There never was such a country for wandering liars; and they were
of both sexes. Hardly a month went by without one of these tramps
arriving; and generally loaded with a tale about some princess or
other wanting help to get her out of some far-away castle where
she was held in captivity by a lawless scoundrel, usually a giant.
Now you would think that the first thing the king would do after
listening to such a novelette from an entire stranger, would be
to ask for credentials--yes, and a pointer or two as to locality
of castle, best route to it, and so on. But nobody ever thought
of so simple and common-sense a thing at that. No, everybody
swallowed these people's lies whole, and never asked a question
of any sort or about anything. Well, one day when I was not
around, one of these people came along--it was a she one, this
time--and told a tale of the usual pattern. Her mistress was
a captive in a vast and gloomy castle, along with forty-four other
young and beautiful girls, pretty much all of them princesses;
they had been languishing in that cruel captivity for twenty-six
years; the masters of the castle were three stupendous brothers,
each with four arms and one eye--the eye in the center of the
forehead, and as big as a fruit. Sort of fruit not mentioned;
their usual slovenliness in statistics.
Would you believe it? The king and the whole Round Table were
in raptures over this preposterous opportunity for adventure.
Every knight of the Table jumped for the chance, and begged for it;
but to their vexation and chagrin the king conferred it upon me,
who had not asked for it at all.
By an effort, I contained my joy when Clarence brought me the news.
But he--he could not contain his. His mouth gushed delight and
gratitude in a steady discharge--delight in my good fortune,
gratitude to the king for this splendid mark of his favor for me.
He could keep neither his legs nor his body still, but pirouetted
about the place in an airy ecstasy of happiness.
On my side, I could have cursed the kindness that conferred upon
me this benefaction, but I kept my vexation under the surface
for policy's sake, and did what I could to let on to be glad.
Indeed, I _said_ I was glad. And in a way it was true; I was as
glad as a person is when he is scalped.
Well, one must make the best of things, and not waste time with
useless fretting, but get down to business and see what can be
done. In all lies there is wheat among the chaff; I must get at
the wheat in this case: so I sent for the girl and she came. She
was a comely enough creature, and soft and modest, but, if signs
went for anything, she didn't know as much as a lady's watch. I said:
"My dear, have you been questioned as to particulars?"
She said she hadn't.
"Well, I didn't expect you had, but I thought I would ask, to make
sure; it's the way I've been raised. Now you mustn't take it
unkindly if I remind you that as we don't know you, we must go
a little slow. You may be all right, of course, and we'll hope
that you are; but to take it for granted isn't business. _You_
understand that. I'm obliged to ask you a few questions; just
answer up fair and square, and don't be afraid. Where do you
live, when you are at home?"
"In the land of Moder, fair sir."
"Land of Moder. I don't remember hearing of it before.
"As to that, I know not if they be yet on live, sith it is many
years that I have lain shut up in the castle."
"Your name, please?"
"I hight the Demoiselle Alisande la Carteloise, an it please you."
"Do you know anybody here who can identify you?"
"That were not likely, fair lord, I being come hither now for
the first time."
"Have you brought any letters--any documents--any proofs that
you are trustworthy and truthful?"
"Of a surety, no; and wherefore should I? Have I not a tongue,
and cannot I say all that myself?"
"But _your_ saying it, you know, and somebody else's saying it,
"Different? How might that be? I fear me I do not understand."
"Don't _understand_? Land of--why, you see--you see--why, great Scott,
can't you understand a little thing like that? Can't you understand
the difference between your--_why_ do you look so innocent and idiotic!"
"I? In truth I know not, but an it were the will of God."
"Yes, yes, I reckon that's about the size of it. Don't mind my
seeming excited; I'm not. Let us change the subject. Now as
to this castle, with forty-five princesses in it, and three ogres
at the head of it, tell me--where is this harem?"
"The _castle_, you understand; where is the castle?"
"Oh, as to that, it is great, and strong, and well beseen, and
lieth in a far country. Yes, it is many leagues."
"Ah, fair sir, it were woundily hard to tell, they are so many,
and do so lap the one upon the other, and being made all in the
same image and tincted with the same color, one may not know
the one league from its fellow, nor how to count them except
they be taken apart, and ye wit well it were God's work to do
that, being not within man's capacity; for ye will note--"
"Hold on, hold on, never mind about the distance; _whereabouts_
does the castle lie? What's the direction from here?"
