The Complete Works of Mark Twain


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

A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court

Chapter XVIII


IN THE QUEEN'S DUNGEONS

Well, I arranged all that; and I had the man sent to his home.
I had a great desire to rack the executioner; not because he was
a good, painstaking and paingiving official,--for surely it was
not to his discredit that he performed his functions well--but to
pay him back for wantonly cuffing and otherwise distressing that
young woman. The priests told me about this, and were generously
hot to have him punished. Something of this disagreeable sort
was turning up every now and then. I mean, episodes that showed
that not all priests were frauds and self-seekers, but that many,
even the great majority, of these that were down on the ground
among the common people, were sincere and right-hearted, and
devoted to the alleviation of human troubles and sufferings.
Well, it was a thing which could not be helped, so I seldom fretted
about it, and never many minutes at a time; it has never been my
way to bother much about things which you can't cure. But I did
not like it, for it was just the sort of thing to keep people
reconciled to an Established Church. We _must_ have a religion--
it goes without saying--but my idea is, to have it cut up into
forty free sects, so that they will police each other, as had been
the case in the United States in my time. Concentration of power
in a political machine is bad; and and an Established Church is
only a political machine; it was invented for that; it is nursed,
cradled, preserved for that; it is an enemy to human liberty, and
does no good which it could not better do in a split-up and scattered
condition. That wasn't law; it wasn't gospel: it was only
an opinion--my opinion, and I was only a man, one man: so it wasn't
worth any more than the pope's--or any less, for that matter.

Well, I couldn't rack the executioner, neither would I overlook
the just complaint of the priests. The man must be punished
somehow or other, so I degraded him from his office and made him
leader of the band--the new one that was to be started. He begged
hard, and said he couldn't play--a plausible excuse, but too thin;
there wasn't a musician in the country that could.

The queen was a good deal outraged, next morning when she found
she was going to have neither Hugo's life nor his property. But
I told her she must bear this cross; that while by law and custom
she certainly was entitled to both the man's life and his property,
there were extenuating circumstances, and so in Arthur the king's
name I had pardoned him. The deer was ravaging the man's fields,
and he had killed it in sudden passion, and not for gain; and he
had carried it into the royal forest in the hope that that might make
detection of the misdoer impossible. Confound her, I couldn't
make her see that sudden passion is an extenuating circumstance
in the killing of venison--or of a person--so I gave it up and let
her sulk it out. I _did_ think I was going to make her see it by
remarking that her own sudden passion in the case of the page
modified that crime.

"Crime!" she exclaimed. "How thou talkest! Crime, forsooth!
Man, I am going to _pay_ for him!"

Oh, it was no use to waste sense on her. Training--training is
everything; training is all there is _to_ a person. We speak of
nature; it is folly; there is no such thing as nature; what we
call by that misleading name is merely heredity and training.
We have no thoughts of our own, no opinions of our own; they are
transmitted to us, trained into us. All that is original in us,
and therefore fairly creditable or discreditable to us, can be
covered up and hidden by the point of a cambric needle, all the
rest being atoms contributed by, and inherited from, a procession
of ancestors that stretches back a billion years to the Adam-clam
or grasshopper or monkey from whom our race has been so tediously
and ostentatiously and unprofitably developed. And as for me,
all that I think about in this plodding sad pilgrimage, this
pathetic drift between the eternities, is to look out and humbly
live a pure and high and blameless life, and save that one
microscopic atom in me that is truly _me_: the rest may land in
Sheol and welcome for all I care.

No, confound her, her intellect was good, she had brains enough,
but her training made her an ass--that is, from a many-centuries-later
point of view. To kill the page was no crime--it was her right;
and upon her right she stood, serenely and unconscious of offense.
She was a result of generations of training in the unexamined and
unassailed belief that the law which permitted her to kill a subject
when she chose was a perfectly right and righteous one.

Well, we must give even Satan his due. She deserved a compliment
for one thing; and I tried to pay it, but the words stuck in my
throat. She had a right to kill the boy, but she was in no wise
obliged to pay for him. That was law for some other people, but
not for her. She knew quite well that she was doing a large and
generous thing to pay for that lad, and that I ought in common
fairness to come out with something handsome about it, but I
couldn't--my mouth refused. I couldn't help seeing, in my fancy,
that poor old grandma with the broken heart, and that fair young
creature lying butchered, his little silken pomps and vanities
laced with his golden blood. How could she _pay_ for him! _Whom_
could she pay? And so, well knowing that this woman, trained
as she had been, deserved praise, even adulation, I was yet not
able to utter it, trained as I had been. The best I could do was
to fish up a compliment from outside, so to speak--and the pity
of it was, that it was true:

"Madame, your people will adore you for this."

