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King Arthur; Or, The Cave of Enchanted Warriors: A Northumbrian Legend


On a bleak and extensive moor to the north of the rocks of Sewing Shields, in Northumberland, there stood a cottage more than fifty years ago. It was a wretched-looking dwelling, with its creaking door, patched window, and holed roof. A hug dunghill, the accumulation of years, overgrown with clumps of wild oats, docks, and thistles, approached so near the dwelling, as almost to block up a passage to it; a miserable-looking cow and a half-starved donkey were generally to be seen staring with longing eyes at a diminutive stack of coarse hay, which was surrounded by a turf bank, overgrown with weeds, such as thistles and nettles, and which effectually barred the approach of the half-starved bipeds that surveyed it so anxiously. The outward appearance of this dwelling betokened poverty within, and such indeed was the case; for Nichol Brodie, the sole inmate, was the most lazy, ragged, and ill-tempered fellow on the whole borders. He was without kith or kin of any kind; his sole companion was a half-starved dog, as ugly and ill-natured as he was himself. Nichol's father had, during his life, endeavoured to improve him, but found it an impossible task, so he left off pruning, and let the ill-grained weed, as he termed his hopeful son, take his course. He was quarrelsome and dissatisfied. His neighbours had dropt off from him one by one, being tired of hearing his long list of grievances, which was the whole of his conversation. The people were shepherds, like himself; but, unlike him, were satisfied with their lot, and shunned him as a hopeless, worthless fellow. Nichol hated labour of all sorts, and wanted, like a great many more in the world, both before and since, to get rich without any trouble; but thirty years had flown away, and he was as poor as ever.

It was on a bright afternoon in August that Nichol and his dog were lying on a hill near the grey rocks of Sewing Shields; the sun was hot indeed; the cattle were standing in the cool shade of the rocks, or plunging in the neighbouring lake of Bromley; but Nichol, in a sulky humour, sat exposed to its fiercest rays. He was employed in knitting, an avocation generally followed by men of his calling at the time we mention. In this work, however, it was evident he was taking no delight—on the contrary, he was in an exceeding bad humour, which he testified by muttering to himself, grinding his teeth, and jerking his head. At length he jumped up and threw his half-finished work from him. "My curse and the curse of old Nick on them cursed wires and clews of yarn, and a double curse on the fellow that invented them; I wish—I wish—" added Nichol, "I wish he'd a died the day before, I do." Following up his imprecations by a kick, he sent his clew or ball of yarn down the side of the hill, where, bounding from rock to rock, it was at length lost in the bottom of the hollow; then, stuffing his hands in into his pockets, he looked savagely around him. "Hallo," he roared, as his eyes fell upon his sleeping dog, Tweed, "what are you lying there for, you lazy rascal?" He then bestowed a hearty kick upon the animal, which effectually roused him up. We have already said that Tweed was endowed with as short a temper as his master, the truth of which was soon verified by his rushing in and seizing him by the leg. Nichol bellowed with pain, and attempted to shake him off, but was thrown down by the animal sticking to his ancles, and the hill being steep he rolled to the bottom, where he was stopped by a rock in a manner extremely unpleasant to his ribs; the dog now relinquished his hold and speedily disappeared over the top of the hill in a homeward direction, his enraged master sending an ineffectual shower of stones and curses after him. Then, throwing himself down, Nichol gave vent to the remainder of his wrath by butting the ground with his head and kicking his heels into the air.

The coolness of an autumn evening had succeeded the warmth of the day ere the wrath of Nichol Brodie had so far subsided as to allow him to arise. The harvest moon was already high in the heavens, shedding her pale light over the solitary landscape. The distant lake looked like an immense white sheet spread out on the dark moors. The hills looked strange and unfamiliar, with their long dark shadows, while the white-faced rocks peered out of the gloom, like the faces of giants looking out of their castle window. A sort of dread struck through the heart of the shepherd as he looked around and found himself alone, in such a place; it was accounted unlucky to be in the hollow after sunset, for here it was supposed that King Arthur and his knights were sleeping, the castle having sunk with him and his court; and it was said that every seventh year the passage to the sunk palace was open. Nichol Brodie glanced fearfully around him as all this rushed into his memory; he turned his face homeward, when his progress was suddenly arrested by a voice close behind him.

