A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur''s Court, Part 4. eBook: Page2

Mark Twain (2004)


  CHAPTER XVIII

  IN THE QUEEN'S DUNGEONS

  Well, I arranged all that; and I had the man sent to his home.I had a great desire to rack the executioner; not because he wasa good, painstaking and paingiving official,--for surely it wasnot to his discredit that he performed his functions well--but topay him back for wantonly cuffing and otherwise distressing thatyoung woman. The priests told me about this, and were generouslyhot to have him punished. Something of this disagreeable sortwas turning up every now and then. I mean, episodes that showedthat not all priests were frauds and self-seekers, but that many,even the great majority, of these that were down on the groundamong the common people, were sincere and right-hearted, anddevoted to the alleviation of human troubles and sufferings.Well, it was a thing which could not be helped, so I seldom frettedabout it, and never many minutes at a time; it has never been myway to bother much about things which you can't cure. But I didnot like it, for it was just the sort of thing to keep peoplereconciled to an Established Church. We _must_ have a religion--it goes without saying--but my idea is, to have it cut up intoforty free sects, so that they will police each other, as had beenthe case in the United States in my time. Concentration of powerin a political machine is bad; and and an Established Church isonly a political machine; it was invented for that; it is nursed,cradled, preserved for that; it is an enemy to human liberty, anddoes no good which it could not better do in a split-up and scatteredcondition. That wasn't law; it wasn't gospel: it was onlyan opinion--my opinion, and I was only a man, one man: so it wasn'tworth any more than the pope's--or any less, for that matter.

  Well, I couldn't rack the executioner, neither would I overlookthe just complaint of the priests. The man must be punishedsomehow or other, so I degraded him from his office and made himleader of the band--the new one that was to be started. He beggedhard, and said he couldn't play--a plausible excuse, but too thin;there wasn't a musician in the country that could.

  The queen was a good deal outraged, next morning when she foundshe was going to have neither Hugo's life nor his property. ButI told her she must bear this cross; that while by law and customshe certainly was entitled to both the man's life and his property,there were extenuating circumstances, and so in Arthur the king'sname I had pardoned him. The deer was ravaging the man's fields,and he had killed it in sudden passion, and not for gain; and hehad carried it into the royal forest in the hope that that might makedetection of the misdoer impossible. Confound her, I couldn'tmake her see that sudden passion is an extenuating circumstancein the killing of venison--or of a person--so I gave it up and lether sulk it out. I _did_ think I was going to make her see it byremarking that her own sudden passion in the case of the pagemodified that crime.

  "Crime!" she exclaimed. "How thou talkest! Crime, forsooth!Man, I am going to _pay_ for him!"

  Oh, it was no use to waste sense on her. Training--training iseverything; training is all there is _to_ a person. We speak ofnature; it is folly; there is no such thing as nature; what wecall by that misleading name is merely heredity and training.We have no thoughts of our own, no opinions of our own; they aretransmitted to us, trained into us. All that is original in us,and therefore fairly creditable or discreditable to us, can becovered up and hidden by the point of a cambric needle, all therest being atoms contributed by, and inherited from, a processionof ancestors that stretches back a billion years to the Adam-clamor grasshopper or monkey from whom our race has been so tediouslyand ostentatiously and unprofitably developed. And as for me,all that I think about in this plodding sad pilgrimage, thispathetic drift between the eternities, is to look out and humblylive a pure and high and blameless life, and save that onemicroscopic atom in me that is truly _me_: the rest may land inSheol and welcome for all I care.

  No, confound her, her intellect was good, she had brains enough,but her training made her an ass--that is, from a many-centuries-laterpoint of view. To kill the page was no crime--it was her right;and upon her right she stood, serenely and unconscious of offense.She was a result of generations of training in the unexamined andunassailed belief that the law which permitted her to kill a subjectwhen she chose was a perfectly right and righteous one.

