The Complete Works of Mark Twain


 
 
Mark Twain > The Prince and the Pauper > Chapter XVIII

The Prince and the Pauper

Chapter XVIII


The Prince with the tramps.

The troop of vagabonds turned out at early dawn, and set forward on their
march. There was a lowering sky overhead, sloppy ground under foot, and
a winter chill in the air. All gaiety was gone from the company; some
were sullen and silent, some were irritable and petulant, none were
gentle-humoured, all were thirsty.

The Ruffler put 'Jack' in Hugo's charge, with some brief instructions,
and commanded John Canty to keep away from him and let him alone; he also
warned Hugo not to be too rough with the lad.

After a while the weather grew milder, and the clouds lifted somewhat.
The troop ceased to shiver, and their spirits began to improve. They
grew more and more cheerful, and finally began to chaff each other and
insult passengers along the highway. This showed that they were awaking
to an appreciation of life and its joys once more. The dread in which
their sort was held was apparent in the fact that everybody gave them the
road, and took their ribald insolences meekly, without venturing to talk
back. They snatched linen from the hedges, occasionally in full view of
the owners, who made no protest, but only seemed grateful that they did
not take the hedges, too.

By-and-by they invaded a small farmhouse and made themselves at home
while the trembling farmer and his people swept the larder clean to
furnish a breakfast for them. They chucked the housewife and her
daughters under the chin whilst receiving the food from their hands, and
made coarse jests about them, accompanied with insulting epithets and
bursts of horse-laughter. They threw bones and vegetables at the farmer
and his sons, kept them dodging all the time, and applauded uproariously
when a good hit was made. They ended by buttering the head of one of the
daughters who resented some of their familiarities. When they took their
leave they threatened to come back and burn the house over the heads of
the family if any report of their doings got to the ears of the
authorities.

About noon, after a long and weary tramp, the gang came to a halt behind
a hedge on the outskirts of a considerable village. An hour was allowed
for rest, then the crew scattered themselves abroad to enter the village
at different points to ply their various trades--'Jack' was sent with
Hugo. They wandered hither and thither for some time, Hugo watching for
opportunities to do a stroke of business, but finding none--so he finally
said--

"I see nought to steal; it is a paltry place. Wherefore we will beg."

"WE, forsooth! Follow thy trade--it befits thee. But _I_ will not beg."

"Thou'lt not beg!" exclaimed Hugo, eyeing the King with surprise.
"Prithee, since when hast thou reformed?"

"What dost thou mean?"

"Mean? Hast thou not begged the streets of London all thy life?"

"I? Thou idiot!"

"Spare thy compliments--thy stock will last the longer. Thy father says
thou hast begged all thy days. Mayhap he lied. Peradventure you will
even make so bold as to SAY he lied," scoffed Hugo.

"Him YOU call my father? Yes, he lied."

"Come, play not thy merry game of madman so far, mate; use it for thy
amusement, not thy hurt. An' I tell him this, he will scorch thee finely
for it."

"Save thyself the trouble. I will tell him."

"I like thy spirit, I do in truth; but I do not admire thy judgment.
Bone-rackings and bastings be plenty enow in this life, without going out
of one's way to invite them. But a truce to these matters; _I_ believe
your father. I doubt not he can lie; I doubt not he DOTH lie, upon
occasion, for the best of us do that; but there is no occasion here. A
wise man does not waste so good a commodity as lying for nought. But
come; sith it is thy humour to give over begging, wherewithal shall we
busy ourselves? With robbing kitchens?"

The King said, impatiently--

"Have done with this folly--you weary me!"

Hugo replied, with temper--

"Now harkee, mate; you will not beg, you will not rob; so be it. But I
will tell you what you WILL do. You will play decoy whilst _I_ beg.
Refuse, an' you think you may venture!"

The King was about to reply contemptuously, when Hugo said, interrupting--

"Peace! Here comes one with a kindly face. Now will I fall down in a
fit. When the stranger runs to me, set you up a wail, and fall upon your
knees, seeming to weep; then cry out as all the devils of misery were in
your belly, and say, 'Oh, sir, it is my poor afflicted brother, and we be
friendless; o' God's name cast through your merciful eyes one pitiful
look upon a sick, forsaken, and most miserable wretch; bestow one little
penny out of thy riches upon one smitten of God and ready to perish!'--
and mind you, keep you ON wailing, and abate not till we bilk him of his
penny, else shall you rue it."

