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Mark Twain > The Prince and the Pauper > Chapter XV

The Prince and the Pauper

Chapter XV



Tom as King.

The next day the foreign ambassadors came, with their gorgeous trains;
and Tom, throned in awful state, received them. The splendours of the
scene delighted his eye and fired his imagination at first, but the
audience was long and dreary, and so were most of the addresses--
wherefore, what began as a pleasure grew into weariness and home-sickness
by-and-by. Tom said the words which Hertford put into his mouth from
time to time, and tried hard to acquit himself satisfactorily, but he was
too new to such things, and too ill at ease to accomplish more than a
tolerable success. He looked sufficiently like a king, but he was ill
able to feel like one. He was cordially glad when the ceremony was
ended.

The larger part of his day was 'wasted'--as he termed it, in his own
mind--in labours pertaining to his royal office. Even the two hours
devoted to certain princely pastimes and recreations were rather a burden
to him than otherwise, they were so fettered by restrictions and
ceremonious observances. However, he had a private hour with his
whipping-boy which he counted clear gain, since he got both entertainment
and needful information out of it.

The third day of Tom Canty's kingship came and went much as the others
had done, but there was a lifting of his cloud in one way--he felt less
uncomfortable than at first; he was getting a little used to his
circumstances and surroundings; his chains still galled, but not all the
time; he found that the presence and homage of the great afflicted and
embarrassed him less and less sharply with every hour that drifted over
his head.

But for one single dread, he could have seen the fourth day approach
without serious distress--the dining in public; it was to begin that day.
There were greater matters in the programme--for on that day he would
have to preside at a council which would take his views and commands
concerning the policy to be pursued toward various foreign nations
scattered far and near over the great globe; on that day, too, Hertford
would be formally chosen to the grand office of Lord Protector; other
things of note were appointed for that fourth day, also; but to Tom they
were all insignificant compared with the ordeal of dining all by himself
with a multitude of curious eyes fastened upon him and a multitude of
mouths whispering comments upon his performance,--and upon his mistakes,
if he should be so unlucky as to make any.

Still, nothing could stop that fourth day, and so it came. It found poor
Tom low-spirited and absent-minded, and this mood continued; he could not
shake it off. The ordinary duties of the morning dragged upon his hands,
and wearied him. Once more he felt the sense of captivity heavy upon
him.

Late in the forenoon he was in a large audience-chamber, conversing with
the Earl of Hertford and dully awaiting the striking of the hour
appointed for a visit of ceremony from a considerable number of great
officials and courtiers.

After a little while, Tom, who had wandered to a window and become
interested in the life and movement of the great highway beyond the
palace gates--and not idly interested, but longing with all his heart to
take part in person in its stir and freedom--saw the van of a hooting and
shouting mob of disorderly men, women, and children of the lowest and
poorest degree approaching from up the road.

"I would I knew what 'tis about!" he exclaimed, with all a boy's
curiosity in such happenings.

"Thou art the King!" solemnly responded the Earl, with a reverence.
"Have I your Grace's leave to act?"

"O blithely, yes! O gladly, yes!" exclaimed Tom excitedly, adding to
himself with a lively sense of satisfaction, "In truth, being a king is
not all dreariness--it hath its compensations and conveniences."

The Earl called a page, and sent him to the captain of the guard with the
order--

"Let the mob be halted, and inquiry made concerning the occasion of its
movement. By the King's command!"

A few seconds later a long rank of the royal guards, cased in flashing
steel, filed out at the gates and formed across the highway in front of
the multitude. A messenger returned, to report that the crowd were
following a man, a woman, and a young girl to execution for crimes
committed against the peace and dignity of the realm.

Death--and a violent death--for these poor unfortunates! The thought
wrung Tom's heart-strings. The spirit of compassion took control of him,
to the exclusion of all other considerations; he never thought of the
offended laws, or of the grief or loss which these three criminals had
inflicted upon their victims; he could think of nothing but the scaffold
and the grisly fate hanging over the heads of the condemned. His concern
made him even forget, for the moment, that he was but the false shadow of
a king, not the substance; and before he knew it he had blurted out the
command--

"Bring them here!"