"Ah, please you sir, it hath no direction from here; by reason
that the road lieth not straight, but turneth evermore; wherefore
the direction of its place abideth not, but is some time under
the one sky and anon under another, whereso if ye be minded that
it is in the east, and wend thitherward, ye shall observe that
the way of the road doth yet again turn upon itself by the space
of half a circle, and this marvel happing again and yet again and
still again, it will grieve you that you had thought by vanities
of the mind to thwart and bring to naught the will of Him that
giveth not a castle a direction from a place except it pleaseth
Him, and if it please Him not, will the rather that even all castles
and all directions thereunto vanish out of the earth, leaving the
places wherein they tarried desolate and vacant, so warning His
creatures that where He will He will, and where He will not He--"
"Oh, that's all right, that's all right, give us a rest; never mind
about the direction, _hang_ the direction--I beg pardon, I beg
a thousand pardons, I am not well to-day; pay no attention when
I soliloquize, it is an old habit, an old, bad habit, and hard
to get rid of when one's digestion is all disordered with eating
food that was raised forever and ever before he was born; good
land! a man can't keep his functions regular on spring chickens
thirteen hundred years old. But come--never mind about that;
let's--have you got such a thing as a map of that region about
you? Now a good map--"
"Is it peradventure that manner of thing which of late the unbelievers
have brought from over the great seas, which, being boiled in oil,
and an onion and salt added thereto, doth--"
"What, a map? What are you talking about? Don't you know what
a map is? There, there, never mind, don't explain, I hate
explanations; they fog a thing up so that you can't tell anything
about it. Run along, dear; good-day; show her the way, Clarence."
Oh, well, it was reasonably plain, now, why these donkeys didn't
prospect these liars for details. It may be that this girl had
a fact in her somewhere, but I don't believe you could have sluiced
it out with a hydraulic; nor got it with the earlier forms of
blasting, even; it was a case for dynamite. Why, she was a perfect
ass; and yet the king and his knights had listened to her as if
she had been a leaf out of the gospel. It kind of sizes up the
whole party. And think of the simple ways of this court: this
wandering wench hadn't any more trouble to get access to the king
in his palace than she would have had to get into the poorhouse
in my day and country. In fact, he was glad to see her, glad
to hear her tale; with that adventure of hers to offer, she was
as welcome as a corpse is to a coroner.
Just as I was ending-up these reflections, Clarence came back.
I remarked upon the barren result of my efforts with the girl;
hadn't got hold of a single point that could help me to find
the castle. The youth looked a little surprised, or puzzled,
or something, and intimated that he had been wondering to himself
what I had wanted to ask the girl all those questions for.
"Why, great guns," I said, "don't I want to find the castle? And
how else would I go about it?"
"La, sweet your worship, one may lightly answer that, I ween.
She will go with thee. They always do. She will ride with thee."
"Ride with me? Nonsense!"
"But of a truth she will. She will ride with thee. Thou shalt see."
"What? She browse around the hills and scour the woods with me--
alone--and I as good as engaged to be married? Why, it's scandalous.
Think how it would look."
My, the dear face that rose before me! The boy was eager to know
all about this tender matter. I swore him to secrecy and then
whispered her name--"Puss Flanagan." He looked disappointed,
and said he didn't remember the countess. How natural it was for
the little courtier to give her a rank. He asked me where she lived.
"In East Har--" I came to myself and stopped, a little confused;
then I said, "Never mind, now; I'll tell you some time."
And might he see her? Would I let him see her some day?
It was but a little thing to promise--thirteen hundred years
or so--and he so eager; so I said Yes. But I sighed; I couldn't
help it. And yet there was no sense in sighing, for she wasn't
born yet. But that is the way we are made: we don't reason,
where we feel; we just feel.
My expedition was all the talk that day and that night, and the
boys were very good to me, and made much of me, and seemed to have
forgotten their vexation and disappointment, and come to be as
anxious for me to hive those ogres and set those ripe old virgins
loose as if it were themselves that had the contract. Well, they
_were_ good children--but just children, that is all. And they
gave me no end of points about how to scout for giants, and how
to scoop them in; and they told me all sorts of charms against
enchantments, and gave me salves and other rubbish to put on my
wounds. But it never occurred to one of them to reflect that if
I was such a wonderful necromancer as I was pretending to be,
I ought not to need salves or instructions, or charms against
enchantments, and, least of all, arms and armor, on a foray of any
kind--even against fire-spouting dragons, and devils hot from
perdition, let alone such poor adversaries as these I was after,
these commonplace ogres of the back settlements.
