The Complete Works of Mark Twain


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

A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court

Chapter XXV


A COMPETITIVE EXAMINATION

When the king traveled for change of air, or made a progress, or
visited a distant noble whom he wished to bankrupt with the cost
of his keep, part of the administration moved with him. It was
a fashion of the time. The Commission charged with the examination
of candidates for posts in the army came with the king to the
Valley, whereas they could have transacted their business just
as well at home. And although this expedition was strictly a
holiday excursion for the king, he kept some of his business
functions going just the same. He touched for the evil, as usual;
he held court in the gate at sunrise and tried cases, for he was
himself Chief Justice of the King's Bench.

He shone very well in this latter office. He was a wise and humane
judge, and he clearly did his honest best and fairest,--according
to his lights. That is a large reservation. His lights--I mean
his rearing--often colored his decisions. Whenever there was a
dispute between a noble or gentleman and a person of lower degree,
the king's leanings and sympathies were for the former class always,
whether he suspected it or not. It was impossible that this should
be otherwise. The blunting effects of slavery upon the slaveholder's
moral perceptions are known and conceded, the world over; and a
privileged class, an aristocracy, is but a band of slaveholders
under another name. This has a harsh sound, and yet should not
be offensive to any--even to the noble himself--unless the fact
itself be an offense: for the statement simply formulates a fact.
The repulsive feature of slavery is the _thing_, not its name. One
needs but to hear an aristocrat speak of the classes that are below
him to recognize--and in but indifferently modified measure--
the very air and tone of the actual slaveholder; and behind these
are the slaveholder's spirit, the slaveholder's blunted feeling.
They are the result of the same cause in both cases: the possessor's
old and inbred custom of regarding himself as a superior being.
The king's judgments wrought frequent injustices, but it was merely
the fault of his training, his natural and unalterable sympathies.
He was as unfitted for a judgeship as would be the average mother
for the position of milk-distributor to starving children in
famine-time; her own children would fare a shade better than the rest.

One very curious case came before the king. A young girl, an
orphan, who had a considerable estate, married a fine young fellow
who had nothing. The girl's property was within a seigniory held
by the Church. The bishop of the diocese, an arrogant scion of
the great nobility, claimed the girl's estate on the ground that
she had married privately, and thus had cheated the Church out
of one of its rights as lord of the seigniory--the one heretofore
referred to as le droit du seigneur. The penalty of refusal or
avoidance was confiscation. The girl's defense was, that the
lordship of the seigniory was vested in the bishop, and the
particular right here involved was not transferable, but must be
exercised by the lord himself or stand vacated; and that an older
law, of the Church itself, strictly barred the bishop from exercising
it. It was a very odd case, indeed.

It reminded me of something I had read in my youth about the
ingenious way in which the aldermen of London raised the money
that built the Mansion House. A person who had not taken the
Sacrament according to the Anglican rite could not stand as a
candidate for sheriff of London. Thus Dissenters were ineligible;
they could not run if asked, they could not serve if elected.
The aldermen, who without any question were Yankees in disguise,
hit upon this neat device: they passed a by-law imposing a fine
of L400 upon any one who should refuse to be a candidate for
sheriff, and a fine of L600 upon any person who, after being
elected sheriff, refused to serve. Then they went to work and
elected a lot of Dissenters, one after another, and kept it up
until they had collected L15,000 in fines; and there stands the
stately Mansion House to this day, to keep the blushing citizen
in mind of a long past and lamented day when a band of Yankees
slipped into London and played games of the sort that has given
their race a unique and shady reputation among all truly good
and holy peoples that be in the earth.