Then he blushed scarlet, and a sort of apology sprung to his lips; but
observing that his order had wrought no sort of surprise in the Earl or
the waiting page, he suppressed the words he was about to utter. The
page, in the most matter-of-course way, made a profound obeisance and
retired backwards out of the room to deliver the command. Tom
experienced a glow of pride and a renewed sense of the compensating
advantages of the kingly office. He said to himself, "Truly it is like
what I was used to feel when I read the old priest's tales, and did
imagine mine own self a prince, giving law and command to all, saying 'Do
this, do that,' whilst none durst offer let or hindrance to my will."

Now the doors swung open; one high-sounding title after another was
announced, the personages owning them followed, and the place was quickly
half-filled with noble folk and finery. But Tom was hardly conscious of
the presence of these people, so wrought up was he and so intensely
absorbed in that other and more interesting matter. He seated himself
absently in his chair of state, and turned his eyes upon the door with
manifestations of impatient expectancy; seeing which, the company forbore
to trouble him, and fell to chatting a mixture of public business and
court gossip one with another.

In a little while the measured tread of military men was heard
approaching, and the culprits entered the presence in charge of an under-
sheriff and escorted by a detail of the king's guard. The civil officer
knelt before Tom, then stood aside; the three doomed persons knelt, also,
and remained so; the guard took position behind Tom's chair. Tom scanned
the prisoners curiously. Something about the dress or appearance of the
man had stirred a vague memory in him. "Methinks I have seen this man
ere now . . . but the when or the where fail me"--such was Tom's thought.
Just then the man glanced quickly up and quickly dropped his face again,
not being able to endure the awful port of sovereignty; but the one full
glimpse of the face which Tom got was sufficient. He said to himself:
"Now is the matter clear; this is the stranger that plucked Giles Witt
out of the Thames, and saved his life, that windy, bitter, first day of
the New Year--a brave good deed--pity he hath been doing baser ones and
got himself in this sad case . . . I have not forgot the day, neither the
hour; by reason that an hour after, upon the stroke of eleven, I did get
a hiding by the hand of Gammer Canty which was of so goodly and admired
severity that all that went before or followed after it were but
fondlings and caresses by comparison."

Tom now ordered that the woman and the girl be removed from the presence
for a little time; then addressed himself to the under-sheriff, saying--

"Good sir, what is this man's offence?"

The officer knelt, and answered--

"So please your Majesty, he hath taken the life of a subject by poison."

Tom's compassion for the prisoner, and admiration of him as the daring
rescuer of a drowning boy, experienced a most damaging shock.

"The thing was proven upon him?" he asked.

"Most clearly, sire."

Tom sighed, and said--

"Take him away--he hath earned his death. 'Tis a pity, for he was a
brave heart--na--na, I mean he hath the LOOK of it!"

The prisoner clasped his hands together with sudden energy, and wrung
them despairingly, at the same time appealing imploringly to the 'King'
in broken and terrified phrases--

"O my lord the King, an' thou canst pity the lost, have pity upon me! I
am innocent--neither hath that wherewith I am charged been more than but
lamely proved--yet I speak not of that; the judgment is gone forth
against me and may not suffer alteration; yet in mine extremity I beg a
boon, for my doom is more than I can bear. A grace, a grace, my lord the
King! in thy royal compassion grant my prayer--give commandment that I be
hanged!"

Tom was amazed. This was not the outcome he had looked for.

"Odds my life, a strange BOON! Was it not the fate intended thee?"

"O good my liege, not so! It is ordered that I be BOILED ALIVE!"

The hideous surprise of these words almost made Tom spring from his
chair. As soon as he could recover his wits he cried out--

"Have thy wish, poor soul! an' thou had poisoned a hundred men thou
shouldst not suffer so miserable a death."

The prisoner bowed his face to the ground and burst into passionate
expressions of gratitude--ending with--

"If ever thou shouldst know misfortune--which God forefend!--may thy
goodness to me this day be remembered and requited!"

Tom turned to the Earl of Hertford, and said--

"My lord, is it believable that there was warrant for this man's
ferocious doom?"

"It is the law, your Grace--for poisoners. In Germany coiners be boiled
to death in OIL--not cast in of a sudden, but by a rope let down into the
oil by degrees, and slowly; first the feet, then the legs, then--"

"O prithee no more, my lord, I cannot bear it!" cried Tom, covering his
eyes with his hands to shut out the picture. "I beseech your good
lordship that order be taken to change this law--oh, let no more poor
creatures be visited with its tortures."

The Earl's face showed profound gratification, for he was a man of
merciful and generous impulses--a thing not very common with his class in
that fierce age. He said--

"These your Grace's noble words have sealed its doom. History will
remember it to the honour of your royal house."

