‘Angels of Grace’ and King Robert of Sicily

The following narrative poem by Longfellow provided the inspiration for Saki’s story ‘Ministers of Grace’ (originally published in The Bystander and later collected in The Chronicles of Clovis).

Robert of Sicily, brother of Pope Urbane
And Valmond, Emperor of Allemaine,
Apparelled in magnificent attire,
With retinue of many a knight and squire,
On St. John’s eve, at vespers, proudly sat
And heard the priests chant the Magnificat,
And as he listened, o’er and o’er again
Repeated, like a burden or refrain,
He caught the words, “Deposuit potentes
De sede, et exaltavit humiles”;
And slowly lifting up his kingly head
He to a learned clerk beside him said,
“What mean these words?” The clerk made answer meet,
“He has put down the mighty from their seat,
And has exalted them of low degree.”
Thereat King Robert muttered scornfully,
“’T is well that such seditious words are sung
Only by priests and in the Latin tongue;
For unto priests and people be it known,
There is no power can push me from my throne!”
And leaning back, he yawned and fell asleep,
Lulled by the chant monotonous and deep.

When he awoke, it was already night;
The church was empty, and there was no light,
Save where the lamps, that glimmered few and faint,
Lighted a little space before some saint.
He started from his seat and gazed around,
But saw no living thing and heard no sound.
He groped towards the door, but it was locked;
He cried aloud, and listened, and then knocked,
And uttered awful threatenings and complaints,
And imprecations upon men and saints.
The sounds re-echoed from the roof and walls
As if dead priests were laughing in their stalls.

At length the sexton, hearing from without
The tumult of the knocking and the shout,
And thinking thieves were in the house of prayer,
Came with his lantern, asking, “Who is there?”
Half choked with rage, King Robert fiercely said,
“Open: ’tis I, the King! Art thou afraid?”
The frightened sexton, muttering, with a curse,
“This is some drunken vagabond, or worse!”
Turned the great key and flung the portal wide;
A man rushed by him at a single stride,
Haggard, half naked, without hat or cloak,
Who neither turned, nor looked at him, nor spoke,
But leaped into the blackness of the night,
And vanished like a spectre from his sight.

Robert of Sicily, brother of Pope Urbane
And Valmond, Emperor of Allemaine,
Despoiled of his magnificent attire,
Bareheaded, breathless, and besprent with mire,
With sense of wrong and outrage desperate,
Strode on and thundered at the palace gate;
Rushed through the courtyard, thrusting in his rage
To right and left each seneschal and page,
And hurried up the broad and sounding stair,
His white face ghastly in the torches’ glare.
From hall to hall he passed with breathless speed;
Voices and cries he heard, but did not heed,
Until at last he reached the banquet-room,
Blazing with light and breathing with perfume.

There on the dais sat another king,
Wearing his robes, his crown, his signet-ring,
King Robert’s self in features, form, and height,
But all transfigured with angelic light!
It was an Angel; and his presence there
With a divine effulgence filled the air,
An exaltation, piercing the disguise,
Though none the hidden Angel recognize.

A moment speechless, motionless, amazed,
The throneless monarch on the Angel gazed,
Who met his look of anger and surprise
With the divine compassion of his eyes;
Then said, “Who art thou? and why com’st thou here?”
To which King Robert answered, with a sneer,
“I am the King, and come to claim my own
From an impostor, who usurps my throne!”
And suddenly, at these audacious words,
Up sprang the angry guests, and drew their swords;
The Angel answered, with unruffled brow,
“Nay, not the King, but the King’s Jester, thou
Henceforth shall wear the bells and scalloped cape,
And for thy counsellor shalt lead an ape;
Thou shalt obey my servants when they call,
And wait upon my henchmen in the hall!”

Deaf to King Robert’s threats and cries and prayers,
They thrust him from the hall and down the stairs;
A group of tittering pages ran before,
And as they opened wide the folding door,
His heart failed, for he heard, with strange alarms,
The boisterous laughter of the men-at-arms,
And all the vaulted chamber roar and ring
With the mock plaudits of “Long live the King!”

