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

A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court

Chapter XLIII


THE BATTLE OF THE SAND BELT

In Merlin's Cave -- Clarence and I and fifty-two fresh, bright,
well-educated, clean-minded young British boys. At dawn I sent
an order to the factories and to all our great works to stop
operations and remove all life to a safe distance, as everything
was going to be blown up by secret mines, "_and no telling at what
moment--therefore, vacate at once_." These people knew me, and
had confidence in my word. They would clear out without waiting
to part their hair, and I could take my own time about dating the
explosion. You couldn't hire one of them to go back during the
century, if the explosion was still impending.

We had a week of waiting. It was not dull for me, because I was
writing all the time. During the first three days, I finished
turning my old diary into this narrative form; it only required
a chapter or so to bring it down to date. The rest of the week
I took up in writing letters to my wife. It was always my habit
to write to Sandy every day, whenever we were separate, and now
I kept up the habit for love of it, and of her, though I couldn't
do anything with the letters, of course, after I had written them.
But it put in the time, you see, and was almost like talking;
it was almost as if I was saying, "Sandy, if you and Hello-Central
were here in the cave, instead of only your photographs, what
good times we could have!" And then, you know, I could imagine
the baby goo-gooing something out in reply, with its fists in its
mouth and itself stretched across its mother's lap on its back,
and she a-laughing and admiring and worshipping, and now and then
tickling under the baby's chin to set it cackling, and then maybe
throwing in a word of answer to me herself--and so on and so on--
well, don't you know, I could sit there in the cave with my pen,
and keep it up, that way, by the hour with them. Why, it was
almost like having us all together again.

I had spies out every night, of course, to get news. Every report
made things look more and more impressive. The hosts were gathering,
gathering; down all the roads and paths of England the knights were
riding, and priests rode with them, to hearten these original
Crusaders, this being the Church's war. All the nobilities, big
and little, were on their way, and all the gentry. This was all
as was expected. We should thin out this sort of folk to such
a degree that the people would have nothing to do but just step
to the front with their republic and--

Ah, what a donkey I was! Toward the end of the week I began to get
this large and disenchanting fact through my head: that the mass
of the nation had swung their caps and shouted for the republic for
about one day, and there an end! The Church, the nobles, and
the gentry then turned one grand, all-disapproving frown upon them
and shriveled them into sheep! From that moment the sheep had
begun to gather to the fold--that is to say, the camps--and offer
their valueless lives and their valuable wool to the "righteous
cause." Why, even the very men who had lately been slaves were
in the "righteous cause," and glorifying it, praying for it,
sentimentally slabbering over it, just like all the other commoners.
Imagine such human muck as this; conceive of this folly!

Yes, it was now "Death to the Republic!" everywhere--not a dissenting
voice. All England was marching against us! Truly, this was more
than I had bargained for.

I watched my fifty-two boys narrowly; watched their faces, their
walk, their unconscious attitudes: for all these are a language--
a language given us purposely that it may betray us in times of
emergency, when we have secrets which we want to keep. I knew
that that thought would keep saying itself over and over again
in their minds and hearts, _All England is marching against us!_
and ever more strenuously imploring attention with each repetition,
ever more sharply realizing itself to their imaginations, until
even in their sleep they would find no rest from it, but hear
the vague and flitting creatures of the dreams say, _All England_--
ALL ENGLAND!--_is marching against you_! I knew all this would
happen; I knew that ultimately the pressure would become so great
that it would compel utterance; therefore, I must be ready with an
answer at that time--an answer well chosen and tranquilizing.

I was right. The time came. They HAD to speak. Poor lads, it
was pitiful to see, they were so pale, so worn, so troubled. At
first their spokesman could hardly find voice or words; but he
presently got both. This is what he said--and he put it in the
neat modern English taught him in my schools:

"We have tried to forget what we are--English boys! We have tried
to put reason before sentiment, duty before love; our minds
approve, but our hearts reproach us. While apparently it was
only the nobility, only the gentry, only the twenty-five or thirty
thousand knights left alive out of the late wars, we were of one
mind, and undisturbed by any troubling doubt; each and every one
of these fifty-two lads who stand here before you, said, 'They
have chosen--it is their affair.' But think!--the matter is
altered--_All England is marching against us_! Oh, sir, consider!--
reflect!--these people are our people, they are bone of our bone,
flesh of our flesh, we love them--do not ask us to destroy our nation!"

