Part 2 out of 7
Then Sir Agwisance the King of Ireland encountered
with Sir Gareth, and there Sir Gareth smote him from
his horse, saddle and all. And then came King Carados
of Scotland, and Sir Gareth smote him down horse and
man. And in the same wise he served King Uriens of the
land of Gore. And then there came in Six Bagdemagus,
and Sir Gareth smote him down horse and man to the
earth. And Bagdemagus's son Meliganus brake a spear
upon Sir Gareth mightily and knightly. And then Sir
Galahault the noble prince cried on high, Knight with
the many colors, well hast thou justed; now make thee
ready that I may just with thee. Sir Gareth heard him,
and he gat a great spear, and so they encountered
together, and there the prince brake his spear; but Sir
Gareth smote him upon the left side of the helm, that
he reeled here and there, and he had fallen down had not
his men recovered him. Truly, said King Arthur, that
knight with the many colors is a good knight. Wherefore
the king called unto him Sir Launcelot, and prayed him
to encounter with that knight. Sir, said Launcelot, I
may as well find in my heart for to forbear him at
this time, for he hath had travail enough this day, and
when a good knight doth so well upon some day, it is
no good knight's part to let him of his worship, and,
namely, when he seeth a knight hath done so great
labour; for peradventure, said Sir Launcelot, his
quarrel is here this day, and peradventure he is best
beloved with this lady of all that be here, for I see
well he paineth himself and enforceth him to do great
deeds, and therefore, said Sir Launcelot, as for me,
this day he shall have the honour; though it lay in my
power to put him from it, I would not.
There was an unpleasant little episode that day, which for reasons
of state I struck out of my priest's report. You will have noticed
that Garry was doing some great fighting in the engagement. When
I say Garry I mean Sir Gareth. Garry was my private pet name
for him; it suggests that I had a deep affection for him, and that
was the case. But it was a private pet name only, and never spoken
aloud to any one, much less to him; being a noble, he would not
have endured a familiarity like that from me. Well, to proceed:
I sat in the private box set apart for me as the king's minister.
While Sir Dinadan was waiting for his turn to enter the lists,
he came in there and sat down and began to talk; for he was always
making up to me, because I was a stranger and he liked to have
a fresh market for his jokes, the most of them having reached that
stage of wear where the teller has to do the laughing himself while
the other person looks sick. I had always responded to his efforts
as well as I could, and felt a very deep and real kindness for him,
too, for the reason that if by malice of fate he knew the one
particular anecdote which I had heard oftenest and had most hated
and most loathed all my life, he had at least spared it me. It was
one which I had heard attributed to every humorous person who
had ever stood on American soil, from Columbus down to Artemus Ward.
It was about a humorous lecturer who flooded an ignorant audience
with the killingest jokes for an hour and never got a laugh; and
then when he was leaving, some gray simpletons wrung him gratefully
by the hand and said it had been the funniest thing they had ever
heard, and "it was all they could do to keep from laughin' right
out in meetin'." That anecdote never saw the day that it was
worth the telling; and yet I had sat under the telling of it
hundreds and thousands and millions and billions of times, and
cried and cursed all the way through. Then who can hope to know
what my feelings were, to hear this armor-plated ass start in on
it again, in the murky twilight of tradition, before the dawn of
history, while even Lactantius might be referred to as "the late
Lactantius," and the Crusades wouldn't be born for five hundred
years yet? Just as he finished, the call-boy came; so, haw-hawing
like a demon, he went rattling and clanking out like a crate of
loose castings, and I knew nothing more. It was some minutes
before I came to, and then I opened my eyes just in time to see
Sir Gareth fetch him an awful welt, and I unconsciously out with
the prayer, "I hope to gracious he's killed!" But by ill-luck,
before I had got half through with the words, Sir Gareth crashed
into Sir Sagramor le Desirous and sent him thundering over his
horse's crupper, and Sir Sagramor caught my remark and thought
I meant it for _him_.
Well, whenever one of those people got a thing into his head,
there was no getting it out again. I knew that, so I saved my
breath, and offered no explanations. As soon as Sir Sagramor
got well, he notified me that there was a little account to settle
between us, and he named a day three or four years in the future;
place of settlement, the lists where the offense had been given.
I said I would be ready when he got back. You see, he was going
for the Holy Grail. The boys all took a flier at the Holy Grail
now and then. It was a several years' cruise. They always put in
the long absence snooping around, in the most conscientious way,
though none of them had any idea where the Holy Grail really was,
and I don't think any of them actually expected to find it, or
would have known what to do with it if he _had_ run across it.
You see, it was just the Northwest Passage of that day, as you may
say; that was all. Every year expeditions went out holy grailing,
and next year relief expeditions went out to hunt for _them_. There
was worlds of reputation in it, but no money. Why, they actually
wanted _me_ to put in! Well, I should smile.
BEGINNINGS OF CIVILIZATION
The Round Table soon heard of the challenge, and of course it was
a good deal discussed, for such things interested the boys.
The king thought I ought now to set forth in quest of adventures,
so that I might gain renown and be the more worthy to meet
Sir Sagramor when the several years should have rolled away.
I excused myself for the present; I said it would take me three
or four years yet to get things well fixed up and going smoothly;
then I should be ready; all the chances were that at the end of
that time Sir Sagramor would still be out grailing, so no valuable
time would be lost by the postponement; I should then have been
in office six or seven years, and I believed my system and machinery
would be so well developed that I could take a holiday without
its working any harm.
I was pretty well satisfied with what I had already accomplished.
In various quiet nooks and corners I had the beginnings of all
sorts of industries under way--nuclei of future vast factories,
the iron and steel missionaries of my future civilization. In these
were gathered together the brightest young minds I could find,
and I kept agents out raking the country for more, all the time.
I was training a crowd of ignorant folk into experts--experts
in every sort of handiwork and scientific calling. These nurseries
of mine went smoothly and privately along undisturbed in their
obscure country retreats, for nobody was allowed to come into their
precincts without a special permit--for I was afraid of the Church.
I had started a teacher-factory and a lot of Sunday-schools the
first thing; as a result, I now had an admirable system of graded
schools in full blast in those places, and also a complete variety
of Protestant congregations all in a prosperous and growing
condition. Everybody could be any kind of a Christian he wanted
to; there was perfect freedom in that matter. But I confined public
religious teaching to the churches and the Sunday-schools, permitting
nothing of it in my other educational buildings. I could have
given my own sect the preference and made everybody a Presbyterian
without any trouble, but that would have been to affront a law
of human nature: spiritual wants and instincts are as various in
the human family as are physical appetites, complexions, and
features, and a man is only at his best, morally, when he is
equipped with the religious garment whose color and shape and
size most nicely accommodate themselves to the spiritual complexion,
angularities, and stature of the individual who wears it; and,
besides, I was afraid of a united Church; it makes a mighty power,
the mightiest conceivable, and then when it by and by gets into
selfish hands, as it is always bound to do, it means death to
human liberty and paralysis to human thought.
All mines were royal property, and there were a good many of them.
They had formerly been worked as savages always work mines--holes
grubbed in the earth and the mineral brought up in sacks of hide by
hand, at the rate of a ton a day; but I had begun to put the mining
on a scientific basis as early as I could.
Yes, I had made pretty handsome progress when Sir Sagramor's
challenge struck me.
Four years rolled by--and then! Well, you would never imagine
it in the world. Unlimited power is the ideal thing when it is in
safe hands. The despotism of heaven is the one absolutely perfect
government. An earthly despotism would be the absolutely perfect
earthly government, if the conditions were the same, namely, the
despot the perfectest individual of the human race, and his lease
of life perpetual. But as a perishable perfect man must die, and
leave his despotism in the hands of an imperfect successor, an
earthly despotism is not merely a bad form of government, it is
the worst form that is possible.
My works showed what a despot could do with the resources of
a kingdom at his command. Unsuspected by this dark land, I had
the civilization of the nineteenth century booming under its very
nose! It was fenced away from the public view, but there it was,
a gigantic and unassailable fact--and to be heard from, yet, if
I lived and had luck. There it was, as sure a fact and as substantial
a fact as any serene volcano, standing innocent with its smokeless
summit in the blue sky and giving no sign of the rising hell in its
bowels. My schools and churches were children four years before;
they were grown-up now; my shops of that day were vast factories
now; where I had a dozen trained men then, I had a thousand now;
where I had one brilliant expert then, I had fifty now. I stood
with my hand on the cock, so to speak, ready to turn it on and
flood the midnight world with light at any moment. But I was not
going to do the thing in that sudden way. It was not my policy.
The people could not have stood it; and, moreover, I should have
had the Established Roman Catholic Church on my back in a minute.
No, I had been going cautiously all the while. I had had confidential
agents trickling through the country some time, whose office was
to undermine knighthood by imperceptible degrees, and to gnaw
a little at this and that and the other superstition, and so prepare
the way gradually for a better order of things. I was turning on
my light one-candle-power at a time, and meant to continue to do so.
I had scattered some branch schools secretly about the kingdom,
and they were doing very well. I meant to work this racket more
and more, as time wore on, if nothing occurred to frighten me.
One of my deepest secrets was my West Point--my military academy.
I kept that most jealously out of sight; and I did the same with my
naval academy which I had established at a remote seaport. Both
were prospering to my satisfaction.
Clarence was twenty-two now, and was my head executive, my right
hand. He was a darling; he was equal to anything; there wasn't
anything he couldn't turn his hand to. Of late I had been training
him for journalism, for the time seemed about right for a start
in the newspaper line; nothing big, but just a small weekly for
experimental circulation in my civilization-nurseries. He took
to it like a duck; there was an editor concealed in him, sure.
Already he had doubled himself in one way; he talked sixth century
and wrote nineteenth. His journalistic style was climbing,
steadily; it was already up to the back settlement Alabama mark,
and couldn't be told from the editorial output of that region
either by matter or flavor.
We had another large departure on hand, too. This was a telegraph
and a telephone; our first venture in this line. These wires were
for private service only, as yet, and must be kept private until
a riper day should come. We had a gang of men on the road, working
mainly by night. They were stringing ground wires; we were afraid
to put up poles, for they would attract too much inquiry. Ground
wires were good enough, in both instances, for my wires were
protected by an insulation of my own invention which was perfect.
My men had orders to strike across country, avoiding roads, and
establishing connection with any considerable towns whose lights
betrayed their presence, and leaving experts in charge. Nobody
could tell you how to find any place in the kingdom, for nobody
ever went intentionally to any place, but only struck it by
accident in his wanderings, and then generally left it without
thinking to inquire what its name was. At one time and another
we had sent out topographical expeditions to survey and map the
kingdom, but the priests had always interfered and raised trouble.
So we had given the thing up, for the present; it would be poor
wisdom to antagonize the Church.
