of the water, the heavy ones lying still and the airy membranes lifting gracefully, like leaves in an autumn wind. The Queen, wrinkling her nose slightly in the thick stench of unsalted broth, strained the liquid into a second pot. On top of the flannel strainer there was left a sediment of cat, a sodden mass of matted hair and meat shreds and the delicate bone. She blew on the sediment and began turning it over with the handle of the spoon, prodding it to let the heat out. Later, she was able to sort it with her fingers.
The Queen knew that every pure black cat had a certain bone in it, which, if it were held in the mouth after boiling the cat alive, was able to make you invisible. But nobody knew precisely, even in those days, which the bone was. This was why the magic had to be done in front of a mirror, so that the right one could be found by practice.
It was not that Morgause courted invisibility—indeed, she would have detested it, because she was beautiful. But the men were away. It was something to do, an easy and well-known charm. Besides, it was an excuse for lingering with the mirror.
The Queen scraped the remains of her cat into two heaps, one of them a neat pile of warm bones, the other a miscellaneous lump which softly steamed. Then she chose one of the bones and lifted it to her red lips, cocking the little finger. She held it between her teeth and stood in front of the polished brass, looking at herself with sleepy pleasure. She threw the bone into the fire and fetched another.
There was nobody to see her. It was strange, in these circumstances, the way in which she turned and turned, from mirror to bone-pile, always putting a bone in her mouth, and looking at herself to see if she had vanished, and throwing the bone away. She moved so gracefully, as if she were dancing, as if there really was somebody to see her, or as if it were enough that she should see herself.
Finally, but before she had tested all the bones, she lost interest. She threw the last ones down impatiently and tipped the mess out of the window, not caring where it fell. Then she smoored the fire, stretched herself on the big bed with a strange motion, and lay there in the darkness for a long time without sleeping—her body moving discontentedly.
"And this, my heroes," concluded Gawaine, "is the reason why we of Cornwall and Orkney must be against the Kings of England ever more, and most of all against the clan Mac Pendragon."
"It is why our Da has gone away to fight against King Arthur whatever, for Arthur is a Pendragon. Our Mammy said so."
"And we must keep the feud living forever," said Agravaine, "because Mammy is a Cornwall. Dame Igraine is our Granny."
"We must avenge our family."
"Because our Mammy is the most beautiful woman in the high-ridged, extensive, ponderous, pleasantly-turning world."
"And because we love her."
Indeed, they did love her. Perhaps we all give the best of our hearts uncritically—to those who hardly think about us in return.
On the battlements of their castle at Camelot, during an interval of peace between the two Gaelic Wars, the young king of England was standing with his tutor, looking across the purple wastes of evening. A soft light flooded the land below them, and the slow river wound between venerable abbey and stately castle, while the flaming water of sunset reflected spires and turrets and pennoncells hanging motionless in the calm air.
The world was laid out before the two watchers like a toy, for they were on a high keep which dominated the town. At their feet they could see the grass of the outer bailey—it was horrible looking down on it—and a small foreshortened man, with two buckets on a yoke, making his way across to the menagerie. They could see, further off at the gatehouse, which was not so horrible to look at because it was not vertically below, the night guard taking over from the sergeant. They were clicking their heels and saluting and presenting pikes and exchanging passwords as merrily as a marriage bell—but it was done in silence for the two, because it was so far below. They looked like lead soldiers, the little gallow-glasses, and their footsteps could not sound upon the luscious sheep-nibbled green. Then, outside the curtain wall, there was the distant noise of old wives bargaining, and brats bawling, and corporals quaffing, and a few goats mixed with it, and two or three lepers in white hoods ringing bells as they walked, and the swishing robes of nuns who were kindly visiting the poor, two by two, and a fight going on between some gentlemen who were interested in horses. On the other side of the river, which ran directly beneath the castle wall, there was a man ploughing in the fields, with his plough tied to the horse's tail. The wooden plough squeaked. There was a silent person near him, fishing for salmon with worms—the rivers were not polluted in those days—and further off, there was a donkey giving his musical concert to the coming night. All these noises came up to the two on the tower smally, as though they were listening through the wrong end of a megaphone. Arthur was a young man, just on the threshold of life. He had fair hair and a stupid face, or at any rate there was a lack of cunning in it It was an open face, with kind eyes and a reliable or faithful expression, as though he were a good learner who enjoyed being alive and did not believe in original sin. He had never been unjustly treated, for one thing, so he was kind to other people.
The King was dressed in a robe of velvet which had belonged to Uther the Conqueror, his father, trimmed with the beards of fourteen kings who had been vanquished in the olden days. Unfortunately some of these kings had had red hair, some black, some pepper-and-salt, while their growth of beard had been uneven. The trimming looked like a feather boa. The moustaches were stuck on round the buttons.
Merlyn had a white beard which reached to his middle, horn-rimmed spectacles, and a conical hat. He wore it in compliment to the Saxon serfs of the country, whose national headgear was either a kind of diving-cap, or the Phrygian cap, or else this cone of straw.
The two of them were speaking sometimes, as the words came to them, between spells of listening to the evening:
"Well," said Arthur, "I must say it is nice to be a king. It was a splendid battle."
"Do you think so?"
"Of course it was splendid. Look at the way Lot of Orkney ran, after I had begun to use Excalibur."
"He got you down first."
"That was nothing. It was because I was not using Excalibur. As soon as I drew my trusty sword they ran like rabbits."
"They will come again," said the magician, "all six. The Kings of Orkney, Garloth, Gore, Scotland, The Tower, and the Hundred Knights have started already—in fact, the Gaelic Confederation. You must remember that your claim to the throne is hardly a conventional one."
"Let them come," replied the King. "I don't mind. I will beat them properly this time, and then we will see who is master."
The old man crammed his beard in his mouth and began to chew it, as he generally did when he was put about. He bit through one of the hairs, which stuck between two teeth. He tried to lick it off, then took it out with his fingers. Finally he began curling-it into two points.
"I suppose you will learn some day," he said, "but God knows it is heartbreaking, uphill work." "Oh?"
"Yes," cried Merlyn passionately. "Oh? oh? oh? That is all you can say. Oh? oh? oh? Like a schoolboy." "I shall cut off your head if you are not careful." "Cut it off. It would be a good thing if you did. I should not have to keep on tutoring, at any rate."
Arthur shifted his elbow on the battlement and looked at his ancient friend.
"What is the matter, Merlyn?" he asked. "Have I been doing something wrong? I am sorry if I have." The magician uncurled his beard and blew his nose. "It is not so much what you are doing," he said. "It is how you are thinking. If there is one thing I can't stand, it is stupidity. I always say that stupidity is the Sin against the Holy Ghost." "I know you do." "Now you are being sarcastic." The King took him by the shoulder and turned him round. "Look," he said, "what is wrong? Are you in a bad temper? If I have done something stupid, tell me. Don't be in a bad temper."
It had the effect of making the aged nigromant angrier than before.
"Tell you!" he exclaimed. "And what is going to happen when there is nobody to tell you? Are you never going to think for yourself? What is going to happen when I am locked up in this wretched tumulus of mine, I should like to know?"
"I didn't know there was a tumulus in it." "Oh, hang the tumulus! What tumulus? What am I supposed to be talking about?"
"Stupidity," said Arthur. "It was stupidity when we started." "Exactly."
"Well, it's no good saying Exactly. You were going to say something about it."
"I don't know what I was going to say about it. You put one in such a passion with all your this and that, that I am sure nobody would know what they were talking about for two minutes together. How did it begin?"
"It began about the battle."
"Now I remember," said Merlyn. "That is exactly where it did begin."
"I said it was a good battle." "So I recollect."
"Well, it was a good battle," he repeated defensively. "It was a jolly battle, and I won it myself, and it was fun."
The magician's eyes veiled thelmselves like a vulture's, as he vanished inside his mind. There was silence on the battlements for several minutes, while a pair of peregrines that were being hacked in a nearby field flew over their heads in a playful chase, crying out Kik-kik-kik, their bells ringing. Merlyn looked out of his eyes once more.
"It was clever of you," he said slowly, "to win the battle."
Arthur had been taught that he ought to be modest, and he was too simple to notice that the vulture was going to pounce.
"Oh, well. It was luck."
"Very clever," repeated Merlyn. "How many of your kerns were killed?" "I don't remember." "No."
The King stopped in the middle of the sentence, and looked at him.
"Well," he said. "It was not fun, then. I had not thought." "The tally was more than seven hundred. They were all kerns, of course. None of the knights were injured, except the one who broke his leg falling off the horse."
When he saw that Arthur was not going to answer, the old fellow went on in a bitter voice.
"I was forgetting," he added, "that you had some really nasty bruises."
Arthur glared at his finger-nails. "I hate you when you are a prig." Merlyn was charmed.
"That's the spirit," he said, putting his arm through the King's and smiling cheerfully. "That's more like it. Stand up for yourself, that's the ticket. Asking advice is the fatal thing. Besides, I won't be here to advise you, fairly soon."
"What is this you keep talking about, about not being here, and the tumulus and so on?"
"It is nothing. I am due to fall in love with a girl called Nimue in a short time, and then she learns my spells and locks me up in a cave for several centuries. It is one of those things which are going to happen."
"But, Merlyn, how horrible! To be stuck in a cave for centuries like a toad in a hole! We must do something about it."
"Nonsense," said the magician. "What was I talking about?"
"About this maiden...."
"I was talking about advice, and how you must never take it. Well, I am going to give you some now. I advise you to think about battles, and about your realm of Gramarye, and about the sort of things a king has to do. Will you do that?"
"I will. Of course I will. But about this girl who learns your spells...."
"You see, it is a question of the people, as well as of the kings. When you said about the battle being a lovely one, you were thinking like your father. I want you to think like yourself, so that you will be a credit to all this education I have been giving you—afterwards, when I am only an old man locked up in a hole."
"There, there! I was playing for sympathy. Never mind. I said it for effect. As a matter of fact, it will be charming to have a rest for a few hundred years, and, as for Nimue, I am looking backward to her a good deal. No, no, the important thing is this thinking-for-yourself business and the matter of battles. Have you ever thought seriously about the state of your country, for instance, or are you going to go on all your life being like Uther Pendragon? After all, you are the King of the place."
"I have not thought very much."
"No. Then let me do some thinking for you. Suppose we think about your Gaelic friend, Sir Bruce Sans Pitié'
"Exactly. And why do you say it like that?"
"He is a swine. He goes murdering maidens—and, as soon as a real knight turns up to rescue them, he gallops off for all he is worth. He breeds special fast horses so that nobody can catch him, and he stabs people in the back. He's a marauder. I would kill him at once if I could catch him."
"Well," said Merlyn, "I don't think he is very different from the others. What is all this chivalry, anyway? It simply means being rich enough to have a castle and a suit of armour, and then, when you have them, you make the Saxon people do what you like. The only risk you run is of getting a few bruises if you happen to come across another knight. Look at that tilt you saw between Pellinore and Grummore, when you were small. It is this armour that does it. All the barons can slice the poor people about as much as they want, and it is a day's work to hurt each other, and the result is that the country is devastated. Might is Right, that's the motto. Bruce Sans Pitié is only an example of the general situation. Look at Lot and Nentres and Uriens and all that Gaelic crew, fighting against you for the Kingdom. Pulling swords out of stones is not a legal proof of paternity, I admit, but the kings of the Old Ones are not fighting you about that. They have rebelled, although you are their feudal sovereign, simply because the throne is insecure. England's difficulty, we used to say, is Ireland's opportunity. This is their chance to pay off racial scores, and to have some blood-letting as sport, and to make a bit of money in ransoms. Their turbulence does not cost them anything thelmselves because they are dressed in armour—and you seem to enjoy it too. But look at the country. Look at the barns burnt, and dead men's legs sticking out of ponds, and horses with swelled bellies by the roadside, and mills falling down, and money buried, and nobody daring to walk abroad with gold or ornaments on their clothes. That is chivalry nowadays. That is the Uther Pendragon touch. And then you talk about a battle being fun!"
"I was thinking of myself."
"I ought to have thought of the people who had no armour."
"Might isn't Right, is it, Merlyn?"
"Aha!" replied the magician, beaming. "Aha! You are a cunning lad, Arthur, but you won't catch your old tutor like that. You are trying to put me in a passion by making me do the thinking. But I am not to be caught. I am too old a fox for that. You will have to think the rest yourself. Is might right—and if not, why not, give reasons and draw a plan. Besides, what are you going to do about it?"
"What..." began the King, but he saw the gathering frown.
"Very well," he said. "I will think about it."
And he began thinking, stroking his upper lip, where the moustache was going to be.
There was a small incident before they left the keep. The man who had been carrying the two buckets to the menagerie came back with his buckets empty. He passed directly under them, looking small, on his way to the kitchen door. Arthur, who had been playing with a loose stone which he had dislodged from one of the machicolations, got tired of thinking and leaned over with the stone in his hand.
"How small Curselaine looks."
"He is tiny."
"I wonder what would happen if I dropped this stone on his head?"
Merlyn measured the distance.
"At thirty-two feet per second," he said, "I think it would kill him dead. Four hundred g is enough to shatter the skull."
"I have never killed anybody like that," said the boy, in an inquisitive tone.
Merlyn was watching.
"You are the King," he said.
Then he added, "Nobody can say anything to you if you try."
Arthur stayed motionless, leaning out with the stone in his hand. Then, without his body moving, his eyes slid sideways to meet his tutor's.
The stone knocked Merlyn's hat off as clean as a whistle, and the old gentleman chased him featly down the stairs, waving his wand of lignum vitae.
Arthur was happy. Like the man in Eden before the fall, he was enjoying his innocence and fortune. Instead of being a poor squire, he was a king. Instead of being an orphan, he was loved by nearly everybody except the Gaels, and he loved everybody in return.
So far as he was concerned, as yet, there might never have been such a thing as a single particle of sorrow on the gay, sweet surface of the dew-glittering world.
Sir Kay had heard stories about the Queen of Orkney, and he was inquisitive about her.
"Who is Queen Morgause?" he asked one day. "I was told that she is beautiful. What did these Old Ones want to fight us about? And what is her husband like, King Lot? What is his proper name? I heard somebody calling him the King of the Out Isles, and then there are others who call him the King of Lothian and Orkney. Where is Lothian? Is it near Hy Brazil? I can't understand what the revolt was about. Everybody knows that the King of England is their feudal overlord. I heard that she has four sons. Is it true that she doesn't get on with her husband?"
They were riding back from a day on the mountain, where they had been hunting grouse with the peregrines, and Merlyn had gone with them for the sake of the ride. He had become a vegetarian lately—an opponent of blood-sports on principle—although he had gone through most of them during his thoughtless youth—and even now he secretly adored to watch the falcons for thelmselves. Their masterly circles, as they waited on—mere specks in the sky—and the bur-r-r with which they scythed on the grouse, and the way in which the wretched quarry, killed instantaneously, went end-over-tip into the heather—these were a temptation to which he yielded in the uncomfortable knowledge that it was sin. He consoled himself by saying that the grouse were for the pot. But it was a shallow excuse, for he did not believe in eating meat either.
Arthur, who was riding watchfully like a sensible young monarch, withdrew his eye from a clump of whins which might have held an ambush in those early days of anarchy, and cocked one eyebrow at his tutor. He was wondering with half his mind which of Kay's questions the magician would choose to answer, but the other half was still upon the martial possibilities of the landscape. He knew how far the falconers were behind them—the cadger carrying the hooded hawks on a square framework slung from his shoulders, with a man-at-arms on either side—and how far in front was the next likely place for a William Rufus arrow. Merlyn chose the second question. "Wars are never fought for one reason," he said. "They are fought for dozens of reasons, in a muddle. It is the same with revolts."
"But there must have been a main reason," said Kay. "Not necessarily."
Arthur observed: "We might have a trot now. It is clear going for two miles since those whins, and we can have a canter back again, to keep with the men. It would breathe the horses."
Merlyn's hat blew off. They had to stop to pick it up. Afterwards they walked their horses sedately in a row.
"One reason," said the magician, "is the immortal feud of Gael and Gall. The Gaelic Confederation are representatives of an ancient race which has been harried out of England by several races which are represented by you. Naturally they want to be as nasty as possible to you when they can." "Racial history is beyond me," said Kay. "Nobody knows which race is which. They are all serfs, in any case." The old man looked at him with something like amusement.
"One of the startling things about the Norman," he said, "is that he really does not know a single thing about anybody except himself. And you, Kay, as a Norman gentleman, carry the peculiarity to its limit. I wonder if you even know what a Gael is? Some people call them Celts."
"A celt is a kind of battle-axe," said Arthur, surprising the magician with this piece of information more than he had been surprised for several generations. For it was true, in one of the meanings of the word, although Arthur ought not to have known it.
"Not that kind of celt. I am talking about the people. Let's stick to calling them Gaels. I mean the Old Ones who live in Brittany and Cornwall and Wales and Ireland and Scotland. Picts and that."
"Picts?" asked Kay. "I think I have heard about Picts. Pictures. They were painted blue."
"And I am supposed to have managed your education!" The King said thoughtfully: "Would you mind telling me about the races, Merlyn? I suppose I ought to understand the situation, if there has to be a second war."
This time it was Kay who looked surprised.
"Is there to be a war?" he asked. "This is the first I've heard of it. I thought the revolt was crushed last year?"
"They have made a new confederation since they went home, with five new kings, which makes them eleven altogether. The new ones belong to the old blood too. They are Clariance of North Humberland, Idres of Cornwall, Cradelmas of North Wales, Brandegoris of Stranggore and Anguish of Ireland. It will be a proper war, I'm afraid."
"And all about races," said his foster-brother in disgust. "Still, it may be fun."
The King ignored him.
"Go on," he said to Merlyn. "I want you to explain.
"Only," he added quickly, as the magician opened his mouth, "not too many details."
Merlyn opened his mouth and shut it twice, before he was able to comply with this restriction.
"About three thousand years ago," he said, "the country you are riding through belonged to a Gaelic race who fought with copper hatchets. Two thousand years ago they were hunted west by another Gaelic race with bronze swords. A thousand years ago there was a Teuton invasion by people who had iron weapons, but it didn't reach the whole of the Pictish Isles because the Romans arrived in the middle and got mixed up with it. The Romans went away about eight hundred years ago, and then another Teuton invasion—of people mainly called Saxons—drove the whole ragbag west as usual. The Saxons were just beginning to settle down when your father the Conqueror arrived with his pack of Normans, and that is where we are today. Robin Wood was a Saxon partizan."
"I thought we were called the British Isles."
"So we are. People have got the B's and P's muddled up. Nothing like the Teuton race for confusing its consonants. In Ireland they are still chattering away about some people called Fomorians, who were really Pomeranians, while..."
Arthur interrupted him at the critical moment.
"So it comes to this," he said, "that we Normans have the Saxons for serfs, while the Saxons once had a sort of under-serfs, who were called the Gaels—the Old Ones. In that case I don't see why the Gaelic Confederation should want to fight against me—as a Norman king—when it was really the Saxons who hunted them, and when it was hundreds of years ago in any case."
"You are under-rating the Gaelic memory, dear boy. They don't distinguish between you. The Normans are a Teuton race, like the Saxons whom your father conquered. So far as the ancient Gaels are concerned, they just regard both your races as branches of the same alien people, who have driven them north and west."
Kay said definitely: "I can't stand any more history. After all, we are supposed to be grown up. If we go on, we shall be doing dictation."
Arthur grinned and began in the well-remembered singsong voice: Barbara Celarent Darii Ferioque Prioris, while Kay sang the next four lines with him antiphonically.
Merlyn said: "You asked for it."
"And now we have it."
"The main thing is that the war is going to happen because the Teutons or the Galls or whatever you call them upset the Gaels long ago."
"Certainly not," exclaimed the magician. "I never said anything of the sort."
"I said the war will happen for dozens of reasons, not for one. Another of the reasons for this particular war is because Queen Morgause wears the trousers. Perhaps I ought to say the trews."
