Historical Tales: 13—King Arthur - Charles Morris

How Morgan Cheated the King

In the meantime Morgan le Fay was so sure of the success of her murderous plot, to aid which she had used all her power of necromancy, that she felt it safe to complete her scheme. Seeing her husband, King Uriens, lying asleep upon his couch, she called a maiden, who was in her confidence, and said,—

"Bring me my lord's sword. Now shall my work be ended."

"Oh, madam," cried the damsel, "would you slay your lord! If you do so you can never escape."

"Leave that to me, girl. Bring me the sword at once; I am the best judge of what it is fit to do."

The damsel departed with a heavy heart, but finding Sir Uwaine, King Uriens' son, asleep in another chamber, she waked him and said,—

"Rise at once and go to your mother. She has vowed to kill the king, your father, and has sent me in all haste for his sword."

"To kill him!" cried Uwaine. "What treachery is this?—But go, bring the sword as she bids. Leave it to me to deal with her."

The damsel did as she was bidden, and brought the sword to the queen, giving it to her with hands that quaked with fear. Morgan seized it with a firm grasp, and went boldly to the bedside, where she stood looking with cruel eyes on the sleeping king. As she lifted the sword for the murderous blow, Uwaine, who had silently entered, sprang upon her and seized her hand in a crushing grip.

"You fiend, what would you do?" he fiercely cried. "If you were not my mother I would smite off your head with this sword. Men say that Merlin was born of a devil; but well I believe that I have an earthly fiend for mother. To kill my father thus!—in his slumber!—what foul device is this?"

His face and voice were so full of righteous fury that the queen quaked to her heart with fear, and she clasped her hands in terror upon her throat.

"Oh, Uwaine, my dear son, have mercy on me! The foul fiend tempted me to this deed. Let me live to repent of this base intent, which I pray you to keep secret. I swear never again to attempt so foul a deed."

"Can I trust you? Truth and murder do not go together."

"On my soul, I vow to keep my word!"

"Live, then; but beware you rouse me not again by such a murderous thought."

Hardly had the false-hearted queen escaped from the indignation of her son when tidings came to her which filled her with as deep a dread as when Uwaine had threatened her with the sword, while the grief it brought her was deeper than her fear. For she learned that Accolan had been slain in the battle, and that his dead body had been sent her. Soon, indeed, came the funeral train, with the message that Arthur had sent. Then sorrow and terror together filled her heart till it threatened to break, for she had loved Accolan with all her soul, and his fate wounded her almost to death. But she dared not let this grief be seen upon her countenance, lest the secret of her love should be discovered; and she was forced to wear a cheerful aspect above a bleeding heart. And this she knew, besides, that if she should remain in Camelot until Arthur's return, all the gold in the realm would not buy her life.

She went, therefore, unto Queen Guenever and asked leave to ride into the country.

"Why not remain to greet your brother on his return? He sends word that he will soon be here."

"I should much like to, Guenever, but hasty tidings have come which require that I should make no delay."

"If that be so," answered Guenever, "let me not stay you. You may depart when you will."

On the next morning, before daybreak, Morgan took horse, and rode all that day and the greater part of the night. On the following day by noon she came to the abbey where Arthur lay. Here she asked the nuns where he was, and they answered that he was sleeping in his chamber, for he had had but little rest during the three nights past.

"Then see that none of you waken him," she said. "I will go visit him in his chamber. I am his sister, Morgan le Fay."

Saying this, she sprang from her horse and entered the abbey, going straight to Arthur's chamber. None dare hinder her, and she suffered no one to accompany her. Reaching the chamber she found her brother asleep in bed, with the sword Excalibur clasped with a vigorous grip in his right hand.

When she saw this her heart sank, for it was to steal that sword she came, and she knew her treacherous purpose was at an end. She could not take the sword from his hand without wakening him, and that might be the warrant for her instant death. But the scabbard lay on a chair by the bedside. This she took and left the chamber, concealing it under her mantle as she went. Mounting her horse again, she rode hastily away with her train.

Not long afterwards Arthur woke, and at once missed his scabbard. Calling his attendants in a loud voice, he angrily asked who had been there, and who had dared remove the missing scabbard. They told him that it was his sister, Morgan le Fay, and that she had put it under her mantle and ridden away with it.

"Then have you watched me falsely," cried Arthur, in hasty passion.

"What could we do?" they answered. "We dared not disobey your sister's command."

"Fetch me at once the best horse that can be found," he ordered, "and bid Sir Ontzlake arm himself in all haste, and come here well mounted to ride with me."

By the hour's end these commands had been obeyed, and Arthur and Ontzlake rode from the abbey in company, well armed and on good horses, though the king was yet feeble from his wounds. After riding some distance they reached a wayside cross, by which stood a cowherd, whom they asked if any lady had lately ridden that way.

"Yes, your honors," said the cowherd. "Not long ago a lady passed here at easy speed, followed by about forty horsemen. They rode into yonder forest."

Arthur and Ontzlake at this news put spurs to their horses and followed fast on the track of the fugitives. An hour of this swift pursuit brought them in sight of Morgan's party, and with a heart hot with anger Arthur rode on at the utmost pace of his horse.

The fugitives, seeing themselves thus hotly chased, spurred on their own steeds, soon leaving the forest and entering a neighboring plain, beside which was a lake. When Morgan saw that she was in danger of being overtaken she rode quickly to the lake-side, her heart filled with spiteful hatred of her brother.

"Whatsoever may happen to me," she cried, "I vow that Arthur shall never again wear this scabbard. I here consign it to the lake. From the water it came; to the water it returns."

And with a strong hand she flung it far out over the deep waters, into which it sank like a stone, for it was heavy with gold and precious stones.

