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An Arthurian Miscellany at

Sir Tray: An Arthurian Idyl


General Edward Hamley

The widowed Dame of Hubbard's ancient line
Turned to her cupboard, cornered anglewise
Betwixt this wall and that, in quest of aught
To satisfy the craving of Sir Tray,
Prick-eared companion of her solitude,
Red-spotted, dirty-white, and bare of rib,
Who followed at her high and pattering heels,
Prayer in his eye, prayer in his slinking gait,
Prayer in his pendulous pulsating tail.
Wide on its creaking jaws revolved the door,
The cupboard yawned, deep-throated, thinly set
For teeth, with bottles, ancient canisters,
And plates of various pattern, blue or white;
Deep in the void she thrust her hookèd nose
Peering near-sighted for the wished-for bone,
Whiles her short robe of samite, tilted high,
The thrifty darnings of her hose revealed;--
The pointed feature travelled o'er the delf
Greasing its tip, but bone or bread found none.
Wherefore Sir Tray abode still dinnerless,
Licking his paws beneath the spinning-wheel,
And meditating much on savoury meats.

   Meanwhile the Dame in high-backed chair reposed
Revolving many memories, for she gazed
Down from her lattice on the self-same path
Whereby Sir Lancelot 'mid the reapers rode
When Arthur held his court in Camelot,
And she was called the Lady of Shalott;
And, later, where Sir Hubbard, meekest knight
Of all the Table Round, was wont to pass,
And to her casement glint the glance of love.
(For all the tale of how she floated dead
Between the city walls, and how the Court
Gazed on her corpse, was of illusion framed,
And shadows raised by Merlin's magic art,
Ere Vivien shut him up within the oak.)
There stood the wheel whereat she spun her thread;
But of the magic mirror nought remained
Save one small fragment on the mantelpiece,
Reflecting her changed features night and morn.

   But now the inward yearnings of Sir Tray
Grew pressing, and in hollow rumblings spake,
As in tempestuous nights the Northern seas
Within their caverned cliffs reverberate.
This touched her: "I have marked of yore," she said,
"When on my palfrey I have paced along
The streets of Camelot, while many a knight
Ranged at my rein and thronged upon my steps,
Wending in pride towards the tournament,
A wight who many kinds of bread purveyed--
Muffins, and crumpets, matutinal rolls,
And buns which, buttered, soothe at evensong;
To him I'll hie me ere my purpose cool,
And swift returning, bear a loaf with me,
And (for my teeth be tender grown, and like
Celestial visits, few and far between)
The crust shall be for Tray, the crumb for me."
This spake she; from their peg reached straightway down
Her cloak of sanguine hue, and pointed hat
From the flat brim upreared like pyramid
On sands Egyptian where the Pharaohs sleep,
Her ebon-handled staff (sole palfrey now)
Grasped firmly, and so issued swiftly forth;
Yet ere she closed the latch her cat Elaine,
The lily kitten reared at Astolat,
Slipt through and mewing passed to greet Sir Tray.

   Returning ere the shadows eastward fell,
She placed a porringer upon the board,
And shred the crackling crusts with liberal hand,
Nor noted how Elaine did seem to wail,
Rubbing against her hose, and mourning round
Sir Tray, who lay all prone upon the hearth.
Then on the bread she poured the mellow milk--
"Sleep'st thou?" she said, and touched him with her staff;
"What, ho! thy dinner waits thee!" But Sir Tray
Stirred not nor breathed: thereat, alarmed, she seized
And drew the hinder leg: the carcase moved
All over wooden like a piece of wood--
"Dead?" said the Dame, while louder wailed Elaine;
"I see," she said, "thy fasts were all too long,
Thy commons all too short, which shortened thus
Thy days, tho' thou mightst still have cheered mine age
Had I but timelier to the city wonned.
Thither I must again, and that right soon,
For now 'tis meet we lap thee in a shroud,
And lay thee in the vault by Astolat,
Where faithful Tray shall by Sir Hubbard lie."

   Up a by-lane the Undertaker dwelt;
There day by day he plied his merry trade,
And all his undertakings undertook:
Erst knight of Arthur's Court, Sir Waldgrave hight,
A gruesome carle who hid his jests in gloom,
And schooled his lid to counterfeit a tear.
With cheerful hammer he a coffin tapt,
While hollow, hollow, hollow, rang the wood,
And, as he sawed and hammered, thus he sang:

Wood, hammer, nails, ye build a house for him,
Nails, hammer, wood, ye build a house for me,
Paying the rent, the taxes, and the rates.

