The Once and Future Kingby T. H. White
T.H. White's masterful retelling of the saga of King Arthur is a fantasy classic as legendary as Excalibur and Camelot, and a poignant story of adventure, romance, and magic that has enchanted readers for generations. See more details below
T.H. White's masterful retelling of the saga of King Arthur is a fantasy classic as legendary as Excalibur and Camelot, and a poignant story of adventure, romance, and magic that has enchanted readers for generations.
“I have read [this] book more times than any other in my library.” —Lev Grossman, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Magicians Trilogy
“Intense and rich . . . Full of insights, scenes, and flourishes that are really quite astonishing.” —Jane Smiley, The Guardian
Read an Excerpt
Other Books by T. H. White
THE BOOK OF MERLYN
ENGLAND HAVE MY BONES
LETTERS TO A FRIEND
THE MAHARAJAH AND OTHER STORIES
MISTRESS MASHAM’S REPOSE
• INCIPIT LIBER PRIMUS •
SWORD IN THE
She is not any common earth
Water or wood or air,
But Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye
Where you and I will fare.
ON MONDAYS, WEDNESDAYS and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology. The governess was always getting muddled with her astrolabe, and when she got specially muddled she would take it out of the Wart by rapping his knuckles. She did not rap Kay’s knuckles, because when Kay grew older he would be Sir Kay, the master of the estate. The Wart was called the Wart because it more or less rhymed with Art, which was short for his real name. Kay had given him the nickname. Kay was not called anything but Kay, as he was too dignified to have a nickname and would have flown into a passion if anybody had tried to give him one. The governess had red hair and some mysterious wound from which she derived a lot of prestige by showing it to all the women of the castle, behind closed doors. It was believed to be where she sat down, and to have been caused by sitting on some armour at a picnic by mistake. Eventually she offered to show it to Sir Ector, who was Kay’s father, had hysterics and was sent away. They found out afterwards that she had been in a lunatic hospital for three years.
In the afternoons the programme was: Mondays and Fridays, tilting and horsemanship; Tuesdays, hawking; Wednesdays, fencing; Thursdays, archery; Saturdays, the theory of chivalry, with the proper measures to be blown on all occasions, terminology of the chase and hunting etiquette. If you did the wrong thing at the mort or the undoing, for instance, you were bent over the body of the dead beast and smacked with the flat side of a sword. This was called being bladed. It was horseplay, a sort of joke like being shaved when crossing the line. Kay was not bladed, although he often went wrong.
When they had got rid of the governess, Sir Ector said, “After all, damn it all, we can’t have the boys runnin’ about all day like hooligans—after all, damn it all? Ought to be havin’ a first-rate eddication, at their age. When I was their age I was doin’ all this Latin and stuff at five o’clock every mornin’. Happiest time of me life. Pass the port.”
Sir Grummore Grummursum, who was staying the night because he had been benighted out questin’ after a specially long run, said that when he was their age he was swished every mornin’ because he would go hawkin’ instead of learnin’. He attributed to this weakness the fact that he could never get beyond the Future Simple of Utor. It was a third of the way down the left-hand leaf, he said. He thought it was leaf ninety-seven. He passed the port.
Sir Ector said, “Had a good quest today?”
Sir Grummore said, “Oh, not so bad. Rattlin’ good day, in fact. Found a chap called Sir Bruce Saunce Pité choppin’ off a maiden’s head in Weedon Bushes, ran him to Mixbury Plantation in the Bicester, where he doubled back, and lost him in Wicken Wood. Must have been a good twenty-five miles as he ran.”
“A straight-necked ’un,” said Sir Ector.
“But about these boys and all this Latin and that,” added the old gentleman. “Amo, amas, you know, and runnin’ about like hooligans: what would you advise?”
“Ah,” said Sir Grummore, laying his finger by his nose and winking at the bottle, “that takes a deal of thinkin’ about, if you don’t mind my sayin’ so.”
“Don’t mind at all,” said Sir Ector. “Very kind of you to say anythin’. Much obliged, I’m sure. Help yourself to port.”
“Good port this.”
“Get it from a friend of mine.”
“But about these boys,” said Sir Grummore. “How many of them are there, do you know?”
“Two,” said Sir Ector, “counting them both, that is.”
“Couldn’t send them to Eton, I suppose?” inquired Sir Grummore cautiously. “Long way and all that, we know.”
It was not really Eton that he mentioned, for the College of Blessed Mary was not founded until 1440, but it was a place of the same sort. Also they were drinking Metheglyn, not port, but by mentioning the modern wine it is easier to give you the feel.
“Isn’t so much the distance,” said Sir Ector, “but that giant What’s-’is-name is in the way. Have to pass through his country, you understand.”
“What is his name?”
“Can’t recollect it at the moment, not for the life of me. Fellow that lives by the Burbly Water.”
“Galapas,” said Sir Grummore.
“That’s the very chap.”
“The only other thing,” said Sir Grummore, “is to have a tutor.”
“You mean a fellow who teaches you.”
“That’s it,” said Sir Grummore. “A tutor, you know, a fellow who teaches you.”
“Have some more port,” said Sir Ector. “You need it after all this questin’.”
“Splendid day,” said Sir Grummore. “Only they never seem to kill nowadays. Run twenty-five miles and then mark to ground or lose him altogether. The worst is when you start a fresh quest.”
“We kill all our giants cubbin’,” said Sir Ector. “After that they give you a fine run, but get away.”
“Run out of scent,” said Sir Grummore, “I dare say. It’s always the same with these big giants in a big country. They run out of scent.”
“But even if you was to have a tutor,” said Sir Ector, “I don’t see how you would get him.”
“Advertise,” said Sir Grummore.
“I have advertised,” said Sir Ector. “It was cried by the Humberland Newsman and Cardoile Advertiser.”
“The only other way,” said Sir Grummore, “is to start a quest.”
“You mean a quest for a tutor,” explained Sir Ector.
“Hic, Haec, Hoc,” said Sir Ector. “Have some more of this drink, whatever it calls itself.”
“Hunc,” said Sir Grummore.
So it was decided. When Grummore Grummursum had gone home next day, Sir Ector tied a knot in his handkerchief to remember to start a quest for a tutor as soon as he had time to do so, and, as he was not sure how to set about it, he told the boys what Sir Grummore had suggested and warned them not to be hooligans meanwhile. Then they went hay-making.
It was July, and every able-bodied man and woman on the estate worked during that month in the field, under Sir Ector’s direction. In any case the boys would have been excused from being eddicated just then.
Sir Ector’s castle stood in an enormous clearing in a still more enormous forest. It had a courtyard and a moat with pike in it. The moat was crossed by a fortified stone bridge which ended half-way across it. The other half was covered by a wooden drawbridge which was wound up every night. As soon as you had crossed the drawbridge you were at the top of the village street—it had only one street—and this extended for about half a mile, with thatched houses of wattle and daub on either side of it. The street divided the clearing into two huge fields, that on the left being cultivated in hundreds of long narrow strips, while that on the right ran down to a river and was used as pasture. Half of the right-hand field was fenced off for hay.
It was July, and real July weather, such as they had in Old England. Everybody went bright brown, like Red Indians, with startling teeth and flashing eyes. The dogs moved about with their tongues hanging out, or lay panting in bits of shade, while the farm horses sweated through their coats and flicked their tails and tried to kick the horse-flies off their bellies with their great hind hoofs. In the pasture field the cows were on the gad, and could be seen galloping about with their tails in the air, which made Sir Ector angry.
Sir Ector stood on the top of a rick, whence he could see what everybody was doing, and shouted commands all over the two-hundred-acre field, and grew purple in the face. The best mowers mowed away in a line where the grass was still uncut, their scythes roaring in the strong sunlight. The women raked the dry hay together in long strips with wooden rakes, and the two boys with pitchforks followed up on either side of the strip, turning the hay inwards so that it lay well for picking up. Then the great carts followed, rumbling with their spiked wooden wheels, drawn by horses or slow white oxen. One man stood on top of the cart to receive the hay and direct operations, while one man walked on either side picking up what the boys had prepared and throwing it to him with a fork. The cart was led down the lane between two lines of hay, and was loaded in strict rotation from the front poles to the back, the man on top calling out in a stern voice where he wanted each fork to be pitched. The loaders grumbled at the boys for not having laid the hay properly and threatened to tan them when they caught them, if they got left behind.
When the wagon was loaded, it was drawn to Sir Ector’s rick and pitched to him. It came up easily because it had been loaded systematically—not like modern hay—and Sir Ector scrambled about on top, getting in the way of his assistants, who did the real work, and stamping and perspiring and scratching about with his fork and trying to make the rick grow straight and shouting that it would all fall down as soon as the west winds came.
The Wart loved hay-making, and was good at it. Kay, who was two years older, generally stood on the edge of the bundle which he was trying to pick up, with the result that he worked twice as hard as the Wart for only half the result. But he hated to be beaten at anything, and used to fight away with the wretched hay—which he loathed like poison—until he was quite sick.
The day after Sir Grummore’s visit was sweltering for the men who toiled from milking to milking and then again till sunset in their battle with the sultry element. For the hay was an element to them, like sea or air, in which they bathed and plunged themselves and which they even breathed in. The seeds and small scraps stuck in their hair, their mouths, their nostrils, and worked, tickling, inside their clothes. They did not wear many clothes, and the shadows between their sliding muscles were blue on the nut-brown skins. Those who feared thunder had felt ill that morning.
In the afternoon the storm broke. Sir Ector kept them at it till the great flashes were right overhead, and then, with the sky as dark as night, the rain came hurling against them so that they were drenched at once and could not see a hundred yards. The boys lay crouched under the wagons, wrapped in hay to keep their wet bodies warm against the now cold wind, and all joked with one another while heaven fell. Kay was shivering, though not with cold, but he joked like the others because he would not show he was afraid. At the last and greatest thunderbolt every man startled involuntarily, and each saw the other startle, until they laughed away their shame.
But that was the end of the hay-making and the beginning of play. The boys were sent home to change their clothes. The old dame who had been their nurse fetched dry jerkins out of a press, and scolded them for catching their deaths, and denounced Sir Ector for keeping on so long. Then they slipped their heads into the laundered shirts, and ran out to the refreshed and sparkling court.
“I vote we take Cully and see if we can get some rabbits in the chase,” cried the Wart.
“The rabbits will not be out in this wet,” said Kay sarcastically, delighted to have caught him over natural history.
“Oh, come on. It will soon be dry.”
“I must carry Cully, then.”
Kay insisted on carrying the goshawk and flying her, when they went hawking together. This he had a right to do, not only because he was older than the Wart but also because he was Sir Ector’s proper son. The Wart was not a proper son. He did not understand this, but it made him feel unhappy, because Kay seemed to regard it as making him inferior in some way. Also it was different not having a father and mother, and Kay had taught him that being different was wrong. Nobody talked to him about it, but he thought about it when he was alone, and was distressed. He did not like people to bring it up. Since the other boy always did bring it up when a question of precedence arose, he had got into the habit of giving in at once before it could be mentioned. Besides, he admired Kay and was a born follower. He was a hero-worshipper.
“Come on, then,” cried the Wart, and they scampered off toward the Mews, turning a few cartwheels on the way.
The Mews was one of the most important parts of the castle, next to the stables and the kennels. It was opposite to the solar, and faced south. The outside windows had to be small, for reasons of fortification, but the windows which looked inward to the courtyard were big and sunny. The windows had close vertical slats nailed down them, but no horizontal ones. There was no glass, but to keep the hawks from draughts there was horn in the small windows. At one end of the Mews there was a little fireplace and a kind of snuggery, like the place in a saddle-room where the grooms sit to clean their tack on wet nights after foxhunting. Here there were a couple of stools, a cauldron, a bench with all sorts of small knives and surgical instruments, and some shelves with pots on them. The pots were labelled Cardamum, Ginger, Barley Sugar, Wrangle, For a Snurt, For the Craye, Vertigo, etc. There were leather skins hanging up, which had been snipped about as pieces were cut out of them for jesses, hoods or leashes. On a neat row of nails there were Indian bells and swivels and silver varvels, each with Ector cut on. A special shelf, and the most beautiful of all, held the hoods: very old cracked rufter hoods which had been made for birds before Kay was born, tiny hoods for the merlins, small hoods for tiercels, splendid new hoods which had been knocked up to pass away the long winter evenings. All the hoods, except the rufters, were made in Sir Ector’s colours: white leather with red baize at the sides and a bunch of blue-grey plumes on top, made out of the hackle feathers of herons. On the bench there was a jumble of oddments such as are to be found in every workshop, bits of cord, wire, metal, tools, some bread and cheese which the mice had been at, a leather bottle, some frayed gauntlets for the left hand, nails, bits of sacking, a couple of lures and some rough tallies scratched on the wood. These read: Conays I I I I I I I I, Harn I I I, etc. They were not spelled very well.
Right down the length of the room, with the afternoon sun shining full on them, there ran the screen perches to which the birds were tied. There were two little merlins which had only just been taking up from hacking, an old peregrine who was not much use in this wooded country but who was kept for appearances, a kestrel on which the boys had learned the rudiments of falconry, a spar-hawk which Sir Ector was kind enough to keep for the parish priest, and, caged off in a special apartment of his own at the far end, there was the tiercel goshawk Cully.
The Mews was neatly kept, with sawdust on the floor to absorb the mutes, and the castings taken up every day. Sir Ector visited the place each morning at seven o’clock and the two austringers stood at attention outside the door. If they had forgotten to brush their hair he confined them to barracks. They took no notice.
Kay put on one of the left-hand gauntlets and called Cully from the perch—but Cully, with all his feathers close-set and malevolent, glared at him with a mad marigold eye and refused to come. So Kay took him up.
