Poetical Tragedies

Mordred: A Tragedy in Five Acts.

by William Wilfred Campbell



SCENE II.—CAMELOT. (Arthur crowned king.)

Enter MERLIN and MORDRED, a hunchback, the King's illegitimate son. Outside a great clamor of voices is heard of "Arthur! Long live King Arthur."

     Merlin.     Now tarry here aside while I prepare

The king for this thy filial audience.


     Mordred.     O mighty Merlin, I fear me all thine arts

That compass ocean, air, and deepest mine,
And have command of subtlest sciences,
Have never found the power to brew a charm,
A sovereign draught of distillation rare,
To warm a father’s heart toward such as me.


     Merlin.     Thou much mistakest Mordred, he is noble.

This too-long thought on thine infirmity,
Hath made thy mind, which is as clear as glass,
Ensickly all things that it looks upon.
When Arthur, thy great father, knows his son,
His nobleness of heart will plead with him,
And when he sees what I have seen in thee,
A subtle greatness of the inner spirit,
Greater than even I, wise Merlin, have,
That prophesies a power for good or ill
Such as is rare mid men in this our age,
He will forget that outward lack of mould
In the strong, God-like, nobleness within.


     Mordred.     Ah Merlin, would my spirit thou wert right,

And I would show him such a son’s true love,
And consecrate this sublety within me,
To build a fence of safety round his glory.
But something tells me, some weird, evil doom
That sits about my heart by day and night,
An awful presence that will never flit,
That he will never love me, yea, that more,
Of all things hateful to him on this earth,
My presence the most hateful. Oh great Mage,
I know that thou art skilful in thine age,
And subtle in all knowledges of lore,
But there lies in recesses of the heart,
That hath known bitter sorrow such as mine,
A deeper wisdom intuition breeds,
That thou hast never sounded in thy lore.


     Merlin.     Hast thou even seen this presence whereof thou speakest?


     Mordred.     Yea, only as a look that haunteth faces.


     Merlin.     Faces?


     Mordred.     I never saw it in my poor dog’s face,

When he hath climbed my knees to lick my hand.
I never saw it in the mirrored peace
That brims the beauty of a forest pool;—
Nor in the wise regard of mighty nature.
But in the face of man I oft have seen it.


     Merlin.     What hast thou seen, this wisdom would I know?


     Mordred.     I never saw it in thy look, O Mage,

But something sweeter, much akin, called pity,
But once I woke a flower-eyed little maid,
Who slumbered ’mid the daisies by a stream;
She seemed the summer day incarnate there
With her sweet, innocent, unconscious face,
So like a flower herself amid the flowers;
And I were lonely there in all that vast,
And thinking, (’twas only but a boy’s light thought,
With some deep, other thought beyond mine age,)
To wake this human summer-morn to life,
And know this June-day conscious of its joy:
But when I bent and touched her on the arm,
I only woke a living terror there
Of eyes and limbs that fled from my amaze.
I saw it once within the Priestman’s face
The only and the last time I was shriven.
I have no need for shriving priestmen since.
My spirit tells me if they hold no power
To conjure out that devil in themselves,
That darting horror that offends mine eyes,
They ne’er can cast the devils from this life,
And all their vaunts but jugglers’ juggling lies.


     Merlin.     Oh sad, warped youth aged before thy time,

With that worst, saddest of wisdoms on this earth,
The knowledge of thine own deformity!

[trumpets without.


Back Mordred! here cometh the king!


Enter ARTHUR in his state robes.


     Arthur.     And now wise Merlin, wisest of this earth,
Here cometh thine Arthur decked in his first glory,
So great hath been the splendour of this day
That all my heart brims with the wine of it.


     Merlin.     Yea King, thy horn of glory doth enlarge,

Thy sun of splendour toppeth the future’s marge,
May all bright auspices attend its setting.


     Arthur.     And now wise Mage, what hath thy will with me?

I am thine Arthur even being King,
For thou hast made me, next to that weird fate
That sat about the mystery of my getting,
And the sweet fostership of Holy Church,
Which hath forgiven my great youthful sin
And set her seal of favor on my deeds.
All present splendors thou hast prophesied,
And made the people take me for their king,
Hast pointed out my fitness for this office,
And lifted Arthur from a cloud of sorrows
Unto the golden glories of a throne.
To-day the fealty of an hundred Earls
Which thou hast garnered to my new-,made kingdom
Hath honored me and made me thrice a King.
Yea, well say Merlin that my horn is full
To plenty with the blessed hopes of earth,
And all of this I owe unto thy favor.
My thunder-clouds are past, my future clear
As yon, blue summer sky. No evil lurks
In secret for to strike at this my glory,
Unless a bolt fell from yon dazzling blue!
[Thunder heard in the distance—ARTHUR staggers back


A portent! A portent!