"Nichol—I say, Nichol Brodie," cried the voice, "come and take your yarn, Nichol, we don't want any man's property here."

Nichol turned round in astonishment at being so familiarly accosted in such a suspicious neighbourhood, and there he beheld one of the strangest-looking little men he had ever seen in his life; he was not more than three feet in height, but he looked both old and ugly, with his long nose and chin, his small sparkling black eyes, and his white hair and whiskers; a small green cap was stuck on his head, a frock of the same colour, with large yellow buttons, covered his body, whilst scarlet breeches, stockings, and shoes encased the lower limbs. Nichol Brodie's large eyes grew larger as he fastened them upon this singular person; his grim features underwent various contortions, and at last he fairly laughed! Yes—Nichol Brodie laughed for the first time in his life!

"What are you grinning at, you great lout?" cried the little man; "come and get your yarn, and then go and fight with your dog."

Nichol's laugh quickly disappeared at this taunt, and he cried savagely—

"I say, little fellow, you shan't make game of me; if ye do, I'll kick ye—I'll break ye're shins—I will."

"Ho, ho, ho!" laughed, or rather screeched, the little man."[sic]

The laugh echoed horribly amongst the neighbouring rocks, and Nichol almost fancied that a hundred imps were laughing at him instead of one. His rage, however, got the better of his fears, and he rushed upon the little man, determined to exercise summary vengeance upon him. Now Nichol had had a great many fights in his time, in all of which he had proved victorious, but never in his life had he met with such a customer as the little man. When he struck a blow which he expected would have crushed him, it whistled in empty space. When he kicked with his feet, the little man had a happy knack of catching hold of them and throwing him down; and when, as a last resource, he threw out his arms to catch hold of him, at the moment he expected to have him in his grasp—lo! the little man was behind him and grinning with his ugly face over his shoulder! Nichol kicked, buffetted, and swore, but his rage and his blows were alike ineffectual. At length his antagonist, who had hitherto acted on the defensive only, exclaimed, "Now Nick, it's my turn next," and followed up this announcement with such a shower of blows from a cane which he carried, that it was quite a marvel how so small a man could strike so fast and punish so severely. Nichol was nearly blinded, and not a blow could he parry; where the little man wished to hit, he did hit, and that precious hard, too. Poor Nichol roared like a bull, running round, kicking at the loose rocks, and swearing in a most awful manner.

"Capital fun this, Nick," shouted the little fiend, "as good as kicking the clew, Nick—ha! ha!"

At length, however, the little man ceased, and poor Nichol was perfectly humbled.

"Ha!" said the little fiend, "that will do, Nick; I think you won't object to go along with me now."

"I'll go anywhere," cried Nichol, in a whining tone.

"Ha! ha! Nick, that's capital," chuckled the little wretch; "I thought I would break you in."

This taunt was, however, insufficient to raise the once fiery blood of Nichol Brodie, so, replacing his hat, which had been knocked off in the affray, he followed his strange guide.

The little man led the way over several loose rocks, and at length entered an open hole underneath one larger than the others, and although Nichol had been on this spot many times, he never recollected noticing this hole. They next proceeded along a passage, imperfectly lighted by the rays of the moon through the crevices over head. As they proceeded along, Nichol perceived something stretching along the side of the cavern, and on catching hold of it, discovered it to be his yarn which he had so unfortunately lost, and which, it appeared, was the sole cause of his present trouble.

"Devil take the clew," cried Nichol, bitterly, as he recollected this.

"He has taken it, Nick," cried the little man, "and you are going to get it back."

