John Stevenson.

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Magic Mantle

And Other Stones



Illustrated by W. F. Lamb






Entered at Stationers Hall, London,
All rights reserved.









PART I. of this little romance is confessedly
an elaboration of the incidents in the old bal-
lad, "The Boy and the Mantle." The author
has, however, furnished a setting, chosen the
time of the action, and made a few changes and
additions, chief of which is the role assigned
to Merlin, of whom the ballad makes no
mention whatever. In the metrical version
the elfin boy is the central figure; in the
present story Merlin is the protagonist. The
elfin is but the servant of the magician, at
whose instance he comes to aid in the per-
formance of an imperative but disagreeable

Notwithstanding his years and wisdom, his
loyalty and patriotism, Merlin, too, had fallen
a victim to the vice of the times, and could not
conscientiously rebuke the court for its of-
fences ; but having been warned that he would,
at no distant date, come to an inglorious end,
he resolved to make the most of his remain-
ing days, and, even at the hazard of a rupture
with Arthur, try to avert impending doom


from his beloved king and country. For him-
self he cares not; he yields to the spell of the
sorceress, whose magic is more potent than his
own. He accepts his fate, and even acknowl-
edges the justice of it as a punishment for
his sins of omission and commission. But for
his country he is much concerned, and takes
this means of awakening Arthur and his
court to a sense of their danger; he flouts the
immorality of the courtiers, and indicates the
only way of avoiding disaster.

This view of Merlin, though not borne out
by the legends, nevertheless harmonizes with
the rest of his character, and furnishes a plau-
sible explanation of the elfin's visit to Arthur's

Other references to Arthurian myths are
made on the authority of Malory's "Mort

Part II., to which the first is but a pro-
logue, is entirely of the author's creation, hav-
ing no foundation in fact, and scarcely any in
legend. The theme is rich in poetical sug-
gestions; and if the author has missed his op-
portunity, he has at least disclosed a vein of
material worthy the effort of a true poet.



THAT winter Arthur and his court were so-
journing at merry Carlisle to spend the Yule-
tide the last that Merlin was destined to pass
on earth.

Early on Christmas day church duties had
been attended to by those of the court who had
not yet altogether fallen from grace, but by
many of the lords and ladies these observances
had been totally neglected; for, be it re-
marked, the Knights of the Table Round had
by this time grown careless in matters spirit-
ual, being in this respect not unlike the nobles
of many other royal courts both before and
since the good King Arthur's reign. And
thereby hangs our tale.

It was high noon, and the Yule festival was


already in progress. Rude abundance crowned
the board barons of beef, haunches of veni-
son, boars' heads, fowl, and fish from the sea
and streams ; and while the lusty guests were
occupied in doing justice to these, compara-
tive silence prevailed.

To the Briton of those early days eating was
a serious matter, not to be interrupted or inter-
fered with by conversation. As in other bar-
barous countries, his supply of food was rather
precarious; and when chance threw abun-
dance in his way he indulged his appetite to
excess. To him a banquet was no feast of rea-
son or flow of soul, but an opportunity for lay-
ing up provision for the future, according to
the capacity of his stomach. The present
meal was certain; the next might be far off,
and experience had taught him to prepare for
a possible siege of famine, whose privations,
however, he could bear with fortitude. Like
the Indian of our northern woods, he could
not only endure hunger and thirst without
complaint, but could store under his girdle an
enormous quantity of food.


After the appetite had been satiated, and
the draughts of wine and mead began to take
effect on the banqueters, their tongues, not
otherwise occupied, were free to wag, and con-
versation became general. Decorous enough
at first, considering the rude manners of the
times, the mirth soon became loud and boister-
ous ; its religious significance lost sight of, the
Yule festival degenerated into a revel, coarse
and riotous.

Scurrilous jests of a grossly personal nature,
questionable witticisms, and catches of rude
songs were shouted or sung to the enjoyment
of both knights and ladies, without a word of
rebuke from Arthur or Guinevere. Sir
Launcelot being present, the Queen looked
happy; and her sharp wit and ready tongue
never failed to turn the laugh against all who
dared encounter her. The King, too, was at
his ease, laughing at the jests, and lifting his
voice lustily in the singing of a catch.

