A story by John Gardner
Another thing that can be said about King A Gregor is that he dearly loved his work, and he was good at it. That was why he spent too much time at it, as the Fool kept pointing out, and tended to neglect his family. No doubt it was true that it was because of his neglect that mad Queen Louisa spent more and more of her time these days as an enormous toad, though in her natural shape she was the most beautiful queen in the world. And presumably it was why his daughter–if it was true that, as Queen Louisa insisted, he had a daughter–had run away from home and only recently returned, having gotten herself into trouble and having no one to turn to.
King Gregor nodded, his dark brow deeply furrowed. “Yes, true, all true,” he muttered to himself, stroking his long black beard.
Which, however, did not resign him for one instant to the Fool, or to the whole institution of Foolery. The man wouldn’t give him a moment’s rest, carping and carping, prating and prating, often in spontaneous rhyme so terrible it set King Gregor’s ears on edge. “Surely,” King Gregor thought, pressing the back of his hand to his forehead, “an exception should be made in my case! Isn’t it enough that I’m married to an insane queen? Do I have to put up with a Fool besides?” No one knew how he suffered. No one understood. Queen Louisa, of course, was the life of the party, the one everyone adored. Bold King Gregor (as he liked to call himself and as he’d tentatively suggested from time to time that he might not unfittingly be called, but it had never caught on)– Bold King Gregor was always the straight man, cruelly upstaged by the magnificent Louisa. He loved her, yes, of course. It can safely be said that no king who ever lived was more devoted to his queen than was Gregor to Louisa. But it was not easy, being the ruler of an important kingdom and the husband of a mad woman, everlastingly rolling the same old rock up the same old hill, like Sisyphus of old, straining to introduce into the kingdom, in his own small way, some trifling note of sense. Did the Fool understand this, criticizing, criticizing? No, the Fool did not.
King Gregor glanced back at the battle on the plain below and saw that his men were getting too far to the left, where they could easily be surrounded, if the enemy thought of it. He reached over to his trumpeter and poked him in the arm with one finger. “Trumpeter,” he said, “blow ‘Advance to the Right.’ ”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” the trumpeter said, and smartly lifted his instrument, banderoles streaming, and blew the call. King Gregor’s knights, down on the plain below, stopped and looked up, raising their visors to hear better, got startled looks as they realized their situation, and hurriedly scurried some distance to the right. King John, on the mountain beside King Gregor’s, hammered his hand with his fist and stamped in fury. King Gregor smiled.
But almost at once he began frowning again, and stroking his long black beard first with one hand and then with the other. He’d had a stunning idea about getting rid of Fools and had written a long, rather eloquent letter to all the kings in the neighborhood commending his idea to his colleagues’ attention. The idea was this. A Fool, in the final analysis, is merely a kind of safety valve for the feelings of the people who are ruled by the king and have no right to disagree with him, except through their supposedly mad, and therefore not responsible, spokesman the Fool. Why not establish a new relationship between kings and their subjects, a system in which everyone voted on everything, so that Fools were no longer needed? The disadvantages of this, he would readily grant, were dreadful to contemplate, but there was one overriding advantage: once Fools were no longer of value, the kings could round up the Fools and chop their heads off. In the end, as so often happens, his fellow kings had rejected the idea not because it was unsound– they could never reach agreement on that–but because, as someone put it, “The old ways are the best ways.” This, in King Gregor’s opinion, showed a gross ignorance of history.
“In the old days,” he sourly pointed out, “armies fought with clubs with huge spikes sticking out. Surely our modern swords and lances and catapults are a vast improvement.”
The argument had no effect except that several of the kings went back to equipping their soldiers with huge spiked clubs.
King Gregor shook his head, slowly and thoughtfully stroking his beard. It wasn’t easy to be sane when the whole wide world around him was crazy.
“Excuse me,” said the trumpeter “Here comes King John.”
King Gregor sighed and nodded. On the plain, the armies broke for lunch.
