The Song Of Arthur - Chapter I
by S. Fowler Wright
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The tale of Merlin. Virgin-born was he,
And fiend-engendered. These the proofs men tell.
What time the lord of Life to deepest Hell
Sought the world's pain, and issuing upward bore
Lost souls to God, a sharp confusion fell
On fiends whose boast to Heaven had been before
That none they seized from out their fatal door
Came ever, that He their spoil should wrest away.
Amazed with portent of their loss were they,
And wroth at loosing of their taken prey,
And fearful all of some dark-shadowing end.
Then spake the master-fiend of that foul crew,
Whose counsels might with all but God contend.
He thought with subtler craft to all fordo
The craft of Heaven.
"Behold," he said, "ye see
What power belongs this Spirit of mortal birth!
Own we the leigance of the tribes of Earth,
Or seek they God? Shall Heaven prevent that we
A maiden fitted to our use shall bend?
Shall we not raise such seed as well may be
More potent in its growth our cause to friend
Than this new foe to thwart us? Heed ye me.
Cast fears aside. Recall the joys we had
When earlier for the souls of men we fought
In God's defeat. Shall not this victory be
Repeated, and advance a hope more glad
Of Earth reconquered, our assured resort?"
He gained of feebler fiends deserved acclaim;
And missioned thus to Middle Earth he came,
And spent long years of search, and lastly found
A maiden fit to bear immortal birth.
There was no fairer stepped on earthly ground:
No flower more flawless from the soil of Earth
Sprang ever. But clean in all her thoughts was she,
And pure of heart as mortal maid shall be.
Now was his thought for but one transient hour
To draw her separate from the shielding power
Invincible of Heaven. For well knew he
Who held on God should all his wiles withstand;
And hence her siege with deep conceits he planned.
Her father first, with loss of worldly store
He vexed. A murrian seized his kine. The more
Device to save his lessening herds he sought,
The more beyond remede the plaguing grew.
At last in his wide fields were left him naught
But such brood-mares of price, and these but few,
As most he valued past compare; for he,
Beyond the hills, and to the northland sea,
Was famed for coursers that his strain had bred.
One morn their came a herdsman: "Lord, are dead
Of some strange plague the whole thou hadst." Thereat
Of all but wrath his angered heart forgat:
"Now may the fiend who rules this world," he said,
"Take all he will."
Released in this permit
To greater power, the fiend who purposed it
Wrought with more wrong his weakened faith to test.
Next morn his heir and only son was found
Slain in the night. Dark stains the white throat round
Of strangling fingers scorching where they pressed
Revealed his death.
His father gazed. Of naught
Again he spake. But of his hand he sought
And found his end.
Two sisters yet remained
Whom well she loved, before the fiend had gained
His goal to reive her of her earthly kin.
To these he cast the snare of carnal sin
In different guise their moods to lure, and one
Weak-yielding to a love misgiven, was led
By that delude a downward path to tread
That in the hues of heaven its marshes hid.
And when the purpose of his guile was won,
In love's defeat her lover faithless fled.
But she was plainly of the sin she did
Convict; for so the subtle fiend had planned.
There was an evil custom of that land
That maidens once who in that sort had sinned
(Except that nobler souded, or loftier kinned
Their deaths they chose), themselves they then must give
To all who would. By such foul use to live,
No heart was hers. Nor surely urged her so
The Elders who her falling judged, for though
Her fault they might not by their laws forgive,
They might not by their ready choice agree
A damsel of her father's race to see
Soiled in the shameful traffic of the mart,
But slew her darkly in a place apart
That no man knew.
The fiend, rejoiced, perceived,
As thus with loss on loss her heart he grieved,
That round his prey a closing snare he drew.
As some strong lioness toward the secret snare
The wary beaters drive, till all unware
Plunged in the pit the treacherous branches through;
Or more as wolves divide a labouring doe
Separate from out the antlered herd, that so
Perforde she further from her safety flies,
Till lonely to the leaping fangs she dies.
So working still to reach his worst intent,
A temptress to the second sister sent
This fiend of hell. A crone so base was she
That hard she wrought all cleaner minds to see
Sunk in like slough to her own infamy.
"Surely," she said, "they waste their nights in vain
The while in men's strong arms they have not lain,
Nor love's dear shame and dear surrender know."
And answered her the maiden: "Surely so
You tempted, and my sister died thereby."
