A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Part 1.
Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)
Produced by David Widger
A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT
(Samuel L. Clemens)
The ungentle laws and customs touched upon in this tale are
historical, and the episodes which are used to illustrate them
are also historical. It is not pretended that these laws and
customs existed in England in the sixth century; no, it is only
pretended that inasmuch as they existed in the English and other
civilizations of far later times, it is safe to consider that it is
no libel upon the sixth century to suppose them to have been in
practice in that day also. One is quite justified in inferring
that whatever one of these laws or customs was lacking in that
remote time, its place was competently filled by a worse one.
The question as to whether there is such a thing as divine right
of kings is not settled in this book. It was found too difficult.
That the executive head of a nation should be a person of lofty
character and extraordinary ability, was manifest and indisputable;
that none but the Deity could select that head unerringly, was
also manifest and indisputable; that the Deity ought to make that
selection, then, was likewise manifest and indisputable; consequently,
that He does make it, as claimed, was an unavoidable deduction.
I mean, until the author of this book encountered the Pompadour,
and Lady Castlemaine, and some other executive heads of that kind;
these were found so difficult to work into the scheme, that it
was judged better to take the other tack in this book (which
must be issued this fall), and then go into training and settle
the question in another book. It is, of course, a thing which
ought to be settled, and I am not going to have anything particular
to do next winter anyway.
A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT
A WORD OF EXPLANATION
It was in Warwick Castle that I came across the curious stranger
whom I am going to talk about. He attracted me by three things:
his candid simplicity, his marvelous familiarity with ancient armor,
and the restfulness of his company--for he did all the talking.
We fell together, as modest people will, in the tail of the herd
that was being shown through, and he at once began to say things
which interested me. As he talked along, softly, pleasantly,
flowingly, he seemed to drift away imperceptibly out of this world
and time, and into some remote era and old forgotten country;
and so he gradually wove such a spell about me that I seemed
to move among the specters and shadows and dust and mold of a gray
antiquity, holding speech with a relic of it! Exactly as I would
speak of my nearest personal friends or enemies, or my most familiar
neighbors, he spoke of Sir Bedivere, Sir Bors de Ganis, Sir Launcelot
of the Lake, Sir Galahad, and all the other great names of the
Table Round--and how old, old, unspeakably old and faded and dry
and musty and ancient he came to look as he went on! Presently
he turned to me and said, just as one might speak of the weather,
or any other common matter--
"You know about transmigration of souls; do you know about
transposition of epochs--and bodies?"
I said I had not heard of it. He was so little interested--just
as when people speak of the weather--that he did not notice
whether I made him any answer or not. There was half a moment
of silence, immediately interrupted by the droning voice of the
"Ancient hauberk, date of the sixth century, time of King Arthur
and the Round Table; said to have belonged to the knight Sir Sagramor
le Desirous; observe the round hole through the chain-mail in
the left breast; can't be accounted for; supposed to have been
done with a bullet since invention of firearms--perhaps maliciously
by Cromwell's soldiers."
My acquaintance smiled--not a modern smile, but one that must
have gone out of general use many, many centuries ago--and muttered
apparently to himself:
"Wit ye well, _I saw it done_." Then, after a pause, added:
"I did it myself."
By the time I had recovered from the electric surprise of this
remark, he was gone.
All that evening I sat by my fire at the Warwick Arms, steeped
in a dream of the olden time, while the rain beat upon the windows,
and the wind roared about the eaves and corners. From time to
time I dipped into old Sir Thomas Malory's enchanting book, and
fed at its rich feast of prodigies and adventures, breathed in
the fragrance of its obsolete names, and dreamed again. Midnight
being come at length, I read another tale, for a nightcap--this
which here follows, to wit:
HOW SIR LAUNCELOT SLEW TWO GIANTS, AND MADE A CASTLE FREE
Anon withal came there upon him two great giants,
well armed, all save the heads, with two horrible
clubs in their hands. Sir Launcelot put his shield
afore him, and put the stroke away of the one
giant, and with his sword he clave his head asunder.
When his fellow saw that, he ran away as he were
wood [*demented], for fear of the horrible strokes,
and Sir Launcelot after him with all his might,
and smote him on the shoulder, and clave him to
the middle. Then Sir Launcelot went into the hall,
and there came afore him three score ladies and
damsels, and all kneeled unto him, and thanked
God and him of their deliverance. For, sir, said
they, the most part of us have been here this
seven year their prisoners, and we have worked all
manner of silk works for our meat, and we are all
great gentle-women born, and blessed be the time,
knight, that ever thou wert born; for thou hast
done the most worship that ever did knight in the
world, that will we bear record, and we all pray
you to tell us your name, that we may tell our
friends who delivered us out of prison. Fair
damsels, he said, my name is Sir Launcelot du
Lake. And so he departed from them and betaught
them unto God. And then he mounted upon his
horse, and rode into many strange and wild
countries, and through many waters and valleys,
and evil was he lodged. And at the last by
fortune him happened against a night to come to
a fair courtilage, and therein he found an old
gentle-woman that lodged him with a good-will,
and there he had good cheer for him and his horse.
And when time was, his host brought him into a
fair garret over the gate to his bed. There
Sir Launcelot unarmed him, and set his harness
by him, and went to bed, and anon he fell on
sleep. So, soon after there came one on
horseback, and knocked at the gate in great
haste. And when Sir Launcelot heard this he rose
up, and looked out at the window, and saw by the
moonlight three knights come riding after that
one man, and all three lashed on him at once
with swords, and that one knight turned on them
knightly again and defended him. Truly, said
Sir Launcelot, yonder one knight shall I help,
for it were shame for me to see three knights
on one, and if he be slain I am partner of his
death. And therewith he took his harness and
went out at a window by a sheet down to the four
knights, and then Sir Launcelot said on high,
Turn you knights unto me, and leave your
fighting with that knight. And then they all
three left Sir Kay, and turned unto Sir Launcelot,
and there began great battle, for they alight
all three, and strake many strokes at Sir
Launcelot, and assailed him on every side. Then
Sir Kay dressed him for to have holpen Sir
Launcelot. Nay, sir, said he, I will none of
your help, therefore as ye will have my help
let me alone with them. Sir Kay for the pleasure
of the knight suffered him for to do his will,
and so stood aside. And then anon within six
strokes Sir Launcelot had stricken them to the earth.
And then they all three cried, Sir Knight, we
yield us unto you as man of might matchless. As
to that, said Sir Launcelot, I will not take
your yielding unto me, but so that ye yield
you unto Sir Kay the seneschal, on that covenant
I will save your lives and else not. Fair knight,
said they, that were we loath to do; for as for
Sir Kay we chased him hither, and had overcome
him had ye not been; therefore, to yield us unto
him it were no reason. Well, as to that, said
Sir Launcelot, advise you well, for ye may
choose whether ye will die or live, for an ye be
yielden, it shall be unto Sir Kay. Fair knight,
then they said, in saving our lives we will do
as thou commandest us. Then shall ye, said Sir
Launcelot, on Whitsunday next coming go unto the
court of King Arthur, and there shall ye yield
you unto Queen Guenever, and put you all three
in her grace and mercy, and say that Sir Kay
sent you thither to be her prisoners. On the morn
Sir Launcelot arose early, and left Sir Kay
sleeping; and Sir Launcelot took Sir Kay's armor
and his shield and armed him, and so he went to
the stable and took his horse, and took his leave
of his host, and so he departed. Then soon after
arose Sir Kay and missed Sir Launcelot; and
then he espied that he had his armor and his
horse. Now by my faith I know well that he will
grieve some of the court of King Arthur; for on
him knights will be bold, and deem that it is I,
and that will beguile them; and because of his
armor and shield I am sure I shall ride in peace.