Next morning, waking with the day’s first beam,
He said within himself, “It was a dream!”
But the straw rustled as he turned his head,
There were the cap and bells beside his bed,
Around him rose the bare, discolored walls,
Close by, the steeds were champing in their stalls,
And in the corner, a revolting shape,
Shivering and chattering sat the wretched ape.
It was no dream; the world he loved so much
Had turned to dust and ashes at his touch!

Days came and went; and now returned again
To Sicily the old Saturnian reign;
Under the Angel’s governance benign
The happy island danced with corn and wine,
And deep within the mountain’s burning breast
Enceladus, the giant, was at rest.

Meanwhile King Robert yielded to his fate,
Sullen and silent and disconsolate.
Dressed in the motley garb that Jesters wear,
With look bewildered and a vacant stare,
Close shaven above the ears, as monks are shorn,
By courtiers mocked, by pages laughed to scorn,
His only friend the ape, his only food
What others left,–he still was unsubdued.
And when the Angel met him on his way,
And half in earnest, half in jest, would say
Sternly, though tenderly, that he might feel
The velvet scabbard held a sword of steel,
“Art thou the King?” the passion of his woe
Burst from him in resistless overflow,
And, lifting high his forehead, he would fling
The haughty answer back, “I am, I am the King!”

Almost three years were ended; when there came
Ambassadors of great repute and name
From Valmond, Emperor of Allemaine,
Unto King Robert, saying that Pope Urbane
By letter summoned them forthwith to come
On Holy Thursday to his city of Rome.
The Angel with great joy received his guests,
And gave them presents of embroidered vests,
And velvet mantles with rich ermine lined,
And rings and jewels of the rarest kind.
Then he departed with them o’er the sea
Into the lovely land of Italy,
Whose loveliness was more resplendent made
By the mere passing of that cavalcade,
With plumes, and cloaks, and housings, and the stir
Of jewelled bridle and of golden spur.
And lo! among the menials, in mock state,
Upon a piebald steed, with shambling gait,
His cloak of fox-tails flapping in the wind,
The solemn ape demurely perched behind,
King Robert rode, making huge merriment
In all the country towns through which they went.

The Pope received them with great pomp and blare
Of bannered trumpets, on Saint Peter’s square,
Giving his benediction and embrace,
Fervent, and full of apostolic grace.
While with congratulations and with prayers
He entertained the Angel unawares,
Robert, the Jester, bursting through the crowd,
Into their presence rushed, and cried aloud,
“I am the King! Look, and behold in me
Robert, your brother, King of Sicily!
This man, who wears my semblance to your eyes,
Is an impostor in a king’s disguise.
Do you not know me? does no voice within
Answer my cry, and say we are akin?”
The Pope in silence, but with troubled mien,
Gazed at the Angel’s countenance serene;
The Emperor, laughing, said, “It is strange sport
To keep a mad man for thy Fool at court!”
And the poor, baffled Jester in disgrace
Was hustled back among the populace.

In solemn state the Holy Week went by,
And Easter Sunday gleamed upon the sky;
The presence of the Angel, with its light,
Before the sun rose, made the city bright,
And with new fervor filled the hearts of men,
Who felt that Christ indeed had risen again.
Even the Jester, on his bed of straw,
With haggard eyes the unwonted splendor saw,
He felt within a power unfelt before,
And, kneeling humbly on his chamber floor,
He heard the rushing garments of the Lord
Sweep through the silent air, ascending heavenward.

