About bedtime I took the king to my private quarters to cut his
hair and help him get the hang of the lowly raiment he was to wear.
The high classes wore their hair banged across the forehead but
hanging to the shoulders the rest of the way around, whereas the
lowest ranks of commoners were banged fore and aft both; the slaves
were bangless, and allowed their hair free growth. So I inverted
a bowl over his head and cut away all the locks that hung below it.
I also trimmed his whiskers and mustache until they were only
about a half-inch long; and tried to do it inartistically, and
succeeded. It was a villainous disfigurement. When he got his
lubberly sandals on, and his long robe of coarse brown linen cloth,
which hung straight from his neck to his ankle-bones, he was no
longer the comeliest man in his kingdom, but one of the unhandsomest
and most commonplace and unattractive. We were dressed and barbered
alike, and could pass for small farmers, or farm bailiffs, or
shepherds, or carters; yes, or for village artisans, if we chose,
our costume being in effect universal among the poor, because of
its strength and cheapness. I don't mean that it was really cheap
to a very poor person, but I do mean that it was the cheapest
material there was for male attire--manufactured material, you
We slipped away an hour before dawn, and by broad sun-up had made
eight or ten miles, and were in the midst of a sparsely settled
country. I had a pretty heavy knapsack; it was laden with
provisions--provisions for the king to taper down on, till he
could take to the coarse fare of the country without damage.
I found a comfortable seat for the king by the roadside, and then
gave him a morsel or two to stay his stomach with. Then I said
I would find some water for him, and strolled away. Part of my
project was to get out of sight and sit down and rest a little
myself. It had always been my custom to stand when in his presence;
even at the council board, except upon those rare occasions when
the sitting was a very long one, extending over hours; then I had
a trifling little backless thing which was like a reversed culvert
and was as comfortable as the toothache. I didn't want to break
him in suddenly, but do it by degrees. We should have to sit
together now when in company, or people would notice; but it would
not be good politics for me to be playing equality with him when
there was no necessity for it.
I found the water some three hundred yards away, and had been
resting about twenty minutes, when I heard voices. That is all
right, I thought--peasants going to work; nobody else likely to be
stirring this early. But the next moment these comers jingled into
sight around a turn of the road--smartly clad people of quality,
with luggage-mules and servants in their train! I was off like
a shot, through the bushes, by the shortest cut. For a while it
did seem that these people would pass the king before I could
get to him; but desperation gives you wings, you know, and I canted
my body forward, inflated my breast, and held my breath and flew.
I arrived. And in plenty good enough time, too.
"Pardon, my king, but it's no time for ceremony--jump! Jump to
your feet--some quality are coming!"
"Is that a marvel? Let them come."
"But my liege! You must not be seen sitting. Rise!--and stand in
humble posture while they pass. You are a peasant, you know."
"True--I had forgot it, so lost was I in planning of a huge war
with Gaul"--he was up by this time, but a farm could have got up
quicker, if there was any kind of a boom in real estate--"and
right-so a thought came randoming overthwart this majestic dream
"A humbler attitude, my lord the king--and quick! Duck your head!
--more!--still more!--droop it!"
He did his honest best, but lord, it was no great things. He looked
as humble as the leaning tower at Pisa. It is the most you could
say of it. Indeed, it was such a thundering poor success that
it raised wondering scowls all along the line, and a gorgeous
flunkey at the tail end of it raised his whip; but I jumped in
time and was under it when it fell; and under cover of the volley
of coarse laughter which followed, I spoke up sharply and warned
the king to take no notice. He mastered himself for the moment,
but it was a sore tax; he wanted to eat up the procession. I said:
"It would end our adventures at the very start; and we, being
without weapons, could do nothing with that armed gang. If we
are going to succeed in our emprise, we must not only look the
peasant but act the peasant."
"It is wisdom; none can gainsay it. Let us go on, Sir Boss.
I will take note and learn, and do the best I may."
He kept his word. He did the best he could, but I've seen better.
If you have ever seen an active, heedless, enterprising child
going diligently out of one mischief and into another all day
long, and an anxious mother at its heels all the while, and just
saving it by a hair from drowning itself or breaking its neck with
each new experiment, you've seen the king and me.