The girl's case seemed strong to me; the bishop's case was just
as strong. I did not see how the king was going to get out of
this hole. But he got out. I append his decision:

"Truly I find small difficulty here, the matter being even a
child's affair for simpleness. An the young bride had conveyed
notice, as in duty bound, to her feudal lord and proper master
and protector the bishop, she had suffered no loss, for the said
bishop could have got a dispensation making him, for temporary
conveniency, eligible to the exercise of his said right, and thus
would she have kept all she had. Whereas, failing in her first
duty, she hath by that failure failed in all; for whoso, clinging
to a rope, severeth it above his hands, must fall; it being no
defense to claim that the rest of the rope is sound, neither any
deliverance from his peril, as he shall find. Pardy, the woman's
case is rotten at the source. It is the decree of the court that
she forfeit to the said lord bishop all her goods, even to the
last farthing that she doth possess, and be thereto mulcted in
the costs. Next!"

Here was a tragic end to a beautiful honeymoon not yet three months
old. Poor young creatures! They had lived these three months
lapped to the lips in worldly comforts. These clothes and trinkets
they were wearing were as fine and dainty as the shrewdest stretch
of the sumptuary laws allowed to people of their degree; and in
these pretty clothes, she crying on his shoulder, and he trying
to comfort her with hopeful words set to the music of despair,
they went from the judgment seat out into the world homeless,
bedless, breadless; why, the very beggars by the roadsides were
not so poor as they.

Well, the king was out of the hole; and on terms satisfactory to
the Church and the rest of the aristocracy, no doubt. Men write
many fine and plausible arguments in support of monarchy, but
the fact remains that where every man in a State has a vote, brutal
laws are impossible. Arthur's people were of course poor material
for a republic, because they had been debased so long by monarchy;
and yet even they would have been intelligent enough to make short
work of that law which the king had just been administering if it
had been submitted to their full and free vote. There is a phrase
which has grown so common in the world's mouth that it has come
to seem to have sense and meaning--the sense and meaning implied
when it is used; that is the phrase which refers to this or that or
the other nation as possibly being "capable of self-government";
and the implied sense of it is, that there has been a nation
somewhere, some time or other which _wasn't_ capable of it--wasn't as
able to govern itself as some self-appointed specialists were or
would be to govern it. The master minds of all nations, in all
ages, have sprung in affluent multitude from the mass of the nation,
and from the mass of the nation only--not from its privileged
classes; and so, no matter what the nation's intellectual grade
was; whether high or low, the bulk of its ability was in the long
ranks of its nameless and its poor, and so it never saw the day
that it had not the material in abundance whereby to govern itself.
Which is to assert an always self-proven fact: that even the best
governed and most free and most enlightened monarchy is still
behind the best condition attainable by its people; and that the
same is true of kindred governments of lower grades, all the way
down to the lowest.

King Arthur had hurried up the army business altogether beyond
my calculations. I had not supposed he would move in the matter
while I was away; and so I had not mapped out a scheme for determining
the merits of officers; I had only remarked that it would be wise
to submit every candidate to a sharp and searching examination;
and privately I meant to put together a list of military qualifications
that nobody could answer to but my West Pointers. That ought
to have been attended to before I left; for the king was so taken
with the idea of a standing army that he couldn't wait but must
get about it at once, and get up as good a scheme of examination
as he could invent out of his own head.

I was impatient to see what this was; and to show, too, how much
more admirable was the one which I should display to the Examining
Board. I intimated this, gently, to the king, and it fired his
curiosity. When the Board was assembled, I followed him in; and
behind us came the candidates. One of these candidates was a bright
young West Pointer of mine, and with him were a couple of my
West Point professors.

When I saw the Board, I did not know whether to cry or to laugh.
The head of it was the officer known to later centuries as Norroy
King-at-Arms! The two other members were chiefs of bureaus in
his department; and all three were priests, of course; all officials
who had to know how to read and write were priests.

My candidate was called first, out of courtesy to me, and the head
of the Board opened on him with official solemnity:

"Name?"

"Mal-ease."

"Son of?"

"Webster."

"Webster--Webster. H'm--I--my memory faileth to recall the
name. Condition?"

"Weaver."

"Weaver!--God keep us!"