  Well, we must give even Satan his due. She deserved a complimentfor one thing; and I tried to pay it, but the words stuck in mythroat. She had a right to kill the boy, but she was in no wiseobliged to pay for him. That was law for some other people, butnot for her. She knew quite well that she was doing a large andgenerous thing to pay for that lad, and that I ought in commonfairness to come out with something handsome about it, but Icouldn't--my mouth refused. I couldn't help seeing, in my fancy,that poor old grandma with the broken heart, and that fair youngcreature lying butchered, his little silken pomps and vanitieslaced with his golden blood. How could she _pay_ for him! _Whom_could she pay? And so, well knowing that this woman, trainedas she had been, deserved praise, even adulation, I was yet notable to utter it, trained as I had been. The best I could do wasto fish up a compliment from outside, so to speak--and the pityof it was, that it was true:

  "Madame, your people will adore you for this."

  Quite true, but I meant to hang her for it some day if I lived.Some of those laws were too bad, altogether too bad. A mastermight kill his slave for nothing--for mere spite, malice, orto pass the time--just as we have seen that the crowned head coulddo it with _his_ slave, that is to say, anybody. A gentleman couldkill a free commoner, and pay for him--cash or garden-truck.A noble could kill a noble without expense, as far as the law wasconcerned, but reprisals in kind were to be expected. _Any_bodycould kill _some_body, except the commoner and the slave; these hadno privileges. If they killed, it was murder, and the law wouldn'tstand murder. It made short work of the experimenter--and ofhis family, too, if he murdered somebody who belonged up amongthe ornamental ranks. If a commoner gave a noble even so muchas a Damiens-scratch which didn't kill or even hurt, he got Damiens'dose for it just the same; they pulled him to rags and tatterswith horses, and all the world came to see the show, and crackjokes, and have a good time; and some of the performances of thebest people present were as tough, and as properly unprintable,as any that have been printed by the pleasant Casanova in hischapter about the dismemberment of Louis XV's poor awkward enemy.

  I had had enough of this grisly place by this time, and wantedto leave, but I couldn't, because I had something on my mind thatmy conscience kept prodding me about, and wouldn't let me forget.If I had the remaking of man, he wouldn't have any conscience.It is one of the most disagreeable things connected with a person;and although it certainly does a great deal of good, it cannotbe said to pay, in the long run; it would be much better to haveless good and more comfort. Still, this is only my opinion, andI am only one man; others, with less experience, may thinkdifferently. They have a right to their view. I only standto this: I have noticed my conscience for many years, and I knowit is more trouble and bother to me than anything else I startedwith. I suppose that in the beginning I prized it, because weprize anything that is ours; and yet how foolish it was to think so.If we look at it in another way, we see how absurd it is: if I hadan anvil in me would I prize it? Of course not. And yet when youcome to think, there is no real difference between a conscienceand an anvil--I mean for comfort. I have noticed it a thousandtimes. And you could dissolve an anvil with acids, when youcouldn't stand it any longer; but there isn't any way that you canwork off a conscience--at least so it will stay worked off; notthat I know of, anyway.

  There was something I wanted to do before leaving, but it wasa disagreeable matter, and I hated to go at it. Well, it botheredme all the morning. I could have mentioned it to the old king,but what would be the use?--he was but an extinct volcano; he hadbeen active in his time, but his fire was out, this good while,he was only a stately ash-pile now; gentle enough, and kindlyenough for my purpose, without doubt, but not usable. He wasnothing, this so-called king: the queen was the only power there.And she was a Ve
suvius. As a favor, she might consent to warma flock of sparrows for you, but then she might take that veryopportunity to turn herself loose and bury a city. However,I reflected that as often as any other way, when you are expectingthe worst, you get something that is not so bad, after all.

