I was so tired that even my fears were not able to keep me awake long.
When I next came to myself, I seemed to have been asleep a very
long time. My first thought was, "Well, what an astonishing dream
I've had! I reckon I've waked only just in time to keep from
being hanged or drowned or burned or something.... I'll nap again
till the whistle blows, and then I'll go down to the arms factory
and have it out with Hercules."
But just then I heard the harsh music of rusty chains and bolts,
a light flashed in my eyes, and that butterfly, Clarence, stood
before me! I gasped with surprise; my breath almost got away from me.
"What!" I said, "you here yet? Go along with the rest of
the dream! scatter!"
But he only laughed, in his light-hearted way, and fell to making
fun of my sorry plight.
"All right," I said resignedly, "let the dream go on; I'm in no hurry."
"Prithee what dream?"
"What dream? Why, the dream that I am in Arthur's court--a person
who never existed; and that I am talking to you, who are nothing
but a work of the imagination."
"Oh, la, indeed! and is it a dream that you're to be burned
to-morrow? Ho-ho--answer me that!"
The shock that went through me was distressing. I now began
to reason that my situation was in the last degree serious, dream
or no dream; for I knew by past experience of the lifelike intensity
of dreams, that to be burned to death, even in a dream, would be
very far from being a jest, and was a thing to be avoided, by any
means, fair or foul, that I could contrive. So I said beseechingly:
"Ah, Clarence, good boy, only friend I've got,--for you _are_ my
friend, aren't you?--don't fail me; help me to devise some way
of escaping from this place!"
"Now do but hear thyself! Escape? Why, man, the corridors are
in guard and keep of men-at-arms."
"No doubt, no doubt. But how many, Clarence? Not many, I hope?"
"Full a score. One may not hope to escape." After a pause--
hesitatingly: "and there be other reasons--and weightier."
"Other ones? What are they?"
"Well, they say--oh, but I daren't, indeed daren't!"
"Why, poor lad, what is the matter? Why do you blench? Why do
you tremble so?"
"Oh, in sooth, there is need! I do want to tell you, but--"
"Come, come, be brave, be a man--speak out, there's a good lad!"
He hesitated, pulled one way by desire, the other way by fear;
then he stole to the door and peeped out, listening; and finally
crept close to me and put his mouth to my ear and told me his
fearful news in a whisper, and with all the cowering apprehension
of one who was venturing upon awful ground and speaking of things
whose very mention might be freighted with death.
"Merlin, in his malice, has woven a spell about this dungeon, and
there bides not the man in these kingdoms that would be desperate
enough to essay to cross its lines with you! Now God pity me,
I have told it! Ah, be kind to me, be merciful to a poor boy who
means thee well; for an thou betray me I am lost!"
I laughed the only really refreshing laugh I had had for some time;
"Merlin has wrought a spell! _Merlin_, forsooth! That cheap old
humbug, that maundering old ass? Bosh, pure bosh, the silliest bosh
in the world! Why, it does seem to me that of all the childish,
idiotic, chuckle-headed, chicken-livered superstitions that ev--
oh, damn Merlin!"
But Clarence had slumped to his knees before I had half finished,
and he was like to go out of his mind with fright.
"Oh, beware! These are awful words! Any moment these walls
may crumble upon us if you say such things. Oh call them back
before it is too late!"
Now this strange exhibition gave me a good idea and set me to
thinking. If everybody about here was so honestly and sincerely
afraid of Merlin's pretended magic as Clarence was, certainly
a superior man like me ought to be shrewd enough to contrive
some way to take advantage of such a state of things. I went
on thinking, and worked out a plan. Then I said:
"Get up. Pull yourself together; look me in the eye. Do you
know why I laughed?"
"No--but for our blessed Lady's sake, do it no more."
"Well, I'll tell you why I laughed. Because I'm a magician myself."
"Thou!" The boy recoiled a step, and caught his breath, for
the thing hit him rather sudden; but the aspect which he took
on was very, very respectful. I took quick note of that; it
indicated that a humbug didn't need to have a reputation in this
asylum; people stood ready to take him at his word, without that.
"I've know Merlin seven hundred years, and he--"
"Don't interrupt me. He has died and come alive again thirteen
times, and traveled under a new name every time: Smith, Jones,
Robinson, Jackson, Peters, Haskins, Merlin--a new alias every
time he turns up. I knew him in Egypt three hundred years ago;
I knew him in India five hundred years ago--he is always blethering
around in my way, everywhere I go; he makes me tired. He don't
amount to shucks, as a magician; knows some of the old common
tricks, but has never got beyond the rudiments, and never will.