"O dear," groaned Nichol, as he heard this. His hair bristled up, and almost lifted his hat off his head— as he afterwards declared—at the thought of having to face the enemy of mankind. He looked back, thinking to make a desperate rush in that direction; but as he did so, the little man turned sharply round, as if divining his thoughts. Nichol knew he had turned, although it was dark; for the eyes of the mysterious imp glittered in the dark, like those of a cat.

"No running away, Nick," cried the little man; "remember, I've got the cane, and I'm a famous hitter in the dark."

Poor Nichol shrugged his shoulders, and followed his conductor, bestowing an occasional kick upon the rocks; at which the little man would chuckle like a farm-yard cock. Hitherto their course had been partially lighted by the moon—her pale beams shooting through the crevices across the path, like so many ghosts in the eyes of Nichol Brodie—but this at last disappeared, and they were enveloped in darkness. They continued to travel on a few minutes, when they suddenly emerged by a small door into a large spacious area, which proved to be a court-yard overgrown with grass and surrounded by such strange old-fashioned grey walls. But what astonished him most was that here it appeared to be broad daylight; and yet they had left the moonlight only a short hour ago. He would have inquired of the little man, but his patience was too short for the task, so he followed him silently across the grass-grown court towards a small house or lodge. To the terror of Nichol a large bloodhound was lying close by the door, and further in the legs of a man were discernible, stretched across the entrance. "The little bastard," thought Nichol, "has brought me here to be worried by that monster."

"Don't be uncivil, Nick," cried the little man, turning his small snake-like eyes full upon him; "I'm no bastard."

"I didn't say you was a bastard," roared Nichol.

"Ah! but you thought it," replied the little man, "which is all the same"—and he chuckled again.

"He must be the devil," thought Nichol; at which the little man laughed outright, the silent court echoing his unearthly screeching in frightful reverberations. The little man stepped over the dog and entered the hovel; Nichol followed him; and as he did so was agreeably surprised to find that the animal was sleeping. There was a rude bench on one side of the hovel, upon which a man was seated, with a long spear by his side, and snoring away manfully. Nichol stepped over his legs as his guide had done; and could not help wondering at the strange dress of the sleeper. A half-emptied flagon of wine was standing by him, which might account for his nap; a bow and a quiver of arrows were standing in a corner, and a small rusty sword was lying at his feet.

"There he sleeps—the drunken rascal!" said the little man, "instead of attending to his duties. Like you, Nick, when your master expects you are attending his flock, you are sitting cozily by the fire, with the whisky bottle in your hand—eh! Nick, eh!"

Nichol thought of giving the little wretch a hearty kick, but fear prevented him; so he kicked the doorpost. They passed through an open door into a large room filled with curious furniture, and three strange-looking men with immense long beards were sleeping on the hearth. They passed on through several rooms, all furnished in the same outlandish manner—all containing men and women, sitting or lying in various positions, and sound asleep. Nichol was beginning to tire of the sameness of the scenes, when they entered an immense hall, where a different scene burst upon them. Here, sure enough, were King Arthur and his twelve knights, all seated at the celebrated round table of which Nichol had heard so much. All were fast asleep. The mid-day sun was streaming through a large window full upon the grim circle. The King was easily distinguished from the rest by his curling locks of yellow hair, and innumerable stars upon his breast. The whole were dressed in green, and each had a hunting-horn by his side. Spears and heads of the stately stag and wild boar garnished the walls; whilst the hounds lay sleeping on the floor at the feet of their respective masters. They passed again through other rooms all containing sleeping inhabitants, and at length emerged through a small postern door (similar to that by which they had entered) into the open country. Nichol rubbed his eyes, and stared around him. It was his own country, and yet it was not. There were the grey rocks of Sewing Shields; but instead of the sheep that were generally to be seen upon them, a high wall stretched across the summit, partially broken down. In place of the brown moor, an immense forest stretched away to the north, far as the eye could reach. Along the top of the range of hills which extended westward, the same ragged wall was to be seen, with an occasional watch-tower, also in ruins. But all was silent and inanimate. There was no trace of man or beast; not a voice, not a sound was heard: the very wind was mute, and not a leaf in all that wide forest was seen to tremble. The distant lake looked like Bromley; but then the trees grew down to its very edge; and upon a slope where Nichol had been accustomed to lie and bask in the sun, a huge old-fashioned house was standing.