“Do you think we ought to fly him?” asked the Wart doubtfully. “Deep in the moult like this?”
“Of course we can fly him, you ninny,” said Kay. “He only wants to be carried a bit, that’s all.”
So they went out across the hay-field, noting how the carefully raked hay was now sodden again and losing its goodness, into the chase where the trees began to grow, far apart as yet and parklike, but gradually crowding into the forest shade. The conies had hundreds of buries under these trees, so close together that the problem was not to find a rabbit, but to find a rabbit far enough away from its hole.
“Hob says that we must not fly Cully till he has roused at least twice,” said the Wart.
“Hob does not know anything about it. Nobody can tell whether a hawk is fit to fly except the man who is carrying it.
“Hob is only a villein anyway,” added Kay, and began to undo the leash and swivel from the jesses.
When he felt the trappings being taken off him, so that he was in hunting order, Cully did make some movements as if to rouse. He raised his crest, his shoulder coverts and the soft feathers of his thighs. But at the last moment he thought better or worse of it and subsided without the rattle. This movement of the hawk’s made the Wart itch to carry him. He yearned to take him away from Kay and set him to rights himself. He felt certain that he could get Cully into a good temper by scratching his feet and softly teasing his breast feathers upward, if only he were allowed to do it himself, instead of having to plod along behind with the stupid lure. But he knew how annoying it must be for the elder boy to be continually subjected to advice, and so he held his peace. Just as in modern shooting, you must never offer criticism to the man in command, so in hawking it was important that no outside advice should be allowed to disturb the judgment of the austringer.
“So-ho!” cried Kay, throwing his arm upward to give the hawk a better take-off, and a rabbit was scooting across the close-nibbled turf in front of them, and Cully was in the air. The movement had surprised the Wart, the rabbit and the hawk, all three, and all three hung a moment in surprise. Then the great wings of the aerial assassin began to row the air, but reluctant and undecided. The rabbit vanished in a hidden hole. Up went the hawk, swooping like a child flung high in a swing, until the wings folded and he was sitting in a tree. Cully looked down at his masters, opened his beak in an angry pant of failure, and remained motionless. The two hearts stood still.
A GOOD WHILE LATER, when they had been whistling and luring and following the disturbed and sulky hawk from tree to tree, Kay lost his temper.
“Let him go, then,” he said. “He is no use anyway.”
“Oh, we could not leave him,” cried the Wart. “What would Hob say?”
“It is my hawk, not Hob’s,” exclaimed Kay furiously. “What does it matter what Hob says? He is a servant.”
“But Hob made Cully. It is all right for us to lose him, because we did not have to sit up with him three nights and carry him all day and all that. But we can’t lose Hob’s hawk. It would be beastly.”
“Serve him right, then. He is a fool and it is a rotten hawk. Who wants a rotten stupid hawk? You had better stay yourself, if you are so keen on it. I am going home.”
“I will stay,” said the Wart sadly, “if you will send Hob when you get there.”
Kay began walking off in the wrong direction, raging in his heart because he knew that he had flown the bird when he was not properly in yarak, and the Wart had to shout after him the right way. Then the latter sat down under the tree and looked up at Cully like a cat watching a sparrow, with his heart beating fast.
It was well enough for Kay, who was not really keen on hawking except in so far as it was the proper occupation for a boy in his station of life, but the Wart had some of the falconer’s feelings and knew that a lost hawk was the greatest possible calamity. He knew that Hob had worked on Cully for fourteen hours a day to teach him his trade, and that his work had been like Jacob’s struggle with the angel. When Cully was lost a part of Hob would be lost too. The Wart did not dare to face the look of reproach which would be in the falconer’s eye, after all that he had tried to teach them.
What was he to do? He had better sit still, leaving the lure on the ground, so that Cully could settle down and come in his own time. But Cully had no intention of doing this. He had been given a generous gorge the night before, and he was not hungry. The hot day had put him in a bad temper. The waving and whistling of the boys below, and their pursuit of him from tree to tree, had disturbed his never powerful brains. Now he did not quite know what he wanted to do, but it was not what anybody else wanted. He thought perhaps it would be nice to kill something, from spite.
A long time after that, the Wart was on the verge of the true forest, and Cully was inside it. In a series of infuriating removes they had come nearer and nearer, till they were further from the castle than the boy had ever been, and now they had reached it quite.
Wart would not have been frightened of an English forest nowadays, but the great jungle of Old England was a different matter. It was not only that there were wild boars in it, whose sounders would at this season be furiously rooting about, nor that one of the surviving wolves might be slinking behind any tree, with pale eyes and slavering chops. The mad and wicked animals were not the only inhabitants of the crowded gloom. When men themselves became wicked they took refuge there, outlaws cunning and bloody as the gore-crow, and as persecuted. The Wart thought particularly of a man named Wat, whose name the cottagers used to frighten their children with. He had once lived in Sir Ector’s village and the Wart could remember him. He squinted, had no nose, and was weak in his wits. The children threw stones at him. One day he turned on the children and caught one and made a snarly noise and bit off his nose too. Then he ran into the forest. They threw stones at the child with no nose, now, but Wat was supposed to be in the forest still, running on all fours and dressed in skins.
There were magicians in the forest also in those legendary days, as well as strange animals not known to modern works of natural history. There were regular bands of Saxon outlaws—not like Wat—who lived together and wore green and shot with arrows which never missed. There were even a few dragons, though these were small ones, which lived under stones and could hiss like a kettle.
Added to this, there was the fact that it was getting dark. The forest was trackless and nobody in the village knew what was on the other side. The evening hush had fallen, and the high trees stood looking at the Wart without a sound.
He felt that it would be safer to go home, while he still knew where he was—but he had a stout heart, and did not want to give in. He understood that once Cully had slept in freedom for a whole night he would be wild again and irreclaimable. Cully was a passager. But if the poor Wart could only mark him to roost, and if Hob would only arrive then with a dark lantern, they might still take him that night by climbing the tree, while he was sleepy and muddled with the light. The boy could see more or less where the hawk had perched, about a hundred yards within the thick trees, because the home-going rooks of evening were mobbing that place.
He made a mark on one of the trees outside the forest, hoping that it might help him to find his way back, and then began to fight his way into the undergrowth as best he might. He heard by the rooks that Cully had immediately moved further off.
The night fell still as the small boy struggled with the brambles. But he went on doggedly, listening with all his ears, and Cully’s evasions became sleepier and shorter until at last, before the utter darkness fell, he could see the hunched shoulders in a tree above him against the sky. Wart sat down under the tree, so as not to disturb the bird any further as it went to sleep, and Cully, standing on one leg, ignored his existence.
“Perhaps,” said the Wart to himself, “even if Hob does not come, and I do not see how he can very well follow me in this trackless woodland now, I shall be able to climb up by myself at about midnight, and bring Cully down. He might stay there at about midnight because he ought to be asleep by then. I could speak to him softly by name, so that he thought it was just the usual person coming to take him up while hooded. I shall have to climb very quietly. Then, if I do get him, I shall have to find my way home, and the drawbridge will be up. But perhaps somebody will wait for me, for Kay will have told them I am out. I wonder which way it was? I wish Kay had not gone.”
He snuggled down between the roots of the tree, trying to find a comfortable place where the hard wood did not stick into his shoulder-blades.
“I think the way was behind that big spruce with the spike top. I ought to try to remember which side of me the sun is setting, so that when it rises I may keep it on the same side going home. Did something move under that spruce tree, I wonder? Oh, I wish I may not meet that old wild Wat and have my nose bitten off! How aggravating Cully looks, standing there on one leg as if there was nothing the matter.”
At this there was a quick whirr and a smack and the Wart found an arrow sticking in the tree between the fingers of his right hand. He snatched his hand away, thinking he had been stung by something, before he noticed it was an arrow. Then everything went slow. He had time to notice quite carefully what sort of an arrow it was, and how it had driven three inches into the solid wood. It was a black arrow with yellow bands round it, like a wasp, and its cock feather was yellow. The two others were black. They were dyed goose feathers.
The Wart found that, although he was frightened of the danger of the forest before it happened, once he was in it he was not frightened any more. He got up quickly—but it seemed to him slowly—and went behind the other side of the tree. As he did this, another arrow came whirr and frump, but this one buried all except its feathers in the grass, and stayed still, as if it had never moved.
On the other side of the tree he found a waste of bracken, six foot high. This was splendid cover, but it betrayed his whereabouts by rustling. He heard another arrow hiss through the fronds, and what seemed to be a man’s voice cursing, but it was not very near. Then he heard the man, or whatever it was, running about in the bracken. It was reluctant to fire any more arrows because they were valuable things and would certainly get lost in the undergrowth. Wart went like a snake, like a coney, like a silent owl. He was small and the creature had no chance against him at this game. In five minutes he was safe.
The assassin searched for his arrows and went away grumbling—but the Wart realized that, even if he was safe from the archer, he had lost his way and his hawk. He had not the faintest idea where he was. He lay down for half an hour, pressed under the fallen tree where he had hidden, to give time for the thing to go right away and for his own heart to cease thundering. It had begun beating like this as soon as he knew that he had got away.
“Oh,” thought he, “now I am truly lost, and now there is almost no alternative except to have my nose bitten off, or to be pierced right through with one of those waspy arrows, or to be eaten by a hissing dragon or a wolf or a wild boar or a magician—if magicians do eat boys, which I expect they do. Now I may well wish that I had been good, and not angered the governess when she got muddled with her astrolabe, and had loved my dear guardian Sir Ector as much as he deserved.”
At these melancholy thoughts, and especially at the recollection of kind Sir Ector with his pitchfork and his red nose, the poor Wart’s eyes became full of tears and he lay most desolate beneath the tree.
The sun finished the last rays of its lingering good-bye, and the moon rose in awful majesty over the silver tree-tops, before he dared to stand. Then he got up, and dusted the twigs out of his jerkin, and wandered off forlorn, taking the easiest way and trusting himself to God. He had been walking like this for about half an hour, and sometimes feeling more cheerful—because it really was very cool and lovely in the summer forest by moonlight—when he came upon the most beautiful thing that he had seen in his short life so far.
There was a clearing in the forest, a wide sward of moonlit grass, and the white rays shone full upon the tree trunks on the opposite side. These trees were beeches, whose trunks are always more beautiful in a pearly light, and among the beeches there was the smallest movement and a silvery clink. Before the clink there were just the beeches, but immediately afterward there was a knight in full armour, standing still and silent and unearthly, among the majestic trunks. He was mounted on an enormous white horse that stood as rapt as its master, and he carried in his right hand, with its butt resting on the stirrup, a high, smooth jousting lance, which stood up among the tree stumps, higher and higher, till it was outlined against the velvet sky. All was moonlit, all silver, too beautiful to describe.
The Wart did not know what to do. He did not know whether it would be safe to go up to this knight, for there were so many terrible things in the forest that even the knight might be a ghost. Most ghostly he looked, too, as he hoved meditating on the confines of the gloom. Eventually the boy made up his mind that even if it were a ghost, it would be the ghost of a knight, and knights were bound by their vows to help people in distress.
“Excuse me,” he said, when he was right under the mysterious figure, “but can you tell me the way back to Sir Ector’s castle?”
At this the ghost jumped, so that it nearly fell off its horse, and gave out a muffled baaa through its visor, like a sheep.
“Excuse me,” began the Wart again, and stopped, terrified, in the middle of his speech.
For the ghost lifted up its visor, revealing two enormous eyes frosted like ice; exclaimed in an anxious voice, “What, what?”; took off its eyes—which turned out to be horn-rimmed spectacles, fogged by being inside the helmet; tried to wipe them on the horse’s mane—which only made them worse; lifted both hands above its head and tried to wipe them on its plume; dropped its lance; dropped the spectacles; got off the horse to search for them—the visor shutting in the process; lifted its visor; bent down for the spectacles; stood up again as the visor shut once more, and exclaimed in a plaintive voice, “Oh, dear!”
The Wart found the spectacles, wiped them, and gave them to the ghost, who immediately put them on (the visor shut at once) and began scrambling back on its horse for dear life. When it was there it held out its hand for the lance, which the Wart handed up, and, feeling all secure, opened the visor with its left hand, and held it open. It peered at the boy with one hand up—like a lost mariner searching for land—and exclaimed, “Ah-hah! Whom have we here, what?”
“Please,” said the Wart, “I am a boy whose guardian is Sir Ector.”
“Charming fellah,” said the Knight. “Never met him in me life.”
“Can you tell me the way back to his castle?”
“Faintest idea. Stranger in these parts meself.”
“I am lost,” said the Wart.
“Funny thing that. Now I have been lost for seventeen years.
“Name of King Pellinore,” continued the Knight. “May have heard of me, what?” The visor shut with a pop, like an echo to the What, but was opened again immediately. “Seventeen years ago, come Michaelmas, and been after the Questing Beast ever since. Boring, very.”
“I should think it would be,” said the Wart, who had never heard of King Pellinore, nor of the Questing Beast, but he felt that this was the safest thing to say in the circumstances.
“It is the Burden of the Pellinores,” said the King proudly. “Only a Pellinore can catch it—that is, of course, or his next of kin. Train all the Pellinores with that idea in mind. Limited eddication, rather. Fewmets, and all that.”
“I know what fewmets are,” said the boy with interest. “They are the droppings of the beast pursued. The harborer keeps them in his horn, to show to his master, and can tell by them whether it is a warrantable beast or otherwise, and what state it is in.”
“Intelligent child,” remarked the King. “Very. Now I carry fewmets about with me practically all the time.
“Insanitary habit,” he added, beginning to look dejected, “and quite pointless. Only one Questing Beast, you know, so there can’t be any question whether she is warrantable or not.”
Here his visor began to droop so much that the Wart decided he had better forget his own troubles and try to cheer his companion, by asking questions on the one subject about which he seemed qualified to speak. Even talking to a lost royalty was better than being alone in the wood.
