Uther and Igraine/Book 3/6
IT was spring at Caerleon, and a web of green had swept upon the empty purple of the woods and shut the naked casements to the sun. The meadowlands were plains of emerald that glimmered gold; the gorge blazed with its myriad lamps lighting the dark gateways of the pine forests, and covering all the hillsides as with a garment of yellow. In the woods the birds sang, and hyacinths and dog violets spread pools of blue beneath the infinite greenness of the boughs. In Caerleon's orchards the fruit trees stood like mounts of snow flecked with ethereal pink and a prophecy of green. Yew, cypress, cedar, reared their dark bosoms betwixt the gentler foliage, and many a bronze-leafed oak made mimic autumn with a mist of leaves.
In a forest glade that opened upon the high-road some three leagues eastward of Caerleon, an old man sat beside a shallow spring, whose waters lay a pool of tarnished silver within the low stone wall that compassed them. The old man by the pool was clad in a ragged cloak of coarse brown cloth lined with rabbit skin; he had sandals on his feet, a staff and wallet by his side, and under the shadow of his hood of fur a peaky white beard hung down like an icicle under the eaves of a house. His hands were thin and white, and he seemed decrepit as he sat hunched by the well with a crust of brown bread in his lap and a little bronze pannikin that served him as a cup.
It was late in the day, and the great oaks that reached out their arms over the well stood solemn and still in the evening calm, while the cloud masses bastioned overhead were radiant with the lustre of the hour. The road curled away right and left into the twilight of the woods; no folk passed to and from Caerleon to throw alms to the beggar who squatted there like any old goblin man out of a tomb. From time to time he would turn and look long into the pool as into a mirror, as though he watched the future glimmering dimly in a magic well. He had finished his crust of bread, and his head nodded over his lap as though sleep tempted him after a day's journey. Rabbits were scampering and feeding along the edge of the forest ; a snake slid by in the grass like a streak of silver; far down the glade a herd of fallow deer browsed as though caring nothing for the huddled scrap of humanity by the well. The beggar man might have been dead, for all the heed he gave to the forest life that teemed so near.
Yet it was soon evidenced that his faculties were keenly alive to all that passed about him by a marvellous perception of sound, a perception that made itself plain before the sun had drifted much further down the west. The old man had heard something that had not stirred the fallow deer browsing in the glade. A thin metallic sound shimmered on the air, the clattering cadence of hoofs far away upon the high-road. The beggar by the pool had lifted his head, and was listening with his hooded face turned towards the west, his thin fingers picking unconsciously at his beard.
Presently the deer browsing in the glade reared up their heads to listen, snuffed the air, and swept back at a trot into the forest. Jays chattered away over the trees ; rabbits stopped feeding and sat up with their long ears red in the sunlight. The indifferent suggestion of a sound had grown into a ringing tramp that came through the trees like a blunt challenge to the solitary spirit of the place. Through the indefinite and mazy screens of green a glitter of harness and a streaking of colour glimmered from the wizard amber glow of the west. Three horsemen were coming under the trees,--one in lurid arms before, and two abreast behind in black. The beggar by the pool pulled his cowl down over his face, and stood by the roadside with his bronze pannikin held in a shaky right hand to pray for alms.
The knights drew rein by the pool, and he in the red harness flung down money from his belt, and required tidings in return.
"The Lord Jesus have mercy on your soul in death," came the whine of gratitude; "what would your lordship learn from an old man? "
Uther considered him from the shadow of his casque. He had his suspicions, and was half wise in his conjectures. He could see nothing of the old man's face, and so elected to be innocent for the moment.
"Grandfather, have you heard in your days of Merlin the prophet? "
"Have I heard of the devil, lording!"
"Were he to ride here, should you know his face?"
"Sir, I have seen no man these three hours. Yet, in truth, I did but now smell a savour as of hell--and there was a raven here, a black villain of a bird that croaked 'Abracadabra to the letter.'"
Are you from Caerleon?" he said.
"No, sire, it is Uther the King who comes from the City of Legions."
"Uther, say you? Put back that hood."
"My lord, lo! I bow myself; I have kept the tryst."
