William Morris. Commonweal 1886

An Old Story Retold

Source: “An Old Story Retold” Commonweal, Vol 2, No. 36, 18 September 1886, p.197-98;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

It is told of Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary — the Alfred the Great of his time and people — that he once heard (once only!) that some (only some, my lad?) of his peasants were over-worked and under-fed. He took the matter to heart, being, as kings go, a just man, besides being more valiant than they mostly were, even in the old feudal days. So he called together such lords and councillors as he deemed fittest, and bade busk them for a ride; and when they were ready he and they set out, over rough and smooth, decked out in all the glory of attire which was the wont of those days. Thus they rode till they came to some village or thorpe of the peasant folk, and through it to the vineyards where men were working on the sunny southern slopes that went up from the river: my tale does not say whether that were Theiss, or Donau, or what river. Well, I judge it was late spring or early summer, and the vines but just beginning to show their grapes; for the vintage is late in those lands, and some of the grapes are not gathered till the first frosts have touched them, whereby the wine made from them is the stronger and sweeter. Anyhow there were the peasants, men and women, boys and young maidens, toiling and swinking; some hoeing between the vine-rows, some bearing baskets of dung up the steep slopes, one way, some in another, labouring for the fruit they should never eat, and the wine they should never drink. Thereto turned the King and got off his horse and began to climb up the stony ridges of the vineyard and his lords in like manner followed him, wondering in their hearts what was toward; but to the one who was following next after him he turned about and said with a smile, ‘Yea lords, this is a new game we are playing to-day and a new knowledge will come from it’. And the lord smiled, but somewhat sourly.

As for the peasants, great was their fear of those gay and golden lords. I judge that they did not know the King since it was little likely that any one of them had seen his face; and they knew of him but as the Great Father, the mighty warrior who kept the Turk from harrying their thorpe. Though, forsooth, little matter was it to any man there whether Turk or Magyar was their over-lord, since to one master or another they had to pay the due tale of labouring days in the year, and hard was the livelihood that they earned for themselves on the days when they worked for themselves and their wives and children. Well, belike they knew not the King; but amidst those rich lords they saw and knew their own lord, and of him they were sore afraid. But nought it availed them to flee away from those strong men and strong horses — they who had been toiling from before the rising of the sun, and now it wanted little more than an hour of noon: besides, with the King and lords was a guard of crossbowmen, who were left the other side of the vineyard wall, — keen-eyed Italians of the mountains, straight shooters of the bolt. So the poor folk fled not; nay, they made as if all this were none of their business, and went on with their work. For indeed each man said to himself, ‘If I be the one that is not slain, tomorrow I shall lack bread if I do not work my hardest today; and maybe I shall be headman if some of these be slain and I live’.

Now comes the King amongst them and says: ‘Good fellows, which of you is the headman?’

Spake a man sturdy and sunburnt well on in years and grizzled: ‘I am the headman, lord.’

‘Give me thy hoe, then’, says the King; ‘for now shall I order this matter myself, since these lords desire a new game, and are fain to work under me at vine-dressing. But do thou stand by me and set me right if I order them wrong: but the rest of you, go play!’

The carle knew not what to think and let the King stand with his hand stretched our, while he looked askance at his own lord and baron, who wagged his head at him grimly, as one who says ‘Do it, dog!’

Then the carle lets the hoe come into the King’s hand; and the King falls to, and orders his lords for vine-dressing, to each his due share of the work: and whiles the carle said yea and whiles nay to his ordering. And then ye should have seen the velvet cloaks cast off, and mantles of fine Flemish scarlet go to the dusty earth, as the lords and knights husked them to the work! So they buckled to; and to most of them it seemed good game to play at vine dressing. But one there was who, when his scarlet cloak was off, stood up in doublet of glorious Persian web of gold and silk, such as men make not now, worth a hundred florins the Bremen ell. Unto him the King with no smile on his face gave the job of toing and froing up and down the hill with the biggest and the frailest dung-basket that there was; and thereat the silken lord screwed up a grin, that was sport to see, and all the lords laughed; and as he turned away he said, yet so that none heard him, ‘Do I serve this son’s son of a whore that he should bid me carry dung?’ For you must know that the King’s father, John Hunyad, one of the great warriors of the world, the Hammer of the Turks, was not gotten in wedlock, though he were a king’s son.

Well, they sped the work bravely for a while, and loud was the laughter as the hoes smote the earth and the flint stones tinkled and the cloud of dust rose up; the brocaded dung-bearer went up and done, cursing and swearing by the White God and the Black; and one would say to another, ‘See ye how gentle blood outgoes churls’ blood, even when the gentle does the churl’s work: these lazy loons smote but one stroke to our three.’ But the King, who worked no worse than any, laughed not at all; and meanwhile the poor folk stood by, not daring to speak a word one to the other; for they were still sore afraid, not now fearing to be slain on the spot, but this rather was in their hearts: ‘These great and strong lords and knights have come to see what work a man may do without dying: if we are to have yet more days added to our year’s tale of lords’ labour, then are we lost without remedy.’ And their hearts sank within them.