Well, it shows the value of looking ahead, and being ready for
a thing when it happens. If I hadn't foreseen this thing and been
fixed, that boy would have had me!--I couldn't have said a word.
But I was fixed. I said:

"My boys, your hearts are in the right place, you have thought the
worthy thought, you have done the worthy thing. You are English
boys, you will remain English boys, and you will keep that name
unsmirched. Give yourselves no further concern, let your minds be
at peace. Consider this: while all England is marching against
us, who is in the van? Who, by the commonest rules of war, will
march in the front? Answer me."

"The mounted host of mailed knights."

"True. They are thirty thousand strong. Acres deep they will march.
Now, observe: none but _they_ will ever strike the sand-belt! Then
there will be an episode! Immediately after, the civilian multitude
in the rear will retire, to meet business engagements elsewhere.
None but nobles and gentry are knights, and _none but these_ will
remain to dance to our music after that episode. It is absolutely
true that we shall have to fight nobody but these thirty thousand
knights. Now speak, and it shall be as you decide. Shall we
avoid the battle, retire from the field?"

"NO!!!"

The shout was unanimous and hearty.

"Are you--are you--well, afraid of these thirty thousand knights?"

That joke brought out a good laugh, the boys' troubles vanished
away, and they went gaily to their posts. Ah, they were a darling
fifty-two! As pretty as girls, too.

I was ready for the enemy now. Let the approaching big day come
along--it would find us on deck.

The big day arrived on time. At dawn the sentry on watch in the
corral came into the cave and reported a moving black mass under
the horizon, and a faint sound which he thought to be military
music. Breakfast was just ready; we sat down and ate it.

This over, I made the boys a little speech, and then sent out
a detail to man the battery, with Clarence in command of it.

The sun rose presently and sent its unobstructed splendors over
the land, and we saw a prodigious host moving slowly toward us,
with the steady drift and aligned front of a wave of the sea.
Nearer and nearer it came, and more and more sublimely imposing
became its aspect; yes, all England was there, apparently. Soon
we could see the innumerable banners fluttering, and then the sun
struck the sea of armor and set it all aflash. Yes, it was a fine
sight; I hadn't ever seen anything to beat it.

At last we could make out details. All the front ranks, no telling
how many acres deep, were horsemen--plumed knights in armor.
Suddenly we heard the blare of trumpets; the slow walk burst into
a gallop, and then--well, it was wonderful to see! Down swept
that vast horse-shoe wave--it approached the sand-belt--my breath
stood still; nearer, nearer--the strip of green turf beyond the
yellow belt grew narrow--narrower still--became a mere ribbon in
front of the horses--then disappeared under their hoofs. Great
Scott! Why, the whole front of that host shot into the sky with
a thunder-crash, and became a whirling tempest of rags and fragments;
and along the ground lay a thick wall of smoke that hid what was
left of the multitude from our sight.

Time for the second step in the plan of campaign! I touched
a button, and shook the bones of England loose from her spine!

In that explosion all our noble civilization-factories went up in
the air and disappeared from the earth. It was a pity, but it
was necessary. We could not afford to let the enemy turn our own
weapons against us.

Now ensued one of the dullest quarter-hours I had ever endured.
We waited in a silent solitude enclosed by our circles of wire,
and by a circle of heavy smoke outside of these. We couldn't
see over the wall of smoke, and we couldn't see through it. But
at last it began to shred away lazily, and by the end of another
quarter-hour the land was clear and our curiosity was enabled
to satisfy itself. No living creature was in sight! We now
perceived that additions had been made to our defenses. The
dynamite had dug a ditch more than a hundred feet wide, all around
us, and cast up an embankment some twenty-five feet high on both
borders of it. As to destruction of life, it was amazing. Moreover,
it was beyond estimate. Of course, we could not _count_ the dead,
because they did not exist as individuals, but merely as homogeneous
protoplasm, with alloys of iron and buttons.