Arthur asked painstakingly: "Let me get this clear. First I was given to understand that Lot and the rest had rebelled because they were Gaels and we were Galls, but now I am told that it deals with the Queen of Orkney's trousers. Could you be more definite?"
"There is the feud of Gael and Gall which we have been talking about, but there are other feuds too. Surely you have not forgotten that your father killed the Earl of Cornwall before you were born? Queen Morgause was one of the daughters of that Earl."
"The Lovely Cornwall Sisters," observed Kay.
"Exactly. You met one of them yourselves—Queen Morgan le Fay. That was when you were friends with Robin Wood, and you found her on a bed of lard. The third sister was Elaine. All three of them are witches of one sort or another, though Morgan is the only one who takes it seriously."
"If my father," said the King, "killed the Queen of Orkney's father, then I think she has a good reason for wanting her husband to rebel against me."
"It is only a personal reason. Personal reasons are no excuse for war."
"And furthermore," the King continued, "if my race has driven out the Gaelic race, then I think the Queen of Orkney's subjects have a good reason too."
Merlyn scratched his chin in the middle of the beard, with the hand which held the reins, and pondered.
"Uther," he said at length, "your lamented father, was an aggressor. So were his predecessors the Saxons, who drove the Old Ones away. But if we go on living backward like that, we shall never come to the end of it. The Old Ones thelmselves were aggressors, against the earlier race of the copper hatchets, and even the hatchet fellows were aggressors, against some earlier crew of esquimaux who lived on shells. You simply go on and on, until you get to Cain and Abel. But the point is that the Saxon Conquest did succeed, and so did the Norman Conquest of the Saxons. Your father settled the unfortunate Saxons long ago, however brutally he did it, and when a great many years have passed one ought to be ready to accept a status quo. Also I would like to point out that the Norman Conquest was a process of welding small units into bigger ones—while the present revolt of the Gaelic Confederation is a process of disintegration. They want to smash up what we may call the United Kingdom into a lot of piffling little kingdoms of their own. That is why their reason is not what you might call a good one."
He scratched his chin again, and became wrathful.
"I never could stomach these nationalists," he exclaimed. 'The destiny of Man is to unite, not to divide. If you keep on dividing you end up as a collection of monkeys throwing nuts at each other out of separate trees."
"All the same," said the King, "there seems to have been a good deal of provocation. Perhaps I ought not to fight?"
"And give in?" asked Kay, more in amusement than dismay.
"I could abdicate."
They looked at Merlyn, who refused to meet their eyes. He rode on, staring straight in front of him, munching his beard.
"Ought I to give in?"
"You are the King," said the old man stubbornly. "Nobody can say anything if you do."
Later on, he began to speak in a gentler tone
"Did you know," he asked rather wistfully, "that I was one of the Old Ones myself? My father was a demon, they say, but my mother was a Gael. The only human blood I have comes from the Old Ones. Yet here I am denouncing their ideas of nationalism, being what their politicians would call a traitor—because, by calling names, they can score the cheap debating points. And do you know another thing, Arthur? Life is too bitter already, without territories and wars and noble feuds."
The hay was safe and the corn would be ripe in a week. They sat in the shade at the edge of a cornfield, watching the dark brown people with their white teeth who were aimlessly busy in the sunlight, rehanging their scythes, sharpening their sickles and generally getting ready for the end of farm year. It was peaceful in the fields which were close to the castle, and no arrows needed to be apprehended. While they watched the harvesters, they stripped the half-ripe heads of corn with their fingers and bit the grain daintily, tasting the furry milkiness of the wheat, and the husky, less generous flesh of the oats. The pearly taste of barley would have been strange to them, for it had not yet come to Gramarye.
Merlyn was still explaining.
"When I was a young man," he said, "there was a general idea that it was wrong to fight in wars of any sort. Quite a lot of people in those days declared that they would never fight for anything whatever."
"Perhaps they were right," said the King.
"No. There is one fairly good reason for fighting—and that is, if the other man starts it. You see, wars are a wickedness, perhaps the greatest wickedness of a wicked species. They are so wicked that they must not be allowed. When you can be perfectly certain that the other man started them, then is the time when you might have a sort of duty to stop him."
"But both sides always say that the other side started them."
"Of course they do, and it is a good thing that it should be so. At least, it shows that both sides are conscious, inside thelmselves, that the wicked thing about a war is its beginning."
"But the reasons," protested Arthur. "If one side was starving the other by some means or other—some peaceful, economic means which were not actually warlike—then the starving side might have to fight its way out—if you see what I mean?"
"I see what you think you mean," said the magician, "but you are wrong. There is no excuse for war, none whatever, and whatever the wrong which your nation might be doing to mine—short of war—my nation would be in the wrong if it started a war so as to redress it. A murderer, for instance, is not allowed to plead that his victim was rich and oppressing him—so why should a nation be allowed to? Wrongs have to be redressed by reason, not by force."
Kay said: "Suppose King Lot of Orkney was to draw up his army all along the northern border, what could our King here do except send his own army to stand on the same line? Then supposing all Lot's men drew their swords, what could we do except draw ours? The situation could be more complicated than that. It seems to me that aggression is a difficult thing to be sure about."
Merlyn was annoyed.
"Only because you want it to seem so," he said. "Obviously Lot would be the aggressor, for making the threat of force. You can always spot the villain, if you keep a fair mind. In the last resort, it is ultimately the man who strikes the first blow."
Kay persisted with his argument.
"Let it be two men," he said, "instead of two armies. They stand opposite each other—they draw their swords, pretending it is for some other reason—they move about, so as to get the weak side of one another—they even make feints with their swords, pretending to strike, but not doing so. Do you mean to tell me that the aggressor is the one who actually hits first?"
"Yes, if there is nothing else to decide by. But in your case it is obviously the man who first took his army to the frontier."
"This first blow business brings it down to a matter of nothing. Suppose they both struck at once, or suppose you could not see which one gave the first blow, because there were so many facing each other?"
"But there nearly always is something else to decide by," exclaimed the old man. "Use your common sense. Look at this Gaelic revolt, for example. What reason has the King here for being an aggressor? He is their feudal overlord already. It isn't sensible to pretend that he is making the attack. People don't attack their own possessions."
"I certainly don't feel, " said Arthur, "as if I had started it. Indeed, I didn't know it was going to start, until it had. I suppose that was due to my having been brought up in the country."
"Any reasoning man," continued his tutor, ignoring the interruption, "who keeps a steady mind, can tell which side is the aggressor in ninety wars out of a hundred. He can see which side is likely to benefit by going to war in the first place, and that is a strong reason for suspicion. He can see which side began to make the threat of force or was the first to arm itself. And finally he can often put his finger on the one who struck the first blow."
"But supposing," said Kay, "that one side was the one to make the threat, while the other side was the one to strike the first blow?"
"Oh, go and put your head in a bucket. I'm not suggesting that all of them can be decided. I was saying, from the start of the argument, that there are many wars in which the aggression is as plain as a pike-staff, and that in those wars at any rate it might be the duty of decent men to fight the criminal. If you aren't sure that he is the criminal—and you must sum it up for yourself with every ounce of fairness you can muster—then go and be a pacifist by all means. I recollect that I was a fervent pacifist myself once, in the Boer War, when my own country was the aggressor, and a young woman blew a squeaker at me on Mafeking Night."
"Tell us about Mafeking Night," said Kay. "One gets sick of these discussions about right and wrong."
"Mafeking Night..." began the magician, who was prepared to tell anybody about anything. But the King prevented him.
"Tell us about Lot," he said. "I want to know about him, if I have to fight him. Personally I am beginning to be interested in right and wrong."
"King Lot..." began Merlyn in the same tone of voice, only to be interrupted by Kay.
"No," said Kay. "Talk about the Queen. She sounds more interesting."
Arthur assumed the right of veto for the first time in his life. Merlyn, catching the lifted eyebrow, reverted to the King of Orkney with unexpected humility.
"King Lot," said he, "is simply a member of your peerage and landed royalty. He's a cipher. You don't have to think about him at all."
"In the first place, he is what we used to call in my young days a Gentleman of the Ascendancy. His subjects are Gaels and so is his wife, but he himself is an import from Norway. He is a Gall like yourself, a member of the ruling class who conquered the Islands long ago. This means that his attitude to the war is the same as your father's would have been. He doesn't care a fig about Gaels or Galls, but he goes in for wars in the same way as my Victorian friends used to go in for foxhunting or else for profit in ransoms. Besides, his wife makes him."
"Sometimes," said the King, "I wish you had been born forwards like other people. What with Victorians and Mafeking Night—-"
Merlyn was indignant.
"The link between Norman warfare and Victorian foxhunting is perfect. Leave your father and King Lot outside the question for the moment, and look at literature. Look at the Norman myths about legendary figures like the Angevin kings. From William the Conqueror to Henry the Third, they indulged in warfare seasonally. The season came round, and off they went to the meet in splendid armour which reduced the risk of injury to a foxhunter's minimum. Look at the decisive battle of Brenneville in which a field of nine hundred knights took part, and only three were killed. Look at Henry the Second borrowing money from Stephen, to pay his own troops in fighting Stephen. Look at the sporting etiquette, according to which Henry had to withdraw from a siege as soon as his enemy Louis joined the defenders inside the town, because Louis was his feudal overlord. Look at the siege of Mont St. Michel, at which it was considered unsporting to win through the defenders' lack of water. Look at the battle of Malmesbury, which was given up on account of bad weather. That is the inheritance to which you have succeeded, Arthur. You have become the king of a domain in which the popular agitators hate each other for racial reasons, while the nobility fight each other for fun, and neither the racial maniac nor the overlord stops to consider the lot of the common soldier, who is the one person that gets hurt. Unless you can make the world wag better than it does at present, King, your reign will be an endless series of petty battles, in which the aggressions will either be from spiteful reasons or from sporting ones, and in which the poor man will be the only one who dies. That is why I have been asking you to think. That is why___"
"I think," said Kay, "that Dinadan is waving to us, to say that dinner is ready."
Mother Marian's house in the Out Isles was hardly bigger than a large dog kennel—but it was comfortable and full of interesting things. There were two horseshoes nailed on the door—five statues bought from pilgrims, with the used-up rosaries wound round them—for beads break, if one is a good prayer—several bunches of fairy-flax laid on top of the salt-box—some scapulars wound round the poker—twenty bottles of mountain dew, all empty but one—about a bushel of withered palm, relic of Palm Sundays for the past seventy years—and plenty of woollen thread for tying round the cow's tail when she was calving. There was also a large scythe blade which the old lady hoped to use on a burglar—if ever one was foolish enough to come that way—and, in the chimney, there were hung some ash-rungs which her deceased husband had been intending to use for flails, together with eel skins and strips of horse leather as hangings to them. Under the eel skins was an enormous bottle of holy water, and in front of the turf fire sat one of the Irish Saints who lived in the beehive cells of the outer islands, with a glass of water-of-life in his hand. He was a relapsed saint, who had fallen into the Pelagian heresy of Celestius, and he believed that the soul was capable of its own salvation. He was busy saving it with Mother Morlan and the usquebaugh.
"God and Mary to you, Mother Morlan," said Gawaine. "We have come for a story, ma'am, about the shee."
"God and Mary and Andrew to you," exclaimed the beldame. "And you asking me for a story, whateffer, with his reverence here among the ashes!"
"Good evening, St. Toirdealbhach, we did not notice you because of the dark."
"The blessing of God to you."
"The same blessing to you yourself."
"It must be about murders," said Agravaine. "About murders and some corbies which peck out your eyes."
"No, no," cried Gareth. "It must be about a mysterious girl who marries a man because he has stolen the giant's magic horse."
"Glory be to God," remarked St. Toirdealbhach. "It does be a strange story yer after wanting entirely."
"Come now, St. Toirdealbhach, tell us one yourself."
"Tell us about Ireland."
'Tell us about Queen Maeve, who desired the bull."
"Or dance us one of the jigs."
"Maircy on the puir bairns, to think of his holiness dancing a jig!"
The four representatives of the upper classes sat down wherever they could—there were only two stools—and stared at the holy man in receptive silence.
"Is it a moral tale yer after?"
"No, no. No morals. We like a story about fighting. Come, St. Toirdealbhach, what about the time you broke the Bishop's head?"
The saint drank a big gulp of his white whisky and spat in the fire.
"There was a king in it one tune," said he, and the whole audience made a rustling noise with their rumps, as they settled down.
"There was a king in it, one time," said St. Toirdealbhach, "and this king, what do you think, was called King Conor Mac Nessa. He was a whale of a man who lived with his relations at a place called Tara of the Kings. It was not long before this king had to go out to battle against thim bloody O'Haras, and he got shot in the conflict with a magic ball. You are to understand that the ancient heroes were after making thelmselves bullets out of the brains of their adversaries—which they would roll between the palms of their hands in little pieces, and leave them to dry in the sun. I suppose they must have shot them out of the arquebus, you know, as if they were sling-shot or bolts. Well, and if they did, this old King was shot in the temples with one of thim same bullets, and it lodging against the bone of the skull, at the critical point whatever. I'm a fine man now,' says the King, and he sends for the brehons and those to advise with them about the obstetrics. The first brehon says, 'You're a dead man, King Conor. This ball is at the lobe of the brain.' So said all the medical gintlemen, widout respect of person nor creed. 'Oh, what'll I do at all,' cries the King of Ireland. 'It's a hard fortune evidently, when a man can't be fighting a little bit unless he comes to the end of his days.' 'None of yer prate, now,' say the surgeons, there's wan thing which can be done, and that same thing is to keep from all unnatural excitement from this time forward.' 'For that matter,' says they, 'ye must keep from all natural excitement also, or otherwise the bullet will cause a rupture, and the rupture rising to a flux, and the flux to a conflammation, will occasion an absolute abruption in the vital functions at all. It's yer only hope, King Conor, or otherwise ye will lie compunctually as the worms made ye.' Well, begor, it was a fine state of business, as you may imagine. There was that poor Conor in his castle, and he not able to laugh nor fight nor take any small sup of spirited water nor to look upon a white colleen anyhow, for fear that his brains would burst. The ball stood in his temples, half in, half out, and that was the sorrow with him, from that day forward."
"Wurra the doctors," said Mother Morlan. "Hoots, but they're na canny."
"What happened him?" asked Gawaine. "Did he live long in this dark room?"
"What happened him? I was now coming to that. Wan day there was a slashing thunderstorm in it, and the castle walls shook like a long-net, and great part of the bailey fell upon them. It was the worst storm that was known in those parts for whiles, and King Conor rushed out into the element to seek advice. He found wan of his brehons standing there whatever, and axed him what could it be. This brehon was a learned man, and he told King Conor. He said how our Saviour had been hanged on a tree in Jewry that day, and how the storm was broken on account of it, and he spoke to King Conor about the gospel of God. Then, what do you think, King Conor of Ireland ran back into his palace for to seek his sword in righteous passion, and he ran out with it throughout the tempest to defend his Saviour— and that was how he died."
"He was dead?"
"What a nice way to do it," said Gareth. "It was no good to him, but it was grand!"
Agravaine said, "If I was told by my doctors to be careful, I would not lose my temper over nothing. I should think what was happening, whatever."
"But it was chivalrous?"
Gawaine began to fidget with his toes.
"It was silly," he said eventually. "It did no good."
"But he was trying to do the good."
"It was not for his family," said Gawaine. "I do not know why he was so excited at all."
"Of course it was for his family. It was for God, who is the family of every person. King Conor went out on the side of right, and gave his life to help it."
Agravaine moved his stern in the soft, rusty ashes of the turf impatiently. He considered that Gareth was a fool.
"Tell us the story," he said, to change the subject, "about how pigs were made."
"Or the one," said Gawaine, "about the great Conan who was enchanted to a chair. He was stuck on it, whatever, and they could not get him off. So they pulled him from it by force, and then there was a necessity on them to graft a piece of skin on his bottom—but it was sheepskin, and from thenceforth the stockings worn by the Fianna were made from the wool which grew on Conan!"
"No, do not," said Gareth. "Let there be no stories. Let us sit and talk wisely, my heroes, on deep matters. Let us talk about our father, who is away to the wars."
St. Toirdealbhach took a deep draught of his mountain dew, and spat in the fire.
"Isn't war the grand thing," he observed reminiscently. "I did be going to wars a great deal wan time, before I was sainted. Only I got tired on them."
Gawaine said: "I cannot see how people ever get tired of wars. I am sure I will not. After all, it is a gentleman's occupation. I mean, it would be like getting tired of hunting, or of hawks."
"War," said Toirdealbhach, "be's a good thing if there doesn't be too many in it. When there's too many fighting, how would you know what you are fighting about at all? There did be fine wars in Old Ireland, but it would be about a bull or something, and every man had his heart in it from the start."
"Why did you get tired of wars?"
" Twas thim same numbers had thim destroyed altogether. Who would want to be killing a mortal for what he didn't understand, or for nothing? I took up with the single combats instead."
"That must have been a long time ago."
"Aye," said the saint regretfully. "Thim bullets I was telling ye about, now: the brains didn't be much good widout they were taken in single combat. It was the virtue of them."
"I incline my agreement with Toirdealbhach," said Gareth. "After all, what is the good of killing poor kerns who do not know anything? It would be much better for the people who are angry to fight each other thelmselves, knight against knight."
"But you could not have any wars at all, like that," exclaimed Gaheris.
"It would be absurd," said Gawaine. "You must have people, galore of people, in a war."
"Otherwise you could not kill them," explained Agravaine.
The saint helped himself to a fresh dose of whisky, hummed a few bars of Poteen, Good Luck to Ye, Dear, and glanced at Mother Morlan. He was feeling a new heresy coming over him, possibly as a result of the spirits, and it had something to do with the celibacy of the clergy. He had one already about the shape of his tonsure, and the usual one about the date of Easter, as well as his own Pelagian business—but the latest was beginning to make him feel as if the presence of children was unnecessary.
"Wars," he said with disgust. "And how would kids like you be talking about them, will ye tell me, and you no bigger than sitting hens? Be off now, before I beget an ill wish toward ye."
Saints, as the Old Ones knew very well, were a bad class of people to cross, so the children stood up hastily.
"Och, now," they said. "Your Holiness, no offence, we are sure. We were only at wishing to make an exchange of ideas."
"Ideas!" he exclaimed, reaching for the poker—and they were outside the low door in the twinkling of an eye, standing in the level rays of sunset on the sandy street, while his anathemas or whatever they may have been rumbled behind them from the dark interior.
In the street, there were two moth-eaten donkeys searching for weeds in the cracks of a stone wall. Their legs were tied together so that they could hardly hobble, and their hoofs were cruelly overgrown, so that they looked like rams' horns or curly skates. The boys commandeered them at once, a new idea springing fully armed from their heads as soon as they had seen the animals. They would stop hearing stories or discussing warfare, and they would take the donkeys to the little harbour beyond the sand-dunes, in case the men who had been out in their currachs should have made a catch. The donkeys would be useful for carrying the fish.
Gawaine and Gareth took turns with the fat ass, one of them whacking it while the other rode bareback. The ass gave a hop occasionally, but refused to trot. Agravaine and Gaheris both sat on the thin one, the former being mounted back to front so that he faced the creature's behind—which he thrashed furiously with a thick root of sea-weed. He beat it round the vent, to hurt it more.
It was a strange scene which they presented when they reached the sea—the thin children whose sharp noses had a drop on the end of each, and their bony wrists which had outgrown their coats—the donkeys scampering round in small circles, with an occasional frisk as the tangle bit into their grey quarters. It was strange because it was circumscribed, because it was concentrated on a single intention. They might have been a solar system of their own, with nothing else in space, as they went round and round among the dunes and coarse grass of the estuary. Probably the planets have few ideas in their heads, either.
The idea which the children had was to hurt the donkeys. Nobody had told them that it was cruel to hurt them, but then, nobody had told the donkeys either. On the rim of the world they knew too much about cruelty to be surprised by it. So the small circus was a unity—the beasts reluctant to move and the children vigorous to move them, the two parties bound together by the link of pain to which they both agreed without question. The pain itself was so much a matter of course that it had vanished out of the picture, as if by a process of cancellation. The animals did not seem to be suffering, and the children did not seem to be enjoying the suffering. The only difference was that the boys were violently animated while the donkeys were as static as possible.
