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       A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Part 4., p.1

           Mark Twain
 
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A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court, Part 4.


  Produced by David Widger

  A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT

  by

  MARK TWAIN (Samuel L. Clemens)

  Part 4.

  CHAPTER XVII

  A ROYAL BANQUET

  Madame, seeing me pacific and unresentful, no doubt judged thatI was deceived by her excuse; for her fright dissolved away, andshe was soon so importunate to have me give an exhibition and killsomebody, that the thing grew to be embarrassing. However, to myrelief she was presently interrupted by the call to prayers. I willsay this much for the nobility: that, tyrannical, murderous,rapacious, and morally rotten as they were, they were deeply andenthusiastically religious. Nothing could divert them from theregular and faithful performance of the pieties enjoined by theChurch. More than once I had seen a noble who had gotten hisenemy at a disadvantage, stop to pray before cutting his throat;more than once I had seen a noble, after ambushing and despatchinghis enemy, retire to the nearest wayside shrine and humbly givethanks, without even waiting to rob the body. There was to benothing finer or sweeter in the life of even Benvenuto Cellini,that rough-hewn saint, ten centuries later. All the nobles ofBritain, with their families, attended divine service morning andnight daily, in their private chapels, and even the worst of themhad family worship five or six times a day besides. The creditof this belonged entirely to the Church. Although I was no friendto that Catholic Church, I was obliged to admit this. And often,in spite of me, I found myself saying, "What would this countrybe without the Church?"

  After prayers we had dinner in a great banqueting hall which waslighted by hundreds of grease-jets, and everything was as fine andlavish and rudely splendid as might become the royal degree of thehosts. At the head of the hall, on a dais, was the table of theking, queen, and their son, Prince Uwaine. Stretching down the hallfrom this, was the general table, on the floor. At this, abovethe salt, sat the visiting nobles and the grown members of theirfamilies, of both sexes,--the resident Court, in effect--sixty-onepersons; below the salt sat minor officers of the household, withtheir principal subordinates: altogether a hundred and eighteenpersons sitting, and about as many liveried servants standingbehind their chairs, or serving in one capacity or another. It wasa very fine show. In a gallery a band with cymbals, horns, harps,and other horrors, opened the proceedings with what seemed to bethe crude first-draft or original agony of the wail known to latercenturies as "In the Sweet Bye and Bye." It was new, and oughtto have been rehearsed a little more. For some reason or otherthe queen had the composer hanged, after dinner.

  After this music, the priest who stood behind the royal table saida noble long grace in ostensible Latin. Then the battalion ofwaiters broke away from their posts, and darted, rushed, flew,fetched and carried, and the mighty feeding began; no wordsanywhere, but absorbing attention to business. The rows of chopsopened and shut in vast unison, and the sound of it was like tothe muffled burr of subterranean machinery.

  The havoc continued an hour and a half, and unimaginable was thedestruction of substantials. Of the chief feature of the feast--the huge wild boar that lay stretched out so portly and imposingat the start--nothing was left but the semblance of a hoop-skirt;and he was but the type and symbol of what had happened to allthe other dishes.

  With the pastries and so on, the heavy drinking began--and the talk.Gallon after gallon of wine and mead disappeared, and everybodygot comfortable, then happy, then sparklingly joyous--both sexes,--and by and by pretty noisy. Men told anecdotes that were terrificto hear, but nobody blushed; and when the nub was sprung, theassemblage let go with a horse-laugh that shook the fortress.Ladies answered back with historiettes that would almost have madeQueen Margaret of Navarre or even the great Elizabeth of Englandhide behind a handkerchief, but nobody hid here, but only laughed--howled, you may say. In pretty much all of these dreadful stories,ecclesiastics were the hardy heroes, but that didn't worry thechaplain any, he had his laugh with the rest; more than that, uponinvitation he roared out a song which was of as daring a sort asany that was sung that night.

  By midnight everybody was fagged out, and sore with laughing; and,as a rule, drunk: some weepingly, some affectionately, somehilariously, some quarrelsomely, some dead and under the table.Of the ladies, the worst spectacle was a lovely young duchess, whosewedding-eve this was; and indeed she was a spectacle, sure enough.Just as she was she could have sat in advance for the portrait of theyoung daughter of the Regent d'Orleans, at the famous dinner whenceshe was carried, foul-mouthed, intoxicated, and helpless, to her bed,in the lost and lamented days of the Ancient Regime.

  Suddenly, even while the priest was lifting his hands, and allconscious heads were bowed in reverent expectation of the comingblessing, there appeared under the arch of the far-off door atthe bottom of the hall an old and bent and white-haired lady,leaning upon a crutch-stick; and she lifted the stick and pointed ittoward the queen and cried out:

  "The wrath and curse of God fall upon you, woman without pity,who have slain mine innocent grandchild and made desolate thisold heart that had nor chick, nor friend nor stay nor comfort inall this world but him!"

  Everybody crossed himself in a grisly fright, for a curse was anawful thing to those people; but the queen rose up majestic, withthe death-light in her eye, and flung back this ruthless command:

  "Lay hands on her! To the stake with her!"