I plant a human acorn in the ground,
And therefrom straightway springs a goodly tree,
Budding for me in bread and beer and beef.

O Life, dost thou bring Death or Death bring thee?
Which of the twain is bringer, which the brought?
Since men must die that other men may live.

O Death, for me thou plump'st thine hollow cheeks,
Mak'st of thine antic grin a pleasant smile,
And prank'st full gaily in thy winding-sheet.

   This ditty sang he to a doleful tune
To outer ears that sounded like a dirge,
Or wind that wails across the fields of death.
'Ware of a visitor, he ceased his strain,
But still did ply his saw industrious.
With withered hand on ear, Dame Hubbard stood;
"Vex not mine ears," she grated, "with thine old
And creaking saw!" "I deemed," he said, and sighed,
"Old saws might please thee, as they should the wise."
"Know," said the Dame, "Sir Tray that with me dwelt
Lies on my lonely hearthstone stark and stiff;
Wagless the tail that waved to welcome me."--
Here Waldgrave interposed sepulchral tones,
"Oft have I noted, when the jest went round,
Sad 'twas to see the wag forget his tale--
Sadder to see the tail forget its wag."
"Wherefore," resumed she, "take of fitting stuff,
And make therewith a narrow house for him."
Quoth he, "From yonder deal I'll plane the bark,
So 'twill of Tray be emblematical;
For thou, 'tis plain, must lose a deal of bark,
Since he nor bark nor bite shall practise more."
"And take thou, too," she said, "a coffin-plate,
And be his birth and years inscribed thereon
With letters twain 'S.T.' to mark Sir Tray,
So shall the tomb be known in after-time."
"This too," quoth Waldgrave, "shall be deftly done;
Oft hath the plate been freighted with his bones,
But now his bones must lie beneath the plate."
"Jest'st thou?" Dame Hubbard said, and clutched her crutch,
For ill she brooked light parlance of the dead;
But when she saw Sir Waldgrave, how his face
Was all drawn downward, till the curving mouth
Seemed a horseshoe, while o'er the furrowed cheek,
A wandering tear stole on, like rivulet
In dry ravine down mother Ida's side,
She changed her purpose, smote not, lowered the staff;--
So parted, faring homeward with her grief.

   Nearing her bower, it seemed a sepulchre
Sacred to memory, and almost she thought
A dolorous cry arose, as if Elaine
Did sound a caterwauling requiem.
With hesitating hand she raised the latch,
And on the threshold with reluctant foot
Lingered, as loath to face the scene of woe,
When lo! the body lay not on the hearth,
For there Elaine her flying tail pursued,--
In the Dame's chair Sir Tray alive did sit,
A world of merry meaning in his eye,
And all his face agrin from ear to ear.

   Like one who late hath lost his dearest friend,
And in his sleep doth see that friend again,
And marvels scarce to see him, putting forth
A clasping hand, and feels him warm with life,
And so takes up his friendship's broken thread--
Thus stood the Dame, thus ran she, pattering o'er
The sanded tiles, and clasped she thus Sir Tray,
Unheeding of the grief his jest had wrought
For joy he was not numbered with the dead.

   Anon the Dame, her primal transports o'er,
Bethought her of the wisdom of Sir Tray,
And his fine wit, and then it shameful seemed
That he bareheaded 'neath the sky should go
While empty skulls of fools went thatched and roofed;
"A hat," she cried, "would better fit those brows
Than many a courtier's that I've wotted of;
And thou shalt have one, an' my tender toes
On which the corns do shoot, and these my knees
Wherethro' rheumatic twinges swiftly dart,
Will bear me to the city yet again,
And thou shalt wear the hat as Arthur wore
The Dragon of the great Pendragonship."
Whereat Sir Tray did seem to smile, and smote
Upon the chair-back with approving tail.

   Then up she rose, and to the Hatter's went,--
"Hat me," quoth she, "your very newest hat;"
And so they hatted her, and she returned
Home through the darksome wold, and raised the latch,
And marked, full lighted by the ingle-glow,
Sir Tray, with spoon in hand, and cat on knee,
Spattering the mess about the chaps of Puss.

Next: The Opera of Operas or Tom Thumb the Great, by Eliza Haywood and William Hatchett [1733]