And now the visit ending, and once more
Valmond returning to the Danube’s shore,
Homeward the Angel journeyed, and again
The land was made resplendent with his train,
Flashing along the towns of Italy
Unto Salerno, and from thence by sea.
And when once more within Palermo’s wall,
And, seated on the throne in his great hall,
He heard the Angelus from convent towers,
As if the better world conversed with ours,
He beckoned to King Robert to draw nigher,
And with a gesture bade the rest retire;
And when they were alone, the Angel said,
“Art thou the King?” Then, bowing down his head,
King Robert crossed both hands upon his breast,
And meekly answered him: “Thou knowest best!
My sins as scarlet are; let me go hence,
And in some cloister’s school of penitence,
Across those stones, that pave the way to heaven,
Walk barefoot, till my guilty soul be shriven!”

The Angel smiled, and from his radiant face
A holy light illumined all the place,
And through the open window, loud and clear,
They heard the monks chant in the chapel near,
Above the stir and tumult of the street:
“He has put down the mighty from their seat,
And has exalted them of low degree!”
And through the chant a second melody
Rose like the throbbing of a single string:
“I am an Angel, and thou art the King!”

King Robert, who was standing near the throne,
Lifted his eyes, and lo! he was alone!
But all apparelled as in days of old,
With ermined mantle and with cloth of gold;
And when his courtiers came, they found him there
Kneeling upon the floor, absorbed in, silent prayer.

Tales of a Wayside Inn by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Part First, The Sicilian’s Tale: King Robert of Sicily

Source text taken from: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Tales_of_a_Wayside_Inn/Part_First/The_Sicilian%27s_Tale/King_Robert_of_Sicily

‘The Easter Egg’

It was distinctly hard lines for Lady Barbara, who came of good fighting stock, and was one of the bravest women of her generation, that her son should be so undisguisedly a coward. Whatever good qualities Lester Slaggby may have possessed, and he was in some respects charming, courage could certainly never he imputed to him. As a child he had suffered from childish timidity, as a boy from unboyish funk, and as a youth he had exchanged unreasoning fears for others which were more formidable from the fact of having a carefully thought-out basis. He was frankly afraid of animals, nervous with firearms, and never crossed the Channel without mentally comparing the numerical proportion of lifebelts to passengers. On horseback he seemed to require as many hands as a Hindu god, at least four for clutching the reins, and two more for patting the horse soothingly on the neck. Lady Barbara no longer pretended not to see her son’s prevailing weakness; with her usual courage she faced the knowledge of it squarely, and, mother-like, loved him none the less.

Continental travel, anywhere away from the great tourist tracks, was a favoured hobby with Lady Barbara, and Lester joined her as often as possible. Eastertide usually found her at Knobaltheim,1 an upland township in one of those small princedoms that make inconspicuous freckles on the map of Central Europe.

A long-standing acquaintanceship with the reigning family made her a personage of due importance in the eyes of her old friend the Burgomaster,2 and she was anxiously consulted by that worthy on the momentous occasion when the Prince made known his intention of coming in person to open a sanatorium outside the town. All the usual items in a programme of welcome, some of them fatuous and commonplace, others quaint and charming, had been arranged for, but the Burgomaster hoped that the resourceful English lady might have something new and tasteful to suggest in the way of loyal greeting. The Prince was known to the outside world, if at all, as an old-fashioned reactionary, combating modern progress, as it were, with a wooden sword; to his own people he was known as a kindly old gentleman with a certain endearing stateliness which had nothing of standoffishness about it. Knobaltheim was anxious to do its best. Lady Barbara discussed the matter with Lester and one or two acquaintances in her little hotel, but ideas were difficult to come by.

“Might I suggest something to the Gnädige Frau?”3 asked a sallow high-cheek-boned lady to whom the Englishwoman had spoken once or twice, and whom she had set down in her mind as probably a Southern Slav.4

“Might I suggest something for the Reception Fest?” she went on, with a certain shy eagerness. “Our little child here, our baby, we will dress him in little white coat, with small wings, as an Easter angel, and he will carry a large white Easter egg, and inside shall be a basket of plover eggs, of which the Prince is so fond, and he shall give it to his Highness as Easter offering. It is so pretty an idea; we have seen it done once in Styria.”

