The Retired Knight and the University Students by Martin Green
Id been reluctant to leave the kingdom with the beautiful princess, whod become queen after slaying her loutish brother, but Sir Landry, who called himself a retired knight, had decreed that we be on our way and, I, Jack, his faithful squire, bowed to his wisdom. So we continued on our journey to Camelot, still the capital of England after King Arthurs death (or was it departure?). The kingdom had become quite different from the time of King Arthurs reign, having fallen into anarchy with little fiefdoms springing up and battling with each other, unscrupulous knights seizing land and roving gangs of hoodlums preying upon the general populace. As we rode on, we saw the evidence of all this, farmhouses burning, fields left untilled, towns deserted. We skirted around the gangs when we saw them, although I have no doubt that Sir Landry, although claiming he was retired, and his sword Jenny would prevail against them. He was the fastest swordsman I had ever seen.
Ah, there it is, said Sir Landry. We had come to the crest of s hill and in the distance could see the towers and spires of a large city. Oxbridge, he said. Seat of Europes greatest university, home to the finest scholars in the land. I had head of Oxbridge and was curious to see it. We rode through the citys gates unimpeded and at first I wondered if this place, too, had suffered some calamity and had been deserted. But no, as we rounded a corner we saw a knot of people and heard the unmistakable cry of a young maiden in distress. Help, please, someone help me.
Sir Landry spurred his black horse Midnight and I followed on my little steed Betsy. We saw several young thugs around a pretty girl, her dress ripped and a few feet away several other thugs holding back an elderly man. Sir Landry halted, surveyed the scene and asked, in a soft voice, Whats happening here? I had learned that when Sir Landry spoke in a soft voice he was getting angry.
Its none of your business, old man, snarled one of the thugs, reaching out to grab the girl. Youd better ride off before we pull your gray beard. He was young, no older than 20, thin and reedy with long hair and a scraggly beard. He seemed to be the head thug.
The other thugs laughed. Shes my daughter Kate, said the elderly man. These are students. Theyve been protesting for a week and now theyve taken over the university. Im the Chancellor. Theyve occupied my office and my lodgings. We were trying to find an inn to stay in when they accosted us.
You say the students have taken over the university. Thats a reversal of the natural order of things. How did the City Council permit this to happen?
The council sent a few constables but they couldnt contain the students. Then one of the councilmen, sympathetic to the students, said we must not violate their civil rights and so they were given free reign.
Its disgraceful, said the girl Kate. The students occupy the university and say they wont leave until all their demands are met. And gangs like this one are running through the city, looting shops and molesting women. The townspeople are afraid to leave their houses.
Enough of this, said the chief thug, still holding the girl. Now leave or face the consequences.
In a blur, Sir Landrys sword flashed out and in an instant the chief thug and two of the others were clutching their wounded arms. Im bleeding, shrieked the leader. Youll pay for this.
That was just a warning. Leave now or the next thrusts will be at your throats.
The head thug blanched. This isnt over, he said. This city belongs to the young. You wont get away with your meddling.
Sir Landry raised his sword Jenny and the young men scuttled away.
It was that night. The chief university officials and professors, summoned by the Chancellor at the behest of Sir Landry, were assembled at the inn where wed found lodging. They were almost all quite old, with gray hair and beards. A few of the townspeople had also come. The Chancellor spoke. This is Sir Landry. He rescued my daughter from a bunch of student hooligans. He has a suggestion as to how we can take the university back from the students and restore order to our city.
How is that possible? cried out one of the elderly scholars. They are young and we are old. They number several hundred. They have taken possession of the university. It would take an army to drive them out and this country no longer has an army. No, the only thing we can do is yield to their demands. Then we can at least return to our domiciles and perhaps even resume teaching.
A chorus of assents went around the room. It was clear that those who once ruled the university were ready to let the students take over.
What are their demands? asked Sir Landry in a soft voice.
The chancellor spoke. They have quite a long list. No more required class attendance. They can attend when they wish. No more grades. They claim these are arbitrary and that everyone should pass. No more curfews. They want to come and go as they please. And they can have women in their rooms with no restrictions. They also want better food and better maid service. They can also vote to oust teachers they dont like. There are many more; I cant remember them all.
And you are prepared to grant them all of their demands?
What else can we do. They are far stronger than us.
Let me show you, said Sir Landry. He beckoned to one of the townspeople, a large burly fellow who said he was a blacksmith. Come over here, if you will. The blacksmith, who stood much taller and was much heavier than Sir Landry, stood next to the knight. Now, push me. Yes, its all right. Push as hard as you can. The blacksmith pushed Sir Landry, who had to give ground. Then the knight suddenly stepped to one side. The blacksmith continued forward, stumbling and falling over a chair.