The songs were mostly of love or war; the
former recounted the trials and final triumph
of lovers, while the latter celebrated the ex-


ploits of heroes, living or dead. In compari-
son with similar compositions of the present
day, they were of interminable length, and the
melody was little more than a recitative. Most
frequently the songs were improvisations, the
singer playing his own accompaniment on the
harp; they were therefore sung solo. Occa-
sionally, however, there was a catch or refrain
in which the company joined, singing in uni-
son; and songs of this form were the most
popular, probably because they afforded the
Briton an opportunity to "chime in."

One convivial song, which seemed to meet
with most approval, had a somewhat lengthy
catch, in which all joined lustily. If there
was a lull in the mirth and some reveler
started up the refrain, it was the signal for the
company to join in and render it over and over
again with unabated vigor. As it was indica-
tive of the life and sentiments of court circles
at the period under consideration, an almost
literal translation of the fragment is here pre-
sented to the reader; from which the ingenious
song writer will have no difficulty in re-con-


structing the entire composition. As songs
reflect national character and feelings, so
should a refrain reflect the whole song.

'And after we have eat
Of the bread and the meat

For the good of our bod-ies,
Together we shall troll
The foaming bowl

To the health of our la- dies.



IT was while the company were bawling
with, "all their heart and with all their
strength and with all their mind," that Mer-
lin entered, unobserved by the King and the
Queen. He had been absent from the court
for a considerable period; but no comment
had been caused thereby, as he was a privi-
leged character, coming and going as he
listed, and deigning explanations to nobody.

Tall and spare of figure he was slightly
bent, though this did not appear to be the ef-
fect of age, but rather of sorrow. Later on
it was observed that in moments of deep pas-
sion he straightened himself to his original
height, and his marvelous eye flashed as with
the fire of manhood's prime.

Merlin's face was inexpressibly sad as he
entered. Walking like one in a dream he
saw nothing of his surroundings, although his


eyes were open. He was in one of those fits
of abstraction peculiar to the seer and the
poet; he was looking beyond his immediate
present, and what his prophetic eye there saw
had fixed those lines and shadows of melan-
choly on his countenance.

The noisy revelers were so engrossed with
their own amusement that Merlin's entrance
attracted no attention. However, no sooner
had the ranting ceased than a young knight,
foolish at the best, and now heated and reck-
less with wine, attracted general attention to
the sorcerer.

"Hush! my lords and ladies," said he; "Sir
Merlin will harp us a measure."

"Nay," cried another, "an if he keep not his
beard free of the strings his harping will
sound like a fly in a spider's web."

"A spring! Sir Merlin; play us a merry
spring," called several voices.

"Sir Merlin harp a spring! Belike he'll
harp us a dirge," laughed the reckless young
knight who had started the flow of badinage.
, "By'r lady!" said another voice, "methinks


this be not Sir Merlin at all, but a ghost that
hath left the charnel-house for that he liketh
not the smell of his own company there."

So far the chaffing of Merlin had been con-
fined to the knights alone, and these the least
worthy of consideration in the court; but now
Guinevere, who had apparently derived great
pleasure from the coarse jests, took part:

"Sooner shall the raven croak good tidings
at midnight than Merlin harp a merry meas-
ure. He harpeth naught but drools. Out
upon him! His presence doth make my flesh
shiver and creep."

"Nay," remarked Kay's lady, "he hath cur-
dled the milk i' my bowl."

"And soured the wine i' my cup," added
another lady.

The King meanwhile had been engaged in
lively conversation with a small coterie of
ladies and knights ; and as he sat with his back
towards Merlin, he knew not who was the butt
of the jests that were exciting such mirth in
other quarters of the hall. As soon, however,
as he was informed that the cruel sarcasms


were aimed at his benefactor, Arthur arose in
a towering rage. Flushing with wrath and
paling with mortification, the King gave no
voice to his thoughts and feelings ; but the elo-
quence of his eye was understood as a signal
of danger; and Merlin's persecutors, ceasing
their mirth, slunk into the deepest shadows for
concealment. Even Guinevere, who never
took any pains to hide her dislike of Merlin,
felt that she had gone too far and transgressed
the laws of hospitality; and she read in the
King's look that she would be brought to task

At length the King, at whom every eye had
been directed, found voice and spoke :

"Let there be silence deep as death until I
amend the wrong that hath been done to an
honored friend in mine own hall. Soul of my
body! shall it be said that Arthur winked at
this ! And thou, too, Guinevere, queen of my
heart as of my realm, dost thou, too, conspire
to bring dishonor upon my name? The
others knaves and jades know no better,


but from thee I had expected more gentle and
courteous behavior."