Quite true, but I meant to hang her for it some day if I lived.
Some of those laws were too bad, altogether too bad. A master
might kill his slave for nothing--for mere spite, malice, or
to pass the time--just as we have seen that the crowned head could
do it with _his_ slave, that is to say, anybody. A gentleman could
kill a free commoner, and pay for him--cash or garden-truck.
A noble could kill a noble without expense, as far as the law was
concerned, but reprisals in kind were to be expected. _Any_body
could kill _some_body, except the commoner and the slave; these had
no privileges. If they killed, it was murder, and the law wouldn't
stand murder. It made short work of the experimenter--and of
his family, too, if he murdered somebody who belonged up among
the ornamental ranks. If a commoner gave a noble even so much
as a Damiens-scratch which didn't kill or even hurt, he got Damiens'
dose for it just the same; they pulled him to rags and tatters
with horses, and all the world came to see the show, and crack
jokes, and have a good time; and some of the performances of the
best people present were as tough, and as properly unprintable,
as any that have been printed by the pleasant Casanova in his
chapter about the dismemberment of Louis XV's poor awkward enemy.

I had had enough of this grisly place by this time, and wanted
to leave, but I couldn't, because I had something on my mind that
my conscience kept prodding me about, and wouldn't let me forget.
If I had the remaking of man, he wouldn't have any conscience.
It is one of the most disagreeable things connected with a person;
and although it certainly does a great deal of good, it cannot
be said to pay, in the long run; it would be much better to have
less good and more comfort. Still, this is only my opinion, and
I am only one man; others, with less experience, may think
differently. They have a right to their view. I only stand
to this: I have noticed my conscience for many years, and I know
it is more trouble and bother to me than anything else I started
with. I suppose that in the beginning I prized it, because we
prize anything that is ours; and yet how foolish it was to think so.
If we look at it in another way, we see how absurd it is: if I had
an anvil in me would I prize it? Of course not. And yet when you
come to think, there is no real difference between a conscience
and an anvil--I mean for comfort. I have noticed it a thousand
times. And you could dissolve an anvil with acids, when you
couldn't stand it any longer; but there isn't any way that you can
work off a conscience--at least so it will stay worked off; not
that I know of, anyway.

There was something I wanted to do before leaving, but it was
a disagreeable matter, and I hated to go at it. Well, it bothered
me all the morning. I could have mentioned it to the old king,
but what would be the use?--he was but an extinct volcano; he had
been active in his time, but his fire was out, this good while,
he was only a stately ash-pile now; gentle enough, and kindly
enough for my purpose, without doubt, but not usable. He was
nothing, this so-called king: the queen was the only power there.
And she was a Vesuvius. As a favor, she might consent to warm
a flock of sparrows for you, but then she might take that very
opportunity to turn herself loose and bury a city. However,
I reflected that as often as any other way, when you are expecting
the worst, you get something that is not so bad, after all.

So I braced up and placed my matter before her royal Highness.
I said I had been having a general jail-delivery at Camelot and
among neighboring castles, and with her permission I would like
to examine her collection, her bric-a-brac--that is to say, her
prisoners. She resisted; but I was expecting that. But she finally
consented. I was expecting that, too, but not so soon. That about
ended my discomfort. She called her guards and torches, and
we went down into the dungeons. These were down under the castle's
foundations, and mainly were small cells hollowed out of the living
rock. Some of these cells had no light at all. In one of them was
a woman, in foul rags, who sat on the ground, and would not answer
a question or speak a word, but only looked up at us once or twice,
through a cobweb of tangled hair, as if to see what casual thing
it might be that was disturbing with sound and light the meaningless
dull dream that was become her life; after that, she sat bowed,
with her dirt-caked fingers idly interlocked in her lap, and gave
no further sign. This poor rack of bones was a woman of middle
age, apparently; but only apparently; she had been there nine
years, and was eighteen when she entered. She was a commoner,
and had been sent here on her bridal night by Sir Breuse Sance Pite,
a neighboring lord whose vassal her father was, and to which said
lord she had refused what has since been called le droit du
seigneur, and, moreover, had opposed violence to violence and spilt
half a gill of his almost sacred blood. The young husband had
interfered at that point, believing the bride's life in danger,
and had flung the noble out into the midst of the humble and
trembling wedding guests, in the parlor, and left him there
astonished at this strange treatment, and implacably embittered
against both bride and groom. The said lord being cramped for
dungeon-room had asked the queen to accommodate his two criminals,
and here in her bastile they had been ever since; hither, indeed,
they had come before their crime was an hour old, and had never
seen each other since. Here they were, kenneled like toads in the
same rock; they had passed nine pitch dark years within fifty feet
of each other, yet neither knew whether the other was alive or not.
All the first years, their only question had been--asked with
beseechings and tears that might have moved stones, in time,
perhaps, but hearts are not stones: "Is he alive?" "Is she alive?"
But they had never got an answer; and at last that question was
not asked any more--or any other.