The king was staggered, from his summit to his foundations; one
clerk fainted, and the others came near it. The chairman pulled
himself together, and said indignantly:

"It is sufficient. Get you hence."

But I appealed to the king. I begged that my candidate might be
examined. The king was willing, but the Board, who were all
well-born folk, implored the king to spare them the indignity of
examining the weaver's son. I knew they didn't know enough to
examine him anyway, so I joined my prayers to theirs and the king
turned the duty over to my professors. I had had a blackboard
prepared, and it was put up now, and the circus began. It was
beautiful to hear the lad lay out the science of war, and wallow
in details of battle and siege, of supply, transportation, mining
and countermining, grand tactics, big strategy and little strategy,
signal service, infantry, cavalry, artillery, and all about siege
guns, field guns, gatling guns, rifled guns, smooth bores, musket
practice, revolver practice--and not a solitary word of it all
could these catfish make head or tail of, you understand--and it
was handsome to see him chalk off mathematical nightmares on the
blackboard that would stump the angels themselves, and do it like
nothing, too--all about eclipses, and comets, and solstices, and
constellations, and mean time, and sidereal time, and dinner time,
and bedtime, and every other imaginable thing above the clouds or
under them that you could harry or bullyrag an enemy with and make
him wish he hadn't come--and when the boy made his military salute
and stood aside at last, I was proud enough to hug him, and all
those other people were so dazed they looked partly petrified,
partly drunk, and wholly caught out and snowed under. I judged
that the cake was ours, and by a large majority.

Education is a great thing. This was the same youth who had come
to West Point so ignorant that when I asked him, "If a general
officer should have a horse shot under him on the field of battle,
what ought he to do?" answered up naively and said:

"Get up and brush himself."

One of the young nobles was called up now. I thought I would
question him a little myself. I said:

"Can your lordship read?"

His face flushed indignantly, and he fired this at me:

"Takest me for a clerk? I trow I am not of a blood that--"

"Answer the question!"

He crowded his wrath down and made out to answer "No."

"Can you write?"

He wanted to resent this, too, but I said:

"You will confine yourself to the questions, and make no comments.
You are not here to air your blood or your graces, and nothing
of the sort will be permitted. Can you write?"

"No."

"Do you know the multiplication table?"

"I wit not what ye refer to."

"How much is 9 times 6?"

"It is a mystery that is hidden from me by reason that the emergency
requiring the fathoming of it hath not in my life-days occurred,
and so, not having no need to know this thing, I abide barren
of the knowledge."

"If A trade a barrel of onions to B, worth 2 pence the bushel,
in exchange for a sheep worth 4 pence and a dog worth a penny,
and C kill the dog before delivery, because bitten by the same,
who mistook him for D, what sum is still due to A from B, and
which party pays for the dog, C or D, and who gets the money?
If A, is the penny sufficient, or may he claim consequential damages
in the form of additional money to represent the possible profit
which might have inured from the dog, and classifiable as earned
increment, that is to say, usufruct?"

"Verily, in the all-wise and unknowable providence of God, who
moveth in mysterious ways his wonders to perform, have I never
heard the fellow to this question for confusion of the mind and
congestion of the ducts of thought. Wherefore I beseech you let
the dog and the onions and these people of the strange and godless
names work out their several salvations from their piteous and
wonderful difficulties without help of mine, for indeed their
trouble is sufficient as it is, whereas an I tried to help I should
but damage their cause the more and yet mayhap not live myself
to see the desolation wrought."

"What do you know of the laws of attraction and gravitation?"

"If there be such, mayhap his grace the king did promulgate them
whilst that I lay sick about the beginning of the year and thereby
failed to hear his proclamation."

"What do you know of the science of optics?"

"I know of governors of places, and seneschals of castles, and
sheriffs of counties, and many like small offices and titles of
honor, but him you call the Science of Optics I have not heard
of before; peradventure it is a new dignity."

"Yes, in this country."