And then soon after departed Sir Kay, and
thanked his host.
As I laid the book down there was a knock at the door, and my
stranger came in. I gave him a pipe and a chair, and made him
welcome. I also comforted him with a hot Scotch whisky; gave him
another one; then still another--hoping always for his story.
After a fourth persuader, he drifted into it himself, in a quite
simple and natural way:
THE STRANGER'S HISTORY
I am an American. I was born and reared in Hartford, in the State
of Connecticut--anyway, just over the river, in the country. So
I am a Yankee of the Yankees--and practical; yes, and nearly
barren of sentiment, I suppose--or poetry, in other words. My
father was a blacksmith, my uncle was a horse doctor, and I was
both, along at first. Then I went over to the great arms factory
and learned my real trade; learned all there was to it; learned
to make everything: guns, revolvers, cannon, boilers, engines, all
sorts of labor-saving machinery. Why, I could make anything
a body wanted--anything in the world, it didn't make any difference
what; and if there wasn't any quick new-fangled way to make a thing,
I could invent one--and do it as easy as rolling off a log. I became
head superintendent; had a couple of thousand men under me.
Well, a man like that is a man that is full of fight--that goes
without saying. With a couple of thousand rough men under one,
one has plenty of that sort of amusement. I had, anyway. At last
I met my match, and I got my dose. It was during a misunderstanding
conducted with crowbars with a fellow we used to call Hercules.
He laid me out with a crusher alongside the head that made everything
crack, and seemed to spring every joint in my skull and made it
overlap its neighbor. Then the world went out in darkness, and
I didn't feel anything more, and didn't know anything at all
--at least for a while.
When I came to again, I was sitting under an oak tree, on the
grass, with a whole beautiful and broad country landscape all
to myself--nearly. Not entirely; for there was a fellow on a horse,
looking down at me--a fellow fresh out of a picture-book. He was
in old-time iron armor from head to heel, with a helmet on his
head the shape of a nail-keg with slits in it; and he had a shield,
and a sword, and a prodigious spear; and his horse had armor on,
too, and a steel horn projecting from his forehead, and gorgeous
red and green silk trappings that hung down all around him like
a bedquilt, nearly to the ground.
"Fair sir, will ye just?" said this fellow.
"Will I which?"
"Will ye try a passage of arms for land or lady or for--"
"What are you giving me?" I said. "Get along back to your circus,
or I'll report you."
Now what does this man do but fall back a couple of hundred yards
and then come rushing at me as hard as he could tear, with his
nail-keg bent down nearly to his horse's neck and his long spear
pointed straight ahead. I saw he meant business, so I was up
the tree when he arrived.
He allowed that I was his property, the captive of his spear.
There was argument on his side--and the bulk of the advantage
--so I judged it best to humor him. We fixed up an agreement
whereby I was to go with him and he was not to hurt me. I came
down, and we started away, I walking by the side of his horse.
We marched comfortably along, through glades and over brooks which
I could not remember to have seen before--which puzzled me and
made me wonder--and yet we did not come to any circus or sign of
a circus. So I gave up the idea of a circus, and concluded he was
from an asylum. But we never came to an asylum--so I was up
a stump, as you may say. I asked him how far we were from Hartford.
He said he had never heard of the place; which I took to be a lie,
but allowed it to go at that. At the end of an hour we saw a
far-away town sleeping in a valley by a winding river; and beyond
it on a hill, a vast gray fortress, with towers and turrets,
the first I had ever seen out of a picture.
"Bridgeport?" said I, pointing.
"Camelot," said he.
My stranger had been showing signs of sleepiness. He caught
himself nodding, now, and smiled one of those pathetic, obsolete
smiles of his, and said:
"I find I can't go on; but come with me, I've got it all written
out, and you can read it if you like."
In his chamber, he said: "First, I kept a journal; then by and by,
after years, I took the journal and turned it into a book. How
long ago that was!"
He handed me his manuscript, and pointed out the place where
I should begin:
"Begin here--I've already told you what goes before." He was
steeped in drowsiness by this time. As I went out at his door
I heard him murmur sleepily: "Give you good den, fair sir."
I sat down by my fire and examined my treasure. The first part
of it--the great bulk of it--was parchment, and yellow with age.
I scanned a leaf particularly and saw that it was a palimpsest.
Under the old dim writing of the Yankee historian appeared traces
of a penmanship which was older and dimmer still--Latin words
and sentences: fragments from old monkish legends, evidently.
I turned to the place indicated by my stranger and began to read
THE TALE OF THE LOST LAND
"Camelot--Camelot," said I to myself. "I don't seem to remember
hearing of it before. Name of the asylum, likely."
It was a soft, reposeful summer landscape, as lovely as a dream,
and as lonesome as Sunday. The air was full of the smell of
flowers, and the buzzing of insects, and the twittering of birds,
and there were no people, no wagons, there was no stir of life,
nothing going on. The road was mainly a winding path with hoof-prints
in it, and now and then a faint trace of wheels on either side in
the grass--wheels that apparently had a tire as broad as one's hand.
Presently a fair slip of a girl, about ten years old, with a cataract
of golden hair streaming down over her shoulders, came along.
Around her head she wore a hoop of flame-red poppies. It was as
sweet an outfit as ever I saw, what there was of it. She walked
indolently along, with a mind at rest, its peace reflected in her
innocent face. The circus man paid no attention to her; didn't
even seem to see her. And she--she was no more startled at his
fantastic make-up than if she was used to his like every day of
her life. She was going by as indifferently as she might have gone
by a couple of cows; but when she happened to notice me, _then_
there was a change! Up went her hands, and she was turned to stone;
her mouth dropped open, her eyes stared wide and timorously, she
was the picture of astonished curiosity touched with fear. And
there she stood gazing, in a sort of stupefied fascination, till
we turned a corner of the wood and were lost to her view. That
she should be startled at me instead of at the other man, was too
many for me; I couldn't make head or tail of it. And that she
should seem to consider me a spectacle, and totally overlook her
own merits in that respect, was another puzzling thing, and a
display of magnanimity, too, that was surprising in one so young.
There was food for thought here. I moved along as one in a dream.
As we approached the town, signs of life began to appear. At
intervals we passed a wretched cabin, with a thatched roof, and
about it small fields and garden patches in an indifferent state of
cultivation. There were people, too; brawny men, with long, coarse,
uncombed hair that hung down over their faces and made them look
like animals. They and the women, as a rule, wore a coarse
tow-linen robe that came well below the knee, and a rude sort of
sandal, and many wore an iron collar. The small boys and girls
were always naked; but nobody seemed to know it. All of these
people stared at me, talked about me, ran into the huts and fetched
out their families to gape at me; but nobody ever noticed that
other fellow, except to make him humble salutation and get no
response for their pains.
In the town were some substantial windowless houses of stone
scattered among a wilderness of thatched cabins; the streets were
mere crooked alleys, and unpaved; troops of dogs and nude children
played in the sun and made life and noise; hogs roamed and rooted
contentedly about, and one of them lay in a reeking wallow in
the middle of the main thoroughfare and suckled her family.