Into this Eden-like scene, and almost before the memory of Mother Morlan's interior had faded from their minds, there came a magic barge from over the water, a barge draped with white samite, mystic, wonderful, and it made a music of its own accord as its keel passed through the waves. Inside it there were three knights and a seasick brachet. Anything less suitable than these to the tradition of the Gaelic world, it would have been impossible to imagine.
"I say," said the voice of one of the knights in the barge, while they were still far out, "there is a castle, isn't it, what? I say, isn't it a pretty one!"
"Stop joggin' the boat, my dear fellow," said the second, "or you will have us in the sea."
King Pellinore's enthusiasm evaporated at the rebuke, and he startled the petrified children by bursting into tears. They could hear his sobs, mingling with the lapping of the waves and with the music of the boat, as it drew near.
"Oh, sea!" he said. "I wish I was in you, what? I wish I was full of five fathoms, that I do. Woe, woe, oh, woe!"
"It is no good saying Whoa, old boy. The thing will whoa when it wants to. It is a magic 'un."
"I was not saying Whoa," retorted the King. "I was saying Woe."
"Well, it won't whoa."
"I don't care if it does or if it don't. I said Woe!"
"Well, whoa, then."
And the magic barge whoaed, just where the currachs were usually drawn up. The three knights got out, and it could be seen that the third was a black man. He was a learned paynim or saracen, called Sir Palomides.
"Happy landing," said Sir Palomides, "by golly!"
The people came from everywhere, silently, vaguely. When they were near the knights, they walked slowly, but in the remoter distance they were running. Men, women and children were scuttling over the dunes or down from the castle cliff, only to break into the crawling pace as soon as they were near. At a distance of twenty yards, they halted altogether. They made a ring, staring at the newcomers mutely, like people staring at pictures in the Uffizzi. They studied them. There was no hurry now, no need to dash off to the next picture. Indeed, there were no other pictures—had been no others, except for the accustomed scenes of Lothian, since they were born. Their stare was not exactly an offensive one, nor was it friendly. Pictures exist to be absorbed. It began at the feet, especially as the strangers were dressed in outlandish clothes like knights-in-armour, and it mastered the texture, the construction, the articulation and the probable price of their sabathons. Then it went on to the greaves, the cuisses, and so up. It might take half an hour to reach the face, which was to be examined last of all.
The Gaels stood round the Galls with their mouths open, while the village children shouted the news in the distance and Mother Morlan came jogging with her skirts tucked up and the currachs at sea came rowing madly home. The young princelings of Lothian got off their donkeys as if in a trance, and joined the circle. The circle itself began to press inward on its focus, moving as slowly and as silently as the minute hand of a clock, except for the suppressed shouts from the late arrivals who fell silent thelmselves as soon as they were within the influence. The circle was contracting because it wanted to touch the knights—not now, not for half an hour or so, not until the examination was over, perhaps never. But it would have liked to touch them in the end, partly to be sure that they were real, partly to sum up the price of their clothes. And, as the pricing was continued, three things began to happen. Mother Morlan and the auld wives started to say the rosary, while the young women pinched each other and giggled—the men, having doffed their caps in deference to the praying, began to exchange in Gaelic such remarks as "Look at the black man, God between us and harm," or "Do they be naked at bedtime, or how do they get the iron pots off them whatever?" —and, in the minds of both women and men, irrespective of age or circumstance, there began to grow, almost visibly, almost tangibly, the enormous, the incalculable miasma which is the leading feature of the Gaelic brain.
These were Knights of the Sassenach, they were thinking—for they could tell by the armour—and, if so, knights of that very King Arthur against whom their own king had for the second time revolted. Had they come, with typical Sassenach cunning, so as to take King Lot in the rear? Had they come, as representatives of the feudal overlord—the Landlord—so as to make an assessment for the next scutage? Were they Fifth Columnists? More complicated even than this—for surely no Sassenach could be so simple as to come in the garb of the Sassenach—were they perhaps not representatives of King Arthur at all? Were they, for some purpose almost too cunning for belief, only disguised as thelmselves? Where was the catch? There always was one in everything.
The people of the circle closed in, their jaws dropping even further, their crooked bodies hunching into the shapes of sacks and scarecrows, their small eyes glinting in every direction with unfathomable subtlety, their faces assuming an expression of dogged stupidity even more vacant than they actually were.
The knights drew closer for protection. In point of fact, they did not know that England was at war with Orkney. They had been involved in a Quest, which had kept them away from the latest news. Nobody in Orkney was likely to tell them.
"Don't look just now," said King Pellinore, "but there are some people. Do you think they are all right?"
In Carlion everything was at sixes and sevens in preparation for the second campaign. Merlyn had made suggestions about the way to win it, but, as these involved an ambush with secret aid from abroad, they had had to be kept dark. Lot's slowly approaching army was so much more numerous than the King's forces that it had been necessary to resort to stratagems. The way in which the battle was to be fought was a secret only known to four people. The common citizens, who were in ignorance of the higher policy, had a great deal to do. There were pikes to be ground to a fine edge, so that the grindstones in the town were roaring day and night—there were thousands of arrows to be dressed, so that there were lights in the fletchers' houses at all hours—and the unfortunate geese on the commons were continually being chased by excited yeomen who wanted feathers. The royal peacocks were as bare as an old broom—most of the crack shots liked to have what Chaucer calls pecock arwes, because they were more classy—and the smell of boiling glue rose to high heaven. The armourers, accomplishing the knights, hammered away with musical clinks, working double shirts at it, and the blacksmiths shod the chargers, and the nuns never stopped knitting comforters for the soldiers or making the kind of bandages which were called tents. King Lot had already named a rendezvous for the battle, at Bedegraine.
The King of England painfully climbed the two hundred and eight steps which led to Merlyn's tower room, and knocked on the door. The magician was inside, with Archimedes sitting on the back of his chair, busily trying to find the square root of minus one. He had forgotten how to do it.
"Merlyn," said the King, panting, "I want to talk to you."
He closed his book with a bang, leaped to his feet, seized his wand of lignum vitae, and rushed at Arthur as if he were trying to shoo away a stray chicken.
"Go away!" he shouted. "What are you doing here? What do you mean by it? Aren't you the King of England? Go away and send for me! Get out of my room! I never heard of such a thing! Go away at once and send for me!"
"But I am here."
"No, you're not," retorted the old man resourcefully. And he pushed the King out of the door, slamming it in his face.
"Well!" said Arthur, and he went off sadly down the two hundred and eight stairs.
An hour later, Merlyn presented himself in the Royal Chamber, in answer to a summons which had been delivered by a page.
"That's better," he said, and sat down comfortably on a carpet chest
"Stand up," said Arthur, and he clapped his hands for a page to take away the seat.
Merlyn stood up, boiling with indignation. The whites of his knuckles blanched as he clenched them.
"About our conversation on the subject of chivalry," began the King in an airy tone....
"I don't recollect such a conversation." "No?"
"I have never been so insulted in my life!" "But I am the King," said Arthur. "You can't sit down in front of the King." "Rubbish!"
Arthur began to laugh more than was seemly, and his foster-brother, Sir Kay, and his old guardian, Sir Ector, came out from behind the throne, where they had been hiding. Kay took off Merlyn's hat and put it on Sir Ector, and Sir Ector said, "Well, bless my soul, now I am a nigromancer. Hocus-Pocus." Then everybody began laughing, including Merlyn eventually, and seats were sent for so that they could sit down, and bottles of wine were opened so that it should not be a dry meeting.
"You see," he said proudly, "I have summoned a council."
There was a pause, for it was the first time that Arthur had made a speech, and he wanted to collect his wits for it. "Well," said the King. "It is about chivalry. I want to ialk about that."
Merlyn was immediately watching him with a sharp eye. His knobbed fingers fluttered among the stars and secret signs of his gown, but he would not help the speaker. You might say that this moment was the critical one in his career—the moment towards which he had been living backward for heaven knows how many centuries, and now he was to see for certain whether he had lived in vain.
"I have been thinking," said Arthur, "about Might and Right. I don't think things ought to be done because you are able to do them. I think they should be done because you ought to do them. After all, a penny is a penny in any case, however much Might is exerted on either side, to prove that it is or is not. Is that plain?" Nobody answered.
"Well, I was talking to Merlyn on the battlements one day, and he mentioned that the last battle we had—in which seven hundred kerns were killed—was not so much fun as I had thought it was. Of course, battles are not fun when you come to think about them. I mean, people ought not to be killed, ought they? It is better to be alive. "Very well. But the funny thing is that Merlyn was helping me to win battles. He is still helping me, for that matter, and we hope to win the battle of Bedegraine together, when it comes off."
"We will," said Sir Ector, who was in the secret.
"That seems to me to be inconsistent. Why does he help me to fight wars, if they are bad things?"
There was no answer from anybody, and the King began to speak with agitation.
"I could only think," said he, beginning to blush, "I could only think that I—that we—that he—that he wanted me to win them for a reason."
He paused and looked at Merlyn, who turned his head away.
"The reason was—was it?—the reason was that if I could be the master of my kingdom by winning these two battles, I could stop them afterwards and then do something about the business of Might. Have I guessed? Was I right?"
The magician did not turn his head, and his hands lay still in his lap.
"I was!" exclaimed Arthur.
And he began talking so quickly that he could hardly keep up with himself.
"You see," he said, "Might is not Right. But there is a lot of Might knocking about in this world, and something has to be done about it. It is as if People were half horrible and half nice. Perhaps they are even more than half horrible, and when they are left to thelmselves they run wild. You get the average baron that we see nowadays, people like Sir Bruce Sans Pitié", who simply go clod-hopping round the country dressed in steel, and doing exactly what they please, for sport. It is our Norman idea about the upper classes having a monopoly of power, without reference to justice. Then the horrible side gets uppermost, and there is thieving and rape and plunder and torture. The people become beasts.
"But, you see, Merlyn is helping me to win my two battles so that I can stop this. He wants me to put things right.
"Lot and Uriens and Anguish and those—they are the old world, the old-fashioned order who want to have their private will. I have got to vanquish them with their own weapons—they force it upon me, because they live by force—and then the real work will begin. This battle at Bedegraine is the preliminary, you see. It is after the battle that Merlyn is wanting me to think about."
Arthur paused again for comment or encouragement, but the magician's face was turned away. It was only Sir Ector, sitting next to him, who could see his eyes.
"Now what I have thought," said Arthur, "is this. Why can't you harness Might so that it works for Right? I know it sounds nonsense, but, I mean, you cant' just say there is no such thing. the Might is there, in the bad half of people, and you can't neglect it. You can't cut it out, but you might be able to direct it, if you see what I mean, so that it was uuseful instead of bad."
The audience was interested. They leaned forward to listen, except Merlyn.
"My idea is that if we can win this battle in front of us, and get a firm hold of the country, then I will institute a sort of order of chivalry. I will not punish the bad knights, or hang Lot, but I will try to get them into our Order. We shall have to make it a great honour, you see, and make it fashionable and all that. Everybody must wan to be in. And then I shall make the oath of the order that Might is only to be used for Right. So you follow? The knights in my order will ride all over the world, still dresed in steel and whacking away with their swords—that will give an outlet for wanting to whack, you understand, an outlet for what Merlyn calls the foxhunting spirit—but they will be bound to strike only on behalf of what is good, to defend virgins against Sir Bruce and to restor what has been done wrotn in the past and to help the oppressed and so forth. Do you see the idea? It will be using the Might instead of fighting against it, and tu4rning a bad thing into a good. There, Merlyn, that is all I can think of. I have thought as hard as I could, and I suppose I am wrong, as usual. But I did think I can't do any better. Please say something."
The magician stood up as striaght as a pillar, stretched out his arms in both directions, looked at the ceiling and said the first few words of the Nunc Dimittis.
The situation at Dunlothian was complicated. Nearly every situation tended to be when it was connected with King Pellinore, even in the wildest North. In the first place, hwe was in love—that was why he had been weeping in the boat. He explained it to Queen Morgause on the first opportunity—because he was lovesick, not seasick.
What had happened was this. The King had been hunting the Questing Beast a few months earlier, on the south coast of Gramarye, when the animal had taken to the sea. She had swam away, her serpentine head undulating on the surface like a swimming grass-snake, and the King had hailed a passing ship which looked as if it were off to the Crusades. Sir Grummore and Sir Palomides had been in the ship, and they had kindly turned it round to pursue the Beast. The three of them had arrived on the coast of Flanders, where the Beast had disappeared in a forest, and there, while they were staying at a hospitable castel, Pellinore had fallen in love with the Queen of Flanders' daughter. This was fine so far as it went—for the lady of his choice was a managing, middle-aged, stout-hearted creature, who could cook, ride a straight line, and make beds—but the hopes of all parties had been dashed at the start by the arrival of the magic barge. The three knights had got into it, and sat down to see what would happen, because knights were never supposed to refuse an adventure. But the barge had promptly sailed away of its own accord, leaving the Queen of Flanders' daughter anxiously waving her pocket handkerchief. The Questing Beast had thrust her head ot of the forest before they lost sight of land, looking, so far as they could see at the distance, even more surprised than the lady. After that, they had gone on sailing till they arrived in the Out Isles, and the further they went the more lovesick the King had become, which made his company intolerable. He spent the time writing poems and letters, which could never be posted, or telling his companions about the princess, whose nickname in her family circle was Piggy.
A state of affairs like this might have been bearable in England, where people like the Pellinores did sometimes turn up, and even won a sort of tolerance from their fellow men. But in Lothian and Orkney, where Englishmen were tyrants, it achieved an almost supernatural impossibility. None of the islanders could understand what King Pellinore was trying to cheat them out of—by pretending to be himself—and it was thought wiser and safer not to acquaint any of the visiting knights with the facts about the war against Arthur. It was better to wait until their plots had been penetrated.
On top of this, there was a trouble which distressed the children in particular. Queen Morgause had set her cap at the visitors.
"What was our mother at doing," asked Gawaine, as they made their way toward St. Toirdealbhach's cell one morning, "with the knights on the mountain?"
Gaheris answered with some difficulty, after a long pause: "They were at hunting a unicorn." "How do you do that?" "There must be a virgin to attract it." "Our mother," said Agravaine, who also knew the details, "went on a unicorn hunt, and she was the virgin for them." His voice sounded strange as he made this announcement. Gareth protested: "I did not know she was wanting a unicorn. She has never said so."
Agravaine looked at him sideways, cleared his throat and quoted: "Half a word is sufficient to the wise man." "How do you know this?" asked Gawaine. "We listened."
They had a way of listening on the spiral stairs, during the times when they were excluded from their mother's interest.
Gaheris explained, with unusual freedom since he was a taciturn boy:
"She told Sir Grummore that this King's lovesick melancholy could be dispelled by interesting him in his old pursuits. They were at saying that this King is in the habit of hunting a Beast which has become lost. So she said that they were to hunt a unicorn instead, and she would be the virgin for them. They were surprised, I think."
They walked in silence, until Gawaine suggested, almost as if it were a question: "I was hearing it told that the King is in love with a woman out of Flanders, and that Sir Grummore is married already? Also the Saracen is black in his skin?"
"It was a long hunt," said Gareth. "I heard they did not catch one."
"Do these knights enjoy to be playing this game with our mother?"
Gaheris explained for the second tune. Even if he were silent, he was not unobservant.
"I do not think they would be understanding at all."
They plodded on, reluctant to disclose their thoughts.
St. Toirdealbhach's cell was like an old-fashioned straw beehive, except that it was bigger and made of stone. It had no windows and only one door, through which you had to crawl.
"Your Holiness," they shouted when they got there, kicking the heavy unmortared stones. "Your Holiness, we have come to hear a story."
He was a source of mental nourishment to them—a sort of guru, as Merlyn had been to Arthur, who gave them what little culture they were ever to get. They resorted to him like hungry puppies anxious for any kind of eatable, when their mother had cast them out. He had taught them to read and write.
"Ah, now," said the saint, sticking his head out of the door. "The prosperity of God on you this morning."
"The selfsame prosperity on you."
"Is there any news at you?"
"There is not," said Gawaine, suppressing the unicorn.
St. Toirdealbhach heaved a deep sigh.
"There is none at me either," he said.
"Could you tell us a story?"
"Thim stories, now. There doesn't be any good in them. What would I be wanting to tell you a story for, and me in my heresies? 'Tis forty years since I fought a natural battle, and not a one of me looking upon a white colleen all that time—so how would I be telling stories?"
"You could tell us a story without any colleens or battles in it."
"And what would be the good of that, now?" he exclaimed indignantly, coming out into the sunlight.
"If you were to fight a battle," said Gawaine, but he left out about the colleens, "you might feel better."
"My sorrow!" cried Toirdealbhach. "What do I want to be a saint for at all, is my puzzle! If I could fetch one crack at somebody with me ould shillelagh"—here he produced a frightful-looking weapon from under his gown—"wouldn't it be better than all the saints in Ireland?"
"Tell us about the shillelagh."
They examined the club carefully, while his holiness told them how a good one should be made. He told them that only a root growth was any good, as common branches were apt to break, especially if they were of crab-tree, and how to smear the club with lard, and wrap it up, and bury it in a dunghill while it was being straightened, and polish it with black-lead and grease. He showed the hole where the lead was poured in, and the nails through the end, and the notches near the handle which stood for ancient scalps. Then he kissed it reverently and replaced it under his gown with a heartfelt sigh. He was play-acting, and putting on the accent.
'Tell us the story about the black arm which came down the chimney."
"Ah, the heart isn't in me," said the saint. "I haven't the heart of a hare. It's bewitched I am entirely."
"I think we are bewitched too," said Gareth. "Everything seems to go wrong."
"There was this one in it," began Toirdealbhach, "and she was a woman. There was a husband living in Malainn Vig with this woman. There was only one little girl that they had between them. One day the man went out to cut in the bog, and when it was the time for his dinner, this woman sent the little girl out with his bit of dinner. When the father was sitting to his dinner, the little girl suddenly made a cry, 'Look now, father, do you see the large ship out yonder under the horizon? I could make it come in to the shore beneath the coast.' "You could not do that,' said the father. 'I am bigger than you are, and I could not do it myself.' Well, look at me now,' said the little girl. And she went to the well that was near there, and made a stirring in the water. The ship came in at the coast."
"She was a witch," explained Gaheris.
"It was the mother was the witch," said the saint, and continued with his story.
" 'Now,' says she, 'I could make the ship be struck against the coast.' You could not do that,' says the father. Well, look at me now,' says the little girl, and she jumped into the well. The ship was dashed against the coast and broken into a thousand pieces. 'Who has taught you to do these things?' asked the father. 'My mother. And when you do be at working she teaches me to do things with the Tub at home.'"
"Why did she jump into the well?" asked Agravaine. "Was she wet?" "Hush."
"When this man got home to his wife, he set down his turf-cutter and put himself in his sitting. Then he said, 'What have you been teaching to the little girl? I do not like to have this piseog in my house, and I will not stay with you any longer.' So he went away, and they never saw a one of him again. I do not know how they went on after that." "It must be dreadful to have a witch for a mother," said Gareth when he had finished. "Or for a wife," said Gawaine.
"It's worse not to be having a wife at all," said the saint, and he vanished into his beehive with startling suddenness, like the man in the Swiss weather clock who retires into a hole when it is going to be fine.
The boys sat round the door without surprise, waiting for something else to happen. They considered in their minds the questions of wells, witches, unicorns and the practices of mothers.
"I make this proposition," said Gareth unexpectedly, "my heroes, that we have a unicorn hunt of our own!" They looked at him.
"It would be better than not having anything. We have not seen our Mammy for one week."
"She has forgotten us," said Agravaine bitterly. "She has not so. You are not to speak in that way of our mother."