“I nearly had you there. Admit it, you old devil,” King John said, punching him merrily. “Nearly caught them fifteen miles off base.” His tiny blue eyes twinkled happily, and his yellow moustache twitched with his twitching cheeks.
“You should have jumped us sooner,” King Gregor said glumly.
“I should have, that’s a fact,” King John agreed. He bit off another large piece of blue cheese. Down on the plain, the surgeons were bandaging the knights’ dreadful wounds. King John tucked the bite in the side of his face and said, “How’s Queen Louisa?”
“She’s fine, just fine,” King Gregor said. Then, for politeness, though his heart was heavy, “How’s Hilda?”
King John winked obscenely. King Gregor sighed. For a long time after that, neither king spoke. The two trumpeters, who were playing cards, looked sadly at their masters. At last King Gregor said, “Life is very baffling, it seems to me.” “Never admit it! That’s the secret!” King John said, and chuckled.
King Gregor went on eating his apple. He had his crown off; he’d set it casually on the grass beside him. His stiff black hair stuck up oddly, with a tight ring around his head where the crown had rested. His enemy studied him with a look of sympathy, then abruptly looked down. His eye happening to land on King Gregor’s crown, between them, he reached out and lifted it up, tossed it gently on his hand to weigh it, then brought it up level with his eye to examine the jewels and the Latin inscription.
“Maybe it would help if you talked about it,”
King John brought out, not glancing at King Gregor.
“It’s nothing specific,” King Gregor said. “It’s just that I feel–” He narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips. “I feel old,” he said.
King John smiled gently. “I know what you mean.”
They watched the two dukes winding up the path toward them, talking together as they came. As the two dukes came nearer, the trumpeters stopped playing cards for a moment and looked at them. The two dukes approached the two kings and saluted. They presented the morning’s list of dead and wounded. Both kings shook their heads, not commenting. It seemed to King Gregor that his enemy was blinking back tears. Some mad, unheard-of question came drifting into King Gregor’s mind but timidly fled before he was able to identify it. The kings handed the lists back to the dukes and saluted. The dukes returned the salutes, turned sharply on their iron heels, and started back down the path, clanking. The trumpeters returned to their game.
Suddenly King Gregor said, “My wife and daughter will be coming out to watch, a little later in the day. I told them they could.”
King John’s eyes popped wide open and the crown tumbled from his hands, but all he said was, “You don’t say!”
“I get a lot of criticism, you know, about never spending time with the family.”
King John eyed King Gregor in a manner that suggested some doubt of King Gregor’s sanity.
“I don’t feel I owe you an explanation,” King Gregor said in a way that sounded, even in his own ears, peevish, “but I will say this: You don’t understand the strain I’m under, living with a bunch of lunatics. Oh, I know, it’s only Louisa herself that’s truly crazy. But there they are with her all the time, you know, and they get used to her behavior, get to playing to it, so to speak, and pretty soon the line between sense and nonsense is a little indistinct. For example—” He was suddenly speaking rapidly, in the way in which one speaks to one’s confessor sometimes, when one knows that one has sinned but has a feeling that the case is unusual and the normal definitions don’t perfectly apply. “For example, one hour after supper last night, Louisa said in a bright, sweet voice–she has, you know, a lovely voice; it’s difficult to believe that a voice so sweet, so full of gentleness and goodness, could be uttering nonsense. . . . She said, as I was saying, ʽListen! I’ve got a marvelous idea. Let’s everybody go skinny-dipping!’ Before I could even catch my breath she was disrobing herself. And so were they! All of them!–even my pregnant daughter and that horrible troublemaking monster my Fool. Even Tcherpni, my Minister of Economics!” King Gregor laughed, then remembered his unhappiness and stopped himself. “The next minute, off they all went through the palace, reaching out like swimmers and slowly bringing their arms back and reaching out again, and sometimes giving a little kick with one foot, except for old Tcherpni’s wife, who was doing the dog paddle. My Chief Justice almost drowned, but someone swam out and saved him and put him on the dinner table, where he was safe.”