Presently there was a distant blare of military music; it came
nearer, still nearer, and soon a noble cavalcade wound into view,
glorious with plumed helmets and flashing mail and flaunting banners
and rich doublets and horse-cloths and gilded spearheads; and
through the muck and swine, and naked brats, and joyous dogs, and
shabby huts, it took its gallant way, and in its wake we followed.
Followed through one winding alley and then another,--and climbing,
always climbing--till at last we gained the breezy height where
the huge castle stood. There was an exchange of bugle blasts;
then a parley from the walls, where men-at-arms, in hauberk and
morion, marched back and forth with halberd at shoulder under
flapping banners with the rude figure of a dragon displayed upon
them; and then the great gates were flung open, the drawbridge
was lowered, and the head of the cavalcade swept forward under
the frowning arches; and we, following, soon found ourselves in
a great paved court, with towers and turrets stretching up into
the blue air on all the four sides; and all about us the dismount
was going on, and much greeting and ceremony, and running to and
fro, and a gay display of moving and intermingling colors, and
an altogether pleasant stir and noise and confusion.
KING ARTHUR'S COURT
The moment I got a chance I slipped aside privately and touched
an ancient common looking man on the shoulder and said, in an
insinuating, confidential way:
"Friend, do me a kindness. Do you belong to the asylum, or are
you just on a visit or something like that?"
He looked me over stupidly, and said:
"Marry, fair sir, me seemeth--"
"That will do," I said; "I reckon you are a patient."
I moved away, cogitating, and at the same time keeping an eye
out for any chance passenger in his right mind that might come
along and give me some light. I judged I had found one, presently;
so I drew him aside and said in his ear:
"If I could see the head keeper a minute--only just a minute--"
"Prithee do not let me."
"Let you _what_?"
"_Hinder_ me, then, if the word please thee better. Then he went
on to say he was an under-cook and could not stop to gossip,
though he would like it another time; for it would comfort his
very liver to know where I got my clothes. As he started away he
pointed and said yonder was one who was idle enough for my purpose,
and was seeking me besides, no doubt. This was an airy slim boy
in shrimp-colored tights that made him look like a forked carrot,
the rest of his gear was blue silk and dainty laces and ruffles;
and he had long yellow curls, and wore a plumed pink satin cap
tilted complacently over his ear. By his look, he was good-natured;
by his gait, he was satisfied with himself. He was pretty enough
to frame. He arrived, looked me over with a smiling and impudent
curiosity; said he had come for me, and informed me that he was a page.
"Go 'long," I said; "you ain't more than a paragraph."
It was pretty severe, but I was nettled. However, it never phazed
him; he didn't appear to know he was hurt. He began to talk and
laugh, in happy, thoughtless, boyish fashion, as we walked along,
and made himself old friends with me at once; asked me all sorts
of questions about myself and about my clothes, but never waited
for an answer--always chattered straight ahead, as if he didn't
know he had asked a question and wasn't expecting any reply, until
at last he happened to mention that he was born in the beginning
of the year 513.
It made the cold chills creep over me! I stopped and said,
a little faintly:
"Maybe I didn't hear you just right. Say it again--and say it
slow. What year was it?"
"513! You don't look it! Come, my boy, I am a stranger and
friendless; be honest and honorable with me. Are you in your
He said he was.
"Are these other people in their right minds?"
He said they were.
"And this isn't an asylum? I mean, it isn't a place where they
cure crazy people?"
He said it wasn't.
"Well, then," I said, "either I am a lunatic, or something just
as awful has happened. Now tell me, honest and true, where am I?"
"IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT."
I waited a minute, to let that idea shudder its way home,
and then said:
"And according to your notions, what year is it now?"
"528--nineteenth of June."
I felt a mournful sinking at the heart, and muttered: "I shall
never see my friends again--never, never again. They will not
be born for more than thirteen hundred years yet."
I seemed to believe the boy, I didn't know why. _Something_ in me
seemed to believe him--my consciousness, as you may say; but my
reason didn't. My reason straightway began to clamor; that was
natural. I didn't know how to go about satisfying it, because
I knew that the testimony of men wouldn't serve--my reason would
say they were lunatics, and throw out their evidence. But all
of a sudden I stumbled on the very thing, just by luck. I knew
that the only total eclipse of the sun in the first half of the
sixth century occurred on the 21st of June, A.D. 528, O.S., and
began at 3 minutes after 12 noon. I also knew that no total eclipse
of the sun was due in what to _me_ was the present year--i.e., 1879.
So, if I could keep my anxiety and curiosity from eating the heart
out of me for forty-eight hours, I should then find out for certain
whether this boy was telling me the truth or not.
Wherefore, being a practical Connecticut man, I now shoved this
whole problem clear out of my mind till its appointed day and hour
should come, in order that I might turn all my attention to the
circumstances of the present moment, and be alert and ready to
make the most out of them that could be made. One thing at a time,
is my motto--and just play that thing for all it is worth, even
if it's only two pair and a jack. I made up my mind to two things:
if it was still the nineteenth century and I was among lunatics
and couldn't get away, I would presently boss that asylum or know
the reason why; and if, on the other hand, it was really the sixth
century, all right, I didn't want any softer thing: I would boss
the whole country inside of three months; for I judged I would
have the start of the best-educated man in the kingdom by a matter
of thirteen hundred years and upward. I'm not a man to waste
time after my mind's made up and there's work on hand; so I said
to the page:
"Now, Clarence, my boy--if that might happen to be your name
--I'll get you to post me up a little if you don't mind. What is
the name of that apparition that brought me here?"
"My master and thine? That is the good knight and great lord
Sir Kay the Seneschal, foster brother to our liege the king."
"Very good; go on, tell me everything."
He made a long story of it; but the part that had immediate interest
for me was this: He said I was Sir Kay's prisoner, and that
in the due course of custom I would be flung into a dungeon and
left there on scant commons until my friends ransomed me--unless
I chanced to rot, first. I saw that the last chance had the best
show, but I didn't waste any bother about that; time was too
precious. The page said, further, that dinner was about ended
in the great hall by this time, and that as soon as the sociability
and the heavy drinking should begin, Sir Kay would have me in and
exhibit me before King Arthur and his illustrious knights seated at
the Table Round, and would brag about his exploit in capturing
me, and would probably exaggerate the facts a little, but it
wouldn't be good form for me to correct him, and not over safe,
either; and when I was done being exhibited, then ho for the
dungeon; but he, Clarence, would find a way to come and see me every
now and then, and cheer me up, and help me get word to my friends.
Get word to my friends! I thanked him; I couldn't do less; and
about this time a lackey came to say I was wanted; so Clarence
led me in and took me off to one side and sat down by me.
Well, it was a curious kind of spectacle, and interesting. It was
an immense place, and rather naked--yes, and full of loud contrasts.
It was very, very lofty; so lofty that the banners depending from
the arched beams and girders away up there floated in a sort of
twilight; there was a stone-railed gallery at each end, high up,
with musicians in the one, and women, clothed in stunning colors,
in the other. The floor was of big stone flags laid in black and
white squares, rather battered by age and use, and needing repair.
As to ornament, there wasn't any, strictly speaking; though on
the walls hung some huge tapestries which were probably taxed
as works of art; battle-pieces, they were, with horses shaped like
those which children cut out of paper or create in gingerbread;
with men on them in scale armor whose scales are represented by
round holes--so that the man's coat looks as if it had been done
with a biscuit-punch. There was a fireplace big enough to camp in;
and its projecting sides and hood, of carved and pillared stonework,
had the look of a cathedral door. Along the walls stood men-at-arms,
in breastplate and morion, with halberds for their only weapon
--rigid as statues; and that is what they looked like.