Then immediately Hugo began to moan, and groan, and roll his eyes, and
reel and totter about; and when the stranger was close at hand, down he
sprawled before him, with a shriek, and began to writhe and wallow in the
dirt, in seeming agony.

"O, dear, O dear!" cried the benevolent stranger, "O poor soul, poor
soul, how he doth suffer! There--let me help thee up."

"O noble sir, forbear, and God love you for a princely gentleman--but it
giveth me cruel pain to touch me when I am taken so. My brother there
will tell your worship how I am racked with anguish when these fits be
upon me. A penny, dear sir, a penny, to buy a little food; then leave me
to my sorrows."

"A penny! thou shalt have three, thou hapless creature"--and he fumbled
in his pocket with nervous haste and got them out. "There, poor lad, take
them and most welcome. Now come hither, my boy, and help me carry thy
stricken brother to yon house, where--"

"I am not his brother," said the King, interrupting.

"What! not his brother?"

"Oh, hear him!" groaned Hugo, then privately ground his teeth. "He denies
his own brother--and he with one foot in the grave!"

"Boy, thou art indeed hard of heart, if this is thy brother. For shame!
--and he scarce able to move hand or foot. If he is not thy brother, who
is he, then?"

"A beggar and a thief! He has got your money and has picked your pocket
likewise. An' thou would'st do a healing miracle, lay thy staff over his
shoulders and trust Providence for the rest."

But Hugo did not tarry for the miracle. In a moment he was up and off
like the wind, the gentleman following after and raising the hue and cry
lustily as he went. The King, breathing deep gratitude to Heaven for his
own release, fled in the opposite direction, and did not slacken his pace
until he was out of harm's reach. He took the first road that offered,
and soon put the village behind him. He hurried along, as briskly as he
could, during several hours, keeping a nervous watch over his shoulder
for pursuit; but his fears left him at last, and a grateful sense of
security took their place. He recognised, now, that he was hungry, and
also very tired. So he halted at a farmhouse; but when he was about to
speak, he was cut short and driven rudely away. His clothes were against
him.

He wandered on, wounded and indignant, and was resolved to put himself in
the way of like treatment no more. But hunger is pride's master; so, as
the evening drew near, he made an attempt at another farmhouse; but here
he fared worse than before; for he was called hard names and was promised
arrest as a vagrant except he moved on promptly.

The night came on, chilly and overcast; and still the footsore monarch
laboured slowly on. He was obliged to keep moving, for every time he sat
down to rest he was soon penetrated to the bone with the cold. All his
sensations and experiences, as he moved through the solemn gloom and the
empty vastness of the night, were new and strange to him. At intervals
he heard voices approach, pass by, and fade into silence; and as he saw
nothing more of the bodies they belonged to than a sort of formless
drifting blur, there was something spectral and uncanny about it all that
made him shudder. Occasionally he caught the twinkle of a light--always
far away, apparently--almost in another world; if he heard the tinkle of
a sheep's bell, it was vague, distant, indistinct; the muffled lowing of
the herds floated to him on the night wind in vanishing cadences, a
mournful sound; now and then came the complaining howl of a dog over
viewless expanses of field and forest; all sounds were remote; they made
the little King feel that all life and activity were far removed from
him, and that he stood solitary, companionless, in the centre of a
measureless solitude.

He stumbled along, through the gruesome fascinations of this new
experience, startled occasionally by the soft rustling of the dry leaves
overhead, so like human whispers they seemed to sound; and by-and-by he
came suddenly upon the freckled light of a tin lantern near at hand. He
stepped back into the shadows and waited. The lantern stood by the open
door of a barn. The King waited some time--there was no sound, and
nobody stirring. He got so cold, standing still, and the hospitable barn
looked so enticing, that at last he resolved to risk everything and
enter. He started swiftly and stealthily, and just as he was crossing the
threshold he heard voices behind him. He darted behind a cask, within
the barn, and stooped down. Two farm-labourers came in, bringing the
lantern with them, and fell to work, talking meanwhile. Whilst they
moved about with the light, the King made good use of his eyes and took
the bearings of what seemed to be a good-sized stall at the further end
of the place, purposing to grope his way to it when he should be left to
himself. He also noted the position of a pile of horse blankets, midway
of the route, with the intent to levy upon them for the service of the
crown of England for one night.

By-and-by the men finished and went away, fastening the door behind them
and taking the lantern with them. The shivering King made for the
blankets, with as good speed as the darkness would allow; gathered them
up, and then groped his way safely to the stall. Of two of the blankets
he made a bed, then covered himself with the remaining two. He was a
glad monarch, now, though the blankets were old and thin, and not quite
warm enough; and besides gave out a pungent horsey odour that was almost
suffocatingly powerful.

