Men of Avalon
A Note on the Text: The 1935 edition of "Men of Avalon" contains a number of typographical errors. In this electronic text, the editors have marked these errors. Spelling errors in names have been corrected in brackets and other errors have been indicated with [sic].
Lord Kitchener sat alone in his office in the War Building. The years had whitened his hair and scattered crows feet over his face but he still held all of the bulldog courage of years gone by, spent in South Africa and the Soudan. He had planned an army of seventy divisions, and sixty-seven of them were in France, demanding two million rifles and unlimited ammunition before he could sleep. He told his critics that he would soon slumber. With the traditions of the world breaking daily he stood sounding the battle cry of an Empire that would live on, because it was too great to die.
Yet he was tired.
To him, in the first of that May, came an oldish man who had never tasted death, and the man carried in his arms a sword.
Kitchener looked at him coldly. If he was surprised at the laxity of the doorkeeper he did not show it.
"Well?" he asked, and in the question there were a dozen lengthy interrogations.
The old man smiled.
"I am Merlin, my Lord Kitchener, and the sword I carry is the one called Caliburn. Perhaps you have never heard of Merlin, called at times a wizard and at other times a bard, but always Arthur's friend and willing to do what he can for his country. For centuries I lived in the rock, imprisoned by the water-fairy Nimue, but the time of bondage passed and a free man I sought my king. And after we had talked about the war I came to you."
"A nice old man, gone daft from the loss of a son," mused the War Lord. He said aloud,
"Pleased to meet you. Busy now. Come again."
"No. I have a message for you, and a gift."
Kitchener reached for the bell, thought better of it, decided to humor the old man and said, kindly,
"Then hurry with both, for I am busy."
"The message comes from the King. He is not yet cured of his grevious wounds. Were he well, he would come himself to fight in this war. He calls for you. Harold is there, the Black Prince visits him daily, Raleigh and Drake comfort him, the American sits in our councils. Yet he desires you with him, and whatever he desires he must have. That is the command. Here is the gift. Caliburn, a sword that has a history of wonder. When you think the end has come hold it close to you and it will show you the pathway."
He handed the sword to the War Lord, who took it carefully and slowly examined it. At last he said,
"It is very fine sword. Thanks. Come again."
"No. Not again, but I will see you elsewhere. Here are your orders; On June the fifth you are to go to Scarpa Flow. That afternoon you will call on Lord Jellicoe. That evening you will board the Hampshire and start for Archangel. The world will think you are going to Russia to consult with the Tzar. The next day what is to happen will happen. With Caliburn to guide you there will be no doubt."
The War Lord stepped around the table and took the old man by the shoulder.
"Who are you?" he demanded. "What you tell me to do is what I have planned to do, but only three know the secret, and the other two are Jellicoe and the King. Who are you and how did you come by this knowledge?"
"I told you I was Merlin," the old man smiled, "and that should be enough, for the son of the Devil must know all even though he was baptised by the priest Blayse to keep him from being Antichrist. I leave Caliburn with you. We will meet in Avalon."
Brave as he was, the hand of the War Lord, gripping the sword, was wet with sweat. He stood there, the point of the sword on the carpet: The old man was gone, departing with as little ceremony as he had come.
"What am I to think?" the warrior asked himself. "Am I crazed with worry, and if this be all a dream, a nightmare odd and twisted, how come the sword in my hand? It is not a fancy. I know steel too well. A two handed, double edged sword, older than the Conquest, and still sharp as a hunting knife. Merlin! Arthur! Caliburn!! How Tennyson would have revelled in all this. But what has it to do with me? How did he know about the trip to Russia?"
He sat down in his chair and placed the sword on his desk.
"I am very tired," he whispered to himself. "This may be the end."
On the afternoon of May fifth the War Lord called on the Admiral at Scarpa Flow. Jellico received him in his cabin on the Iron Duke. Twelve hundred men stood at attention as Kitchener came over the side of the flagship. Twelve hundred men kept silence as the War Lord and the Sea Lord of the British Empire talked of the things to come.