The under-sheriff was about to remove his prisoner; Tom gave him a sign
to wait; then he said--

"Good sir, I would look into this matter further. The man has said his
deed was but lamely proved. Tell me what thou knowest."

"If the King's grace please, it did appear upon the trial that this man
entered into a house in the hamlet of Islington where one lay sick--three
witnesses say it was at ten of the clock in the morning, and two say it
was some minutes later--the sick man being alone at the time, and
sleeping--and presently the man came forth again and went his way. The
sick man died within the hour, being torn with spasms and retchings."

"Did any see the poison given? Was poison found?"

"Marry, no, my liege."

"Then how doth one know there was poison given at all?"

"Please your Majesty, the doctors testified that none die with such
symptoms but by poison."

Weighty evidence, this, in that simple age. Tom recognised its
formidable nature, and said--

"The doctor knoweth his trade--belike they were right. The matter hath
an ill-look for this poor man."

"Yet was not this all, your Majesty; there is more and worse. Many
testified that a witch, since gone from the village, none know whither,
did foretell, and speak it privately in their ears, that the sick man
WOULD DIE BY POISON--and more, that a stranger would give it--a stranger
with brown hair and clothed in a worn and common garb; and surely this
prisoner doth answer woundily to the bill. Please your Majesty to give
the circumstance that solemn weight which is its due, seeing it was
FORETOLD."

This was an argument of tremendous force in that superstitious day. Tom
felt that the thing was settled; if evidence was worth anything, this
poor fellow's guilt was proved. Still he offered the prisoner a chance,
saying--

"If thou canst say aught in thy behalf, speak."

"Nought that will avail, my King. I am innocent, yet cannot I make it
appear. I have no friends, else might I show that I was not in Islington
that day; so also might I show that at that hour they name I was above a
league away, seeing I was at Wapping Old Stairs; yea more, my King, for I
could show, that whilst they say I was TAKING life, I was SAVING it. A
drowning boy--"

"Peace! Sheriff, name the day the deed was done!"

"At ten in the morning, or some minutes later, the first day of the New
Year, most illustrious--"

"Let the prisoner go free--it is the King's will!"

Another blush followed this unregal outburst, and he covered his
indecorum as well as he could by adding--

"It enrageth me that a man should be hanged upon such idle, hare-brained
evidence!"

A low buzz of admiration swept through the assemblage. It was not
admiration of the decree that had been delivered by Tom, for the
propriety or expediency of pardoning a convicted poisoner was a thing
which few there would have felt justified in either admitting or
admiring--no, the admiration was for the intelligence and spirit which
Tom had displayed. Some of the low-voiced remarks were to this effect--

"This is no mad king--he hath his wits sound."

"How sanely he put his questions--how like his former natural self was
this abrupt imperious disposal of the matter!"

"God be thanked, his infirmity is spent! This is no weakling, but a
king. He hath borne himself like to his own father."

The air being filled with applause, Tom's ear necessarily caught a little
of it. The effect which this had upon him was to put him greatly at his
ease, and also to charge his system with very gratifying sensations.

However, his juvenile curiosity soon rose superior to these pleasant
thoughts and feelings; he was eager to know what sort of deadly mischief
the woman and the little girl could have been about; so, by his command,
the two terrified and sobbing creatures were brought before him.

"What is it that these have done?" he inquired of the sheriff.

"Please your Majesty, a black crime is charged upon them, and clearly
proven; wherefore the judges have decreed, according to the law, that
they be hanged. They sold themselves to the devil--such is their crime."

Tom shuddered. He had been taught to abhor people who did this wicked
thing. Still, he was not going to deny himself the pleasure of feeding
his curiosity for all that; so he asked--

"Where was this done?--and when?"

"On a midnight in December, in a ruined church, your Majesty."

Tom shuddered again.

"Who was there present?"

"Only these two, your grace--and THAT OTHER."

"Have these confessed?"

"Nay, not so, sire--they do deny it."

"Then prithee, how was it known?"

"Certain witness did see them wending thither, good your Majesty; this
bred the suspicion, and dire effects have since confirmed and justified
it. In particular, it is in evidence that through the wicked power so
obtained, they did invoke and bring about a storm that wasted all the
region round about. Above forty witnesses have proved the storm; and
sooth one might have had a thousand, for all had reason to remember it,
sith all had suffered by it."

