King John and Prince Arthur
There was once a king of England whose name was John. He was a trifling, worthless fellow, and as mean a man as ever wore a crown.
He was not the rightful king of England; for by the English law the crown ought to have gone to his nephew, Prince Arthur. But the prince was only a child, and in those rude, rough times the young and the weak had but little chance against the wicked and the strong. It was an easy matter for John to push the lad aside, take possession of his castles and treasures, and then proclaim himself king.
He allowed Arthur to go to Brittany in France, and there the little prince lived for some time in a castle which had been his mother's. John himself often went to France; for in those days a large part of that country was ruled by the English king.
The French king, Philip, was very jealous of John, and there was nothing that he wanted so much as to drive him out of his possessions and take them for his own. But he was a great coward, and although he was always talking about making war upon King John, it was seldom that he found courage enough to do anything. One day as he was thinking about the matter, it occurred to him that it would be a good plan to persuade Prince Arthur to help him. So he invited the boy to come and see him at Paris.
"My dear young prince," he said, "how would you like to be king of England?"
"I should like it above all things," answered the boy, "for indeed it is my right. Had not my uncle taken that which belongs to me, I should even now be wearing the English crown."
"How many fighting men do you think you could muster in case of war?" was King Philip's next question.
"From my own castle, perhaps five hundred," said Arthur.
"Well, then," said Philip, "it will be an easy thing for you to win back your kingdom of England. Only do as I say, and all will be well."
And then he told the prince how he should arm his men and lead them out to fight against the soldiers of King John.
"When the country people see that you are in earnest they will all hasten to help you," said he. "Soon you will have a large army, and all your uncle's castles in France will fall before you. In the meanwhile I will cross the English Channel with my French army, and will attack King John in his own country. He cannot withstand both of us. He will give up everything that he has taken from you. And then you shall be king of England."
Prince Arthur was delighted with the plan, and he promised Philip that he would do what he could. But it is doubtful if he would have done anything had it not been for wicked men who wished to use him for their own selfish purposes.
It was a proud day for Arthur when he rode out at the head of his little army and marched away to fight for the crown of which he had been so wrongfully deprived. It was a foolish undertaking, and hopeless from the start; and the men who were with the little prince ought to have told him so. But, no doubt, they had their own selfish ends to gain, and were willing that he should be deceived.
He had never been happier than when he rode through the meadows that morning, the sunlight flashing from his bright armor, the tall grass rustling in the breeze, the birds singing by the roadside. Alas, he was never to be so happy again.
The people did not join him on the road as he expected, and King Philip seemed to be in no hurry to send him help. But the little prince was brave and hopeful, and he led his army straight across the country to a small town where King John's mother was staying. "If you can capture the king's mother," said some of his advisers, "the king will give up everything for her sake." But he ought to have known that John had no such love as that for anybody.
The town was easily captured by the prince's followers; but all the great people shut themselves up in the castle that stood close by, and dared their enemies to come near them.
While Prince Arthur and his knights were besieging the castle and trying to find some way to get inside of it, King John himself came to the rescue with an army many times larger than the prince's.
What could the prince do? Some of his men turned against him and went over to the king's army. With the rest he shut himself up in the town, and there, for several days, he defended himself like a young hero. But one night, when a dreadful storm was raging, a number of the king's soldiers climbed over the walls and got into the town. Before the alarm could be given, they were masters of the place. The prince was seized upon while he was in bed. Some of his knights were killed while trying to defend him. Others were made prisoners and afterwards thrown into dark dungeons, where they died.
"Come to my arms, my dear nephew," said King John when Arthur was led before him. "Right glad I am to hold your hand again. You have played a lively game with your loving uncle, and your uncle will reward you as you deserve." And with that he sent the prince to the castle of Falaise, to be kept there until further orders.
"I'll tell you what, Hubert," said he to his head officer, "that boy is the very bane of my life. I can do nothing, think of nothing, but that he is always in my way. Do you understand me, Hubert? You are his keeper."
"Yes," said Hubert, "and I'll keep him so well that he shall never trouble you again."
But Hubert was a gentle knight and had no intention of doing the boy any harm. He gave him the best room in the castle of Falaise and treated him as tenderly as though he were his own son. The prince, however, was very unhappy. He spent much of his time looking out of the narrow windows of his prison and wishing that he could once more see his dear old home in Brittany.