"It is true. We have not been to serve at dinner even." "It is because she has a necessity to be hospitable to these knights." "No, it is not." "What is it, then?" "I will not say."
"If we could do a unicorn hunt," said Gareth, "and bring this unicorn which she requires, perhaps we would be allowed to serve?" They considered the idea with a beginning of hope.
"St, Toirdealbhach," they shouted, "come out again! We want to catch a unicorn."
The saint put his head out of the hole and examined them suspiciously.
"What is a unicorn? What are they like? How do you catch them?"
He nodded the head solemnly and vanished for the second time, to return on all fours in a few moments with a learned volume, the only secular work in his possession. Like most saints, he made his living by copying manuscripts and drawing pictures for them.
"You need a maid for bait," they told him.
"We have goleor of maids," said Gareth. "We could take any of the maids, or cook."
"They would not come."
"We could take the kitchenmaid. We could make her to come."
"And then, when we have caught the unicorn which is wanted, we will bring it home in triumph and give it to our mother! We will serve at supper every night!"
"She will be pleased."
"Perhaps after supper, whatever the event."
"And Sir Grummore will knight us. He will say, 'Never has such a doughty deed been done, by my halidome!'"
St. Toirdealbhach laid the precious book on the grass outside his hole. The grass was sandy and had empty snail shells scattered over it, small yellowish shells with a purple spiral. He opened the book, which was a Bestiary called Liber de Natura Quorundam Animalium, and showed that it had pictures on every page.
They made him turn the vellum quickly, with its lovely Gothic manuscript, skipping the enchanting Griffins, Bonnacons, Cocodrills, Manticores, Chaladrii, Cinomulgi, Sirens, Peridexions, Dragons, and Aspidochelones. In vain for their eager glances did the Antalop rub its complicated horns against the tamarisk tree—thus, entangled, becoming a prey to its hunters—in vain did the Bonnacon emit its flatulence in order to baffle the pursuers. The Peridexions, sitting on trees which made them immune to dragons, sat unnoticed. The Panther blew out his fragrant breath, which attracted his prey, without interest for them. The Tigris, who could be deceived by throwing down a glass ball at its feet, in which, seeing itself reflected, it thought to see its own cubs—the Lion, who spared prostrate men or captives, was afraid of white cocks, and brushed out his own tracks with a foliated tail—the Ibex, who could bound down from mountains unharmed because he bounced upon his curly horns—the Yale, who could move his horns like ears—the She-Bear who was accustomed to bear her young as lumps of matter and lick them into whatever shape she fancied afterwards—the Chaladrius bird who, if facing you when it sat on your bedrail, showed that you were going to die— the Hedgehop who collected grapes for their progeny by rolling on them, and brought them back on the end of their prickles—even the Aspidochelone, who was a large whale-like creature with seven fins and a sheepish expression, to whom you were liable to moor your boat in mistake for an island if you were not careful: even the Aspidochelone scarcely detained them. At last he found them the place at the Unicorn, called by the Greeks, Rhinoceros.
It seemed that the Unicorn was as swift and timid as the Antalop, and could only be captured in one way. You had to have a maid for bait, and, when the Unicorn perceived her alone, he would immediately come to lay his horn in her lap. There was a picture of an unreliable-looking virgin, holding the poor creature's horn in one hand, while she beckoned to some spearmen with the other. Her expression of duplicity was balanced by the fatuous confidence with which the Unicorn regarded her.
Gawaine hurried off, as soon as the instructions had been read and the picture digested, to fetch the kitchenmaid without delay.
"Now then," he said, "you have to come with us on the mountain, to catch a unicorn."
"Oh, Master Gawaine," cried the maid he had caught hold of, whose name was Meg.
"Yes, you have. You are to be the bait whatever. It will come and put its head in your lap."
Meg began to weep.
"Now then, do not be silly."
"Oh, Master Gawaine, I do not want a unicorn. I have been a decent girl, I have, and there is all the washing up to do, and if Mistress Truelove do catch me playing at truant I shall get stick, Master Gawaine, that I will."
He took her firmly by the plaits and led her out.
In the clean bog-wind of the high tops, they discussed the hunt. Meg, who cried incessantly, was held by the hair to prevent her from running away, and occasionally passed from one boy to the other, if the one who was holding her happened to want both hands for gestures.
"Now then," said Gawaine. "I am the captain. I am the oldest, so I am the captain."
"I thought of it," said Gareth.
"The question is, it says in the book that the bait must be left alone."
"She will run away."
"Will you run away, Meg?"
"Yes, please, Master Gawaine."
"Then she must be tied."
"Oh, Master Gaheris, if it is your will, need I be tied?"
"Close your mouth. You are only a girl."
"There is nothing to tie her with."
"I am the captain, my heroes, and I command that Gareth runs back home to fetch some rope."
"That I will not."
"But you will destroy everything, if you do not do so."
"I do not see why I should have to go. I thought of it."
"Then I command our Agravaine to go."
"Let Gaheris go."
"I will not."
"Meg, you wicked girl, you are not to run away, do you hear?"
"Yes, Master Gawaine. But, oh, Master Gawaine —"
"If we could find a strong heather root," said Agravaine, "we could tie her pigtails together, round the other side of it."
"We will do that."
After they had secured the virgin, the four boys stood round her, discussing the next stage. They had abstracted real boar-spears from the armoury, so they were properly armed.
"This girl," said Agravaine, "is my mother. This is what our Mammy was at doing yesterday. And I am going to be Sir Grummore."
"I will be Pellinore."
"Agravaine can be Grummore if he wants to be, but the bait has got to be left alone. It says so in the book."
"Oh, Master Gawaine, oh, Master Agravaine!"
"Stop howling. You will frighten the unicorn."
"And then we must go away and hide. That is why our mother did not catch it, because the knights stayed with her."
"I am going to be Finn MacCoul."
"I shall be Sir Palomides."
"Oh, Master Gawaine, pray do not leave me alone."
"Hold in your noise," said Gawaine. "You are silly. You ought to be proud to be the bait. Our mother was, yesterday."
Gareth said, "Never mind, Meg, do not cry. We will not let it hurt you."
"After all, it can only kill you," said Agravaine brutally.
At this the unfortunate girl began to weep more than ever.
"Why did you say that?" asked Gawaine angrily. "You always try to frighten people. Now she is at howling more than before."
"Look," said Gareth. "Look, Meg. Poor Meg, do not cry. It will be with me to let you have some shots with my catapult, when we go home."
"Oh, Master Gareth!"
"Ach, come your ways. We cannot bother with her."
"Meg," said Gawaine, making a frightful face, "if you do not stop squealing, I will look at you like this."
She dried her tears at once.
"Now," he said, "when the unicorn comes, we must all rush out and stick it. Do you understand?"
"Must it be killed?"
"Yes, it must be killed dead."
"I hope it will not hurt it," said Gareth.
"That is the sort of foolish hope you would have," said Agravaine.
"But I do not see why it should be killed."
"So that we may take it home to our mother, you amadan."
"Could we catch it," asked Gareth, "and lead it to our mother, do you think? I mean, we could get Meg to lead it, if it was tame."
Gawaine and Gaheris agreed to this.
"If it is tame," they said, "it would be better to bring it back alive. That is the best kind of Big Game Hunting."
"We could drive it," said Agravaine. "We could hit it along with sticks.
"We could hit Meg, too," he added, as an afterthought.
Then they hid thelmselves in their ambush, and decided to keep silence. There was nothing to be heard except the gentle wind, the heather bees, the skylarks very high, and a few distant snuffles from Meg.
When the unicorn came, things were different from what had been expected. He was such a noble animal, to begin with, that he carried a beauty with him. It held all spellbound who were within sight.
The unicorn was white, with hoofs of silver and a graceful horn of pearl. He stepped daintily over the heather, scarcely seeming to press it with his airy trot, and the wind made waves in his long mane, which had been freshly combed. The glorious thing about him was his eyes. There was a faint bluish furrow down each side of his nose, and this led up to the eye-sockets, and surrounded them in a pensive shade. The eyes, circled by this sad and beautiful darkness, were so sorrowful, lonely, gentle and nobly tragic, that they killed all other emotion except love.
The unicorn went up to Meg the kitchenmaid, and bowed his head in front of her. He arched his neck beautifully to do this, and the pearl horn pointed to the ground at her feet, and he scratched in the heather with his silver hoof to make a salute. Meg had forgotten her tears. She made a royal gesture of acknowledgment, and held her hand out to the animal.
"Come, unicorn," she said. "Lay your head in my lap, if you like."
The unicorn made a whinny, and pawed again with his hoof. Then, very carefully, he went down first on one knee and then on the other, till he was bowing in front of her. He looked up at her from this position, with his melting eyes, and at last laid his head upon her knee. He stroked his flat, white cheek against the smoothness of her dress, looking at her beseechingly. The whites of his eyes rolled with an upward flash. He settled his hind quarters coyly, and lay still, looking up. His eyes brimmed with trustfulness, and he lifted his near fore in a gesture of pawing. It was a movement in the air only, which said, "Now attend to me. Give me some love. Stroke my mane, will you, please?"
There was a choking noise from Agravaine in the ambush, and at once he was rushing toward the unicorn, with the sharp boar-spear in his hands. The other boys squatted upright on their heels, watching him.
Agravaine came to the unicorn, and began jabbing his spear into its quarters, into its slim belly, into its ribs. He squealed as he jabbed, and the unicorn looked to Meg in anguish. It leaped and moved suddenly, still looking at her reproachfully, and Meg took its horn in one hand. She seemed entranced, unable to help it. The unicorn did not seem able to move from the soft grip of her hand on its horn. The blood, caused by Agravaine's spear, spurted out upon the blue-white coat of hair.
Gareth began running, with Gawaine close after him. Gaheris came last, stupid and not knowing what to do.
"Don't!" cried Gareth. "Leave him alone. Don't Don't!"
Gawaine came up, just as Agravaine's spear went in under the fifth rib. The unicorn shuddered. He trembled in all his body, and stretched his hind legs out behind. They went out almost straight, as if he were doing his greatest leap—and then quivered, trembling in the agony of death. All the time his eyes were fixed on Meg's eyes, and she still looked down at his.
"What are you doing?" shouted Gawaine. "Leave him alone. No harm at him."
"Oh, Unicorn," whispered Meg.
The unicorn's legs stretched out horizontally behind him, and stopped trembling. His head dropped in Meg's lap. After a last kick they became rigid, and the blue lids rose half over the eye. The creature lay still.
"What have you done?" cried Gareth. "You have killed him. He was beautiful."
Agravaine bawled, "This girl is my mother. He put his head in her lap. He had to die."
"We said we would keep him," yelled Gawaine. "We said we would take him home, and be allowed to supper."
"Poor unicorn," said Meg.
"Look," said Gaheris, "I am afraid he is dead."
Gareth stood square in front of Agravaine, who was three years older than he was and could have knocked him down quite easily. "Why did you do it?" he demanded. "You are a murderer. It was a lovely unicorn. Why did you kill it?"
"His head was in our mother's lap."
"It did not mean any harm. Its hoofs were silver."
"It was a unicorn, and it had to be killed. I ought to have killed Meg too."
"You are a traitor," said Gawaine. "We could have taken it home, and been allowed to serve at supper."
"Anyway," said Gaheris, "now it is dead."
Meg bowed her head over the unicorn's forelock of white, and once again began to sob.
Gareth began stroking the head. He had to turn away to hide his tears. By stroking it, he had found out how smooth and soft its coat was. He had seen a near view of its eye, now quickly fading, and this had brought the tragedy home to him,
"Well, it is dead now, whatever," said Gaheris for the third time. "We had better take it home."
"We managed to catch one," said Gawaine, the wonder of their achievement beginning to dawn on him.
"It was a brute," said Agravaine.
"We caught it! We of ourselves!"
"Sir Grummore did not catch one."
"But we did."
Gawaine had forgotten about his sorrow for the unicorn. He began to dance round the body, waving his boar-spear and uttering horrible shrieks.
"We must have a gralloch," said Gaheris. "We must do the matter properly, and cut its insides out, and sling it over a pony, and take it home to the castle, like proper hunters."
"And then she will be pleased!"
"She will say, God's Feet, but my sons are of mickle might!"
"We shall be allowed to be like Sir Grummore and King Pellinore. Everything will go well with us from now."
"How must we set about the gralloch?"
"We cut out its guts," said Agravaine.
Gareth got up and began to go away into the heather. He said, "I do not want to help cut him. Do you, Meg?"
Meg, who was feeling ill inside herself, made no answer. Gareth untied her hair—and suddenly she was off, running for all she was worth away from the tragedy, toward the castle. Gareth ran after her.
"Meg, Meg!" he called. "Wait for me. Do not run."
But Meg continued to run, as swiftly as an antalop, with her bare feet twinkling behind her, and Gareth gave it up. He flung himself down in the heather and began to cry in earnest—he did not know why.
At the gralloch, the three remaining huntsmen were in trouble. They had begun to slit at the skin of the belly, but they did not know how to do it properly and so they had perforated the intestines. Everything had begun to be horrible, and the once beautiful animal was spoiled and repulsive. All three of them loved the unicorn in their various ways, Agravaine in the most twisted one, and, in proportion as they became responsible for spoiling its beauty, so they began to hate it for their guilt. Gawaine particularly began to hate the body. He hated it for being dead, for having been beautiful, for making him feel a beast. He had loved it and helped to trap it, so now there was nothing to be done except to vent his shame and hatred of himself upon the corpse. He hacked and cut and felt like crying too.
"We shall not ever get it done," they panted. "How can we ever carry it down, even if we manage the gralloch?"
"But we must," said Gaheris. "We must. If we do not, what will be the good? We must take it home."
"We cannot carry it."
"We have not a pony."
"At a gralloch, they sling the beast over a pony."
"We must cut his head off," said Agravaine. "We must cut its head off somehow, and carry that. It would be enough if we took the head. We could carry it between us."
So they set to work, hating their work, at the horrid business of hacking through its neck.
Gareth stopped crying in the heather. He rolled over on his back, and immediately he was looking straight into the sky. The clouds which were sailing majestically across its endless depth made him feel giddy. He thought: How far is it to that cloud? A mile? And the one above it? Two miles? And beyond that a mile and a mile, and a million million miles, all in the empty blue. Perhaps I will fall off the earth now, supposing the earth is upside down, and then I shall go sailing and sailing away. I shall try to catch hold of the clouds as I pass them, but they wul not stop me. Where shall I go?
This thought made Gareth feel sick, and, as he was also feeling ashamed of himself for running away from the gralloch, he became uncomfortable all over. In these circumstances, the only thing to do was to abandon the place in which he was feeling uncomfortable, in the hope of leaving his discomfort behind him. He got up and went back to the others.
"Hallo," said Gawaine, "did you catch her?"
"No, she escaped away to the castle."
"I hope she will not tell anybody," said Gaheris. "It has to be a surprise, or it is no good for us."
The three butchers were daubed with sweat and blood, and they were absolutely miserable. Agravaine had been sick twice. Yet they continued in their labour and Gareth helped them.
"It is no good stopping now," said Gawaine. "Think how good it will be, if we can take it to our mother."
"She will probably come upstairs to say good night to us, if we can take her what she needs."
"She will laugh, and say we are mighty hunters."
When the grisly spine was severed, the head was too heavy to carry. They got thelmselves in a mess, trying to lift it. Then Gawaine suggested that it had better be dragged with rope. There was none.
"We could drag it by the horn," said Gareth. "At any rate we could drag and push it like that, so long as it was downhill."
Only one of them at a time could get a good hold of the horn, so they took it in turns to do the hauling, while the others pushed behind when the head got snagged in a heather root or a drain. It was heavy for them, even in this way, so that they had to stop every twenty yards or so, to change over.
"When we get to the castle," panted Gawaine, "we will prop it up in the seat in the garden. Our mother is bound to walk past there, when she goes for her walk before supper. Then we will stand in front of it until she is ready, and all will suddenly step back at once, and there it will be."
"She will be surprised," said Gaheris.
When they had at last got it down from the sloping ground, there was another hitch. They found that it was no longer possible to drag it on the flat land, because the horn did not give enough purchase.
In this emergency, for it was getting near to suppertime, Gareth voluntarily ran ahead to fetch a rope. The rope was tied round what remained of the head, and thus at last, with eyes ruined, flesh bruised and separating from the bones, the muddy, bloody, heather-mangled exhibit was conveyed on its last stage to the herb garden. They heaved it to the seat, and arranged its mane as well as they could. Gareth particularly tried to prop it up so that it would give a little idea of the beauty which he remembered.
The magic queen came punctually on her walk, conversing with Sir Grummore and followed by her lap dogs: Tray, Blanche and Sweetheart. She did not notice her four sons, lined up in front of the seat. They stood respectfully in a row, dirty, excited, their breasts beating with hope.
"Now!" cried Gawaine, and they stood aside.
Queen Morgause did not see the unicorn. Her mind was busy with other things. With Sir Grummore she passed by.
"Mother!" cried Gareth in a strange voice, and he ran after her, plucking at her skirt.
"Yes, my white one? What do you want?"
"Oh, Mother. We have got you a unicorn."
"How amusing they are, Sir Grummore," she said. "Well, my doves, you must run along and ask for your milk."
"Yes, yes," she said in a low voice. "Another time."
And the Queen passed on with the puzzled knight of the Forest Sauvage, electrical and quiet. She had not noticed that her children's clothes were ruined: had not even scolded them about that. When she found out about the unicorn later in the evening she had them whipped for it, for she had spent an unsuccessful day with the English knights.
The plain of Bedegraine was a forest of pavilions. They looked like old-fashioned bathing tents, and were every colour of the rainbow. Some of them were even striped like bathing tents, but the most part were in plain colours, yellow and green and so on. There were heraldic devices worked or stamped on the sides—enormous black eagles with two heads perhaps, or wyverns, or lances, or oak trees, or punning signs which referred to the names of the owners. For instance, Sir Kay had a black key on his tent, and Sir Ulbawes, in the opposing camp, had a couple of elbows in flowing sleeves. The proper name for them would be manchets. Then there were pennons floating from the tops of the tents, and sheaves of spears leaning against them. The more sporting barons had shields or huge copper basins outside their front doors, and all you had to do was to give a thump on one of these with the butt-end of your spear for the baron to come out like an angry bee and have a fight with you, almost before the resounding boom had died away. Sir Dinadan, who was a cheerful man, had hung a chamber-pot outside his. Then there were the people thelmselves. All round and about among the tents there were cooks quarrelling with dogs who had eaten the mutton, and small pages writing insults on each other's backs when they were not looking, and elegant minstrels with lutes singing tunes similar to "Greensleeves," with soulful expressions, and squires with a world of innocence in their eyes, trying to sell each other spavined horses, and hurdy-gurdy men trying to earn a groat by playing on the vielle, and gipsies telling your fortune for the battle, and enormous knights with their heads wrapped in untidy turbans playing chess, and vivandieres sitting on the knees of some of them, and—as for entertainment—there were joculators, gleemen, tumblers, harpers, troubadours, jesters, minstrels, tregetours, bear-dancers, egg-dancers, ladder-dancers, ballette-dancers, mountebanks, fire-eaters and balancers. In a way, it was like Derby Day. The tremendous forest of Sherwood stretched round the tent-forest further than the eye could see—and this was full of wild boars, warrantable stags, outlaws, dragons, and Purple Emperors. There was also an ambush in the forest but nobody was supposed to know about that.
King Arthur paid no attention to the coming battle. He sat invisible in his pavilion, at the hub of the excitement, and talked to Sir Ector or Kay or Merlyn day after day. The smaller captains were delighted to think that their King was having so many councils of war, for they could see the lamp burning inside the silk tent until all hours, and they felt sure that he was inventing a splendid plan of campaign. Actually the conversation was about different things. "There will be a lot of jealousy," said Kay. "You will have all these knights in this order of yours saying that they are the best one, and wanting to sit at the top of the table."
"Then we must have a round table, with no top."
"But, Arthur, you could never sit a hundred and fifty knights at a round table. Let me see—-" Merlyn, who hardly ever interfered in the arguments now, but sat with his hands folded on his stomach and beamed, helped Kay out of the difficulty.
