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

A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court

Chapter XXXV


A PITIFUL INCIDENT

It's a world of surprises. The king brooded; this was natural.
What would he brood about, should you say? Why, about the prodigious
nature of his fall, of course--from the loftiest place in the world
to the lowest; from the most illustrious station in the world to
the obscurest; from the grandest vocation among men to the basest.
No, I take my oath that the thing that graveled him most, to start
with, was not this, but the price he had fetched! He couldn't
seem to get over that seven dollars. Well, it stunned me so, when
I first found it out, that I couldn't believe it; it didn't seem
natural. But as soon as my mental sight cleared and I got a right
focus on it, I saw I was mistaken; it _was_ natural. For this
reason: a king is a mere artificiality, and so a king's feelings,
like the impulses of an automatic doll, are mere artificialities;
but as a man, he is a reality, and his feelings, as a man, are
real, not phantoms. It shames the average man to be valued below
his own estimate of his worth, and the king certainly wasn't
anything more than an average man, if he was up that high.

Confound him, he wearied me with arguments to show that in anything
like a fair market he would have fetched twenty-five dollars,
sure--a thing which was plainly nonsense, and full or the baldest
conceit; I wasn't worth it myself. But it was tender ground for
me to argue on. In fact, I had to simply shirk argument and do
the diplomatic instead. I had to throw conscience aside, and
brazenly concede that he ought to have brought twenty-five dollars;
whereas I was quite well aware that in all the ages, the world had
never seen a king that was worth half the money, and during the
next thirteen centuries wouldn't see one that was worth the fourth
of it. Yes, he tired me. If he began to talk about the crops;
or about the recent weather; or about the condition of politics;
or about dogs, or cats, or morals, or theology--no matter what--
I sighed, for I knew what was coming; he was going to get out of it
a palliation of that tiresome seven-dollar sale. Wherever we
halted where there was a crowd, he would give me a look which
said plainly: "if that thing could be tried over again now, with
this kind of folk, you would see a different result." Well, when
he was first sold, it secretly tickled me to see him go for seven
dollars; but before he was done with his sweating and worrying
I wished he had fetched a hundred. The thing never got a chance
to die, for every day, at one place or another, possible purchasers
looked us over, and, as often as any other way, their comment on
the king was something like this:

"Here's a two-dollar-and-a-half chump with a thirty-dollar style.
Pity but style was marketable."

At last this sort of remark produced an evil result. Our owner
was a practical person and he perceived that this defect must be
mended if he hoped to find a purchaser for the king. So he went
to work to take the style out of his sacred majesty. I could have
given the man some valuable advice, but I didn't; you mustn't
volunteer advice to a slave-driver unless you want to damage
the cause you are arguing for. I had found it a sufficiently
difficult job to reduce the king's style to a peasant's style,
even when he was a willing and anxious pupil; now then, to undertake
to reduce the king's style to a slave's style--and by force--go to!
it was a stately contract. Never mind the details--it will save me
trouble to let you imagine them. I will only remark that at the
end of a week there was plenty of evidence that lash and club
and fist had done their work well; the king's body was a sight
to see--and to weep over; but his spirit?--why, it wasn't even
phased. Even that dull clod of a slave-driver was able to see
that there can be such a thing as a slave who will remain a man
till he dies; whose bones you can break, but whose manhood you
can't. This man found that from his first effort down to his
latest, he couldn't ever come within reach of the king, but the
king was ready to plunge for him, and did it. So he gave up
at last, and left the king in possession of his style unimpaired.
The fact is, the king was a good deal more than a king, he was
a man; and when a man is a man, you can't knock it out of him.

We had a rough time for a month, tramping to and fro in the earth,
and suffering. And what Englishman was the most interested in
the slavery question by that time? His grace the king! Yes; from
being the most indifferent, he was become the most interested.
He was become the bitterest hater of the institution I had ever
heard talk. And so I ventured to ask once more a question which
I had asked years before and had gotten such a sharp answer that
I had not thought it prudent to meddle in the matter further.
Would he abolish slavery?