To which the crone gave answer: "Nay, not I;
But wiser counsel from my lips had been
To save her, though the tender fault were seen,
From that strait grave and cold, for fresh delights,
And dalliance of warm days and warmer nights."
The maiden to her chamber passed, and there
Shook from her shoulders loose her pride of hair,
Gazed on her slender body white and bare,
And those smooth limbs that God had made so fair
For love's delight, and felt quick pulses stir
Of lewd desire. So that fiend wrought in her.
Thereat she sought the temptress out anew.
"Thinkst thou," she asked, "I might so stoop, and then
Choose mine own pleasure in desire of men?"
"You are so fair," she said, "that all but few
Would yield thee of their wealth thy will to do."
Then went she forth in fameless ways, and left
Her sister lone in that doomed house, bereft
Of kin or comrade for the days to be.
Thus neared the fiend his purposed hour, but she
Turned Godward in her need, and sought for aid
A holy hermit, Blaise, and him she prayed
For counsel: "All my house is lost," she said,
"And fear is mine."
He answered: "Rest thy dread
On Heaven, for in sure faith is fear's defeat.
Who lean on Christ, High God, for his Son's sake,
Shall not forsake them, save they first forsake,
Their leigance due."
Her steps returned to meet
Whom least she thought about her gates, for there,
With ribald jests and mocking guise to greet
Her quieter mien, inflamed of lust and wine,
Was concourse of her sister's sort, and she
Not backward of them.
With no ruth to see
Whom once she loved so lost from virtues fair,
But wroth that thus they round her gates should bide,
She spoke with scorn she had no heart to hide:
"Oh, sister, shameless! In such shame as thine
What shame contains? Or in thy wasted pride
Wouldst hope to draw me down in like descent
To these and thee?"
So chiding, wroth and proud,
She parted. Scorn such fall that Heaven allowed
Diseased her mind.
Of this repenting naught,
Her door she barred, her narrow couch she sought.
Neither she bent for boon of God her knee,
Nor crossed her with the Sacred Sign, nor plea
To Mary piteous made to hold her free
From demons that the Godless dark affright.
Without, the moon set, and the clouding night
Cowered silent, shrinking from the fear to be.
On the doomed roof, conceived of deepest hell,
A shadow blacker than the midnight fell.
With dawn she rose, her door unbarred, and sought
With sightless-seeming eyes the hermit's cell,
Such tale of marvel and fear to tell
As nothing from his antique lore had taught.
"Was no man came," she said, "was parted none.
There was none with me, nay, by God His Son;
Yet deep I knew my maiden days were done."
The doubtful hermit weighed her tale. He knew
Her simple days. Her life, serene and true,
Pled for her.... But wilder tale should no man hear,
Nor such, he thought, should any credence win,
Devised of shame to shield a likelier sin.
"Daughter," he said, "if aid of Heaven you seek,
Or counsel at most need from mortal weak
To cleanse your soul from guilt, or lift your fear
(The portent of your sister's doom so near),
How hope you aught from me or Heaven the while
You seek to hide your deeds in cloaking guile?"
"God's dole!" She said, "I tell you all I may.
There are no words in mortal speech to say
The more I knew. Than should such night return
I would my flesh the leaping flame should burn.
Yea, by God's death!"
"Daughter," the holy man
Replied, "such marvel since our times began
Hath no man heard. If I can scarce believe,
Who know thee, shall the colder world receive
Thy tale for truth? Thy stricken house to grieve
Strange powers are loose. Yet this thing hold thou sure:
Rest thou thy heart on Heaven, devout and pure,
Though seemeth to man's eyes that fiends prevail,
God's justice at the last shall weight the scale.
Hence with sure faith to God thy life submit.
There is no fear but He shall vanquish it:
No dole but shall His larger grace repay."
Then entering in, he wrote with careful skill
The wondrous tale he heard, that whoso will
May read it yet. 'If truth,' he thought, 'she tell,
And monstrous wrong a monstrous birth portend,
This writ may aid her at the later day
When ginned by that stern law her faults offend
Death must be hers, excepting that God indwell,
A wondrous birth to bring; or demon spell
That wrought this evil should her doom delay.'
Now passed the months: the colder winds prevailed:
The dawns delayed, and summer left the land.
Apparent cause her virgin fame assailed.