I was to have an early breakfast, and start at dawn, for that was
the usual way; but I had the demon's own time with my armor,
and this delayed me a little. It is troublesome to get into, and
there is so much detail. First you wrap a layer or two of blanket
around your body, for a sort of cushion and to keep off the cold
iron; then you put on your sleeves and shirt of chain mail--these
are made of small steel links woven together, and they form a fabric
so flexible that if you toss your shirt onto the floor, it slumps
into a pile like a peck of wet fish-net; it is very heavy and
is nearly the uncomfortablest material in the world for a night
shirt, yet plenty used it for that--tax collectors, and reformers,
and one-horse kings with a defective title, and those sorts of
people; then you put on your shoes--flat-boats roofed over with
interleaving bands of steel--and screw your clumsy spurs into
the heels. Next you buckle your greaves on your legs, and your
cuisses on your thighs; then come your backplate and your breastplate,
and you begin to feel crowded; then you hitch onto the breastplate
the half-petticoat of broad overlapping bands of steel which hangs
down in front but is scolloped out behind so you can sit down,
and isn't any real improvement on an inverted coal scuttle, either
for looks or for wear, or to wipe your hands on; next you belt
on your sword; then you put your stove-pipe joints onto your arms,
your iron gauntlets onto your hands, your iron rat-trap onto your
head, with a rag of steel web hitched onto it to hang over the back
of your neck--and there you are, snug as a candle in a candle-mould.
This is no time to dance. Well, a man that is packed away like
that is a nut that isn't worth the cracking, there is so little of
the meat, when you get down to it, by comparison with the shell.
The boys helped me, or I never could have got in. Just as we
finished, Sir Bedivere happened in, and I saw that as like as not
I hadn't chosen the most convenient outfit for a long trip. How
stately he looked; and tall and broad and grand. He had on his
head a conical steel casque that only came down to his ears, and
for visor had only a narrow steel bar that extended down to his
upper lip and protected his nose; and all the rest of him, from
neck to heel, was flexible chain mail, trousers and all. But
pretty much all of him was hidden under his outside garment, which
of course was of chain mail, as I said, and hung straight from his
shoulders to his ankles; and from his middle to the bottom, both
before and behind, was divided, so that he could ride and let the
skirts hang down on each side. He was going grailing, and it was
just the outfit for it, too. I would have given a good deal for
that ulster, but it was too late now to be fooling around. The sun
was just up, the king and the court were all on hand to see me off
and wish me luck; so it wouldn't be etiquette for me to tarry.
You don't get on your horse yourself; no, if you tried it you
would get disappointed. They carry you out, just as they carry
a sun-struck man to the drug store, and put you on, and help get
you to rights, and fix your feet in the stirrups; and all the while
you do feel so strange and stuffy and like somebody else--like
somebody that has been married on a sudden, or struck by lightning,
or something like that, and hasn't quite fetched around yet, and
is sort of numb, and can't just get his bearings. Then they
stood up the mast they called a spear, in its socket by my left
foot, and I gripped it with my hand; lastly they hung my shield
around my neck, and I was all complete and ready to up anchor
and get to sea. Everybody was as good to me as they could be,
and a maid of honor gave me the stirrup-cup her own self. There was
nothing more to do now, but for that damsel to get up behind me on
a pillion, which she did, and put an arm or so around me to hold on.
And so we started, and everybody gave us a goodbye and waved their
handkerchiefs or helmets. And everybody we met, going down the hill
and through the village was respectful to us, except some shabby
little boys on the outskirts. They said:
"Oh, what a guy!" And hove clods at us.
In my experience boys are the same in all ages. They don't respect
anything, they don't care for anything or anybody. They say
"Go up, baldhead" to the prophet going his unoffending way in
the gray of antiquity; they sass me in the holy gloom of the
Middle Ages; and I had seen them act the same way in Buchanan's
administration; I remember, because I was there and helped. The
prophet had his bears and settled with his boys; and I wanted
to get down and settle with mine, but it wouldn't answer, because
I couldn't have got up again. I hate a country without a derrick.