If I could have foreseen what the thing was going to be like,
I should have said, No, if anybody wants to make his living
exhibiting a king as a peasant, let him take the layout; I can
do better with a menagerie, and last longer. And yet, during
the first three days I never allowed him to enter a hut or other
dwelling. If he could pass muster anywhere during his early
novitiate it would be in small inns and on the road; so to these
places we confined ourselves. Yes, he certainly did the best he
could, but what of that? He didn't improve a bit that I could see.
He was always frightening me, always breaking out with fresh
astonishers, in new and unexpected places. Toward evening on
the second day, what does he do but blandly fetch out a dirk
from inside his robe!
"Great guns, my liege, where did you get that?"
"From a smuggler at the inn, yester eve."
"What in the world possessed you to buy it?"
"We have escaped divers dangers by wit--thy wit--but I have
bethought me that it were but prudence if I bore a weapon, too.
Thine might fail thee in some pinch."
"But people of our condition are not allowed to carry arms. What
would a lord say--yes, or any other person of whatever condition--
if he caught an upstart peasant with a dagger on his person?"
It was a lucky thing for us that nobody came along just then.
I persuaded him to throw the dirk away; and it was as easy as
persuading a child to give up some bright fresh new way of killing
itself. We walked along, silent and thinking. Finally the king said:
"When ye know that I meditate a thing inconvenient, or that hath
a peril in it, why do you not warn me to cease from that project?"
It was a startling question, and a puzzler. I didn't quite know
how to take hold of it, or what to say, and so, of course, I ended
by saying the natural thing:
"But, sire, how can I know what your thoughts are?"
The king stopped dead in his tracks, and stared at me.
"I believed thou wert greater than Merlin; and truly in magic
thou art. But prophecy is greater than magic. Merlin is a prophet."
I saw I had made a blunder. I must get back my lost ground.
After a deep reflection and careful planning, I said:
"Sire, I have been misunderstood. I will explain. There are two
kinds of prophecy. One is the gift to foretell things that are but
a little way off, the other is the gift to foretell things that
are whole ages and centuries away. Which is the mightier gift,
do you think?"
"Oh, the last, most surely!"
"True. Does Merlin possess it?"
"Partly, yes. He foretold mysteries about my birth and future
kingship that were twenty years away."
"Has he ever gone beyond that?"
"He would not claim more, I think."
"It is probably his limit. All prophets have their limit. The limit
of some of the great prophets has been a hundred years."
"These are few, I ween."
"There have been two still greater ones, whose limit was four
hundred and six hundred years, and one whose limit compassed
even seven hundred and twenty."
"Gramercy, it is marvelous!"
"But what are these in comparison with me? They are nothing."
"What? Canst thou truly look beyond even so vast a stretch
of time as--"
"Seven hundred years? My liege, as clear as the vision of an eagle
does my prophetic eye penetrate and lay bare the future of this
world for nearly thirteen centuries and a half!"
My land, you should have seen the king's eyes spread slowly open,
and lift the earth's entire atmosphere as much as an inch! That
settled Brer Merlin. One never had any occasion to prove his
facts, with these people; all he had to do was to state them. It
never occurred to anybody to doubt the statement.
"Now, then," I continued, "I _could_ work both kinds of prophecy--
the long and the short--if I chose to take the trouble to keep
in practice; but I seldom exercise any but the long kind, because
the other is beneath my dignity. It is properer to Merlin's sort--
stump-tail prophets, as we call them in the profession. Of course,
I whet up now and then and flirt out a minor prophecy, but not
often--hardly ever, in fact. You will remember that there was
great talk, when you reached the Valley of Holiness, about my
having prophesied your coming and the very hour of your arrival,
two or three days beforehand."
"Indeed, yes, I mind it now."
"Well, I could have done it as much as forty times easier, and
piled on a thousand times more detail into the bargain, if it had
been five hundred years away instead of two or three days."
"How amazing that it should be so!"
"Yes, a genuine expert can always foretell a thing that is five
hundred years away easier than he can a thing that's only five
hundred seconds off."
"And yet in reason it should clearly be the other way; it should
be five hundred times as easy to foretell the last as the first,
for, indeed, it is so close by that one uninspired might almost
see it. In truth, the law of prophecy doth contradict the likelihoods,
most strangely making the difficult easy, and the easy difficult."
It was a wise head. A peasant's cap was no safe disguise for it;
you could know it for a king's under a diving-bell, if you could
hear it work its intellect.