  So I braced up and placed my matter before her royal Highness.I said I had been having a general jail-delivery at Camelot andamong neighboring castles, and with her permission I would liketo examine her collection, her bric-a-brac--that is to say, herprisoners. She resisted; but I was expecting that. But she finallyconsented. I was expecting that, too, but not so soon. That aboutended my discomfort. She called her guards and torches, andwe went down into the dungeons. These were down under the castle'sfoundations, and mainly were small cells hollowed out of the livingrock. Some of these cells had no light at all. In one of them wasa woman, in foul rags, who sat on the ground, and would not answera question or speak a word, but only looked up at us once or twice,through a cobweb of tangled hair, as if to see what casual thingit might be that was disturbing with sound and light the meaninglessdull dream that was become her life; after that, she sat bowed,with her dirt-caked fingers idly interlocked in her lap, and gaveno further sign. This poor rack of bones was a woman of middleage, apparently; but only apparently; she had been there nineyears, and was eighteen when she entered. She was a commoner,and had been sent here on her bridal night by Sir Breuse Sance Pite,a neighboring lord whose vassal her father was, and to which saidlord she had refused what has since been called le droit duseigneur, and, moreover, had opposed violence to violence and spilthalf a gill of his almost sacred blood. The young husband hadinterfered at that point, believing the bride's life in danger,and had flung the noble out into the midst of the humble andtrembling wedding guests, in the parlor, and left him thereastonished at this strange treatment, and implacably embitteredagainst both bride and groom. The said lord being cramped fordungeon-room had asked the queen to accommodate his two criminals,and here in her bastile they had been ever since; hither, indeed,they had come before their crime was an hour old, and had neverseen each other since. Here they were, kenneled like toads in thesame rock; they had passed nine pitch dark years within fifty feetof each other, yet neither knew whether the other was alive or not.All the first years, their only question had been--asked withbeseechings and tears that might have moved stones, in time,perhaps, but hearts are not stones: "Is he alive?" "Is she alive?"But they had never got an answer; and at last that question wasnot asked any more--or any other.

  I wanted to see the man, after hearing all this. He was thirty-fouryears old, and looked sixty. He sat upon a squared block ofstone, with his head bent down, his forearms resting on his knees,his long hair hanging like a fringe before his face, and he wasmuttering to himself. He raised his chin and looked us slowlyover, in a listless dull way, blinking with the distress of thetorchlight, then dropped his head and fell to muttering againand took no further notice of us. There were some patheticallysuggestive dumb witnesses present. On his wrists and ankles werecicatrices, old smooth scars, and fastened to the stone on whichhe sat was a chain with manacles and fetters attached; but thisapparatus lay idle on the ground, and was thick with rust. Chainscease to be needed after the spirit has gone out of a prisoner.

  I could not rouse the man; so I said we would take him to her,and see--to the bride who was the fairest thing in the earth to him,once--roses, pearls, and dew made flesh, for him; a wonder-work,the master-work of nature: with eyes like no other eyes, and voicelike no other voice, and a freshness, and lithe young grace, andbeauty, that belonged properly to the creatures of dreams--as hethought--and to no other. The sight of her would set his stagnantblood leaping; the sight of her--

  But it was a disappointment. They sat together on the ground andlooked dimly wondering into each other's faces a while, with asort of weak animal curiosity; then forgot each other's presence,and dropped their eyes, and you saw that they were away again andwandering in some far land of dreams and shadows that we knownothing about.

  I had them taken out and sent to their friends. The queen did notlike it much. Not that she felt any personal interest in the matter,but she thought it disrespectful to Sir Breuse Sance Pite. However,I assured her that if he found he couldn't stand it I would fix himso that he could.

  I set forty-seven prisoners loose out of those awful rat-holes,and left only one in captivity. He was a lord, and had killedanother lord, a sort of kinsman of the queen. That other lordhad ambushed him to assassinate him, but this fellow had got thebest of him and cut his throat. However, it was not for that thatI left him jailed, but for maliciously destroying the only publicwell in one of his wretched villages. The queen was bound to hanghim for killing her kinsman, but I would not allow it: it was nocrime to kill an assassin. But I said I was willing to let herhang him for destroying the well; so she concluded to put up withthat, as it was better than nothing.

  Dear me, for what trifling offenses the most of those forty-sevenmen and women were shut up there! Indeed, some were there forno distinct offense at all, but only to gratify somebody's spite;and not always the queen's by any means, but a friend's. The newestprisoner's crime was a mere remark which he had made. He saidhe believed that men were about all alike, and one man as goodas another, barring clothes. He said he believed that if you wereto strip the nation naked and send a stranger through the crowd, hecouldn't tell the king from a quack doctor, nor a duke from a hotelclerk. Apparently here was a man whose brains had not been reducedto an ineffectual mush by idiotic training. I set him loose andsent him to the Factory.