Lady Barbara looked dubiously at the proposed Easter angel, a fair, wooden-faced child of about four years old. She had noticed it the day before in the hotel, and wondered rather how such a towheaded child could belong to such a dark-visaged couple as the woman and her husband; probably, she thought, an adopted baby, especially as the couple were not young.

“Of course Gnädige Frau will escort the little child up to the Prince,” pursued the woman; but he will be quite good, and do as he is told.”

“We haf some pluffers’ eggs shall come fresh from Wien,”5 said the husband.

The small child and Lady Barbara seemed equally unenthusiastic about the pretty idea; Lester was openly discouraging, but when the Burgomaster heard of it he was enchanted. The combination of sentiment and plovers’ eggs appealed strongly to his Teutonic mind.

On the eventful day the Easter angel, really quite prettily and quaintly dressed, was a centre of kindly interest to the gala crowd marshalled to receive his Highness. The mother was unobtrusive and less fussy than most parents would have been under the circumstances, merely stipulating that she should place the Easter egg herself in the arms that had been carefully schooled how to hold the precious burden. Then Lady Barbara moved forward, the child marching stolidly and with grim determination at her side. It had been promised cakes and sweeties galore if it gave the egg well and truly to the kind old gentleman who was waiting to receive it. Lester had tried to convey to it privately that horrible smackings would attend any failure in its share of the proceedings, but it is doubtful if his German caused more than an immediate distress. Lady Barbara had thoughtfully provided herself with an emergency supply of chocolate sweetmeats; children may sometimes be time-servers, but they do not encourage long accounts. As they approached nearer to the princely daïs Lady Barbara stood discreetly aside, and the stolid-faced infant walked forward alone, with staggering but steadfast gait, encouraged by a murmur of elderly approval. Lester, standing in the front row of the onlookers, turned to scan the crowd for the beaming faces of the happy parents. In a side-road which led to the railway station he saw a cab; entering the cab with every appearance of furtive haste were the dark-visaged couple who had been so plausibly eager for the “pretty idea.” The sharpened instinct of cowardice lit up the situation to him in one swift flash. The blood roared and surged to his head as though thousands of floodgates had been opened in his veins and arteries, and his brain was the common sluice in which all the torrents met. He saw nothing but a blur around him. Then the blood ebbed away in quick waves, till his very heart seemed drained and empty, and he stood nervelessly, helplessly, dumbly watching the child, bearing its accursed burden with slow, relentless steps nearer and nearer to the group that waited sheep-like to receive him. A fascinated curiosity compelled Lester to turn his head towards the fugitives; the cab had started at hot pace in the direction of the station.

The next moment Lester was running, running faster than any of those present had ever seen a man run, and—he was not running away. For that stray fraction of his life some unwonted impulse beset him, some hint of the stock he came from, and he ran unflinchingly towards danger. He stooped and clutched at the Easter egg as one tries to scoop up the ball in Rugby football. What he meant to do with it he had not considered, the thing was to get it. But the child had been promised cakes and sweetmeats if it safely gave the egg into the hands of the kindly old gentleman; it uttered no scream, but it held to its charge with limpet grip. Lester sank to his knees, tugging savagely at the tightly clasped burden, and angry cries rose from the scandalized onlookers. A questioning, threatening ring formed round him, then shrank back in recoil as he shrieked out one hideous word. Lady Barbara heard the word and saw the crowd race away like scattered sheep, saw the Prince forcibly hustled away by his attendants; also she saw her son lying prone in an agony of overmastering terror, his spasm of daring shattered by the child’s unexpected resistance, still clutching frantically, as though for safety, at that white-satin gew-gaw, unable to crawl even from its deadly neighbourhood, able only to scream and scream and scream. In her brain she was dimly conscious of balancing, or striving to balance, the abject shame which had him now in thrall against the one compelling act of courage which had flung him grandly and madly on to the point of danger. It was only for the fraction of a minute that she stood watching the two entangled figures, the infant with its woodenly obstinate face and body tense with dogged resistance, and the boy limp and already nearly dead with a terror that almost stifled his screams; and over them the long gala streamers flapping gaily in the sunshine. She never forgot the scene; but then, it was the last she ever saw.