As for the general condition of the country, it was as it had been
when I arrived in it, to all intents and purposes. I had made
changes, but they were necessarily slight, and they were not
noticeable. Thus far, I had not even meddled with taxation,
outside of the taxes which provided the royal revenues. I had
systematized those, and put the service on an effective and
righteous basis. As a result, these revenues were already quadrupled,
and yet the burden was so much more equably distributed than
before, that all the kingdom felt a sense of relief, and the praises
of my administration were hearty and general.
Personally, I struck an interruption, now, but I did not mind it,
it could not have happened at a better time. Earlier it could
have annoyed me, but now everything was in good hands and swimming
right along. The king had reminded me several times, of late, that
the postponement I had asked for, four years before, had about
run out now. It was a hint that I ought to be starting out to seek
adventures and get up a reputation of a size to make me worthy
of the honor of breaking a lance with Sir Sagramor, who was still
out grailing, but was being hunted for by various relief expeditions,
and might be found any year, now. So you see I was expecting
this interruption; it did not take me by surprise.
THE YANKEE IN SEARCH OF ADVENTURES
There never was such a country for wandering liars; and they were
of both sexes. Hardly a month went by without one of these tramps
arriving; and generally loaded with a tale about some princess or
other wanting help to get her out of some far-away castle where
she was held in captivity by a lawless scoundrel, usually a giant.
Now you would think that the first thing the king would do after
listening to such a novelette from an entire stranger, would be
to ask for credentials--yes, and a pointer or two as to locality
of castle, best route to it, and so on. But nobody ever thought
of so simple and common-sense a thing at that. No, everybody
swallowed these people's lies whole, and never asked a question
of any sort or about anything. Well, one day when I was not
around, one of these people came along--it was a she one, this
time--and told a tale of the usual pattern. Her mistress was
a captive in a vast and gloomy castle, along with forty-four other
young and beautiful girls, pretty much all of them princesses;
they had been languishing in that cruel captivity for twenty-six
years; the masters of the castle were three stupendous brothers,
each with four arms and one eye--the eye in the center of the
forehead, and as big as a fruit. Sort of fruit not mentioned;
their usual slovenliness in statistics.
Would you believe it? The king and the whole Round Table were
in raptures over this preposterous opportunity for adventure.
Every knight of the Table jumped for the chance, and begged for it;
but to their vexation and chagrin the king conferred it upon me,
who had not asked for it at all.
By an effort, I contained my joy when Clarence brought me the news.
But he--he could not contain his. His mouth gushed delight and
gratitude in a steady discharge--delight in my good fortune,
gratitude to the king for this splendid mark of his favor for me.
He could keep neither his legs nor his body still, but pirouetted
about the place in an airy ecstasy of happiness.
On my side, I could have cursed the kindness that conferred upon
me this benefaction, but I kept my vexation under the surface
for policy's sake, and did what I could to let on to be glad.
Indeed, I _said_ I was glad. And in a way it was true; I was as
glad as a person is when he is scalped.
Well, one must make the best of things, and not waste time with
useless fretting, but get down to business and see what can be
done. In all lies there is wheat among the chaff; I must get at
the wheat in this case: so I sent for the girl and she came. She
was a comely enough creature, and soft and modest, but, if signs
went for anything, she didn't know as much as a lady's watch. I said:
"My dear, have you been questioned as to particulars?"
She said she hadn't.
"Well, I didn't expect you had, but I thought I would ask, to make
sure; it's the way I've been raised. Now you mustn't take it
unkindly if I remind you that as we don't know you, we must go
a little slow. You may be all right, of course, and we'll hope
that you are; but to take it for granted isn't business. _You_
understand that. I'm obliged to ask you a few questions; just
answer up fair and square, and don't be afraid. Where do you
live, when you are at home?"
"In the land of Moder, fair sir."
"Land of Moder. I don't remember hearing of it before.
"As to that, I know not if they be yet on live, sith it is many
years that I have lain shut up in the castle."
"Your name, please?"
"I hight the Demoiselle Alisande la Carteloise, an it please you."
"Do you know anybody here who can identify you?"
"That were not likely, fair lord, I being come hither now for
the first time."
"Have you brought any letters--any documents--any proofs that
you are trustworthy and truthful?"
"Of a surety, no; and wherefore should I? Have I not a tongue,
and cannot I say all that myself?"
"But _your_ saying it, you know, and somebody else's saying it,
"Different? How might that be? I fear me I do not understand."
"Don't _understand_? Land of--why, you see--you see--why, great Scott,
can't you understand a little thing like that? Can't you understand
the difference between your--_why_ do you look so innocent and idiotic!"
"I? In truth I know not, but an it were the will of God."
"Yes, yes, I reckon that's about the size of it. Don't mind my
seeming excited; I'm not. Let us change the subject. Now as
to this castle, with forty-five princesses in it, and three ogres
at the head of it, tell me--where is this harem?"
"The _castle_, you understand; where is the castle?"
"Oh, as to that, it is great, and strong, and well beseen, and
lieth in a far country. Yes, it is many leagues."
"Ah, fair sir, it were woundily hard to tell, they are so many,
and do so lap the one upon the other, and being made all in the
same image and tincted with the same color, one may not know
the one league from its fellow, nor how to count them except
they be taken apart, and ye wit well it were God's work to do
that, being not within man's capacity; for ye will note--"
"Hold on, hold on, never mind about the distance; _whereabouts_
does the castle lie? What's the direction from here?"
"Ah, please you sir, it hath no direction from here; by reason
that the road lieth not straight, but turneth evermore; wherefore
the direction of its place abideth not, but is some time under
the one sky and anon under another, whereso if ye be minded that
it is in the east, and wend thitherward, ye shall observe that
the way of the road doth yet again turn upon itself by the space
of half a circle, and this marvel happing again and yet again and
still again, it will grieve you that you had thought by vanities
of the mind to thwart and bring to naught the will of Him that
giveth not a castle a direction from a place except it pleaseth
Him, and if it please Him not, will the rather that even all castles
and all directions thereunto vanish out of the earth, leaving the
places wherein they tarried desolate and vacant, so warning His
creatures that where He will He will, and where He will not He--"
"Oh, that's all right, that's all right, give us a rest; never mind
about the direction, _hang_ the direction--I beg pardon, I beg
a thousand pardons, I am not well to-day; pay no attention when
I soliloquize, it is an old habit, an old, bad habit, and hard
to get rid of when one's digestion is all disordered with eating
food that was raised forever and ever before he was born; good
land! a man can't keep his functions regular on spring chickens
thirteen hundred years old. But come--never mind about that;
let's--have you got such a thing as a map of that region about
you? Now a good map--"
"Is it peradventure that manner of thing which of late the unbelievers
have brought from over the great seas, which, being boiled in oil,
and an onion and salt added thereto, doth--"
"What, a map? What are you talking about? Don't you know what
a map is? There, there, never mind, don't explain, I hate
explanations; they fog a thing up so that you can't tell anything
about it. Run along, dear; good-day; show her the way, Clarence."
Oh, well, it was reasonably plain, now, why these donkeys didn't
prospect these liars for details. It may be that this girl had
a fact in her somewhere, but I don't believe you could have sluiced
it out with a hydraulic; nor got it with the earlier forms of
blasting, even; it was a case for dynamite. Why, she was a perfect
ass; and yet the king and his knights had listened to her as if
she had been a leaf out of the gospel. It kind of sizes up the
whole party. And think of the simple ways of this court: this
wandering wench hadn't any more trouble to get access to the king
in his palace than she would have had to get into the poorhouse
in my day and country. In fact, he was glad to see her, glad
to hear her tale; with that adventure of hers to offer, she was
as welcome as a corpse is to a coroner.
Just as I was ending-up these reflections, Clarence came back.
I remarked upon the barren result of my efforts with the girl;
hadn't got hold of a single point that could help me to find
the castle. The youth looked a little surprised, or puzzled,
or something, and intimated that he had been wondering to himself
what I had wanted to ask the girl all those questions for.
"Why, great guns," I said, "don't I want to find the castle? And
how else would I go about it?"
"La, sweet your worship, one may lightly answer that, I ween.
She will go with thee. They always do. She will ride with thee."
"Ride with me? Nonsense!"
"But of a truth she will. She will ride with thee. Thou shalt see."
"What? She browse around the hills and scour the woods with me
--alone--and I as good as engaged to be married? Why, it's scandalous.
Think how it would look."
My, the dear face that rose before me! The boy was eager to know
all about this tender matter. I swore him to secrecy and then
whispered her name--"Puss Flanagan." He looked disappointed,
and said he didn't remember the countess. How natural it was for
the little courtier to give her a rank. He asked me where she lived.
"In East Har--" I came to myself and stopped, a little confused;
then I said, "Never mind, now; I'll tell you some time."
And might he see her? Would I let him see her some day?
It was but a little thing to promise--thirteen hundred years
or so--and he so eager; so I said Yes. But I sighed; I couldn't
help it. And yet there was no sense in sighing, for she wasn't
born yet. But that is the way we are made: we don't reason,
where we feel; we just feel.
My expedition was all the talk that day and that night, and the
boys were very good to me, and made much of me, and seemed to have
forgotten their vexation and disappointment, and come to be as
anxious for me to hive those ogres and set those ripe old virgins
loose as if it were themselves that had the contract. Well, they
_were_ good children--but just children, that is all. And they
gave me no end of points about how to scout for giants, and how
to scoop them in; and they told me all sorts of charms against
enchantments, and gave me salves and other rubbish to put on my
wounds. But it never occurred to one of them to reflect that if
I was such a wonderful necromancer as I was pretending to be,
I ought not to need salves or instructions, or charms against
enchantments, and, least of all, arms and armor, on a foray of any
kind--even against fire-spouting dragons, and devils hot from
perdition, let alone such poor adversaries as these I was after,
these commonplace ogres of the back settlements.
I was to have an early breakfast, and start at dawn, for that was
the usual way; but I had the demon's own time with my armor,
and this delayed me a little. It is troublesome to get into, and
there is so much detail. First you wrap a layer or two of blanket
around your body, for a sort of cushion and to keep off the cold
iron; then you put on your sleeves and shirt of chain mail--these
are made of small steel links woven together, and they form a fabric
so flexible that if you toss your shirt onto the floor, it slumps
into a pile like a peck of wet fish-net; it is very heavy and
is nearly the uncomfortablest material in the world for a night
shirt, yet plenty used it for that--tax collectors, and reformers,
and one-horse kings with a defective title, and those sorts of
people; then you put on your shoes--flat-boats roofed over with
interleaving bands of steel--and screw your clumsy spurs into
the heels. Next you buckle your greaves on your legs, and your
cuisses on your thighs; then come your backplate and your breastplate,
and you begin to feel crowded; then you hitch onto the breastplate
the half-petticoat of broad overlapping bands of steel which hangs
down in front but is scolloped out behind so you can sit down,
and isn't any real improvement on an inverted coal scuttle, either
for looks or for wear, or to wipe your hands on; next you belt
on your sword; then you put your stove-pipe joints onto your arms,
your iron gauntlets onto your hands, your iron rat-trap onto your
head, with a rag of steel web hitched onto it to hang over the back
of your neck--and there you are, snug as a candle in a candle-mould.
