"Return, Sir Knight, thy wife has borne a son;
But in that birth you both are quite undone.
Fierce as a dragon shall he be in fight,
Yet more than dragon's is St. George's might."
Sir Albert let the point of his sword sink to the ground, and his arm hung loosely, as he heard that strange saying. Every word was clear and distinct: yet he could find no meaning in them, except that his wife had borne a son and that he was bidden to return to her.
He stood in thought for a minute. Then he laid hold upon the trumpet again. And yet, as he seized it, he changed his mind, and let it fall. The voice had bidden him return. It may be that Kalyb herself had spoken. Here at least was certainly her lair. He had come to question her; he had had his answer before he asked the question. Who knew but that some terrible doom might come upon him if he pressed her further?
He turned and walked towards the dark forest, slowly and heavily at first, then more quickly, and at last desperately when his purpose to return grew strong in him and he thought upon those other words,"You both are quite undone."
It was more than a week since he first set out when Sir Albert, weary, haggard, travel-stained, came again to his castle at Coventry. The gates on either side the drawbridge were open, as was customary, and a guard saluted him as he passed. But though the news of his coming had gone before him, there were no signs of joyful welcome, no blowing of trumpets and assembling of men-at-arms. The very guards looked askance, as though they had some secret that they feared to tell him.
He came into his great hall. His boar-hound rose and met him, licking his hand in welcome, and scattering the rushes on the floor with his leapings and caperings of joy. But that was the only joyful thing to be seen. The pages and serving-men wore dark garments of woe, the maids were red-eyed with weeping. A little group of attendants—the squire, the bailiff, and the seneschal and clerks and other officers—waited timidly till he spoke.
"What, Seneschal?" said Sir Albert. "Have I gone on a journey of peril and returned safely to be welcomed like this?"
"My lord——" said the Seneschal, and stopped.
"Sir," said the Squire, "what answer did you get from the Enchantress?"
"We marvel that you have returned safely, my lord," added a clerk. "Doubtless you have a strange tale to tell. Our tale is strange, too, and sad also."
The Knight looked at him steadily, feeling the burden of some new sorrow close upon him. "I do not know what the Enchantress meant by her answer," he said: "her words were without meaning, as it seemed. But I think they were words of doom." And he told them the rhymes he had heard.
"My lord," said the Seneschal slowly, "I can explain Kalyb's saying; but I fear that it has a sorrowful meaning. Let not your anger fall upon me for my story."
"You know that I am just, Sir Seneschal," answered Sir Albert. "Say on."
"Listen, then, my lord. Trouble has come upon you, close on the heels of joy, and all the heavier because of that joy. Two days after you had set out for the dark forest your wife bore a son; and at his birth she died."
He paused. Sir Albert could not speak. But he made a sign to the Seneschal to continue.
" 'Thy wife has borne a son,
But in that birth you both are quite undone,' "
said the Seneschal gently. "The Enchantress foresaw this, if, indeed, it is not of her contriving. There is worse to tell, my lord."
"Worse? What can be worse? Have I not lost my dearest wife?" said the Knight bitterly.
"That is not all you have lost, my lord. The babe was a fine boy, and on him there were curious signs which I do not doubt are marks that one day he shall be great and famous, as befits the High Steward of England's son. But perhaps we shall never know of his fame. My lord, four nurses were set to guard and tend him. They were chosen well, and no fault can be found with them. All the castle was on watch and ward as is customary in your absence. But what is all the caution in the world against magic? Two days after the boy was born, my lord, as he slept in the afternoon, two nurses being with him, he was stolen by black arts. They did not neglect their watch: one was busied with her needle, the other rocked the cradle and did but look aside out of the window for a moment. In that moment the babe vanished, with no sound or sign of any person, no, nor even of any evil spirit. We have searched everywhere, my lord. There is no explanation but the craft of some wizard, who, it may be, has a grudge against you."