“You poor devil, Gregor,” King John said, moved.
“Actually, it wasn’t so bad, in some ways. Queen Louisa, as you know, is a woman of extraordinary attractiveness, even with her clothes on.” He narrowed his eyes and rubbed his knees with the palms of his hands, laboring to think it through. “And, of course, the whole business may not have been as mad as Queen Louisa pretended. We do, after all, have a pregnant daughter to marry oft, by hook or crook, and in situations like these . . . in situations like the event I’m describing . . .”
King John studied him suspiciously.
“All I’m saying is, it’s difficult to keep one’s sanity, in a household like that.”
The blond king nodded. He asked, without seeming to put excessive weight on it, “And did you join the fun, on this curious occasion?”
“What could I do?” King Gregor said, suddenly perspiring. “I was their host.”
The afternoon’s fighting went badly for everyone. King Gregor had difficulty keeping his mind on his business, so molested were his thoughts by curious emotions and wordless intuitions, and one in particular, though for the life of him he couldn’t make it come clear—some feeling of fundamental error, perhaps some error of his own, perhaps some error of all mankind. Again and again as he tried to concentrate, his mind would suddenly be filled with an image of Louisa, naked and unspeakably beautiful, with her fiery red hair flowing softly behind her as if the palace really were filled with water. And then sometimes he would remember Her Majesty’s lady-in-waiting, Madam Logre, who had practically no breasts at all but who, nonetheless, had an unnerving appeal in King Gregor’s eyes. And now and then he would suddenly blush and clamp his eyes shut, remembering little Princess Muriel, with her pitifully thin white thighs and her gently paggled sixmonths-pregnant belly and those lovely gray eyes, lovely in spite of the ugly dark circles, eyes that shone, contrary to reason, with saintly innocence. He’d been conscious of wanting, as he walked slowly through the palace, thoughtfully stroking his beard with his right hand and swimming with his left, bowing to his brave and gallant knights as they swam by arm-in-arm with their elegant ladies, or throwing a word of encouragement to some elderly minister who was puffing hard and looking very doubtful that he’d make it as far as the safety of the stairs–he’d been conscious of wanting to embrace them all, both the beautiful and the ugly, and cling to them as a sweet uninhibited child clings for dear life to his parents. “My people,” he kept thinking. “My people. My people!” It was a wonder that he kept from bursting into tears.
As for blond King John, he paid scarcely more attention to his army than Gregor did to his. The dark king’s words had made a profound impression on him. He had always thought of his enemy as a man with his feet firmly planted in the world, a man who knew his mind and could get things done. Sometimes King John would find himself chuckling. “That old devil!” he said from time to time. But at other times a great, wordless sorrow would well up in his breast, and he would be forced to wipe his eyes with his sleeve.
The armies, clumsily striking out without plan or supervision, gored each other fiercely, knocked each other’s horses down, and sometimes found themselves lost in the woods a mile from the plain where they thought they were. Tempers were frayed, chivalry was forgotten. The horses, badly guided, as confused and angry as the knights who rode them, savagely bit and kicked each other. A veteran knight who was known far and wide for his skill and courage sat crying like a child in the mud and tangled grass.
It was at this stage of the battle that King Gregor’s faithful trumpeter tapped him on the shoulder and pointed down the road. With a sinking heart. King Gregor took in the glittering banners of Queen Louisa’s entourage. When he glanced over at King John’s mountain, King Gregor saw that his enemy was also aware of the queen’s approach. The blond king was miserably shaking his head, looking down at the horrible travesty of a battle.
King Gregor paced back and forth, feeling suddenly furious. It was all her fault, he clearly understood. As for her sweet and notorious madness, he didn‘t believe a word of it. She’d plotted the whole thing, to make a fool of him. No doubt she’d had a private word with the Fool, a creature as coldbloodedly sane as she was. No doubt they’d had a good laugh, yes! King Gregor seized two great hanks of hair, one with each fist, and yanked at them, trying to pull them out, but though it hurt a good deal, no hair came out. The queen’s entourage kept coming, gleaming.