This is no time to dance. Well, a man that is packed away like
that is a nut that isn't worth the cracking, there is so little of
the meat, when you get down to it, by comparison with the shell.
The boys helped me, or I never could have got in. Just as we
finished, Sir Bedivere happened in, and I saw that as like as not
I hadn't chosen the most convenient outfit for a long trip. How
stately he looked; and tall and broad and grand. He had on his
head a conical steel casque that only came down to his ears, and
for visor had only a narrow steel bar that extended down to his
upper lip and protected his nose; and all the rest of him, from
neck to heel, was flexible chain mail, trousers and all. But
pretty much all of him was hidden under his outside garment, which
of course was of chain mail, as I said, and hung straight from his
shoulders to his ankles; and from his middle to the bottom, both
before and behind, was divided, so that he could ride and let the
skirts hang down on each side. He was going grailing, and it was
just the outfit for it, too. I would have given a good deal for
that ulster, but it was too late now to be fooling around. The sun
was just up, the king and the court were all on hand to see me off
and wish me luck; so it wouldn't be etiquette for me to tarry.
You don't get on your horse yourself; no, if you tried it you
would get disappointed. They carry you out, just as they carry
a sun-struck man to the drug store, and put you on, and help get
you to rights, and fix your feet in the stirrups; and all the while
you do feel so strange and stuffy and like somebody else--like
somebody that has been married on a sudden, or struck by lightning,
or something like that, and hasn't quite fetched around yet, and
is sort of numb, and can't just get his bearings. Then they
stood up the mast they called a spear, in its socket by my left
foot, and I gripped it with my hand; lastly they hung my shield
around my neck, and I was all complete and ready to up anchor
and get to sea. Everybody was as good to me as they could be,
and a maid of honor gave me the stirrup-cup her own self. There was
nothing more to do now, but for that damsel to get up behind me on
a pillion, which she did, and put an arm or so around me to hold on.
And so we started, and everybody gave us a goodbye and waved their
handkerchiefs or helmets. And everybody we met, going down the hill
and through the village was respectful to us, except some shabby
little boys on the outskirts. They said:
"Oh, what a guy!" And hove clods at us.
In my experience boys are the same in all ages. They don't respect
anything, they don't care for anything or anybody. They say
"Go up, baldhead" to the prophet going his unoffending way in
the gray of antiquity; they sass me in the holy gloom of the
Middle Ages; and I had seen them act the same way in Buchanan's
administration; I remember, because I was there and helped. The
prophet had his bears and settled with his boys; and I wanted
to get down and settle with mine, but it wouldn't answer, because
I couldn't have got up again. I hate a country without a derrick.
Straight off, we were in the country. It was most lovely and
pleasant in those sylvan solitudes in the early cool morning
in the first freshness of autumn. From hilltops we saw fair
green valleys lying spread out below, with streams winding through
them, and island groves of trees here and there, and huge lonely
oaks scattered about and casting black blots of shade; and beyond
the valleys we saw the ranges of hills, blue with haze, stretching
away in billowy perspective to the horizon, with at wide intervals
a dim fleck of white or gray on a wave-summit, which we knew was
a castle. We crossed broad natural lawns sparkling with dew,
and we moved like spirits, the cushioned turf giving out no sound
of footfall; we dreamed along through glades in a mist of green
light that got its tint from the sun-drenched roof of leaves
overhead, and by our feet the clearest and coldest of runlets
went frisking and gossiping over its reefs and making a sort of
whispering music, comfortable to hear; and at times we left the
world behind and entered into the solemn great deeps and rich
gloom of the forest, where furtive wild things whisked and scurried
by and were gone before you could even get your eye on the place
where the noise was; and where only the earliest birds were turning
out and getting to business with a song here and a quarrel yonder
and a mysterious far-off hammering and drumming for worms on
a tree trunk away somewhere in the impenetrable remotenesses of
the woods. And by and by out we would swing again into the glare.
About the third or fourth or fifth time that we swung out into
the glare--it was along there somewhere, a couple of hours or so
after sun-up--it wasn't as pleasant as it had been. It was
beginning to get hot. This was quite noticeable. We had a very
long pull, after that, without any shade. Now it is curious how
progressively little frets grow and multiply after they once get
a start. Things which I didn't mind at all, at first, I began
to mind now--and more and more, too, all the time. The first
ten or fifteen times I wanted my handkerchief I didn't seem to care;
I got along, and said never mind, it isn't any matter, and dropped
it out of my mind. But now it was different; I wanted it all
the time; it was nag, nag, nag, right along, and no rest; I couldn't
get it out of my mind; and so at last I lost my temper and said
hang a man that would make a suit of armor without any pockets
in it. You see I had my handkerchief in my helmet; and some other
things; but it was that kind of a helmet that you can't take off
by yourself. That hadn't occurred to me when I put it there;
and in fact I didn't know it. I supposed it would be particularly
convenient there. And so now, the thought of its being there,
so handy and close by, and yet not get-at-able, made it all the
worse and the harder to bear. Yes, the thing that you can't get
is the thing that you want, mainly; every one has noticed that.
Well, it took my mind off from everything else; took it clear off,
and centered it in my helmet; and mile after mile, there it stayed,
imagining the handkerchief, picturing the handkerchief; and it
was bitter and aggravating to have the salt sweat keep trickling
down into my eyes, and I couldn't get at it. It seems like a little
thing, on paper, but it was not a little thing at all; it was
the most real kind of misery. I would not say it if it was not so.
I made up my mind that I would carry along a reticule next time,
let it look how it might, and people say what they would. Of course
these iron dudes of the Round Table would think it was scandalous,
and maybe raise Sheol about it, but as for me, give me comfort
first, and style afterwards. So we jogged along, and now and then
we struck a stretch of dust, and it would tumble up in clouds and
get into my nose and make me sneeze and cry; and of course I said
things I oughtn't to have said, I don't deny that. I am not
better than others.
We couldn't seem to meet anybody in this lonesome Britain, not
even an ogre; and, in the mood I was in then, it was well for
the ogre; that is, an ogre with a handkerchief. Most knights
would have thought of nothing but getting his armor; but so I got
his bandanna, he could keep his hardware, for all of me.
Meantime, it was getting hotter and hotter in there. You see,
the sun was beating down and warming up the iron more and more
all the time. Well, when you are hot, that way, every little thing
irritates you. When I trotted, I rattled like a crate of dishes,
and that annoyed me; and moreover I couldn't seem to stand that
shield slatting and banging, now about my breast, now around my
back; and if I dropped into a walk my joints creaked and screeched
in that wearisome way that a wheelbarrow does, and as we didn't
create any breeze at that gait, I was like to get fried in that
stove; and besides, the quieter you went the heavier the iron
settled down on you and the more and more tons you seemed to weigh
every minute. And you had to be always changing hands, and passing
your spear over to the other foot, it got so irksome for one hand
to hold it long at a time.
Well, you know, when you perspire that way, in rivers, there comes
a time when you--when you--well, when you itch. You are inside,
your hands are outside; so there you are; nothing but iron between.
It is not a light thing, let it sound as it may. First it is one
place; then another; then some more; and it goes on spreading and
spreading, and at last the territory is all occupied, and nobody
can imagine what you feel like, nor how unpleasant it is. And
when it had got to the worst, and it seemed to me that I could
not stand anything more, a fly got in through the bars and settled
on my nose, and the bars were stuck and wouldn't work, and I
couldn't get the visor up; and I could only shake my head, which
was baking hot by this time, and the fly--well, you know how a fly
acts when he has got a certainty--he only minded the shaking enough
to change from nose to lip, and lip to ear, and buzz and buzz
all around in there, and keep on lighting and biting, in a way
that a person, already so distressed as I was, simply could not
stand. So I gave in, and got Alisande to unship the helmet and
relieve me of it. Then she emptied the conveniences out of it
and fetched it full of water, and I drank and then stood up, and
she poured the rest down inside the armor. One cannot think how
refreshing it was. She continued to fetch and pour until I was
well soaked and thoroughly comfortable.
It was good to have a rest--and peace. But nothing is quite
perfect in this life, at any time. I had made a pipe a while back,
and also some pretty fair tobacco; not the real thing, but what
some of the Indians use: the inside bark of the willow, dried.
These comforts had been in the helmet, and now I had them again,
but no matches.
Gradually, as the time wore along, one annoying fact was borne in
upon my understanding--that we were weather-bound. An armed novice
cannot mount his horse without help and plenty of it. Sandy was
not enough; not enough for me, anyway. We had to wait until
somebody should come along. Waiting, in silence, would have been
agreeable enough, for I was full of matter for reflection, and
wanted to give it a chance to work. I wanted to try and think out
how it was that rational or even half-rational men could ever
have learned to wear armor, considering its inconveniences; and
how they had managed to keep up such a fashion for generations
when it was plain that what I had suffered to-day they had had
to suffer all the days of their lives. I wanted to think that out;
and moreover I wanted to think out some way to reform this evil
and persuade the people to let the foolish fashion die out; but
thinking was out of the question in the circumstances. You couldn't
think, where Sandy was.
She was a quite biddable creature and good-hearted, but she had
a flow of talk that was as steady as a mill, and made your head
sore like the drays and wagons in a city. If she had had a cork
she would have been a comfort. But you can't cork that kind;
they would die. Her clack was going all day, and you would think
something would surely happen to her works, by and by; but no,
they never got out of order; and she never had to slack up for
words. She could grind, and pump, and churn, and buzz by the week,
and never stop to oil up or blow out. And yet the result was just
nothing but wind. She never had any ideas, any more than a fog
has. She was a perfect blatherskite; I mean for jaw, jaw, jaw,
talk, talk, talk, jabber, jabber, jabber; but just as good as she
could be. I hadn't minded her mill that morning, on account of
having that hornets' nest of other troubles; but more than once
in the afternoon I had to say:
"Take a rest, child; the way you are using up all the domestic air,
the kingdom will have to go to importing it by to-morrow, and it's
a low enough treasury without that."
