A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur''s Court, Part 3. eBook: Page2

Mark Twain (2004)


  CHAPTER XIII

  FREEMEN

  Yes, it is strange how little a while at a time a person can becontented. Only a little while back, when I was riding andsuffering, what a heaven this peace, this rest, this sweet serenityin this secluded shady nook by this purling stream would haveseemed, where I could keep perfectly comfortable all the timeby pouring a dipper of water into my armor now and then; yetalready I was getting dissatisfied; partly because I could notlight my pipe--for, although I had long ago started a match factory,I had forgotten to bring matches with me--and partly because wehad nothing to eat. Here was another illustration of the childlikeimprovidence of this age and people. A man in armor always trustedto chance for his food on a journey, and would have been scandalizedat the idea of hanging a basket of sandwiches on his spear. Therewas probably not a knight of all the Round Table combination whowould not rather have died than been caught carrying such a thingas that on his flagstaff. And yet there could not be anything moresensible. It had been my intention to smuggle a couple of sandwichesinto my helmet, but I was interrupted in the act, and had to makean excuse and lay them aside, and a dog got them.

  Night approached, and with it a storm. The darkness came on fast.We must camp, of course. I found a good shelter for the demoiselleunder a rock, and went off and found another for myself. ButI was obliged to remain in my armor, because I could not get it offby myself and yet could not allow Alisande to help, because itwould have seemed so like undressing before folk. It would nothave amounted to that in reality, because I had clothes onunderneath; but the prejudices of one's breeding are not gottenrid of just at a jump, and I knew that when it came to strippingoff that bob-tailed iron petticoat I should be embarrassed.

  With the storm came a change of weather; and the stronger the windblew, and the wilder the rain lashed around, the colder and colderit got. Pretty soon, various kinds of bugs and ants and wormsand things began to flock in out of the wet and crawl down insidemy armor to get warm; and while some of them behaved well enough,and snuggled up amongst my clothes and got quiet, the majoritywere of a restless, uncomfortable sort, and never stayed still,but went on prowling and hunting for they did not know what;especially the ants, which went tickling along in wearisomeprocession from one end of me to the other by the hour, and area kind of creatures which I never wish to sleep with again.It would be my advice to persons situated in this way, to not rollor thrash around, because this excites the interest of all thedifferent sorts of animals and makes every last one of them wantto turn out and see what is going on, and this makes things worsethan they were before, and of course makes you objurgate harder,too, if you can. Still, if one did not roll and thrash aroundhe would die; so perhaps it is as well to do one way as the other;there is no real choice. Even after I was frozen solid I couldstill distinguish that tickling, just as a corpse does when he istaking electric treatment. I said I would never wear armorafter this trip.

  All those trying hours whilst I was frozen and yet was in a livingfire, as you may say, on account of that swarm of crawlers, thatsame unanswerable question kept circling and circling through mytired head: How do people stand this miserable armor? How havethey managed to stand it all these generations? How can they sleepat night for dreading the tortures of next day?

  When the morning came at last, I was in a bad enough plight: seedy,drowsy, fagged, from want of sleep; weary from thrashing around,famished from long fasting; pining for a bath, and to get rid ofthe animals; and crippled with rheumatism. And how had it faredwith the nobly born, the titled aristocrat, the Demoiselle Alisandela Carteloise? Why, she was as fresh as a squirrel; she had sleptlike the dead; and as for a bath, probably neither she nor anyother noble in the land had ever had one, and so she was notmissing it. Measured by modern standards, they were merely modifiedsavages, those people. This noble lady showed no impatience to getto breakfast--and that smacks of the savage, too. On their journeysthose Britons were used to long fasts, and knew how to bear them;and also how to freight up against probable fasts before starting,after the style of the Indian and the anaconda. As like as not,Sandy was loaded for a three-day stretch.