Try to conceive of this mollusk gravely applying for an official
position, of any kind under the sun! Why, he had all the earmarks
of a typewriter copyist, if you leave out the disposition to
contribute uninvited emendations of your grammar and punctuation.
It was unaccountable that he didn't attempt a little help of that
sort out of his majestic supply of incapacity for the job. But that
didn't prove that he hadn't material in him for the disposition,
it only proved that he wasn't a typewriter copyist yet. After
nagging him a little more, I let the professors loose on him and
they turned him inside out, on the line of scientific war, and
found him empty, of course. He knew somewhat about the warfare
of the time--bushwhacking around for ogres, and bull-fights in
the tournament ring, and such things--but otherwise he was empty
and useless. Then we took the other young noble in hand, and he
was the first one's twin, for ignorance and incapacity. I delivered
them into the hands of the chairman of the Board with the comfortable
consciousness that their cake was dough. They were examined in
the previous order of precedence.

"Name, so please you?"

"Pertipole, son of Sir Pertipole, Baron of Barley Mash."

"Grandfather?"

"Also Sir Pertipole, Baron of Barley Mash."

"Great-grandfather?"

"The same name and title."

"Great-great-grandfather?"

"We had none, worshipful sir, the line failing before it had
reached so far back."

"It mattereth not. It is a good four generations, and fulfilleth
the requirements of the rule."

"Fulfills what rule?" I asked.

"The rule requiring four generations of nobility or else the
candidate is not eligible."

"A man not eligible for a lieutenancy in the army unless he can
prove four generations of noble descent?"

"Even so; neither lieutenant nor any other officer may be commissioned
without that qualification."

"Oh, come, this is an astonishing thing. What good is such a
qualification as that?"

"What good? It is a hardy question, fair sir and Boss, since it doth
go far to impugn the wisdom of even our holy Mother Church herself."

"As how?"

"For that she hath established the self-same rule regarding
saints. By her law none may be canonized until he hath lain dead
four generations."

"I see, I see--it is the same thing. It is wonderful. In the one
case a man lies dead-alive four generations--mummified in ignorance
and sloth--and that qualifies him to command live people, and take
their weal and woe into his impotent hands; and in the other case,
a man lies bedded with death and worms four generations, and that
qualifies him for office in the celestial camp. Does the king's
grace approve of this strange law?"

The king said:

"Why, truly I see naught about it that is strange. All places of
honor and of profit do belong, by natural right, to them that be
of noble blood, and so these dignities in the army are their
property and would be so without this or any rule. The rule is
but to mark a limit. Its purpose is to keep out too recent blood,
which would bring into contempt these offices, and men of lofty
lineage would turn their backs and scorn to take them. I were
to blame an I permitted this calamity. _You_ can permit it an you
are minded so to do, for you have the delegated authority, but
that the king should do it were a most strange madness and not
comprehensible to any."

"I yield. Proceed, sir Chief of the Herald's College."

The chairman resumed as follows:

"By what illustrious achievement for the honor of the Throne and
State did the founder of your great line lift himself to the
sacred dignity of the British nobility?"

"He built a brewery."

"Sire, the Board finds this candidate perfect in all the requirements
and qualifications for military command, and doth hold his case
open for decision after due examination of his competitor."

The competitor came forward and proved exactly four generations
of nobility himself. So there was a tie in military qualifications
that far.

He stood aside a moment, and Sir Pertipole was questioned further:

"Of what condition was the wife of the founder of your line?"

"She came of the highest landed gentry, yet she was not noble;
she was gracious and pure and charitable, of a blameless life and
character, insomuch that in these regards was she peer of the
best lady in the land."

"That will do. Stand down." He called up the competing lordling
again, and asked: "What was the rank and condition of the
great-grandmother who conferred British nobility upon your
great house?"

"She was a king's leman and did climb to that splendid eminence
by her own unholpen merit from the sewer where she was born."