“Make everyone stop fighting,” he shouted suddenly to his trumpeter as though the trumpeter, too, had been privy to the plot. With a look of alarm the trumpeter snapped up his instrument and blew first the retreat call used by King Gregor’s army and then the retreat call King John’s army used. The armies looked up in confusion and then, looking puzzled, began to back away from each other. “Clean this mess up!” King Gregor shouted through his cupped hands.
King John, who at once saw the wisdom of this, began shouting the same.
The knights climbed awkwardly down from their horses and lumbered behind the lither yeomen to the middle of the plain and hurriedly snatched up dead men by the legs and began to drag them away to the woods. They tied ropes to the hooves of dead horses, then tied the ropes’ other ends to the saddles of their battle steeds, and began dragging the dead horses’ corpses aw’ay.
“Now everyone line up for the attack!” cried King Gregor and King John at once.
The yeomen helped the knights back up into their saddles and the two armies went to opposite sides of the plain and lined up, feeling suddenly excited and cheerful, for a whole new attack. The standard-bearers cleaned up their flags as well as possible, then hastily took their accustomed positions. The horses trembled with excitement and confidence, so that their armor rang and their bright skirts glimmered like water in a brook.
King Gregor could hardly stand still. He kept hitting his hand with his fist and smiling wickedly, showing his huge square teeth. “That’s more like it!” he kept saying. Over on his mountain, his enemy was jumping up and down like an idiot. King Gregor grinned like a wolf about to strike. “You’ve met your match, my friend, in Bold King Gregor!” he yelled.
And now the queen’s entourage had reached the top of the hill. The horses lined up on the battlefield stood with their heads turned to watch her, and they were smiling exactly like King Gregor and King John. The knights sat with their visors up, smiling, too. Slowly, awesomely, they raised their lances into charge position, the butts of the lances cast firmly into the fewtre-supports.
The queen and her entourage had now reached the flat elevation where King Gregor stood. A page took her lily-white hand and gently helped her down from her dapple gray. Another page helped the princess down. The Fool got down alone. His gray-bearded dwarf‘s face was twitching and quivering with what might have been malicious disgust.
“Are we late?” Queen Louisa excitedly whispered. Her beautiful red hair flew out bravely in the breeze.
“Mother, hush!” cried the princess.
King Gregor said, heart pounding with excitement, his bearded lips trembling with violent emotion, “Just in time, my queen!” He raised his arm smartly and smartly brought it down. With a grandiose flourish the trumpeters played “Charge!” At either end of the battlefield the knights snapped their visors shut like a thousand iron doors and their steeds reared up and arched their necks like dragons in jubilant war with the universe. From the knights on the right side a great triumphant shout went up: “For Bold King Gregor!” and from the left came an echo like a mighty reboation from crystal cliffs: “For Just King John!”
And now like earthshaking thunder or the rumble of a vast, dark flood came the deafening rumble of the horses’ hooves as the armies came plunging with bright lances lifted to strike at each other’s throats. Horses neighed, demonic, stretching their powerful legs for more speed, and the quarter-ton lances came gracefully dropping from nearly upright position toward the deadly straighton position of the hit. Violently, bravely, down the field they came roaring, their flags wildly whipping, and suddenly, louder than a mountain exploding, Queen Louisa yelled: “Stop!”
The horses skidded in alarm. The lances dropped past hit position and stabbed into the ground and lifted up the knights like pole vaulters and left them hanging straight up, kicking wildly and trying to let go.
“What have you done?” King Gregor screamed.
“Grotesque!” cried King John and beat the ground with his fists.
Queen Louisa said with a baffled look, her white fingers trembling, “Listen, they could have killed each other!”
“That’s the idea!” King Gregor screamed.
Queen Louisa tipped her head, seemed to think about it. Slowly, she turned her lovely face to examine her husband’s face, which was contorted with rage and awful humiliation.