  We were off before sunrise, Sandy riding and I limping alongbehind. In half an hour we came upon a group of ragged poorcreatures who had assembled to mend the thing which was regardedas a road. They were as humble as animals to me; and when Iproposed to breakfast with them, they were so flattered, sooverwhelmed by this extraordinary condescension of mine thatat first they were not able to believe that I was in earnest.My lady put up her scornful lip and withdrew to one side; she saidin their hearing that she would as soon think of eating with theother cattle--a remark which embarrassed these poor devils merelybecause it referred to them, and not because it insulted or offendedthem, for it didn't. And yet they were not slaves, not chattels.By a sarcasm of law and phrase they were freemen. Seven-tenthsof the free population of the country were of just their class anddegree: small "independent" farmers, artisans, etc.; which isto say, they were the nation, the actual Nation; they were aboutall of it that was useful, or worth saving, or really respect-worthy,and to subtract them would have been to subtract the Nation andleave behind some dregs, some refuse, in the shape of a king,nobility and gentry, idle, unproductive, acquainted mainly withthe arts of wasting and destroying, and of no sort of use or valuein any rationally constructed world. And yet, by ingeniouscontrivance, this gilded minority, instead of being in the tailof the procession where it belonged, was marching head up andbanners flying, at the other end of it; had elected itself to bethe Nation, and these innumerable clams had permitted it so longthat they had come at last to accept it as a truth; and not onlythat, but to believe it right and as it should be. The priestshad told their fathers and themselves that this ironical stateof things was ordained of God; and so, not reflecting upon howunlike God it would be to amuse himself with sarcasms, and especiallysuch poor transparent ones as this, they had dropped the matterthere and become respectfully quiet.

  The talk of these meek people had a strange enough sound ina formerly American ear. They were freemen, but they could notleave the estates of their lord or their bishop without hispermission; they could not prepare their own bread, but must havetheir corn ground and their bread baked at his mill and his bakery,and pay roundly for the same; they could not sell a piece of theirown property without paying him a handsome percentage of theproceeds, nor buy a piece of somebody else's without rememberinghim in cash for the privilege; they had to harvest his grain for himgratis, and be ready to come at a moment's notice, leaving theirown crop to destruction by the threatened storm; they had to lethim plant fruit trees in their fields, and then keep their indignationto themselves when his heedless fruit-gatherers trampled the grainaround the trees; they had to smother their anger when his huntingparties galloped through their fields laying waste the result oftheir patient toil; they were not allowed to keep doves themselves,and when the swarms from my lord's dovecote settled on their cropsthey must not lose their temper and kill a bird, for awful wouldthe penalty be; when the harvest was at last gathered, then camethe procession of robbers to levy their blackmail upon it: firstthe Church carted off its fat tenth, then the king's commissionertook his twentieth, then my lord's people made a mighty inroadupon the remainder; after which, the skinned freeman had libertyto bestow the remnant in his barn, in case it was worth the trouble;there were taxes, and taxes, and taxes, and more taxes, and taxesagain, and yet other taxes--upon this free and independent pauper,but none upon his lord the baron or the bishop, none upon thewasteful nobility or the all-devouring Church; if the baron wouldsleep unvexed, the freeman must sit up all night after his day'swork and whip the ponds to keep the frogs quiet; if the freeman'sdaughter--but no, that last infamy of monarchical government isunprintable; and finally, if the freeman, grown desperate with histortures, found his life unendurable under such conditions, andsacrificed it and fled to death for mercy and refuge, the gentleChurch condemned him to eternal fire, the gen
tle law buried himat midnight at the cross-roads with a stake through his back,and his master the baron or the bishop confiscated all his propertyand turned his widow and his orphans out of doors.

  And here were these freemen assembled in the early morning to workon their lord the bishop's road three days each--gratis; everyhead of a family, and every son of a family, three days each,gratis, and a day or so added for their servants. Why, it waslike reading about France and the French, before the ever memorableand blessed Revolution, which swept a thousand years of suchvillany away in one swift tidal-wave of blood--one: a settlementof that hoary debt in the proportion of half a drop of blood foreach hogshead of it that had been pressed by slow tortures out ofthat people in the weary stretch of ten centuries of wrong andshame and misery the like of which was not to be mated but in hell.There were two "Reigns of Terror," if we would but remember itand consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the otherin heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other hadlasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousandpersons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders areall for the "horrors" of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror,so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe,compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty,and heart-break? What is swift death by lightning compared withdeath by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain thecoffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been sodiligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France couldhardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror--that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us hasbeen taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.

  These poor ostensible freemen who were sharing their breakfastand their talk with me, were as full of humble reverence for theirking and Church and nobility as their worst enemy could desire.There was something pitifully ludicrous about it. I asked themif they supposed a nation of people ever existed, who, with a freevote in every man's hand, would elect that a single family and itsdescendants should reign over it forever, whether gifted or boobies,to the exclusion of all other families--including the voter's; andwould also elect that a certain hundred families should be raisedto dizzy summits of rank, and clothed on with offensive transmissibleglories and privileges to the exclusion of the rest of the nation'sfamilies--_including his own_.