I wanted to see the man, after hearing all this. He was thirty-four
years old, and looked sixty. He sat upon a squared block of
stone, with his head bent down, his forearms resting on his knees,
his long hair hanging like a fringe before his face, and he was
muttering to himself. He raised his chin and looked us slowly
over, in a listless dull way, blinking with the distress of the
torchlight, then dropped his head and fell to muttering again
and took no further notice of us. There were some pathetically
suggestive dumb witnesses present. On his wrists and ankles were
cicatrices, old smooth scars, and fastened to the stone on which
he sat was a chain with manacles and fetters attached; but this
apparatus lay idle on the ground, and was thick with rust. Chains
cease to be needed after the spirit has gone out of a prisoner.

I could not rouse the man; so I said we would take him to her,
and see--to the bride who was the fairest thing in the earth to him,
once--roses, pearls, and dew made flesh, for him; a wonder-work,
the master-work of nature: with eyes like no other eyes, and voice
like no other voice, and a freshness, and lithe young grace, and
beauty, that belonged properly to the creatures of dreams--as he
thought--and to no other. The sight of her would set his stagnant
blood leaping; the sight of her--

But it was a disappointment. They sat together on the ground and
looked dimly wondering into each other's faces a while, with a
sort of weak animal curiosity; then forgot each other's presence,
and dropped their eyes, and you saw that they were away again and
wandering in some far land of dreams and shadows that we know
nothing about.

I had them taken out and sent to their friends. The queen did not
like it much. Not that she felt any personal interest in the matter,
but she thought it disrespectful to Sir Breuse Sance Pite. However,
I assured her that if he found he couldn't stand it I would fix him
so that he could.

I set forty-seven prisoners loose out of those awful rat-holes,
and left only one in captivity. He was a lord, and had killed
another lord, a sort of kinsman of the queen. That other lord
had ambushed him to assassinate him, but this fellow had got the
best of him and cut his throat. However, it was not for that that
I left him jailed, but for maliciously destroying the only public
well in one of his wretched villages. The queen was bound to hang
him for killing her kinsman, but I would not allow it: it was no
crime to kill an assassin. But I said I was willing to let her
hang him for destroying the well; so she concluded to put up with
that, as it was better than nothing.

Dear me, for what trifling offenses the most of those forty-seven
men and women were shut up there! Indeed, some were there for
no distinct offense at all, but only to gratify somebody's spite;
and not always the queen's by any means, but a friend's. The newest
prisoner's crime was a mere remark which he had made. He said
he believed that men were about all alike, and one man as good
as another, barring clothes. He said he believed that if you were
to strip the nation naked and send a stranger through the crowd, he
couldn't tell the king from a quack doctor, nor a duke from a hotel
clerk. Apparently here was a man whose brains had not been reduced
to an ineffectual mush by idiotic training. I set him loose and
sent him to the Factory.

