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Mark Twain > A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court > Chapter XIII

A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court

Chapter XIII


FREEMEN

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."


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