“What does the Questing Beast look like?”
“Ah, we call it the Beast Glatisant, you know,” replied the monarch, assuming a learned air and beginning to speak quite volubly. “Now the Beast Glatisant, or, as we say in English, the Questing Beast—you may call it either,” he added graciously—“this Beast has the head of a serpent, ah, and the body of a libbard, the haunches of a lion, and he is footed like a hart. Wherever this beast goes he makes a noise in his belly as it had been the noise of thirty couple of hounds questing.
“Except when he is drinking, of course,” added the King.
“It must be a dreadful kind of monster,” said the Wart, looking about him anxiously.
“A dreadful monster,” repeated the King. “It is the Beast Glatisant.”
“And how do you follow it?”
This seemed to be the wrong question, for Pellinore began to look even more depressed.
“I have a brachet,” he said sadly. “There she is, over there.”
The Wart looked in the direction which had been indicated with a despondent thumb, and saw a lot of rope wound round a tree. The other end of the rope was tied to King Pellinore’s saddle.
“I do not see her very well.”
“Wound herself round the other side, I dare say. She always goes the opposite way from me.”
The Wart went over to the tree and found a large white dog scratching herself for fleas. As soon as she saw the Wart, she began wagging her whole body, grinning vacuously, and panting in her efforts to lick his face, in spite of the cord. She was too tangled up to move.
“It’s quite a good brachet,” said King Pellinore, “only it pants so, and gets wound round things, and goes the opposite way. What with that and the visor, what, I sometimes don’t know which way to turn.”
“Why don’t you let her loose?” asked the Wart. “She would follow the Beast just as well like that.”
“She goes right away then, you see, and I don’t see her sometimes for a week.
“Gets a bit lonely without her,” added the King, “following the Beast about, and never knowing where one is. Makes a bit of company, you know.”
“She seems to have a friendly nature.”
“Too friendly. Sometimes I doubt whether she is really chasing the Beast at all.”
“What does she do when she sees it?”
“Oh, well,” said the Wart. “I dare say she will get to be interested in it after a time.”
“It is eight months, anyway, since we saw the Beast at all.”
The poor fellow’s voice had grown sadder and sadder since the beginning of the conversation, and now he definitely began to snuffle. “It is the curse of the Pellinores,” he exclaimed. “Always mollocking about after that beastly Beast. What on earth use is she, anyway? First you have to stop to unwind the brachet, then your visor falls down, then you can’t see through your spectacles. Nowhere to sleep, never know where you are. Rheumatism in the winter, sunstroke in the summer. All this horrid armour takes hours to put on. When it is on it’s either frying or freezing, and it gets rusty. You have to sit up all night polishing the stuff. Oh, how I do wish I had a nice house of my own to live in, a house with beds in it and real pillows and sheets. If I was rich that’s what I would buy. A nice bed with a nice pillow and a nice sheet that you could lie in, and then I would put this beastly horse in a meadow and tell that beastly brachet to run away and play, and throw all this beastly armour out of the window, and let the beastly Beast go and chase himself—that I would.”
“If you could show me the way home,” said the Wart craftily, “I am sure Sir Ector would put you up in a bed for the night.”
“Do you really mean it?” cried the King. “In a bed?”
“A feather bed.”
King Pellinore’s eyes grew round as saucers. “A feather bed!” he repeated slowly. “Would it have pillows?”
“Down pillows!” whispered the King, holding his breath. And then, letting it out in one rush, “What a lovely house your gentleman must have!”
“I do not think it is more than two hours away,” said the Wart, following up his advantage.
“And did this gentleman really send you out to invite me in?” (He had forgotten about the Wart being lost.) “How nice of him, how very nice of him, I do think, what?”
“He will be pleased to see us,” said the Wart truthfully.
“Oh, how nice of him,” exclaimed the King again, beginning to bustle about with his various trappings. “And what a lovely gentleman he must be, to have a feather bed!
“I suppose I should have to share it with somebody?” he added doubtfully.
“You could have one of your own.”
“A feather bed of one’s very own, with sheets and a pillow—perhaps even two pillows, or a pillow and a bolster—and no need to get up in time for breakfast! Does your guardian get up in time for breakfast?”
“Never,” said the Wart.
“Fleas in the bed?”
“Well!” said King Pellinore. “It does sound too nice for words, I must say. A feather bed and none of those fewmets for ever so long. How long did you say it would take us to get there?”
“Two hours,” said the Wart—but he had to shout the second of these words, for the sounds were drowned in his mouth by a noise which had that moment arisen close beside them.
“What was that?” exclaimed the Wart.
“Hark!” cried the King.
“It is the Beast!”
And immediately the loving huntsman had forgotten everything else, but was busied about his task. He wiped his spectacles upon the seat of his trousers, the only accessible piece of cloth about him, while the belling and bloody cry arose all round. He balanced them on the end of his long nose, just before the visor automatically clapped to. He clutched his jousting lance in his right hand, and galloped off in the direction of the noise. He was brought up short by the rope which was wound round the tree—the vacuous brachet meanwhile giving a melancholy yelp—and fell off his horse with a tremendous clang. In a second he was up again—the Wart was convinced that the spectacles must be broken—and hopping round the white horse with one foot in the stirrup. The girths stood the test and he was in the saddle somehow, with his jousting lance between his legs, and then he was galloping round and round the tree, in the opposite direction to the one in which the brachet had wound herself up. He went round three times too often, the brachet meanwhile running and yelping the other way, and then, after four or five back casts, they were both free of the obstruction. “Yoicks, what!” cried King Pellinore, waving his lance in the air, and swaying excitedly in the saddle. Then he disappeared into the gloom of the forest, with the unfortunate hound trailing behind him at the other end of the cord.
THE BOY SLEPT well in the woodland nest where he had laid himself down, in that kind of thin but refreshing sleep which people have when they begin to lie out of doors. At first he only dipped below the surface of sleep, and skimmed along like a salmon in shallow water, so close to the surface that he fancied himself in air. He thought himself awake when he was already asleep. He saw the stars above his face, whirling on their silent and sleepless axis, and the leaves of the trees rustling against them, and he heard small changes in the grass. These little noises of footsteps and soft-fringed wing-beats and stealthy bellies drawn over the grass blades or rattling against the bracken at first frightened or interested him, so that he moved to see what they were (but never saw), then soothed him, so that he no longer cared to see what they were but trusted them to be themselves, and finally left him altogether as he swam down deeper and deeper, nuzzling into the scented turf, into the warm ground, into the unending waters under the earth.
It had been difficult to go to sleep in the bright summer moonlight, but once he was there it was not difficult to stay. The sun came early, causing him to turn over in protest, but in going to sleep he had learned to vanquish light, and now the light could not rewake him. It was nine o’clock, five hours after daylight, before he rolled over, opened his eyes, and was awake at once. He was hungry.
The Wart had heard about people who lived on berries, but this did not seem practical at the moment, because it was July, and there were none. He found two wild strawberries and ate them greedily. They tasted nicer than anything, so that he wished there were more. Then he wished it was April, so that he could find some birds’ eggs and eat those, or that he had not lost his goshawk Cully, so that the hawk could catch him a rabbit which he would cook by rubbing two sticks together like the base Indian. But he had lost Cully, or he would not have lost himself, and probably the sticks would not have lighted in any case. He decided that he could not have gone more than three or four miles from home, and that the best thing he could do would be to sit still and listen. Then he might hear the noise of the haymakers, if he were lucky with the wind, and he could hearken his way to the castle by that.
What he did hear was a faint clanking noise, which made him think that King Pellinore must be after the Questing Beast again, close by. Only the noise was so regular and single in intention that it made him think of King Pellinore doing some special action, with great patience and concentration—trying to scratch his back without taking off his armour, for instance. He went toward the noise.
There was a clearing in the forest, and in this clearing there was a snug cottage built of stone. It was a cottage, although the Wart could not notice this at the time, which was divided into two bits. The main bit was the hall or every-purpose room, which was high because it extended from floor to roof, and this room had a fire on the floor whose smoke came out eventually from a hole in the thatch of the roof. The other half of the cottage was divided into two rooms by a horizontal floor which made the top half into a bedroom and study, while the bottom half served for a larder, storeroom, stable and barn. A white donkey lived in this downstairs room, and a ladder led to the one upstairs.
There was a well in front of the cottage, and the metallic noise which the Wart had heard was caused by a very old gentleman who was drawing water out of it by means of a handle and chain.
Clank, clank, clank, went the chain, until the bucket hit the lip of the well, and “Drat the whole thing!” said the old gentleman. “You would think that after all these years of study you could do better for yourself than a by-our-lady well with a by-our-lady bucket, whatever the by-our-lady cost.
“By this and by that,” added the old gentleman, heaving his bucket out of the well with a malevolent glance, “why can’t they get us the electric light and company’s water?”
He was dressed in a flowing gown with fur tippets which had the signs of the zodiac embroidered over it, with various cabalistic signs, such as triangles with eyes in them, queer crosses, leaves of trees, bones of birds and animals, and a planetarium whose stars shone like bits of looking-glass with the sun on them. He had a pointed hat like a dunce’s cap, or like the headgear worn by ladies of that time, except that the ladies were accustomed to have a bit of veil floating from the top of it. He also had a wand of lignum vitae, which he had laid down in the grass beside him, and a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles like those of King Pellinore. They were unusual spectacles, being without ear pieces, but shaped rather like scissors or like the antennae of the tarantula wasp.
“Excuse me, sir,” said the Wart, “but can you tell me the way to Sir Ector’s castle, if you don’t mind?”
The aged gentleman put down his bucket and looked at him.
“Your name would be the Wart.”
“Yes, sir, please, sir.”
“My name,” said the old man, “is Merlyn.”
“How do you do?”
When these formalities had been concluded, the Wart had leisure to look at him more closely. The magician was staring at him with a kind of unwinking and benevolent curiosity which made him feel that it would not be at all rude to stare back, no ruder than it would be to stare at one of his guardian’s cows who happened to be thinking about his personality as she leaned her head over a gate.
Merlyn had a long white beard and long white moustaches which hung down on either side of it. Close inspection showed that he was far from clean. It was not that he had dirty finger-nails, or anything like that, but some large bird seemed to have been nesting in his hair. The Wart was familiar with the nests of Spar-hark and Gos, the crazy conglomerations of sticks and oddments which had been taken over from squirrels or crows, and he knew how the twigs and the tree foot were splashed with white mutes, old bones, muddy feathers and castings. This was the impression which he got from Merlyn. The old man was streaked with droppings over his shoulders, among the stars and triangles of his gown, and a large spider was slowly lowering itself from the tip of his hat, as he gazed and slowly blinked at the little boy in front of him. He had a worried expression, as though he were trying to remember some name which began with Chol but which was pronounced in quite a different way, possibly Menzies or was it Dalziel? His mild blue eyes, very big and round under the tarantula spectacles, gradually filmed and clouded over as he gazed at the boy, and then he turned his head away with a resigned expression, as though it was all too much for him after all.
“Do you like peaches?”
“Very much indeed,” said the Wart, and his mouth began to water so that it was full of sweet, soft liquid.
“They are scarcely in season,” said the old man reprovingly, and he walked off in the direction of the cottage.
The Wart followed after, since this was the simplest thing to do, and offered to carry the bucket (which seemed to please Merlyn, who gave it to him) and waited while he counted the keys—while he muttered and mislaid them and dropped them in the grass. Finally, when they had got their way into the black and white home with as much trouble as if they were burgling it, he climbed up the ladder after his host and found himself in the upstairs room.
It was the most marvellous room that he had ever been in.
There was a real corkindrill hanging from the rafters, very lifelike and horrible with glass eyes and scaly tail stretched out behind it. When its master came into the room it winked one eye in salutation, although it was stuffed. There were thousands of brown books in leather bindings, some chained to the book-shelves and others propped against each other as if they had had too much to drink and did not really trust themselves. These gave out a smell of must and solid brownness which was most secure. Then there were stuffed birds, popinjays, and maggot-pies and kingfishers, and peacocks with all their feathers but two, and tiny birds like beetles, and a reputed phoenix which smelt of incense and cinnamon. It could not have been a real phoenix, because there is only one of these at a time. Over by the mantelpiece there was a fox’s mask, with GRAFTON, BUCKINGHAM TO DAVENTRY, 2 HRS 20 MINS written under it, and also a forty-pound salmon with AWE, 43 MIN., BULLDOG written under it, and a very life-like basilisk with CROWHURST OTTER HOUNDS in Roman print. There were several boars’ tusks and the claws of tigers and libbards mounted in symmetrical patterns, and a big head of Ovis Poli, six live grass snakes in a kind of aquarium, some nests of the solitary wasp nicely set up in a glass cylinder, an ordinary beehive whose inhabitants went in and out of the window unmolested, two young hedgehogs in cotton wool, a pair of badgers which immediately began to cry Yik-Yik-Yik-Yik in loud voices as soon as the magician appeared, twenty boxes which contained stick caterpillars and sixths of the puss-moth, and even an oleander that was worth sixpence—all feeding on the appropriate leaves—a guncase with all sorts of weapons which would not be invented for half a thousand years, a rod-box ditto, a chest of drawers full of salmon flies which had been tied by Merlyn himself, another chest whose drawers were labelled Mandragora, Mandrake, Old Man’s Beard, etc., a bunch of turkey feathers and goose-quills for making pens, an astrolabe, twelve pairs of boots, a dozen purse-nets, three dozen rabbit wires, twelve corkscrews, some ants’ nests between two glass plates, ink-bottles of every possible colour from red to violet, darning-needles, a gold medal for being the best scholar at Winchester, four or five recorders, a nest of field mice all alive-o, two skulls, plenty of cut glass, Venetian glass, Bristol glass and a bottle of Mastic varnish, some satsuma china and some cloisonné, the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (marred as it was by the sensationalism of the popular plates), two paint-boxes (one oil, one water-colour), three globes of the known geographical world, a few fossils, the stuffed head of a cameleopard, six pismires, some glass retorts with cauldrons, bunsen burners, etc., and a complete set of cigarette cards depicting wild fowl by Peter Scott.