Do you see my point? asked Sir Landry.
I think I have an idea, but please explain, said the Chancellor.
You dont attempt to oppose a stronger opponent. You step aside and leave him fall of his own weight. The students want control over the university. They shall have it.
It was the next morning. It was a cloudy day, threatening rain. We were at the university gates. I noticed a number of large crows sitting on the gates. Behind Sir Landry were arrayed the university officials and professors. A good number of townspeople had also come out to witness this event, including several constables. In front of gates, as if to bar entrance, was a crowd of students, including, up front, the head thug from the day before.. Another student, also with long hair and a scraggly beard, but these were red, was mounted on a box. He might have not looked impressive but he had a mighty voice. Well, he boomed out, You wanted a meeting so here we are. You know our demands. Are you ready to give in?
The Chancellor stepped forward. Yes, we shall accede to all of your demands. The university is yours.
Redbeard looked surprised. He was clearly caught off guard. But the mob of students gave a great cheer. The crows joined in with their harsh caws. Redbeard recovered his voice. Im glad you have seen that it is time for the young to have control, he said. As long as you remember that, you may return to your domiciles and classes may begin tomorrow. I hope you appreciate our generosity.
Oh, no, said the Chancellor We shall not return There will be no classes. As I said, the university is yours. You may do as you wish with it. He turned to the scholars. Let us go.
The students began to talk among themselves, sounding like turkeys gabbling. It was clear that they didnt know what to make of this turn of affairs. Wait, said Redbeard. You cant just walk away. Who will teach us?
The Chancellor shrugged. That is no longer my problem. Come, let us go.
Wait. What about the cooks and the maids?
They wont be coming back either. You will have to care for yourselves.
Our fathers have paid for our tuition shouted one student.
You have to teach us, yelled another.
You forget, replied the Chancellor. You now occupy the university. As you said, the young are in control
But how can I become a lawyer? said a student.
Or I a doctor? said another.
The Chancellor and the scholars continued to walk away.
Come back, yelled Redbeard. Let us discuss this.
The Chancellor stopped walking and turned around. What do you have to say?
What would it take to have you return?
The Chancellor looked at Sir Landry, who nodded. You will return to your rooms and vacate all of the offices and domiciles immediately. You will clean up any messes you have made. You, or your parents, will pay for any damages you have caused.
Those are harsh terms. If we refuse?
There will be no more university. You will not get your degrees.
There were groans from many of the students. Is there anything else? asked Redbeard.
Yes. Classes will resume next week. Grading will be as usual. Failing students will get tutors but shall not pass. We will look into the matter of your food. Ive heard it is terrible. And, oh, yes, we will see about a more lenient curfew policy.
There were cheers and a number of voices shouted, Thats fair. Yes, thats good. We accept.
I will have to think about , Redbeard began, but Sir Landry, mounted on Midnight, moved quickly forward and in an instant his sword Jenny was at Redbeards throat. One more thing, said Sir Landry. Since you were the chief instigator of this occupation, as you call it, if you dont agree I will mete out justice accordingly.
Redbeard said, We agree.
Good. Now, that fellow, step forward. He was pointing Jenny at the chief thug of the gang who was molesting the Kate, the Chancellors daughter. The thin, reedy student hesitated but his fellow pushed him forward and now Jenny was at his throat.
Im sorry, he croaked out. Please dont kill me.
Im not going to kill you, said Sir Landry. Im not a teacher but Im going to try to teach you a lesson. Can you guess what it is?
I behaved badly?
You have but thats not the lesson. Its that how you behave has consequences. Sir Landry turned to the onlookers and beckoned for the blacksmith to come forward. You are going to be apprenticed to my friend the blacksmith here. Youll serve for six months, then, if he is satisfied, you may return to the university. You may also have learned what a privilege it was to have been a student and how ridiculous your protests about your hard lot were.
With that it began to rain. The crows flew off, cawing, as if disappointed there hadnt been a battle and bloodshed. The students went back to their rooms, the professors to their lodgings, the onlookers to their homes and Sir Landry and I returned to the inn.
It was night. We were at dinner in the inn. The Chancellor and Kate had joined us. The Chancellor thanked Sir Landry for restoring the university to its original state. I hope you will make it better, said Sir Landry. The students did have a point or two.
We shall do our best. Will you be staying with us for a time?
No, my squire and I will be off to Camelot in the morning.
So soon. I looked at Kate, who was very pretty, although of course not as beautiful as the princess. It seemed that every time we met a good-looking wench we left the next morning.
Do you have business in Camelot? asked the Chancellor.
Im looking for a certain person, the wisest man in England.
Wiser than you? I asked.
Who is this wise person? the Chancellor asked.
His name is Merlin.
(To be continued, the author hopes).
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