There was more of grief than anger in his
tones as he rebuked Guinevere, who now, as
at first, completely dominated his affections.

"Meseems," defended she, "that Merlin
doth mar the feast with his ominous looks.
Besides, I like him not, for never hath he the
courtesy to speak me fair. Thou knowest, my
lord, that ere we were wed he did counsel thee

to marry another. Wherefore, then, should

"Peace I" commanded the King. "No more
of this."

Then addressing the company in general,
he added:

"An if any lady shall aim further taunt at
Merlin, she is unworthy of our presence; and
whatsoever knight doth so abuse my hospital-
ity is a churl, and unfit for the companionship
of the Table Round."

Profound silence followed this burst of in-
dignation, and all were astounded at the vehe-
mence of the King's rage. From righteous


indignation to grief, deep as that which dark-
ened Merlin's countenance, the expression of
Arthur's face changed as he turned towards
the sorcerer. Merlin maintained the same at-
titude as he had assumed on entering, and
stood staring into vacancy, apparently heed-
less of the stinging sarcasms that had been
leveled at him. The King approached and
knelt before the magician, and with deep emo-
tion said:

"O Merlin, friend of my father, and pro-
tector of my infancy! hear me while I try to
make amends for the wrong done by witless
men and women. Thou wert the instructor
of my youth, the counselor of my early man-
hood, and hast been the truest friend of my
life. My heart to thee is as an open book, and
thou knowest that I have no feelings for thee
but love and friendship, esteem and reverence;
did I feel otherwise I were an ungrateful
churl. All the good I know was learnt from
thee ; thy counsel was ever sound, ready, and
far-seeing; thy help free and potent. Had I


always hearkened to thy advice, I had avoided 1
some of the mistakes of my life.

"Who, an it were not thou, made me King
over this realm? By whose cunning counsel
and mighty aid were the eleven kings smitten,
and peace and order established in Britain?
To whom, but to Merlin, do I owe it that I
am lord over all of England and Wales, and
that the whole of Christentie hath acknowl-
edged my power?

"Friend and benefactor, when I think of all
that thy love and power have done for me, I
own that my debt is greater than I can ever re-
pay. King though I be, I feel but as a worm
that crawls in comparison with thy greatness
and wisdom. Though I prize the power and
dignity that thy love hath bestowed upon me,
yet I value them as trifles compared to the
jewel of thy friendship, which, alas! I fear
me I have forfeit by permitting the chatter of
graceless witlings. That thou, Merlin, of all
men, shouldst be plied with taunt and insult
under my roof-tree by churlish guests and by
Guinevere! the thought of it doth swell my


veins with rage. O Jesu, that died on the
rood! help me to forgive these offenders and
remove the foul blot they have put upon my

"Friend Merlin, wilt thou that I bring the
guilty into thy very presence, and make them
kneel at thy feet for pardon? Speak but the
word, and, by my sword, the man or woman
that refuseth amends shall feel a King's dis-



AT the first sound of the King's voice Mer-
lin, who was still standing and gazing into
space, was recalled from his fit of abstraction.
With a swift, comprehensive glance he took
in every detail of his surroundings, each lord
and lady present, and the consternation de-
picted on every countenance when the King,
in such vigorous language had rebuked the
conduct of the court.

The occasion of the King's indignation,
however, was still a mystery to Merlin, who in
reality had heard none of the uncompliment-
ary personalities that had been addressed to
him. His prophetic eyes had been peering
into the future, where a panorama of coming
eyents passed before his vision, making him
oblivious of all else.