Merlyn took off his pointed hat when he came into this chamber, because it was too high for the roof, and immediately there was a scamper in one of the dark corners and a flap of soft wings, and a tawny owl was sitting on the black skull-cap which protected the top of his head.
“Oh, what a lovely owl!” cried the Wart.
But when he went up to it and held out his hand, the owl grew half as tall again, stood up as stiff as a poker, closed its eyes so that there was only the smallest slit to peep through—as you are in the habit of doing when told to shut your eyes at hide-and-seek—and said in a doubtful voice:
“There is no owl.”
Then it shut its eyes entirely and looked the other way.
“It is only a boy,” said Merlyn.
“There is no boy,” said the owl hopefully, without turning round.
The Wart was so startled by finding that the owl could talk that he forgot his manners and came closer still. At this the bird became so nervous that it made a mess on Merlyn’s head—the whole room was quite white with droppings—and flew off to perch on the farthest tip of the corkindrill’s tail, out of reach.
“We see so little company,” explained the magician, wiping his head with half a worn-out pair of pyjamas which he kept for that purpose, “that Archimedes is a little shy of strangers. Come, Archimedes, I want you to meet a friend of mine called Wart.”
Here he held out his hand to the owl, who came waddling like a goose along the corkindrill’s back—he waddled with this rolling gait so as to keep his tail from being damaged—and hopped down to Merlyn’s finger with every sign of reluctance.
“Hold out your finger and put it behind his legs. No, lift it up under his train.”
When the Wart had done this, Merlyn moved the owl gently backward, so that the boy’s finger pressed against its legs from behind, and it either had to step back on the finger or get pushed off its balance altogether. It stepped back. The Wart stood there delighted, while the furry feet held tight on his finger and the sharp claws prickled his skin.
“Say how d’you do properly,” said Merlyn.
“I will not,” said Archimedes, looking the other way and holding tight.
“Oh, he is lovely,” said the Wart again. “Have you had him long?”
“Archimedes has stayed with me since he was small, indeed since he had a tiny head like a chicken’s.”
“I wish he would talk to me.”
“Perhaps if you were to give him this mouse here, politely, he might learn to know you better.”
Merlyn took a dead mouse out of his skull-cap—“I always keep them there, and worms too, for fishing. I find it most convenient”—and handed it to the Wart, who held it out rather gingerly toward Archimedes. The nutty curved beak looked as if it were capable of doing damage, but Archimedes looked closely at the mouse, blinked at the Wart, moved nearer on the finger, closed his eyes and leaned forward. He stood there with closed eyes and an expression of rapture on his face, as if he were saying Grace, and then, with the absurdest sideways nibble, took the morsel so gently that he would not have broken a soap bubble. He remained leaning forward with closed eyes, with the mouse suspended from his beak, as if he were not sure what to do with it. Then he lifted his right foot—he was right-handed, though people say only men are—and took hold of the mouse. He held it up like a boy holding a stick of rock or a constable with his truncheon, looked at it, nibbled its tail. He turned it round so that it was head first, for the Wart had offered it the wrong way round, and gave one gulp. He looked round at the company with the tail hanging out of the corner of his mouth—as much as to say, “I wish you would not all stare at me so”—turned his head away, politely swallowed the tail, scratched his sailor’s beard with his left toe, and began to ruffle out his feathers.
“Let him alone,” said Merlyn. “Perhaps he does not want to be friends with you until he knows what you are like. With owls, it is never easy-come and easy-go.”
“Perhaps he will sit on my shoulder,” said the Wart, and with that he instinctively lowered his hand, so that the owl, who liked to be as high as possible, ran up the slope and stood shyly beside his ear.
“Now breakfast,” said Merlyn.
The Wart saw that the most perfect breakfast was laid out neatly for two, on a table before the window. There were peaches. There were also melons, strawberries and cream, rusks, brown trout piping hot, grilled perch which were much nicer, chicken devilled enough to burn one’s mouth out, kidneys and mushrooms on toast, fricassee, curry, and a choice of boiling coffee or best chocolate made with cream in large cups.
“Have some mustard,” said the magician, when they had got to the kidneys.
The mustard-pot got up and walked over to his plate on thin silver legs that waddled like the owl’s. Then it uncurled its handles and one handle lifted its lid with exaggerated courtesy while the other helped him to a generous spoonful.
“Oh, I love the mustard-pot!” cried the Wart. “Wherever did you get it?”
At this the pot beamed all over its face and began to strut a bit, but Merlyn rapped it on the head with a teaspoon, so that it sat down and shut up at once.
“It is not a bad pot,” he said grudgingly. “Only it is inclined to give itself airs.”
The Wart was so much impressed by the kindness of the old man, and particularly by the lovely things which he possessed, that he hardly liked to ask him personal questions. It seemed politer to sit still and to speak when he was spoken to. But Merlyn did not speak much, and when he did speak it was never in questions, so that the Wart had little opportunity for conversation. At last his curiosity got the better of him, and he asked something which had been puzzling him for some time.
“Would you mind if I ask you a question?”
“It is what I am for.”
“How did you know to set breakfast for two?”
The old gentleman leaned back in his chair and lighted an enormous meerschaum pipe—Good gracious, he breathes fire, thought the Wart, who had never heard of tobacco—before he was ready to reply. Then he looked puzzled, took off his skull-cap—three mice fell out—and scratched in the middle of his bald head.
“Have you ever tried to draw in a looking-glass?” he asked.
“I don’t think I have.”
“Looking-glass,” said Merlyn, holding out his hand. Immediately there was a tiny lady’s vanity-glass in his hand.
“Not that kind, you fool,” he said angrily. “I want one big enough to shave in.”
The vanity-glass vanished, and in its place there was a shaving mirror about a foot square. He then demanded pencil and paper in quick succession; got an unsharpened pencil and the Morning Post; sent them back; got a fountain pen with no ink in it and six reams of brown paper suitable for parcels; sent them back; flew into a passion in which he said by-our-lady quite often, and ended up with a carbon pencil and some cigarette papers which he said would have to do.
He put one of the papers in front of the glass and made five dots.
“Now,” he said, “I want you to join those five dots up to make a W, looking only in the glass.”
The Wart took the pen and tried to do as he was bid.
“Well, it is not bad,” said the magician doubtfully, “and in a way it does look a bit like an M.”
Then he fell into a reverie, stroking his beard, breathing fire, and staring at the paper.
“About the breakfast?”
“Ah, yes. How did I know to set breakfast for two? That was why I showed you the looking-glass. Now ordinary people are born forwards in Time, if you understand what I mean, and nearly everything in the world goes forward too. This makes it quite easy for the ordinary people to live, just as it would be easy to join those five dots into a W if you were allowed to look at them forwards, instead of backwards and inside out. But I unfortunately was born at the wrong end of time, and I have to live backwards from in front, while surrounded by a lot of people living forwards from behind. Some people call it having second sight.”
He stopped talking and looked at the Wart in an anxious way.
“Have I told you this before?”
“No, we only met about half an hour ago.”
“So little time to pass?” said Merlyn, and a big tear ran down to the end of his nose. He wiped it off with his pyjamas and added anxiously, “Am I going to tell it you again?”
“I do not know,” said the Wart, “unless you have not finished telling me yet.”
“You see, one gets confused with Time, when it is like that. All one’s tenses get muddled, for one thing. If you know what is going to happen to people, and not what has happened to them, it makes it difficult to prevent it happening, if you don’t want it to have happened, if you see what I mean? Like drawing in a mirror.”
The Wart did not quite see, but was just going to say that he was sorry for Merlyn if these things made him unhappy, when he felt a curious sensation at his ear. “Don’t jump,” said the old man, just as he was going to do so, and the Wart sat still. Archimedes, who had been standing forgotten on his shoulder all this time, was gently touching himself against him. His beak was right against the lobe of the ear, which its bristles made to tickle, and suddenly a soft hoarse voice whispered, “How d’you do,” so that it sounded right inside his head.
“Oh, owl!” cried the Wart, forgetting about Merlyn’s troubles instantly. “Look, he has decided to talk to me!”
The Wart gently leaned his head against the smooth feathers, and the tawny owl, taking the rim of his ear in its beak, quickly nibbled right round it with the smallest nibbles.
“I shall call him Archie!”
“I trust you will do nothing of the sort,” exclaimed Merlyn instantly, in a stern and angry voice, and the owl withdrew to the farthest corner of his shoulder.
“Is it wrong?”
“You might as well call me Wol, or Olly,” said the owl sourly, “and have done with it.
“Or Bubbles,” it added in a bitter voice.
Merlyn took the Wart’s hand and said kindly, “You are young, and do not understand these things. But you will learn that owls are the most courteous, single-hearted and faithful creatures living. You must never be familiar, rude or vulgar with them, or make them look ridiculous. Their mother is Athene, the goddess of wisdom, and, although they are often ready to play the buffoon to amuse you, such conduct is the prerogative of the truly wise. No owl can possibly be called Archie.”
“I am sorry, owl,” said the Wart.
“And I am sorry, boy,” said the owl. “I can see that you spoke in ignorance, and I bitterly regret that I should have been so petty as to take offence where none was intended.”
The owl really did regret it, and looked so remorseful that Merlyn had to put on a cheerful manner and change the conversation.
“Well,” said he, “now that we have finished breakfast, I think it is high time that we should all three find our way back to Sir Ector.
“Excuse me a moment,” he added as an afterthought, and, turning round to the breakfast things, he pointed a knobbly finger at them and said in a stern voice, “Wash up.”
At this all the china and cutlery scrambled down off the table, the cloth emptied the crumbs out of the window, and the napkins folded themselves up. All ran off down the ladder, to where Merlyn had left the bucket, and there was such a noise and yelling as if a lot of children had been let out of school. Merlyn went to the door and shouted, “Mind, nobody is to get broken.” But his voice was entirely drowned in shrill squeals, splashes, and cries of “My, it is cold,” “I shan’t stay in long,” “Look out, you’ll break me,” or “Come on, let’s duck the teapot.”
“Are you really coming all the way home with me?” asked the Wart, who could hardly believe the good news.
“Why not? How else can I be your tutor?”
At this the Wart’s eyes grew rounder and rounder, until they were about as big as the owl’s who was sitting on his shoulder, and his face got redder and redder, and a breath seemed to gather itself beneath his heart.
“My!” exclaimed the Wart, while his eyes sparkled with excitement at the discovery. “I must have been on a Quest!”
THE WART STARTED talking before he was half-way over the drawbridge. “Look who I have brought,” he said. “Look! I have been on a Quest! I was shot at with three arrows. They had black and yellow stripes. The owl is called Archimedes. I saw King Pellinore. This is my tutor, Merlyn. I went on a Quest for him. He was after the Questing Beast. I mean King Pellinore. It was terrible in the forest. Merlyn made the plates wash up. Hallo, Hob. Look, we have got Cully.”
Hob just looked at the Wart, but so proudly that the Wart went quite red. It was such a pleasure to be back home again with all his friends, and everything achieved.
Hob said gruffly, “Ah, master, us shall make an austringer of ’ee yet.”
He came for Cully, as if he could not keep his hands off him longer, but he patted the Wart too, fondling them both because he was not sure which he was gladder to see back. He took Cully on his own fist, reassuming him like a lame man putting on his accustomed wooden leg, after it had been lost.
“Merlyn caught him,” said the Wart. “He sent Archimedes to look for him on the way home. Then Archimedes told us that he had been and killed a pigeon and was eating it. We went and frightened him off. After that, Merlyn stuck six of the tail feathers round the pigeon in a circle, and made a loop in a long piece of string to go round the feathers. He tied one end to a stick in the ground, and we went away behind a bush with the other end. He said he would not use magic. He said you could not use magic in Great Arts, just as it would be unfair to make a great statue by magic. You have to cut it out with a chisel, you see. Then Cully came down to finish the pigeon, and we pulled the string, and the loop slipped over the feathers and caught him round the legs. He was angry! But we gave him the pigeon.”
Hob made a duty to Merlyn, who returned it courteously. They looked upon one another with grave affection, knowing each other to be masters of the same trade. When they could be alone together they would talk about falconry, although Hob was naturally a silent man. Meanwhile they must wait their time.
“Oh, Kay,” cried the Wart, as the latter appeared with their nurse and other delighted welcomers. “Look, I have got a magician for our tutor. He has a mustard-pot that walks.”
“I am glad you are back,” said Kay.
“Alas, where did you sleep, Master Art?” exclaimed the nurse. “Look at your clean jerkin all muddied and torn. Such a turn as you gave us, I really don’t know. But look at your poor hair with all them twigs in it. Oh, my own random, wicked little lamb.”
Sir Ector came bustling out with his greaves on back to front, and kissed the Wart on both cheeks. “Well, well, well,” he exclaimed moistly. “Here we are again, hey? What the devil have we been doin’, hey? Settin’ the whole household upside down.”
But inside himself he was proud of the Wart for staying out after a hawk, and prouder still to see that he had got it, for all the while Hob held the bird in the air for everybody to see.
“Oh, sir,” said the Wart, “I have been on that quest you said for a tutor, and I have found him. Please, he is this gentleman here, and he is called Merlyn. He has got some badgers and hedgehogs and mice and ants and things on this white donkey here, because we could not leave them behind to starve. He is a great magician, and can make things come out of the air.”