He is well enough for the provinces--one-night stands and that
sort of thing, you know--but dear me, _he_ oughtn't to set up for
an expert--anyway not where there's a real artist. Now look here,
Clarence, I am going to stand your friend, right along, and in
return you must be mine. I want you to do me a favor. I want
you to get word to the king that I am a magician myself--and the
Supreme Grand High-yu-Muck-amuck and head of the tribe, at that;
and I want him to be made to understand that I am just quietly
arranging a little calamity here that will make the fur fly in these
realms if Sir Kay's project is carried out and any harm comes
to me. Will you get that to the king for me?"
The poor boy was in such a state that he could hardly answer me.
It was pitiful to see a creature so terrified, so unnerved, so
demoralized. But he promised everything; and on my side he made
me promise over and over again that I would remain his friend, and
never turn against him or cast any enchantments upon him. Then
he worked his way out, staying himself with his hand along the
wall, like a sick person.
Presently this thought occurred to me: how heedless I have been!
When the boy gets calm, he will wonder why a great magician like me
should have begged a boy like him to help me get out of this place;
he will put this and that together, and will see that I am a humbug.
I worried over that heedless blunder for an hour, and called myself
a great many hard names, meantime. But finally it occurred to me
all of a sudden that these animals didn't reason; that _they_ never
put this and that together; that all their talk showed that they
didn't know a discrepancy when they saw it. I was at rest, then.
But as soon as one is at rest, in this world, off he goes on
something else to worry about. It occurred to me that I had made
another blunder: I had sent the boy off to alarm his betters with
a threat--I intending to invent a calamity at my leisure; now
the people who are the readiest and eagerest and willingest to
swallow miracles are the very ones who are hungriest to see you
perform them; suppose I should be called on for a sample? Suppose
I should be asked to name my calamity? Yes, I had made a blunder;
I ought to have invented my calamity first. "What shall I do?
what can I say, to gain a little time?" I was in trouble again;
in the deepest kind of trouble...
"There's a footstep!--they're coming. If I had only just a moment
to think.... Good, I've got it. I'm all right."
You see, it was the eclipse. It came into my mind in the nick
of time, how Columbus, or Cortez, or one of those people, played
an eclipse as a saving trump once, on some savages, and I saw my
chance. I could play it myself, now, and it wouldn't be any
plagiarism, either, because I should get it in nearly a thousand
years ahead of those parties.
Clarence came in, subdued, distressed, and said:
"I hasted the message to our liege the king, and straightway he
had me to his presence. He was frighted even to the marrow,
and was minded to give order for your instant enlargement, and
that you be clothed in fine raiment and lodged as befitted one so
great; but then came Merlin and spoiled all; for he persuaded
the king that you are mad, and know not whereof you speak; and
said your threat is but foolishness and idle vaporing. They
disputed long, but in the end, Merlin, scoffing, said, 'Wherefore
hath he not _named_ his brave calamity? Verily it is because he
cannot.' This thrust did in a most sudden sort close the king's
mouth, and he could offer naught to turn the argument; and so,
reluctant, and full loth to do you the discourtesy, he yet prayeth
you to consider his perplexed case, as noting how the matter stands,
and name the calamity--if so be you have determined the nature
of it and the time of its coming. Oh, prithee delay not; to delay
at such a time were to double and treble the perils that already
compass thee about. Oh, be thou wise--name the calamity!"
I allowed silence to accumulate while I got my impressiveness
together, and then said:
"How long have I been shut up in this hole?"
"Ye were shut up when yesterday was well spent. It is 9 of
the morning now."
"No! Then I have slept well, sure enough. Nine in the morning
now! And yet it is the very complexion of midnight, to a shade.
This is the 20th, then?"
"And I am to be burned alive to-morrow." The boy shuddered.
"At what hour?"
"At high noon."
"Now then, I will tell you what to say." I paused, and stood over
that cowering lad a whole minute in awful silence; then, in a voice
deep, measured, charged with doom, I began, and rose by dramatically
graded stages to my colossal climax, which I delivered in as sublime
and noble a way as ever I did such a thing in my life: "Go back
and tell the king that at that hour I will smother the whole world
in the dead blackness of midnight; I will blot out the sun, and he
shall never shine again; the fruits of the earth shall rot for lack
of light and warmth, and the peoples of the earth shall famish
and die, to the last man!"
I had to carry the boy out myself, he sunk into such a collapse.
I handed him over to the soldiers, and went back.