In the middle of this groined and vaulted public square was an oaken
table which they called the Table Round. It was as large as
a circus ring; and around it sat a great company of men dressed
in such various and splendid colors that it hurt one's eyes to look
at them. They wore their plumed hats, right along, except that
whenever one addressed himself directly to the king, he lifted
his hat a trifle just as he was beginning his remark.
Mainly they were drinking--from entire ox horns; but a few were
still munching bread or gnawing beef bones. There was about
an average of two dogs to one man; and these sat in expectant
attitudes till a spent bone was flung to them, and then they went
for it by brigades and divisions, with a rush, and there ensued
a fight which filled the prospect with a tumultuous chaos of
plunging heads and bodies and flashing tails, and the storm of
howlings and barkings deafened all speech for the time; but that
was no matter, for the dog-fight was always a bigger interest
anyway; the men rose, sometimes, to observe it the better and bet
on it, and the ladies and the musicians stretched themselves out
over their balusters with the same object; and all broke into
delighted ejaculations from time to time. In the end, the winning
dog stretched himself out comfortably with his bone between his
paws, and proceeded to growl over it, and gnaw it, and grease
the floor with it, just as fifty others were already doing; and the
rest of the court resumed their previous industries and entertainments.
As a rule, the speech and behavior of these people were gracious
and courtly; and I noticed that they were good and serious listeners
when anybody was telling anything--I mean in a dog-fightless
interval. And plainly, too, they were a childlike and innocent lot;
telling lies of the stateliest pattern with a most gentle and
winning naivety, and ready and willing to listen to anybody else's
lie, and believe it, too. It was hard to associate them with
anything cruel or dreadful; and yet they dealt in tales of blood
and suffering with a guileless relish that made me almost forget
I was not the only prisoner present. There were twenty or more.
Poor devils, many of them were maimed, hacked, carved, in a frightful
way; and their hair, their faces, their clothing, were caked with
black and stiffened drenchings of blood. They were suffering
sharp physical pain, of course; and weariness, and hunger and
thirst, no doubt; and at least none had given them the comfort
of a wash, or even the poor charity of a lotion for their wounds;
yet you never heard them utter a moan or a groan, or saw them show
any sign of restlessness, or any disposition to complain. The
thought was forced upon me: "The rascals--_they_ have served other
people so in their day; it being their own turn, now, they were
not expecting any better treatment than this; so their philosophical
bearing is not an outcome of mental training, intellectual fortitude,
reasoning; it is mere animal training; they are white Indians."
KNIGHTS OF THE TABLE ROUND
Mainly the Round Table talk was monologues--narrative accounts
of the adventures in which these prisoners were captured and their
friends and backers killed and stripped of their steeds and armor.
As a general thing--as far as I could make out--these murderous
adventures were not forays undertaken to avenge injuries, nor to
settle old disputes or sudden fallings out; no, as a rule they were
simply duels between strangers--duels between people who had never
even been introduced to each other, and between whom existed no
cause of offense whatever. Many a time I had seen a couple of boys,
strangers, meet by chance, and say simultaneously, "I can lick you,"
and go at it on the spot; but I had always imagined until now that
that sort of thing belonged to children only, and was a sign and
mark of childhood; but here were these big boobies sticking to it
and taking pride in it clear up into full age and beyond. Yet there
was something very engaging about these great simple-hearted
creatures, something attractive and lovable. There did not seem
to be brains enough in the entire nursery, so to speak, to bait
a fish-hook with; but you didn't seem to mind that, after a little,
because you soon saw that brains were not needed in a society
like that, and indeed would have marred it, hindered it, spoiled
its symmetry--perhaps rendered its existence impossible.
There was a fine manliness observable in almost every face; and
in some a certain loftiness and sweetness that rebuked your
belittling criticisms and stilled them. A most noble benignity
and purity reposed in the countenance of him they called Sir Galahad,
and likewise in the king's also; and there was majesty and greatness
in the giant frame and high bearing of Sir Launcelot of the Lake.
There was presently an incident which centered the general interest
upon this Sir Launcelot. At a sign from a sort of master of
ceremonies, six or eight of the prisoners rose and came forward
in a body and knelt on the floor and lifted up their hands toward
the ladies' gallery and begged the grace of a word with the queen.
The most conspicuously situated lady in that massed flower-bed
of feminine show and finery inclined her head by way of assent,
and then the spokesman of the prisoners delivered himself and his
fellows into her hands for free pardon, ransom, captivity, or death,
as she in her good pleasure might elect; and this, as he said, he
was doing by command of Sir Kay the Seneschal, whose prisoners
they were, he having vanquished them by his single might and
prowess in sturdy conflict in the field.
Surprise and astonishment flashed from face to face all over
the house; the queen's gratified smile faded out at the name of
Sir Kay, and she looked disappointed; and the page whispered in
my ear with an accent and manner expressive of extravagant derision--
"Sir _Kay_, forsooth! Oh, call me pet names, dearest, call me
a marine! In twice a thousand years shall the unholy invention
of man labor at odds to beget the fellow to this majestic lie!"
Every eye was fastened with severe inquiry upon Sir Kay. But he
was equal to the occasion. He got up and played his hand like
a major--and took every trick. He said he would state the case
exactly according to the facts; he would tell the simple
straightforward tale, without comment of his own; "and then,"
said he, "if ye find glory and honor due, ye will give it unto him
who is the mightiest man of his hands that ever bare shield or
strake with sword in the ranks of Christian battle--even him that
sitteth there!" and he pointed to Sir Launcelot. Ah, he fetched
them; it was a rattling good stroke. Then he went on and told
how Sir Launcelot, seeking adventures, some brief time gone by,
killed seven giants at one sweep of his sword, and set a hundred
and forty-two captive maidens free; and then went further, still
seeking adventures, and found him (Sir Kay) fighting a desperate
fight against nine foreign knights, and straightway took the battle
solely into his own hands, and conquered the nine; and that night
Sir Launcelot rose quietly, and dressed him in Sir Kay's armor and
took Sir Kay's horse and gat him away into distant lands, and
vanquished sixteen knights in one pitched battle and thirty-four
in another; and all these and the former nine he made to swear
that about Whitsuntide they would ride to Arthur's court and yield
them to Queen Guenever's hands as captives of Sir Kay the Seneschal,
spoil of his knightly prowess; and now here were these half dozen,
and the rest would be along as soon as they might be healed of
their desperate wounds.
Well, it was touching to see the queen blush and smile, and look
embarrassed and happy, and fling furtive glances at Sir Launcelot
that would have got him shot in Arkansas, to a dead certainty.
Everybody praised the valor and magnanimity of Sir Launcelot; and
as for me, I was perfectly amazed, that one man, all by himself,
should have been able to beat down and capture such battalions
of practiced fighters. I said as much to Clarence; but this mocking
featherhead only said:
"An Sir Kay had had time to get another skin of sour wine into him,
ye had seen the accompt doubled."
I looked at the boy in sorrow; and as I looked I saw the cloud of
a deep despondency settle upon his countenance. I followed the
direction of his eye, and saw that a very old and white-bearded
man, clothed in a flowing black gown, had risen and was standing
at the table upon unsteady legs, and feebly swaying his ancient
head and surveying the company with his watery and wandering eye.