Yes, it is strange how little a while at a time a person can be
contented. Only a little while back, when I was riding and
suffering, what a heaven this peace, this rest, this sweet serenity
in this secluded shady nook by this purling stream would have
seemed, where I could keep perfectly comfortable all the time
by pouring a dipper of water into my armor now and then; yet
already I was getting dissatisfied; partly because I could not
light my pipe--for, although I had long ago started a match factory,
I had forgotten to bring matches with me--and partly because we
had nothing to eat. Here was another illustration of the childlike
improvidence of this age and people. A man in armor always trusted
to chance for his food on a journey, and would have been scandalized
at the idea of hanging a basket of sandwiches on his spear. There
was probably not a knight of all the Round Table combination who
would not rather have died than been caught carrying such a thing
as that on his flagstaff. And yet there could not be anything more
sensible. It had been my intention to smuggle a couple of sandwiches
into my helmet, but I was interrupted in the act, and had to make
an excuse and lay them aside, and a dog got them.
Night approached, and with it a storm. The darkness came on fast.
We must camp, of course. I found a good shelter for the demoiselle
under a rock, and went off and found another for myself. But
I was obliged to remain in my armor, because I could not get it off
by myself and yet could not allow Alisande to help, because it
would have seemed so like undressing before folk. It would not
have amounted to that in reality, because I had clothes on
underneath; but the prejudices of one's breeding are not gotten
rid of just at a jump, and I knew that when it came to stripping
off that bob-tailed iron petticoat I should be embarrassed.
With the storm came a change of weather; and the stronger the wind
blew, and the wilder the rain lashed around, the colder and colder
it got. Pretty soon, various kinds of bugs and ants and worms
and things began to flock in out of the wet and crawl down inside
my armor to get warm; and while some of them behaved well enough,
and snuggled up amongst my clothes and got quiet, the majority
were of a restless, uncomfortable sort, and never stayed still,
but went on prowling and hunting for they did not know what;
especially the ants, which went tickling along in wearisome
procession from one end of me to the other by the hour, and are
a kind of creatures which I never wish to sleep with again.
It would be my advice to persons situated in this way, to not roll
or thrash around, because this excites the interest of all the
different sorts of animals and makes every last one of them want
to turn out and see what is going on, and this makes things worse
than they were before, and of course makes you objurgate harder,
too, if you can. Still, if one did not roll and thrash around
he would die; so perhaps it is as well to do one way as the other;
there is no real choice. Even after I was frozen solid I could
still distinguish that tickling, just as a corpse does when he is
taking electric treatment. I said I would never wear armor
after this trip.
All those trying hours whilst I was frozen and yet was in a living
fire, as you may say, on account of that swarm of crawlers, that
same unanswerable question kept circling and circling through my
tired head: How do people stand this miserable armor? How have
they managed to stand it all these generations? How can they sleep
at night for dreading the tortures of next day?
When the morning came at last, I was in a bad enough plight: seedy,
drowsy, fagged, from want of sleep; weary from thrashing around,
famished from long fasting; pining for a bath, and to get rid of
the animals; and crippled with rheumatism. And how had it fared
with the nobly born, the titled aristocrat, the Demoiselle Alisande
la Carteloise? Why, she was as fresh as a squirrel; she had slept
like the dead; and as for a bath, probably neither she nor any
other noble in the land had ever had one, and so she was not
missing it. Measured by modern standards, they were merely modified
savages, those people. This noble lady showed no impatience to get
to breakfast--and that smacks of the savage, too. On their journeys
those Britons were used to long fasts, and knew how to bear them;
and also how to freight up against probable fasts before starting,
after the style of the Indian and the anaconda. As like as not,
Sandy was loaded for a three-day stretch.
We were off before sunrise, Sandy riding and I limping along
behind. In half an hour we came upon a group of ragged poor
creatures who had assembled to mend the thing which was regarded
as a road. They were as humble as animals to me; and when I
proposed to breakfast with them, they were so flattered, so
overwhelmed by this extraordinary condescension of mine that
at first they were not able to believe that I was in earnest.
My lady put up her scornful lip and withdrew to one side; she said
in their hearing that she would as soon think of eating with the
other cattle--a remark which embarrassed these poor devils merely
because it referred to them, and not because it insulted or offended
them, for it didn't. And yet they were not slaves, not chattels.
By a sarcasm of law and phrase they were freemen. Seven-tenths
of the free population of the country were of just their class and
degree: small "independent" farmers, artisans, etc.; which is
to say, they were the nation, the actual Nation; they were about
all of it that was useful, or worth saving, or really respect-worthy,
and to subtract them would have been to subtract the Nation and
leave behind some dregs, some refuse, in the shape of a king,
nobility and gentry, idle, unproductive, acquainted mainly with
the arts of wasting and destroying, and of no sort of use or value
in any rationally constructed world. And yet, by ingenious
contrivance, this gilded minority, instead of being in the tail
of the procession where it belonged, was marching head up and
banners flying, at the other end of it; had elected itself to be
the Nation, and these innumerable clams had permitted it so long
that they had come at last to accept it as a truth; and not only
that, but to believe it right and as it should be. The priests
had told their fathers and themselves that this ironical state
of things was ordained of God; and so, not reflecting upon how
unlike God it would be to amuse himself with sarcasms, and especially
such poor transparent ones as this, they had dropped the matter
there and become respectfully quiet.
The talk of these meek people had a strange enough sound in
a formerly American ear. They were freemen, but they could not
leave the estates of their lord or their bishop without his
permission; they could not prepare their own bread, but must have
their corn ground and their bread baked at his mill and his bakery,
and pay roundly for the same; they could not sell a piece of their
own property without paying him a handsome percentage of the
proceeds, nor buy a piece of somebody else's without remembering
him in cash for the privilege; they had to harvest his grain for him
gratis, and be ready to come at a moment's notice, leaving their
own crop to destruction by the threatened storm; they had to let
him plant fruit trees in their fields, and then keep their indignation
to themselves when his heedless fruit-gatherers trampled the grain
around the trees; they had to smother their anger when his hunting
parties galloped through their fields laying waste the result of
their patient toil; they were not allowed to keep doves themselves,
and when the swarms from my lord's dovecote settled on their crops
they must not lose their temper and kill a bird, for awful would
the penalty be; when the harvest was at last gathered, then came
the procession of robbers to levy their blackmail upon it: first
the Church carted off its fat tenth, then the king's commissioner
took his twentieth, then my lord's people made a mighty inroad
upon the remainder; after which, the skinned freeman had liberty
to bestow the remnant in his barn, in case it was worth the trouble;
there were taxes, and taxes, and taxes, and more taxes, and taxes
again, and yet other taxes--upon this free and independent pauper,
but none upon his lord the baron or the bishop, none upon the
wasteful nobility or the all-devouring Church; if the baron would
sleep unvexed, the freeman must sit up all night after his day's
work and whip the ponds to keep the frogs quiet; if the freeman's
daughter--but no, that last infamy of monarchical government is
unprintable; and finally, if the freeman, grown desperate with his
tortures, found his life unendurable under such conditions, and
sacrificed it and fled to death for mercy and refuge, the gentle
Church condemned him to eternal fire, the gentle law buried him
at midnight at the cross-roads with a stake through his back,
and his master the baron or the bishop confiscated all his property
and turned his widow and his orphans out of doors.
And here were these freemen assembled in the early morning to work
on their lord the bishop's road three days each--gratis; every
head of a family, and every son of a family, three days each,
gratis, and a day or so added for their servants. Why, it was
like reading about France and the French, before the ever memorable
and blessed Revolution, which swept a thousand years of such
villany away in one swift tidal-wave of blood--one: a settlement
of that hoary debt in the proportion of half a drop of blood for
each hogshead of it that had been pressed by slow tortures out of
that people in the weary stretch of ten centuries of wrong and
shame and misery the like of which was not to be mated but in hell.
There were two "Reigns of Terror," if we would but remember it
and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other
in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had
lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand
persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are
all for the "horrors" of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror,
so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe,
compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty,
and heart-break? What is swift death by lightning compared with
death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the
coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so
diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could
hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror
--that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has
been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.
These poor ostensible freemen who were sharing their breakfast
and their talk with me, were as full of humble reverence for their
king and Church and nobility as their worst enemy could desire.
There was something pitifully ludicrous about it. I asked them
if they supposed a nation of people ever existed, who, with a free
vote in every man's hand, would elect that a single family and its
descendants should reign over it forever, whether gifted or boobies,
to the exclusion of all other families--including the voter's; and
would also elect that a certain hundred families should be raised
to dizzy summits of rank, and clothed on with offensive transmissible
glories and privileges to the exclusion of the rest of the nation's
families--_including his own_.
They all looked unhit, and said they didn't know; that they had
never thought about it before, and it hadn't ever occurred to them
that a nation could be so situated that every man _could_ have
a say in the government. I said I had seen one--and that it would
last until it had an Established Church. Again they were all
unhit--at first. But presently one man looked up and asked me
to state that proposition again; and state it slowly, so it could
soak into his understanding. I did it; and after a little he had
the idea, and he brought his fist down and said _he_ didn't believe
a nation where every man had a vote would voluntarily get down
in the mud and dirt in any such way; and that to steal from a nation
its will and preference must be a crime and the first of all crimes.
I said to myself:
"This one's a man. If I were backed by enough of his sort, I would
make a strike for the welfare of this country, and try to prove
myself its loyalest citizen by making a wholesome change in its
system of government."
You see my kind of loyalty was loyalty to one's country, not to
its institutions or its office-holders. The country is the real
thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing
to watch over, and care for, and be loyal to; institutions are
extraneous, they are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out,
become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body
from winter, disease, and death. To be loyal to rags, to shout
for rags, to worship rags, to die for rags--that is a loyalty
of unreason, it is pure animal; it belongs to monarchy, was invented
by monarchy; let monarchy keep it. I was from Connecticut, whose
Constitution declares "that all political power is inherent in
the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority
and instituted for their benefit; and that they have _at all times_
an undeniable and indefeasible right to _alter their form of
government_ in such a manner as they may think expedient."
Under that gospel, the citizen who thinks he sees that the
commonwealth's political clothes are worn out, and yet holds his
peace and does not agitate for a new suit, is disloyal; he is
a traitor. That he may be the only one who thinks he sees this
decay, does not excuse him; it is his duty to agitate anyway, and
it is the duty of the others to vote him down if they do not see
the matter as he does.
And now here I was, in a country where a right to say how the
country should be governed was restricted to six persons in each
thousand of its population. For the nine hundred and ninety-four
to express dissatisfaction with the regnant system and propose
to change it, would have made the whole six shudder as one man,
it would have been so disloyal, so dishonorable, such putrid black
treason. So to speak, I was become a stockholder in a corporation
where nine hundred and ninety-four of the members furnished all
the money and did all the work, and the other six elected themselves
a permanent board of direction and took all the dividends. It seemed
to me that what the nine hundred and ninety-four dupes needed was
a new deal. The thing that would have best suited the circus side
of my nature would have been to resign the Boss-ship and get up
an insurrection and turn it into a revolution; but I knew that the
Jack Cade or the Wat Tyler who tries such a thing without first
educating his materials up to revolution grade is almost absolutely
certain to get left. I had never been accustomed to getting left,
even if I do say it myself. Wherefore, the "deal" which had been
for some time working into shape in my mind was of a quite different
pattern from the Cade-Tyler sort.