"It would need to be about fifty yards across," he said. "You do it by 2*-r."
"Well, then. Say it was fifty yards across. Think of all the space in the middle. It would be an ocean of wood with a thin rim of humanity. You couldn't keep the food in the middle even, because nobody would be able to reach it."
"Then we can have a circular table," said Arthur, "not a round one. I don't know what the proper word is. I mean we could have a table shaped like the rim of a cart-wheel, and the servants could walk about in the empty space, where the spokes would be. We could call them the Knights of the Round Table."
"What a good name!"
"And the important thing," continued the King, who was getting wiser the more he thought, "the most important thing, will be to catch them young. The old knights, the ones we are fighting against, will be mostly too old to learn. I think we shall be able to get them in, and keep them fighting the right way, but they will be inclined to stick to the old habits, like Sir Bruce. Grummore and Pellinore—we must have them of course—I wonder where they are now? Grummore and Pellinore will be all right, because they were always kindly in thelmselves. But I don't think Lot's people will ever really be at home with it. That is why I say we must catch them young. We must breed up a new generation of chivalry for the future. That child Lancelot who came over with You-know-who, for instance: we must get hold of kids like him. They will be the real Table."
"Apropos of this Table," said Merlyn, "I don't see why I should not tell you that King Leodegrance has one which would do very well. As you are going to marry his daughter, he might be persuaded to give you the table as a wedding present."
"Am I going to marry his daughter?"
"Certainly. She is called Guenever." "Look, Merlyn, I don't like knowing about the future, and I am not sure whether I believe in it...."
"There are some things," said the magician, "which I have to tell you, whether you believe them or not. The trouble is, I can't help feeling there is one thing which I have forgotten to tell. Remind me to warn you about Guenever another time."
"It confuses everybody," said Arthur complainingly. "I get muddled up with half the questions I want to ask you myself. For instance, who was my..."
"You will have to have special Feasts," interrupted Kay, "at Pentecost and so on, when all the knights come to dinner and say what they have done. It will make them want to fight in this new way of yours, if they are going to recite about it afterwards. And Merlyn could write their names in their places by magic, and their coat armour could be engraved over their sieges. It would be grand!"
This exciting idea made the King forget his question, and the two young men sat down immediately to draw their own blazons for the magician, so that there should be no mistake about the tinctures. While they were in the middle of the drawing Kay looked up, with his tongue between his teeth, and remarked:
"By the way. You remember that argument we were having about aggression? Well, I have thought of a good reason for starting a war." Merlyn froze. "I would like to hear it."
"A good reason for starting a war is simply to have a good reason! For instance, there might be a king who had discovered a new way of life for human beings—you know, something which would be good for them. It might even be the only way of saving them from destruction. Well, if the human beings were too wicked or too stupid to accept his way, he might have to force it on them, in their own interests, by the sword."
The magician clenched his fists, twisted his gown into screws, and began to shake all over.
"Very interesting," he said in a trembling voice. "Very interesting. There was just such a man when I was young —an Austrian who invented a new way of life and convinced himself that he was the chap to make it work. He tried to impose his reformation by the sword, and plunged
the civilized world into misery and chaos. But the thing which this fellow had overlooked, my friend, was that he had had a predecessor in the reformation business, called Jesus Christ. Perhaps we may assume that Jesus knew as much as the Austrian did about saving people. But the odd thing is that Jesus did not turn the disciples into storm troopers, burn down the Temple at Jerusalem, and fix the blame on Pontius Pilate. On the contrary, he made it clear that the business of the philosopher was to make ideas available, and not to impose them on people."
Kay looked pale but obstinate.
"Arthur is fighting the present war," he said, "to impose his ideas on King Lot."
The Queen's suggestion about hunting unicorns had a curious result. The more lovelorn King Pellinore became, the more obvious it was that something would have to be done. Sir Palomides had an inspiration.
"The royal melancholy," said he, "can only be dispelled by Questing Beast. This is the subject to which the maharajah sahib has been accustomed by lifelong habit. Yours truly has said so all along."
"Personally," said Sir Grummore, "I believe the Questing Beast is dead. Anyway, it is in Flanders."
"Then we must dress up," said Sir Palomides. "We must assume the ro1e of Questing Beast and be hunted ourselves.
"We could scarcely dress as the Beast."
But the Saracen had run away with the idea.
"Why not?" he asked. "Why not, by Jingo? Joculators assume garb of animals—as stags, goats and so forth— and dance to bells and tabor with many gyrings and circumflexions."
"But really, Palomides, we are not joculators.
"Then we must learn to be sol"
A joculator was a juggler, a low kind of minstrel, and Sir Grummore did not relish the idea at all.
"However could we dress as the Questin' Beast?" he asked weakly. "She is a frightfully complicated animal."
"Describe this animal."
"Well, dash it all. She has a snake's head and the body of a leopard and haunches like a lion and feet like a hart. And, hang it, man, how could we make this noise in her belly, like thirty couple of hounds questin'?"
"Yours truly will be the belly," replied Sir Palomides, "and will give tongue as follows."
He began yodelling.
"Hush!" cried Sir Grummore. "You will wake the Castle."
"Then it is agreed?"
"No, it is not agreed. Never heard such nonsense in me life. Besides, she don't make a noise like that She makes a noise like this."
And Sir Grummore began cackling in a tuneless alto, like thousands of wild geese on the Wash.
"Hush! Hush!" cried Sir Palomides.
"I won't hush. The noise you was makin' was like pigs."
The two naturalists began hooting, grunting, squawking, squealing, crowing, mooing, growling, snuffling, quacking, snarling and mewing at one another, until they were red in the face.
"The head," said Sir Grummore, stopping suddenly, "will have to be of cardboard."
"Or canvas," said Sir Palomides. "The fishing populace will be in possession of canvas."
"We can make leather boots for hoofs."
"Spots can be painted on the body."
"It will have to button round the middle—"
"—where we join."
"And you," added Sir Palomides generously, "can be the back end, and do hounds. The noise is plainly stated to come from the belly."
Sir Grummore blushed with pleasure and said gruffly, in his Norman way, "Well, thanks, Palomides. I must say, I think that's demned decent of you."
"Not at all."
For a week King Pellinore saw hardly anything of his friends. "You write poems, Pellinore," they told him, "or go and sigh on the cuffs, there's a good fellow." He wandered about, occasionally crying out, "Flanders—Glanders" or "Daughter—ought to," whenever the ideas occurred to him, while the dark Queen hung in the background.
Meanwhile, in Sir Palomides' room, where the door was kept locked, there was such a stitching and snipping and painting and arguing as had seldom been known before.
"My dear chap, I tell you a libbard has black spots."
"Puce," Sir Palomides said obstinately.
"What is puce? And anyway we have not got any."
They glared at each other with the fury of creators.
"Try on the head."
"There, you've torn it. I said you would."
"Construction was of feeble nature."
"We must construct the thing again."
When the reconstruction was finished, the paynim stood back to admire it.
"Look out for the spots, Palomides. There, you've smudged them."
"A thousand pardons!"
"You ought to look where you are goin'."
"Well, who put his foot through the ribs?"
On the second day there was trouble with the back end.
"These haunches are too tight."
"Don't bend over."
"I have to bend over, if I am the back end."
"They won't split"
"Yes, they will."
"No, they won't."
"Well, they have."
"Look out for my tail," said Sir Grummore on the third day. "You are treadin' on it."
"Don't hold so tight, Grummore. My neck is twisted."
"Can't you see?"
"No, I can't. My neck is twisted."
"There goes my tail."
There was a pause while they sorted thelmselves out.
"Now, carefully this time. We must walk in step."
"You give the step."
"Left! Right! Left! Right!"
"I think my haunches are comin" down."
"If you let go of yours truly's waist, we shall come in half."
"Well, I can't hold up my haunches unless I do."
"There go the buttons."
"Damn the buttons."
"Yours truly told you so."
So they sewed on buttons during the fourth day, and started again.
"Can I practise my bayin' now?"
"How does my bayin' sound from inside?"
"It sounds splendid, Grummore, splendid. Only it is strange, in a way, coming from behind, if you follow my argument."
"I thought it sounded muffled."
"It did, a bit."
"Perhaps it will be all right from outside."
On the fifth day they were far advanced.
"We ought to practise a gallop. After all, we can't walk all the time, not when he is hunting us."
"When I say Go, then Go. Ready, steady, Go!"
"Look out, Grummore, you are butting me."
"Be careful of the bed."
"What did you say?"
"Confound the bed to blazes. Oh, my shins!"
"You have burst the buttons again."
"Damn the buttons. I have stubbed my toe."
"Well, yours truly's head has come off also."
"We shall have to stick to walkin'."
"It would be easier to gallop," said Sir Grummore on the sixth day, "if we had some music. Somethin' like Tantivvy, you know."
"Well, we have not got any music."
"Could you sing out Tantivvy, Palomides, while I am bayin'?"
"Yours truly could try."
"Very well, then, off we go!"
"Tantivvy, tantivvy, tantivvy!"
"We shall have to make the whole thing again," said Sir Palomides over the week-end. "We can still use the hoofs."
"I don't suppose it will hurt so much fallin' down out of doors—not on the moss, you know."
"And probably it won't tear the canvas so badly."
"We will make it double strength."
"I am glad the hoofs will still do."
"By jove, Palomides, don't he look a monster!"
"A splendid effort, this time."
"Pity you can't make fire come out of his mouth, or somethin'."
"A danger of combustion there."
"Shall we try another gallop, Palomides?"
"By all means."
"Push the bed in the corner, then."
"Look out for the buttons."
"If you see anythin' we are runnin' into, just stop, see?"
"Keep a sharp look-out, Palomides."
"Right ho, Grummore."
"Off we go."
"That was a splendid burst, Palomides," exclaimed the Knight of the Forest Sauvage.
"A noble gallop."
"Did you notice how I was bayin' all the time?"
"I could not fail to notice it, Sir Grummore."
"Well, well, I don't know when I have enjoyed myself so much."
They panted with triumph, standing amid their monster.
"I say, Palomides, look at me swishin' my tail!"
"Charming, Sir Grummore. Look at me winking one of my eyes."
"No, no, Palomides. You look at my tail. You ought not to miss it, really."
"Well, if I look at you swishing, you ought to look at me winking. That is only fair."
"But I can't see anythin' from inside."
"As for that, Sir Grummore, yours truly can't see so far round as the anal appanage."
"Now, then, we will have one last go. I shall swish my tail round and round all the time, and bay like mad. It will be a frightful spectacle."
"And yours truly will continuously wink one optic or the other."
"Could we put a bit of a bound into the gallop, Palomides, every now and then, do you think? You know, a kind of prance?"
"The prance could more naturally be effected by the back end, solo."
"You mean I could do it alone?"
"Well, I must say that is uncommonly decent of you, Palomides, to let me do the prancin'."
"Yours truly trusts that a modicum of caution will be exercised in the prance, to prevent delivery of uncomfortable blows to the posterior of the forequarters?"
"Just as you say, Palomides.".
"Boot and saddle, Sir Grummore."
"Tally-ho, Sir Palomides."
'Tantivvy, tantivvy, tantivvy, a-questing we will go!"
The Queen had recognized the impossible. Even in the miasma of her Gaelic mind, she had come to see that asses do not mate with pythons. It was useless to go on dramatizing her charms and talents for the benefit of these ridiculous knights—useless to go on hunting them with the tyrannous baits of what she thought was love. With a sudden turn of feeling she discovered that she hated them. They were imbeciles, as well as being the Sassenach, and she herself was a saint. She was, she discovered with a change of posture, interested in nothing but her darling boys. She was the best mother to them in the world! Her heart ached for them, her maternal bosom swelled. When Gareth nervously brought white heather to her bedroom as an apology for being whipped, she covered him with kisses, glancing in the mirror.
He escaped from the embrace and dried his tears—partly uncomfortable, partly in rapture. The heather which he had brought was set up dramatically in a cup with no water—she was every inch the homebody—and he was free to go. He scampered from the royal chamber with the news of forgiveness, went spinning down the circular stairs like a tee-to-tum.
It was a different castle to the one in which King Arthur used to scamper. A Norman would hardly have recognized it as a castle, except for the pele tower. It was a thousand years more ancient than anything the Normans knew.
This castle, through which the child was running to
bring the good news of their mother's love to his brothers, had begun, in the mists of the past, as that strange symbol, of the Old Ones—a promontory fort. Driven to the sea by the volcano of history, they had turned at bay on the last peninsula. With the sea literally at their backs, on a cliffy tongue of land, they had built their single wall across the root of the tongue. The sea which was their doom had also been their last defender on every other side. There, on the promontory, the blue-painted cannibals had piled up their cyclopean wall of unmortared stones, fourteen feet high and equally thick, with terraces on the inside from which they could hurl their flints. All along the outside of the wall they had embedded thousands of sharp stones in the scraw, each stone pointing outward in a chevaux de frise which was like a petrified hedgehog. Behind it, and behind the enormous wall, they had huddled at night in wooden shacks, together with their domestic animals. There had been heads of enemies erected on poles for decoration, and their king had built himself an underground treasure chamber which was also a subterranean passage for escape. It had led under the wall, so that even if the fort were stormed he could creep out behind the attackers. It had been a passage along which only one man could crawl at a time, and it had been constructed with a special kink in it, at which he could wait to knock a pursuer on the head, as the latter negotiated the obstacle. The diggers of the souterrain had been executed by their own priest-king, to keep the secret of it.
All that was in an earlier millennium.
Dunlothian had grown with the slow conservancy of the Old Ones. Here, with a Scandinavian conquest, had sprung up a wooden long-house—there, the original stones of the curtain wall had been pulled down to build a round tower for priests. The pele tower, with a cow-byre under the two living chambers, had come the last of all.
So it was among the untidy wreckage of centuries that Gareth scampered, looking for his brothers. It was among lean-to's and adaptations—past ogham stones commemorating some long-dead Deag the son of No, built into a later bastion upside down. It was on the top of a wind-swept cliff purged to the bone by the airs of the Atlantic, under which the little fishing village nestled among the dunes. It was as the inheritor of a view which covered a dozen miles of rollers, and hundreds of miles of cumulus. All along the coastline the saints and scholars of Eriu inhabited their stone igloos in holy horribleness—reciting fifty psalms in their beehives and fifty in the open air and fifty with their bodies plunged in cold water, in their loathing for the twinkling world. St. Toirdealbhach was far from typical of their species.
Gareth found his brothers in the store-room.
It smelt of oatmeal, ham, smoked salmon, dried cod, onions, shark oil, pickled herrings in tubs, hemp, maize, hen's fluff, sailcloth, milk—the butter was churned there on Thursdays—seasoning pine wood, apples, herbs drying, fish glue and varnish used by the fletcher, spices from overseas, dead rat in trap, venison, seaweed, wood shavings, litter of kittens, fleeces from the mountain sheep not yet sold, and the pungent smell of tar.
Gawaine, Agravaine and Gaheris were sitting on the fleeces, eating apples. They were in the middle of an argument.
"It is not our business," said Gawaine stubbornly.
Agravaine whined: "But it is our business. It is at us more than anybody, and it is not right."
"How dare you to say that our mother is not right?"
"She is not."
"If you can but contradict...."
"They are decent for the Sassenach," said Gawaine. "Sir Grummore let me try his helm last night."
"That has nothing to do with it."
Gawaine said: "I am not wishing to talk about it. It is base to be talking."
As Gareth came in, he could see Gawaine's face flaming at Agravaine, under its red hair. It was obvious that he was going to have one of his rages—but Agravaine was one of those luckless intellectuals who are too proud to give in to brute force. He was the kind who gets knocked down in an argument because he cannot defend himself, but continues the argument on the floor, sneering, "Go on, then, hit me again to show how clever you are."
Gawaine glared at him.
"Silence your mouth!"
"I will not."
"I will make you."
"If you will make me or not, it will be the same."
Gareth said: "Be quiet, Agravaine. Gawaine, leave him alone; Agravaine, if you do not be quiet he will kill you."
"I do not care if he does kill me. What I say is true."
"Hold your noise."
"I will not. I say we ought to indite a letter to our father about these knights. We ought to tell him about our mother. We—"
Gawaine was upon him before he could finish the sentence.
"Your soul to the devil!" he shouted. "Traitor! Ach, so you would!"
For Agravaine had done something unprecedented in the family troubles. He was the weaker of the two and he was afraid of pain. As he went down, he had drawn his dirk upon his brother.
"Look to his arm," cried Gareth.
The two were going over and over among the rolled fleeces.
"Gaheris, catch his hand! Gawaine, leave him alone! Agravaine, drop it! Agravaine, if you do not drop it, he will kill you. Ah, you brute!"
The boy's face was blue and the dirk nowhere to be seen. Gawaine, with his hands round Agravaine's throat, was ferociously beating his head on the floor. Gareth took hold of Gawaine's shirt at the neck and twisted it to choke him. Gaheris, hovering round the edge, ferreted for the dirk.
"Leave me," panted Gawaine. "Let me be." He gave a coughing or husky noise in his chest, like a young lion making its roar.
Agravaine, whose Adam's apple had been hurt, relaxed his muscles and lay hiccoughing with his eyes shut. He looked as if he were going to die. They dragged Gawaine off and held him down, still struggling to get at his victim and finish the work.
It was curious that when he was in one of these black passions he seemed to pass out of human life. In later days he even killed women, when he had been worked into such a state—though he regretted it bitterly afterwards.
When the counterfeit Beast was perfected, the knights took it away and hid it in a cave at the foot of the cliffs, above high-water mark. Then they had some whisky to celebrate, and set off in search of the King, as darkness fell.
They found him in his chamber, with a quill pen and a
sheet of parchment. There was no poetry on the parchment —only a picture which was intended to be a heart transfixed by an arrow, with two P's drawn inside it, interlaced. The King was blowing his nose.
"Excuse me, Pellinore," said Sir Grummore, "but we have seen something on the cliffs."
"Well, not exactly...."
"I hoped it would be."
Sir Grummore thought the situation over, and drew the Saracen aside. They decided that tact was needed.
"Oh, Pellinore," said Sir Grummore nonchalantly, "what is this that you are drawin'?"
"What do you think it is?"
"It looks like a sort of drawin'."
"That is what it is," said the King. "I wish you two would go away. I mean, if you could take a hint."
"It would be better if you were to make a line here," pursued Sir Grummore.
"Here, where the pig is."
"My dear fellow, I don't know what you are talking about."
"I am sorry, Pellinore, I thought you was drawin' a pig with your eyes shut."
Sir Palomides thought it was time to interfere.
"Sir Grummore," he said coyly, "has observed a phenomenon, by Jove!"
"A thing," explained Sir Grummore.
"What sort of thing?" asked the King suspiciously.
"Something you will like."
"It has four legs," added the Saracen.
"Is it animal?" asked the King, "vegetable or mineral?"
"A pig?" inquired the King, who was beginning to feel they must be driving at something.
"No, no, Pellinore. Not a pig. Get pigs out of your head right away. This thing makes a noise like hounds."
"Like sixty hounds," explained Sir Palomides.
"It is a whale!" cried the King.
"No, no, Pellinore. A whale has no legs."
"But it makes such a noise."
"Does a whale?"
"My dear fellow, how am I to know? You must try to keep the issue clear."
"I see, but what is the issue, what? It seems to be a menagerie game."
"No, no, Pellinore. It is something we have seen which bays."
"Oh, I say," he wailed. "I do wish you two would either shut up or go away. What with whales and pigs, and now this thing which bays, a fellow does not know where he is half the time. Can't you leave a fellow alone, to draw his little things and hang himself quietly, for once? I mean to say, it is not much to ask, is it, what, don't you know?"
"Pellinore," said Sir Grummore, "you must pull yourself together. We have seen the Questing Beast!"
"Why do you say why?"
"I mean," explained Sir Grummore, "you could say Where? or When? But why Why?"