  The guards left their posts to obey. It was a shame; it was acruel thing to see. What could be done? Sandy gave me a look;I knew she had another inspiration. I said:

  "Do what you choose."

  She was up and facing toward the queen in a moment. She indicatedme, and said:

  "Madame, _he_ saith this may not be. Recall the commandment, or hewill dissolve the castle and it shall vanish away like the instablefabric of a dream!"

  Confound it, what a crazy contract to pledge a person to! What ifthe queen--

  But my consternation subsided there, and my panic passed off;for the queen, all in a collapse, made no show of resistance butgave a countermanding sign and sunk into her seat. When she reachedit she was sober. So were many of the others. The assemblage rose,whiffed ceremony to the winds, and rushed for the door like a mob;overturning chairs, smashing crockery, tugging, struggling,shouldering, crowding--anything to get out before I should changemy mind and puff the castle into the measureless dim vacancies ofspace. Well, well, well, they _were_ a superstitious lot. It isall a body can do to conceive of it.

  The poor queen was so scared and humbled that she was even afraidto hang the composer without first consulting me. I was very sorryfor her--indeed, any one would have been, for she was reallysuffering; so I was willing to do anything that was reasonable, andhad no desire to carry things to wanton extremities. I thereforeconsidered the matter thoughtfully, and ended by having themusicians ordered into our presence to play that Sweet Bye andBye again, which they did. Then I saw that she was right, andgave her permission to hang the whole band. This little relaxationof sternness had a good effect upon the queen. A statesman gainslittle by the arbitrary exercise of iron-clad authority upon alloccasions that offer, for this wounds the just pride of hissubordinates, and thus tends to undermine his strength. A littleconcession, now and then, where it can do no harm, is the wiser policy.

  Now that the queen was at ease in her mind once more, and measurablyhappy, her wine naturally began to assert itself again, and it gota little the start of her. I mean it set her music going--her silverbell of a tongue. Dear me, she was a master talker. It wo
uld notbecome me to suggest that it was pretty late and that I was a tiredman and very sleepy. I wished I had gone off to bed when I hadthe chance. Now I must stick it out; there was no other way. Soshe tinkled along and along, in the otherwise profound and ghostlyhush of the sleeping castle, until by and by there came, as iffrom deep down under us, a far-away sound, as of a muffled shriek--with an expression of agony about it that made my flesh crawl.The queen stopped, and her eyes lighted with pleasure; she tiltedher graceful head as a bird does when it listens. The sound boredits way up through the stillness again.

  "What is it?" I said.

  "It is truly a stubborn soul, and endureth long. It is many hours now."

  "Endureth what?"

  "The rack. Come--ye shall see a blithe sight. An he yield nothis secret now, ye shall see him torn asunder."

  What a silky smooth hellion she was; and so composed and serene,when the cords all down my legs were hurting in sympathy with thatman's pain. Conducted by mailed guards bearing flaring torches,we tramped along echoing corridors, and down stone stairways dankand dripping, and smelling of mould and ages of imprisoned night--a chill, uncanny journey and a long one, and not made the shorteror the cheerier by the sorceress's talk, which was about thissufferer and his crime. He had been accused by an anonymousinformer, of having killed a stag in the royal preserves. I said:

  "Anonymous testimony isn't just the right thing, your Highness.It were fairer to confront the accused with the accuser."

  "I had not thought of that, it being but of small consequence.But an I would, I could not, for that the accuser came masked bynight, and told the forester, and straightway got him hence again,and so the forester knoweth him not."

  "Then is this Unknown the only person who saw the stag killed?"

  "Marry, _no_ man _saw_ the killing, but this Unknown saw this hardywretch near to the spot where the stag lay, and came with rightloyal zeal and betrayed him to the forester."

  "So the Unknown was near the dead stag, too? Isn't it just possiblethat he did the killing himself? His loyal zeal--in a mask--looksjust a shade suspicious. But what is your highness's idea forracking the prisoner? Where is the profit?"

  "He will not confess, else; and then were his soul lost. For hiscrime his life is forfeited by the law--and of a surety will I seethat he payeth it!--but it were peril to my own soul to let himdie unconfessed and unabsolved. Nay, I were a fool to fling meinto hell for _his_ accommodation."

  "But, your Highness, suppose he has nothing to confess?"

  "As to that, we shall see, anon. An I rack him to death and heconfess not, it will peradventure show that he had indeed naughtto confess--ye will grant that that is sooth? Then shall I not bedamned for an unconfessed man that had naught to confess--wherefore, I shall be safe."

  It was the stubborn unreasoning of the time. It was useless toargue with her. Arguments have no chance against petrifiedtraining; they wear it as little as the waves wear a cliff. Andher training was everybody's. The brightest intellect in the landwould not have been able to see that her position was defective.