“Ah, a magician,” said Sir Ector, putting on his glasses and looking closely at Merlyn. “White magic, I hope?”
“Assuredly,” said Merlyn, who stood patiently among the throng with his arms folded in his necromantic gown, while Archimedes sat very stiff and elongated on the top of his head.
“Ought to have some testimonials,” said Sir Ector doubtfully. “It’s usual.”
“Testimonials,” said Merlyn, holding out his hand.
Instantly there were some heavy tablets in it, signed by Aristotle, a parchment signed by Hecate, and some typewritten duplicates signed by the Master of Trinity, who could not remember having met him. All these gave Merlyn an excellent character.
“He had ’em up his sleeve,” said Sir Ector wisely. “Can you do anything else?”
“Tree,” said Merlyn. At once there was an enormous mulberry growing in the middle of the courtyard, with its luscious blue fruits ready to patter down. This was all the more remarkable, since mulberries only became popular in the days of Cromwell.
“They do it with mirrors,” said Sir Ector.
“Snow,” said Merlyn. “And an umbrella,” he added hastily.
Before they could turn round, the copper sky of summer had assumed a cold and lowering bronze, while the biggest white flakes that ever were seen were floating about them and settling on the battlements. An inch of snow had fallen before they could speak, and all were trembling with the wintry blast. Sir Ector’s nose was blue, and had an icicle hanging from the end of it, while all except Merlyn had a ledge of snow upon their shoulders. Merlyn stood in the middle, holding his umbrella high because of the owl.
“It’s done by hypnotism,” said Sir Ector, with chattering teeth. “Like those wallahs from the Indies.
“But that’ll do,” he added hastily, “that’ll do very well. I’m sure you’ll make an excellent tutor for teachin’ these boys.”
The snow stopped immediately and the sun came out—“Enough to give a body a pewmonia,” said the nurse, “or to frighten the elastic commissioners”—while Merlyn folded up his umbrella and handed it back to the air, which received it.
“Imagine the boy doin’ a quest like that by himself,” exclaimed Sir Ector. “Well, well, well! Wonders never cease.”
“I do not think much of it as a quest,” said Kay. “He only went after the hawk, after all.”
“And got the hawk, Master Kay,” said Hob reprovingly.
“Oh, well,” said Kay, “I bet the old man caught it for him.”
“Kay,” said Merlyn, suddenly terrible, “thou wast ever a proud and ill-tongued speaker, and a misfortunate one. Thy sorrow will come from thine own mouth.”
At this everybody felt uncomfortable, and Kay, instead of flying into his usual passion, hung his head. He was not at all an unpleasant person really, but clever, quick, proud, passionate and ambitious. He was one of those people who would be neither a follower nor a leader, but only an aspiring heart, impatient in the failing body which imprisoned it. Merlyn repented of his rudeness at once. He made a little silver hunting-knife come out of the air, which he gave him to put things right. The knob of the handle was made of the skull of a stoat, oiled and polished like ivory, and Kay loved it.
SIR ECTOR’S HOME was called The Castle of the Forest Sauvage. It was more like a town or a village than any one man’s home, and indeed it was the village during times of danger: for this part of the story is one which deals with troubled times. Whenever there was a raid or an invasion by some neighbouring tyrant, everybody on the estate hurried into the castle, driving the beasts before them into the courts, and there they remained until the danger was over. The wattle and daub cottages nearly always got burned, and had to be rebuilt afterwards with much profanity. For this reason it was not worth while to have a village church, as it would constantly be having to be replaced. The villagers went to church in the chapel of the castle. They wore their best clothes and trooped up the street with their most respectable gait on Sundays, looking with vague and dignified looks in all directions, as if reluctant to disclose their destination, and on week-days they came to Mass and vespers in their ordinary clothes, walking much more cheerfully. Everybody went to church in those days, and liked it.
The Castle of the Forest Sauvage is still standing, and you can see its lovely ruined walls with ivy on them, standing broached to the sun and wind. Some lizards live there now, and the starving sparrows keep warm on winter nights in the ivy, and a barn owl drives it methodically, hovering outside the frightened congregations and beating the ivy with its wings, to make them fly out. Most of the curtain wall is down, though you can trace the foundations of the twelve round towers which guarded it. They were round, and stuck out from the wall into the moat, so that the archers could shoot in all directions and command every part of the wall. Inside the towers there are circular stairs. These go round and round a central column, and this column is pierced with holes for shooting arrows. Even if the enemy had got inside the curtain wall and fought their way into the bottom of the towers, the defenders could retreat up the bends of the stairs and shoot at those who followed them up, inside, through these slits.
The stone part of the drawbridge with its barbican and the bartizans of the gatehouse are in good repair. These have many ingenious arrangements. Even if enemies got over the wooden bridge, which was pulled up so that they could not, there was a portcullis weighed with an enormous log which would squash them flat and pin them down as well. There was a large hidden trapdoor in the floor of the barbican, which would let them into the moat after all. At the other end of the barbican there was another portcullis, so that they could be trapped between the two and annihilated from above, while the bartizans, or hanging turrets, had holes in their floors through which the defenders could drop things on their heads. Finally, inside the gatehouse, there was a neat little hole in the middle of the vaulted ceiling, which had painted tracery and bosses. This hole led to the room above, where there was a big cauldron, for boiling lead or oil.
So much for the outer defences. Once you were inside the curtain wall, you found yourself in a kind of wide alley-way, probably full of frightened sheep, with another complete castle in front of you. This was the inner shell-keep, with its eight enormous round towers which still stand. It is lovely to climb the highest of them and to lie there looking out toward the Marches, from which some of these old dangers came, with nothing but the sun above you and the little tourists trotting about below, quite regardless of arrows and boiling oil. Think for how many centuries that unconquerable tower has withstood. It has changed hands by secession often, by siege once, by treachery twice, but never by assault. On this tower the look-out hoved. From here he kept the guard over the blue woods towards Wales. His clean old bones lie beneath the floor of the chapel now, so you must keep it for him.
If you look down and are not frightened of heights (the Society for the Preservation of This and That have put up some excellent railings to preserve you from tumbling over), you can see the whole anatomy of the inner court laid out beneath you like a map. You can see the chapel, now quite open to its god, and the windows of the great hall with the solar over it. You can see the shafts of the huge chimneys and how cunningly the side flues were contrived to enter them, and the little private closets now public, and the enormous kitchen. If you are a sensible person, you will spend days there, possibly weeks, working out for yourself by detection which were the stables, which the mews, where were the cow byres, the armoury, the lofts, the well, the smithy, the kennel, the soldiers’ quarters, the priest’s room, and my lord’s and lady’s chambers. Then it will all grow about you again. The little people—they were smaller than we are, and it would be a job for most of us to get inside the few bits of their armour and old gloves that remain—will hurry about in the sunshine, the sheep will baa as they always did, and perhaps from Wales there will come the ffff-putt of the triple-feathered arrow which looks as if it had never moved.
This place was, of course, a paradise for a boy to be in. The Wart ran about it like a rabbit in its own complicated labyrinth. He knew everything, everywhere, all the special smells, good climbs, soft lairs, secret hiding-places, jumps, slides, nooks, larders and blisses. For every season he had the best place, like a cat, and he yelled and ran and fought and upset people and snoozed and daydreamed and pretended he was a Knight, without stopping. Just now he was in the kennel.
People in those days had rather different ideas about the training of dogs to what we have today. They did it more by love than strictness. Imagine a modern M.F.H. going to bed with his hounds, and yet Flavius Arrianus says that it is “Best of all if they can sleep with a person because it makes them more human and because they rejoice in the company of human beings: also if they have had a restless night or been internally upset, you will know of it and will not use them to hunt next day.” In Sir Ector’s kennel there was a special boy, called the Dog Boy, who lived with the hounds day and night. He was a sort of head hound, and it was his business to take them out every day for walks, to pull thorns out of their feet, keep cankers out of their ears, bind the smaller bones that got dislocated, dose them for worms, isolate and nurse them in distemper, arbitrate in their quarrels and to sleep curled up among them at night. If one more learned quotation may be excused, this is how, later on, the Duke of York who was killed at Agincourt described such a boy in his Master of Game: “Also I will teach the child to lead out the hounds to scombre twice in the day in the morning and in the evening, so that the sun be up, especially in winter. Then should he let them run and play long in a meadow in the sun, and then comb every hound after the other, and wipe them with a great wisp of straw, and this he shall do every morning. And then he shall lead them into some fair place where tender grass grows as corn and other things, that therewith they may feed themselves as it is medicine for them.” Thus, since the boy’s “heart and his business be with the hounds,” the hounds themselves become “goodly and kindly and clean, glad and joyful and playful, and goodly to all manner of folks save to the wild beasts to whom they should be fierce, eager and spiteful.”
Sir Ector’s dog boy was none other than the one who had his nose bitten off by the terrible Wat. Not having a nose like a human, and being, moreover, subjected to stone-throwing by the other village children, he had become more comfortable with animals. He talked to them, not in baby-talk like a maiden lady, but correctly in their own growls and barks. They all loved him very much, and revered him for taking thorns out of their toes, and came to him with their troubles at once. He always understood immediately what was wrong, and generally he could put it right. It was nice for the dogs to have their god with them, in visible form.
The Wart was fond of the Dog Boy, and thought him very clever to be able to do these things with animals—for he could make them do almost anything just by moving his hands—while the Dog Boy loved the Wart in much the same way as his dogs loved him, and thought the Wart was almost holy because he could read and write. They spent much of their time together, rolling about with the dogs in the kennel.
The kennel was on the ground floor, near the mews, with a loft above it, so that it should be cool in summer and warm in winter. The hounds were alaunts, gaze-hounds, lymers and braches. They were called Clumsy, Trowneer, Phoebe, Colle, Gerland, Talbot, Luath, Luffra, Apollon, Orthros, Bran, Gelert, Bounce, Boy, Lion, Bungey, Toby, and Diamond. The Wart’s own special one was called Cavall, and he happened to be licking Cavall’s nose—not the other way about—when Merlyn came in and found him.
“That will come to be regarded as an insanitary habit,” said Merlyn, “though I cannot see it myself. After all, God made the creature’s nose just as well as he made your tongue.
“If not better,” added the philosopher pensively.
The Wart did not know what Merlyn was talking about, but he liked him to talk. He did not like the grown-ups who talked down to him, but the ones who went on talking in their usual way, leaving him to leap along in their wake, jumping at meanings, guessing, clutching at known words, and chuckling at complicated jokes as they suddenly dawned. He had the glee of the porpoise then, pouring and leaping through strange seas.
“Shall we go out?” asked Merlyn. “I think it is about time we began lessons.”
The Wart’s heart sank at this. His tutor had been there a month, and it was now August, but they had done no lessons so far. Now he suddenly remembered that this was what Merlyn was for, and he thought with dread of Summulae Logicales and the filthy astrolabe. He knew that it had to be borne, however, and got up obediently enough, after giving Cavall a last reluctant pat. He thought that it might not be so bad with Merlyn, who might be able to make even the old Organon interesting, particularly if he would do some magic.
They went into the courtyard, into a sun so burning that the heat of hay-making seemed to have been nothing. It was baking. The thunder-clouds which usually go with hot weather were there, high columns of cumulus with glaring edges, but there was not going to be any thunder. It was too hot even for that. “If only,” thought the Wart, “I did not have to go into a stuffy classroom, but could take off my clothes and swim in the moat.”
They crossed the courtyard, having almost to take deep breaths before they darted across it, as if they were going quickly through an oven. The shade of the gatehouse was cool, but the barbican, with its close walls, was hottest of all. In one last dash across the desert they had reached the drawbridge—could Merlyn have guessed what he was thinking?—and were staring down into the moat.
It was the season of water-lilies. If Sir Ector had not kept one section free of them for the boys’ bathing, all the water would have been covered. As it was, about twenty yards on each side of the bridge were cut each year, and one could dive in from the bridge itself. The moat was deep. It was used as a stew, so that the inhabitants of the castle could have fish on Fridays, and for this reason the architects had been careful not to let the drains and sewers run into it. It was stocked with fish every year.
“I wish I was a fish,” said the Wart.
“What sort of fish?”
It was almost too hot to think about this, but the Wart stared down into the cool amber depths where a school of small perch were aimlessly hanging about.
“I think I should like to be a perch,” he said. “They are braver than the silly roach, and not quite so slaughterous as the pike are.”
Merlyn took off his hat, raised his staff of lignum vitae politely in the air, and said slowly, “Snylrem stnemilpmoc ot enutpen dna lliw eh yldnik tpecca siht yob sa a hsif?”
Immediately there was a loud blowing of sea-shells, conches and so forth, and a stout, jolly-looking gentleman appeared seated on a well-blown-up cloud above the battlements. He had an anchor tattooed on his stomach and a handsome mermaid with Mabel written under her on his chest. He ejected a quid of tobacco, nodded affably to Merlyn and pointed his trident at the Wart. The Wart found he had no clothes on. He found that he had tumbled off the drawbridge, landing with a smack on his side in the water. He found that the moat and the bridge had grown hundreds of times bigger. He knew that he was turning into a fish.
“Oh, Merlyn,” he cried, “please come too.”
“For this once,” said a large and solemn tench beside his ear, “I will come. But in future you will have to go by yourself. Education is experience, and the essence of experience is self-reliance.”
The Wart found it difficult to be a new kind of creature. It was no good trying to swim like a human being, for it made him go corkscrew and much too slowly. He did not know how to swim like a fish.
“Not like that,” said the tench in ponderous tones. “Put your chin on your left shoulder and do jack-knives. Never mind about the fins to begin with.”