Sir Albert was long silent. Then he questioned the men strictly about the guard that was set, and summoned the nurses, and questioned them also. But he could learn no more. The child had vanished in open daylight, and no cause seen.
"You said there were marks upon him," said Sir Albert presently. "What were they?"
"These, my lord," answered the Seneschal. "On his breast, in red, was the image of a dragon. In the palm of his right hand was a red cross. On his left leg was a band like a golden garter. Your lady wife, as she died, begged that he might be named George. I do not know——"
"Yes," said the Knight wonderingly. "It is as Kalyb prophesied, though I cannot tell how it will come true. She said he should be fierce as a dragon, and she spoke of St. George." And he fell into thought.
His servants and officers stood silent, with bowed heads. At last Sir Albert spoke. "It is plain to me," he said, "that my son has been stolen by magic arts; I do not know for what purpose. I do not know if the wicked Kalyb stole him, or if she had a hatred against me, who never wronged her in all my life. But she knew that great things were to come upon the boy; she knew of his birth before I came to her fortress. She bade me return; I have returned, to this sorrowful news. I think if she had desired me to ask her further, or to go back to the Dark Forest again, she would have said so. So I will not seek her again. But she said nothing of whether I should seek my son or not. And hear me now, my friends"—and he raised his voice till it rang through the hall—"I vow before you all that I will go forth from Coventry into every corner of the whole wide world in search of my son, and I will not come back here till I have found him—no, not if I have to end my days in a foreign land."
He strode from them to his chamber. When he had removed from him the dust of travel, he went to look upon his wife for the last time. Even on that day they were to bury her, with all due ceremony.
Messengers were sent into all parts of England—aye, and farther, for news of the boy St. George (for by that name he was ever afterwards called). They went and came back; they brought no tidings. Sir Albert had search made in all places where the child might be hid. But he learnt nothing. So he begged of the King that he might be freed from his office of High Steward, and the King graciously gave him his freedom. And then, having made all needful preparations, he set forth from Coventry to wander over the world till he found his son.
Never more did he set eyes upon his castle of Coventry. Never did he so much as hear of the son he had not yet seen. For ten years he was a knight-errant, taking up such adventures as came in his path, fighting with all the usages of chivalry and knighthood, and everywhere asking and hoping for the news he never received. In the tenth year, worn with travel and not far from despair, he came to the Holy Land of Palestine, and there joined in the wars against the pagan Saracens, and was slain, fighting fearlessly for Christendom.
The son whom Sir Albert lost without ever seeing him was destined to be the patron saint of England, the slayer of the dragon. The Enchantress Kalyb had indeed stolen him, that she might work out his destiny by giving him suitable arms and a chosen band of companions. But he was not to set eyes on other mortals for many a long year. The only being in human form he saw till he came almost to manhood was Kalyb herself; she appeared to him always in the guise of a lovely maiden, who had the gift of eternal youth and beauty. For the rest, St. George's comrades, or guardians, were none else than twelve satyrs, hideous creatures, half men, half goats, who waited on him, and taught him the use of arms and all knightly arts, but would not suffer him out of their sight for an instant.
So he dwelt in Kalyb's power for many a long year, growing strong and wise and good to look upon, but ignorant of all that might be in the world of other men.
There came a day at length when Kalyb visited him, appearing more lovely than ever, and had serious speech with him.
"I will make you lord of all my magic realm," she said, looking longingly upon him, "if you will marry me and live with me for ever. By my power I will make you eternally young, even as I am. Am I not fair to look on?"
"Even so, Enchantress," said St. George courteously, for it was true." But I do not love you; I do not think well of your black arts. I think such powers are unlawful for men to use." For the champion, though he had never learnt anything of men's nature, had born in him, deep in his heart, a dread and hatred of all that was evil. "You are very fair, but you do wicked deeds."