"Pellinore, have you lost all sense of decency? We have seen the Questing Beast, I tell you—seen it on the cliffs here, quite close."
"It is not an it. It is a She."
"My dear chap, it doesn't matter what she is. We have seen her."
"Then why don't you go and catch her?"
"It is not for us to catch her, Pellinore. It is for you. After all, she is your life's work, isn't she?"
"She's stupid," said the King.
"She may be stupid, or she may not," said Sir Grummore in an offended tone. "The point is, she is your magnum opus. Only a Pellinore can catch her. You have told us so often."
"What is the point of catching her?" asked the monarch. "What? After all, she is probably quite happy on the cliffs. I don't see what you are fussing about
"It seems dreadfully sad," he added at a tangent, "that people can't be married when they want to. I mean, what is the good of this animal to me? I have not married it, have I? So why am I chasing it all the time? It doesn't seem logical."
"What you want, Pellinore, is a good hunt. Shake up your liver."
They took away his pen and poured him several bumpers of usquebaugh, not forgetting to take a nip or two thelmselves.
"It seems the only thing to do," he said suddenly. "After all, only a Pellinore can catch it."
"That's the brave fellow."
"Only I do feel sad sometimes," he added, before they could stop him, "about the Queen of Flanders' daughter. She was not beautiful, Grummore, but she understood me. We seemed to get on together, if you see what I mean. I amn't clever, perhaps, and I may get into trouble when I am by myself, but when I was with Piggy she always knew what to do. It was company too. It is not bad to have a bit of company when you are getting on in life, especially when you have been chasing the Questing Beast all the time, what? It gets a bit lonely in the Forest. Not that the Questing Beast wasn't company in her way—so far as she went. Only you couldn't talk things over with her, not like with Piggy. And she couldn't cook. I don't know why I am boring you fellows with all this talk, but really sometimes one feels as if one could hardly carry on. It is not as if Piggy were a flapper, you see. I really did love her, Grummore, really, and if only she would have answered my letters it would have been ever so nice."
"Poor old Pellinore," they said.
"I saw seven maggot pies today, Palomides. They were flying along like frying pans."
"One for sorrow," explained the King. "Two for joy, three for a marriage, and four for a boy. So seven ought to be four boys, ought it, what?"
"Bound to be," said Sir Grummore.
"They were going to be called Aglovale, Percivale, and Lamorak, and then there was one with a funny name which I can't remember. That's all off now. Still, I must say I would have liked to have had a son called Dornar."
"Look here, Pellinore, you must learn to let bygones be bygones. You will only wear yourself out. Why don't you be a brave chap and catch your Beast for instance?"
"I suppose I must."
"That's it. Take your mind off things."
"It is eighteen years since I have been after it," said the
King pensively. "It would be a change to catch it I wonder where the brachet is?"
"Ah, Pellinore! Now you're talking!"
"Suppose our honoured monarch were to start at once?"
"What? This evening, Palomides? In the dark?"
Sir Palomides nudged Sir Grummore secretly. "Administer blows to iron," he whispered, "while at high temperature."
"I see what you mean."
"I don't suppose it matters," said the King. "Nothing does, really."
"Very well, then," cried Sir Grummore, taking control of the situation. "That is what we will do. We will put old Pellinore at one end of the cliffs this very night, in an ambush, and then we two will drive the place methodically toward him. The Beast is bound to be there, as it was seen only this afternoon."
"Don't you think," he inquired, as they were dressing up in the darkness, "that it was clever, the way I explained about our bein' here, I mean to drive the animal?"
"An inspiration," said Sir Palomides. "Is my head on straight?"
"My dear chap, I can't see an inch."
The Saracen's voice sounded uneasy.
"This darkness," he said, "seems jolly palpable."
"Never mind," said Sir Grummore. "It will hide any little faults in our make-up. Perhaps the moon will come out later."
"Thank goodness his sword is generally blunt."
"Oh, come now, Palomides, you mustn't get cold feet. I can't think why it is, but I feel perfectly splendid. Perhaps it was those bumpers. I am goin' to prance and bay tonight, I can tell you."
"You are buttoning yourself to me, Sir Grummore. Those are the wrong buttons."
"Beg pardon, Palomides."
"Would it be enough if you were to wave your tail in the air, instead of prancing? There is a certain discomfort for the forequarters during the prance."
"I shall wave my tail as well as prance," said Sir Grummore firmly.
"Just as you say."
'Take your hoof off my tail for a moment, Palomides."
"Could you carry your tail over your arm for the first part of the journey?"
"It would hardly be natural."
"And now," added Sir Palomides bitterly, "it is going to rain. Come to think of it, it nearly always does rain in these parts."
He thrust his brown hand out of the serpent's mouth and felt the drops on the back of it. They drummed on the canvas like hail.
"Dear old forequarters," said Sir Grummore cheerfully, for he had plenty of whisky, "it was you who thought of this expedition in the first place. Cheer up, old blackamoor. It will be much worse for Pellinore, waitin' for us to come. After all, he has not got a canvas hide with spots on it, to shelter under."
"Perhaps it will stop."
"Of course it will stop. That's the ticket, old pagan. Now then, are we ready?"
"Give the step then."
"Don't forget the Tantivvy."
"Left! Right! Tantivvy! Tantivvy! I beg your pardon?"
"I was only bayin'."
"Tantivvy! Tantivvy! "
"Now for the prance!"
"Oh, dear, Sir Grummore!"
"Yours truly will hardly be able to sit down."
Under the dripping cliffs King Pellinore stood stock still, looking vaguely in front of him. His brachet, on a long string, was wound round him several times. He was in full armour, which was getting rusty, and the rain came in at five places. It ran down both shins and both forearms, but the worst place was his vizor. This was constructed on the snout principle, since it was found that if one had an ugly helmet it frightened the enemy. King Pellinore's looked like an inquisitive pig. It let the rain in through the nostrils, however, and the water ran down in front in a steady trickle which tickled his chest. The King was thinking.
Well, he thought, he supposed this would keep them quiet. It was not very nice in all this rain and everything, but the dear fellows seemed keen on it. It would be difficult to find anybody kinder than old Grum, and Palomides seemed a friendly chap, though he was a paynim. If they wanted to have a lark like this, it was only decent to humour them. Besides, it was nice for the brachet to have an outing. It was a pity that it could never keep unwound, but there, you could not interfere with nature. He would have to spend all tomorrow scrubbing his armour.
It would give him something to do, reflected the King miserably, which was better than wandering about all the time, with his eternal sorrow gnawing at his heart. And he fell to thinking about Piggy.
The nice thing about the Queen of Flanders' daughter, had been that she did not laugh at him. A lot of people laughed at you when you went after the Questing Beast— and never caught it—but Piggy never laughed. She seemed to understand at once how interesting it was, and made several sensible suggestions about the way to trap it. Naturally one did not pretend to be clever or anything, but it was nice not to be laughed at. One was doing one's best.
And then the dreadful day had come when that cursed boat had floated to the shore. They had got into it, because knights must always accept an adventure, and it had sailed away at once. They had waved to Piggy ever so, and the Beast had put its head out of the wood and waded out to sea after them, looking most upset. But the boat had gone on and on, and the small figures on the shore had dwindled till they could hardly see the kerchief which Piggy was waving, and then the brachet had been sick.
From every port he had written to her. He had given letters to the innkeepers everywhere, and they had promised to send them on. But she had never sent a syllable in reply.
It was because he was uhworthy, decided the King. He was vague and not clever and always getting in a muddle. Why should the daughter of the Queen of Flanders write to a person like that, especially when he had gone and got into a magic boat and sailed away? It was like deserting her, and of course she was right to be angry. Meanwhile it would keep raining, and the water did trickle so, and now that brachet was sneezing. The armour would be rusty, and there was a sort of draught down the back of his neck where the helmet screwed on. ft was dark and horrible. Some sticky stuff was dripping off the cliffs.
"Excuse me, Sir Grummore, but is that you snuffling in my ear?"
"No, no, my dear fellow. Go on, go on. I am only doin' my bayin' as well as I can."
"It is not the baying I refer to, Sir Grummore, but a kind of breathing noise of a husky nature."
"My dear chap, it is no good askin' me. All you can hear in here is a kind of creakin', like a bellows."
"Yours truly thinks the rain is going to stop. Do you mind if we stop, too?"
"Well, Palomides, if you must stop, you must. But if we don't get this over quickly, I shall get my stitch again. What do you want to stop for?"
"I wish it was not so dark."
"But you can't stop just because it is dark."
"No. One appreciates that"
"Go on, then, old boy. Left! Right! That's the ticket."
"I say, Grummore," said Sir Palomides later. "There it is again."
"The puffing, Sir Grummore."
"Are you sure it is not me?" inquired Sir Grummore.
"Positive. It is a menacing of amorous puff, similar to the grampus. This paynim sincerely wishes that it were not so dark."
"Ah, well, we can't have everythin'. Now march on, Palomides, there's a good fellow, do."
After a bit, Sir Grummore said sepulchrally:
"Dear old boy, can't you stop bumpin' all the time?"
"But I am not bumping, Sir Grummore."
"Well, what is, then?"
"Yours faithfully can feel no bumps."
"Somethin* keeps bumpin' me behind."
"Is it your tail, perhaps?"
"No. I have that wound round me."
"In any case it would be impossible to bump you from the back, because the forelegs are in front"
"There it is again!"
"The bump! It was a definite assault. Palomides, we are bein' attacked!"
"No, no, Sir Grummore. You are imagining things."
"Palomides, we must turn round!"
"What for, Sir Grummore?"
"To see what is bumping me behind."
"Yours truly can see nothing, Sir Grummore. It is too dark."
"Put your hand out of your mouth, and see what you can feel."
"I can feel a sort of round thing."
"That is me, Sir Palomides. That is me, from the back."
"Sincere apologies, Sir Grummore."
"Not at all, my dear chap, not at all. What else can you feel?"
The kindly Saracen's voice began to falter.
"Something cold," he said, "and—slippery."
"Does it move, Palomides?"
"It moves, and—it snuffles!"
At this moment the moon came out.
"Merciful powers!" cried Sir Palomides, in a high squealing voice, as he peered out of his mouth. "Run, Grummore, run! Left, right! Quick march! Double march! Faster, faster! Keep in step! Oh, my poor heels! Oh, my God! Oh, my hat!"
It was no good, decided the King. Probably they had got lost, or wandered off somewhere to amuse thelmselves. It was beastly wet, as it nearly always was in Lothian, and really he had done his best to fall in with their plans. Now they had wandered off—one might almost say inconsiderately— and left him with his wretched brachet to get rusty. It was too bad.
With a determined motion he marched away to bed, heaving the brachet along behind him.
Half-way up a fissure in one of the steepest cliffs, with most of its buttons burst, the counterfeit Beast was arguing with its stomach.
"But, my dear knight, how could yours truly foresee a calamity of this nature?"
"You thought of it," replied the stomach furiously. "You made us dress up. It is your fault."
At the foot of the cliff the Questing Beast herself, in a sentimental attitude, waited in the romantic moonlight for her better half. Behind her was a background of the silver sea. In various parts of the landscape several dozens of bent and distorted Old Ones were intently examining the situation from the concealment of rocks, sandhills, shell-mounds, igloos and so forth—still vainly trying to fathom the subtle secrets of the English.
In Bedegrdne it was the night before the battle. A number of bishops were blessing the armies on both sides, hearing confessions and saying Mass. Arthur's men were reverent about this, but King Lot's men were not—for such was the custom in all armies that were going to be defeated. The bishops assured both sides that they were certain to win, because God was with them, but King Arthur's men knew that they were outnumbered by three to one, so they thought ft was best to get shriven. King Lot's men, who also knew the odds, spent the night dancing, drinking, dicing and telling each other dirty stories. This is what the chronicles say, at any rate.
In the King of England's tent, the last staff talk had been held, and Merlyn had stayed behind to have a chat. He was looking worried.
"What are you worried about, Merlyn? Are we going to lose this battle, after all?"
"No. You will win the battle all right. There is no harm in telling you so. You will do your best, and fight hard, and call in You-know-whom at the right moment. It will be in your nature to win the battle, so it doesn't matter telling you. No. It is something else which I ought to have told you that is worrying me just now."
"What was it about?"
"Gracious heavens! Why should I be worrying if I could remember what it was about?"
"Was it about the maiden called Nimue?"
"No. No. No. No. That's quite a different business. It was something—it was something I can't remember."
After a bit, Merlyn took his beard out of his mouth and began counting on his fingers.
"I have told you about Guenever, haven't I?"
"I don't believe it."
"No matter. And I have warned you about her and Lancelot."
"That warning," said the King, "would be a base one anyway, whether it was true or false."
"Then I have said the bit about Excalibur, and how you must be careful of the sheath?"
"I have told you about your father, so it can't be him, and I have given the hint about the person.
"What is confounding me," exclaimed the magician, pulling out his hair in tufts, "is that I can't remember whether it is in the future or in the past."
"Never mind about it," said Arthur. "I don't like knowing the future anyway. I had much rather you didn't worry about it, because it only worries me."
"But it is something I must say. It is vital."
"Stop thinking about it," suggested the King, "and then perhaps it will come back. You ought to take a holiday. You have been bothering your head too much lately, what with all these warnings and arranging about the battle."
"I will take a holiday," exclaimed Merlyn. "As soon as this battle is over, I will go on a walking tour into North Humberland. I have a Master called Bleise who lives in North Humberland, and perhaps he will be able to tell me what it is I am trying to remember. Then we could have some wild fowl watching. He is a great man for wild fowl."
"Good," said Arthur. "You take a long holiday. Then, when you come back, we can think of something to prevent Nimue."
The old man stopped fiddling with his fingers, and looked sharply at the King.
"You are an innocent fellow, Arthur," he said. "And a good thing too, really."
"Do you remember anything'about the magic you had when you were small?"
"No. Did I have some magic? I can remember that I was interested in birds and beasts. Indeed, that is why I still keep my menagerie at the Tower. But I don't remember about magic."
"People don't remember," said Merlyn. "I suppose you wouldn't remember about the parables I used to tell you, when I was trying to explain things?"
"Of course I do. There was one about some Rabbi or other which you told me when I wanted to take Kay somewhere. I never could understand why the cow died."
"Well, I want to tell you another parable now."
"I shall love it"
"In the East, perhaps in the same place which that Rabbi Jachanan came from, there was a certain man who was walking in the market of Damascus when he came face to face with Death. He noticed an expression of surprise on the spectre's horrid countenance, but they passed one another without speaking. The fellow was frightened, and went to a wise man to ask what should be done. The wise man told him that Death had probably come to Damascus to fetch him away next morning. The poor man was terrified at this, and asked however he could escape. The only way they could think of between them was that the victim should ride all night to Aleppo, thus eluding the skull and bloody bones.
"So this man did ride to Aleppo—it was a terrible ride which had never been done in one night before—and when he was there he walked in the market place, congratulating himself on having eluded Death.
"Just then, Death came up to him and tapped him on the shoulder. 'Excuse me,' he said, 'but I have come for you.' 'Why,' exclaimed the terrified man, 'I thought I met you in Damascus yesterday!' 'Exactly,' said Death. That was why I looked surprised—for I had been told to meet you today, in Aleppo.'"
Arthur reflected on this gruesome chestnut for some time, then he said:
"So it is no good trying to escape Nimue?"
"Even if I wanted to," said Merlyn, "it would be no good. There is a thing about Time and Space which the philosopher Einstein is going to find out. Some people call it Destiny."
"But what I can't get over is this toad-in-the-hole business."
"Ah, well," said Merlyn, "people will do a lot for love. And then the toad is not necessarily unhappy in its hole, not more than when you are asleep, for instance. I shall do some considering, until they let me out again."
"So they will let you out?"
"I will tell you something else, King, which may be a surprise for you. It will not happen for hundreds of years, but both of us are to come back. Do you know what is going to be written on your tombstone? Hic jacet Arthurus Rex quondam Rexque futurus. Do you remember your Latin? It means, the once and future king."
"I am to come back as well as you?"
"Some say from the vale of Avilion."
The King thought about it in silence. It was full night outside, and there was stillness in the bright pavilion. The sentries, moving on the grass, could not be heard.
"I wonder," he said at last, "whether they will remember about our Table?"
Merlyn did not answer. His head was bowed on the white beard and his hands clasped between his knees.
"What sort of people will they be, Merlyn?" cried the young man's voice, unhappily.
The Queen of Lothian had taken to her chamber, cutting off communication with her guests, and Pellinore broke his fast alone. Afterwards he went for a walk along the beach, admiring the gulls who flew above him like white quill pens whose heads had been neatly dipped in ink. The old cormorants stood like crucifixes on the rocks, drying their wings. He was feeling sad as usual, but he was also feeling uncomfortable, because he was missing something. He did not know what it was. He was missing Palomides and Grummore, if he had been able to remember.
Presently he was attracted by shouting, and went to investigate.
"Here, Pellinore! Hi! We are over here!" "Why, Grummore," he asked with interest, "whatever are you doing up that cliff?"
"Look at the Beast, man, look at the Beast!"
"Oh, hallo, you have got old Glatisant"
"My dear chap, for heaven's sake do something. We have been here all night"
"But why are you dressed up like that, Grummore? You have got spots, or something. And what has Palomides got on his head?"
"Don't stand there arguin', man."
"But you have a sort of tail, Grummore. I can see it hanging down behind."
"Of course I have a tail. Can't you stop talkin' and do somethin'? We have been in this damned crevice all night, and we are droppin' with fatigue. Go on, Pellinore, kill that Beast of yours at once."
"Oh, I say, whatever should I want to kill her for?"
"Good gracious heavens, haven't you been tryin' to kill her for the last eighteen years? Now, come along, Pellinore, be a good chap and do somethin'. If you don't do somethin' quick, we shall both tumble out"
"What I can't understand," said the King plaintively, "is why you should be in this cliff at all And why are you dressed up like that? You look as if you were dressed as a sort of Beast yourselves. And where did the Beast come from, anyway, what? I mean, the whole thing is so sudden."
"Pellinore, once and for all, will you kill that Beast?"
"Because it has chased us up this cliff."
"It is unusual for the Beast," remarked the King. "She does not generally take an interest in people like this."
"Palomides," said Sir Grummore hoarsely, "says he believes she has fallen in love with us."
"Fallen in love?"
"Well, you see, we were dressed up as a Beast"
"Like likes Like," explained Sir Palomides faintly.
King Pellinore slowly began to laugh for the first time since he had arrived in Lothian.
"Welll" he said. "Bless my soul! Did you ever hear of anything to match it? Why does Palomides think she has fallen for him?"
"The Beast," said Sir Grummore with dignity, "has been walkin' round and round the cliff all night. She has been rubbin' herself against it, and purrin'. And she sometimes curls her neck round the rocks, and gazes up at us in a sort of way."
"What sort of way, Grummore?"
"My dear fellow, look at her now."
The Questing Beast, who had not paid the least attention to the arrival of her master, was staring up at Sir Palomides with her soul in her eyes. Her chin was pressed to the foot of the cliffs in a passion of devotion, and occasionally she gave her tail a wag. She moved it laterally on the surface of pebbles, where its numerous heraldic tufts and foliations made a rustling noise, and sometimes she scratched the bluff with a small whimper. Then, feeling that she had been too forward, she would arch her graceful serpent neck and hide her head beneath her belly, peeping upwards from the corner of one eye.
"Well, Grummore, what do you want me to do?"
"We want to come down," said Sir Grummore.
"I can see that," said the King. "It seems a sensible idea. Mind you, I don't understand exactly how the whole thing started, what, but I can see that, absolutely."
"Then kill it, Pellinore. Kill the wretched creature."
"Oh, really," said the King. "I don't know about that! After all, what harm has she done? All the world loves a lover. I don't see why the poor beastie should be killed, just because she has got the gentle passion. I mean to say, I am in love myself, amn't I, what? It gives you a sort of fellow feeling."
"King Pellinore," said Sir Palomides definitely, "unless some steps are taken pretty dam' quick, yours affectionately will be instantaneously martyred, R.I.P."