The grey morn rose that saw her guiltless stand
For condemnation; or such tale to plead
As few men might for aught but mockery heed.
Yet for her life's defence that hermit came
Her tale to urge; and by his reverend age,
And clean repute, and temperate speech and sage,
And pleadings in the Holy Name they knew,
Some respite from remedeless doom to claim,
A hearing won. But when he ceased, anew
Her tale with ribald scoff and scathing jest
That audience, loud in murmuring, mocked: suppressed
Scarce by the graver Elders there.
A tale beyond the common ways of men
By every scale of patient proof to test
Was counsel called, and long-writ books were brought
The wisdom of the dead years to reap; but naught
Was in them dealing of such wonders met.
And deeming at the last much guilt to let
Were such defence allowed, this doom they read;
That lest clean life of sinless soul be shed
Live should she, captive in strong hold immured;
Till born her babe, and nursed to life assured,
When fire should cleanse her from her shameful wrong.
They closed her in a battered tower and strong,
High-built; and but one outer stairway wound
In giddy curve the steep slope wall around.
And here contained, her babe was born, and here
Grew with its strengthening days the closer fear
Of her unmeet, escapeless doom more near.
And when the gorse upon the moors was gold,
And kingcups in the marshier ways, and all
That her wide prospect showed, in verdure gay
Its summer thrall allowed, at evenfall
There came such word to where she watched as told
Her doomday nigh; and bending, while it lay
Against her heart, that sireless babe above,
Who paid her dole and death for life and love,
"Oh, babe, dear babe," she said, "I dred me sore
The cruel flame to feel, but weep I more
To leave thee shameful to a world unkind."
And in man's speech the babe gave answer clear:
"Oh, mother, from thy heart cast forth thy fear.
There is no fire shall reach thee while I live."
And she, abashed thereat: "Now God forgive
If sin be here, as marvel here I find
Beyond aught else," and called the beldames twain
Who service there and bitter guard combined.
They came, and many an eager wile they wrought
To tempt its speech, but gat they answer naught:
It was mere babe in all response thereto.
Again the Hall of Judgement. Dark again
The brows of those who judged her bent to see
The maiden garb, the babe on arm, as she
Condemned before, to hear her doom was brought.
A ruler in their chiefest place who sate
Faint-stirred of ruth her deadly plight to view.
Adjured her yet once more: "Dost urge thou naught
In more excuse, or own - not yet too late -
Thy frailty, and the stubborn pride subdue
Thy one release that barriers?"
"Nay," she said,
"For sins I nothing wit, God's offcast I.
Do thou thy will."
He answered: "Think ye well.
The fault is plain. The doom is dire. Submit
The lighter choice to take. Confess the wrong.
Live mayst thou yet."
She answered: "Well I know
That deathward from this bitter world I go.
Unmercied, hopeless of one friend's belief.
Yet not for gain of life or change of grief
Will take I refuge in that shameful lie.
But past ye all to God His throne I cry
For His high justice when this dole is through."
Then in the stillness when she ceased - a fear
To that thronged court - in ready speech and clear
From her young babe there came a bold reply:
"Oh, fools! Who hear plain truth, and pass it by.
Think ye the charge of wanton use ye bring
Had falsehood countered with no likelier lie?
Or lewdness had your choice refused? Held fit
In judgement on the doubtful cause to sit,
Condemn ye for a proofless doubt?... I spring
From womb of one no mortal chose, but he
Who holds to all thy race arch-enmity,
Higher than your first beyond compare, I wist.
Sired by the Eternal God's antagonist,
More wise at birth in mortal lores am I
Than those of hoary eld who latest die.
"Begot was I to work your race more wrong
Than erst hath been; yet that the life was pure
Of her who should to life my soul innure,
And that she sought God for me night and day
While gaining life beneath her heart I lay,
This choice of Him was given: that though to me
The wisdom of my demon sire belongs,
And his far-purposed thought, my soul is free
To serve him, or to God for larger gain
To Heavenward turn.
"Now harken. If she die
Guiltless, approve it Hell or Heaven, will I
On all who silent here consent her wrong
So deal, that they for lagging death too long
Shall call in vain; or in more dreadful woes
Shall work like end through sharper pangs for those
They dearest hold. I will such vengeance take
As this ill custom from your laws shall break,
And cleanse the land for ever."
While he spake
Was silence, and some space beyond, until
That ruler who had judgement given before
Boldly sustained the cloak of rule he wore.