I had a new trade now, and plenty of business in it. The king
was as hungry to find out everything that was going to happen
during the next thirteen centuries as if he were expecting to live
in them. From that time out, I prophesied myself bald-headed
trying to supply the demand. I have done some indiscreet things in
my day, but this thing of playing myself for a prophet was the
worst. Still, it had its ameliorations. A prophet doesn't have
to have any brains. They are good to have, of course, for the
ordinary exigencies of life, but they are no use in professional
work. It is the restfulest vocation there is. When the spirit of
prophecy comes upon you, you merely cake your intellect and lay it
off in a cool place for a rest, and unship your jaw and leave it
alone; it will work itself: the result is prophecy.
Every day a knight-errant or so came along, and the sight of them
fired the king's martial spirit every time. He would have forgotten
himself, sure, and said something to them in a style a suspicious
shade or so above his ostensible degree, and so I always got him
well out of the road in time. Then he would stand and look with
all his eyes; and a proud light would flash from them, and his
nostrils would inflate like a war-horse's, and I knew he was
longing for a brush with them. But about noon of the third day
I had stopped in the road to take a precaution which had been
suggested by the whip-stroke that had fallen to my share two days
before; a precaution which I had afterward decided to leave untaken,
I was so loath to institute it; but now I had just had a fresh
reminder: while striding heedlessly along, with jaw spread and
intellect at rest, for I was prophesying, I stubbed my toe and
fell sprawling. I was so pale I couldn't think for a moment;
then I got softly and carefully up and unstrapped my knapsack.
I had that dynamite bomb in it, done up in wool in a box. It was
a good thing to have along; the time would come when I could do
a valuable miracle with it, maybe, but it was a nervous thing
to have about me, and I didn't like to ask the king to carry it.
Yet I must either throw it away or think up some safe way to get
along with its society. I got it out and slipped it into my scrip,
and just then here came a couple of knights. The king stood,
stately as a statue, gazing toward them--had forgotten himself again,
of course--and before I could get a word of warning out, it was
time for him to skip, and well that he did it, too. He supposed
they would turn aside. Turn aside to avoid trampling peasant dirt
under foot? When had he ever turned aside himself--or ever had
the chance to do it, if a peasant saw him or any other noble knight
in time to judiciously save him the trouble? The knights paid
no attention to the king at all; it was his place to look out
himself, and if he hadn't skipped he would have been placidly
ridden down, and laughed at besides.
The king was in a flaming fury, and launched out his challenge
and epithets with a most royal vigor. The knights were some little
distance by now. They halted, greatly surprised, and turned in
their saddles and looked back, as if wondering if it might be worth
while to bother with such scum as we. Then they wheeled and
started for us. Not a moment must be lost. I started for _them_.
I passed them at a rattling gait, and as I went by I flung out a
hair-lifting soul-scorching thirteen-jointed insult which made
the king's effort poor and cheap by comparison. I got it out of
the nineteenth century where they know how. They had such headway
that they were nearly to the king before they could check up;
then, frantic with rage, they stood up their horses on their hind
hoofs and whirled them around, and the next moment here they came,
breast to breast. I was seventy yards off, then, and scrambling up
a great bowlder at the roadside. When they were within thirty
yards of me they let their long lances droop to a level, depressed
their mailed heads, and so, with their horse-hair plumes streaming
straight out behind, most gallant to see, this lightning express
came tearing for me! When they were within fifteen yards, I sent
that bomb with a sure aim, and it struck the ground just under
the horses' noses.
Yes, it was a neat thing, very neat and pretty to see. It resembled
a steamboat explosion on the Mississippi; and during the next
fifteen minutes we stood under a steady drizzle of microscopic
fragments of knights and hardware and horse-flesh. I say we,
for the king joined the audience, of course, as soon as he had got
his breath again. There was a hole there which would afford steady
work for all the people in that region for some years to come--
in trying to explain it, I mean; as for filling it up, that service
would be comparatively prompt, and would fall to the lot of a
select few--peasants of that seignory; and they wouldn't get
anything for it, either.
But I explained it to the king myself. I said it was done with a
dynamite bomb. This information did him no damage, because it
left him as intelligent as he was before. However, it was a noble
miracle, in his eyes, and was another settler for Merlin. I thought
it well enough to explain that this was a miracle of so rare a sort
that it couldn't be done except when the atmospheric conditions
were just right. Otherwise he would be encoring it every time we
had a good subject, and that would be inconvenient, because I
hadn't any more bombs along.