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.