"You claim high wisdom, yet your words confess
You were conceived in worse than foolishness,
And so confute thee in themselves. No ill
We seek to show, a cruel fruit to bear.
Our justice oft for surer proof delays;
Or halts, the guiltless from its sword to spare,
As here is shown, or not thy birth had been.
But not for threats its measured pace it stays;
Nor claim of doubt, when such the doubt is seen
As springs from sorcerous crafts, or arts unclean."
To this the babe gave answer: "Say ye so?...
Whose mother risking her soul's price doth go
The while ye speak, the more than mine hath done
For this thing ever."
To this the judge, though wroth
Such monstrous charge to meet, with wont control
Tempering his speech: "This word hath saved her whole
For whom ye plead, or cast you equalled forth
In common flame to die. Not guiltier she
Than is thy base concept, unless that thou
Canst stablish that thou sayest."
The babe replied:
"Well can I prove my word, and more beside.
And nearlier to thee than I spake before,
Were smaller audience held. Or wilt thou more
In open hall be said? I would not shame
Beyond good need thy fair repute, but I
A certain proof will tell, with all men by,
Or solely to thyself; and thou shalt name
Or doom or freedom in thy just review,
While I contest no more."
The judge replied,
Abashed and fallen from his former pride:
"Let space be given," and all men else withdrew.
Then said the babe: "Your secret thoughts I show.
A high descent and clean you think you know.
You think a late-dead sire you mourn. Not so;
Begotten of one you hold your direst foe
Your life began. And while that here you bide,
In your proud towers, the rapid Rhone beside,
Your mother's lust a dearer bond renews
Than with your father's death she learnt to lose.
"All this your short return may seek and see,
To thwart at once and prove it, since that he
You shall not meet, who ere you reach shall die,
Drowned in the flood - to meet his death through thee,
Though no man's hand against his life be high."
"Babe," said the judge, "if these strange words be true,
Her forfeit life is yours. If false you lie,
Then justly in a common doom you die;
As trust I yet no sadder dole to view."
The court recalled, he bade them closely hold
Mother and child alike their fate to bide.
"For secret and for certain proof I ride,
Of which, if justice need, shall more be told;
Or else, convict of false defence, they die;
Cast in a pit themselves have digged thereby.
Mure them the while I leave in keeping strong.
Grant them no boon: but do their lives no wrong."
Then with a slender troop, in haste arrayed,
Hard journey to his father's towers he made,
To prove a monstrous tale or false or true.
Swiftly he rode, but swifter rumour flew
To her who, lately from a life perverse
Released by death, had prudence cast aside,
And with more boldness than an eager bride,
Had called her paramour: "My lord is dead.
My son is absent for sure weeks," she said,
"Come to me," and he came. But different now
Her fearful words: "My son, I know not how,
Hath surely learned; for all he leaves, and fast
Hither he urges his blown steeds." And he,
Her craven lover, rose in haste to flee,
Stung with sharp fear. Across his urgent way
A ford engorged with summer rains there lay.
Brimmed to the brinks from bank to bank it ran,
But blindly plunged he in, and horse and man,
Swept downward, died.
His son, who not till then
Had guessed him father, following, found him caught
In reeds from which a sinking stream withdrew.
Silent he backward rode in sombre thought:
'Not by my hand his death, whose death was due.
Well is it that he died, and well that I
Am guiltless, surely though he died through me...
How should that babe so well that end foresee,
Which was not in clear course of destiny,
But of his own contrive?... If fiend he be,
Or angel, at his door no charge is laid;
And she hath warrant for her tale... My word
Is pledged moreover... If with Blaise they bide,
He will fair guidance and close care provide,
By which should right be proved, or wrong be stayed.'
So by his court's decree this rule was made,
And she who once from God's protection erred,
And he who first her tale of wonder heard
And did not with rejecting words condemn,
Nurtured the child with common aim to draw
Its fiend-bred thoughts to God's auguster law,
And were not impotent thereto. With them
The child in learning and in wisdom grew,
Till Hell's thwart fiend the scourge of Heaven anew
Felt in defeat. For, come to man's degree,
His arts against the tides of heathenry
That surged from Northward round the Christian pale,
He practised long, and with a demon's skill,
Subtle of devious wiles, but clean of will,
Armed with such powers as are not wont to fail.
End of Chapter I