“Gregor,” she said, “you people are all crazy.”
King Gregor lay alone in the other bedroom, clenching and unclenching his fists and biting his lips and weeping. “Damn her, God damn her,” he kept whimpering, clenching and unclenching his fists. He would divorce her. His decision was unalterable. He had thought at first he would lock her up in the dungeon, but he’d known from the beginning that he couldn’t really do it. Why couldn’t she be crazy like other people’s queens— setting fire to the curtains of the palace, for instance, or wringing her fingers and moaning like a witch? King John, no doubt, would never speak to him again, nor would any of the other of the neighborhood kings. He would trudge past their presence like a stupid, black-bearded old peasant, never lifting his eyes to theirs, his hands pushed deep in his trouser pockets and his crown fallen forward like an old drunk’s hat. Dogs would come piss on his shoes and he wouldn’t have the courage to object. He laughed bitterly, a dark laugh which ended in a sob. “Old ways are the best ways,” he thought. He’d made himself a laughingstock. His own knights would scorn him. All this for his pride, for his insisting on marrying the most beautiful queen in the world, crazy or no crazy. He thought of her soft white shoulders and clenched and unclenched his fists.
Was he secretly wishing she would come to him and apologize?
He sat up abruptly, furious at himself, and snatched off his nightcap and threw it on the floor.
“I am wishing no such thing!” he said. “1 wish–” He suddenly got up and began to pace.
Outside his door there was a footstep. He almost called out “Yes?” eagerly, but caught himself in the nick of time. He waited, wiping his hands on the sides of his nightgown and angrily sniffling.
“Your majesty?” a voice said.
It was not the queen.
“Go away,” said King Gregor.
But the door creaked open and the princess came in. “Your majesty,” she said again.
“Go away,” he said again, but not convincingly.
“Your majesty,” she said, “if only you’d just speak with her. She just lies there, sobbing and sobbing and sobbing, and everybody’s just horribly upset. Even the Fool says–”
“Don’t mention that creature‘s name to me!” King Gregor yelled.
“I don’t even know his name,” said the princess. “Everybody just calls him the Fool.”
But King Gregor saw he was onto something. He stopped pacing and pointed at the princess. “Listen here,” he said. “Is it or is it not true that the Fool keeps all the time saying:
You think I’m small because I‘m lazy;
But big brave knights get killed. That‘s crazy!”?
“Why, yes,” said the princess, “I suppose he may have said that.”
“Exactly! So that’s where she got it. From the Fool!” He smiled wickedly and rubbed his hands. “Get the Fool in here.”
“It’s after midnight, your majesty!” the princess said.
“Call him!” roared the king.
The princess backed away with her fingers on her chin. A moment later, she returned with the Fool, who was wearing a nightcap exactly like the king’s, which was infuriating.
“Fool,” said the king, “I’ve decided to chop your head off. That poem of yours is what gave the queen the idea to ruin my war with King John.”
The Fool blinked like an owl. “Really?” he said. He was not as confident as usual just now. His knees knocked together and the twitching of his gray-bearded face was anything but scornful. He was cunning, though; you had to give him that. He said, “Which poem, your majesty?”
King Gregor told him.
He contrived to look puzzled, though still shaking like a leaf. “But that’s from the Bible,” he said.
King Gregor stroked his beard, looking at the princess to see if it was true. “Is it really?” he said.
“I’m not sure, your majesty,” she said.
“Get me an expert on the Bible,” said King Gregor.
The Fool shook his head and wrung his hands. “Impossible, sire,” he said timidly. “The only expert on the Bible for miles around is&–”
“Get him for me!” roared the king.
The Fool finished his sentence, kneeling now, so awful was his terror of King Gregor: “The only expert on the Bible for miles around is Just King John.”
“Get him!” roared the king, then had second thoughts. “Is he really?” he said.
The Fool nodded, cowering and raising his arms as if fearing King Gregor might hit him.