"You do not know what wickedness is, poor youth," said Kalyb mockingly, "How should you? And you do not know what power is. Look at this wand"—and she showed him a golden wand, curiously powdered with silver stars and signs in the ancient language of Arabia—"look at this wand. With it you may have dominion over the solid earth. Strike the hard rock, and it will fly open. Beat the ground with it, thus"—and she struck the earth thrice in a singular manner—"and the firm floor of the world shall rock." And indeed there was a terrible rumbling, and the earth quaked. "I can give you all the wealth that there is now in the whole globe; I can tell the secret places where rubies and topazes are found, and where diamonds hang on the trees. I can change men's visages so that they appear like beasts, or, again, transform the beasts into the likeness of upright-walking men. This wand and its spells are the least of my powers."
The young man was strongly moved by her promises. Yet he did not trust her. "These are great wonders, lady," he said simply. "But I have no liking for them. Why have you bred me thus, so that I know nothing of other men? I have been told by those ugly guards of mine that there is a world outside your dominion, and that there men strive for honour and justice, and live, and love, and die; but what do I know of it, save that I am well fitted for it, if their praise of my skill be true? What use should I make of your powers when I do not even know my own? Who am I? What is my lot? What am I to do, I who am a man and no magician?"
"Aye, who are you?" laughed Kalyb bitterly, for by her magic arts she knew that St. George must one day leave her, and that soon; but she did not know the manner of his going, and she was eager to prevent it if it were possible. "Who are you? Who in this realm of mine are your parents? Why have you been trained as a knight? I could tell you. But that is mere human talk and knowledge; I can give you a better wisdom and a power far greater."
St. George pondered a moment. It came into his head that he would humour her, though what would be the issue of it, or how it would end, he could not guess. "Fair Enchantress," he said,"why should we not strike a bargain? These powers that you speak of are without doubt greatly to be desired. But I am a man, and I desire yet more ardently to know what man I am, and for what purpose you have brought me hither and trained me in the knightly customs of mankind. If you will tell me that, and reveal to me the state and names of my parents, I will marry you, and you shall teach me this magic that you are so set upon giving me."
Kalyb wondered a little at his request. But she had fallen deeply in love with the splendour of his youth, and wished to defeat fate, and keep him always with her. But no enchantments can defeat the high purposes that rule the world for its good.
"Sir George," she answered, "it shall be a bargain. First I will tell you your lineage, and then I will show you certain marvels of my art, and then you shall marry me, and we will come into great happiness. Now, first, you are of the blood royal of England, the son of Sir Albert, High Steward, Lord of Coventry, and his lady wife. They have both left this life many years now. I can tell you afterwards the manner of their deaths. When you were born, I stole you by enchantments. Here in my kingdom you have been ever since."
"England!" said St. George. "That is a country of which my guards have told me much. Now reveal to me why I am here."
"Softly," said the Enchantress, for she knew that if she told him his destiny he would try to make it come true. "Let us first search out my other secrets, the wonders of my realm. They are things of the present; your fate is a matter for the future."
St. George made no bones about it. He felt, with this new knowledge, that he was born for some great end which would come to pass in the due time.
"Come," said Kalyb, taking her wand. She waved it round and over his head and shoulders, and muttered some words that he did not understand; then she chanted other words:
"Hear, be awakened; see the unseen;
Learn the wonders that have been."
He seemed, as she spoke, to become more a man than before, less a prisoner in a strange and mysterious land. Then, though he thought he had wandered with his satyrs over all her kingdom, Kalyb led him into a region close at hand upon which he believed that he had never before set eyes. They went by a winding path among rocks, whereon grew wallflower and stonecrop, for all the world as if there was no evil influence in the place. They came anon to a castle of lime and stone, very well built, with many turrets, and upon each a different gay flag. It was set upon a hill, or great rock, so that any man approaching it could be easily seen from afar.
Kalyb struck the high portcullis with her wand, and it rose above them with never a sound of ropes or pulleys. Within were great chambers marvellously decorated with rich tapestries, tall candles, and many-coloured glass. Beyond lay a garden full of sweet herbs and bushes cut into life-like shapes; here was a unicorn in yew, there a peacock in box, there a whole file of horsemen in close-growing laurel. The garden ended in a great cliff of grey rock, covered in many places with yellow lichen; from cracks in the stone grew red valerian, and lean cats walked to and fro beneath, waving their thin tails at the smell of that strange plant.