And what they said and how they said it, is now history and no one knows nor ever will know of it save the canary bird who sang cheerfully while the two men talked; but at last the visit was at an end, and the brusque old sea dog, and the silent, tired soldier said their last farewell, while the canary kept on singing.
Just at sundown—and it was a sullen angry sky that night that shoved the sun into a sea that roared in its hunger as it devoured the God of Day—Kitchener went aboard the Hampshire. Without pomp or pride or overplus of baggage he walked down to his cabin and shut the door. Soon the winches grinding told of anchors rising and the relentless thumping of the propellor against the fighting waters sped the battleship Hampshire on its way.
On either side titular escort of destroyers guarded the battleship and priceless freight. On past the. lee side of the Orkneys and the Shetlands they went into the teeth of the storm. At last the destroyers, loosing[sic] contact with the Hampshire and reaching the last of their tolerance, turned and fled like sea birds drifting before the gale. But the Hampshire, like the nation that had built it, staggered on through the tempest, because it did not know how to cry "enough."
From the black tube came death, marking its way with a path of white foam, soon lost in the whitecaps of the tormented waters. On it came and touched the metal sides of the battleship, just above the engines. The ship knew its doom, yet staggered on even while it was sinking, broken and twisted, to the floor of the North Atlantic. Twelve hundred men knew too well what had come upon them, yet they stayed at two hundred posts of duty. As they died they patiently prayed that somehow, in some way, Kitchener might live on. For they thought he was necessary to the nation and without him the war would be lost.
The man himself, in his cabin, all dressed in his fatigue uniform, with every medal he had ever won pinned to his broad chest, knew otherwise. For day after day. followed by a night, the sword Caliburn had whispered to him the truth; he had told part of the tale to the king and another part to Admiral Jellico, but much he had saved for his own communion. Now, as he felt the ship lift in air and come down broken, he took the sword Caliburn and holding it close to him, the blade passing under his belt, he walked out of his cabin and up the steps and out on the deck and there he stood with his fellow men and waited for what was to come to him. And there may have been a wonder in his heart and a question as to just what life meant, where he was going and where he had come from; and he may have questioned the wisdom of this or that, but amid all the doubt and uncertainty there was one thing of which he was certain.
He was not afraid.
And then the end came to the Hampshire, and to the twelve hundred men who had made her something alive, and to the lonely passengers.
A week later the King and his consort went to St. Paul's Cathedral to pray for the souls of a great Englishman. They thought he was dead and the Queen Mother headed a movement to raise funds for a memorial and all of the British Empire joined in honoring the War Lord. They thought his coffin was the battleship Hampshire, and his grave the cold Atlantic.
Merlin knew the truth.
His two hand[sic] clasped about the handle of Caliburn and his eyes gleaming with the glad hope of the Great Adventure, Kitchener went into the sea. There, with the great waves breaking over him, tearing at his body but unable to break the handhold of the great sword or the courage of the great soul, he fell asleep.
Later, very much later, he awoke in a little cabin of a little ship. There was a creaking of rope and a billowing of sails and a breaking of little waves against the prow and sides. On a table near the bunk on which he rested was his uniform, dry and clean, with the medals all neatly polished and the great sword Caliburn resting on all. The sunshine came through tiny leaded windows and the air was warm. In the soul of the happy warrior was a deep peace, a sense of spiritual satisfaction that he had not know for years, and as he dressed he sang to himself a little song taught him by his nurse years ago; a song that for long years had been forgotten. At last dressed and in perfect order he took out his handkerchief and carefully wiped the two gleaming blades of Caliburn, whispering:
"There must be no rust on it, not even a dull spot, when I hand it back to Merlin, for he may want to pass it on to Jellico, or French, or Joffre."
While he was polishing the blade in came the captain of the ship, without ceremony. He roughly held out his hand.
"I am Drake," he cried. "Sir Francis Drake, and the ship we sail in is the Golden Hind. You are welcome to its rough comforts. Sleep well?"
