The Begetting of Arthur
|The Begetting of Arthur
written by John Masefield
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UTHER, the Prince, succeeding to the post
Of Red Pendragon, or Anointed Chief
Of all the Kings in Britain, saw with grief
How jealousy and spite
King against King, let in the heathen host,
Who, coming in their hundreds, found a land
Of warring Kingdoms owning no command,
And therefore sackt, uncheckt, from Tyne to Wight.
So when he took the purple he began,
Among his friends, to build a league of Kings:
Iddoc of Kent, among the Easterlings;
The Orkney pirate, Lot;
Then, from the North, the golden hero, Ban;
And having these, he greatly longed to win
Old Merchyon, King of Cornwall rich in tin,
Whose strength would bind the leaguers like a knot.
None loved King Merchyon: Prince Uther knew
That he was aged, savage, mean and grim;
That baron Breuse, the Heartless, lived with him,
Of all bad men the worst;
That in Tintagel, nest-rock of the mew,
His daughters lived with him, the dark Ygraine,
That moon of women; then the bright Elaine,
And little Morgause, whom a witch had curst.
So, knowing that the urger of a cause
Must urge the cause in person, Uther rode
With Kol and Guy, to Merchyon's abode,
And in Tintagel tower
Pled eloquently to him without pause,
With all a young man's beauty, flusht and true;
And as he pled, Ygerna watcht, and knew
That of all knights Prince Uther was the flower.
Then Merchyon answered, "I have heard your plea.
I will not mingle in remote affairs,
I can mind mine, let others manage theirs:
What can the East, or Wales,
Or all of northern Britain, mean to me?
No Cornish men shall bleed in the employ
Of you, or others like you, Roman boy.
Your schemes are childish and your fears are tales.
Or if not so, perhaps the Romans plan
To recommence their empire, for in truth
Taxes and tribute and conscripted youth
Are playthings dear to Rome.
But you, my Roman, come to the wrong man."
So raging, wrapping close his scarlet cloak,
He left the hail: Breuse, as he followed, spoke.
"That was your answer, Uther; make for home."
Breuse and his sworders followed Merchyon out,
Uther had neither welcome nor farewell,
Comfort, nor rest, nor water from the well,
Nor food for man or horse.
He stood a moment, betwixt rage and doubt.
"Sir," said Ygerna, coming from her place,
"Father is old: forgive his want of grace.
To-morrow he'll be broken with remorse."
Then Uther for the first time saw Ygern;
And at her voice and at her wistful glance,
Love stabbed his spirit with her beauty's lance;
While she, made faint with love,
Felt the hot blush upon her temples burn.
Love to both startled mortals made it known
That each was other's to the inward bone
Through some old passion in the stars above.
As in October when the Channel mist
'With silent swathes of greyness hides the sea
Until none knows where land or waters be,
And suddenly a blast
Scatters and shreds the vapours into twist
And all is glorious sunlight, wind and foam,
Through which a towering ship comes striding home,
Spray to the rail, with colours at her mast;
Or as, in mild Novembers, when the pack
Whimpers in covert and the hunters wait,
Under slow-dropping oak-leaves falling late,
Making no sound at all,
And suddenly the fox with hollow back
Breaks, with a crying leader at his brush,
And all those riders gathered for the rush
Surge for the fence, not heeding any call;
So, to those two, the greyness and delay
Of all their lives' endeavour and employ,
The hollowness which they had counted joy,
The hopes which had been dear
Until that instant, all were swept away;
They were alone upon an ocean shore
Where nothing meant nor mattered any more
Save their two souls and being without fear.
"O Princess," he began, "O dark-haired Queen,
O moon of women, we have met again,
We who are one yet have been cut atwain
To seek ourselves till now.
'Whatever griefs are coming or have been,
Love in his glory grants us to make whole
Our bleeding portions of divided soul
That our last dying sundered with the plough."