"Ha!" said the little man, breaking silence, "we shall call in and see old Ulfrida. Any objections to a jug of wine, Nick?"

Nichol grinned at this, and smacked his lips.

"Ah, Nick!" said the little man, "many a jolly spree I've had in this same house with the wild boys of King Arthur's court; but these days are gone—it is more than a thousand years ago!" and the little man sighed.

"O Lord, what a liar the fellow must be!" thought Nichol.

The little man looked fiercely around, with his rod uplifted; but, on perceiving the cowed look of poor Nichol, he dropped it, and laughed in his own peculiar manner.

They entered the house, and found the inmates, a stout old lady and her servant girl, both asleep. The old lady was seated on a couch or settle, with a mug in one hand and a cup in the other, her face as red as the setting sun; and snoring away with all her might. The little man and Nichol seated themselves at a table in the middle of the room.

"Drink, Nick," said the little man, filling a bumper from a flagon that stood on the table.

Nichol drank.

"Drink again, Nick," filling a second time, and also drinking himself.

Nichol grinned, and swallowed another.

"Now for a third, Nick;" and Nichol swigged off the third, the tears running down his cheeks.

The effect of so much wine upon Nichol Brodie was truly astonishing: he laughed—shook hands with the little man—winked at the sleeping beauty in the chair—tried to sing, but failed, after a succession of doleful screeches, which would have frightened any other but his elfin friend; and when at last the little man began to sing, Nichol jumped up, and danced in a sort of ourang-outang fashion.

Fill! fill the bumper up,
     Come, send around the wine,
And let us sing—of England's king—
     Brave Arthur the divine.

Happy the nation that possess'd
     So great a king as he;
Thrice blest the arm that breaks the charm,
     And sets the monarch free!

Blest be the hand that draws the sword,
     The lips that wind the horn;
For England, aye, shall bless the day,
     On which that man was born.

The little man having concluded his song, Nichol stopped his dancing, and, wiping the perspiration from his face, exclaimed—

Ye're a good singer, little fellow! Wish I had that song off; but what's ye'r name, and where d'ye live?"

"Ye're a jolly fellow Nick, when you are in the humour. I have no name at all, Nick, and my home is here, until some mortal can be found brave enough to draw the sword and blow the horn, and thus set us all free. I am the only one that is allowed to waken, and that only once in seven years. I could not have left the place, had not your clew entered our precincts; neither could I have brought you here. Now, if you have courage to do this, you will free King Arthur from the power of his enchanter; he will be king again, and riches and honour will be your reward."

"I will," cried Nichol; "I'll do it."

"But beware of failure," said the little man; "for they are guarded by the enchanter himself, and, should you lose courage before completing your task, it may cost you your life, as he will be the first to awaken."

Nichol declared his courage to be equal to the task. The little man then desired him to follow, and he led the way into another apartment.

The first objects that attracted Nichol's attention were the sword and horn lying upon a table; and very plain-looking things they were, to be of such mighty import. The enchanter was sitting asleep in his chair, as the little man had said. The horrible ugliness of his face, even in sleep, was, however, sufficient to drive nearly all that courage from the breast of Nichol Brodie with which the generous wine had inspired him. It was such a face as one might fancy looking over one's shoulder in a churchyard at midnight, or as might haunt the dreams of a diseased imagination. Nichol grasped the horn and sword, but his eyes were still rivetted on the countenance of the enchanter.

"Courage, Nick," said the little man; "consider the honours and rewards."

Nichol drew the sword from its sheath, and as he did so the enchanter betrayed symptoms of restlessness. He put the horn to his mouth, and blew a feeble blast, like the wailing of the wind through a cranny in some old building. The enchanter turned himself slowly around, opened his eyes, and fixed them full upon Nichol. The horn dropped from his hand upon the floor with a dull, lead-like sound—the sword fell upon the ground—and with a cry of terror he jumped over the table, and rushed towards the door, followed by the enchanter.