"Here is your destiny," said Kalyb bitterly. "But it is better not to know it. It will bring you into great sorrows and through many hardships; there will be in it more sadness and toil than joy. Better to abide here, young knight; I can give you ease, and sweetness, and youth for ever, and power. What is the good of toil without end?"
"Tell me my destiny," said St. George. "No man can be happy in ease that he has not earned; that much my manhood tells me."
Kalyb said no more. She made a pass with her wand. St. George was looking at the rock, and the red plant, and the cats. Suddenly he saw in their place, fast against the rock, motionless as if they too were rock, six comely knights fully armed. They appeared, as it were, asleep, and yet in a greater stillness than sleep gives.
"They will not wake until an appointed time," said Kalyb grimly. "These are to be your companions if you choose that life of hardship. Here is St. Denis, who shall be reverenced by France; he shall have the form of a beast, and shall marry a tree. This is James of Spain; his deeds shall be to kill a pig and change his skin. This is Anthony of Italy, who shall kill a foolish giant. St. Andrew, the next, will do no more than slay a magician. St. Patrick here shall set upon certain satyrs—you know their prowess. And, last of all, St. David will get his arms from a stone."
So she spoke, making at once a mockery and a mystery of these knights who were to be the champions of Christendom.
"Do not answer," she said, as St. George made as if to ask her questions. "I have not shown you all yet. You must not choose your destiny till you have seen all." For she still hoped vainly that St. George would choose to marry her, and so put himself into her power, to treat as she had treated the other champions.
She led him back to the castle, to the stables, which they had not yet visited. There were seven noble chargers, and by them all the trappings for the steeds of knights.
"These are for you and your comrades—if they are to be your comrades," she said. "This white horse is yours. He is named Bucephalus, after the horse of the great Alexander, who conquered all the world as far as Tartary. Now let us find armour for you."
They went to an armoury—a long chamber hung with swords and lances and shields. Here were gilt spurs, and steel morions, and surcoats blazoned with gold thread, halberds, sharp, thin daggers that would slit the life of a man out in a second, great two-handed swords, fine rapiers. There was not any weapon known to chivalry which was not in that gallery, each in order and bright for use.
Kalyb went to the end of the chamber, where hung by itself a great sword with a hilt in the shape of a cross. She took it down, and offered it to St. George. Here is a sword which shall be the most famous in the world. No man save you has handled it; it shall be the sword of St. George. With it you shall be invincible, the champion of right against wrong, of good against evil. The name of this sword is Ascalon."
St. George took the sword. It lay in his hand as if it had been made to fit his grip; never had he held a weapon more easily.
Kalyb looked at him as he tested the sword. She felt that her power over him was slipping from her.
"Have I pleased you, dear knight?" she asked tenderly. "Have I armed you well?"
"It is a good sword. I thank you, Kalyb," replied St. George. He knew his parentage and his destiny now. It only remained to be free of the Enchantress. And in a little while, as she had promised, she would give him magic powers. "Take me to my comrades," he said. "Will you not bring them to life for me?"
"Bring to life the men who shall take you from me?" said Kalyb. "I shall not let you go so easily, Sir George. You shall see how I might have served you had I willed; then, perhaps, you will be grateful to me and love me. Come."
They went back towards the garden and the rocky cliff. When they came to the cliff, at the end of it, where it sloped away towards a dark wood, she gave him her wand.
"See, I give you my power," she cried. "All that I have is now yours. Strike this hard rock, and see how great is my gift, and believe that I love you."
He struck the rock. With a rending crash it burst asunder, and a narrow, dark way opened through it. St. George peered within. Then he started back in horror. On either side, in the rock itself, were the bodies of little children.