And she replied, "Even as a winter bird,
Robin or chaffinch, in the iron day
Mopes, with pufft feathers, on the snowy spray,
Too pincht with cold to fly,
Too starved with bitter need to sing a word,
Till, from the farm, maid Gillian scatters crumbs,
And the bird, gladdened, knows that April comes
And carols his thanksgiving, so am I."
Then, being in the certainty of love,
That cannot doubt, however it be blind,
Those two young lovers plighted mind to mind,
And straightway told the King;
Who cried, "A pretty plot, by Heaven above.
Since I, as King, refused to be allied,
You think to win my power through a bride
Whose loving father grants her everything.
Not so, my Roman, for I see your plot.
Keep to your own princesses; she shall wed
My Breuse, who has no Latin in his head,
And you shall go out shamed. . . .
You sworders, make this loving swain less hot . . . .
Set him ahorseback with his head for home.
And keep from Cornwall henceforth, man of Rome,
Or Cornish hands will swiftly have you tamed."
Then instantly, before Ygraine could plead,
Or Uther answer, he was hustled forth
(He and his Knights) and headed for the north,
With orders not to turn.
Since three alone were helpless, they agreed
To the tide's setting, but they rode in rage,
Vowing to set King Merchyon in a cage
Next Sarum Fair, to suffer and to learn.
Yet, after noon, as Uther stayed to look
West, from the moorland, at Ygerna's home,
There, on the moor, he saw a horseman come
Black against burning sky,
Galloping tow'rds him, by the way he took.
And being near, behold, it was Elaine,
Flusht, tousled, riding on a tautened rein,
Calling, "O Uther, help, or she will die .
Help us to-night, because my Father swears
That Breuse shall wed Ygerna before Prime . . .
Friend, can you help her in so little time? . . .
Not let her go to Breuse . . ."
"Men have plucked women out of dragons' lairs,"
King Uther said, "And I will pluck Ygraine.
O Rose in briars difficult to gain,
Lighten my mind with stratagems to use."
Then, having thought, he said, "This seems a chance.
Your porter's old: suppose I climb the rock,
Dresst like the King your father, and then knock
At midnight on the door.
He, being old and drowsy, may but glance,
Think me your father, bow, and open gates.
Then, when I bring Ygern from where she waits,
He may unfasten for me as before.
It is worth trying, for, if it succeed,
Ygern and I will be beyond the wall;
And I can see no other chance at all
Of saving her to-night . . .
And if I save her, sister, as God speed,
I swear to take her to the hermit's cell
And marry her before we cross the fell,
Making her Queen from Isis to the Wight.
You, Kol and Guy, arrange for horse-relays,
From here to where King Merchyon's country ends;
Swift horses, mind. About it: gallop, friends:
And if the luck be fair,
We'll meet again in Sarum in three days.
Sister, be ready when the moon goes west.
The hermit knows me, he is Bran the Blest,
He will assist us: have the horses there."
* * * * *
Who longs for time to pass? The child at school,
Sick for his home where understandings dwell;
He who counts tiles within a prison-cell;
The broken, with her wrongs;
Eagles in cages stared at by the fool;
To all these dreary longers, at the last,
Some bell of blessing tells the hour is past:
But none longs for it as the lover longs.
Still, at the last, to Uther, the sun dimmed;
Men drew old sails across the half-built ricks;
The quarrymen trudged home with shouldered picks;
Slow-footed cows turned home;
After the chapel-bell ceast, voices hymned;
Evening came quiet: all the world had turned
To rest and supper where the rushlights burned:
Tintagel blackened like a dragon's comb.
By moonlight Uther came to Bran the Blest
Whose shed now held the horses of Elaine,
Bold-eyed, high-mettled, leaners on the rein,
Waiting their King and Queen.
At moonset, helped by Bran, Prince Uther dresst
With crown and scarlet and a sheep's-wool beard
Like Merchyon's self; then down he went, and neared
The rock-cut stairway slimy with sea-green.
He clambered up, while far above his head,
Black on the sky, the battlements were grim;
The sentries paced above, not seeing him,
Nor hearing how he climbed.