King Gregor thought about it, sucking at his cheeks. It crossed his mind that he rather liked the way the Fool showed so much fear of him. It was natural, of course. Everyone agreed he was the most fearful king in miles and miles. At last he said, though feeling he might possibly be making a mistake: “Go get King John.”
“At this hour of the night?” the princess said.
“I’ll get him!” squealed the Fool, glad of any excuse to escape the terrible glance of King Gregor. And before King Gregor could answer, the dwarf had fled.
“I may have judged that Fool a bit too hastily,” King Gregor said.
The princess nodded.
Just King John was red with indignation. Even after his six-mile ride he seemed still halfasleep, spluttering like a man who had been rudely awakened by a splash of cold water. “King Gregor, you’re crazier than she is!” he said.
King Gregor was seated in the throne room. Queen Louisa beside him. He was not speaking to her yet, but he was, as everyone knew, a fair man. and if she was to be exonerated, because the sentiment on which she’d acted was from the Bible and thus not open to mere intellect’s antilibrations. however insane one might privately think it, then she had, he supposed, a right to know. Also, he hadn’t been able to stand the thought of her lying there crying and making her face puffy. He felt much better now, partly because he was doing the right thing, the manly thing, and partly because, whereas he and Queen Louisa had on their crowns, King John had come away in his nightcap, which, like his nightgown, was red with white flowers on it. He looked, in point of fact, like a silly idiot, a king beneath the dignity of Bold King Gregor, so that it was foolish, in a way, for. King Gregor to bother making war on him.
“We have summoned you here, sir, for one simple purpose,” said King Gregor. “We understand you are an authority on the Bible.”
King John glanced suspiciously around him. Queen Louisa looked supremely solemn. So did the Fool and princess. At last King John said, “I may have a certain acquaintance with the Book.” He casually picked a speck of lint off his sleeve.
“Then you will not object, I presume, to being put a simple question.”
King John closed one eye, looking at King Gregor very carefully with the other. “I might not seriously object to that,” he said.
“Excellent, sir. Then the question is this. Is it the case, as certain persons have alleged, that the following quotation is biblical?
You think I’m small because I’m lazy;
But big brave knights get killed. That’s crazy!
Answer yes or no.”
King John tipped his head down. He covertly glanced at the guards he’d brought with him, then at the assembled crowd, then at Queen Louisa.
Queen Louisa said, “He’s not called Just King John for nothing,” and smiled.
“Yes or no?” said King Gregor, leaning forward.
“Hebrew,” said King John, “is an ambiguous language, naturally.”
“Ha! You don’t actually know, then?”
With a casual wave, King John sent the idiotic question away. “Of course I know,” he said.
The throne room was absolutely silent. Everyone was leaning forward, waiting. King John glanced at his guards again, then at Queen Louisa. King Gregor had the distinct impression that Queen Louisa winked.
“Yes!” said King John triumphantly. “The passage is distinctly biblical. Loosely.”
Pandemonium broke loose. Everyone whooped and threw their hats in the air, because the war was over, and the Fool jumped up and down on his stool as if he thought he were a monkey. The princess sobbed and threw herself into the arms of a gored and wounded knight, and the queen, leaping up ecstatically, suggested that everyone go skinny-dipping.
“We’ll do nothing of the kind!” King Gregor roared. “Who’s running this kingdom?”
A great silence fell.
He liked so well the impression he’d made that he said it again, beaming and majestic, his eyes like fire. “Who’s running this kingdom?”
Everyone was looking in the Fool’s direction. It crossed the king’s mind that the Fool looked suspiciously innocent.
“You are, my dearest!” Queen Louisa cried with shining eyes, and threw a scornful–indeed, a quite withering–look at the gray-bearded dwarf. Everyone shouted and (King John having quickly passed glasses around) drank a health to King Gregor. “To Bold King Gregor!” they shouted one and all.
Queen Louisa said with a sly look, “My friends, it’s bedtime.”
Another thing that can be said about King Gregor is that he dearly loved his family. □