No life was in sight, but necessarily there must have been some
wounded in the rear ranks, who were carried off the field under
cover of the wall of smoke; there would be sickness among the
others--there always is, after an episode like that. But there
would be no reinforcements; this was the last stand of the chivalry
of England; it was all that was left of the order, after the recent
annihilating wars. So I felt quite safe in believing that the
utmost force that could for the future be brought against us
would be but small; that is, of knights. I therefore issued a
congratulatory proclamation to my army in these words:

SOLDIERS, CHAMPIONS OF HUMAN LIBERTY AND EQUALITY:
Your General congratulates you! In the pride of his
strength and the vanity of his renown, an arrogant
enemy came against you. You were ready. The conflict
was brief; on your side, glorious. This mighty
victory, having been achieved utterly without loss,
stands without example in history. So long as the
planets shall continue to move in their orbits, the
BATTLE OF THE SAND-BELT will not perish out of the
memories of men.

                                THE BOSS.

I read it well, and the applause I got was very gratifying to me.
I then wound up with these remarks:

"The war with the English nation, as a nation, is at an end.
The nation has retired from the field and the war. Before it can
be persuaded to return, war will have ceased. This campaign is
the only one that is going to be fought. It will be brief--
the briefest in history. Also the most destructive to life,
considered from the standpoint of proportion of casualties to
numbers engaged. We are done with the nation; henceforth we deal
only with the knights. English knights can be killed, but they
cannot be conquered. We know what is before us. While one of
these men remains alive, our task is not finished, the war is not
ended. We will kill them all." [Loud and long continued applause.]

I picketed the great embankments thrown up around our lines by
the dynamite explosion--merely a lookout of a couple of boys
to announce the enemy when he should appear again.

Next, I sent an engineer and forty men to a point just beyond
our lines on the south, to turn a mountain brook that was there,
and bring it within our lines and under our command, arranging
it in such a way that I could make instant use of it in an emergency.
The forty men were divided into two shifts of twenty each, and
were to relieve each other every two hours. In ten hours the
work was accomplished.

It was nightfall now, and I withdrew my pickets. The one who
had had the northern outlook reported a camp in sight, but visible
with the glass only. He also reported that a few knights had been
feeling their way toward us, and had driven some cattle across our
lines, but that the knights themselves had not come very near.
That was what I had been expecting. They were feeling us, you
see; they wanted to know if we were going to play that red terror
on them again. They would grow bolder in the night, perhaps.
I believed I knew what project they would attempt, because it was
plainly the thing I would attempt myself if I were in their places
and as ignorant as they were. I mentioned it to Clarence.

"I think you are right," said he; "it is the obvious thing for
them to try."

"Well, then," I said, "if they do it they are doomed."

"Certainly."

"They won't have the slightest show in the world."

"Of course they won't."

"It's dreadful, Clarence. It seems an awful pity."

The thing disturbed me so that I couldn't get any peace of mind
for thinking of it and worrying over it. So, at last, to quiet
my conscience, I framed this message to the knights:

TO THE HONORABLE THE COMMANDER OF THE INSURGENT
CHIVALRY OF ENGLAND: YOU fight in vain. We know
your strength--if one may call it by that name.
We know that at the utmost you cannot bring
against us above five and twenty thousand knights.
Therefore, you have no chance--none whatever.
Reflect: we are well equipped, well fortified, we
number 54. Fifty-four what? Men? No, MINDS--the
capablest in the world; a force against which
mere animal might may no more hope to prevail than
may the idle waves of the sea hope to prevail
against the granite barriers of England. Be advised.
We offer you your lives; for the sake of your
families, do not reject the gift. We offer you
this chance, and it is the last: throw down your
arms; surrender unconditionally to the Republic,
and all will be forgiven.

                         (Signed) THE BOSS.

I read it to Clarence, and said I proposed to send it by a flag
of truce. He laughed the sarcastic laugh he was born with, and said:

"Somehow it seems impossible for you to ever fully realize what
these nobilities are. Now let us save a little time and trouble.
Consider me the commander of the knights yonder. Now, then,
you are the flag of truce; approach and deliver me your message,
and I will give you your answer."

I humored the idea. I came forward under an imaginary guard of
the enemy's soldiers, produced my paper, and read it through.
For answer, Clarence struck the paper out of my hand, pursed up
a scornful lip and said with lofty disdain:

"Dismember me this animal, and return him in a basket to the
base-born knave who sent him; other answer have I none!"

How empty is theory in presence of fact! And this was just fact,
and nothing else. It was the thing that would have happened,
there was no getting around that. I tore up the paper and granted
my mistimed sentimentalities a permanent rest.