So sped the work; and the sun rose yet higher in the heavens, and it was noon and more. And now there was no more laughter among those toiling lords, and the strokes of the hoe and mattock came far slower, while the dung, bearer sat down at the bottom of the hill and looked out on the river; but the King yet worked on doggedly, so for shame the other lords yet kept at it. Till at last the next man to the King let his hoe drop with a clatter, and swore a great oath. Now he was a strong black-bearded man in the prime of life, a valiant captain of that famous Black Band that had so often rent the Turkish array; and the King loved him for his sturdy valour; so he says to him, ‘Is aught wrong, Captain?’

‘Nay, lord’, says he, ‘ask the headman cane yonder what ails us.’

‘Headman’, says the King, ‘what ails these strong knights? Have I ordered them wrongly?’

‘Nay, but shirking ails them, lord’, say he, ‘for they are weary; and no wonder, for they have been playing hard, and are of gentle blood.’

‘Is that so, lords’, says the King, ‘that ye are weary already?’

Then the rest hung their heads and said nought, all save that captain of war; and he said, being a bold man and no liar: ‘King, I see what thou woulds’t be at; thou hast brought us here to preach us a sermon from that Plato of thine; and to say sooth, so that I may swink no more, and go eat my dinner, now preach thy worst! Nay, if thou wilt be priest I will be thy deacon. Wilt thou that I ask this labouring Carle a thing or two?’

‘Yea’, said the King. And there came as it were, a cloud of thought over his face.

Then the captain straddled his legs and looked big, and said to the Carle:

‘Good fellow, how long have we been working here?’ ‘

‘Two hours or thereabout, by the sun above us’, says he’

‘And how much of thy work have we done in that while?’ the captain says, and winks his eye at him withal.

Lord’, says the Carl, grinning a little despite himself, ‘be not wrath with my word. In the first half-hour ye did five-and-forty minutes’ work of ours, and in the next half-hour scant a thirty minutes’ work’ and the third half-hour a fifteen minutes’ work, and in the fourth half-hour two minutes work.’ The grin now had faded from his face, but a gleam came into his eyes as he said: ‘And now, as I suppose, your days work is done, and ye will go to your dinner and eat the sweet and drink the strong; and we shall eat a little rye-bread, and then be working here till after the sun has set and the moon has begun to cast shadows. Now for you, I wot not how ye shall sleep nor where; nor what white body ye shall hold in your arms while the night flits and the stars shine; but for us, while the stars yet shine, shall we be at it again, and bethink ye for what! I know not what game and play ye shall be devising for to-morrow as ye ride back home; but for us when we come back here to-morrow, it shall be as if there had been no yesterday and nothing done therein, and that day’s work shall be nought to us also, for we shall win no respite from our toil thereby, and the morrow of to-morrow will all be to begin again once more. Therefore, if ye are thinking to lay some new tax or tale upon us, think twice of it, for we may not bear it. And all this I say with the less fear, because I perceive this man here beside me, in the black velvet jerkin and the gold chain on his neck, is the King; nor do I think he will slay me for my word since he hath so many a Turk before him and his mighty sword!’

Then said the captain:

‘Shall I smite the man, O king? or hath he preached thy sermon for thee?’

‘Smite not, for he hath preached it’, said the King. ‘Yet when another hath spoken our thought, our thoughts are born therefrom, and now have I another sermon to preach; but I will refrain as now. Let us down and to our dinner. ‘

So they went the King and his gentles, and sat down by river under the rustle of the poplars, and they ate and drank and were merry. And the King bade bear up the broken meats to the vine-dressers, and a good draught of the archer’s wine, and to the headman he gave a broad gold piece. But when the poor folk had all that under their hands, it was to them as though the kingdom of heaven had come down to earth.

In the cool of the evening home rode the king and his lords. The king was distraught and silent; but at last the captain, who rode beside him, said to him:

‘Preach me now thine after sermon, O king!’

‘I think thou knowest it already’, said the king, ‘else hadst thou not spoken in such wise to the Carle; but tell me, what is thy craft and the craft of all these whereby ye live, as the potter by making pots and so forth?’

Said the captain: ‘As the potter lives by making pots, so we live by robbing the poor.’

Again said the king: ‘And my trade?’

Said he ‘Thy trade is to be a king of such thieves, yet no worser than the rest’.

The king laughed.

‘Bear that in mind’, said he, ‘and then shall I tell thee my thought while yonder Carle spake. “Carle,” I thought, “were I thou or such as thou, then would I take in my hand a sword or a spear, or were it only a hedge-stake, and bid others do the like, and forth would we go; and since we would be so many, and with nought to lose save a miserable life, we would do battle and prevail, and make an end of the craft of kings and of lords and of usurers, and there should be but one craft in the world, to wit, to work merrily for ourselves and to live merrily thereby."’

Said the captain: ‘This then is thy sermon. Who will heed it if thou preach it?’

Said the King: ‘They who will take the mad king and put him in a king’s mad-house, therefore do I forbear to preach it. Yet it shall be preached.’

‘And not heeded’, said the Captain, ‘save by those who head and hang the setters forth of new things that are good for the world. Our trade is safe for many and many a generation.’

And therewith they came to the king’s palace, and they ate and drank and slept, and the world went on its ways.