Then she rode on, followed by her train, till they entered a valley where there were many great stones, and where they were for the moment out of sight of their pursuers. Here Morgan le Fay brought her deepest powers of enchantment to work, and in a trice she and her horse were changed into marble, while each of her followers became converted into a statue of stone.

Hardly had this been done when Arthur and Ontzlake entered the valley, where they beheld with starting eyes the marvellous transformation. For in place of the fugitives they saw only horses and riders of solid stone, and so changed that the king could not tell his sister from her men, nor one knight from another.

"A marvel is here, indeed!" cried the king. "The vengeance of God has fallen upon our foes, and Morgan le Fay is justly punished for her treachery. It grieves me, indeed, that so heavy a fate has befallen her, yet her own deeds have brought on her this mighty punishment."

Then he sought on all sides for the scabbard, but it could nowhere be found. Disappointed in this, he at length turned and rode slowly back with his companion to the abbey whence they had come, their souls filled with wonder and awe.

Yet no sooner were they well gone than the enchantress brought another charm to work, and at once she and all her people were turned again from stone into flesh and blood.

"Now we can go where we will; and may joy go with King Arthur," she said, with a laugh of triumph to her knights. "Did you note him?"

"Yes," they replied. "And his countenance was so warlike that had we not been stone we could scarce have stood before him."

"I believe you," said Morgan. "He would have made sad havoc among us but for my spells."

They now rode onward, and soon afterwards met a knight who bore before him on his horse another knight, who was unarmed, blindfolded, and bound hand and foot.

"What are you about to do with that knight?" asked Morgan.

"To drown him in yonder fountain," was the reply. "He has caused my wife to prove false to me, and only his death will avenge my honor."

"Is this the truth?" she asked the bound knight.

"It is false," he replied. "He is a villain to whom I have done no wrong. He took me unawares or I should not have been in such a state."

"Who are you, and of what country?"

"My name is Manassen. I am of the court of King Arthur, and cousin to Accolan of Gaul."

"Then for the love I bore your cousin you shall be delivered, and this villain be put in your plight."

By her orders Manassen was loosed from his bonds and the other knight bound. Manassen took from him his armor and horse, and riding with him to the fountain, flung him remorselessly in, where he met the fate which he had devised for his late prisoner. Then Manassen rode back to Morgan, and asked her if she had any word to send King Arthur.

"Tell him," she answered, "that I rescued you not for love of him, but of Accolan; and that I fear him not while I can turn myself and my knights into stones. Let him know that you saw us riding in good flesh and blood, and laughing him to scorn. Tell him, moreover, that I can do stranger things than that if the need should come."

Bidding Manassen to return with this message, she rode with her train into the country of Gore, where she was well received, and in the might of whose castles and towns she felt secure from Arthur's wrath, for much she feared his vengeance should she fall into his hands.

Meantime the king rode back to Camelot, where he was gladly received by his queen and his knights, to whom he told in full the story of Morgan le Fay's treason. They were all angry at this, and many knights declared that she should be burned.

"Stone will not burn," said Arthur. "But God has punished her."

But as they thus conversed, Manassen came to the court and told the king of his adventure, delivering to him Morgan's message.

"Then the witch has tricked me!" cried the king, in a tone of vexation. "I might have known it, had I been wise. A kind sister she is, indeed! But my turn will come. Treachery and magic may succeed for a time, but honor must win in the end."

Yet despite the king's awakened distrust, he nearly fell a victim to his sister's vile enchantments. For on the succeeding morning there came a damsel to the court from Morgan le Fay, bearing with her the richest mantle that had ever been seen there. It was set so full of precious stones that it might almost have stood alone, and some of them were gems worth a king's ransom.

"Your sister sends you this mantle," said the bearer. "That she has done things to offend you she knows and is sorry for; and she desires that you shall take this gift from her as a tribute for her evil thoughts. What else can be done to amend her acts she will do, for she bitterly regrets her deeds of wickedness."

The mantle pleased the king greatly, though he made but brief reply as he accepted it from the hand of the messenger.

At that perilous moment there came to him the damsel Nimue, who had so recently helped him in his dire need.

"Sir, may I speak with you in private?" she asked the king.

"What have you to say?" he replied, withdrawing from the throng.

"It is this. Beware that you do not put on this mantle, and that no knight of yours puts it on, till you know more. The serpent does not so soon lose its venom. There is death in the mantle's folds. At least do this: before you wear it, command that she who brought it shall put it on."

"Well said," answered the king. "It shall be done as you advise."

Then he returned to the messenger and said,—

"Damsel, I wish to see the mantle you have brought me tried upon yourself."

"A king's garment on me, sir! That would not be seemly."

"Seemly or not, I command it. By my head, you shall wear it before it come on my back, or that of any man here."

The damsel drew back, quivering with fear and growing pale as death. But the king commanded those about him to put it on her. Then was seen a marvellous and fearful thing. For no sooner had the enchanted robe been clasped around her form than flames burst out from its every thread, and in a minute she fell to the floor dead, while her body was burnt to a coal.

The king's anger burst out fiercely at this, and his face flamed with the fire of rage. He turned to King Uriens and his son, who stood among the knights.

"My sister, your wife, is doing her utmost to destroy me," he said, in burning wrath. "Are you and my nephew, your son, joined with her in this work of treachery? Yet I suspect not you, King Uriens, for Accolan confessed to me that she would have slain you as well as me. But as for your son, Uwaine, I hold him suspected, and banish him from my court. I can have no traitors about me."

When these words had been spoken, Gawaine rose in anger, and said,—

"Whoever banishes my cousin banishes me. When and where Uwaine goes I go also."

And with a stride of anger he left the great hall, followed by Uwaine. Then the two knights armed themselves, and rode together from Camelot, Gawaine vowing never to return till his cousin had been fully and freely pardoned.