Arthur was a young man, just on the threshold of life. He had fair hair and a stupid face, or at any rate there was a lack of cunning in it.
It was an open face, with kind eyes and a reliable or faithfull expression, as though he were a good learner who enjoyed being alive and did not believe in original sin. He had never been unjustly treated, for one thing, so he was kindly to other people.
The King was dressed in a robe of velvet which had belonged to Uther the Conquerer, his father, trimmed with the beards of fourteen kings who had been vanquished in the olden days. Unfortunately some of these kings had had red hair, some black, some pepper and salt, while their growth of beard had been uneven. The trimming looked liked a feather boa. The moustaches were stuck on round the buttons.
Merlyn had a white beard which reached to his middle, horned-rimmed spectacles, and a conical hat. He wore it in compliment to the Saxon serfs of the country, whose national headgear was either a kind of diving-cap, or the Phrygian cap, or else this cone of straw.
The two of them were speaking sometimes, as the words came to them, between spells of listening to the evening.
‘Well,’ said Arthur, ‘I must say it is nice to be a king. It was a splendid battle.’
‘Do you think so?’
‘Of course it was splendid. Look at the way Lot of Orkney ran, after I had begun to use Excalibur.’
‘He got you down first.’
‘That was nothing. It was because I was not using Excalibur. As soon as I drew my trusty sword they ran like rabbits.’
‘They will come again,’ said the magician, ‘all six. The Kings of Orkney, Garloth, Gore, Scotland, The Tower, and the Hundred Knights have started already in fact, the Gaelic Confederation. You must remember that your claim to the throne is hardly a conventional one.’
‘Let them come,’ replied the King. ‘I don’t mind. I will beat them properly this time, and then we will see who is master.’
The old man crammed his beard in his mouth and began to chew it, as he generally did when he was put about. He bit through one of the hairs, which stuck between two teeth. He tried to lick it off, then took it out with his finger. Finally he began curling it into two points.
‘I suppose you will learn some day,’ he said, ‘but God knows it is heartbreaking, uphill work.’
‘Yes,’ cried Merlyn passionately. ‘Oh? oh? oh? That is all you can say. Oh? oh? oh? Like a schoolboy?’
‘I shall cut off your head if you are not careful.’
‘Cut it off. It would be a good thing if you did. I should not have to keep on tutoring, at any rate.’
Arthur shifted his elbow on the battlement and looked at his ancient friend.
‘What is the matter, Merlyn?’ he asked. ‘Have I been doing something wrong? I am sorry if I have.’
The magician uncurled his beard and blew his nose.
‘It is not so much what you are doing,’ he said. ‘It is how you are thinking. If there is one thing I can’t stand, it is stupidity. I always say that stupidity is the Sin against the Holy Ghost.’
‘I know you do.’
‘Now you are being sarcastic.’
The King took him by the shoulder and turned him around. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘what is wrong? Are you in a bad temper? If I have done something stupid, tell me. Don’t be in a bad temper.’
It had the effect of making the aged nigromant angrier than before.
‘Tell you!’ he exclaimed. ‘And what is going to happen when there is nobody to tell you? Are you never going to think for yourself? What is going to happen when I am locked up in this wretched tumulus of mine, I should like to know?’
‘I didn’t know there was a tumulus in it.’
‘Oh hang the tumulus. What tumulus? What am I supposed to be talking about?’
‘Stupidity,’ said Arthur. ‘It was stupidity when we started.’
‘Well, it’s no good saying Exactly. You were going to say something about it.’
‘I don’t know what I was going to say about it. You put one in such a passion with all your this and that, that I’m sure nobody would know what they were talking about for two minutes together. How did it begin?’
‘It began with the battle.’
‘Now I remember,’ said Merlyn. ‘That’s exactly where it did begin.’
‘It began with the battle.’
‘So I recollect’
‘Well, it was a good battle’ Arthur repeated defensively. ‘It was a jolly battle, and I won it myself, and it was fun.’
The magician’s eyes veiled themselves like a vulture’s, as he vanished inside his mind. There was silence on the battlements for several minutes, while a pair of peregrines that were being hacked in a nearby field flew over their heads in a playful chase, crying out Kik-kik-kik, their bells ringing. Merlyn looked out of his eyes once more.
‘It was clever of you,’ he said slowly, ‘to win the battle.’