Then, to business. I tested the electric signals from the gatling
platform to the cave, and made sure that they were all right;
I tested and retested those which commanded the fences--these
were signals whereby I could break and renew the electric current
in each fence independently of the others at will. I placed the
brook-connection under the guard and authority of three of my
best boys, who would alternate in two-hour watches all night and
promptly obey my signal, if I should have occasion to give it--
three revolver-shots in quick succession. Sentry-duty was discarded
for the night, and the corral left empty of life; I ordered that
quiet be maintained in the cave, and the electric lights turned
down to a glimmer.

As soon as it was good and dark, I shut off the current from all
the fences, and then groped my way out to the embankment bordering
our side of the great dynamite ditch. I crept to the top of it
and lay there on the slant of the muck to watch. But it was
too dark to see anything. As for sounds, there were none. The
stillness was deathlike. True, there were the usual night-sounds
of the country--the whir of night-birds, the buzzing of insects,
the barking of distant dogs, the mellow lowing of far-off kine--
but these didn't seem to break the stillness, they only intensified
it, and added a grewsome melancholy to it into the bargain.

I presently gave up looking, the night shut down so black, but
I kept my ears strained to catch the least suspicious sound, for
I judged I had only to wait, and I shouldn't be disappointed.
However, I had to wait a long time. At last I caught what you
may call in distinct glimpses of sound dulled metallic sound.
I pricked up my ears, then, and held my breath, for this was the
sort of thing I had been waiting for. This sound thickened, and
approached--from toward the north. Presently, I heard it at my
own level--the ridge-top of the opposite embankment, a hundred
feet or more away. Then I seemed to see a row of black dots appear
along that ridge--human heads? I couldn't tell; it mightn't be
anything at all; you can't depend on your eyes when your imagination
is out of focus. However, the question was soon settled. I heard
that metallic noise descending into the great ditch. It augmented
fast, it spread all along, and it unmistakably furnished me this
fact: an armed host was taking up its quarters in the ditch. Yes,
these people were arranging a little surprise party for us. We
could expect entertainment about dawn, possibly earlier.

I groped my way back to the corral now; I had seen enough. I went
to the platform and signaled to turn the current on to the two
inner fences. Then I went into the cave, and found everything
satisfactory there--nobody awake but the working-watch. I woke
Clarence and told him the great ditch was filling up with men,
and that I believed all the knights were coming for us in a body.
It was my notion that as soon as dawn approached we could expect
the ditch's ambuscaded thousands to swarm up over the embankment
and make an assault, and be followed immediately by the rest
of their army.

Clarence said:

"They will be wanting to send a scout or two in the dark to make
preliminary observations. Why not take the lightning off the
outer fences, and give them a chance?"

"I've already done it, Clarence. Did you ever know me to be
inhospitable?"

"No, you are a good heart. I want to go and--"

"Be a reception committee? I will go, too."

We crossed the corral and lay down together between the two inside
fences. Even the dim light of the cave had disordered our eyesight
somewhat, but the focus straightway began to regulate itself and
soon it was adjusted for present circumstances. We had had to feel
our way before, but we could make out to see the fence posts now.
We started a whispered conversation, but suddenly Clarence broke
off and said:

"What is that?"

"What is what?"

"That thing yonder."

"What thing--where?"

"There beyond you a little piece--dark something--a dull shape
of some kind--against the second fence."

I gazed and he gazed. I said:

"Could it be a man, Clarence?"

"No, I think not. If you notice, it looks a lit--why, it _is_
a man!--leaning on the fence."

"I certainly believe it is; let us go and see."

We crept along on our hands and knees until we were pretty close,
and then looked up. Yes, it was a man--a dim great figure in armor,
standing erect, with both hands on the upper wire--and, of course,
there was a smell of burning flesh. Poor fellow, dead as a
door-nail, and never knew what hurt him. He stood there like a
statue--no motion about him, except that his plumes swished about
a little in the night wind. We rose up and looked in through
the bars of his visor, but couldn't make out whether we knew him
or not--features too dim and shadowed.

We heard muffled sounds approaching, and we sank down to the ground
where we were. We made out another knight vaguely; he was coming
very stealthily, and feeling his way. He was near enough now for
us to see him put out a hand, find an upper wire, then bend and
step under it and over the lower one. Now he arrived at the
first knight--and started slightly when he discovered him. He
stood a moment--no doubt wondering why the other one didn't move
on; then he said, in a low voice, "Why dreamest thou here, good
Sir Mar--" then he laid his hand on the corpse's shoulder--and just
uttered a little soft moan and sunk down dead. Killed by a dead
man, you see--killed by a dead friend, in fact. There was something
awful about it.