The king had hoped that Hubert would find means to put Arthur to death, and when he learned that the lad was still alive he was more troubled than before. He called some of his friends together—men who were as wicked and worthless as himself—and asked their advice.
"What shall we do with that boy?" he asked. "He is the torment of my life. So long as he is alive there will be men to plot and plan to make him king. How shall we be rid of him?"
"Put his eyes out," said one.
"Send some one with a dagger to visit him," said another.
"Throw him into the river to be king of the fishes," said a third.
King John liked the idea of the dagger. He told William de Bray, a Norman knight, that if he would stab the young prince he should be richly rewarded with lands and gold. But Sir William turned on his heel and left the king, saying, "I am a gentleman and not a murderer."
Then the king thought of putting out the boy's eyes. He found two ruffians who were willing to do the deed for pay, and sent them down to Falaise. They took with them the king's order, which they gave to Hubert:—
"You are commanded to burn the boy's eyes out with red-hot irons. See that you fail not. The men who carry this to you will do your bidding in the matter."
Hubert read it and then showed it to the prince.
"Arthur," he said, "I have a message from you uncle. I pray you look it over and tell me what you think of it;" and then he turned away while the prince read.
"Hubert!" said Arthur.
"Well, my prince!"
"Shall I tell you what I think of it? I think that you will not burn out my eyes."
"But the king commands, and I must obey. He will take my life if I refuse."
"Then do it, dear Hubert, to save yourself. But how can you? These eyes never harmed you. They never so much as frowned upon you, nor never shall they. Is there no other way?"
Hubert made no answer, but motioned to the ruffians to come in. They came, with the red-hot irons in their hands. The prince ran to Hubert and clasped him about the knees.
"Oh, save me, Hubert! save me!" he cried, "If it must be done, do it yourself; but send these men away. I promise that I will be very still. I will not flinch when the iron burns me; I will not cry out. But do it yourself, kind Hubert."
The child's distress and terror were more than the tender-hearted Hubert could endure. He sent the ruffians away. "Give me the irons," he said, "I will do it myself." And they, to tell the truth, were glad enough to be off without doing the barbarous deed.
Hubert led Arthur to another part of the castle, into a room that was seldom visited. "I would not harm your eyes for all the treasure that your uncle owns," he said. "But no one must know that I have saved you. The men must carry back false reports, and you must stay here in hiding. I have taken great risks in disobeying your uncle."
When the ruffians went back to the king and said that his orders had been carried out, he was very much pleased. He felt sure now that the prince was out of the way and would give him no more trouble; and for a time all went well with him.
At length Hubert was called away to fight in distant lands; and Arthur was left in the lonely castle, not daring to stir out or to show himself beyond the walls. One day a wicked talebearer who had been entertained and fed at Falaise Castle carried the news to the king that the prince was still alive and well.
King John was furious. "Hubert shall die for this!" he cried. Then he sent men to Falaise to find Arthur's hiding place. They carried the boy far away to one of the king's castles on the Seine River. There he was put in charge of a very cruel keeper. He was shut up in a narrow room above the river, where the only sounds to be heard were the lapping of the waves and the sighing of the wind.
One night the prince was wakened from his sleep by his keeper, who told him that friends were waiting for him at the water gate. He hastened to dress himself, and then followed the keeper down the narrow stairway to the door that opened out upon the river. The night was dark; and he wondered if Hubert had come to rescue him from his prison. He could see near the door the dim shadow of a boat with two men in it. They were muffled in long cloaks and were sitting very quietly.
"Step into the boat," whispered the keeper.
The prince obeyed, and sat down in the stern. Then the man who held the oars pushed the boat off into the stream, and it was soon floating swiftly far away from the castle.
"Is that you, Hubert?" whispered the prince to the man who sat in front of him. The man loosened his cloak and lifted his face. Then, as the moon peeped out from behind a cloud, Arthur saw that it was his uncle and that he held a dagger in his hand.
In the morning while the gray mists were still hanging above the river, King John and his boatman were seen floating down the river towards the place where the king's army was encamped. But Prince Arthur was not in the boat; nor did any one ever see him again.