The same suffering look that was in the page's face was observable
in all the faces around--the look of dumb creatures who know that
they must endure and make no moan.
"Marry, we shall have it again," sighed the boy; "that same old
weary tale that he hath told a thousand times in the same words,
and that he _will_ tell till he dieth, every time he hath gotten his
barrel full and feeleth his exaggeration-mill a-working. Would
God I had died or I saw this day!"
"Who is it?"
"Merlin, the mighty liar and magician, perdition singe him for
the weariness he worketh with his one tale! But that men fear
him for that he hath the storms and the lightnings and all the
devils that be in hell at his beck and call, they would have dug
his entrails out these many years ago to get at that tale and
squelch it. He telleth it always in the third person, making
believe he is too modest to glorify himself--maledictions light
upon him, misfortune be his dole! Good friend, prithee call me
The boy nestled himself upon my shoulder and pretended to go
to sleep. The old man began his tale; and presently the lad was
asleep in reality; so also were the dogs, and the court, the lackeys,
and the files of men-at-arms. The droning voice droned on; a soft
snoring arose on all sides and supported it like a deep and subdued
accompaniment of wind instruments. Some heads were bowed upon
folded arms, some lay back with open mouths that issued unconscious
music; the flies buzzed and bit, unmolested, the rats swarmed
softly out from a hundred holes, and pattered about, and made
themselves at home everywhere; and one of them sat up like a
squirrel on the king's head and held a bit of cheese in its hands
and nibbled it, and dribbled the crumbs in the king's face with
naive and impudent irreverence. It was a tranquil scene, and
restful to the weary eye and the jaded spirit.
This was the old man's tale. He said:
"Right so the king and Merlin departed, and went until an hermit
that was a good man and a great leech. So the hermit searched
all his wounds and gave him good salves; so the king was there
three days, and then were his wounds well amended that he might
ride and go, and so departed. And as they rode, Arthur said,
I have no sword. No force* [*Footnote from M.T.: No matter.],
said Merlin, hereby is a sword that shall be yours and I may.
So they rode till they came to a lake, the which was a fair water
and broad, and in the midst of the lake Arthur was ware of an arm
clothed in white samite, that held a fair sword in that hand.
Lo, said Merlin, yonder is that sword that I spake of. With that
they saw a damsel going upon the lake. What damsel is that?
said Arthur. That is the Lady of the lake, said Merlin; and within
that lake is a rock, and therein is as fair a place as any on earth,
and richly beseen, and this damsel will come to you anon, and then
speak ye fair to her that she will give you that sword. Anon
withal came the damsel unto Arthur and saluted him, and he her
again. Damsel, said Arthur, what sword is that, that yonder
the arm holdeth above the water? I would it were mine, for I have
no sword. Sir Arthur King, said the damsel, that sword is mine,
and if ye will give me a gift when I ask it you, ye shall have it.
By my faith, said Arthur, I will give you what gift ye will ask.
Well, said the damsel, go ye into yonder barge and row yourself
to the sword, and take it and the scabbard with you, and I will ask
my gift when I see my time. So Sir Arthur and Merlin alight, and
tied their horses to two trees, and so they went into the ship,
and when they came to the sword that the hand held, Sir Arthur
took it up by the handles, and took it with him. And the arm
and the hand went under the water; and so they came unto the land
and rode forth. And then Sir Arthur saw a rich pavilion. What
signifieth yonder pavilion? It is the knight's pavilion, said
Merlin, that ye fought with last, Sir Pellinore, but he is out,
he is not there; he hath ado with a knight of yours, that hight
Egglame, and they have fought together, but at the last Egglame
fled, and else he had been dead, and he hath chased him even
to Carlion, and we shall meet with him anon in the highway. That
is well said, said Arthur, now have I a sword, now will I wage
battle with him, and be avenged on him. Sir, ye shall not so,
said Merlin, for the knight is weary of fighting and chasing, so
that ye shall have no worship to have ado with him; also, he will
not lightly be matched of one knight living; and therefore it is my
counsel, let him pass, for he shall do you good service in short
time, and his sons, after his days. Also ye shall see that day
in short space ye shall be right glad to give him your sister
to wed. When I see him, I will do as ye advise me, said Arthur.
Then Sir Arthur looked on the sword, and liked it passing well.
Whether liketh you better, said Merlin, the sword or the scabbard?
Me liketh better the sword, said Arthur. Ye are more unwise,
said Merlin, for the scabbard is worth ten of the sword, for while
ye have the scabbard upon you ye shall never lose no blood, be ye
never so sore wounded; therefore, keep well the scabbard always
with you. So they rode into Carlion, and by the way they met with
Sir Pellinore; but Merlin had done such a craft that Pellinore saw
not Arthur, and he passed by without any words. I marvel, said
Arthur, that the knight would not speak. Sir, said Merlin, he saw
you not; for and he had seen you ye had not lightly departed. So
they came unto Carlion, whereof his knights were passing glad.
And when they heard of his adventures they marveled that he would
jeopard his person so alone. But all men of worship said it was
merry to be under such a chieftain that would put his person in
adventure as other poor knights did."
SIR DINADAN THE HUMORIST
It seemed to me that this quaint lie was most simply and beautifully
told; but then I had heard it only once, and that makes a difference;
it was pleasant to the others when it was fresh, no doubt.
Sir Dinadan the Humorist was the first to awake, and he soon roused
the rest with a practical joke of a sufficiently poor quality.
He tied some metal mugs to a dog's tail and turned him loose,
and he tore around and around the place in a frenzy of fright,
with all the other dogs bellowing after him and battering and
crashing against everything that came in their way and making
altogether a chaos of confusion and a most deafening din and
turmoil; at which every man and woman of the multitude laughed
till the tears flowed, and some fell out of their chairs and
wallowed on the floor in ecstasy. It was just like so many children.
Sir Dinadan was so proud of his exploit that he could not keep
from telling over and over again, to weariness, how the immortal
idea happened to occur to him; and as is the way with humorists
of his breed, he was still laughing at it after everybody else had
got through. He was so set up that he concluded to make a speech
--of course a humorous speech. I think I never heard so many old
played-out jokes strung together in my life. He was worse than
the minstrels, worse than the clown in the circus. It seemed
peculiarly sad to sit here, thirteen hundred years before I was
born, and listen again to poor, flat, worm-eaten jokes that had
given me the dry gripes when I was a boy thirteen hundred years
afterwards. It about convinced me that there isn't any such thing
as a new joke possible. Everybody laughed at these antiquities
--but then they always do; I had noticed that, centuries later.
However, of course the scoffer didn't laugh--I mean the boy. No,
he scoffed; there wasn't anything he wouldn't scoff at. He said
the most of Sir Dinadan's jokes were rotten and the rest were
petrified. I said "petrified" was good; as I believed, myself,
that the only right way to classify the majestic ages of some of
those jokes was by geologic periods. But that neat idea hit
the boy in a blank place, for geology hadn't been invented yet.
However, I made a note of the remark, and calculated to educate
the commonwealth up to it if I pulled through. It is no use
to throw a good thing away merely because the market isn't ripe yet.