The cowl fell back, the cloak was unwrapped, the beard twitched from the smooth, strong chin. The bent figure, feeble and meagre, straightened and dilated to a stature and bulk beyond mere common mould. A man with hair black as a raven's wing, and great glistening eyes, stood with his moon-face turned up to Uther Pendragon. A smile played upon his lips. He was clad in a cloak of sombre purple, wreathed about with strange devices, and a leopard's skin covered his shoulders; his black hair was bound with a fillet of gold, and there were gold bracelets upon his, wrists. It was Merlin who stood before Uther under the arch of the great trees.
"The benisons of all natural powers be upon you; the God of the stars and the spirit fires of the heavens keep you. Great is your heart, O King, and great your charity. Bid me but serve you, and the beggar's pence shall win you a blessing."
The man bowed himself even to the ground. Uther left his horse tethered to a tree, and faced Merlin over the pool. Both men were solemn as night in their looks.
"Merlin," said the King.
"I have a riddle from the stars."
"Speak it, O King."
"To your ear alone."
"Sire, pass with me into the forest."
"Blessed be thy head if thou canst read the testament of the heavens."
It was towards sunset, and the place was solemn and still as some vast church. In the white roadway the black knights stood motionless, with spear on thigh, their sable plumes sweeping like cloudlets under the dark vault of the foliage. Merlin, with the look of an eternity in his eyes, bowed down once more before Uther, and pointed with his hand into the dim cloister of the trees. Red and purple passed together from the pool, and melted slowly into an oblivion of leaves.
In a little glade under a great oak, whose roots gripped the ground like talons, Uther told to Merlin the vision that had come to him in the watches of the night. He had stood late at his window, looking over Caerleon shimmering white under the moon, and had seen a star of transcendent glory smite sudden through the blue vault of the heavens. A great ray had fallen from the star, and from the ray had risen a vapour, a golden mist that had shaped itself into a dragon of gold, and from the dragon's mouth had proceeded two smaller rays that had seemed to compass Britain between two streams of fire. Then, like smoke, both star and dragon had melted out of the heavens, and only the moon had looked down on Usk and the sleeping woods about Caerleon.
When Uther had spoken his whole soul in this mystery of the night, Merlin withdrew himself a little and looked long into the sky, his tall figure and strong face clear as chiselled stone in a slant gleam of the sun. For fully the third part of an hour he stood thus like a pillar of basalt, neither moving nor uttering a sound, while the sky fainted over the tree tops and flashed red fire from the armour of the King. Suddenly, as though he had caught inspiration from the heavens, prophecy came upon him like a wind at sunset. He stretched his bands to the sky. His body quivered; his eyes were as rubies in a mask of marble.
"I have seen, O King! I have looked into the palpitating web of the stars, into the glittering aisles of the infinite."
Uther strode out from the tree trunk where he had leant watching the man's cataleptic pose grow into the quick furor of prophecy.
"Say on," he said.
Merlin swept a hand towards him with a magnificence of gesture.
"Thou art the star, the dragon is thy son. He shall compass Britain with a band of steel, beat back the wolves of heathendom and cast stupendous glory over Britain's realm. His name shall shine in history, sun-bright, magnificent, and pure; his name shall be Arthur. Thus, O King! Uther of the Dragon, read I this vision of the night."
Uther, a gradual lustre in his eyes, looked long at the sun behind the swart pillars of the forest. He seemed to gather vigour from the glow. Prophecy was in his thought, a prophecy that tempted the inmost dreamings of the heart, and linked up the past with promise of the future. To love, to be loved, to win the woman among women! To beget a son, a warrior, a king ; to harden his body like to an oak, temper his heart like steel; to set the cross in his hands and send him forth against the beast and the barbarian like a god! Such, indeed, were the idyls of a King!
"Merlin, I have no wife, and you speak to me of a son," was his sole answer.
The retort echoed from the man.
"The King must wed."
"This is no mere choosing of a horse."
"Sire, you can learn to love. It is not so difficult a thing, no more than falling down upon a bed of roses."
The retort was in no wise suited to Uther's humour.
"I am no boy to be married on the moment to cap the reading of a vision."
"Bring me the woman I may love, if you are magical enough,--then bid me wed."
"My lord, you mock me with a dream."
"She is dead then?"
"On my soul I know not."
"All women are dead to me save one. Conjure her into my being, and I will give you the wiser half of myself, even my heart."