So I did not talk blood and insurrection to that man there who sat
munching black bread with that abused and mistaught herd of human
sheep, but took him aside and talked matter of another sort to him.
After I had finished, I got him to lend me a little ink from his
veins; and with this and a sliver I wrote on a piece of bark--
Put him in the Man-factory--
and gave it to him, and said:
"Take it to the palace at Camelot and give it into the hands of
Amyas le Poulet, whom I call Clarence, and he will understand."
"He is a priest, then," said the man, and some of the enthusiasm
went out of his face.
"How--a priest? Didn't I tell you that no chattel of the Church,
no bond-slave of pope or bishop can enter my Man-Factory? Didn't
I tell you that _you_ couldn't enter unless your religion, whatever
it might be, was your own free property?"
"Marry, it is so, and for that I was glad; wherefore it liked me not,
and bred in me a cold doubt, to hear of this priest being there."
"But he isn't a priest, I tell you."
The man looked far from satisfied. He said:
"He is not a priest, and yet can read?"
"He is not a priest and yet can read--yes, and write, too, for that
matter. I taught him myself." The man's face cleared. "And it is
the first thing that you yourself will be taught in that Factory--"
"I? I would give blood out of my heart to know that art. Why,
I will be your slave, your--"
"No you won't, you won't be anybody's slave. Take your family
and go along. Your lord the bishop will confiscate your small
property, but no matter. Clarence will fix you all right."
"DEFEND THEE, LORD"
I paid three pennies for my breakfast, and a most extravagant
price it was, too, seeing that one could have breakfasted a dozen
persons for that money; but I was feeling good by this time, and
I had always been a kind of spendthrift anyway; and then these
people had wanted to give me the food for nothing, scant as
their provision was, and so it was a grateful pleasure to emphasize
my appreciation and sincere thankfulness with a good big financial
lift where the money would do so much more good than it would
in my helmet, where, these pennies being made of iron and not
stinted in weight, my half-dollar's worth was a good deal of a
burden to me. I spent money rather too freely in those days,
it is true; but one reason for it was that I hadn't got the
proportions of things entirely adjusted, even yet, after so long
a sojourn in Britain--hadn't got along to where I was able to
absolutely realize that a penny in Arthur's land and a couple of
dollars in Connecticut were about one and the same thing: just
twins, as you may say, in purchasing power. If my start from
Camelot could have been delayed a very few days I could have paid
these people in beautiful new coins from our own mint, and that
would have pleased me; and them, too, not less. I had adopted
the American values exclusively. In a week or two now, cents,
nickels, dimes, quarters, and half-dollars, and also a trifle of
gold, would be trickling in thin but steady streams all through
the commercial veins of the kingdom, and I looked to see this
new blood freshen up its life.
The farmers were bound to throw in something, to sort of offset
my liberality, whether I would or no; so I let them give me a flint
and steel; and as soon as they had comfortably bestowed Sandy
and me on our horse, I lit my pipe. When the first blast of smoke
shot out through the bars of my helmet, all those people broke
for the woods, and Sandy went over backwards and struck the ground
with a dull thud. They thought I was one of those fire-belching
dragons they had heard so much about from knights and other
professional liars. I had infinite trouble to persuade those people
to venture back within explaining distance. Then I told them that
this was only a bit of enchantment which would work harm to none
but my enemies. And I promised, with my hand on my heart, that
if all who felt no enmity toward me would come forward and pass
before me they should see that only those who remained behind would
be struck dead. The procession moved with a good deal of promptness.
There were no casualties to report, for nobody had curiosity enough
to remain behind to see what would happen.
I lost some time, now, for these big children, their fears gone,
became so ravished with wonder over my awe-compelling fireworks
that I had to stay there and smoke a couple of pipes out before
they would let me go. Still the delay was not wholly unproductive,
for it took all that time to get Sandy thoroughly wonted to the new
thing, she being so close to it, you know. It plugged up her
conversation mill, too, for a considerable while, and that was
a gain. But above all other benefits accruing, I had learned
something. I was ready for any giant or any ogre that might come
We tarried with a holy hermit, that night, and my opportunity
came about the middle of the next afternoon. We were crossing
a vast meadow by way of short-cut, and I was musing absently,
hearing nothing, seeing nothing, when Sandy suddenly interrupted
a remark which she had begun that morning, with the cry:
"Defend thee, lord!--peril of life is toward!"
And she slipped down from the horse and ran a little way and stood.
I looked up and saw, far off in the shade of a tree, half a dozen
armed knights and their squires; and straightway there was bustle
among them and tightening of saddle-girths for the mount. My pipe
was ready and would have been lit, if I had not been lost in
thinking about how to banish oppression from this land and restore
to all its people their stolen rights and manhood without disobliging
anybody. I lit up at once, and by the time I had got a good head
of reserved steam on, here they came. All together, too; none of
those chivalrous magnanimities which one reads so much about
--one courtly rascal at a time, and the rest standing by to see fair
play. No, they came in a body, they came with a whirr and a rush,
they came like a volley from a battery; came with heads low down,
plumes streaming out behind, lances advanced at a level. It was
a handsome sight, a beautiful sight--for a man up a tree. I laid
my lance in rest and waited, with my heart beating, till the iron
wave was just ready to break over me, then spouted a column of
white smoke through the bars of my helmet. You should have seen
the wave go to pieces and scatter! This was a finer sight than
the other one.
But these people stopped, two or three hundred yards away, and
this troubled me. My satisfaction collapsed, and fear came;
I judged I was a lost man. But Sandy was radiant; and was going
to be eloquent--but I stopped her, and told her my magic had
miscarried, somehow or other, and she must mount, with all despatch,
and we must ride for life. No, she wouldn't. She said that my
enchantment had disabled those knights; they were not riding on,
because they couldn't; wait, they would drop out of their saddles
presently, and we would get their horses and harness. I could not
deceive such trusting simplicity, so I said it was a mistake; that
when my fireworks killed at all, they killed instantly; no, the men
would not die, there was something wrong about my apparatus,
I couldn't tell what; but we must hurry and get away, for those
people would attack us again, in a minute. Sandy laughed, and said:
"Lack-a-day, sir, they be not of that breed! Sir Launcelot will
give battle to dragons, and will abide by them, and will assail
them again, and yet again, and still again, until he do conquer
and destroy them; and so likewise will Sir Pellinore and Sir Aglovale
and Sir Carados, and mayhap others, but there be none else that
will venture it, let the idle say what the idle will. And, la,
as to yonder base rufflers, think ye they have not their fill,
but yet desire more?"
"Well, then, what are they waiting for? Why don't they leave?
Nobody's hindering. Good land, I'm willing to let bygones be
bygones, I'm sure."
"Leave, is it? Oh, give thyself easement as to that. They dream
not of it, no, not they. They wait to yield them."
"Come--really, is that 'sooth'--as you people say? If they want to,
why don't they?"
"It would like them much; but an ye wot how dragons are esteemed,
ye would not hold them blamable. They fear to come."
"Well, then, suppose I go to them instead, and--"
"Ah, wit ye well they would not abide your coming. I will go."
And she did. She was a handy person to have along on a raid.
I would have considered this a doubtful errand, myself. I presently
saw the knights riding away, and Sandy coming back. That was
a relief. I judged she had somehow failed to get the first innings
--I mean in the conversation; otherwise the interview wouldn't have
been so short. But it turned out that she had managed the business
well; in fact, admirably. She said that when she told those people
I was The Boss, it hit them where they lived: "smote them sore
with fear and dread" was her word; and then they were ready to
put up with anything she might require. So she swore them to appear
at Arthur's court within two days and yield them, with horse and
harness, and be my knights henceforth, and subject to my command.
How much better she managed that thing than I should have done
it myself! She was a daisy.
"And so I'm proprietor of some knights," said I, as we rode off.
"Who would ever have supposed that I should live to list up assets
of that sort. I shan't know what to do with them; unless I raffle
them off. How many of them are there, Sandy?"
"Seven, please you, sir, and their squires."
"It is a good haul. Who are they? Where do they hang out?"
"Where do they hang out?"
"Yes, where do they live?"
"Ah, I understood thee not. That will I tell eftsoons." Then she
said musingly, and softly, turning the words daintily over her
tongue: "Hang they out--hang they out--where hang--where do they
hang out; eh, right so; where do they hang out. Of a truth the
phrase hath a fair and winsome grace, and is prettily worded
withal. I will repeat it anon and anon in mine idlesse, whereby
I may peradventure learn it. Where do they hang out. Even so!
already it falleth trippingly from my tongue, and forasmuch as--"
"Don't forget the cowboys, Sandy."
"Yes; the knights, you know: You were going to tell me about them.
A while back, you remember. Figuratively speaking, game's called."
"Yes, yes, yes! Go to the bat. I mean, get to work on your
statistics, and don't burn so much kindling getting your fire
started. Tell me about the knights."
"I will well, and lightly will begin. So they two departed and
rode into a great forest. And--"
You see, I recognized my mistake at once. I had set her works
a-going; it was my own fault; she would be thirty days getting down
to those facts. And she generally began without a preface and
finished without a result. If you interrupted her she would either
go right along without noticing, or answer with a couple of words,
and go back and say the sentence over again. So, interruptions
only did harm; and yet I had to interrupt, and interrupt pretty
frequently, too, in order to save my life; a person would die if
he let her monotony drip on him right along all day.
"Great Scott!" I said in my distress. She went right back and
began over again:
"So they two departed and rode into a great forest. And--"
"Sir Gawaine and Sir Uwaine. And so they came to an abbey of monks,
and there were well lodged. So on the morn they heard their masses
in the abbey, and so they rode forth till they came to a great
forest; then was Sir Gawaine ware in a valley by a turret, of
twelve fair damsels, and two knights armed on great horses, and
the damsels went to and fro by a tree. And then was Sir Gawaine
ware how there hung a white shield on that tree, and ever as the
damsels came by it they spit upon it, and some threw mire upon
"Now, if I hadn't seen the like myself in this country, Sandy,
I wouldn't believe it. But I've seen it, and I can just see those
creatures now, parading before that shield and acting like that.
The women here do certainly act like all possessed. Yes, and
I mean your best, too, society's very choicest brands. The humblest
hello-girl along ten thousand miles of wire could teach gentleness,
patience, modesty, manners, to the highest duchess in Arthur's land."