Now Sir Kay arose and began to fire up on his history-mill with me
for fuel. It was time for me to feel serious, and I did. Sir Kay
told how he had encountered me in a far land of barbarians, who
all wore the same ridiculous garb that I did--a garb that was a work
of enchantment, and intended to make the wearer secure from hurt
by human hands. However he had nullified the force of the
enchantment by prayer, and had killed my thirteen knights in
a three hours' battle, and taken me prisoner, sparing my life
in order that so strange a curiosity as I was might be exhibited
to the wonder and admiration of the king and the court. He spoke
of me all the time, in the blandest way, as "this prodigious giant,"
and "this horrible sky-towering monster," and "this tusked and
taloned man-devouring ogre", and everybody took in all this bosh
in the naivest way, and never smiled or seemed to notice that
there was any discrepancy between these watered statistics and me.
He said that in trying to escape from him I sprang into the top of
a tree two hundred cubits high at a single bound, but he dislodged
me with a stone the size of a cow, which "all-to brast" the most
of my bones, and then swore me to appear at Arthur's court for
sentence. He ended by condemning me to die at noon on the 21st;
and was so little concerned about it that he stopped to yawn before
he named the date.
I was in a dismal state by this time; indeed, I was hardly enough
in my right mind to keep the run of a dispute that sprung up as
to how I had better be killed, the possibility of the killing being
doubted by some, because of the enchantment in my clothes. And yet
it was nothing but an ordinary suit of fifteen-dollar slop-shops.
Still, I was sane enough to notice this detail, to wit: many of
the terms used in the most matter-of-fact way by this great
assemblage of the first ladies and gentlemen in the land would
have made a Comanche blush. Indelicacy is too mild a term to convey
the idea. However, I had read "Tom Jones," and "Roderick Random,"
and other books of that kind, and knew that the highest and first
ladies and gentlemen in England had remained little or no cleaner
in their talk, and in the morals and conduct which such talk
implies, clear up to a hundred years ago; in fact clear into our
own nineteenth century--in which century, broadly speaking,
the earliest samples of the real lady and real gentleman discoverable
in English history--or in European history, for that matter--may be
said to have made their appearance. Suppose Sir Walter, instead
of putting the conversations into the mouths of his characters,
had allowed the characters to speak for themselves? We should
have had talk from Rebecca and Ivanhoe and the soft lady Rowena
which would embarrass a tramp in our day. However, to the
unconsciously indelicate all things are delicate. King Arthur's
people were not aware that they were indecent and I had presence
of mind enough not to mention it.
They were so troubled about my enchanted clothes that they were
mightily relieved, at last, when old Merlin swept the difficulty
away for them with a common-sense hint. He asked them why they
were so dull--why didn't it occur to them to strip me. In half a
minute I was as naked as a pair of tongs! And dear, dear, to think
of it: I was the only embarrassed person there. Everybody discussed
me; and did it as unconcernedly as if I had been a cabbage.
Queen Guenever was as naively interested as the rest, and said
she had never seen anybody with legs just like mine before. It was
the only compliment I got--if it was a compliment.
Finally I was carried off in one direction, and my perilous clothes
in another. I was shoved into a dark and narrow cell in a dungeon,
with some scant remnants for dinner, some moldy straw for a bed,
and no end of rats for company.
I was so tired that even my fears were not able to keep me awake long.
When I next came to myself, I seemed to have been asleep a very
long time. My first thought was, "Well, what an astonishing dream
I've had! I reckon I've waked only just in time to keep from
being hanged or drowned or burned or something.... I'll nap again
till the whistle blows, and then I'll go down to the arms factory
and have it out with Hercules."
But just then I heard the harsh music of rusty chains and bolts,
a light flashed in my eyes, and that butterfly, Clarence, stood
before me! I gasped with surprise; my breath almost got away from me.
"What!" I said, "you here yet? Go along with the rest of
the dream! scatter!"
But he only laughed, in his light-hearted way, and fell to making
fun of my sorry plight.
"All right," I said resignedly, "let the dream go on; I'm in no hurry."
"Prithee what dream?"
"What dream? Why, the dream that I am in Arthur's court--a person
who never existed; and that I am talking to you, who are nothing
but a work of the imagination."
"Oh, la, indeed! and is it a dream that you're to be burned
to-morrow? Ho-ho--answer me that!"
The shock that went through me was distressing. I now began
to reason that my situation was in the last degree serious, dream
or no dream; for I knew by past experience of the lifelike intensity
of dreams, that to be burned to death, even in a dream, would be
very far from being a jest, and was a thing to be avoided, by any
means, fair or foul, that I could contrive. So I said beseechingly:
"Ah, Clarence, good boy, only friend I've got,--for you _are_ my
friend, aren't you?--don't fail me; help me to devise some way
of escaping from this place!"
"Now do but hear thyself! Escape? Why, man, the corridors are
in guard and keep of men-at-arms."
"No doubt, no doubt. But how many, Clarence? Not many, I hope?"
"Full a score. One may not hope to escape." After a pause
--hesitatingly: "and there be other reasons--and weightier."
"Other ones? What are they?"
"Well, they say--oh, but I daren't, indeed daren't!"
"Why, poor lad, what is the matter? Why do you blench? Why do
you tremble so?"
"Oh, in sooth, there is need! I do want to tell you, but--"
"Come, come, be brave, be a man--speak out, there's a good lad!"
He hesitated, pulled one way by desire, the other way by fear;
then he stole to the door and peeped out, listening; and finally
crept close to me and put his mouth to my ear and told me his
fearful news in a whisper, and with all the cowering apprehension
of one who was venturing upon awful ground and speaking of things
whose very mention might be freighted with death.
"Merlin, in his malice, has woven a spell about this dungeon, and
there bides not the man in these kingdoms that would be desperate
enough to essay to cross its lines with you! Now God pity me,
I have told it! Ah, be kind to me, be merciful to a poor boy who
means thee well; for an thou betray me I am lost!"
I laughed the only really refreshing laugh I had had for some time;
"Merlin has wrought a spell! _Merlin_, forsooth! That cheap old
humbug, that maundering old ass? Bosh, pure bosh, the silliest bosh
in the world! Why, it does seem to me that of all the childish,
idiotic, chuckle-headed, chicken-livered superstitions that ev
--oh, damn Merlin!"
But Clarence had slumped to his knees before I had half finished,
and he was like to go out of his mind with fright.
"Oh, beware! These are awful words! Any moment these walls
may crumble upon us if you say such things. Oh call them back
before it is too late!"
Now this strange exhibition gave me a good idea and set me to
thinking. If everybody about here was so honestly and sincerely
afraid of Merlin's pretended magic as Clarence was, certainly
a superior man like me ought to be shrewd enough to contrive
some way to take advantage of such a state of things. I went
on thinking, and worked out a plan. Then I said:
"Get up. Pull yourself together; look me in the eye. Do you
know why I laughed?"
"No--but for our blessed Lady's sake, do it no more."
"Well, I'll tell you why I laughed. Because I'm a magician myself."
"Thou!" The boy recoiled a step, and caught his breath, for
the thing hit him rather sudden; but the aspect which he took
on was very, very respectful. I took quick note of that; it
indicated that a humbug didn't need to have a reputation in this
asylum; people stood ready to take him at his word, without that.
"I've know Merlin seven hundred years, and he--"
"Don't interrupt me. He has died and come alive again thirteen
times, and traveled under a new name every time: Smith, Jones,
Robinson, Jackson, Peters, Haskins, Merlin--a new alias every
time he turns up. I knew him in Egypt three hundred years ago;
I knew him in India five hundred years ago--he is always blethering
around in my way, everywhere I go; he makes me tired. He don't
amount to shucks, as a magician; knows some of the old common
tricks, but has never got beyond the rudiments, and never will.