"Oh God, protect me!" roared Nichol, as he came driving past the little man.

"What did you say that for?" screamed the little imp. "You've ruined all."

Nichol rushed out of the house, an d fled along the ridge towards the castle with the speed of a hunted buck. He could hear a footstep behind him—he was conscious it was the enchanter—but he durst not look back; and he could hear a voice which he knew to be that of the little man, and it cried, "Run, Nick—run!" Nichol did run. Through bushes—brakes—over rocks and through pools—with a speed that astonished even himself. Everything around looked fearful. The wind howled through the trees—the trees shook and tossed their branches, as if seized with a sudden terror; the sky was dark and lowering— immense black clouds rolled rapidly across the heavens—the lightening blazed—and the sharp thunder echoed fearfully over head; the lake foamed and bubbled like a boiling cauldron, and the howling of wolves echoed fearfully along its gloomy shores. On went Nichol towards the castle, and on came his pursuer. The postern-gate was still open, and Nichol dashed in, and through the rooms which he recollected having passed with the little man. As he made his exit at one door, the hideous face was seen at the entrance from the door behind; and as the enchanter entered the room, the door slammed behind him with a violence that echoed through the castle like thunder. There was an alteration in the position of the sleepers in the different rooms through which he passed, which showed that they had been partially disturbed; but they were settling down into their long—long sleep once more. Nichol dashed through the hall of the round table and the succeeding rooms, when, on entering the small lodge, forgetful of the sleeping sentinel, he stumbled over him, and fell. He remembered the court-yard whirling round—the clap of doors—the blaze of lightening—the rushing of the wind—the hideous face close to his—and nothing more.

When Nichol Brodie recovered his senses, he was lying in the same hollow where he had fought with his dog, and where he had first met with the little man. He looked narrowly around him for the legs of the man over whom he had stumbled, then raised his eyes in search of the castle; but there was neither castle nor man to be seen. The moon was waning fast as he ascended the neighbouring eminence, and tipping the tops of the hoar-frost covered hills with a pale, silvery light. He looked toward the lake for the old house in which he had been so generously regaled, but shuddered lest the horrible face of the enchanter might be seen peeping out of the windows; but neither house nor face was to be seen. So he put his hands in his pockets, and walked sulkily home.

On the following day, Nichol called upon all his neighbours, and related his wonderful adventures with the little man. Some believed him, as the legend of the enchanted warriors was well known, and implicitly trusted in. Others said that he must have gone to sleep in the Wizard's Hollow, and dreamt it; whilst a third party, less generous, said the fellow was mad. But after a few days, when the novelty wore off, all parties agreed in shunning him; so he was left to himself once more.

Day after day, and night after night, did Nichol Brodie watch in the Wizard's Hollow, in the hope of the little man's return; but he came not. He kicked his clew about, but it no longer found an enchanted cavern to hide itself. His temper, always bad, now became intolerable. His dog ran off with a travelling tinker, who had previously stolen the donkey; his cow was sold to pay a trifling debt; and, to complete the sum of his misfortunes, his master turned him out of his situation, as he had of late entirely neglected his charge.

Nichol, after this, suddenly disappeared. Where he had gone no one knew; and, if the truth must be told, no one cared. At length, after the lapse of several weeks, a shepherd, in passing an unfrequented part of those wild mountains, perceived something like the legs of a man sticking out of a foxhole underneath a rock, which, on close examination, proved to be those of the lost Nichol Brodie. A stone had slipped down upon his body, and crushed him to death. It was conjectured that he had thought this the entrance to the enchanted cavern, which had taken full possession of his mind, to the exclusion of every other idea. Poor Nichol has now rested many years in his grave, but the secret entrance to the cavern, though often sought, has never yet been discovered.*

* There are several ways of telling this old legend. The one above is, however, the most popular in the district where the scene lies.