"Yes, but don't you ask me to explain; it's a new kind of a girl;
they don't have them here; one often speaks sharply to them when
they are not the least in fault, and he can't get over feeling
sorry for it and ashamed of himself in thirteen hundred years,
it's such shabby mean conduct and so unprovoked; the fact is,
no gentleman ever does it--though I--well, I myself, if I've got
"Never mind her; never mind her; I tell you I couldn't ever explain
her so you would understand."
"Even so be it, sith ye are so minded. Then Sir Gawaine and
Sir Uwaine went and saluted them, and asked them why they did that
despite to the shield. Sirs, said the damsels, we shall tell you.
There is a knight in this country that owneth this white shield,
and he is a passing good man of his hands, but he hateth all
ladies and gentlewomen, and therefore we do all this despite to
the shield. I will say you, said Sir Gawaine, it beseemeth evil
a good knight to despise all ladies and gentlewomen, and peradventure
though he hate you he hath some cause, and peradventure he loveth
in some other places ladies and gentlewomen, and to be loved again,
and he such a man of prowess as ye speak of--"
"Man of prowess--yes, that is the man to please them, Sandy.
Man of brains--that is a thing they never think of. Tom Sayers
--John Heenan--John L. Sullivan--pity but you could be here. You
would have your legs under the Round Table and a 'Sir' in front
of your names within the twenty-four hours; and you could bring
about a new distribution of the married princesses and duchesses
of the Court in another twenty-four. The fact is, it is just
a sort of polished-up court of Comanches, and there isn't a squaw
in it who doesn't stand ready at the dropping of a hat to desert
to the buck with the biggest string of scalps at his belt."
"--and he be such a man of prowess as ye speak of, said Sir Gawaine.
Now, what is his name? Sir, said they, his name is Marhaus the
king's son of Ireland."
"Son of the king of Ireland, you mean; the other form doesn't mean
anything. And look out and hold on tight, now, we must jump
this gully.... There, we are all right now. This horse belongs in
the circus; he is born before his time."
"I know him well, said Sir Uwaine, he is a passing good knight as
any is on live."
"_On live_. If you've got a fault in the world, Sandy, it is that
you are a shade too archaic. But it isn't any matter."
"--for I saw him once proved at a justs where many knights were
gathered, and that time there might no man withstand him. Ah, said
Sir Gawaine, damsels, methinketh ye are to blame, for it is to
suppose he that hung that shield there will not be long therefrom,
and then may those knights match him on horseback, and that is
more your worship than thus; for I will abide no longer to see
a knight's shield dishonored. And therewith Sir Uwaine and
Sir Gawaine departed a little from them, and then were they ware
where Sir Marhaus came riding on a great horse straight toward
them. And when the twelve damsels saw Sir Marhaus they fled into
the turret as they were wild, so that some of them fell by the way.
Then the one of the knights of the tower dressed his shield, and
said on high, Sir Marhaus defend thee. And so they ran together
that the knight brake his spear on Marhaus, and Sir Marhaus smote
him so hard that he brake his neck and the horse's back--"
"Well, that is just the trouble about this state of things,
it ruins so many horses."
"That saw the other knight of the turret, and dressed him toward
Marhaus, and they went so eagerly together, that the knight of
the turret was soon smitten down, horse and man, stark dead--"
"_Another_ horse gone; I tell you it is a custom that ought to be
broken up. I don't see how people with any feeling can applaud
and support it."
. . . .
"So these two knights came together with great random--"
I saw that I had been asleep and missed a chapter, but I didn't
say anything. I judged that the Irish knight was in trouble with
the visitors by this time, and this turned out to be the case.
"--that Sir Uwaine smote Sir Marhaus that his spear brast in pieces
on the shield, and Sir Marhaus smote him so sore that horse and
man he bare to the earth, and hurt Sir Uwaine on the left side--"
"The truth is, Alisande, these archaics are a little _too_ simple;
the vocabulary is too limited, and so, by consequence, descriptions
suffer in the matter of variety; they run too much to level Saharas
of fact, and not enough to picturesque detail; this throws about
them a certain air of the monotonous; in fact the fights are all
alike: a couple of people come together with great random
--random is a good word, and so is exegesis, for that matter, and
so is holocaust, and defalcation, and usufruct and a hundred others,
but land! a body ought to discriminate--they come together with
great random, and a spear is brast, and one party brake his shield
and the other one goes down, horse and man, over his horse-tail
and brake his neck, and then the next candidate comes randoming in,
and brast _his_ spear, and the other man brast his shield, and down
_he_ goes, horse and man, over his horse-tail, and brake _his_ neck,
and then there's another elected, and another and another and still
another, till the material is all used up; and when you come to
figure up results, you can't tell one fight from another, nor who
whipped; and as a _picture_, of living, raging, roaring battle,
sho! why, it's pale and noiseless--just ghosts scuffling in a fog.
Dear me, what would this barren vocabulary get out of the mightiest
spectacle?--the burning of Rome in Nero's time, for instance?
Why, it would merely say, 'Town burned down; no insurance; boy
brast a window, fireman brake his neck!' Why, _that_ ain't a picture!"
It was a good deal of a lecture, I thought, but it didn't disturb
Sandy, didn't turn a feather; her steam soared steadily up again,
the minute I took off the lid:
"Then Sir Marhaus turned his horse and rode toward Gawaine with
his spear. And when Sir Gawaine saw that, he dressed his shield,
and they aventred their spears, and they came together with all
the might of their horses, that either knight smote other so hard
in the midst of their shields, but Sir Gawaine's spear brake--"
"I knew it would."
--"but Sir Marhaus's spear held; and therewith Sir Gawaine and
his horse rushed down to the earth--"
"Just so--and brake his back."
--"and lightly Sir Gawaine rose upon his feet and pulled out
his sword, and dressed him toward Sir Marhaus on foot, and therewith
either came unto other eagerly, and smote together with their
swords, that their shields flew in cantels, and they bruised their
helms and their hauberks, and wounded either other. But Sir Gawaine,
fro it passed nine of the clock, waxed by the space of three hours
ever stronger and stronger and thrice his might was increased.
All this espied Sir Marhaus, and had great wonder how his might
increased, and so they wounded other passing sore; and then when
it was come noon--"
The pelting sing-song of it carried me forward to scenes and
sounds of my boyhood days:
"N-e-e-ew Haven! ten minutes for refreshments--knductr'll strike
the gong-bell two minutes before train leaves--passengers for
the Shore line please take seats in the rear k'yar, this k'yar
don't go no furder--_ahh_-pls, _aw_-rnjz, b'_nan_ners,
--"and waxed past noon and drew toward evensong. Sir Gawaine's
strength feebled and waxed passing faint, that unnethes he might
dure any longer, and Sir Marhaus was then bigger and bigger--"
"Which strained his armor, of course; and yet little would one
of these people mind a small thing like that."
--"and so, Sir Knight, said Sir Marhaus, I have well felt that
ye are a passing good knight, and a marvelous man of might as ever
I felt any, while it lasteth, and our quarrels are not great, and
therefore it were a pity to do you hurt, for I feel you are passing
feeble. Ah, said Sir Gawaine, gentle knight, ye say the word
that I should say. And therewith they took off their helms and
either kissed other, and there they swore together either to love
other as brethren--"
But I lost the thread there, and dozed off to slumber, thinking
about what a pity it was that men with such superb strength
--strength enabling them to stand up cased in cruelly burdensome
iron and drenched with perspiration, and hack and batter and bang
each other for six hours on a stretch--should not have been born
at a time when they could put it to some useful purpose. Take
a jackass, for instance: a jackass has that kind of strength, and
puts it to a useful purpose, and is valuable to this world because
he is a jackass; but a nobleman is not valuable because he is
a jackass. It is a mixture that is always ineffectual, and should
never have been attempted in the first place. And yet, once you
start a mistake, the trouble is done and you never know what is
going to come of it.
When I came to myself again and began to listen, I perceived that
I had lost another chapter, and that Alisande had wandered a long
way off with her people.
"And so they rode and came into a deep valley full of stones,
and thereby they saw a fair stream of water; above thereby was
the head of the stream, a fair fountain, and three damsels sitting
thereby. In this country, said Sir Marhaus, came never knight
since it was christened, but he found strange adventures--"
"This is not good form, Alisande. Sir Marhaus the king's son of
Ireland talks like all the rest; you ought to give him a brogue,
or at least a characteristic expletive; by this means one would
recognize him as soon as he spoke, without his ever being named.
It is a common literary device with the great authors. You should
make him say, 'In this country, be jabers, came never knight since
it was christened, but he found strange adventures, be jabers.'
You see how much better that sounds."
--"came never knight but he found strange adventures, be jabers.
Of a truth it doth indeed, fair lord, albeit 'tis passing hard
to say, though peradventure that will not tarry but better speed
with usage. And then they rode to the damsels, and either saluted
other, and the eldest had a garland of gold about her head, and
she was threescore winter of age or more--"
"The _damsel_ was?"
"Even so, dear lord--and her hair was white under the garland--"
"Celluloid teeth, nine dollars a set, as like as not--the loose-fit
kind, that go up and down like a portcullis when you eat, and
fall out when you laugh."
"The second damsel was of thirty winter of age, with a circlet of
gold about her head. The third damsel was but fifteen year of age--"
Billows of thought came rolling over my soul, and the voice faded
out of my hearing!
Fifteen! Break--my heart! oh, my lost darling! Just her age
who was so gentle, and lovely, and all the world to me, and whom
I shall never see again! How the thought of her carries me back
over wide seas of memory to a vague dim time, a happy time, so many,
many centuries hence, when I used to wake in the soft summer
mornings, out of sweet dreams of her, and say "Hello, Central!"
just to hear her dear voice come melting back to me with a
"Hello, Hank!" that was music of the spheres to my enchanted ear.
She got three dollars a week, but she was worth it.
I could not follow Alisande's further explanation of who our
captured knights were, now--I mean in case she should ever get
to explaining who they were. My interest was gone, my thoughts
were far away, and sad. By fitful glimpses of the drifting tale,
caught here and there and now and then, I merely noted in a vague
way that each of these three knights took one of these three damsels
up behind him on his horse, and one rode north, another east,
the other south, to seek adventures, and meet again and lie, after
year and day. Year and day--and without baggage. It was of
a piece with the general simplicity of the country.
The sun was now setting. It was about three in the afternoon when
Alisande had begun to tell me who the cowboys were; so she had made
pretty good progress with it--for her. She would arrive some time
or other, no doubt, but she was not a person who could be hurried.