"Never better. Feel stronger and heartier and more at ease than I have for years. Where did you find me?"
"On as rough a water as I have seen for years. Floating calmly with your face to the spray and holding to Calilburn as though 'twas your passport."
"Do you know the sword?"
"Why not? Merlin gave it to me at Nombre de Dios in January of our Lord 1595. I doubted him at first but all he said came true. Thus when he told me to go to the North Sea for the War Lord Kitch[e]ner, I knew it for the truth."
"You. know me?"
"Aye. Know you and have loved you many years. We followed your life from day to day in South Africa, Egypt and England. When Merlin talked with the King and then went and took Caliburn from the head of his bed we hoped the call would be for you."
"And I know you now," laughed Kitchener, a hearty, lusty laugh. He checked it as he thought that he had not dared to laugh like that since his first command. No anxiety. That was it! Nothing to worry about. Everything all right. "I know you now. Bless me! You're Drake, the bulldog of the Armada, and this is the Golden Hind. You were the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world in two years and ten months, and poor old Queen Bess wanted the matter hushed for fear of offending Spain. I'll say that was sporting of Merlin, to send you for me. For what port are we bound? The air is warm; the sun shines through that window as though 'twas summer time. Should a birdie sing 'twould not surprise me."
"Come on deck and see. We are almost there."
They saw a green island with a peaceful harbor, giant oaks and stately pines, and from far away heard the songs of birds. From inland came the odor of roses, narcissus, hyacinth and lilly[sic]. But nowhere the sight of any men. The wharf was empty, no smoke came from any of the chimneys. All was quiet save for the feathered symphony.
The Golden Hind drifted onward. The crew, wrinkled, swarthy, windburned Britishers, with gold rings in their ears and the pride of race in their hearts, whispered to themselves as they coiled the ropes and made ready with the anchor.
"It is a sweet island," whispered Kitchener. "A man may rest there in peace. What did you say the name was?"
"Avalon," answered Sir Francis D[r]ake, as he gave orders to drop anchor.
"Avalon," echoed Kitchener. "Why that is the place of which King Arthur told Sir Belvadare. He said, 'I wil go into the vale of Avilion for to heale me of my grevious wound."
Kitchener went to the wharf in a little boat, rowed by two sailors. Drake bade him farewell on the ship. As the boat danced from a tiny wave to one still smaller, Kitchener smiled to himself and whispered:
"This, after all, is the Great Adventure. All else in my life has been like a child playing with leaden soldiers. But this?—What can it be called but life? Listen to those birds? Avalon? Arthur? And I will see him, for Drake said I was to take back the sword, Caliburn."
On shore, he walked through the forest without hesitation. No need of a guide. It seemed as though he had always walked through those forests. Even the house seemed familiar to him, yet he knew, and swore to himself that he knew, that he had never been there.
Up the graceful marble steps, faced on each side with marble lanterns topped with carved moonstones, ready for the night. Through a stately hall and into a chamber of carved oak and black walnut, hung with purple curtains drawn back with cords of spun gold. There on the bed, covered with a white sheet broidered with a gold dragon lay the King, and by his side nursing him the three Queens who had, all these years endeavored to heal him of his wounds.
And Kitchener knew the man to be the King! The hope of the Empire. Had he not promised that in time of danger, when all else failed and England had her back to the wall and her last ounce of strength spent, that he, King Arthur, would come and save the land of his love?
Yet in the mind of the War Lord there was neither fear or servility, but only a boundless adoration. He held out Caliburn and said,
"I have obeyed your command, Oh King."
"Place the sword at the head of my bed," sighed the King. I am glad to see you. How goes the battle in France?"
Hanging on the head of the stately bed was a scabbard studded with jewels and a leather belt enbossed with gold medallions. Kitchener slipped Caliburn into it, and it went in easy as though that were its proper home, which in very truth it was! Then he sat down by the King,s bed, and the three Queen[s] withdrew to the next room and Kitchener was alone with his King.