Arthur had been taught that he ought to be modest, and he was too simple to notice that the vulture was going to pounce.
‘Oh well. It was luck.’
‘Very clever,’ repeated Merlyn. ‘How many of your kerns were killed?’
‘I don’t remember.’
‘Kay said ’
Arthur the King stopped in the middle of the sentence, and looked at him.
‘Well,’ he said. ‘It was not fun, then. I had not thought.’
‘The tally was more than seven hundred. They were all kerns, of course. None of the knights were injured, except the one who broke his leg falling off the horse.’
‘I was forgetting,’ Merlyn added, ‘that you had some really nasty bruises.’
Arthur glared at his finger-nails.
‘I hate you when you are a prig.’
Merlyn was charmed.
‘That’s the spirit,’ he said, putting his arm through the King’s and smiling cheefully. ‘That’s more like it. Stand up for yourself, that’s the ticket. Asking advice is the fatal thing. Besides, I won’t be here to advise you fairly soon.’
‘What is this you keep talking about, about not being here, and the tumulus and so on?’
‘It is nothing. I am due to fall in love with a girl called Nimue in a short time, and then she learns my spells and locks me up in a cave for several centuries. It is one of those things which are going to happen.’
‘But, Merlyn, how horrible! To be stuck in a cave for centuries like a toad in a hole! We must do something about it.’
‘Nonsense,’said the magician. ‘What was I talking about?’
‘About this maiden...’
‘I was talking about advice, and how you must never take it. Well, I am going to give you some now. I advise you to think about battles, and about your realm of Granmarye, and about the sort of things a king has to do. Will you do that?’
‘I will. Of course I will. But about this girl who learns your spells...’
‘You see, it is a question of the people, as well as of the kings. When you said about the battle being a lovely one, you were thinking like your father. I want you to think like yourself, so that you will be a credit to all this education I have been giving you afterwards, when I am only an old man locked up in a hole.’
‘There, there! I was playing for sympathy. Never mind. I said it for effect. As a matter of fact, it will be charming to have a rest for a few hundred years, and, as for Nimue, I am looking backward to her a good deal. No, no, the important thing is this thinking-for-yourself business and the matter of battles. Have you ever thought seriously about the state of your country, for instance, or are you going to go on all your life being like Uther Pendragon? After all, you are the King of the place.’
‘I have not thought very much.’
‘No. Then let me do some thinking with you. Suppose we think about your Gaelic friend, Sir Bruce Sans Pitié.’
‘Exactly. And why do you say it like that?’
‘He is a swine. He goes about murdering maidens and, as soon as a real knight turns up to rescue them, he gallops off for all he is worth. He breeds special fast horses so that nobody can catch him, and he stabs people in the back. He’s a marauder. I would kill him at once if I could catch him.’
‘Well,’ she Merlyn, ‘I don’t think he is very different from the others. What is all this chivalry, anyway? It simply means being rich enough to have a castle and a suit of armour, and then, when you have them, you make the Saxon people do what you like.
‘The only risk you run is of getting a few bruises if you happen to come across another knight. Look at that tilt you saw between Pellinore and Grunmore, when you were small.
‘It is this armour that does it. All the barons can slice the poor people about as much as they want, and it is a day’s work to hurt each other and the result is that the country is devastated. Might is Right, that’s the motto.
‘Bruce Sans Pitié is only an example of the general situation. Look at Lord and Nentres and Uriens and all that Gaelic crew, fighting against you for the Kingdom. Pulling swords out of stones is not a legal proof of paternity, I admit, but the kings of the Old Ones are not fighting you about that...
‘...This is their chance to pay off racial scores, and to have some blood-letting as sport, and to make a bit of money in ransoms. Their tubulence does not cost them anything themselves because they are dressed in armour and you seem to enjoy it too.
‘But look at the country.
‘Look at the barns burned, and dead men’s legs sticking out of ponds, and horses with swelled bellies by the roadside, and mills falling down, and money buried, and nobody daring to walk abroad with gold or ornaments on their clothes.
‘That is chivalry nowadays.
‘That is the Uther Pendragon touch.
‘And then you talk about a battle being fun.’
‘I was thinking of myself.’
‘I ought to have thought of the people who had no armour.’
‘Might isn’t Right, is it Merlyn?’