"Certes this is a serious matter." Tom turned this dark piece of
scoundrelism over in his mind a while, then asked--

"Suffered the woman also by the storm?"

Several old heads among the assemblage nodded their recognition of the
wisdom of this question. The sheriff, however, saw nothing consequential
in the inquiry; he answered, with simple directness--

"Indeed did she, your Majesty, and most righteously, as all aver. Her
habitation was swept away, and herself and child left shelterless."

"Methinks the power to do herself so ill a turn was dearly bought. She
had been cheated, had she paid but a farthing for it; that she paid her
soul, and her child's, argueth that she is mad; if she is mad she knoweth
not what she doth, therefore sinneth not."

The elderly heads nodded recognition of Tom's wisdom once more, and one
individual murmured, "An' the King be mad himself, according to report,
then is it a madness of a sort that would improve the sanity of some I
wot of, if by the gentle providence of God they could but catch it."

"What age hath the child?" asked Tom.

"Nine years, please your Majesty."

"By the law of England may a child enter into covenant and sell itself,
my lord?" asked Tom, turning to a learned judge.

"The law doth not permit a child to make or meddle in any weighty matter,
good my liege, holding that its callow wit unfitteth it to cope with the
riper wit and evil schemings of them that are its elders. The DEVIL may
buy a child, if he so choose, and the child agree thereto, but not an
Englishman--in this latter case the contract would be null and void."

"It seemeth a rude unchristian thing, and ill contrived, that English law
denieth privileges to Englishmen to waste them on the devil!" cried Tom,
with honest heat.

This novel view of the matter excited many smiles, and was stored away in
many heads to be repeated about the Court as evidence of Tom's
originality as well as progress toward mental health.

The elder culprit had ceased from sobbing, and was hanging upon Tom's
words with an excited interest and a growing hope. Tom noticed this, and
it strongly inclined his sympathies toward her in her perilous and
unfriended situation. Presently he asked--

"How wrought they to bring the storm?"

"BY PULLING OFF THEIR STOCKINGS, sire."

This astonished Tom, and also fired his curiosity to fever heat. He said,
eagerly--

"It is wonderful! Hath it always this dread effect?"

"Always, my liege--at least if the woman desire it, and utter the needful
words, either in her mind or with her tongue."

Tom turned to the woman, and said with impetuous zeal--

"Exert thy power--I would see a storm!"

There was a sudden paling of cheeks in the superstitious assemblage, and
a general, though unexpressed, desire to get out of the place--all of
which was lost upon Tom, who was dead to everything but the proposed
cataclysm. Seeing a puzzled and astonished look in the woman's face, he
added, excitedly--

"Never fear--thou shalt be blameless. More--thou shalt go free--none
shall touch thee. Exert thy power."

"Oh, my lord the King, I have it not--I have been falsely accused."

"Thy fears stay thee. Be of good heart, thou shalt suffer no harm. Make
a storm--it mattereth not how small a one--I require nought great or
harmful, but indeed prefer the opposite--do this and thy life is spared--
thou shalt go out free, with thy child, bearing the King's pardon, and
safe from hurt or malice from any in the realm."

The woman prostrated herself, and protested, with tears, that she had no
power to do the miracle, else she would gladly win her child's life
alone, and be content to lose her own, if by obedience to the King's
command so precious a grace might be acquired.

Tom urged--the woman still adhered to her declarations. Finally he said--

"I think the woman hath said true. An' MY mother were in her place and
gifted with the devil's functions, she had not stayed a moment to call
her storms and lay the whole land in ruins, if the saving of my forfeit
life were the price she got! It is argument that other mothers are made
in like mould. Thou art free, goodwife--thou and thy child--for I do
think thee innocent. NOW thou'st nought to fear, being pardoned--pull
off thy stockings!--an' thou canst make me a storm, thou shalt be rich!"

The redeemed creature was loud in her gratitude, and proceeded to obey,
whilst Tom looked on with eager expectancy, a little marred by
apprehension; the courtiers at the same time manifesting decided
discomfort and uneasiness. The woman stripped her own feet and her
little girl's also, and plainly did her best to reward the King's
generosity with an earthquake, but it was all a failure and a
disappointment. Tom sighed, and said--

"There, good soul, trouble thyself no further, thy power is departed out
of thee. Go thy way in peace; and if it return to thee at any time,
forget me not, but fetch me a storm." {13}


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