"How goes the battle?" repeated the sick man.
"Disasteriously[sic], so far. Our first army of a hundred thousand was cut to peices[sic] but the peices[sic] held. Other armies are in the field. The Lion's cubs heard the roar of their dam and sent their men; Canada, South Africa, India, and France, Belgium, Italy and Russia are with us. In the end we will win because we have to, but the end is far away."
"War makes strange bedfellows," mused the son of Uther. But the Saxons are no new foe. Twelve times I defeated them in mighty battle. Tunc Arthur pugnabat cum regibus Britonus, sed ipse dux erat bellorum. Thus Nennius told the tale in his Historia Britonium But they fight in a different fashion now. Then we fought clean. Man against man and the best man won. They bring me strange tales of life underground and poison gas and flames that kill; all is new, and at times I wonder what it all means. But this one thing I know: England must be saved!"
"England will be saved," cried the War Lord. We fight best with our backs to the wall. The nation will live on because it does not know how to die. It will be a long war but in the end we will win."
"You speak the thought of every true Briton. I am glad that you are with us. Enjoy Avalon. When I need you I will send for you. Meantime be happy in the fellowship of my knights.
Followed happy days. Life in Avalon was sweet. It was a man's land and save for the three Queens who nursed Arthur no woman bod in it. The days passed like golden phantoms, the nights were filled with purple fancies. There was food for all but little was needed, for in their veins flowed the ichor of the Gods instead of blood. Each day they gathered on the beach or in the oak grove and man by man told tales of his adventurings, and they told their tales bravely without pride or self consciousness but simply as something that had happened to them and was now being told for the pleasure of the company.
Thus a year passed—and more, and at last from the King came the summons all had awaited. He had not been well, his days were anxious, his sleep troubled with dreams. Merlin had tried to overcast him with magic of peace but all in vain. Now he was better. He called for wine, and venison, and he left the bed that had been his home for so many centuries. It was a brave sight to see him in his purple robe; and around his waist was the leather belt that bore Caliburn, and his white beard came to his waist and below.
To him came Merlin, and Harold, last of the Saxons, and the Black Prince. With these were Drake and Raliegh[sic], and the Iron Duke Wellington, and the Great American. With these came the War Lord and he wondered, for all the fellowship of' months, that one land, even given centuries could produce such men.
"What has been done for England, Merlin?" asked the King.
"Much," was the reply. "When the first army was driven back through Belgium the Knights of the Round Table fought by their side. Men say the line held because our men began to recover their pride in their uniforms but I know that our Knights saved the retreat from being a route. Not a man you knighted failed in the great test.
"Later, at the battle of the Mons, Harold led his men to victory. Men talk of the French Maid, but I know the work that was done by those stalwarts with their two-handed swords. The Germans wore no armour; they never did care for cold steal[sic], and blades like Caliburn cut deep. The Black Prince was there with his bowmen. He can tell you how they carried on for Merry England, though all perplexed at fighting with the French instead of 'gainst them.
"Drake and Raleigh have had their ship ever on the sea. Many a submarine has failed to return to Kiel because of their seamanship. The war had been lost without these sea dogs. Later on when the line bent and almost broke, Wellington went into action with his redcoats; they had learned at Waterloo how to hold when holding was no longer possible. Now the end comes near. America has come in. The Great Drive begins soon. Our forces are exhausted. In some way we must have help."
"America?" questioned the King.
"Yes; I told you of the land in the days of Columbus. It is a mighty land now, and from there come fighting men, three hundred thousand a month; but they must have help, they must have our help, yet all our men are gone, and cannot fight again till rested by a thousand years of Avalon and Fortunate Isles."
"May I interrupt your Grace?"
It was the American who spoke.
"I think I know you," replied the King. "In fact I am sure I sent for you. You were sick from a blood letting and I thought the land of Avalon would agree with you. Can you help us?"