  As we entered the rack-cell I caught a picture that will not gofrom me; I wish it would. A native young giant of thirty orthereabouts lay stretched upon the frame on his back, with hiswrists and ankles tied to ropes which led over windlasses at eitherend. There was no color in him; his features were contorted andset, and sweat-drops stood upon his forehead. A priest bent overhim on each side; the executioner stood by; guards were on duty;smoking torches stood in sockets along the walls; in a cornercrouched a poor young creature, her face drawn with anguish,a half-wild and hunted look in her eyes, and in her lap lay a littlechild asleep. Just as we stepped across the threshold theexecutioner gave his machine a slight turn, which wrung a cryfrom both the prisoner and the woman; but I shouted, and theexecutioner released the strain without waiting to see who spoke.I could not let this horror go on; it would have killed me tosee it. I asked the queen to let me clear the place and speakto the prisoner privately; and when she was going to object I spokein a low voice and said I did not want to make a scene beforeher servants, but I must have my way; for I was King Arthur'srepresentative, and was speaking in his name. She saw she hadto yield. I asked her to indorse me to these people, and thenleave me. It was not pleasant for her, but she took the pill;and even went further than I was meaning to require. I only wantedthe backing of her own authority; but she said:

  "Ye will do in all things as this lord shall command. It is The Boss."

  It was certainly a good word to conjure with: you could see itby the squirming of these rats. The queen's guards fell into line,and she and they marched away, with their torch-bearers, and wokethe echoes of the cavernous tunnels with the measured beat of theirretreating footfalls. I had the prisoner taken from the rack andplaced upon his bed, and medicaments applied to his hurts, andwine given him to drink. The woman crept near and looked on,eagerly, lovingly, but timorously,--like one who fears a repulse;indeed, she tried furtively to touch the man's forehead, and jumpedback, the picture of fright, when I turned unconsciously towardher. It was pitiful to see.

  "Lord," I said, "stroke him, lass, if you want to. Do anythingyou're a mind to; don't mind me."

  Why, her eyes were as grateful as an animal's, when you do ita kindness that it understands. The baby was out of her way andshe had her cheek against the man's in a minute and her handsfondling his hair, and her happy tears running down. The manrevived and caressed his wife with his eyes, which was all hecould do. I judged I might clear the den, now, and I did; clearedit of all but the family and myself. Then I said:

  "Now, my friend, tell me your side of this matter; I knowthe other side."

  The man moved his head in sign of refusal. But the woman lookedpleased--as it seemed to me--pleased with my suggestion. I went on--

  "You know of me?"

  "Yes. All do, in Arthur's realms."

  "If my reputation has come to you right and straight, you shouldnot be afraid to speak."

  The woman broke in, eagerly:

  "Ah, fair my lord, do thou persuade him! Thou canst an thou wilt.Ah, he suffereth so; and it is for me--for _me_! And how can I bear it?I would I might see him die--a sweet, swift death; oh, my Hugo,I cannot bear this one!"

  And she fell to sobbing and grovelling about my feet, and stillimploring. Imploring what? The man's death? I could not quiteget the bearings of the thing. But Hugo interrupted her and said:

  "Peace! Ye wit not what ye ask. Shall I starve whom I love,to win a gentle death? I wend thou knewest me better."

  "Well," I said, "I can't quite make this out. It is a puzzle. Now--"

  "Ah, dear my lord, an ye will but persuade him! Consider howthese his tortures wound me! Oh, and he will not speak!--whereas,the healing, the solace that lie in a blessed swift death--"

  "What _are_ you maundering about? He's going out from here a freeman and whole--he's not going to die."

  The man's white face lit up, and the woman flung herself at mein a most surprising explosion of joy, and cried out:

  "He is saved!--for it is the king's word by the mouth of the king'sservant--Arthur, the king whose word is gold!"

  "Well, then you do believe I can be trusted, after all. Whydidn't you before?"

  "Who doubted? Not I, indeed; and not she."

  "Well, why wouldn't you tell me your story, then?"

  "Ye had made no promise; else had it been otherwise."

  "I see, I see.... And yet I believe I don't quite see, after all.You stood the torture and refused to confess; which shows plainenough to even the dullest understanding that you had nothingto confess--"

  "I, my lord? How so? It was I that killed the deer!"

  "You _did_? Oh, dear, this is the most mixed-up business that ever--"

  "Dear lord, I begged him on my knees to confess, but--"

  "You _did_! It gets thicker and thicker. What did you want himto do that for?"

  "Sith it
would bring him a quick death and save him all thiscruel pain."

  "Well--yes, there is reason in that. But _he_ didn't want thequick death."

  "He? Why, of a surety he _did_."

  "Well, then, why in the world _didn't_ he confess?"

  "Ah, sweet sir, and leave my wife and chick without bread and shelter?"

  "Oh, heart of gold, now I see it! The bitter law takes the convictedman's estate and beggars his widow and his orphans. They couldtorture you to death, but without conviction or confession theycould not rob your wife and baby. You stood by them like a man;and _you_--true wife and the woman that you are--you would havebought him release from torture at cost to yourself of slowstarvation and death--well, it humbles a body to think what yoursex can do when it comes to self-sacrifice. I'll book you bothfor my colony; you'll like it there; it's a Factory where I'm goingto turn groping and grubbing automata into _men_."

 
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