Some of the cells carved in the living rock were just behind the
face of the precipice, and in each of these an arrow-slit had been
pierced outward to the daylight, and so the captive had a thin
ray from the blessed sun for his comfort. The case of one of
these poor fellows was particularly hard. From his dusky swallow's
hole high up in that vast wall of native rock he could peer out
through the arrow-slit and see his own home off yonder in the
valley; and for twenty-two years he had watched it, with heartache
and longing, through that crack. He could see the lights shine
there at night, and in the daytime he could see figures go in and
come out--his wife and children, some of them, no doubt, though
he could not make out at that distance. In the course of years
he noted festivities there, and tried to rejoice, and wondered
if they were weddings or what they might be. And he noted funerals;
and they wrung his heart. He could make out the coffin, but he
could not determine its size, and so could not tell whether it was
wife or child. He could see the procession form, with priests
and mourners, and move solemnly away, bearing the secret with
them. He had left behind him five children and a wife; and in
nineteen years he had seen five funerals issue, and none of them
humble enough in pomp to denote a servant. So he had lost five
of his treasures; there must still be one remaining--one now
infinitely, unspeakably precious,--but _which_ one? wife, or child?
That was the question that tortured him, by night and by day,
asleep and awake. Well, to have an interest, of some sort, and
half a ray of light, when you are in a dungeon, is a great support
to the body and preserver of the intellect. This man was in pretty
good condition yet. By the time he had finished telling me his
distressful tale, I was in the same state of mind that you would
have been in yourself, if you have got average human curiosity;
that is to say, I was as burning up as he was to find out which
member of the family it was that was left. So I took him over
home myself; and an amazing kind of a surprise party it was, too--
typhoons and cyclones of frantic joy, and whole Niagaras of happy
tears; and by George! we found the aforetime young matron graying
toward the imminent verge of her half century, and the babies all
men and women, and some of them married and experimenting familywise
themselves--for not a soul of the tribe was dead! Conceive of the
ingenious devilishness of that queen: she had a special hatred for
this prisoner, and she had _invented_ all those funerals herself,
to scorch his heart with; and the sublimest stroke of genius of
the whole thing was leaving the family-invoice a funeral _short_,
so as to let him wear his poor old soul out guessing.

But for me, he never would have got out. Morgan le Fay hated him
with her whole heart, and she never would have softened toward him.
And yet his crime was committed more in thoughtlessness than
deliberate depravity. He had said she had red hair. Well, she
had; but that was no way to speak of it. When red-headed people
are above a certain social grade their hair is auburn.

Consider it: among these forty-seven captives there were five
whose names, offenses, and dates of incarceration were no longer
known! One woman and four men--all bent, and wrinkled, and
mind-extinguished patriarchs. They themselves had long ago forgotten
these details; at any rate they had mere vague theories about them,
nothing definite and nothing that they repeated twice in the same
way. The succession of priests whose office it had been to pray
daily with the captives and remind them that God had put them
there, for some wise purpose or other, and teach them that patience,
humbleness, and submission to oppression was what He loved to see
in parties of a subordinate rank, had traditions about these poor
old human ruins, but nothing more. These traditions went but
little way, for they concerned the length of the incarceration only,
and not the names of the offenses. And even by the help of
tradition the only thing that could be proven was that none of
the five had seen daylight for thirty-five years: how much longer
this privation has lasted was not guessable. The king and the queen
knew nothing about these poor creatures, except that they were
heirlooms, assets inherited, along with the throne, from the former
firm. Nothing of their history had been transmitted with their
persons, and so the inheriting owners had considered them of no
value, and had felt no interest in them. I said to the queen:

"Then why in the world didn't you set them free?"

The question was a puzzler. She didn't know _why_ she hadn't, the
thing had never come up in her mind. So here she was, forecasting
the veritable history of future prisoners of the Castle d'If,
without knowing it. It seemed plain to me now, that with her
training, those inherited prisoners were merely property--nothing
more, nothing less. Well, when we inherit property, it does not
occur to us to throw it away, even when we do not value it.

When I brought my procession of human bats up into the open world
and the glare of the afternoon sun--previously blindfolding them,
in charity for eyes so long untortured by light--they were a
spectacle to look at. Skeletons, scarecrows, goblins, pathetic
frights, every one; legitimatest possible children of Monarchy
by the Grace of God and the Established Church. I muttered absently:

"I _wish_ I could photograph them!"

You have seen that kind of people who will never let on that they
don't know the meaning of a new big word. The more ignorant they
are, the more pitifully certain they are to pretend you haven't
shot over their heads. The queen was just one of that sort, and
was always making the stupidest blunders by reason of it. She
hesitated a moment; then her face brightened up with sudden
comprehension, and she said she would do it for me.

I thought to myself: She? why what can she know about photography?
But it was a poor time to be thinking. When I looked around, she
was moving on the procession with an axe!

Well, she certainly was a curious one, was Morgan le Fay. I have
seen a good many kinds of women in my time, but she laid over them
all for variety. And how sharply characteristic of her this episode
was. She had no more idea than a horse of how to photograph
a procession; but being in doubt, it was just like her to try
to do it with an axe.

< Back
Forward >












Index Index

Other Authors Other Authors


Mark Twain. Copyright 2008, mtwain.com
Contact the webmaster
Disclaimer here. Privacy Policy here.