For an instant, as Arthur commenced to
speak, the eye of Merlin gleamed with a


kindly light, although the very pronounced
lines and shadows on his face retained their
expression. Towards the close of the King's
speech, however, his features relaxed some-
what of their sternness, and there was the sus-
picion of a pleased smile about his lips as he

"My liege lord, fret not thyself about the
Sayings and doings of those wittols and their
paramours. As for their jibes and jeers, I tell
thee I heard them not; and if I had heard
them I should have heeded them no more than
the buzzing of a fly. I am so armed in proof
against the prating of fools that their shafts
fall on me harmless as rush arrows tipped
with down. Therefore, I pray thee, let no
further thought of them break in upon thy
peace; but let me embrace thee in their pres-
ence, my liege, in token that no shadow doth
mar the fair light of our love."

After an affectionate greeting, the King,
viewing the seer with looks of mingled love
and concern, inquired:

"But wherefore, O Merlin, the settled


gloom of thy countenance on such a joyous
day? Thou wast not wont to be so sad at
Yule-tide, but didst, with thy harp and lay,
cheer the heart and exalt the spirit of our
court. But be seated, pray; it is not meet that
so worthy a guest should receive such scant

"Ah! my liege," replied Merlin when the
King had led him to a seat beside his own
"could'st thou but see could'st thou but read
the portents, thy brow, I trow, would be dark
as mine; and could these babblers but under-
stand, their laughter would be changed to

"Short must be my stay, because to-night I
must be far hence. Ere I go, however, I have
a message to deliver, which importeth much
to thee and thy whole court, in the speaking
whereof I must needs use sharp words that
may pierce to the very marrow. Enjoin si-
lence, my lord, and give me thine ear; for
what I have to say concerneth thee most im-
mediately, and may be of profit when I am
not by to counsel.


"Fate hath sealed the doom of Britain; but
for thee, my lord, there is still some hope.
Thou mayst avert for a season, though thou
mayst not altogether avoid, the coming ruin.
But me there is no such reprieve for Mer-
lin ; I go to my destruction with my eyes open,
lured on by the potent spell of one I love and
cannot withstand.

"The seed long since planted and carefully
nourished in this body has thriven beyond the
dreams of expectation, and is now ripe for the
sickle. Even as I speak I hear the rush and
roar of the whirlwind I am about to reap.
The voice of Fate doth call, and it is too late
to flee, too late to resist.

"O my lord, I conjure you, lay to your heart
that which I have to say, and profit by my
warning example; for thus only mayst thou
avoid dishonor, though thou canst not escape
the decrees of Fate."

Silence having been commanded by the
King, the conversation, which had been re-
sumed in low tones in the remote parts of the
hall, immediately ceased. At his own request


a harp was placed before Merlin, who, sweep-
ing the strings with the grace of a master,
played a weird, wailing accompaniment as he
declaimed, rather than sang, his Jeremiad, of
which this was the burden :

"As Sodom rotten and Gomorrah vile
Were overwhelmed with fire and brimstone

From heaven because not ten good men were


Within their gates, so shall disaster dire
Befall this land, enveloping the King
And all his court in woe and sore defeat
And bitter death; and I, even I who sing,
Shall suffer first of all: so 'tis decreed.

"The canker-worm of vice hath sapped the


Of this brave realm till virtue, its fair flower,
Doth dwine for lack of proper^nourishment;
And noble deeds, its whilom golden fruit,
Are blighted in the bud, untimely fall,
Nor ever come to the complete performance.

"O son of Uther! ope thine eyes, and look, ,
And thou shall see, hoving o'erhead, a cloud


Of offal-feeding birds, ready to swoop;
From every part of the circumference
They come, straight to the centre as spokes
To nave, drawn hither by the carrion-stench
O' the court; they wheel, they scream, they

screech with glee,
Already reveling in the expected glut.

"Now cast thine eyes within the forest marge;
Mark how the ruthless wolves surround in


Their noses pointing centrewards, their necks
And backs abristle, and their eyes agleam
With the green light of hunger and the lust
Of blood. Hark how they snarl and gnash

their fangs!

"Mark how the slaver of anticipation
Drips from their jowls! See how they tug

and strain
Like hounds in leash, scarce held in check

by Fate!

Soon will the ravenous wolves close in,
The vultures swift descend to the carrion-
feast. , .