He is well enough for the provinces--one-night stands and that
sort of thing, you know--but dear me, _he_ oughtn't to set up for
an expert--anyway not where there's a real artist. Now look here,
Clarence, I am going to stand your friend, right along, and in
return you must be mine. I want you to do me a favor. I want
you to get word to the king that I am a magician myself--and the
Supreme Grand High-yu-Muck-amuck and head of the tribe, at that;
and I want him to be made to understand that I am just quietly
arranging a little calamity here that will make the fur fly in these
realms if Sir Kay's project is carried out and any harm comes
to me. Will you get that to the king for me?"
The poor boy was in such a state that he could hardly answer me.
It was pitiful to see a creature so terrified, so unnerved, so
demoralized. But he promised everything; and on my side he made
me promise over and over again that I would remain his friend, and
never turn against him or cast any enchantments upon him. Then
he worked his way out, staying himself with his hand along the
wall, like a sick person.
Presently this thought occurred to me: how heedless I have been!
When the boy gets calm, he will wonder why a great magician like me
should have begged a boy like him to help me get out of this place;
he will put this and that together, and will see that I am a humbug.
I worried over that heedless blunder for an hour, and called myself
a great many hard names, meantime. But finally it occurred to me
all of a sudden that these animals didn't reason; that _they_ never
put this and that together; that all their talk showed that they
didn't know a discrepancy when they saw it. I was at rest, then.
But as soon as one is at rest, in this world, off he goes on
something else to worry about. It occurred to me that I had made
another blunder: I had sent the boy off to alarm his betters with
a threat--I intending to invent a calamity at my leisure; now
the people who are the readiest and eagerest and willingest to
swallow miracles are the very ones who are hungriest to see you
perform them; suppose I should be called on for a sample? Suppose
I should be asked to name my calamity? Yes, I had made a blunder;
I ought to have invented my calamity first. "What shall I do?
what can I say, to gain a little time?" I was in trouble again;
in the deepest kind of trouble...
"There's a footstep!--they're coming. If I had only just a moment
to think.... Good, I've got it. I'm all right."
You see, it was the eclipse. It came into my mind in the nick
of time, how Columbus, or Cortez, or one of those people, played
an eclipse as a saving trump once, on some savages, and I saw my
chance. I could play it myself, now, and it wouldn't be any
plagiarism, either, because I should get it in nearly a thousand
years ahead of those parties.
Clarence came in, subdued, distressed, and said:
"I hasted the message to our liege the king, and straightway he
had me to his presence. He was frighted even to the marrow,
and was minded to give order for your instant enlargement, and
that you be clothed in fine raiment and lodged as befitted one so
great; but then came Merlin and spoiled all; for he persuaded
the king that you are mad, and know not whereof you speak; and
said your threat is but foolishness and idle vaporing. They
disputed long, but in the end, Merlin, scoffing, said, 'Wherefore
hath he not _named_ his brave calamity? Verily it is because he
cannot.' This thrust did in a most sudden sort close the king's
mouth, and he could offer naught to turn the argument; and so,
reluctant, and full loth to do you the discourtesy, he yet prayeth
you to consider his perplexed case, as noting how the matter stands,
and name the calamity--if so be you have determined the nature
of it and the time of its coming. Oh, prithee delay not; to delay
at such a time were to double and treble the perils that already
compass thee about. Oh, be thou wise--name the calamity!"
I allowed silence to accumulate while I got my impressiveness
together, and then said:
"How long have I been shut up in this hole?"
"Ye were shut up when yesterday was well spent. It is 9 of
the morning now."
"No! Then I have slept well, sure enough. Nine in the morning
now! And yet it is the very complexion of midnight, to a shade.
This is the 20th, then?"
"And I am to be burned alive to-morrow." The boy shuddered.
"At what hour?"
"At high noon."
"Now then, I will tell you what to say." I paused, and stood over
that cowering lad a whole minute in awful silence; then, in a voice
deep, measured, charged with doom, I began, and rose by dramatically
graded stages to my colossal climax, which I delivered in as sublime
and noble a way as ever I did such a thing in my life: "Go back
and tell the king that at that hour I will smother the whole world
in the dead blackness of midnight; I will blot out the sun, and he
shall never shine again; the fruits of the earth shall rot for lack
of light and warmth, and the peoples of the earth shall famish
and die, to the last man!"
I had to carry the boy out myself, he sunk into such a collapse.
I handed him over to the soldiers, and went back.
In the stillness and the darkness, realization soon began to
supplement knowledge. The mere knowledge of a fact is pale; but
when you come to _realize_ your fact, it takes on color. It is
all the difference between hearing of a man being stabbed to
the heart, and seeing it done. In the stillness and the darkness,
the knowledge that I was in deadly danger took to itself deeper
and deeper meaning all the time; a something which was realization
crept inch by inch through my veins and turned me cold.
But it is a blessed provision of nature that at times like these,
as soon as a man's mercury has got down to a certain point there
comes a revulsion, and he rallies. Hope springs up, and cheerfulness
along with it, and then he is in good shape to do something for
himself, if anything can be done. When my rally came, it came with
a bound. I said to myself that my eclipse would be sure to save me,
and make me the greatest man in the kingdom besides; and straightway
my mercury went up to the top of the tube, and my solicitudes
all vanished. I was as happy a man as there was in the world.
I was even impatient for to-morrow to come, I so wanted to gather
in that great triumph and be the center of all the nation's wonder
and reverence. Besides, in a business way it would be the making
of me; I knew that.
Meantime there was one thing which had got pushed into the background
of my mind. That was the half-conviction that when the nature
of my proposed calamity should be reported to those superstitious
people, it would have such an effect that they would want to
compromise. So, by and by when I heard footsteps coming, that
thought was recalled to me, and I said to myself, "As sure as
anything, it's the compromise. Well, if it is good, all right,
I will accept; but if it isn't, I mean to stand my ground and play
my hand for all it is worth."
The door opened, and some men-at-arms appeared. The leader said:
"The stake is ready. Come!"
The stake! The strength went out of me, and I almost fell down.
It is hard to get one's breath at such a time, such lumps come into
one's throat, and such gaspings; but as soon as I could speak, I said:
"But this is a mistake--the execution is to-morrow."
"Order changed; been set forward a day. Haste thee!"
I was lost. There was no help for me. I was dazed, stupefied;
I had no command over myself, I only wandered purposely about,
like one out of his mind; so the soldiers took hold of me, and
pulled me along with them, out of the cell and along the maze of
underground corridors, and finally into the fierce glare of daylight
and the upper world. As we stepped into the vast enclosed court
of the castle I got a shock; for the first thing I saw was the stake,
standing in the center, and near it the piled fagots and a monk.
On all four sides of the court the seated multitudes rose rank
above rank, forming sloping terraces that were rich with color.
The king and the queen sat in their thrones, the most conspicuous
figures there, of course.