"Ah, this, indeed, is true nobility, this is the right and perfect
intermixture. The lieutenancy is yours, fair lord. Hold it not in
contempt; it is the humble step which will lead to grandeurs more
worthy of the splendor of an origin like to thine."

I was down in the bottomless pit of humiliation. I had promised
myself an easy and zenith-scouring triumph, and this was the outcome!

I was almost ashamed to look my poor disappointed cadet in the
face. I told him to go home and be patient, this wasn't the end.

I had a private audience with the king, and made a proposition.
I said it was quite right to officer that regiment with nobilities,
and he couldn't have done a wiser thing. It would also be a good
idea to add five hundred officers to it; in fact, add as many
officers as there were nobles and relatives of nobles in the
country, even if there should finally be five times as many officers
as privates in it; and thus make it the crack regiment, the envied
regiment, the King's Own regiment, and entitled to fight on its
own hook and in its own way, and go whither it would and come
when it pleased, in time of war, and be utterly swell and independent.
This would make that regiment the heart's desire of all the
nobility, and they would all be satisfied and happy. Then we
would make up the rest of the standing army out of commonplace
materials, and officer it with nobodies, as was proper--nobodies
selected on a basis of mere efficiency--and we would make this
regiment toe the line, allow it no aristocratic freedom from
restraint, and force it to do all the work and persistent hammering,
to the end that whenever the King's Own was tired and wanted to go
off for a change and rummage around amongst ogres and have a good
time, it could go without uneasiness, knowing that matters were in
safe hands behind it, and business going to be continued at the
old stand, same as usual. The king was charmed with the idea.

When I noticed that, it gave me a valuable notion. I thought
I saw my way out of an old and stubborn difficulty at last. You
see, the royalties of the Pendragon stock were a long-lived race
and very fruitful. Whenever a child was born to any of these--
and it was pretty often--there was wild joy in the nation's mouth,
and piteous sorrow in the nation's heart. The joy was questionable,
but the grief was honest. Because the event meant another call
for a Royal Grant. Long was the list of these royalties, and
they were a heavy and steadily increasing burden upon the treasury
and a menace to the crown. Yet Arthur could not believe this
latter fact, and he would not listen to any of my various projects
for substituting something in the place of the royal grants. If I
could have persuaded him to now and then provide a support for
one of these outlying scions from his own pocket, I could have
made a grand to-do over it, and it would have had a good effect
with the nation; but no, he wouldn't hear of such a thing. He had
something like a religious passion for royal grant; he seemed to
look upon it as a sort of sacred swag, and one could not irritate
him in any way so quickly and so surely as by an attack upon that
venerable institution. If I ventured to cautiously hint that there
was not another respectable family in England that would humble
itself to hold out the hat--however, that is as far as I ever got;
he always cut me short there, and peremptorily, too.

But I believed I saw my chance at last. I would form this crack
regiment out of officers alone--not a single private. Half of it
should consist of nobles, who should fill all the places up to
Major-General, and serve gratis and pay their own expenses; and
they would be glad to do this when they should learn that the rest
of the regiment would consist exclusively of princes of the blood.
These princes of the blood should range in rank from Lieutenant-General
up to Field Marshal, and be gorgeously salaried and equipped and
fed by the state. Moreover--and this was the master stroke--
it should be decreed that these princely grandees should be always
addressed by a stunningly gaudy and awe-compelling title (which
I would presently invent), and they and they only in all England
should be so addressed. Finally, all princes of the blood should
have free choice; join that regiment, get that great title, and
renounce the royal grant, or stay out and receive a grant. Neatest
touch of all: unborn but imminent princes of the blood could be
_born_ into the regiment, and start fair, with good wages and a
permanent situation, upon due notice from the parents.

All the boys would join, I was sure of that; so, all existing
grants would be relinquished; that the newly born would always
join was equally certain. Within sixty days that quaint and
bizarre anomaly, the Royal Grant, would cease to be a living fact,
and take its place among the curiosities of the past.

< Back
Forward >












Index Index

Other Authors Other Authors


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