These early birds came scattering along after each other, about
one every five minutes in our vicinity, during half an hour.
They brought no armor of offense but their swords; as a rule,
they carried the sword ready in the hand, and put it forward and
found the wires with it. We would now and then see a blue spark
when the knight that caused it was so far away as to be invisible
to us; but we knew what had happened, all the same; poor fellow,
he had touched a charged wire with his sword and been elected.
We had brief intervals of grim stillness, interrupted with piteous
regularity by the clash made by the falling of an iron-clad; and
this sort of thing was going on, right along, and was very creepy
there in the dark and lonesomeness.

We concluded to make a tour between the inner fences. We elected
to walk upright, for convenience's sake; we argued that if discerned,
we should be taken for friends rather than enemies, and in any case
we should be out of reach of swords, and these gentry did not seem
to have any spears along. Well, it was a curious trip. Everywhere
dead men were lying outside the second fence--not plainly visible,
but still visible; and we counted fifteen of those pathetic
statues--dead knights standing with their hands on the upper wire.

One thing seemed to be sufficiently demonstrated: our current
was so tremendous that it killed before the victim could cry out.
Pretty soon we detected a muffled and heavy sound, and next moment
we guessed what it was. It was a surprise in force coming! whispered
Clarence to go and wake the army, and notify it to wait in silence
in the cave for further orders. He was soon back, and we stood
by the inner fence and watched the silent lightning do its awful
work upon that swarming host. One could make out but little of
detail; but he could note that a black mass was piling itself up
beyond the second fence. That swelling bulk was dead men! Our
camp was enclosed with a solid wall of the dead--a bulwark,
a breastwork, of corpses, you may say. One terrible thing about
this thing was the absence of human voices; there were no cheers,
no war cries; being intent upon a surprise, these men moved as
noiselessly as they could; and always when the front rank was near
enough to their goal to make it proper for them to begin to get
a shout ready, of course they struck the fatal line and went down
without testifying.

I sent a current through the third fence now; and almost immediately
through the fourth and fifth, so quickly were the gaps filled up.
I believed the time was come now for my climax; I believed that
that whole army was in our trap. Anyway, it was high time to find
out. So I touched a button and set fifty electric suns aflame
on the top of our precipice.

Land, what a sight! We were enclosed in three walls of dead men!
All the other fences were pretty nearly filled with the living,
who were stealthily working their way forward through the wires.
The sudden glare paralyzed this host, petrified them, you may say,
with astonishment; there was just one instant for me to utilize
their immobility in, and I didn't lose the chance. You see, in
another instant they would have recovered their faculties, then
they'd have burst into a cheer and made a rush, and my wires
would have gone down before it; but that lost instant lost them
their opportunity forever; while even that slight fragment of time
was still unspent, I shot the current through all the fences and
struck the whole host dead in their tracks! _There_ was a groan
you could _hear_! It voiced the death-pang of eleven thousand men.
It swelled out on the night with awful pathos.

A glance showed that the rest of the enemy--perhaps ten thousand
strong--were between us and the encircling ditch, and pressing
forward to the assault. Consequently we had them _all!_ and had
them past help. Time for the last act of the tragedy. I fired
the three appointed revolver shots--which meant:

"Turn on the water!"

There was a sudden rush and roar, and in a minute the mountain
brook was raging through the big ditch and creating a river a
hundred feet wide and twenty-five deep.

"Stand to your guns, men! Open fire!"

The thirteen gatlings began to vomit death into the fated ten
thousand. They halted, they stood their ground a moment against
that withering deluge of fire, then they broke, faced about and
swept toward the ditch like chaff before a gale. A full fourth
part of their force never reached the top of the lofty embankment;
the three-fourths reached it and plunged over--to death by drowning.

Within ten short minutes after we had opened fire, armed resistance
was totally annihilated, the campaign was ended, we fifty-four were
masters of England. Twenty-five thousand men lay dead around us.

But how treacherous is fortune! In a little while--say an hour--
happened a thing, by my own fault, which--but I have no heart
to write that. Let the record end here.

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