Beneath, within the bay, the ripples spread
One after other slowly to the shore,
Where, gleaming but unbroken, they gave o'er
Like breathing from a sleeper, husht and timed.
Upon the topmost stair he stood intent
Outside the gate, to listen, while the feet
Of drowsy sentries passed upon their beat.
He heard, beyond the door,
The porter, breathing deeply where he leant
Sprawled over table near the charcoal pan.
"Come, courage," thought Uther, "play the man."
He knocked King Merchyon's knocking and gave o'er.
As he had hoped, he heard the porter rouse,
Garble some words, unhook the lantern-ring,
Kick back the bench, and mutter, "It's the King!"
Then fumble on the bar,
Pulling it weakly, gulping down his drowse.
The oaken barbolt loitered slowly back,
The latchet clicked, light yellowed at the crack,
An old man louted with the door ajar.
And as he louted low, Prince Uther passt
There was Elaine, to take him to Ygern,
Telling the porter to expect return
Within few moments more.
All ways are long to lovers, but at last
He found Ygerna waiting in the dim,
Her great eyes bright, her white arms stretcht to him;
He drew her back along the corridor.
They trod the dark stone passage between rooms
Where people slept beneath the sentry's tread;
Tintagel seemed a castle of the dead.
A horse-hoof scraped the stone
Where the King's stallion waked among the grooms.
The porter, with his old eyes full of sleep,
Opened the gate to let them from the keep;
Its clang behind them thrilled them to the bone.
They crept like spies adown the cragside stair,
Into the gully's blackness between crags;
They heard the spear-butts clang upon the flags
At changing of the guard.
No challenge came; the world was unaware
How lovers fled: they reached the castle brook
Where ever-changing gleaming ever shook
An image of the zenith many-starred.
No sentry saw them; no one challenged; no,
Not when they moved across the moorland crest
Leaving the castle black against the west,
Grim guardian of the sea.
Their footsteps made a drowsy cock to crow,
A dog barked at their passing by the farm,
But no one stirred nor answered the alarm:
They reached the hermit's chapel: they were free.
There in the little chapel of the well,
By taper-light, the hermit made them one.
"Now cross the moor," he said, "before the sun.
God be your guard and speed."
They turned the chafing horses to the fell,
That King and bride upon their marriage day;
The nightingale still sang upon the spray,
The glow-worm's lamp still burned among the weed.
All day and night they hurried from pursuit;
Next morning found them out of Merchyon's land
Beside a brook with wood on either hand,
Deep in a dell of green:
Cool water wrinkled at the flag-flower-root,
The meadowsweet her heavy fragrance shed:
"Here," the pair thought, "shall be our marriage bed,
Here, in this orchard of the fairy queen."
So there they halted in the summer flowers,
The speedwell blue, the stitchwort starry bright,
The dog-rose not yet opened, pink or white,
But sweet as very love.
Blackbirds and thrushes sang the lovers' hours,
And when the young moon brightened golden-pale
In the blue heaven, lo, a nightingale
Singing her heart out on the spray above.
There the two loved. Alas! ere morning came,
There Breuse and Merchyon, finding them asleep,
Stabbed Uther dead, and took Ygern to weep
In grim Tintagel tower.
There she sat weeping at the weaving-frame,
Waiting to bear her son before she died;
And as she wept, poor woman, hollow-eyed,
She wove the story of her happy hour:--
The creeping from the castle in the dark,
The blinking porter drowsed in lantern light,
The hermit and the chapel and the rite,
The horses tried and true;
Dawn on the moorland with the singing lark,
The ride for safety ever glancing round;
Then the sweet loving place, where they were found
At dawn among the speedwell in the dew.
And sometimes Merchyon, mindful of his girl,
In mercy of her health, would have her ta'en
To rest beside the Alan with Elaine,
Guarded by Breuse's band.
There as she watcht the water-eddies whirl,
Often a dark-eyed deer with fawn at heel,
Would shyly nuzzle her to share her meal,
And robin redbreasts percht upon her hand.
|Works by this author are in the public domain in countries where the copyright term is the author's life plus 51 years or less.|