To note all this, occupied but a second. The next second Clarence
had slipped from some place of concealment and was pouring news
into my ear, his eyes beaming with triumph and gladness. He said:
"Tis through _me_ the change was wrought! And main hard have I worked
to do it, too. But when I revealed to them the calamity in store,
and saw how mighty was the terror it did engender, then saw I also
that this was the time to strike! Wherefore I diligently pretended,
unto this and that and the other one, that your power against the sun
could not reach its full until the morrow; and so if any would save
the sun and the world, you must be slain to-day, while your
enchantments are but in the weaving and lack potency. Odsbodikins,
it was but a dull lie, a most indifferent invention, but you should
have seen them seize it and swallow it, in the frenzy of their
fright, as it were salvation sent from heaven; and all the while
was I laughing in my sleeve the one moment, to see them so cheaply
deceived, and glorifying God the next, that He was content to let
the meanest of His creatures be His instrument to the saving of
thy life. Ah how happy has the matter sped! You will not need
to do the sun a _real_ hurt--ah, forget not that, on your soul forget
it not! Only make a little darkness--only the littlest little
darkness, mind, and cease with that. It will be sufficient. They
will see that I spoke falsely,--being ignorant, as they will fancy
--and with the falling of the first shadow of that darkness you
shall see them go mad with fear; and they will set you free and
make you great! Go to thy triumph, now! But remember--ah, good
friend, I implore thee remember my supplication, and do the blessed
sun no hurt. For _my_ sake, thy true friend."
I choked out some words through my grief and misery; as much as
to say I would spare the sun; for which the lad's eyes paid me back
with such deep and loving gratitude that I had not the heart
to tell him his good-hearted foolishness had ruined me and sent me
to my death.
As the soldiers assisted me across the court the stillness was
so profound that if I had been blindfold I should have supposed
I was in a solitude instead of walled in by four thousand people.
There was not a movement perceptible in those masses of humanity;
they were as rigid as stone images, and as pale; and dread sat
upon every countenance. This hush continued while I was being
chained to the stake; it still continued while the fagots were
carefully and tediously piled about my ankles, my knees, my thighs,
my body. Then there was a pause, and a deeper hush, if possible,
and a man knelt down at my feet with a blazing torch; the multitude
strained forward, gazing, and parting slightly from their seats
without knowing it; the monk raised his hands above my head, and
his eyes toward the blue sky, and began some words in Latin; in
this attitude he droned on and on, a little while, and then stopped.
I waited two or three moments; then looked up; he was standing
there petrified. With a common impulse the multitude rose slowly
up and stared into the sky. I followed their eyes, as sure as guns,
there was my eclipse beginning! The life went boiling through
my veins; I was a new man! The rim of black spread slowly into
the sun's disk, my heart beat higher and higher, and still the
assemblage and the priest stared into the sky, motionless. I knew
that this gaze would be turned upon me, next. When it was, I was
ready. I was in one of the most grand attitudes I ever struck,
with my arm stretched up pointing to the sun. It was a noble
effect. You could _see_ the shudder sweep the mass like a wave.
Two shouts rang out, one close upon the heels of the other:
"Apply the torch!"
"I forbid it!"
The one was from Merlin, the other from the king. Merlin started
from his place--to apply the torch himself, I judged. I said:
"Stay where you are. If any man moves--even the king--before
I give him leave, I will blast him with thunder, I will consume
him with lightnings!"
The multitude sank meekly into their seats, and I was just expecting
they would. Merlin hesitated a moment or two, and I was on pins
and needles during that little while. Then he sat down, and I took
a good breath; for I knew I was master of the situation now.
The king said:
"Be merciful, fair sir, and essay no further in this perilous matter,
lest disaster follow. It was reported to us that your powers could
not attain unto their full strength until the morrow; but--"
"Your Majesty thinks the report may have been a lie? It _was_ a lie."
That made an immense effect; up went appealing hands everywhere,
and the king was assailed with a storm of supplications that
I might be bought off at any price, and the calamity stayed.
The king was eager to comply. He said:
"Name any terms, reverend sir, even to the halving of my kingdom;
but banish this calamity, spare the sun!"
My fortune was made. I would have taken him up in a minute, but
I couldn't stop an eclipse; the thing was out of the question. So
I asked time to consider. The king said:
"How long--ah, how long, good sir? Be merciful; look, it groweth
darker, moment by moment. Prithee how long?"
"Not long. Half an hour--maybe an hour."
There were a thousand pathetic protests, but I couldn't shorten up
any, for I couldn't remember how long a total eclipse lasts. I was
in a puzzled condition, anyway, and wanted to think. Something
was wrong about that eclipse, and the fact was very unsettling.
If this wasn't the one I was after, how was I to tell whether this
was the sixth century, or nothing but a dream? Dear me, if I could
only prove it was the latter! Here was a glad new hope. If the boy
was right about the date, and this was surely the 20th, it _wasn't_
the sixth century. I reached for the monk's sleeve, in considerable
excitement, and asked him what day of the month it was.
Hang him, he said it was the _twenty-first_! It made me turn cold
to hear him. I begged him not to make any mistake about it; but
he was sure; he knew it was the 21st. So, that feather-headed
boy had botched things again! The time of the day was right
for the eclipse; I had seen that for myself, in the beginning,
by the dial that was near by. Yes, I was in King Arthur's court,
and I might as well make the most out of it I could.
The darkness was steadily growing, the people becoming more and
more distressed. I now said:
"I have reflected, Sir King. For a lesson, I will let this darkness
proceed, and spread night in the world; but whether I blot out
the sun for good, or restore it, shall rest with you. These are
the terms, to wit: You shall remain king over all your dominions,
and receive all the glories and honors that belong to the kingship;
but you shall appoint me your perpetual minister and executive,
and give me for my services one per cent of such actual increase
of revenue over and above its present amount as I may succeed
in creating for the state. If I can't live on that, I sha'n't ask
anybody to give me a lift. Is it satisfactory?"
There was a prodigious roar of applause, and out of the midst
of it the king's voice rose, saying:
"Away with his bonds, and set him free! and do him homage, high
and low, rich and poor, for he is become the king's right hand,
is clothed with power and authority, and his seat is upon the highest
step of the throne! Now sweep away this creeping night, and bring
the light and cheer again, that all the world may bless thee."
But I said:
"That a common man should be shamed before the world, is nothing;
but it were dishonor to the _king_ if any that saw his minister naked
should not also see him delivered from his shame. If I might ask
that my clothes be brought again--"
"They are not meet," the king broke in. "Fetch raiment of another
sort; clothe him like a prince!"
My idea worked. I wanted to keep things as they were till the
eclipse was total, otherwise they would be trying again to get
me to dismiss the darkness, and of course I couldn't do it. Sending
for the clothes gained some delay, but not enough. So I had to make
another excuse. I said it would be but natural if the king should
change his mind and repent to some extent of what he had done
under excitement; therefore I would let the darkness grow a while,
and if at the end of a reasonable time the king had kept his mind
the same, the darkness should be dismissed. Neither the king nor
anybody else was satisfied with that arrangement, but I had
to stick to my point.
It grew darker and darker and blacker and blacker, while I struggled
with those awkward sixth-century clothes. It got to be pitch dark,
at last, and the multitude groaned with horror to feel the cold
uncanny night breezes fan through the place and see the stars
come out and twinkle in the sky. At last the eclipse was total,
and I was very glad of it, but everybody else was in misery; which
was quite natural. I said:
"The king, by his silence, still stands to the terms." Then
I lifted up my hands--stood just so a moment--then I said, with
the most awful solemnity: "Let the enchantment dissolve and
pass harmless away!"
There was no response, for a moment, in that deep darkness and
that graveyard hush. But when the silver rim of the sun pushed
itself out, a moment or two later, the assemblage broke loose with
a vast shout and came pouring down like a deluge to smother me
with blessings and gratitude; and Clarence was not the last of
the wash, to be sure.
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