Although the King was hungry and chilly, he was also so tired and so
drowsy that these latter influences soon began to get the advantage of
the former, and he presently dozed off into a state of semi-
consciousness. Then, just as he was on the point of losing himself
wholly, he distinctly felt something touch him! He was broad awake in a
moment, and gasping for breath. The cold horror of that mysterious touch
in the dark almost made his heart stand still. He lay motionless, and
listened, scarcely breathing. But nothing stirred, and there was no
sound. He continued to listen, and wait, during what seemed a long time,
but still nothing stirred, and there was no sound. So he began to drop
into a drowse once more, at last; and all at once he felt that mysterious
touch again! It was a grisly thing, this light touch from this noiseless
and invisible presence; it made the boy sick with ghostly fears. What
should he do? That was the question; but he did not know how to answer
it. Should he leave these reasonably comfortable quarters and fly from
this inscrutable horror? But fly whither? He could not get out of the
barn; and the idea of scurrying blindly hither and thither in the dark,
within the captivity of the four walls, with this phantom gliding after
him, and visiting him with that soft hideous touch upon cheek or shoulder
at every turn, was intolerable. But to stay where he was, and endure
this living death all night--was that better? No. What, then, was there
left to do? Ah, there was but one course; he knew it well--he must put
out his hand and find that thing!

It was easy to think this; but it was hard to brace himself up to try it.
Three times he stretched his hand a little way out into the dark,
gingerly; and snatched it suddenly back, with a gasp--not because it had
encountered anything, but because he had felt so sure it was just GOING
to. But the fourth time, he groped a little further, and his hand
lightly swept against something soft and warm. This petrified him,
nearly, with fright; his mind was in such a state that he could imagine
the thing to be nothing else than a corpse, newly dead and still warm.
He thought he would rather die than touch it again. But he thought this
false thought because he did not know the immortal strength of human
curiosity. In no long time his hand was tremblingly groping again--
against his judgment, and without his consent--but groping persistently
on, just the same. It encountered a bunch of long hair; he shuddered,
but followed up the hair and found what seemed to be a warm rope;
followed up the rope and found an innocent calf!--for the rope was not a
rope at all, but the calf's tail.

The King was cordially ashamed of himself for having gotten all that
fright and misery out of so paltry a matter as a slumbering calf; but he
need not have felt so about it, for it was not the calf that frightened
him, but a dreadful non-existent something which the calf stood for; and
any other boy, in those old superstitious times, would have acted and
suffered just as he had done.

The King was not only delighted to find that the creature was only a
calf, but delighted to have the calf's company; for he had been feeling
so lonesome and friendless that the company and comradeship of even this
humble animal were welcome. And he had been so buffeted, so rudely
entreated by his own kind, that it was a real comfort to him to feel that
he was at last in the society of a fellow-creature that had at least a
soft heart and a gentle spirit, whatever loftier attributes might be
lacking. So he resolved to waive rank and make friends with the calf.

While stroking its sleek warm back--for it lay near him and within easy
reach--it occurred to him that this calf might be utilised in more ways
than one. Whereupon he re-arranged his bed, spreading it down close to
the calf; then he cuddled himself up to the calf's back, drew the covers
up over himself and his friend, and in a minute or two was as warm and
comfortable as he had ever been in the downy couches of the regal palace
of Westminster.

Pleasant thoughts came at once; life took on a cheerfuller seeming. He
was free of the bonds of servitude and crime, free of the companionship
of base and brutal outlaws; he was warm; he was sheltered; in a word, he
was happy. The night wind was rising; it swept by in fitful gusts that
made the old barn quake and rattle, then its forces died down at
intervals, and went moaning and wailing around corners and projections--
but it was all music to the King, now that he was snug and comfortable:
let it blow and rage, let it batter and bang, let it moan and wail, he
minded it not, he only enjoyed it. He merely snuggled the closer to his
friend, in a luxury of warm contentment, and drifted blissfully out of
consciousness into a deep and dreamless sleep that was full of serenity
and peace. The distant dogs howled, the melancholy kine complained, and
the winds went on raging, whilst furious sheets of rain drove along the
roof; but the Majesty of England slept on, undisturbed, and the calf did
the same, it being a simple creature, and not easily troubled by storms
or embarrassed by sleeping with a king.


< Back
Forward >












Index Index

Other Authors Other Authors


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