The Wart’s legs had fused together into his backbone and his feet and toes had become a tail fin. His arms had become two more fins—of a delicate pink—and he had sprouted some more somewhere about his stomach. His head faced over his shoulder, so that when he bent in the middle his toes were moving toward his ear instead of toward his forehead. He was a beautiful olive-green, with rather scratchy plate-armour all over him, and dark bands down his sides. He was not sure which were his sides and which were his back and front, but what now appeared to be his belly had an attractive whitish colour, while his back was armed with a splendid great fin that could be erected for war and had spikes in it. He did jack-knives as the tench directed and found that he was swimming vertically downward into the mud.
“Use your feet to turn to left or right,” said the tench, “and spread those fins on your tummy to keep level. You are living in two planes now, not one.”
The Wart found that he could keep more or less level by altering the inclination of his arm fins and the ones on his stomach. He swam feebly off, enjoying himself very much.
“Come back,” said the tench. “You must learn to swim before you can dart.”
The Wart returned to his tutor in a series of zig-zags and remarked, “I do not seem to keep quite straight.”
“The trouble with you is that you do not swim from the shoulder. You swim as if you were a boy, bending at the hips. Try doing your jack-knives right from the neck downward, and move your body exactly the same amount to the right as you are going to move it to the left. Put your back into it.”
Wart gave two terrific kicks and vanished altogether in a clump of mare’s tail several yards away.
“That’s better,” said the tench, now out of sight in the murky olive water, and the Wart backed himself out of his tangle with infinite trouble, by wriggling his arm fins. He undulated back toward the voice in one terrific shove, to show off.
“Good,” said the tench, as they collided end to end. “But direction is the better part of valour.
“Try if you can do this one,” it added.
Without apparent exertion of any kind it swam off backward under a water-lily. Without apparent exertion—but the Wart, who was an enterprising learner, had been watching the slightest movement of its fins. He moved his own fins anti-clockwise, gave the tip of his tail a cunning flick, and was lying alongside the tench.
“Splendid,” said Merlyn. “Let us go for a little swim.”
The Wart was on an even keel now, and reasonably able to move about. He had leisure to look at the extraordinary universe into which the tattooed gentleman’s trident had plunged him. It was different from the universe to which he had been accustomed. For one thing, the heaven or sky above him was now a perfect circle. The horizon had closed to this. In order to imagine yourself into the Wart’s position, you would have to picture a round horizon, a few inches about your head, instead of the flat horizon which you usually see. Under this horizon of air you would have to imagine another horizon of under water, spherical and practically upside down—for the surface of the water acted partly as a mirror to what was below it. It is difficult to imagine. What makes it a great deal more difficult to imagine is that everything which human beings would consider to be above the water level was fringed with all the colours of the spectrum. For instance, if you had happened to be fishing for the Wart, he would have seen you, at the rim of the tea saucer which was the upper air to him, not as one person waving a fishing-rod, but as seven people, whose outlines were red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet, all waving the same rod whose colours were as varied. In fact, you would have been a rainbow man to him, a beacon of flashing and radiating colours, which ran into one another and had rays all about. You would have burned upon the water like Cleopatra in the poem.
The next most lovely thing was that the Wart had no weight. He was not earth-bound any more and did not have to plod along on a flat surface, pressed down by gravity and the weight of the atmosphere. He could do what men have always wanted to do, that is, fly. There is practically no difference between flying in the water and flying in the air. The best of it was that he did not have to fly in a machine, by pulling levers and sitting still, but could do it with his own body. It was like the dreams people have.
Just as they were going to swim off on their tour of inspection, a timid young roach appeared from between two waving bottle bushes of mare’s tail and hung about, looking pale with agitation. It looked at them with big, apprehensive eyes and evidently wanted something, but could not make up its mind.
“Approach,” said Merlyn gravely.
At this the roach rushed up like a hen, burst into tears, and began stammering its message.
“If you p-p-p-please, doctor,” stammered the poor creature, gabbling so that they could scarcely understand what it said, “we have such a d-dretful case of s-s-s-something or other in our family, and we w-w-w-wondered if you could s-s-s-spare the time? It’s our d-d-d-dear Mamma, who w-w-w-will swim a-a-all the time upside d-d-d-down, and she d-d-d-does look so horrible and s-s-s-speaks so strange, that we r-r-r-really thought she ought to have a d-d-d-doctor, if it w-w-w-wouldn’t be too much? C-C-C-Clara says to say so, Sir, if you s-s-s-see w-w-w-what I m-m-m-mean?”
Here the poor roach began fizzing so much, what with its stammer and its tearful disposition, that it became quite inarticulate and could only stare at Merlyn with mournful eyes.
“Never mind, my little man,” said Merlyn. “There, there, lead me to your dear Mamma, and we shall see what we can do.”
They all three swam off into the murk under the drawbridge, upon their errand of mercy.
“Neurotic, these roach,” whispered Merlyn, behind his fin. “It is probably a case of nervous hysteria, a matter for the psychologist rather than the physician.”
The roach’s Mamma was lying on her back as he had described. She was squinting, had folded her fins on her chest, and every now and then she blew a bubble. All her children were gathered round her in a circle, and every time she blew they nudged each other and gasped. She had a seraphic smile on her face.
“Well, well, well,” said Merlyn, putting on his best bed-side manner, “and how is Mrs. Roach today?”
He patted the young roaches on the head and advanced with stately motions toward his patient. It should perhaps be mentioned that Merlyn was a ponderous, deep-beamed fish of about five pounds, leather coloured, with small scales, adipose in his fins, rather slimy, and having a bright marigold eye—a respectable figure.
Mrs. Roach held out a languid fin, sighed emphatically and said, “Ah, doctor, so you’ve come at last?”
“Hum,” said the physician, in his deepest tone.
Then he told everybody to close their eyes—the Wart peeped—and began to swim round the invalid in a slow and stately dance. As he danced he sang. His song was this:
With a normal catabolism,
Gabbleism and babbleism,
Snip, Snap, Snorum,
Cut out his abdonorum.
One, two, three,
And out goes He,
With a fol-de-rol-derido for the Five Guinea Fee.
At the end of the song he was swimming round his patient so close that he actually touched her, stroking his brown smooth-scaled flanks against her more rattly pale ones. Perhaps he was healing her with his slime—for all the fishes are said to go to the Tench for medicine—or perhaps it was by touch or massage or hypnotism. In any case, Mrs. Roach suddenly stopped squinting, turned the right way up, and said, “Oh, doctor, dear doctor, I feel I could eat a little lob-worm now.”
“No lob-worm,” said Merlyn, “not for two days. I shall give you a prescription for a strong broth of algae every two hours, Mrs. Roach. We must build up your strength, you know. After all, Rome was not built in a day.”
Then he patted all the little roaches once more, told them to grow up into brave little fish, and swam off with an air of importance into the gloom. As he swam, he puffed his mouth in and out.
“What did you mean by that about Rome?” asked the Wart, when they were out of earshot.
They swam along, Merlyn occasionally advising him to put his back into it when he forgot, and the strange under-water world began to dawn about them, deliciously cool after the heat of the upper air. The great forests of weed were delicately traced, and in them there hung motionless many schools of sticklebacks learning to do their physical exercises in strict unison. On the word One they all lay still; at Two they faced about; at Three they all shot together into a cone, whose apex was a bit of something to eat. Water snails slowly ambled about on the stems of the lilies or under their leaves, while fresh-water mussels lay on the bottom doing nothing in particular. Their flesh was salmon pink, like a very good strawberry cream ice. The small congregations of perch—it was a strange thing, but all the bigger fish seemed to have hidden themselves—had delicate circulations, so that they blushed or grew pale as easily as a lady in a Victorian novel. Only their blush was a deep olive colour, and it was the blush of rage. Whenever Merlyn and his companion swam past them, they raised their spiky dorsal fins in menace, and only lowered them when they saw that Merlyn was a tench. The black bars on their sides made them look as if they had been grilled, and these also could become darker or lighter. Once the two travellers passed under a swan. The white creature floated above like a Zeppelin, all indistinct except what was under the water. The latter part was quite clear and showed that the swan was floating slightly on one side with one leg cocked over its back.
“Look,” said the Wart, “it is the poor swan with the deformed leg. It can only paddle with one leg, and the other side of it is hunched.”
“Nonsense,” said the swan snappily, putting its head into the water and giving them a frown with its black nares. “Swans like to rest in this position, and you can keep your fishy sympathy to yourself, so there.” It continued to glare at them from up above, like a white snake suddenly let down through the ceiling, until they were out of sight.
“You swim along,” said the tench, “as if there was nothing to be afraid of in the world. Don’t you see that this place is exactly like the forest which you had to come through to find me?”
“Look over there.”
The Wart looked, and at first saw nothing. Then he saw a small translucent shape hanging motionless near the surface. It was just outside the shadow of a water-lily and was evidently enjoying the sun. It was a baby pike, absolutely rigid and probably asleep, and it looked like a pipe stem or a sea-horse stretched out flat. It would be a brigand when it grew up.
“I am taking you to see one of those,” said the tench, “the Emperor of these purlieus. As a doctor I have immunity, and I dare say he will respect you as my companion as well—but you had better keep your tail bent in case he is feeling tyrannical.”
“Is he the King of the Moat?”
“He is. Old Jack they call him, and some call him Black Peter, but for the most part they do not mention him by name at all. They just call him Mr. P. You will see what it is to be a king.”
The Wart began to hang behind his conductor a little, and perhaps it was as well that he did, for they were almost on top of their destination before he noticed it. When he did see the old despot he started back in horror, for Mr. P. was four feet long, his weight incalculable. The great body, shadowy and almost invisible among the stems, ended in a face which had been ravaged by all the passions of an absolute monarch—by cruelty, sorrow, age, pride, selfishness, loneliness and thoughts too strong for individual brains. There he hung or hoved, his vast ironic mouth permanently drawn downward in a kind of melancholy, his lean clean-shaven chops giving him an American expression, like that of Uncle Sam. He was remorseless, disillusioned, logical, predatory, fierce, pitiless—but his great jewel of an eye was that of a stricken deer, large, fearful, sensitive and full of griefs. He made no movement, but looked upon them with his bitter eye.
The Wart thought to himself that he did not care for Mr. P.
“Lord,” said Merlyn, not paying attention to his nervousness, “I have brought a young professor who would learn to profess.”
“To profess what?” asked the King of the Moat slowly, hardly opening his jaws and speaking through his nose.
“Power,” said the tench.
“Let him speak for himself.”
“Please,” said the Wart, “I don’t know what I ought to ask.”
“There is nothing,” said the monarch, “except the power which you pretend to seek: power to grind and power to digest, power to seek and power to find, power to await and power to claim, all power and pitilessness springing from the nape of the neck.”
“Love is a trick played on us by the forces of evolution. Pleasure is the bait laid down by the same. There is only power. Power is of the individual mind, but the mind’s power is not enough. Power of the body decides everything in the end, and only Might is Right.
“Now I think it is time that you should go away, young master, for I find this conversation uninteresting and exhausting. I think you ought to go away really almost at once, in case my disillusioned mouth should suddenly determine to introduce you to my great gills, which have teeth in them also. Yes, I really think you might be wise to go away this moment. Indeed, I think you ought to put your back into it. And so, a long farewell to all my greatness.”
The Wart had found himself almost hypnotized by the big words, and hardly noticed that the tight mouth was coming closer and closer to him. It came imperceptibly, as the lecture distracted his attention, and suddenly it was looming within an inch of his nose. On the last sentence it opened, horrible and vast, the skin stretching ravenously from bone to bone and tooth to tooth. Inside there seemed to be nothing but teeth, sharp teeth like thorns in rows and ridges everywhere, like the nails in labourers’ boots, and it was only at the last second that he was able to regain his own will, to pull himself together, to recollect his instructions and to escape. All those teeth clashed behind him at the tip of his tail, as he gave the heartiest jack-knife he had ever given.
In a second he was on dry land once again, standing beside Merlyn on the piping drawbridge, panting in his stuffy clothes.
ONE THURSDAY AFTERNOON the boys were doing their archery as usual. There were two straw targets fifty yards apart, and when they had shot their arrows at one, they had only to go to it, collect them, and shoot back at the other, after facing about. It was still the loveliest summer weather, and there had been chicken for dinner, so that Merlyn had gone off to the edge of their shooting-ground and sat down under a tree. What with the warmth and the chicken and the cream he had poured over his pudding and the continual repassing of the boys and the tock of the arrows in the targets—which was as sleepy to listen to as the noise of a lawn-mower or of a village cricket match—and what with the dance of the egg-shaped sun-spots between the leaves of his tree, the aged man was soon fast asleep.
Archery was a serious occupation in those days. It had not yet been turned over to Indians and small boys. When you were shooting badly you got into a bad temper, just as the wealthy pheasant shooters do today. Kay was shooting badly. He was trying too hard and plucking on his loose, instead of leaving it to the bow.
“Oh, come on,” he said. “I am sick of these beastly targets. Let’s have a shot at the popinjay.”
They left the targets and had several shots at the popinjay—which was a large, bright-coloured artificial bird stuck on the top of a stick, like a parrot—and Kay missed these also. First he had the feeling of, “Well, I will hit the filthy thing, even if I have to go without my tea until I do it.” Then he merely became bored.
The Wart said, “Let’s play Rovers then. We can come back in half an hour and wake Merlyn up.”
What they called Rovers, consisted in going for a walk with their bows and shooting one arrow each at any agreed mark which they came across. Sometimes it would be a molehill, sometimes a clump of rushes, sometimes a big thistle almost at their feet. They varied the distance at which they chose these objects, sometimes picking a target as much as 120 yards away—which was about as far as these boys’ bows could carry—and sometimes having to aim actually below a close thistle because the arrow always leaps up a foot or two as it leaves the bow. They counted five for a hit, and one if the arrow was within a bow’s length, and they added up their scores at the end.