His answer was as sharp as before, but it was music this time;
I shouldn't ever wish to hear pleasanter, though the profanity
was not good, being awkwardly put together, and with the crash-word
almost in the middle instead of at the end, where, of course, it
ought to have been.

I was ready and willing to get free now; I hadn't wanted to get
free any sooner. No, I cannot quite say that. I had wanted to,
but I had not been willing to take desperate chances, and had
always dissuaded the king from them. But now--ah, it was a new
atmosphere! Liberty would be worth any cost that might be put
upon it now. I set about a plan, and was straightway charmed
with it. It would require time, yes, and patience, too, a great
deal of both. One could invent quicker ways, and fully as sure
ones; but none that would be as picturesque as this; none that
could be made so dramatic. And so I was not going to give this
one up. It might delay us months, but no matter, I would carry
it out or break something.

Now and then we had an adventure. One night we were overtaken
by a snow-storm while still a mile from the village we were making
for. Almost instantly we were shut up as in a fog, the driving
snow was so thick. You couldn't see a thing, and we were soon
lost. The slave-driver lashed us desperately, for he saw ruin
before him, but his lashings only made matters worse, for they
drove us further from the road and from likelihood of succor.
So we had to stop at last and slump down in the snow where we
were. The storm continued until toward midnight, then ceased.
By this time two of our feebler men and three of our women were
dead, and others past moving and threatened with death. Our
master was nearly beside himself. He stirred up the living, and
made us stand, jump, slap ourselves, to restore our circulation,
and he helped as well as he could with his whip.

Now came a diversion. We heard shrieks and yells, and soon a
woman came running and crying; and seeing our group, she flung
herself into our midst and begged for protection. A mob of people
came tearing after her, some with torches, and they said she was a
witch who had caused several cows to die by a strange disease,
and practiced her arts by help of a devil in the form of a black
cat. This poor woman had been stoned until she hardly looked
human, she was so battered and bloody. The mob wanted to burn her.

Well, now, what do you suppose our master did? When we closed
around this poor creature to shelter her, he saw his chance. He
said, burn her here, or they shouldn't have her at all. Imagine
that! They were willing. They fastened her to a post; they
brought wood and piled it about her; they applied the torch while
she shrieked and pleaded and strained her two young daughters
to her breast; and our brute, with a heart solely for business,
lashed us into position about the stake and warmed us into life
and commercial value by the same fire which took away the innocent
life of that poor harmless mother. That was the sort of master we
had. I took _his_ number. That snow-storm cost him nine of his
flock; and he was more brutal to us than ever, after that, for
many days together, he was so enraged over his loss.

We had adventures all along. One day we ran into a procession.
And such a procession! All the riffraff of the kingdom seemed
to be comprehended in it; and all drunk at that. In the van was
a cart with a coffin in it, and on the coffin sat a comely young
girl of about eighteen suckling a baby, which she squeezed to her
breast in a passion of love every little while, and every little
while wiped from its face the tears which her eyes rained down
upon it; and always the foolish little thing smiled up at her,
happy and content, kneading her breast with its dimpled fat hand,
which she patted and fondled right over her breaking heart.

Men and women, boys and girls, trotted along beside or after
the cart, hooting, shouting profane and ribald remarks, singing
snatches of foul song, skipping, dancing--a very holiday of
hellions, a sickening sight. We had struck a suburb of London,
outside the walls, and this was a sample of one sort of London
society. Our master secured a good place for us near the gallows.
A priest was in attendance, and he helped the girl climb up, and
said comforting words to her, and made the under-sheriff provide
a stool for her. Then he stood there by her on the gallows, and
for a moment looked down upon the mass of upturned faces at his
feet, then out over the solid pavement of heads that stretched away
on every side occupying the vacancies far and near, and then began
to tell the story of the case. And there was pity in his voice--
how seldom a sound that was in that ignorant and savage land!
I remember every detail of what he said, except the words he said
it in; and so I change it into my own words:

"Law is intended to mete out justice. Sometimes it fails. This
cannot be helped. We can only grieve, and be resigned, and pray
for the soul of him who falls unfairly by the arm of the law, and
that his fellows may be few. A law sends this poor young thing
to death--and it is right. But another law had placed her where
she must commit her crime or starve with her child--and before God
that law is responsible for both her crime and her ignominious death!