Lady Barbara carries her scarred face with its sightless eyes as bravely as ever in the world, but at Eastertide her friends are careful to keep from her ears any mention of the children’s Easter symbol.


  1. Invented.
  2. Mayor.
  3. Literally “Gracious Lady”: polite form of address (German).
  4. At the time, most of the countries that later made up Yugoslavia (the ‘Land of the Southern Slavs’) were incorporated into the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
  5. Vienna (German).

‘The Easter Egg’ by Saki (H.H. Munro), taken from The Chronicles of Clovis (public domain). Notes © 2019-20 Bruce Gaston. No reproduction without permission.

Saki and the Leinsters’ Magazine

The-Journal-of-the-Leinster-Regiment-vol.1-no.4-1910-frontispiece

The Journal of the Leinster Regiment vol.1, no.4 (1910) frontispiece

It’s fairly well known that Munro published most of his short stories in newspapers and periodicals first; only later were they collected and published in book form. Principal recipients were the Westminster Gazette and the Bystander. The acknowledgements to his third collection, The Chronicles of Clovis, also mention a journal I’d never heard of:

‘The Background’ originally appeared in the ‘Leinsters’ Magazine’.

So, of course, I decided to look it up.

Slightly surpisingly, the magazine was the ‘in-house’ newspaper of a regiment of the British Army. The Prince of Wales’s Leinster Regiment (Royal Canadians), to give it its full name, was an infantry regiment formed in 1881 by merging the 100th (Prince of Wales’s Royal Canadian) Regiment of Foot and the 109th Regiment of Foot (Bombay Infantry). I managed to find a history of the regiment online  which has the following to say about its magazine:

It while the Battalion was at Devonport [i.e. from 1909] that its second regimental paper was born. The Journal of the Leinster Regiment, or as it was called later, the Leinsters’ Magazine owed its success to the ability and demoniac energy of its editor, Captain R. F. Legge, assisted by Captain R. M. Raynsford as its sub-editor. It struck a completely new note in regimental journalism by subordinating regimental intelligence to general articles grave and gay, and, speaking with that impartiality which only the lapse of years can ensure, the opinion may be hazarded that neither before nor since has the Leinsters’ Magazine had a serious rival. It enlisted some distinguished outside writers, including the present Lord Rawlinson, Hilaire Belloc, C. B. Fry, the late Frank Richardson, Stephen Gwynn, Major Drury, L. S. Amery, Aliph Cheem, Saki, and many others. It was splendidly illustrated, turned out in Messrs. Gale & Polden’s very best style, and the amount of advertisements was the despair of rival regimental journals. It made a feature in each issue of humorous verse and was the only regimental paper which ever published a comic opera on the subject of manoeuvres. Alas! when the Battalion  was ordered abroad the editor got a home job and the inevitable upheaval caused by the change to India killed the magazine which perished after just two years’ brilliant existence.

I wonder what exactly were the circumstances behind Munro’s involvement? Why not go with one of his more regular ‘customers’? There’s nothing military about ‘The Background’ that would have made the Leinsters’ Magazine a particularly suitable place for it. Langguth’s biography doesn’t mention it at all, nor is there anything in Byrne or Gibson’s books. With so many of Saki’s papers lost forever, perhaps we’ll never know.

[Edit]

I subsequently noticed that ‘The Baker’s Dozen’ in Reginald in Russia also originally appeared in the same magazine, though in this case it is credited with its full title The Journal of the Leinster Regiment.

[Second edit]

A student of mine kindly sent me scans from the copy in Trinity College Dublins libary so I added one as an illustration to this post.

Sources

The History of the Prince of Wales’s Leinster Regiment, Volume 1, by Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Ernest Whitton, p. 156.

The Leinster Regiment Association website at http://www.leinster-regiment-association.org.uk/regiment.html

“There ain’t goin’ to be no core!”