On this Thursday they chose their targets wisely. Besides, the grass of the big field had been lately cut, so that they never had to search for their arrows for long, which nearly always happens, as in golf, if you shoot ill-advisedly near hedges or in rough places. The result was that they strayed further than usual and found themselves near the edge of the savage forest where Cully had been lost.
“I vote,” said Kay, “that we go to those buries in the chase, and see if we can get a rabbit. It would be more fun than shooting at these hummocks.”
They did this. They chose two trees about a hundred yards apart, and each boy stood under one of them waiting for the conies to come out again. They stood still, with their bows already raised and arrows fitted, so that they would make the least possible movement to disturb the creatures when they did appear. It was not difficult for either of them to stand thus, for the first test which they had had to pass in archery was standing with the bow at arm’s length for half an hour. They had six arrows each and would be able to fire and mark them all before they needed to frighten the rabbits back by walking about to collect. An arrow does not make enough noise to upset more than the particular rabbit that it is shot at.
At the fifth shot Kay was lucky. He allowed just the right amount for wind and distance, and his point took a young coney square in the head. It had been standing up on end to look at him, wondering what he was.
“Oh, well shot!” cried the Wart, as they ran to pick it up. It was the first rabbit they had ever hit, and luckily they had killed it dead.
When they had carefully gutted it with the hunting knife which Merlyn had given—to keep it fresh—and passed one of its hind legs through the other at the hock, for convenience in carrying, the two boys prepared to go home with their prize. But before they unstrung their bows they used to observe a ceremony. Every Thursday afternoon, after the last serious arrow had been shot, they were allowed to fit one more nock to their strings and to shoot the arrow straight up into the air. It was partly a gesture of farewell, partly of triumph, and it was beautiful. They did it now as salute to their first prey.
The Wart watched his arrow go up. The sun was already westing toward evening, and the trees where they were had plunged them into a partial shade. So, as the arrow topped the trees and climbed into sunlight, it began to burn against the evening like the sun itself. Up and up it went, not weaving as it would have done with a snatching loose, but soaring, swimming, aspiring to heaven, steady, golden and superb. Just as it had spent its force, just as its ambition had been dimmed by destiny and it was preparing to faint, to turn over, to pour back into the bosom of its mother earth, a portent happened. A gore-crow came flapping wearily before the approaching night. It came, it did not waver, it took the arrow. It flew away, heavy and hoisting, with the arrow in its beak.
Kay was frightened by this, but the Wart was furious. He had loved his arrow’s movement, its burning ambition in the sunlight, and, besides, it was his best one. It was the only one which was perfectly balanced, sharp, tight-feathered, clean-nocked, and neither warped nor scraped.
“It was a witch,” said Kay.
TILTING AND HORSEMANSHIP had two afternoons a week, because they were the most important branches of a gentleman’s education in those days. Merlyn grumbled about athletics, saying that nowadays people seemed to think that you were an educated man if you could knock another man off a horse and that the craze for games was the ruin of scholarship—nobody got scholarships like they used to do when he was a boy, and all the public schools had been forced to lower their standards—but Sir Ector, who was an old tilting blue, said that the battle of Crécy had been won upon the playing fields of Camelot. This made Merlyn so furious that he gave Sir Ector rheumatism two nights running before he relented.
Tilting was a great art and needed practice. When two knights jousted they held their lances in their right hands, but they directed their horses at one another so that each man had his opponent on his near side. The base of the lance, in fact, was held on the opposite side of the body to the side at which the enemy was charging. This seems rather inside out to anybody who is in the habit, say, of opening gates with a hunting-crop, but it had its reasons. For one thing, it meant that the shield was on the left arm, so that the opponents charged shield to shield, fully covered. It also meant that a man could be unhorsed with the side or edge of the lance, in a kind of horizontal swipe, if you did not feel sure of hitting him with your point. This was the humblest or least skilful blow in jousting.
A good jouster, like Lancelot or Tristram, always used the blow of the point, because, although it was liable to miss in unskilful hands, it made contact sooner. If one knight charged with his lance held rigidly sideways, to sweep his opponent out of the saddle, the other knight with his lance held directly forward would knock him down a lance length before the sweep came into effect.
Then there was how to hold the lance for the point stroke. It was no good crouching in the saddle and clutching it in a rigid grip preparatory to the great shock, for if you held it inflexibly like this its point bucked up and down to every movement of your thundering mount and you were practically certain to miss the aim. On the contrary, you had to sit loosely in the saddle with the lance easy and balanced against the horse’s motion. It was not until the actual moment of striking that you clamped your knees into the horse’s sides, threw your weight forward in your seat, clutched the lance with the whole hand instead of with the finger and thumb, and hugged your right elbow to your side to support the butt.
There was the size of the spear. Obviously a man with a spear one hundred yards long would strike down an opponent with a spear of ten or twelve feet before the latter came anywhere near him. But it would have been impossible to make a spear one hundred yards long and, if made, impossible to carry it. The jouster had to find out the greatest length which he could manage with the greatest speed, and he had to stick to that. Sir Lancelot, who came some time after this part of the story, had several sizes of spear and would call for his Great Spear or his Lesser Spear as occasion demanded.
There were the places on which the enemy should be hit. In the armoury of The Castle of the Forest Sauvage there was a big picture of a knight in armour with circles round his vulnerable points. These varied with the style of armour, so that you had to study your opponent before the charge and select a point. The good armourers—the best lived at Warrington, and still live near there—were careful to make all the forward or entering sides of their suits convex, so that the spear point glanced off them. Curiously enough, the shields of Gothic suits were more inclined to be concave. It was better that a spear point should stay on the shield, rather than glance off upward or downward, and perhaps hit a more vulnerable point of the body armour. The best place of all for hitting people was on the very crest of the tilting helm, that is, if the person in question were vain enough to have a large metal crest in whose folds and ornaments the point would find a ready lodging. Many were vain enough to have these armorial crests, with bears and dragons or even ships or castles on them, but Sir Lancelot always contented himself with a bare helmet, or a bunch of feathers which would not hold spears, or, on one occasion, a soft lady’s sleeve.
It would take too long to go into all the interesting details of proper tilting which the boys had to learn, for in those days you had to be a master of your craft from the bottom upward. You had to know what wood was best for spears, and why, and even how to turn them so that they would not splinter or warp. There were a thousand disputed questions about arms and armour, all of which had to be understood.
Just outside Sir Ector’s castle there was a jousting field for tournaments, although there had been no tournaments in it since Kay was born. It was a green meadow, kept short, with a broad grassy bank raised round it on which pavilions could be erected. There was an old wooden grandstand at one side, lifted on stilts for the ladies. At present the field was only used as a practice-ground for tilting, so a quintain had been erected at one end and a ring at the other. The quintain was a wooden Saracen on a pole. He was painted with a bright blue face and red beard and glaring eyes. He had a shield in his left hand and a flat wooden sword in his right. If you hit him in the middle of his forehead all was well, but if your lance struck him on the shield or on any part to left or right of the middle line, then he spun round with great rapidity, and usually caught you a wallop with his sword as you galloped by, ducking. His paint was somewhat scratched and the wood picked up over his right eye. The ring was just an ordinary iron ring tied to a kind of gallows by a thread. If you managed to put your point through the ring, the thread broke, and you could canter off proudly with the ring round your spear.
The day was cooler than it had been for some time, for the autumn was almost within sight, and the two boys were in the tilting yard with the master armourer and Merlyn. The master armourer, or sergeant-at-arms, was a stiff, pale, bouncy gentleman with waxed moustaches. He always marched about with his chest stuck out like a pouter pigeon, and he called out “On the word One—” on every possible occasion. He took great pains to keep his stomach in, and often tripped over his feet because he could not see them over his chest. He was generally making his muscles ripple, which annoyed Merlyn.
Wart lay beside Merlyn in the shade of the grandstand and scratched himself for harvest bugs. The saw-like sickles had only lately been put away, and the wheat stood in stooks of eight among the tall stubble of those times. The Wart still itched. He was also sore about the shoulders and had a burning ear, from making bosh shots at the quintain—for, of course, practice tilting was done without armour. Wart was pleased that it was Kay’s turn to go through it now and he lay drowsily in the shade, snoozing, scratching, twitching like a dog and partly attending to the fun.
Merlyn, sitting with his back to all the athleticism, was practising a spell which he had forgotten. It was a spell to make the sergeant’s moustaches uncurl, but at present it only uncurled one of them, and the sergeant had not noticed it. He absent-mindedly curled it up again every time Merlyn did the spell, and Merlyn said, “Drat it!” and began again. Once he made the sergeant’s ears flap by mistake, and the latter gave a startled look at the sky.
From far off at the other side of the tilting ground the sergeant’s voice came floating on the still air.
“Nah, Nah, Master Kay, that ain’t it at all. Has you were. Has you were. The spear should be ’eld between the thumb and forefinger of the right ’and, with the shield in line with the seam of the trahser leg….”
The Wart rubbed his sore ear and sighed.
“What are you grieving about?”
“I was not grieving; I was thinking.”
“What were you thinking?”
“Oh, it was not anything. I was thinking about Kay learning to be a knight.”
“And well you may grieve,” exclaimed Merlyn hotly. “A lot of brainless unicorns swaggering about and calling themselves educated just because they can push each other off a horse with a bit of stick! It makes me tired. Why, I believe Sir Ector would have been gladder to get a by-our-lady tilting blue for your tutor, that swings himself along on his knuckles like an anthropoid ape, rather than a magician of known probity and international reputation with first-class honours from every European university. The trouble with the Norman Aristocracy is that they are games-mad, that is what it is, games-mad.”
He broke off indignantly and deliberately made the sergeant’s ears flap slowly twice, in unison.
“I was not thinking quite about that,” said the Wart. “As a matter of fact, I was thinking how nice it would be to be a knight, like Kay.”
“Well, you will be one soon enough, won’t you?” asked the old man, impatiently.
Wart did not answer.
Merlyn turned round and looked closely at the boy through his spectacles.
“What is the matter now?” he enquired nastily. His inspection had shown him that his pupil was trying not to cry, and if he spoke in a kind voice he would break down and do it.
“I shall not be a knight,” replied the Wart coldly. Merlyn’s trick had worked and he no longer wanted to weep: he wanted to kick Merlyn. “I shall not be a knight because I am not a proper son of Sir Ector’s. They will knight Kay, and I shall be his squire.”
Merlyn’s back was turned again, but his eyes were bright behind his spectacles. “Too bad,” he said, without commiseration.
The Wart burst out with all his thoughts aloud. “Oh,” he cried, “but I should have liked to be born with a proper father and mother, so that I could be a knight errant.”
“What would you have done?”
“I should have had a splendid suit of armour and dozens of spears and a black horse standing eighteen hands, and I should have called myself The Black Knight. And I should have hoved at a well or a ford or something and made all true knights that came that way to joust with me for the honour of their ladies, and I should have spared them all after I had given them a great fall. And I should live out of doors all the year round in a pavilion, and never do anything but joust and go on quests and bear away the prize at tournaments, and I should not ever tell anybody my name.”
“Your wife will scarcely enjoy the life.”
“Oh, I am not going to have a wife. I think they are stupid.
“I shall have to have a lady-love, though,” added the future knight uncomfortably, “so that I can wear her favour in my helm, and do deeds in her honour.”
A humblebee came zooming between them, under the grandstand and out into the sunlight.
“Would you like to see some real knights errant?” asked the magician slowly. “Now, for the sake of your education?”
“Oh, I would! We have never even had a tournament since I was here.”
“I suppose it could be managed.”
“Oh, please do. You could take me to some like you did to the fish.”
“I suppose it is educational, in a way.”
“It is very educational,” said the Wart. “I can’t think of anything more educational than to see some real knights fighting. Oh, won’t you please do it?”
“Do you prefer any particular knight?”
“King Pellinore,” he said immediately. He had a weakness for this gentleman since their strange encounter in the Forest.
Merlyn said, “That will do very well. Put your hands to your sides and relax your muscles. Cabricias arci thuram, catalamus, singulariter, nominativa, haec musa. Shut your eyes and keep them shut. Bonus, Bona, Bonum. Here we go. Deus Sanctus, est-ne oratio Latinas? Etiam, oui, quare? Pourquoi? Quai substantivo et adjectivum concordat in generi, numerum et casus. Here we are.”
While this incantation was going on, the patient felt some queer sensations. First he could hear the sergeant calling out to Kay, “Nah, then, nah then, keep the ’eels dahn and swing the body from the ’ips.” Then the words got smaller and smaller, as if he were looking at his feet through the wrong end of a telescope, and began to swirl round in a cone, as if they were at the pointed bottom end of a whirlpool which was sucking him into the air. Then there was nothing but a loud rotating roaring and hissing noise which rose to such a tornado that he felt that he could not stand it any more. Finally there was utter silence and Merlyn saying, “Here we are.” All this happened in about the time that it would take a sixpenny rocket to start off with its fiery swish, bend down from its climax and disperse itself in thunder and coloured stars. He opened his eyes just at the moment when one would have heard the invisible stick hitting the ground.
They were lying under a beech tree in the Forest Sauvage.
“Here we are,” said Merlyn. “Get up and dust your clothes.
“And there, I think,” continued the magician, in a tone of satisfaction because his spells had worked for once without a hitch, “is your friend, King Pellinore, pricking toward us o’er the plain.”
“Hallo, hallo,” cried King Pellinore, popping his visor up and down. “It’s the young boy with the feather bed, isn’t it, I say, what?”
“Yes, it is,” said the Wart. “And I am very glad to see you. Did you manage to catch the Beast?”
“No,” said King Pellinore. “Didn’t catch the beast. Oh, do come here, you brachet, and leave that bush alone. Tcha! Tcha! Naughty, naughty! She runs riot, you know, what. Very keen on rabbits. I tell you there’s nothing in it, you beastly dog. Tcha! Tcha! Leave it, leave it! Oh, do come to heel, like I tell you.