"A little while ago this young thing, this child of eighteen years,
was as happy a wife and mother as any in England; and her lips
were blithe with song, which is the native speech of glad and
innocent hearts. Her young husband was as happy as she; for he was
doing his whole duty, he worked early and late at his handicraft,
his bread was honest bread well and fairly earned, he was prospering,
he was furnishing shelter and sustenance to his family, he was
adding his mite to the wealth of the nation. By consent of a
treacherous law, instant destruction fell upon this holy home and
swept it away! That young husband was waylaid and impressed,
and sent to sea. The wife knew nothing of it. She sought him
everywhere, she moved the hardest hearts with the supplications
of her tears, the broken eloquence of her despair. Weeks dragged
by, she watching, waiting, hoping, her mind going slowly to wreck
under the burden of her misery. Little by little all her small
possessions went for food. When she could no longer pay her rent,
they turned her out of doors. She begged, while she had strength;
when she was starving at last, and her milk failing, she stole a
piece of linen cloth of the value of a fourth part of a cent,
thinking to sell it and save her child. But she was seen by the
owner of the cloth. She was put in jail and brought to trial.
The man testified to the facts. A plea was made for her, and her
sorrowful story was told in her behalf. She spoke, too, by
permission, and said she did steal the cloth, but that her mind
was so disordered of late by trouble that when she was overborne
with hunger all acts, criminal or other, swam meaningless through
her brain and she knew nothing rightly, except that she was so
hungry! For a moment all were touched, and there was disposition
to deal mercifully with her, seeing that she was so young and
friendless, and her case so piteous, and the law that robbed her
of her support to blame as being the first and only cause of her
transgression; but the prosecuting officer replied that whereas
these things were all true, and most pitiful as well, still there
was much small theft in these days, and mistimed mercy here would
be a danger to property--oh, my God, is there no property in ruined
homes, and orphaned babes, and broken hearts that British law
holds precious!--and so he must require sentence.

"When the judge put on his black cap, the owner of the stolen
linen rose trembling up, his lip quivering, his face as gray as
ashes; and when the awful words came, he cried out, 'Oh, poor
child, poor child, I did not know it was death!' and fell as a
tree falls. When they lifted him up his reason was gone; before
the sun was set, he had taken his own life. A kindly man; a man
whose heart was right, at bottom; add his murder to this that
is to be now done here; and charge them both where they belong--
to the rulers and the bitter laws of Britain. The time is come, my
child; let me pray over thee--not _for_ thee, dear abused poor heart
and innocent, but for them that be guilty of thy ruin and death,
who need it more."

After his prayer they put the noose around the young girl's neck,
and they had great trouble to adjust the knot under her ear,
because she was devouring the baby all the time, wildly kissing it,
and snatching it to her face and her breast, and drenching it
with tears, and half moaning, half shrieking all the while, and the
baby crowing, and laughing, and kicking its feet with delight over
what it took for romp and play. Even the hangman couldn't stand it,
but turned away. When all was ready the priest gently pulled and
tugged and forced the child out of the mother's arms, and stepped
quickly out of her reach; but she clasped her hands, and made a
wild spring toward him, with a shriek; but the rope--and the
under-sheriff--held her short. Then she went on her knees and
stretched out her hands and cried:

"One more kiss--oh, my God, one more, one more,--it is the dying
that begs it!"

She got it; she almost smothered the little thing. And when they
got it away again, she cried out:

"Oh, my child, my darling, it will die! It has no home, it has
no father, no friend, no mother--"

"It has them all!" said that good priest. "All these will I be
to it till I die."

You should have seen her face then! Gratitude? Lord, what do
you want with words to express that? Words are only painted fire;
a look is the fire itself. She gave that look, and carried it away
to the treasury of heaven, where all things that are divine belong.

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