"I can. As I understand from the maps the advance of the American Army will be through a dense woods called the Argonne. The fighting will be scattered, every man for himself, behind trees and stones. It was thus I fought with my men at Fort Necessity and later on with Braddock. My sharpshooters were cool at Bunker Hill. I have at my command those riflemen of the Revolution. I called them The Flying Camp Ten thousand of the best sharpshooters from Maine to Georgia. I would like to lead them into action in the Argonne, a mile or more ahead of the American line; that will make it easier for the men in Pershing's army, very much easier. May I?"
"What say you, Merlin?" asked the King.
"What can I say, or who am I to say otherwise? Thus, and so it was foretold from the beginning. Who can do otherwise than bow to fate? The American must end the war. England must be saved by her cast-off whelp."
"Where are these ten thousand men?" asked the King.
"Why they must be right here, on the island. I was talking to Morgan and Green and Broadhead but yesterday."
"How is the fleet, Drake," questioned the sick monarch. "Can you take these ten thousnad[sic] men to France?
"Aye, Sir, Raliegh[sic] and I have the shipping ready and we can take them to Hell and back if you but give the order.
"So mote it be. And go now, I am weary."
"I trust your Highness will pardon me for asking," broke in Kitchener, "But I have a favor to be granted. When this American leads his riflemen into action in the Argonne, may I be with him?"
The King smiled.
"If I know my men, you will all be there. If this is the end of the war, and England wins, how can Harold or Edward or the Iron Duke be absent from the last killing? Go with them; let the American alone. Do not bother him with advice. And you also, Merlin, stay away from him with your magic. You will need all of it at the peace table."
On September 26th, 1918, the American artillery began a barrage preparatory to the American Advance. But some miles ahead of the barrage a strange forward movement was taking place. A thin line of American backwoods men were advancing, taking advantage of every natural cover, tree, stone or sunken gully. Now and then their rifles flashed and when they shot they killed. Machine gun after machine gun was put out of action. All that day they advanced, and at night slept on Mother Earth. Next day was the same story. Not a German saw them, defence[sic] against them was impossible, and yard by yard they smoothed out the way for the American doughboy who cam along faster than his ammunition trains, faster than his food, faster than any men had ever come since the war started, but never did they come in sight of the sharpshooters of the Revolution who went on with the grim precision of the Final Reaper.
Wellington saw that advance, as did Kitchener, Edward the Black Prince, Harold, last of the Saxons, Raleigh and Drake.
At last the deed was done. November the eleventh and the armistice.
Then and then only did the advance of the American riflemen cease.
The last council of war was held.
Congratulations were showered on the American and his men, on Morgan and Green, and Putman. Even the Maid came up in full armour and thanked them.
"I cannot understand it, Monseiur," she said. "Your men fought like Englishmen."
It was too much for the War Lord.
"Why, that is easy to understand, Joan," he replied for the leader of the riflemen. "Those men General Washington led to battle were Englishmen."
Back to Avalon they sailed, heads high, and smiling. Once again England had cried for help and once again they had done all they had been asked to do. It mattered not their age or condition, the Men of Avalon had done their duty.
Back to Avalon and to the bedroom of the King they went. His bed [beard?] was a little longer and a trifle more snowy but he listened gladly to their tale, and he passed praise to all of them, and together they drank wine. All were there save Merlin and he had to stay at the peace table to make magic.
Then the men left the room, all but the War Lord.
And Kitchener stood by the bed of King Arthur. On the other side sat the three Queens.
"You stay overlong, Kitchener," whispered the King.
"On purpose. You promised you would return to England when she needed you. I am telling you that England needs you now. She is sick, and only your presence will make her well."
"I am sorry," said Arthur. "Some day I will go back, but not till I am cured of my wounds. So pleasure yourself in Avalon, my good War Lord, and fret not for England, for when the need comes, I will return, but not yet, Kitchener, not yet."
The War Lord turned and left the room.
One of the Queens took Arthur's hand, and smoothed it, and another spread the dragon coverlet better over his massive frame, but the Lady of the Lake bent over and kissed her son on the lips.
And Arthur slept.