     Merlin.     ’Tis nought, O King, but gathering thunder-heads

About the thick, close heatings of the west,
The muttered portent of a summer shower.
’Tis but a blackness that will quickly pass
and leave a blessing on the fields and woods.
Fear not such signs as nature’s seeming anger.
I come to thee upon a graver matter.


     Arthur.     Yea Merlin! speak on.


     Merlin.     Arthur, I speak now to no puling youth,

No mere sin-pricked conscience in a human form,
But bring a kingly matter to a king,
Whereof that he may do the kingliest deed
That he may hap on in the unknown lease
Of all his kingship. I have kept this matter,
The deepest and the dreadest concerning thee
And all the workings of thy coming fate,
Until the hour when thou didst feel thee king
In more than seeming outward human choice,
And thou wert at thy greatest, even that I,
In all his power, might see the King I made,
Not in all the glory of his court,
His people’s laudings sounding in his ears,
Not in all the shout of battle victory;
But in that dread and secret solemn hour,
When some strange doom uplifts its sombre face,
And man must show his kingship of himself.


     Arthur.     Yea Merlin! say on Merlin, say on!


     Merlin.     For this same reason I have hid till now

The secret from thee that thou hast a son.


     Arthur.     A son!


     Merlin.     Yea, a son, by thine own sister.


     Arthur.     Oh cruel! Oh cruel! Oh cruel!


     Merlin.     Yea more, for knowing all the warm desire

That thou hast unto things of beauteous shape,
And lovest chiefly what is glad and fair
To look upon in nature or human form,
Which showest in thy love for Launcelot,—


     Arthur.     Yea, Launcelot! Would a Launcelot were my son.


     Mordred.     (aside) Ah, me!


     Merlin.     But knowing further that a deeper feeling,

That holdeth rule in every human heart,
That knoweth greatness, would uppermost in thee,
At knowledge of the fate of thy poor son,
Who madeth not himself but bore thy sin
In outward simile in his whole life’s being,
As Christ did bear men’s sins upon the tree;
Who knowing all the ill that thou had’st done him,
Still had sufficient sense of inward greatness
To love the father who begat him thus;
I feel if thou art that great Arthur dreamed
Of me these many years of toil and care
That I have worked to make thee what thou art;
That knowing this son of thine, distorted, wry,
Diminutive in outward human shape,
And void of all those graces thou hast loved
To group about thy visions of thy court,
Hath such a soul within him like a jewel
In some enchanted casket, that were rare
In all the lore and wisdom of this age,
That thou wouldst love him only all the more
For that poor, wry, misshapen shell of his.


     Arthur.     Oh cruel! cruel! cruel!


     Merlin.     Mordred come forth.

[Enter MORDRED who kneels and tries to
cover himself with his cloak


     Arthur.     (Starts). What be this?


     Merlin.     Thy son Mordred, the heir to thy realm!


     Arthur.     Oh black angered Heaven! (Falls heavily to the ground.)


     Mordred.     Father! my father! Merlin thou has killed my father.

Oh Merlin thou wert over-cruel!


     Merlin.     Better that he were dead a thousand deaths

Than this had happened. He is not a king
In more than vulgar fancy. In mine eyes
With all thy wry, distorted body there,
Thou art a thousand times more kingly now
Than he or any like him in this realm.
And thou wilt be a king yet ere thou diest.
Oh Arthur, thou great Arthur of my dreams,
Why didst thou thus unthrone thee, showing bare
A thing of clay, where all seemed whitest marble?


     Mordred.     Ha! now he revives. Father!


     Arthur.     (Rises and staggers.) Ha! yea, yea, that cloud;

That cloud about mine eyes!
My crown! My crown! Methought I had a crown!


     Merlin.     Yea of a truth thou hadst one.


     Arthur.     And where be it, good father?


     Merlin.     Stumbling on sudden to the precipice of a golden

Thou loosedst thy kingship and straightway it toppled over.


     Arthur.     And might we not make search, Father?

Might we not take lights, lights, and go find it?


     Merlin.     Not all the lights that light this glowing world

Might light thee to it.


     Arthur.     And who are thou that mocketh at me thus?


     Merlin.     A shadow.