For an instant Merlin smiled--a smile like an afterglow in a winter sky,--clear, cold, and steely. He drew nearer Uther, his purple robe with its fantastic scroll-work dim in the twilight, his black hair falling down about his face. His words were like silken things purring from his lips.
"My lord, tell me more."
"You are a prophet. Read my past."
"Sire, my vision fails at such a depth."
"But not thy flattery."
"Her name, sire? "
"I will read you a fable."
Uther, his eyes lit as with a lustre of recollection, turned from Merlin and the ken of his impenetrable face. He leant against a tree trunk, and looked far away into the dwindling vistas of the woods. His voice won emphasis from the absolute silence of the place, and he spoke with the level deliberation of one reading aloud from some antique book.
"A woman befriended a knight who was smitten of a dread wound. It was summer, and a sweet season full of the scent of flowers,--odours of grass knee deep in dreamy meadows. The woman had red-gold hair, and eyes like a summer night; her mouth was more wistful than an opening rose; her voice was like a flute over moonlit waters. And the knight lost his soul to the woman. But the woman was a nun, and so, to save his vows, he battled down his love and left her."
Merlin's eyes took a sudden glitter.
"A nun, sire?"
"With hair of red gold and eyes of amethyst. Her convent, sire?"
"Avangel. Burnt by the heathen on the southern shores."
"And the nun's name?"
Merlin gave a shrill, short cry; badges of colour had stolen into his cheeks, and he looked like a Bacchanal for the moment.
"Sire, sire, the woman is no nun."
Uther still leant against the tree, and looked into the distance with his hand shadowing his eyes. It might have seemed that he had not heard the words spoken by Merlin, or at least had not understood their meaning, so unmoved was his look, so motionless his figure. Unutterable thoughts were moving in his mind. There was a grandeur of self-suppression on his face as he turned and fronted Merlin with the quiet of a great strength.
"Man, what words are these?"
Merlin had recoiled suddenly within himself. He was silent again, subtle as steel, and very debonair.
"My lord, I swear she is no nun."
"Give me fact, not assertion."
"The woman is but a novice. I had the whole tale from one who knew her well at Radamanth's in Winchester, where she found a home. She had grieved, sire, for Pelleas."
"Pelleas--Igraine! My heart is great in me, Merlin; where saw you her last?"
"Wandering in a wood by Winchester."
"Alone in heart."
"My lord--I know not."
"O God!--to see her face again."
Merlin cast his leopard skin across his visage and stood like a statue, even his immense grandeur of reserve threatened for the moment with summary overthrow. In the taking of twenty breaths he had calmed himself again to stand with bare head and frank face before the King--a promise on his lips.
"My lord, give me a moon's season to stare into this mystery. On the cross I swear it--I will bring you good news at Caerleon."
"On the cross!"
"On the cross of your sword."
"Merlin, if this thing should come to be, if life returns to one whose hopes were dead, you of all men in Britain shall be next my heart. Behold--on the cross--I swear it."
A certain season of youth seemed to have come down upon Uther, and lighted up the solemn tenor of his mood. His face grew mellow with the calm of a great content; he was reasonable as to the future, not moved to any extravagant outburst of unrest; the constant overshadowing of the cross seemed to give his faith a tranquil greenness--a rain-refreshed calm that pervaded his being like moist quiet after a wind.
"Merlin, what of the night?"
"Sire, I am well provided; I have a pavilion near a brook where a damsel serves me."
"I go to Caerleon. You have conjured me back into the spring of life; my heart is beholden to you. Take my hand--and remember."
"Sire, I am your servant."
When Uther had passed, a streak of scarlet, into the blue twilight of the darkening wood; when the dull clatter of hoofs had dwindled into an ecstasy of silence, Merlin, white as the faint moon above, found again the pool under the trees by the high-road to Caerleon. Going on his knees by the brink he looked into its waters, black, sheeny, mysterious, webbed with a flickering west-light, sky mosaics dim and ethereal between swart--imaged trees. Still as a mirror was the pool, yet touched occasionally with light as from a rippling star-beam, or a dropped string from the moon's silver sandals. Merlin bent over it, his fateful face making a baleful image in the water. Long he looked, as though seeking some prophetic picture in the pool. When night had come he rose up with a transient smile, folded his cloak about him, and passed like a wraith into the forest.