"But, my dear Palomides, I can't possibly kill the old Beast, don't you see, because my sword is blunt."
"Then stun her with it, Pellinore. Give her a good bang on the head with it, man, and perhaps she will get concussion."
"That is all very well for you, Grummore, old fellow. But suppose it doesn't stun her? It might make her lose her temper, Grummore, and then where should I be? Personally I can't see why you should want to have the creature assaulted at all. After all, she is in love with you, isn't she, what?"
"Whatever the reasons for the animal's behaviour, the point is we are on this ledge."
"Then all you need to do is to come off it."
"My good man, how can we come down to be attacked?"
"It will only be a loving sort of attack," the King pointed out reassuringly. "Sort of making advances. I don't suppose she will do you any harm. All you would have to do would be to walk along in front of her until you reached the castle, what? As a matter of fact you could perhaps encourage her a bit. After all, everybody likes to have their affection returned."
"Are you suggesting," asked Sir Grummore coldly, "that we should flirt with this reptile of yours?"
"It would certainly make it easier. I mean, the walk back."
"And how are we to do this, pray?"
"Well, Palomides could twine his neck round hers occasionally, you know, and you could wag your tail. I suppose you could not lick her nose?"
"Yours truly," said Sir Palomides feebly, finally and with aversion, "can neither twine nor lick. Also he is now about to fall. Adieu."
With this the unfortunate paynim let go of the cliff with both hands and appeared to be sinking into the monster's jaws—but that Sir Grummore caught him, and the remaining buttons held him in position.
"There!" said Sir Grummore. "Now look what you have done."
"But, my dear fellow..."
"I am not your dear fellow. You are simply abandonin' us to destruction."
"Oh, I say!"
"Yes, you are. Heartlessly."
The King scratched his head.
"I suppose," he said doubtfully, "I could hold her by the tail, while you made a dash for it."
"Then do so. If you don't do somethin' immediately, Palomides will fall, and then we shall come in half."
"I still don't see," said the King sadly, "why you had to dress up like this to begin with. It is all a mystery to me.
"However," he added, taking the Beast by the tail, "come on, old girl. Heave-ho! We shall have to do the best we can in the circumstances. Now then, you two, run for your lives. Hurry up, Grummore, I don't think the Beast is pleased, by the feel of her. Ah, you naughty thing, leave it! Run, Grummore! Naughty Beast! Pah! Nasty, nasty! Leave it! Quick, man, quick! Come away then! Don't touch! Trust! She'll be off in a minute! Come to heel, will you? Heel! Come behind! Oh, you horrid Beast! Faster, Grummore! Sit, sit! Lie down, Beast! How dare you? Look out, man, she's coming! Oh, you would, would you? There! Now she's bitten me!"
They won the drawbridge by a short head, and it was drawn up after them in the nick of time.
"Phew!" said Sir Grummore, unbuttoning the back end and standing up to mop his brow.
"Hoots!" cried various auld wives who were in the castle delivering eggs. Some of the castle circle could speak English after a fashion, including St. Toirdealbhach and Mother Morlan.
"Wee sleekit, cow'ring, timorous Beastie," said the drawbridge man. "Oh, what a panic's in thy breastie!"
"Aroint us!" said the bystanders.
"Bonnie Sir Palomides," said a number of Old Ones who had known of their plight on the cliff ledge all night —without saying anything about it, as was their custom, for fear of being caught out, "is going to lay him doon and dee."
They turned round to examine the paynim, and found that it was as they said. Sir Palomides had collapsed on a stone mounting block, without troubling to take his head off, and was breathing heavily. They took it off for him and threw a bucket of water in his face. Then they fanned him with their aprons.
"Ah, the puir churl," they said compassionately. "The sassenagh! The sable savage! Will he no' come back again? Gie him anither drappie there. Ah, the braw splash!"
Sir Palomides revived slowly, blowing bubbles out of his nose.
"Where is yours truly?" he asked.
"Here we are, old boy. We got back safe. The Beast is outside."
Through the portcullis there came a sorrowful howling to bear out Sir Grummore's statement, as it had been thirty couple of hounds baying the moon. Sir Palomides shuddered.
"We ought to look out, to see if King Pellinore is comin'."
"Yes, Sir Grummore. Allow one sec. for recuperation."
"The Beast may have done him a mischief."
"How do you feel yourself?"
"The indisposition is passing," said Sir Palomides bravely.
"Not much time to waste. It may be eatin' him at this moment."
"Lead on," said the paynim, heaving himself to his feet "Forward to the battlements."
So the whole party set off to climb the narrow stairs of the Pele Tower.
Below them, looking small and upside down from this height, the Questing Beast could be seen sitting in the ravine which bounded the castle on that side. She was sitting on a boulder in it, with her tail in the burn, and looking up at the drawbridge with her head on one side. Her tongue was hanging out. Nothing could be seen of Pellinore.
"Evidently she is not eatin' him," said Sir Grummore.
"Unless she has eaten him."
"I hardly think she would have had time to do that, old boy, not in the time."
"You would think she would have left some bones or something. Or at any rate the armour."
"What do you think we ought to do?"
"It seems bafflin'."
"Do you think we ought to make a sortie?"
"We could wait to see what happens, Palomides, don't you think?"
"No leaps," assented Sir Palomides, "without previous looks."
After they had been watching for half an hour or so, the faction of the Old Ones grew bored with the lack of entertainment. They clattered off down the stairs, to throw stones at the Questing Beast off the top of the wall. The two knights stayed on the lookout.
"This is a pretty state of affairs."
"Indeed, it is."
"I mean, when you work it out."
"Here is the Queen of Orkney angry about something on one side—I could not help noticing that she seemed a little queer about that unicorn—and Pellinore moping on the other. And you are supposed to be in love with La Beale Isoud, isn't it? And now this Beast is after both of us."
'A confusing situation."
"Love," said Sir Grummore uneasily, "is a pretty strong passion, when you come to think of it."
At this moment, as if to confirm Sir Grummore's opinion, a pair of enlaced figures sauntered along the cliff road.
"Good gracious," exclaimed Sir Grummore. "What are these?"
As they drew nearer, their identity became clear. One of them was King Pellinore, and he had his arm round the waist of a stout, middle-aged lady in a side-saddle skirt. She had a red, horsey face, and carried a hunting crop in her free hand. Her hair was in a bun.
"It must be the Queen of Flanders' daughter!"
"I say, you two!" cried King Pellinore, as soon as he had observed them. "I say, look here, what do you think, can you guess? Whoever would have thought it, what? What do you think I have found?"
"Aha!" cried the stout lady in a booming voice, archly tapping his cheek with her hunting crop. "But who did the findin', eh?"
"Yes, yes, I know! It was not me that found her at all; it was she that found met What do you think of that?
"And do you know what?" went on the King, in high delight "None of my letters could possibly be answered! I never put our address on them! We hadn't got one! I always knew there was something wrong. So Piggy got on her horse, you know, and came huntin' after me by moor and fell! The Questing Beast helped her a great deal—it has an excellent nose—and that magic barge of ours, can you imagine it, must have had an idea or two in its head, for it went back to fetch them when it saw that I was upset! How nice of it! They found it in a creek somewhere, and here they are!
"But why are we standing about?" shouted the King. He was so excited that nobody else had time to talk. "I mean to say, why are we shouting so? Is it polite, do you think? Ought you two to come down and let us in? What is wrong with this drawbridge anyway?"
"It is the Beast, Pellinore, the Beast! She is in the ravine!" "What is wrong with the Beast?" "She is besiegin' the castle."
"Oh, yes," said the King. "Now I remember. She bit me.
"And what do you think?" he went on, waving one hand in the air to show that ft was bandaged. "Piggy tied it up for me like one o'clock. She tied it up with a bit of—well, you know."
"Petticoats," boomed the Queen of Flanders' daughter. "Yes, yes, her petticoats!"
The King was convulsed with giggles.
"That is all very well, Pellinore, that is all very well. But what are you goin' to do about the Beast?"
His Majesty was intoxicated with gaiety. "Ho, the Beast!" he cried. "Is that the trouble? I'll soon settle her!
"Now then!" he exclaimed, marching to the edge of the ravine and waving his sword. "Now then! Off you go! Shoo! Shoo!"
The Questing Beast looked at him absently. She moved her tail in a vague gesture of recognition, then returned her attention to the gatehouse. The occasional stones which were being thrown at her by the Old Ones she dexterously caught and swallowed, in the maddening way which chickens have when you are trying to drive them off.
"Let down the drawbridge!" commanded the King. "I will attend to her! Shoo, now shoo!"
The drawbridge was lowered with hesitation. The Beast immediately drew closer to it, with a hopeful expression.
"Now then," cried the King. "You rush in, while I defend the rear."
The drawbridge reached the ground and Piggy was speeding across before it touched. King Pellinore, less agile or more bemused by the gentle passion, collided with her in the gateway. The Questing Beast ran into them behind, knocking the King flat.
"Beware! Beware!" cried all the retainers, fishwives, falconers, farriers, fletchers, and other well-wishers who were assembled within.
The Queen of Flanders' daughter turned like a tigress to defend her young.
"Be off, you shameless hussy," she cried, bringing her hunting crop down on the creature's nose. The Questing Beast recoiled with the tears springing to its eyes, and the portcullis crashed between them.
In the evening a new crisis began to develop. It became obvious that Glatisant intended to besiege the castle until her mate had been produced, and, in these circumstances, the Old Ones who had brought their eggs to market refused to leave the gate without an escort. Eventually the three southern knights had to convoy them to the foot of the cliff, with drawn swords in their hands.
In the village street St. Toirdealbhach was waiting to receive the convoy, a raffish Silenus supported by four small boys. His breath smelt strongly of whisky and he was in tearing spirits, waving his shillelagh.
"Not a one more stories," he was shouting. "Am not I going to be married wid ould Mother Morlan. and after having a fight wid Duncan this minute, and never more to be a saint?"
"Congratulations!" the children told him for the hundredth time.
"We are all right also," added Gareth. "We are allowed to serve at dinner every day." "Glory be to God! Is it every day, begor?" "Yes, and our mother takes us for walks." "Well, there now. Praise youth and it will corne!" The saint caught sight of the convoy and began to howl tike an Iroquois. "Up the ribels!"
"Be easy now," they told him. "Be easy, your Holiness. The swords are not for fighting with at all."
"Why wouldn't they be?" he inquired indignantly, and he proceeded to kiss King Pellinore and breathe on him. The King said: "I say, are you really going to be married? So am I. Are you excited?"
For answer, the holy man twined his arms round the King's neck and drew him into Mother Morlan's shebeen— not entirely to Pellinore's satisfaction, for he would have liked to hurry back to Piggy—but it was obvious that a bachelor party would have to be held in celebration. The whole Gaelic miasma had faded like the mist it was— whether under the influence of love or of whisky or of its own nature as mist—and the three southerners found thelmselves accepted at last as individuals and guests, irrespective of the racial trauma, into the warm heart of the North.
The battle of Bedegraine was fought near Sorhaute in the forest of Sherwood, during the Whitsun holiday. It was a decisive battle, because it was in some ways the twelfth century equivalent of what later came to be called a Total War.
The Eleven Kings were ready to fight their sovereign in the Norman way—in the foxhunting way of Henry the Second and of his sons—for sport and acquisition and without the real intention of doing each other a personal injury. They—the kings with the tank-like knights of their nobility —were prepared to take a sporting risk. It was the kind of risk which Jorrocks talked about. King Lot might have said with justice that the rebellion which he led against Arthur was the image of foxhunting without its guilt, and only twenty-five per cent of its danger.
But the Eleven Kings needed a background for their exploits. Even if the knights had little wish to kill each other on the grand scale, there was no reason why they should not kill the serfs. It would have been a poor day's sport indeed, according to their estimation, without a bag to count at the end of it.
So the war, as the rebel lords had wished to fight it, was a kind of double battle, or a war within a war. On the outer circle there were sixty thousand kerns and gallow-glasses marching with the Eleven, and these ill-armed levies of the Old Ones were inflamed against the twenty thousand foot-soldiers of Arthur's Sassenach army by the tragedy of the Gael. Between the armies there was a serious racial enmity. But it was an enmity controlled from above—by nobles who were not sincerely anxious for each other's blood. The armies were packs of hounds, as it were, whose struggle with each other was to be commanded by Masters of Hounds, who took the matter as an exciting gamble. If the hounds had turned mutinous, for instance, Lot and his allies would have been ready to ride with Arthur's knights, in quelling what they would have considered a real rebellion.
The nobles of the inner circle on both sides were in a way traditionally more friendly with each other than with their own men. For them the numbers were necessary for the sake of the bag, and for scenic purposes. For them a good war had to be full of "arms, shoulders and heads flying about the field and blows ringing by the water and the wood." But the arms, shoulders and heads would be those of villeins, and the blows which rang, without removing many limbs, would be exchanged by the iron nobility. Such, at any rate, was the idea of battle in Lot's command. When sufficient kerns had been decapitated and sufficient rough handling had been dealt out to the English captains, Arthur would recognize the impossibility of further resistance. He would capitulate. Financial terms of peace would be agreed on—which would yield an excellent profit in ransoms—and all would be more or less as it had been before—except that the fiction of feudal overlordship would be abolished, Which was a fiction in any case.
Naturally a war of this sort was likely to be hedged with etiquette, just as foxhunting is hedged with it It would begin at the advertised meet, weather permitting, and it would be conducted according to precedent.
But Arthur had a different idea in his head. It did not seem to him to be sporting, after all, that eighty thousand humble men should be leu'd against each other while a fraction of their number, in carapaces like the skins of tanks, manoeuvred for the sake of ransom. He had begun to set a value on heads, shoulders and arms—their owners' value, even if the owner was a serf. Merlyn had taught him to distrust the logic by which countrysides could be pillaged for forage, husbandmen ruined, soldiers slaughtered, so that he himself should pay a scathless ransom, like the Coeur de Lion of the legends.
The King of England had ordered that there were to be no ransoms in his sort of battle. His knights were to fight, not against gallowglasses, but against the knights of the Gaelic Confederation. Let the gallowglasses fight among thelmselves if they must—indeed, since there was a real aggression for them to settle, apart from the question of ransoms, let them fight to the best of their ability. But, as for his nobles, they were to attack the nobles of the rebels as if they were gallowglasses and nothing more. They were to accept no composition, observe no ballet-dancer's rules. They were to press the war home to its real lords—until they thelmselves were ready to refrain from warfare, being confronted with its reality.
Afterwards, he knew for certain now, it was to be the destiny of his life to deal with every way of twisting decency by threats of Power.
So we may well believe that the King's men were shriven on the night before they fought. Something of the young man's vision had penetrated to his captains and his soldiers. Something of the new ideal of the Round Table which was to be born in pain, something about doing a hateful and dangerous action for the sake of decency—for they knew that the fight was to be fought in blood and death without reward. They would get nothing but the unmarketable conscience of having done what they ought to do in spite of fear—something which wicked people have often debased by calling it glory with too much sentiment, but which is glory all the same. This idea was in the hearts of the young men who knelt before the God-distributing bishops—knowing that the odds were three to one, and that their own warm bodies might be cold at sunset.
Arthur began with an atrocity and continued with other atrocities. The first one was that he did not wait the fashionable hour. He ought to have marshalled his Battle opposite Lot's, as soon as their breakfast was over, and then, at about midday, when the lines were properly in order, he should have given the signal to begin. The signal having been given, he should have charged Lot's footmen with his knights, while Lot's knights charged his footmen, and there would have been a splendid slaughter.
Instead, he attacked by night. In the darkness, with a war-whoop—deplorable and ungentlemanly tactics—he fell on the insurgent camp with the blood pounding in the veins of his neck, and Excalibur dancing in his hand. He had taken the odds three to one. In knights he was wildly outmatched. A single King of the rebels—the King of the Hundred Knights—had with his own forces two-thirds of the total number to which the Round Table was ever to grow. And Arthur had not started the war. He was fighting in his own country, hundreds of miles within his own borders, against an aggression which he had not provoked.
Down came the tents, up flared the torches, out flew the blades, and the yell of battle mingled with the lamentation of surprise. The noise, the slaughtering and slaughtered demons black against the flames—what scenes there have been in Sherwood, where now the oak trees crowd into a shade!
It was a masterful start, and it was rewarded by success. The Eleven Kings and their baronage were in armour already—it took so long to arm a nobleman that he was often accomplished overnight. If they had not been, it might have been an almost bloodless victory. Instead, it was an initiative and the initiative held. The chivalry of the Old Ones fought their way from the ruined encampment, hand to hand. They managed to unite into an armoured regiment—which was still several times larger than anything in armour which the King could bring against them—but they were deprived of their accustomed screen of footmen. There had been no time to organize the gallowglasses, and such of these as did remain with the nobility were demoralized, or leaderless. Arthur detached his own footmen, under Merlyn, to deal with the infantry battle which was centred round the camp, and he himself pressed on with his cavalry against the kings thelmselves. He had them on the run, and saw that he must keep them on it. They were indignantly surprised by what they considered an unchivalrous personal outrage —outrageous to be attacked with positive manslaughter, as if a baron could be killed like a Saxon kern.
The King's second atrocity was that he neglected the kerns thelmselves. That part of the battle, the racial struggle which had a certain reality even if it was a wicked one, he left to the races thelmselves—to the infantry and to Merlyn's direction, at the struggling camp from which the cavalry was already sweeping away. There were three Gaels to every Gall among the tents, but they were surprised and taken at a disadvantage. He wished them no particular harm—concentrating his indignation upon the leaders who had seduced their addled pates—but he knew that they would have to be allowed their fight. He hoped that it would be a victorious one so far as his own troops were concerned. In the meantime, his business was with the leaders—and, as the day dawned, the atrociousness of his conduct became apparent.
For the Eleven Kings had assembled some apology for an infantry screen, behind which to wait his charges. He ought to have charged this screen of terrified men, dealing them an enormous execution. Instead, he neglected them. He galloped through the infantry as if they were not his enemies at all—not even troubling to strike at them—pressing his charge against the armoured core itself. The infantry, for their part, accepted the mercy only too thankfully. They behaved as if it was not an honour to be allowed to die for Lothian. The discipline, as the rebel generals said afterwards, was not Pictish.
The charges began with the growing day.
At a military tattoo perhaps, or at some old piece of show-ground pageantry, you may have seen a cavalry charge. If so, you know that "seen" is not the word. It is heard—the thunder, earthshake, drum-fire, of the bright and battering sandals! Yes, and even then it is only a cavalry charge you are thinking of, not a chivalry one. Imagine it now, with the horses twice as heavy as the soft-mouthed hunters of our own midnight pageants, with the men thelmselves twice heavier on account of arms and shield. Add the cymbal-music of the clashing armour to the jingle of the harness. Turn the uniforms into mirrors, blazing with the sun, the lances into spears of steel. Now the spears dip, and now they are coming. The earth quakes under feet. Behind, among the flying clods, there are hoof-prints stricken in the ground. It is not the men that are to be feared, not their swords nor even their spears, but the hoofs of the horses. It is the impetus of that shattering phalanx of iron—spread across the battlefront, inescapable, pulverizing, louder than drums, beating the earth.
The knights of the confederation met the outrage as they could. They stood to it, and fought back. But the novelty of their situation as objects of ferocity in spite of their rank, and also as a large body being charged with arrogance by a body numbering less than a quarter of their own—and being charged again and again into the bargain—this had an effect on their morale. They gave ground before the charges, still orderly but giving, and were shepherded along a glade of Sherwood forest—a wide glade like an estuary of grass with trees on either side.