     Arthur.     And what be I?


     Merlin.     In truth a shadow.


     Arthur.     And that, that blackness?

[Pointing at MORDRED.


     Merlin.     A shadow also, yea we all be shadows.


     Arthur.     And is there nothing real, nothing tangible in all this mist?


     Merlin.     Nay, nothing, save the visions we have lost,

The autumn mornings with their frosty prime,
The dreams of youth like bells at eventime
Ringing their golden longings down the mist.


     Arthur.     And be we dead, Father?


     Merlin.     Yea, I am dead to one great hope I had,

And thou art dead to what thou mightst have been,
And he is dead to what is best of all,
The holiest blossom on life’s golden tree.


     Arthur.     And what be that, Father?


     Merlin.     Love! Love!


     Arthur.     Then he be greatest?


     Merlin.     Yea greater, far, though we completed greatness,

Than either thou or I could ever be.


     Arthur.     Then what be he?


     Merlin.     He is that rare great blossom of this life

Which mortals call a man.


     Arthur.     A man!


     Merlin.     Yea, a man.


     Arthur.     Why he is wry, distorted, short of shape,

Like some poor twisted root in human form.
And I am tall and fair, placed like a king.
And yet you make him greater, how be that?


     Merlin.     Didst thou but own Goliath’s mighty shape,

And wert a Balder in thy face and form,
With all of heaven’s lightnings in thy gaze,
Still would his greatness dwarf thee.


     Arthur.     Then what be I?


     Merlin.     The wreck of my poor hopes.


     Arthur.     The what?


     Merlin.     The shadow of a king.


     Arthur.     And where may be the king, if I be but the shadow?


     Merlin.     Gone! Gone!

He went out in his glory one bright morn,
In all the summer splendors long ago,
And there by well-heads of my youth’s bright dreams,
Be-like he’s walking yet.


     Mordred.     Oh! Merlin wake him! Thou art over cruel

To play thus on his fancy with thine arts.


     Merlin.     And dost thou love him still?


     Mordred.     Yea, love is not a thing so lightly placed,

That it may perish easy. Thou mayst kill
The king in him, thou canst not kill the father.
Though thou mightst make me bitter to conspire
And topple his great kingdom round his head,
Yet I would ever love him ’neath it all.
The Arthur of thine ambitions may be dead,
But not the Arthur of my childhood’s longing,
Though this poor King who hunteth his lost crown
Be but the walking shape of all those dreams.
And temptest thou me, thou Merlin, thus to hate?


     Merlin.     Yea, Mordred, I am cruel, I am fate.

I tempt thee but to live, and dost thou live,
Enalienate from all this love of earth,
And they but crumble this phantom round their heads.
Thou art the key by which I may unlock
The lock that I have made with mine own hands.
And if thou ever want’st an instrument,
A dagger wherewith to stab this paltry realm,
Use Vivien.


     Mordred.     Vivien!


     Merlin.     Yea Vivien. There is naught on all this earth

That cuts so sharp the thews of love and hate
And those poor brittle thongs that bind men up
In that strange bundle called society,
Like the sharp acids nature hath distilled
From out the foiled hates of an evil woman.
(To the king.) Ho! ho! Arthur! Great King
Arthur. Knowest thou me, Merlin?


     Arthur.     Yea, Merlin it is thou, and I the King,

Waking it seemeth from an evil dream.


     Merlin.     Yea, king we have all awakened.


     Arthur.     Ha! where is my crown?


     Mordred.     You dropped it when you fainted sire,

[Kneels and presents it.


Here is thy crown, Father.


     Arthur.     Father! yea all, I know all now. It cometh back.

And this my son? Oh Merlin, had I known
That thou didst hate me and wouldst use me thus!


     Merlin.     I hate thee not, King Arthur, nor do I love.

I loved an Arthur once, a phantom king,
Whom I did build on pinnacles of glory.
But he hath now long vanished, and I go,
Like many another who hath wrecked his hopes
On some false shore of human delusiveness,
To bury my pinch-beck jewels in that pit
That men call black oblivion. No, proud Arthur,
I am much over old for loves or hates,
My days are past, my mission done on earth,
I leave thee one here though, whose love or hate
Is more to thee than mine could ever be.
Twixt thee and him there are such subtle webs
Of destiny, it needeth no magician
To prophesy the running of those threads
That weave the warp of your two destinies.
Farewell Arthur! Mordred, fare thee well.


     Arthur.     Stay, Stay, Merlin! I have much need of thee.