“She never does come to heel,” he added.
At this the dog put a cock pheasant out of the bush, which rocketed off with a tremendous clatter, and the dog became so excited that it ran round its master three or four times at the end of its rope, panting hoarsely as if it had asthma. King Pellinore’s horse stood patiently while the rope was wound round its legs, and Merlyn and the Wart had to catch the brachet and unwind it before the conversation could go on.
“I say,” said King Pellinore. “Thank you very much, I must say. Won’t you introduce me to your friend, what?”
“This is my tutor Merlyn, a great magician.”
“How-de-do,” said the King. “Always like to meet magicians. In fact I always like to meet anybody. It passes the time away, what, on a quest.”
“Hail,” said Merlyn, in his most mysterious manner.
“Hail,” replied the King, anxious to make a good impression.
They shook hands.
“Did you say Hail?” inquired the King, looking about him nervously. “I thought it was going to be fine, myself.”
“He meant How-do-you-do,” explained the Wart.
“Ah, yes, How-de-do?”
They shook hands again.
“Good afternoon,” said King Pellinore. “What do you think the weather looks like now?”
“I think it looks like an anti-cyclone.”
“Ah, yes,” said the King. “An anti-cyclone. Well, I suppose I ought to be getting along.”
At this the King trembled very much, opened and shut his visor several times, coughed, wove his reins into a knot, exclaimed, “I beg your pardon?” and showed signs of cantering away.
“He is a white magician,” said the Wart. “You need not be afraid of him. He is my best friend, your majesty, and in any case he generally gets his spells muddled up.”
“Ah, yes,” said King Pellinore. “A white magician, what? How small the world is, is it not? How-de-do?”
“Hail,” said Merlyn.
“Hail,” said King Pellinore.
They shook hands for the third time.
“I should not go away,” said the wizard, “if I were you. Sir Grummore Grummursum is on the way to challenge you to a joust.”
“No, you don’t say? Sir What-you-may-call-it coming here to challenge me to a joust?”
“Good handicap man?”
“I should think it would be an even match.”
“Well, I must say,” exclaimed the King, “it never hails but it pours.”
“Hail,” said Merlyn.
“Hail,” said King Pellinore.
“Hail,” said the Wart.
“Now I really won’t shake hands with anybody else,” announced the monarch. “We must assume that we have all met before.”
“Is Sir Grummore really coming,” inquired the Wart, hastily changing the subject, “to challenge King Pellinore to a battle?”
“Look yonder,” said Merlyn, and both of them looked in the direction of his outstretched finger.
Sir Grummore Grummursum was cantering up the clearing in full panoply of war. Instead of his ordinary helmet with a visor he was wearing the proper tilting-helm, which looked like a large coal-scuttle, and as he cantered he clanged.
He was singing his old school song:
“We’ll tilt together
Steady from crupper to poll,
And nothin’ in life shall sever
Our love for the dear old coll.
Follow-up, follow-up, follow-up, follow-up, follow-up
Till the shield ring again and again
With the clanks of the clanky true men.”
“Goodness,” exclaimed King Pellinore. “It’s about two months since I had a proper tilt, and last winter they put me up to eighteen. That was when they had the new handicaps.”
Sir Grummore had arrived while he was speaking, and had recognized the Wart.
“Mornin’,” said Sir Grummore. “You’re Sir Ector’s boy, ain’t you? And who’s that chap in the comic hat?”
“That is my tutor,” said the Wart hurriedly. “Merlyn, the magician.”
Sir Grummore looked at Merlyn—magicians were considered rather middle-class by the true jousting set in those days—and said distantly, “Ah, a magician. How-de-do?”
“And this is King Pellinore,” said the Wart. “Sir Grummore Grummursum—King Pellinore.”
“How-de-do?” inquired Sir Grummore.
“Hail,” said King Pellinore. “No, I mean it won’t hail, will it?”
“Nice day,” said Sir Grummore.
“Yes, it is nice, isn’t it, what?”
“Been questin’ today?”
“Oh, yes, thank you. Always am questing, you know. After the Questing Beast.”
“Interestin’ job, that, very.”
“Yes, it is interesting. Would you like to see some fewmets?”
“By Jove, yes. Like to see some fewmets.”
“I have some better ones at home, but these are quite good, really.”
“Bless my soul. So these are her fewmets.”
“Yes, these are her fewmets.”
“Yes, they are interesting, aren’t they? Only you get tired of them,” added King Pellinore.
“Well, well. It’s a fine day, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is rather fine.”
“Suppose we’d better have a joust, eh, what?”
“Yes, I suppose we had better,” said King Pellinore, “really.”
“What shall we have it for?”
“Oh, the usual thing, I suppose. Would one of you kindly help me on with my helm?”
They all three had to help him on eventually, for, what with the unscrewing of screws and the easing of nuts and bolts which the King had clumsily set on the wrong thread when getting up in a hurry that morning, it was quite a feat of engineering to get him out of his helmet and into his helm. The helm was an enormous thing like an oil drum, padded inside with two thicknesses of leather and three inches of straw.
As soon as they were ready, the two knights stationed themselves at each end of the clearing and then advanced to meet in the middle.
“Fair knight,” said King Pellinore, “I pray thee tell me thy name.”
“That me regards,” replied Sir Grummore, using the proper formula.
“That is uncourteously said,” said King Pellinore, “what? For no knight ne dreadeth for to speak his name openly, but for some reason of shame.”
“Be that as it may, I choose that thou shalt not know my name as at this time, for no askin’.”
“Then you must stay and joust with me, false knight.”
“Haven’t you got that wrong, Pellinore?” inquired Sir Grummore. “I believe it ought to be ‘thou shalt.’”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Sir Grummore. Yes, so it should, of course. Then thou shalt stay and joust with me, false knight.”
Without further words, the two gentlemen retreated to the opposite ends of the clearing, fewtered their spears, and prepared to hurtle together in the preliminary charge.
“I think we had better climb this tree,” said Merlyn. “You never know what will happen in a joust like this.”
They climbed up the big beech, which had easy branches sticking out in all directions, and the Wart stationed himself toward the end of a smooth bough about fifteen feet up, where he could get a good view. Nothing is so comfortable to sit in as a beech.
To be able to picture the terrible battle which now took place, there is one thing which ought to be known. A knight in his full armour of those days, or at any rate during the heaviest days of armour, was generally carrying as much or more than his own weight in metal. He often weighed no less than twenty-two stone, and sometimes as much as twenty-five. This meant that his horse had to be a slow and enormous weight-carrier, like the farm horse of today, and that his own movements were so hampered by his burden of iron and padding that they were toned down into slow motion, as on the cinema.
“They’re off!” cried the Wart, holding his breath with excitement.
Slowly and majestically, the ponderous horses lumbered into a walk. The spears, which had been pointing in the air, bowed to a horizontal line and pointed at each other. King Pellinore and Sir Grummore could be seen to be thumping their horses’ sides with their heels for all they were worth, and in a few minutes the splendid animals had shambled into an earth-shaking imitation of a trot. Clank, rumble, thump-thump went the horses, and now the two knights were flapping their elbows and legs in unison, showing a good deal of daylight at their seats. There was a change in tempo, and Sir Grummore’s horse could be definitely seen to be cantering. In another minute King Pellinore’s was doing so too. It was a terrible spectacle.
“Oh, dear!” exclaimed the Wart, feeling ashamed that his blood-thirstiness had been responsible for making these two knights joust before him. “Do you think they will kill each other?”
“Dangerous sport,” said Merlyn, shaking his head.
“Now!” cried the Wart.
With a blood-curdling beat of iron hoofs the mighty equestrians came together. Their spears wavered for a moment within a few inches of each other’s helms—each had chosen the difficult point-stroke—and then they were galloping off in opposite directions. Sir Grummore drove his spear deep into the beech tree where they were sitting, and stopped dead. King Pellinore, who had been run away with, vanished altogether behind his back.
“Is it safe to look?” inquired the Wart, who had shut his eyes at the critical moment.
“Quite safe,” said Merlyn. “It will take them some time to get back in position.”
“Whoa, whoa, I say!” cried King Pellinore in muffled and distant tones, far away among the gorse bushes.
“Hi, Pellinore, hi!” shouted Sir Grummore. “Come back, my dear fellah, I’m over here.”
There was a long pause, while the complicated stations of the two knights readjusted themselves, and then King Pellinore was at the opposite end from that at which he had started, while Sir Grummore faced him from his original position.
“Traitor knight!” cried Sir Grummore.
“Yield, recreant, what?” cried King Pellinore.
They fewtered their spears again, and thundered into the charge.
“Oh,” said the Wart, “I hope they don’t hurt themselves.”
But the two mounts were patiently blundering together, and the two knights had simultaneously decided on the sweeping stroke. Each held his spear at right angles toward the left, and, before the Wart could say anything further, there was a terrific yet melodious thump. Clang! went the armour, like a motor omnibus in collision with a smithy, and the jousters were sitting side by side on the green sward, while their horses cantered off in opposite directions.
“A splendid fall,” said Merlyn.
The two horses pulled themselves up, their duty done, and began, resignedly to eat the sward. King Pellinore and Sir Grummore sat looking straight before them, each with the other’s spear clasped hopefully under his arm.
“Well!” said the Wart. “What a bump! They both seem to be all right, so far.”
Sir Grummore and King Pellinore laboriously got up.
“Defend thee,” cried King Pellinore.
“God save thee,” cried Sir Grummore.
With this they drew their swords and rushed together with such ferocity that each, after dealing the other a dint on the helm, sat down suddenly backwards.
“Bah!” cried King Pellinore.
“Booh!” cried Sir Grummore, also sitting down.
“Mercy,” exclaimed the Wart. “What a combat!”
The knights had now lost their tempers and the battle was joined in earnest. It did not matter much, however, for they were so encased in metal that they could not do each other much damage. It took them so long to get up, and the dealing of a blow when you weighed the eighth part of a ton was such a cumbrous business, that every stage of the contest could be marked and pondered.
In the first stage King Pellinore and Sir Grummore stood opposite each other for about half an hour, and walloped each other on the helm. There was only opportunity for one blow at a time, so they more or less took it in turns, King Pellinore striking while Sir Grummore was recovering, and vice versa. At first, if either of them dropped his sword or got it stuck in the ground, the other put in two or three extra blows while he was patiently fumbling for it or trying to tug it out. Later, they fell into the rhythm of the thing more perfectly, like the toy mechanical people who saw wood on Christmas trees. Eventually the exercise and the monotony restored their good humour and they began to get bored.
The second stage was introduced as a change, by common consent. Sir Grummore stumped off to one end of the clearing, while King Pellinore plodded off to the other. Then they turned round and swayed backward and forward once or twice, in order to get their weight on their toes. When they leaned forward they had to run forward, to keep up with their weight, and if they leaned too far backward they fell down. So even walking was complicated. When they had got their weight properly distributed in front of them, so that they were just off their balance, each broke into a trot to keep up with himself. They hurtled together as it had been two boars.
They met in the middle, breast to breast, with a noise of shipwreck and great bells tolling, and both, bouncing off, fell breathless on their backs. They lay thus for a few minutes, panting. Then they slowly began to heave themselves to their feet, and it was obvious that they had lost their tempers once again.
King Pellinore had not only lost his temper but he seemed to have been a bit astonished by the impact. He got up facing the wrong way, and could not find Sir Grummore. There was some excuse for this, since he had only a slit to peep through—and that was three inches away from his eye owing to the padding of straw—but he looked muddled as well. Perhaps he had broken his spectacles. Sir Grummore was quick to seize his advantage.
“Take that!” cried Sir Grummore, giving the unfortunate monarch a two-handed swipe on the nob as he was slowly turning his head from side to side, peering in the opposite direction.
King Pellinore turned round morosely, but his opponent had been too quick for him. He had ambled round so that he was still behind the King, and now gave him another terrific blow in the same place.
“Where are you?” asked King Pellinore.
“Here,” cried Sir Grummore, giving him another.
The poor King turned himself round as nimbly as possible, but Sir Grummore had given him the slip again.
“Tally-ho back!” shouted Sir Grummore, with another wallop.
“I think you’re a cad,” said the King.
“Wallop!” replied Sir Grummore, doing it.
What with the preliminary crash, the repeated blows on the back of his head, and the puzzling nature of his opponent, King Pellinore could now be seen to be visibly troubled in his brains. He swayed backward and forward under the hail of blows which were administered, and feebly wagged his arms.
“Poor King,” said the Wart. “I wish he would not hit him so.”
As if in answer to his wish, Sir Grummore paused in his labours.
“Do you want Pax?” asked Sir Grummore.
King Pellinore made no answer.
Sir Grummore favoured him with another whack and said, “If you don’t say Pax, I shall cut your head off.”
“I won’t,” said the King.
Whang! went the sword on the top of his head.
Whang! it went again.
Whang! for the third time.
“Pax,” said King Pellinore, mumbling rather.
Then, just as Sir Grummore was relaxing with the fruits of victory, he swung round upon him, shouted “Non!” at the top of his voice, and gave him a good push in the middle of the chest.
Sir Grummore fell over backwards.
“Well!” exclaimed the Wart. “What a cheat! I would not have thought it of him.”
King Pellinore hurriedly sat on his victim’s chest, thus increasing the weight upon him to a quarter of a ton and making it quite impossible for him to move, and began to undo Sir Grummore’s helm.
“You said Pax!”
“I said Pax Non under my breath.”
“It’s a swindle.”
“You’re a cad.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Yes, you are.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Yes, you are.”
“I said Pax Non.”
“You said Pax.”
Meet the Author
T. H. White is the author of the classic Arthurian fantasy The Once and Future King, among other works.
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