We were approaching a castle which stood on high ground; a huge,
strong, venerable structure, whose gray towers and battlements were
charmingly draped with ivy, and whose whole majestic mass was
drenched with splendors flung from the sinking sun. It was the
largest castle we had seen, and so I thought it might be the one
we were after, but Sandy said no. She did not know who owned it;
she said she had passed it without calling, when she went down
MORGAN LE FAY
If knights errant were to be believed, not all castles were desirable
places to seek hospitality in. As a matter of fact, knights errant
were _not_ persons to be believed--that is, measured by modern
standards of veracity; yet, measured by the standards of their own
time, and scaled accordingly, you got the truth. It was very
simple: you discounted a statement ninety-seven per cent; the rest
was fact. Now after making this allowance, the truth remained
that if I could find out something about a castle before ringing
the door-bell--I mean hailing the warders--it was the sensible
thing to do. So I was pleased when I saw in the distance a horseman
making the bottom turn of the road that wound down from this castle.
As we approached each other, I saw that he wore a plumed helmet,
and seemed to be otherwise clothed in steel, but bore a curious
addition also--a stiff square garment like a herald's tabard.
However, I had to smile at my own forgetfulness when I got nearer
and read this sign on his tabard:
"Persimmon's Soap -- All the Prime-Donna Use It."
That was a little idea of my own, and had several wholesome purposes
in view toward the civilizing and uplifting of this nation. In the
first place, it was a furtive, underhand blow at this nonsense
of knight errantry, though nobody suspected that but me. I had
started a number of these people out--the bravest knights I could
get--each sandwiched between bulletin-boards bearing one device
or another, and I judged that by and by when they got to be numerous
enough they would begin to look ridiculous; and then, even the
steel-clad ass that _hadn't_ any board would himself begin to look
ridiculous because he was out of the fashion.
Secondly, these missionaries would gradually, and without creating
suspicion or exciting alarm, introduce a rudimentary cleanliness
among the nobility, and from them it would work down to the people,
if the priests could be kept quiet. This would undermine the Church.
I mean would be a step toward that. Next, education--next, freedom
--and then she would begin to crumble. It being my conviction that
any Established Church is an established crime, an established
slave-pen, I had no scruples, but was willing to assail it in
any way or with any weapon that promised to hurt it. Why, in my
own former day--in remote centuries not yet stirring in the womb
of time--there were old Englishmen who imagined that they had been
born in a free country: a "free" country with the Corporation Act
and the Test still in force in it--timbers propped against men's
liberties and dishonored consciences to shore up an Established
My missionaries were taught to spell out the gilt signs on their
tabards--the showy gilding was a neat idea, I could have got the
king to wear a bulletin-board for the sake of that barbaric
splendor--they were to spell out these signs and then explain to
the lords and ladies what soap was; and if the lords and ladies
were afraid of it, get them to try it on a dog. The missionary's
next move was to get the family together and try it on himself;
he was to stop at no experiment, however desperate, that could
convince the nobility that soap was harmless; if any final doubt
remained, he must catch a hermit--the woods were full of them;
saints they called themselves, and saints they were believed to be.
They were unspeakably holy, and worked miracles, and everybody
stood in awe of them. If a hermit could survive a wash, and that
failed to convince a duke, give him up, let him alone.
Whenever my missionaries overcame a knight errant on the road
they washed him, and when he got well they swore him to go and
get a bulletin-board and disseminate soap and civilization the rest
of his days. As a consequence the workers in the field were
increasing by degrees, and the reform was steadily spreading.
My soap factory felt the strain early. At first I had only two
hands; but before I had left home I was already employing fifteen,
and running night and day; and the atmospheric result was getting
so pronounced that the king went sort of fainting and gasping
around and said he did not believe he could stand it much longer,
and Sir Launcelot got so that he did hardly anything but walk up
and down the roof and swear, although I told him it was worse up
there than anywhere else, but he said he wanted plenty of air; and
he was always complaining that a palace was no place for a soap
factory anyway, and said if a man was to start one in his house
he would be damned if he wouldn't strangle him. There were ladies
present, too, but much these people ever cared for that; they would
swear before children, if the wind was their way when the factory
This missionary knight's name was La Cote Male Taile, and he said
that this castle was the abode of Morgan le Fay, sister of
King Arthur, and wife of King Uriens, monarch of a realm about
as big as the District of Columbia--you could stand in the middle
of it and throw bricks into the next kingdom. "Kings" and "Kingdoms"
were as thick in Britain as they had been in little Palestine in
Joshua's time, when people had to sleep with their knees pulled up
because they couldn't stretch out without a passport.
La Cote was much depressed, for he had scored here the worst
failure of his campaign. He had not worked off a cake; yet he had
tried all the tricks of the trade, even to the washing of a hermit;
but the hermit died. This was, indeed, a bad failure, for this
animal would now be dubbed a martyr, and would take his place
among the saints of the Roman calendar. Thus made he his moan,
this poor Sir La Cote Male Taile, and sorrowed passing sore. And
so my heart bled for him, and I was moved to comfort and stay him.
Wherefore I said:
"Forbear to grieve, fair knight, for this is not a defeat. We have
brains, you and I; and for such as have brains there are no defeats,
but only victories. Observe how we will turn this seeming disaster
into an advertisement; an advertisement for our soap; and the
biggest one, to draw, that was ever thought of; an advertisement
that will transform that Mount Washington defeat into a Matterhorn
victory. We will put on your bulletin-board, '_Patronized by the
elect_.' How does that strike you?"
"Verily, it is wonderly bethought!"
"Well, a body is bound to admit that for just a modest little
one-line ad, it's a corker."
So the poor colporteur's griefs vanished away. He was a brave
fellow, and had done mighty feats of arms in his time. His chief
celebrity rested upon the events of an excursion like this one
of mine, which he had once made with a damsel named Maledisant,
who was as handy with her tongue as was Sandy, though in a different
way, for her tongue churned forth only railings and insult, whereas
Sandy's music was of a kindlier sort. I knew his story well, and so
I knew how to interpret the compassion that was in his face when he
bade me farewell. He supposed I was having a bitter hard time of it.
Sandy and I discussed his story, as we rode along, and she said
that La Cote's bad luck had begun with the very beginning of that
trip; for the king's fool had overthrown him on the first day,
and in such cases it was customary for the girl to desert to the
conqueror, but Maledisant didn't do it; and also persisted afterward
in sticking to him, after all his defeats. But, said I, suppose
the victor should decline to accept his spoil? She said that that
wouldn't answer--he must. He couldn't decline; it wouldn't be
regular. I made a note of that. If Sandy's music got to be too
burdensome, some time, I would let a knight defeat me, on the chance
that she would desert to him.
In due time we were challenged by the warders, from the castle
walls, and after a parley admitted. I have nothing pleasant to
tell about that visit. But it was not a disappointment, for I knew
Mrs. le Fay by reputation, and was not expecting anything pleasant.
She was held in awe by the whole realm, for she had made everybody
believe she was a great sorceress. All her ways were wicked, all
her instincts devilish. She was loaded to the eyelids with cold
malice. All her history was black with crime; and among her crimes
murder was common. I was most curious to see her; as curious as
I could have been to see Satan. To my surprise she was beautiful;
black thoughts had failed to make her expression repulsive, age
had failed to wrinkle her satin skin or mar its bloomy freshness.
She could have passed for old Uriens' granddaughter, she could
have been mistaken for sister to her own son.
As soon as we were fairly within the castle gates we were ordered
into her presence. King Uriens was there, a kind-faced old man
with a subdued look; and also the son, Sir Uwaine le Blanchemains,
in whom I was, of course, interested on account of the tradition
that he had once done battle with thirty knights, and also on
account of his trip with Sir Gawaine and Sir Marhaus, which Sandy
had been aging me with. But Morgan was the main attraction, the
conspicuous personality here; she was head chief of this household,
that was plain. She caused us to be seated, and then she began,
with all manner of pretty graces and graciousnesses, to ask me
questions. Dear me, it was like a bird or a flute, or something,
talking. I felt persuaded that this woman must have been
misrepresented, lied about. She trilled along, and trilled along,
and presently a handsome young page, clothed like the rainbow, and
as easy and undulatory of movement as a wave, came with something
on a golden salver, and, kneeling to present it to her, overdid
his graces and lost his balance, and so fell lightly against her
knee. She slipped a dirk into him in as matter-of-course a way as
another person would have harpooned a rat!
Poor child! he slumped to the floor, twisted his silken limbs in
one great straining contortion of pain, and was dead. Out of the
old king was wrung an involuntary "O-h!" of compassion. The look
he got, made him cut it suddenly short and not put any more hyphens
in it. Sir Uwaine, at a sign from his mother, went to the anteroom
and called some servants, and meanwhile madame went rippling sweetly
along with her talk.
I saw that she was a good housekeeper, for while she talked she
kept a corner of her eye on the servants to see that they made
no balks in handling the body and getting it out; when they came
with fresh clean towels, she sent back for the other kind; and
when they had finished wiping the floor and were going, she indicated
a crimson fleck the size of a tear which their duller eyes had
overlooked. It was plain to me that La Cote Male Taile had failed
to see the mistress of the house. Often, how louder and clearer
than any tongue, does dumb circumstantial evidence speak.
Morgan le Fay rippled along as musically as ever. Marvelous woman.
And what a glance she had: when it fell in reproof upon those
servants, they shrunk and quailed as timid people do when the
lightning flashes out of a cloud. I could have got the habit
myself. It was the same with that poor old Brer Uriens; he was
always on the ragged edge of apprehension; she could not even turn
toward him but he winced.
In the midst of the talk I let drop a complimentary word about
King Arthur, forgetting for the moment how this woman hated her
brother. That one little compliment was enough. She clouded up
like storm; she called for her guards, and said:
"Hale me these varlets to the dungeons."
That struck cold on my ears, for her dungeons had a reputation.
Nothing occurred to me to say--or do. But not so with Sandy.
As the guard laid a hand upon me, she piped up with the tranquilest
confidence, and said:
"God's wounds, dost thou covet destruction, thou maniac? It is
Now what a happy idea that was!--and so simple; yet it would never
have occurred to me. I was born modest; not all over, but in spots;
and this was one of the spots.
The effect upon madame was electrical. It cleared her countenance
and brought back her smiles and all her persuasive graces and
blandishments; but nevertheless she was not able to entirely cover up
with them the fact that she was in a ghastly fright. She said:
"La, but do list to thine handmaid! as if one gifted with powers
like to mine might say the thing which I have said unto one who
has vanquished Merlin, and not be jesting. By mine enchantments
I foresaw your coming, and by them I knew you when you entered
here. I did but play this little jest with hope to surprise you
into some display of your art, as not doubting you would blast
the guards with occult fires, consuming them to ashes on the spot,
a marvel much beyond mine own ability, yet one which I have long
been childishly curious to see."
The guards were less curious, and got out as soon as they got permission.