  They all looked unhit, and said they didn't know; that they hadnever thought about it before, and it hadn't ever occurred to themthat a nation could be so situated that every man _could_ havea say in the government. I said I had seen one--and that it wouldlast until it had an Established Church. Again they were allunhit--at first. But presently one man looked up and asked meto state that proposition again; and state it slowly, so it couldsoak into his understanding. I did it; and after a little he hadthe idea, and he brought his fist down and said _he_ didn't believea nation where every man had a vote would voluntarily get downin the mud and dirt in any such way; and that to steal from a nationits will and preference must be a crime and the first of all crimes.I said to myself:

  "This one's a man. If I were backed by enough of his sort, I wouldmake a strike for the welfare of this country, and try to provemyself its loyalest citizen by making a wholesome change in itssystem of government."

  You see my kind of loyalty was loyalty to one's country, not toits institutions or its office-holders. The country is the realthing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thingto watch over, and care for, and be loyal to; institutions areextraneous, they are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out,become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the bodyfrom winter, disease, and death. To be loyal to rags, to shoutfor rags, to worship rags, to die for rags--that is a loyaltyof unreason, it is pure animal; it belongs to monarchy, was inventedby monarchy; let monarchy keep it. I was from Connecticut, whoseConstitution declares "that all political power is inherent inthe people, and all free governments are founded on their authorityand instituted for their benefit; and that they have _at all times_an undeniable and indefeasible right to _alter their form ofgovernment_ in such a manner as they may think expedient."

  Under that gospel, the citizen who thinks he sees that thecommonwealth's political clothes are worn out, and yet holds hispeace and does not agitate for a new suit, is disloyal; he isa traitor. That he may be the only one who thinks he sees thisdecay, does not excuse him; it is his duty to agitate anyway, andit is the duty of the others to vote him down if they do not seethe matter as he does.

  And now here I was, in a country where a right to say how thecountry should be governed was restricted to six persons in eachthousand of its population. For the nine hundred and ninety-fourto express dissatisfaction with the regnant system and proposeto change it, would have made the whole six shudder as one man,it would have been so disloyal, so dishonorable, such putrid blacktreason. So to speak, I was become a stockholder in a corporationwhere nine hundred and ninety-four of the members furnished allthe money and did all the work, and the other six elected themselvesa permanent board of direction and took all the dividends. It seemedto me that what the nine hundred and ninety-four dupes needed wasa new deal. The thing that would have best suited the circus sideof my nature would have been to resign the Boss-ship and get upan insurrection and turn it into a revolution; but I knew that theJack Cade or the Wat Tyler who tries such a thing without firsteducating his materials up to revolution grade is almost absolutelycertain to get left. I had never been accustomed to getting left,even if I do say it myself. Wherefore, the "deal" which had beenfor some time working into shape in my mind was of a quite differentpattern from the Cade-Tyler sort.

  So I did not talk blood and insurrection to that man there who satmunching black bread with that abused and mistaught herd of humansheep, but took him aside and talked matter of another sort to him.After I had finished, I got him to lend me a little ink from hisveins; and with this and a sliver I wrote on a piece of bark--

  Put him in the Man-factory--

  and gave it to him, and said:

  "Take it to the palace at Camelot and give it into the hands ofAmyas le Poulet, whom I call Clarence, and he will understand."

  "He is a priest, then," said the man, and some of the enthusiasmwent out of his face.

  "How--a priest? Didn't I tell you that no chattel of the Church,no bond-slave of pope or bishop can enter my Man-Factory? Didn'tI tell you that _you_ couldn't enter unless your religion, whateverit might be, was your own free property?"

  "Marry, it is so, and for that I was glad; wherefore it liked me not,and bred in me a cold doubt, to hear of this priest being there."

  "But he isn't a priest, I tell you."

  The man looked far from satisfied. He said:

  "He is not a priest, and yet can read?"

  "He is not a priest and yet can read--yes, and write, too, for thatmatter. I taught him myself." The man's face cleared. "And it isthe first thing that you yourself will be taught in that Factory--"

  "I? I would give blood out of my heart to know that art. Why,I will be your slave, your--"

  "No you won't, you won't be anybody's slave. Take your familyand go along. Your lord the bishop will confiscate your smallproperty, but no matter. Clarence will fix you all right."