"What is this, foul wizard?" he cried, in dismay and anger. "What have you done to these innocent children that I see here dead in this cruel rock?"
Kalyb laughed savagely. "I told you that I had spared you," she answered. "I stole all these babes from their parents, and slew them, and placed them there. Even so I might have slain you had I not looked on you with favour. Do you see now what a gift of love and power it is that I offer you?"
"Never will I marry you, detestable witch!" cried St. George furiously.
"You will break your word?" said the Enchantress with malice. "You, a knight, promised to marry me if I would tell you your name and parentage. Can a knight break his promise?"
St. George was silent. He saw into what a horrible issue his promise had led him. He knew now that he was marked out to be the champion of England and right, and yet he was pledged, by the promise that had won that knowledge for him, to a wicked enchantress, whose every deed was hateful to him.
"Release me from my word, Kalyb," he said pitifully, at last.
"Never," she answered triumphantly. Then she saw how sorely he was stricken. "These were my enemies' children," she said more gently. "Come deep into the rock with me; bring the wand, and you shall see for yourself wonders that will give you pleasure, not sorrow."
She turned and entered the cleft in the rock. St. George made as if to follow her. But he saw that his opportunity had come. As she went forward into the darkness, he leapt lightly back, and struck the rock with the wand again. "Rock, be shut," he cried.
The rock clanged to with a noise as of beaten iron. There was a roaring in the cliff-side, and the wood at a little distance bent and swayed as if a storm suddenly swept it. From the rock came shrieks and groans, and a rushing noise filled all the air. The earth trembled. Then there was a great stillness, for she who had enchanted that place was dead, and a thousand spirits had torn her body in pieces. All things returned again to their natural uses, for Kalyb's power was broken and gone.
St. George stood speechless and aghast. He felt as if he were waking from a terrible dream. Then he remembered the wand in his hand and the sword at his side. He broke the wand across his knee, and threw the fragments from him.
"Lie there, evil thing," he said, as he cast it away, "and be a sign that thus shall all wickedness be broken and cast aside. Now for my comrades and the way of the champions."
He went to the place where he had seen the six knights bound in an enchanted silence. He found them there, but no longer still and dumb. They were rubbing their eyes and stretching themselves like men roused from deep sleep, and asking one another questions in amazement at their sudden freedom. At the sound of St. George's step they turned to him in wonder.
"Friends," he said, before they could find words to speak, "I am here to set you free, that we may seek adventure in the world together. I have slain Kalyb, the wicked Enchantress." And he told them all that had just come to pass. "Now it is for us to go forth in arias and right wrongs," he ended. "There are arms and steeds for us all here, and we will fare forth to seek our fortunes as knights must.
They went to the stable where the horses were, and took each his charger. Then they chose such arms as they desired from the armoury, and having feasted together in the palace, and made such store of food as they could with ease carry, they left the realm of Kalyb for ever.
They knew not wither they were going, nor upon what quest. "We are to become knights by all due rites in reward of knightly deeds," said St. George. "The Enchantress told me that we should be the champions of Christendom. Let us seek Christendom, and do whatever tasks may come in our way; let us uphold the Christian faith against pagans, and our honour and right against all evil-doers."
There seemed to be but one path away from Kalyb's castle. It was not that by which Sir Albert had come thither many years before, for that had been created by magic arts, and so soon as Kalyb's power was destroyed, her wiles and snares were destroyed too. The path the champions followed led out into the wide world by lonely ways; fear of the Enchantress had driven men far from her dwelling. They journeyed many miles and met never another soul. At length they came to a place where there were seven cross-roads, and no signs of whither they led.
"Here let us part," said St. George, when they had debated in vain which way they should take. "Here are seven roads, all unknown to us even as the world itself is unknown. Let us each take our own road, and find upon it the hidden things that life is to reveal to us. We shall come together again, be sure of that; the brotherhood of champions shall not be broken, even though we be apart for years."
They agreed to this with no more words; and so, with loving farewells, they parted, each upon a different road.