A ROYAL BANQUET
Madame, seeing me pacific and unresentful, no doubt judged that
I was deceived by her excuse; for her fright dissolved away, and
she was soon so importunate to have me give an exhibition and kill
somebody, that the thing grew to be embarrassing. However, to my
relief she was presently interrupted by the call to prayers. I will
say this much for the nobility: that, tyrannical, murderous,
rapacious, and morally rotten as they were, they were deeply and
enthusiastically religious. Nothing could divert them from the
regular and faithful performance of the pieties enjoined by the
Church. More than once I had seen a noble who had gotten his
enemy at a disadvantage, stop to pray before cutting his throat;
more than once I had seen a noble, after ambushing and despatching
his enemy, retire to the nearest wayside shrine and humbly give
thanks, without even waiting to rob the body. There was to be
nothing finer or sweeter in the life of even Benvenuto Cellini,
that rough-hewn saint, ten centuries later. All the nobles of
Britain, with their families, attended divine service morning and
night daily, in their private chapels, and even the worst of them
had family worship five or six times a day besides. The credit
of this belonged entirely to the Church. Although I was no friend
to that Catholic Church, I was obliged to admit this. And often,
in spite of me, I found myself saying, "What would this country
be without the Church?"
After prayers we had dinner in a great banqueting hall which was
lighted by hundreds of grease-jets, and everything was as fine and
lavish and rudely splendid as might become the royal degree of the
hosts. At the head of the hall, on a dais, was the table of the
king, queen, and their son, Prince Uwaine. Stretching down the hall
from this, was the general table, on the floor. At this, above
the salt, sat the visiting nobles and the grown members of their
families, of both sexes,--the resident Court, in effect--sixty-one
persons; below the salt sat minor officers of the household, with
their principal subordinates: altogether a hundred and eighteen
persons sitting, and about as many liveried servants standing
behind their chairs, or serving in one capacity or another. It was
a very fine show. In a gallery a band with cymbals, horns, harps,
and other horrors, opened the proceedings with what seemed to be
the crude first-draft or original agony of the wail known to later
centuries as "In the Sweet Bye and Bye." It was new, and ought
to have been rehearsed a little more. For some reason or other
the queen had the composer hanged, after dinner.
After this music, the priest who stood behind the royal table said
a noble long grace in ostensible Latin. Then the battalion of
waiters broke away from their posts, and darted, rushed, flew,
fetched and carried, and the mighty feeding began; no words
anywhere, but absorbing attention to business. The rows of chops
opened and shut in vast unison, and the sound of it was like to
the muffled burr of subterranean machinery.
The havoc continued an hour and a half, and unimaginable was the
destruction of substantials. Of the chief feature of the feast
--the huge wild boar that lay stretched out so portly and imposing
at the start--nothing was left but the semblance of a hoop-skirt;
and he was but the type and symbol of what had happened to all
the other dishes.
With the pastries and so on, the heavy drinking began--and the talk.
Gallon after gallon of wine and mead disappeared, and everybody
got comfortable, then happy, then sparklingly joyous--both sexes,
--and by and by pretty noisy. Men told anecdotes that were terrific
to hear, but nobody blushed; and when the nub was sprung, the
assemblage let go with a horse-laugh that shook the fortress.
Ladies answered back with historiettes that would almost have made
Queen Margaret of Navarre or even the great Elizabeth of England
hide behind a handkerchief, but nobody hid here, but only laughed
--howled, you may say. In pretty much all of these dreadful stories,
ecclesiastics were the hardy heroes, but that didn't worry the
chaplain any, he had his laugh with the rest; more than that, upon
invitation he roared out a song which was of as daring a sort as
any that was sung that night.
By midnight everybody was fagged out, and sore with laughing; and,
as a rule, drunk: some weepingly, some affectionately, some
hilariously, some quarrelsomely, some dead and under the table.
Of the ladies, the worst spectacle was a lovely young duchess, whose
wedding-eve this was; and indeed she was a spectacle, sure enough.
Just as she was she could have sat in advance for the portrait of the
young daughter of the Regent d'Orleans, at the famous dinner whence
she was carried, foul-mouthed, intoxicated, and helpless, to her bed,
in the lost and lamented days of the Ancient Regime.
Suddenly, even while the priest was lifting his hands, and all
conscious heads were bowed in reverent expectation of the coming
blessing, there appeared under the arch of the far-off door at
the bottom of the hall an old and bent and white-haired lady,
leaning upon a crutch-stick; and she lifted the stick and pointed it
toward the queen and cried out:
"The wrath and curse of God fall upon you, woman without pity,
who have slain mine innocent grandchild and made desolate this
old heart that had nor chick, nor friend nor stay nor comfort in
all this world but him!"
Everybody crossed himself in a grisly fright, for a curse was an
awful thing to those people; but the queen rose up majestic, with
the death-light in her eye, and flung back this ruthless command:
"Lay hands on her! To the stake with her!"
The guards left their posts to obey. It was a shame; it was a
cruel thing to see. What could be done? Sandy gave me a look;
I knew she had another inspiration. I said:
"Do what you choose."
She was up and facing toward the queen in a moment. She indicated
me, and said:
"Madame, _he_ saith this may not be. Recall the commandment, or he
will dissolve the castle and it shall vanish away like the instable
fabric of a dream!"
Confound it, what a crazy contract to pledge a person to! What if
But my consternation subsided there, and my panic passed off;
for the queen, all in a collapse, made no show of resistance but
gave a countermanding sign and sunk into her seat. When she reached
it she was sober. So were many of the others. The assemblage rose,
whiffed ceremony to the winds, and rushed for the door like a mob;
overturning chairs, smashing crockery, tugging, struggling,
shouldering, crowding--anything to get out before I should change
my mind and puff the castle into the measureless dim vacancies of
space. Well, well, well, they _were_ a superstitious lot. It is
all a body can do to conceive of it.
The poor queen was so scared and humbled that she was even afraid
to hang the composer without first consulting me. I was very sorry
for her--indeed, any one would have been, for she was really
suffering; so I was willing to do anything that was reasonable, and
had no desire to carry things to wanton extremities. I therefore
considered the matter thoughtfully, and ended by having the
musicians ordered into our presence to play that Sweet Bye and
Bye again, which they did. Then I saw that she was right, and
gave her permission to hang the whole band. This little relaxation
of sternness had a good effect upon the queen. A statesman gains
little by the arbitrary exercise of iron-clad authority upon all
occasions that offer, for this wounds the just pride of his
subordinates, and thus tends to undermine his strength. A little
concession, now and then, where it can do no harm, is the wiser policy.
Now that the queen was at ease in her mind once more, and measurably
happy, her wine naturally began to assert itself again, and it got
a little the start of her. I mean it set her music going--her silver
bell of a tongue. Dear me, she was a master talker. It would not
become me to suggest that it was pretty late and that I was a tired
man and very sleepy. I wished I had gone off to bed when I had
the chance. Now I must stick it out; there was no other way. So
she tinkled along and along, in the otherwise profound and ghostly
hush of the sleeping castle, until by and by there came, as if
from deep down under us, a far-away sound, as of a muffled shriek
--with an expression of agony about it that made my flesh crawl.
The queen stopped, and her eyes lighted with pleasure; she tilted
her graceful head as a bird does when it listens. The sound bored
its way up through the stillness again.
"What is it?" I said.
"It is truly a stubborn soul, and endureth long. It is many hours now."
"The rack. Come--ye shall see a blithe sight. An he yield not
his secret now, ye shall see him torn asunder."
What a silky smooth hellion she was; and so composed and serene,
when the cords all down my legs were hurting in sympathy with that
man's pain. Conducted by mailed guards bearing flaring torches,
we tramped along echoing corridors, and down stone stairways dank
and dripping, and smelling of mould and ages of imprisoned night
--a chill, uncanny journey and a long one, and not made the shorter
or the cheerier by the sorceress's talk, which was about this
sufferer and his crime. He had been accused by an anonymous
informer, of having killed a stag in the royal preserves. I said:
"Anonymous testimony isn't just the right thing, your Highness.
It were fairer to confront the accused with the accuser."
"I had not thought of that, it being but of small consequence.
But an I would, I could not, for that the accuser came masked by
night, and told the forester, and straightway got him hence again,
and so the forester knoweth him not."
"Then is this Unknown the only person who saw the stag killed?"
"Marry, _no_ man _saw_ the killing, but this Unknown saw this hardy
wretch near to the spot where the stag lay, and came with right
loyal zeal and betrayed him to the forester."
"So the Unknown was near the dead stag, too? Isn't it just possible
that he did the killing himself? His loyal zeal--in a mask--looks
just a shade suspicious. But what is your highness's idea for
racking the prisoner? Where is the profit?"
"He will not confess, else; and then were his soul lost. For his
crime his life is forfeited by the law--and of a surety will I see
that he payeth it!--but it were peril to my own soul to let him
die unconfessed and unabsolved. Nay, I were a fool to fling me
into hell for _his_ accommodation."
"But, your Highness, suppose he has nothing to confess?"
"As to that, we shall see, anon. An I rack him to death and he
confess not, it will peradventure show that he had indeed naught
to confess--ye will grant that that is sooth? Then shall I not be
damned for an unconfessed man that had naught to confess
--wherefore, I shall be safe."
It was the stubborn unreasoning of the time. It was useless to
argue with her. Arguments have no chance against petrified
training; they wear it as little as the waves wear a cliff. And
her training was everybody's. The brightest intellect in the land
would not have been able to see that her position was defective.
As we entered the rack-cell I caught a picture that will not go
from me; I wish it would. A native young giant of thirty or
thereabouts lay stretched upon the frame on his back, with his
wrists and ankles tied to ropes which led over windlasses at either
end. There was no color in him; his features were contorted and
set, and sweat-drops stood upon his forehead. A priest bent over
him on each side; the executioner stood by; guards were on duty;
smoking torches stood in sockets along the walls; in a corner
crouched a poor young creature, her face drawn with anguish,
a half-wild and hunted look in her eyes, and in her lap lay a little
child asleep. Just as we stepped across the threshold the
executioner gave his machine a slight turn, which wrung a cry
from both the prisoner and the woman; but I shouted, and the
executioner released the strain without waiting to see who spoke.
I could not let this horror go on; it would have killed me to
see it. I asked the queen to let me clear the place and speak
to the prisoner privately; and when she was going to object I spoke
in a low voice and said I did not want to make a scene before
her servants, but I must have my way; for I was King Arthur's
representative, and was speaking in his name. She saw she had
to yield. I asked her to indorse me to these people, and then
leave me. It was not pleasant for her, but she took the pill;
and even went further than I was meaning to require. I only wanted
the backing of her own authority; but she said:
"Ye will do in all things as this lord shall command. It is The Boss."