"Virtue hath fled the court, and brazen
vice "


"By my soul! my lord, lettest thou this
nightmare flout us thus to our face?" fiercely
interrupted Guinevere. "An thou must needs
hearken to his drools, I pray thee withdraw
with him to another chamber."

"Peace, woman ! I will hear him to the last
word, and so shalt thou; so shall ye all," re-
turned the King with stern sadness.

Arthur had been held as in a spell by the
wild eloquence of the seer, whose burning
words had made a deep impression on all
sobering some, shaming or frightening others.
Had an angel from heaven instead of Merlin
delivered the accusing message, the effect had
scarcely been greater. Few of them, alas!
were in a position to show honest resentment
of the scathing charge, or felt secure enough
in their innocence to call on their accuser to
specify. That was dangerous ground, they
felt, on which they had no desire to tread; so
they remained silent, each one hoping to es-
cape special notice.

That there was truth in Merlin's words the
most hardened courtier could not in his heart


deny; but no one admitted that the moral state
of the court was so corrupt as to warrant Mer-
lin's terrible description. He was crazy, they
thought; his alarmist predictions and gross ex-
aggeration of trivial incidents in court life
were the hallucinations of an unbalanced
mind, and unworthy of serious attention. Yes,
Merlin's mighty intellect was tottering to its
fall ; there was no other way of accounting for
his altered appearance and behavior. Though
there was a grain of comfort in that thought,
still no one had the courage to challenge the
truth of the sorcerer's words.

It is a peculiarity of moral decay that the
victim is seldom aware of the presence of the
disease until the case is hopelessly incurable;
this is true of a nation as it is of an individual.
Now Guinevere and her courtiers admitted,
singly and collectively, that their lives were
not quite free from blame; each knew the
peccadilloes of the others, and winked at
them. They never imagined that their secrets
were known outside of their own circle; to the
outer world they were patterns of propriety


and respectability. As a drunkard deludes
himself with the belief that his vice is unsus-
pected, so did those courtiers think that their
licentiousness was unknown.

Merlin's charge, therefore, had the effect
of a bomb exploding amongst them. It was
certainly an awkward situation. There was a
very general desire for the curtain to fall up-
on the scene, or at least to divert Merlin from
his disagreeable theme; and the courtiers felt
momentarily relieved and grateful to Guine-
vere, when she made her spirited but politic

The King, however, was not to be swerved
from his avowed purpose of hearing Merlin
to the end. Taking no notice of Guinevere's
remarks, therefore, but looking at the seer, he

"Proceed, Sir Merlin; speak thy message
to the uttermost word, nor bate one syllable
thereof, although it do pierce me to the heart
and wound the feelings of the court. Speak
on; a fell disease needeth sharp remede."

Merlin, who had hitherto addressed his


words to the King, now arose from the harp,
and, directing his remarks to the courtiers in
general, said:

"The court, which of old was as a fountain
and reservoir of honor, shedding its blessing
refreshingly upon the places below, is now
polluted at the spring; and its tainted waters
carry the disease far down the stream, poison-
ing the utmost parts and spreading the deadly
plague amongst shepherds and husbandmen,
hewers of wood and drawers of water.

"Virtue and bare merit are no longer the
key to preferment in court, and modesty is
but a trammel. Simple faith is become the
jest of the scoffer; loyalty is held up to scorn.
Friend betrayeth friend and is not ashamed;
nay, he boasteth thereof in his heart, and
laugheth in his sleeve. The leal spouse, who
trusteth to the honor of his helpmeet, getteth
but the smiles of her lips ; the light of her eyes
and the love of her heart she keepeth for her

"Because we have departed from our an-
cient honor; because we have put down the


good and set up the evil; because the pure
thought and virtuous purpose no longer nerve
the arm to noble deeds of valor and self-sacri-
fice; because we have preferred the soft pleas-
ures of vice to the sterner but loftier joys of
virtue, thy doom, O Britain, is writ, and the
avengers are on thy track. Thou art become
as a fair-seeming, goodly tree, which, rotting
from the core, is hollow to the rind, and will
fall with a crash in the first gust that blows.

"Ere yet it be too late, O son of Pendragon,

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Online LibraryJohn StevensonThe magic mantle, and other stories → online text (page 1 of 13)