During this phase of the battle there was a display of bravery by various individuals. King Lot had personal success against Sir Meliot de la Roche and against Sir Clariance. He was unhorsed by Kay, and horsed again, only to be wounded in the shoulder by Arthur himself—who was everywhere, youthful, triumphant, over-excited. As a general, Lot seems to have been a martinet and something of a coward. But he was a tactician in spite of his formality. He seems to have recognized by noon that he was faced by a new kind of warfare, which required a new defence. The demons of Arthur's cavalry were not concerned with ransoms, it was now seen, and they were prepared to go on smashing their heads against the wall of his cavalry until it broke. He decided to wear them out. At a hurried council of war behind the line, it was arranged that he himself, with four other kings and half the defenders, should retire along the glade to prepare a position. The remaining six kings were sufficient to hold the English, while Lot's men rested and re-formed. Then, when the position was prepared, the six kings of the advance guard were to retire through it, leaving Lot in the front line while they reformed.
The army split accordingly.
Arthur accepted this moment of division as the opportunity for which he had been waiting. He sent an equerry to gallop for the trees. He had made a pact of mutual aid with two French kings, called Ban and Bors—and these two allies had come from France with about ten thousand men, to lend him aid. The Frenchmen had been hidden in the forest on either side of the clearing, as reserves. It had been in their direction that the King had tried to drive the enemy. The equerry galloped, there was a twinkle of armour among the leafy oaks, and Lot's mind jumped to the trap. He looked only to the one side of the glade, where Bors was issuing already upon his flank, being unaware at present that Ban was on the other wing.
Lot's nerve began to collapse at this stage. He was wounded in the shoulder, faced by an enemy who seemed to accept the death of gentlemen as a part of warfare, and now he was in an ambush. "Oh, defend us from death and horrible maims," he is reported to have said, "for I see well we be in great peril of death."
He detached King Carados with a strong squadron to meet King Bors, only to find that a second equerry had sprung King Ban from the opposite side of him. He was still in numerical superiority, but his nerve was now gone for good. "Ha," he said to die Duke of Cambenet, "we must be discomfited." He is even supposed to have wept "for pity and dole."
Carados was personally unhorsed, and his squadron broken by King Bors. The advance guard of six kings was driven in by Arthur's charges. Lot, with King Morganore's division, faced about in order to hold King Ban upon his wing.
The rebellion would have been ended on that day, with one more hour of daylight. But the sun set, coming to the rescue of the Old Ones, and there was no moon for that quarter. Arthur called off the hunt, judged accurately that the insurgents were demoralized, and allowed his men to sleep in comfort on their arms, with few but careful sentries.
The exhausted army of his enemies, who had diced the night before, now spent the hours of darkness sleepless again, standing to arms or in their councils. Like all the highland armies that have ever marched against Gramarye, they were distrustful of each other. They expected another night attack. They were dismayed by what they had suffered. They were divided on the subject of capitulation or resistance. It was the brink of daylight before King Lot could have his way.
The remaining infantry, by his orders, were to be turned off like so many cattle, to stray and save their naked legs however they could. The knights were to band thelmselves into a single phalanx to resist the charges, and any man who ran away thereafter was to be shot at once for cowardice.
In the morning, almost before they were formed, Arthur was on them. In conformity with his own tactics, he sent only a small troop of forty spears to start the work. These men, a picked striking force of gallants, resumed the onslaughts of the previous afternoon. They came down at a hand gallop, smashed through the rank or broke it, reformed, and came again. The dogged regiment withdrew before them, sullen, dispirited, the fight knocked out of it.
At noon the three kings of the allies struck with their full force, in a final blow. There was the moment of intermingling with a noise like thunder, the spectacle of broken lances sailing in the air while horses pawed that element before they went down backward. There was a yell that shook the forest. After it, on the trodden turf with its hoof marks and kicked sods and a debris of offensive weapons, there was an unnatural silence. There were people riding about aimlessly at a walk. But there were no longer any organized traces of the chivalry of the Gael.
Merlyn met the King as he rode back from Sorhaute—a magician rather tired, and still unmounted. He was dressed in the infantry habergeon in which he had insisted on fighting. He brought the news that the clans on foot had offered then: capitulation.
In the September moonlight, several weeks later, King Pellinore was sitting on the cliff top with his fiancee, staring out to sea. Soon they were setting off for England, to be married. His arm was about her waist and his ear was pressed to the top of her head. They were unconscious of the world.
"But Dornar is such a funny name," the King was saying. "I can't think how you thought of it."
"But you thought of it, Pellinore."
"Yes. Aglovale, Percivale, Lamorak and Dornar."
"They will be like cherubs," said the King fervently. "Like cherubim! What are cherubim?"
Behind them the ancient castle loomed against the stars. There was a faint noise of shouting from the top of the Round Tower, where Grummore and Palomides were arguing with the Questing Beast. She was still in love with her counterfeit, and still kept the castle in a state of siege— which had only been broken for a few hours on the day of Lot's return with his defeated army. It had been a surprise for the English knights to learn that they had been at war with Orkney all the time, but it was too late to do anything about it, since the war was over. Now everybody was inside, the drawbridge was permanently up, and Glatisant lay in the moonlight at the foot of the tower, her head gleaming like silver. Pellinore had refused to have her killed.
Merlyn arrived one afternoon in the course of his northern walking tour, wearing a haversack and a pair of monstrous boots. He was sleek and snowy and shining, like an eel preparing for its nuptial journey to the Sargasso Sea, for the time of Nimue was at hand. But he was absent-minded, unable to remember the one thing which he ought to have told his pupil, and he listened to their difficulties with an impatient ear.
"Excuse me," they shouted from the top of the wall, as the magician stood outside, "but it's about the Questin' Beast. The Queen of Lothian and Orkney is in a frightful temper about her."
"Are you sure it is about the Beast?"
"Certain, my dear fellow. You see, she has us besieged."
"We dressed up," bawled Sir Palomides miserably, "as a sort of Beast ourselves, respected sir, and she saw us coming into the castle. There are signs, ahem, of ardent affection. Now this creature will not go away, because she believes her mate to be inside, and it is of a great unsafety to lower the drawbridge."
"You had better explain to her. Stand on the battlements and explain the mistake."
"Do you think she will understand?"
"After all," the magician said, "she is a magic beast It seems possible."
But the explanation was a failure—she looked at them as if she thought they were lying.
"I say, Merlyn! Don't go yet"
"I have to go," he said absently. "I have to do something somewhere, but I can't remember what it is. Meanwhile I shall have to carry on with my walking tour. I am to meet my master Bleise in North Humberland, so that he can write down the chronicles of the battle, and then we are to have a little wild-goose watching, and after that—well, I can't remember."
"But Merlyn, the Beast would not believe!"
"Never mind." His voice was vague and troubled. "Can't stop. Sorry. Apologize to Queen Morgause for me, will you, and say I was asking after her health?"
He began to revolve on his toes, preparatory to vanishing. Not much of his walking tour was done on foot
"Merlyn, Merlyn! Wait a bitl"
He reappeared for a moment, saying in a cross voice:
"Well, what is it?"
"The Beast will not believe us. What are we to do?" He frowned.
"Psycho-analyse her," he said eventually, beginning to spin.
"But, Merlyn, wait! How are we to do this thing?" "The usual method." "But what is it?" they cried in despair. He disappeared completely, his voice remaining in the air.
"Just find out what her dreams are and so on. Explain the facts of life. But not too much of Freud."
After that, as a background to the felicity of King Pellinore—who refused to bother with trivial problems—Grummore and Palomides had to do their best.
"Well, you see," Sir Grummore was shouting, "when a hen lays an egg..."
Sir Palomides interrupted with an explanation about pollen and stamens.
Inside the castle, in the royal chamber of the Pele Tower, King Lot and his consort were laid in the double bed. The king was asleep, exhausted by the effort of writing his memoirs about the war. He had no particular reason for staying awake. Morgause was sleepless.
Tomorrow she was going to Carlion for Pellinore's wedding. She was going, as she had explained to her husband, in manner of a messenger, to plead for his pardon. She was taking the children with her.
Lot was angry about the journey and wished to forbid it, but she knew how to deal with that
The Queen drew herself silently out of bed, and went to her coffer. She had been told about Arthur since the army returned—about his strength, charm, innocence and generosity. His splendour had been obvious, even through the envy and suspicion of those he had conquered. Also there had been talk about a girl called Lionore, the daughter of the Earl of Sanam, with whom the young man was supposed to be having an affair. The Queen opened the coffer in the darkness and stood near the moonlit patch from the window, holding a strip of something in her hands. It was like a tape.
The strip was a less cruel piece of magic than the black cat had been, but more gruesome. It was called the Spancel—after the rope with which domestic animals were hobbled—and there were several of them in the secret coffers of the Old Ones. They were a piseog rather than a great magic.
Morgause had got it from the body of a soldier which had been brought home by her husband, for burial in the Out Isles.
It was a tape of human skin, cut from the silhouette of the dead man. That is to say, the cut had been begun at the right shoulder, and the knife—going carefully in a double slit so as to make a tape—had gone down the outside of the right arm, round the outer edge of each finger as if along the seams of a glove, and up on the inside of the arm to the arm-pit. Then it had gone down the side of the body, down the leg and up it to the crotch, and so on until it had completed the circuit of the corpse's outline, at the shoulder from which it had started. It made a long ribbon.
The way to use a Spancel was this. You had to find the man you loved while he was asleep. Then you had to throw it over his head without waking him, and tie it in a bow. If he woke while you were doing this, he would be dead within the year. If he did not wake until the operation was over, he would be bound to fall in love with you.
Queen Morgause stood in the moonlight, drawing the Spancel through her fingers.
The four children were awake too, but they were not in their bedroom. They had listened on the stairs during the royal dinner, so they knew that they were off to England with their mother.
They were in the tiny Church of the Men—a chapel as ancient as Christianity in the islands, though it was scarcely twenty feet square. It was built of unmortared stones, like the great wall of the keep, and the moonlight came through its single unglazed window to fall on the stone altar. The basin for holy water, on which the moonlight fell, was scooped out of the living stone, and it had a stone lid cut from a flake, to match it
The Orkney children were kneeling in the home of their ancestors. They were praying that they might be true to their loving mother—that they might be worthy of the Cornwall feud which she had taught them—and that they might never forget the misty land of Lothian where their fathers reigned.
Outside the window the thin moon stood upright in a deep sky, like the paring of a finger nail for magic, and against the sky the weather vane of the carrion crow with arrow in mouth pointed its arrow to the south.
Fortunately for Sir Palomldes and Sir Grummore, the Questing Beast saw reason at the last moment, before the cavalcade set out—otherwise they would have had to stay in Orkney and miss the marriage altogether. Even as it was, they had to stay up all night. She recovered quite suddenly.
The drawback was that she transferred her affection to the successful analyst—to Palomides—as so often happens in psycho-analysis—and now she refused to take any further interest in her early master. King Pellinore, not without a few sighs for the good old days, was forced to resign his rights in her to the Saracen. This is why, although Malory clearly tells us that only a Pellinore could catch her, we always find her being pursued by Sir Palomides in the later parts of the Morte d'Arthur. In any case, it makes very little difference who could catch her, because nobody ever did.
The long march southward toward Carlion, with litters swaying and the mounted escort jogging under flapping pennoncells, was exciting for everybody. The litters thelmselves were interesting. They consisted of ordinary carts with a kind of flag-staff at each end. Between the staffs a hammock was slung, in which the jolts were hardly felt The two knights rode behind the royal conveyances, delighted at being able to get out of the castle and see the marriage after all. St. Toirdealbhach followed with Mother Morlan, so that it would be a double wedding. The Questing Beast brought up the rear, keeping a tight eye on Palomides, for fear of being let down once again.
All the saints came out of then: beehives to see them off. All the Fomorians, Fir Bolg, Tuatha de Danaan, Old People and others waved to them without the least suspicion from cliffs, currachs, mountains, bogs and shell-mounds. All the red deer and unicorns lined the high tops to bid good-bye. The terns came with their forked tails from the estuary, squeaking away as if intent upon imitating an embarkation scene on the wireless—the white-bottomed wheatears and pipits flitted along beside them from whin to whin—the eagles, peregrines, ravens and chuffs made circles over them in the air— the peat smoke followed them as if anxious to make one last curl in the tips of their nostrils—the ogham stones and souterrains and promontory forts exhibited their prehistoric masonry in a blaze of sunlight—the sea-trout and salmon put their gleaming heads out of the water—the glens, mountains and heather-shoulders of the most beautiful country in the world joined the general chorus—and the soul of the Gaelic world said to the boys in the loudest of fairy voices: Remember Us!
If the march was exciting for the children, the metropolitan glories of Carlion were enough to take their breath away. Here, round the King's castle, there were streets—not just one street—and castles of dependent barons, and monasteries, chapels, churches, cathedrals, markets, merchants' houses. There were hundreds of people in the streets, all dressed in blue or red or green or any bright colour, with shopping baskets over their arms, or driving hissing geese before them, or hurrying hither and thither in the livery of some great lord. There were bells ringing, clocks smiting in belfries, standards floating—until the whole air above them seemed to be alive. There were dogs and donkeys and palfreys in caparison and priests and farm wagons—whose wheels creaked like the day of judgment—and booths which sold gilt gingerbread, and shops where the finest bits of armour in the very latest fashions were displayed. There were silk merchants and spice merchants and jewellers. The shops had painted trade signs hung over them, like the inn signs which we have today. There were servitors carousing outside wine shops, and old ladies haggling over eggs, and itinerant cads carrying cadges of hawks for sale, and portly aldermen with gold chains, and brown ploughmen with hardly any clothes on except a few bits of leather, and leashes of greyhounds, and strange Eastern men selling parrots, and pretty ladies mincing along in high dunces' caps with veils floating from the top of them, and perhaps a page in front of the lady, carrying a prayer book, if she was going to church.
Carlion was a walled town, so that this excitement was surrounded by a battlement which seemed to go on for ever and ever. The wall had towers every two hundred yards, and four great gates as well. When you were approaching the town from across the plain, you could see the castle keeps and church spires springing out of the wall in a clump —like flowers growing in a pot.
King Arthur was delighted to see his old triends again, and to hear of Pellinore's engagement. He was the first knight he had taken a fancy to, when he was a small boy in the Forest Sauvage, and he decided to give the dear fellow a marriage of unexampled splendour. The cathedral of Carlion was booked for it, and no trouble was spared that a good time should be had by all. The pontifical nuptial high mass was celebrated by such a galaxy of cardinals and bishops and nuncios that there seemed to be no part of the immense church which was not teeming with violet and scarlet and incense and little boys ringing silver bells. Sometimes a boy would rush at a bishop and ring a bell at him. Sometimes a nuncio would pounce on a cardinal and cense him all over. It was like a battle of flowers. Thousands of candles blazed before the gorgeous altars. In every direction the blunt, accustomed, holy fingers were spreading little tablecloths, or holding up books, or blessing each other thoroughly, or soaking each other with Holy Water, or reverently displaying God to the people. The music was heavenly, both Gregorian and Ambrosian, and the church was packed. There were monks and friars and abbots of every description, standing about in sandals among the knights, whose armour flashed by candlelight. There was even a Franciscan bishop, wearing grey, with a red hat. The copes and mitres were almost all of solid gold cloth crusted with diamonds, and there was such a putting of them on and taking of them off that the whole cathedral rustled. As for the Latin, it was talked at such a speed that the rafters rang with genitive plurals—and there was such a prelatical issuing of admonitions, exhortations and benedictions that it was a wonder the whole congregation did not go to heaven on the spot Even the Pope, who was as keen as anybody that the thing should go with a swing, had kindly sent a number of indulgences for everybody he could think of.
After the marriage came the wedding feast. King Pellinore and his Queen—who had stood hand in hand throughout the previous ceremony, with St. Toirdealbhach and Mother Morlan behind them, quite dazzled with candlelight and incense and aspersion—were propped up in the place of honour and served by Arthur himself on bended knee. You can imagine how charmed Mother Morlan was. There was peacock pie, jellied eels, Devonshire cream, curried porpoise, iced fruit salad, and two thousand side dishes. There were speeches, songs, healths, and bumpers. A special courier arrived at full speed from North Humberland, and delivered a message to the bridegroom. He said, "Best Wishes from Merlyn stop. The present is under the throne Stop. Love to Aglovale, Percivale, Lamorak, Dornar."
When the excitement over the message had died down, and the wedding present had been found, some round games were immediately arranged for the younger members of the party. In these a small page of the King's household excelled. He was a son of Arthur's ally at Bedegraine— King Ban of Benwick—and his name was Lancelot. There was bobbing for apples, shovelboard, titter-totter, and a puppet or motion play called Mac and the Shepherds, which made everybody laugh. St. Toirdealbhach disgraced himself by stunning one of the fatter bishops with his shillelagh, during an argument about the Bull called Laudabiliter. Finally, at a late hour, the party broke up after a feeling rendering of Auld Lang Syne. King Pellinore was sick, and the new Queen Pellinore put him to bed, explaining that he was over-excited.
Far away in North Humberland, Merlyn jumped out of bed. They had been out at dawn and sunset to watch the geese, and he had gone to his rest very tired. But suddenly he had remembered it in his sleep—the simplest thing! It was Arthur's mother's name which he had forgotten to mention in the confusion! There he had been, chattering away about Uther Pendragon and Round Tables and battles and Guenever and sword sheaths and things past and things to come—but he had forgotten the most important thing of all.
Arthur's mother was Igraine—that very Igraine who had been captured at Tintagil, the one that the Orkney children had been talking about in the Round Tower at the beginning of this book. Arthur had been begotten on the night when Uther Pendragon burst into her castle. Since Uther naturally could not marry her until she was out of mourning for the earl, the boy had been born too soon. That was why Arthur had been sent away to be brought up by Sir Ector. Not a soul had known where he was sent, except for Merlyn and Uther —and now Uther was dead. Even Igraine had not known. Merlyn stood swaying in his bare feet on the cold floor. If only he had spun himself to Carlion at once, before it was too late! But the old man was tired and muddled with his backsight, and dreams were in his noddle. He thought it would do in the morning—could not remember whether he was in the future or the past. He put the veined hand blindly toward the bedclothes, the image of Nimue already weaving itself in his sleepy brain. He tumbled in. The beard went under the covering, the nose into the pillow. Merlyn was asleep.
King Arthur sat back in the Great Hall, which was empty. A few of his favourite knights had been taking their nightcap with him, but now he was alone. It bad been a tiring day, although he had reached the full strength of his youth, and he leaned his head against the back of his throne, thinking about the events of the marriage. He had been fighting, on and off, ever since he had come to be King by drawing the sword out of the stone, and the anxiety of these campaigns had grown him into a splendid fellow. At last it looked as if he might have peace. He thought of the joys of peace, of being married himself one day as Merlyn had prophesied, and of having a home. He thought of Nimue at this, and then of any beautiful woman. He fell asleep.
He woke with a start, to find a black-haired, blue-eyed beauty in front of him, who was wearing a crown. The four wild children from the north were standing behind their mother, shy and defiant, and she was folding up a tape.
Queen Morgause of the Out Isles had stayed away from the feasting on purpose—had chosen her moment with the utmost care. This was the first time that the young King had seen her, and she knew that she was looking her best
It is impossible to explain how these things happen. Perhaps the Spancel had a strength in it Perhaps it was because she was twice his age, so that she had twice the power of his weapons. Perhaps it was because Arthur was always a simple fellow, who took people at their own valuation easily. Perhaps it was because he had never known a mother of his own, so that the role of mother love, as she stood with her children behind her, took him between wind and water.
Whatever the explanation may have been, the Queen of Air and Darkness had a baby by her half-brother nine months later. It was called Mordred. And this, as Merlyn drew it later, was what the magician called its pied-de-grue:
Even if you have to read it twice, like something in a history lesson, this pedigree is a vital part of the tragedy of King Arthur. It is why Sir Thomas Malory called his very long book the Death of Arthur. Although nine tenths of the story seems to be about knights jousting and quests for the holy grail and things of that sort, the narrative is a whole, and it deals with the reasons why the young man came to grief at the end. It is the tragedy, the Aristotelian and comprehensive tragedy, of sin coming home to roost. That is why we have to take note of the parentage of Arthur's son Mordred, and to remember, when the time comes, that the king had slept with his own sister. He did not know he was doing so, and perhaps it may have been due to her, but it seems, in tragedy, that innocence is not enough.