I’m posting this more so that I can find it again if I need it than for its intrinsic interest, but nonetheless…

In ‘The Quest’, in The Chronicles of Clovis, a discussion about what sauce to serve with the asparagus for lunch is sidelined, much to Clovis’s annoyance, by the trivial matter of a missing toddler. Clovis contributes some suggestions in his inimitable way:

“Perhaps an eagle or a wild beast has carried him off,” suggested Clovis.

“There aren’t eagles and wild beasts in Surrey,” said Mrs. Momeby, but a note of horror had crept into her voice.

“They escape now and then from travelling shows. Sometimes I think they let them get loose for the sake of the advertisement. Think what a sensational headline it would make in the local papers: ‘Infant son of prominent Nonconformist devoured by spotted hyæna.’ Your husband isn’t a prominent Nonconformist, but his mother came of Wesleyan stock, and you must allow the newspapers some latitude.”

“But we should have found his remains,” sobbed Mrs. Momeby.

“If the hyæna was really hungry and not merely toying with his food there wouldn’t be much in the way of remains. It would be like the small-boy-and-apple story—there ain’t going to be no core.”

The reference, I discovered after some searching, may be to a cartoon by the British artist Phil May (1864-1903), who drew for the St Stephens Review (a weekly magazine which ran from 1883 to 1892, according to Abebooks) and for Punch. I presume Saki saw the cartoon in the latter (if it really was his source) but I haven’t been able to establish that yet.

“Give us a bite of yer apple, Billy!”
“Sha’n’t!”
“Well, leave us a little bit of the core!”
“There ain’t goin’ to be no core!”.
[Found at https://www.oldbookillustrations.com/illustrations/bite-apple/]

There’s more information about Phil May here, along with some more of his cartoons:

https://illustrationchronicles.com/Phil-May-and-the-Birth-of-the-Modern-Cartoon

The “no core” joke appears to be a relatively common one. In Tom Sawyer Abroad by Mark Twain (published 1894), Huckleberry Finn recounts:

Tom Sawyer was always free and generous that way. There’s plenty of boys that’s mighty good and friendly when you’ve got a good thing, but when a good thing happens to come their way they don’t say a word to you, and try to hog it all. That warn’t ever Tom Sawyer’s style—I can say that for him. There’s plenty of boys that will come hankering and gruvveling around when you’ve got an apple, and beg the core off you; but when they’ve got one, and you beg for the core and remind them how you give them a core one time, the make a mouth at you and say thank you ’most to death, but there ain’t a-going to be no core. But I notice they always git come up with; all you got to do is to wait. Jake Hooker always done that way, and it warn’t two years till he got drownded. (Chapter 1)

‘The Music on the Hill’

Sylvia Seltoun ate her breakfast in the morning-room at Yessney with a pleasant sense of ultimate victory, such as a fervent Ironside1 might have permitted himself on the morrow of Worcester fight.2 She was scarcely pugnacious by temperament, but belonged to that more successful class of fighters who are pugnacious by circumstance. Fate had willed that her life should be occupied with a series of small struggles, usually with the odds slightly against her, and usually she had just managed to come through winning. And now she felt that she had brought her hardest and certainly her most important struggle to a successful issue. To have married Mortimer Seltoun, “Dead Mortimer” as his more intimate enemies called him, in the teeth of the cold hostility of his family, and in spite of his unaffected indifference to women, was indeed an achievement that had needed some determination and adroitness to carry through; yesterday she had brought her victory to its concluding stage by wrenching her husband away from Town and its group of satellite watering-places and “settling him down,” in the vocabulary of her kind, in this remote wood-girt manor farm which was his country house.

“You will never get Mortimer to go,” his mother had said carpingly, “but if he once goes he’ll stay; Yessney throws almost as much a spell over him as Town does. One can understand what holds him to Town, but Yessney—” and the dowager had shrugged her shoulders. Continue reading