  Some of the cells carved in the living rock were just behind theface of the precipice, and in each of these an arrow-slit had beenpierced outward to the daylight, and so the captive had a thinray from the blessed sun for his comfort. The case of one ofthese poor fellows was particularly hard. From his dusky swallow'shole high up in that vast wall of native rock he could peer outthrough the arrow-slit and see his own home off yonder in thevalley; and for twenty-two years he had watched it, with heartacheand longing, through that crack. He could see the lights shinethere at night, and in the daytime he could see figures go in andcome out--his wife and children, some of them, no doubt, thoughhe could not make out at that distance. In the course of yearshe noted festivities there, and tried to rejoice, and wonderedif they were weddings or what they might be. And he noted funerals;and they wrung his heart. He could make out the coffin, but hecould not determine its size, and so could not tell whether it waswife or child. He could see the procession form, with priestsand mourners, and move solemnly away, bearing the secret withthem. He had left behind him five children and a wife; and innineteen years he had seen five funerals issue, and none of themhumble enough in pomp to denote a servant. So he had lost fiveof his treasures; there must still be one remaining--one nowinfinitely, unspeakably precious,--but _which_ one? wife, or child?That was the question that tortured him, by night and by day,asleep and awake. Well, to have an interest, of some sort, andhalf a ray of light, when you are in a dungeon, is a great supportto the body and preserver of the intellect. This man was in prettygood condition yet. By the time he had finished telling me hisdistressful tale, I was in the same state of mind that you wouldhave been in yourself, if you have got average human curiosity;that is to say, I was as burning up as he was to find out whichmember of the family it was that was left. So I took him overhome myself; and an amazing kind of a surprise party it was, too--typhoons and cyclones of frantic joy, and whole Niagaras of happytears; and by George! we found the aforetime young matron grayingtoward the imminent verge of her half century, and the babies allmen and women, and some of them married and experimenting familywisethemselves--for not a soul of the tribe was dead! Conceive of theingenious devilishness of that queen: she had a special hatred forthis prisoner, and she had _invented_ all those funerals herself,to scorch his heart with; and the sublimest stroke of genius ofthe whole thing was leaving the family-invoic
e a funeral _short_,so as to let him wear his poor old soul out guessing.

  But for me, he never would have got out. Morgan le Fay hated himwith her whole heart, and she never would have softened toward him.And yet his crime was committed more in thoughtlessness thandeliberate depravity. He had said she had red hair. Well, shehad; but that was no way to speak of it. When red-headed peopleare above a certain social grade their hair is auburn.

  Consider it: among these forty-seven captives there were fivewhose names, offenses, and dates of incarceration were no longerknown! One woman and four men--all bent, and wrinkled, andmind-extinguished patriarchs. They themselves had long ago forgottenthese details; at any rate they had mere vague theories about them,nothing definite and nothing that they repeated twice in the sameway. The succession of priests whose office it had been to praydaily with the captives and remind them that God had put themthere, for some wise purpose or other, and teach them that patience,humbleness, and submission to oppression was what He loved to seein parties of a subordinate rank, had traditions about these poorold human ruins, but nothing more. These traditions went butlittle way, for they concerned the length of the incarceration only,and not the names of the offenses. And even by the help oftradition the only thing that could be proven was that none ofthe five had seen daylight for thirty-five years: how much longerthis privation has lasted was not guessable. The king and the queenknew nothing about these poor creatures, except that they wereheirlooms, assets inherited, along with the throne, from the formerfirm. Nothing of their history had been transmitted with theirpersons, and so the inheriting owners had considered them of novalue, and had felt no interest in them. I said to the queen:

  "Then why in the world didn't you set them free?"

  The question was a puzzler. She didn't know _why_ she hadn't, thething had never come up in her mind. So here she was, forecastingthe veritable history of future prisoners of the Castle d'If,without knowing it. It seemed plain to me now, that with hertraining, those inherited prisoners were merely property--nothingmore, nothing less. Well, when we inherit property, it does notoccur to us to throw it away, even when we do not value it.

  When I brought my procession of human bats up into the open worldand the glare of the afternoon sun--previously blindfolding them,in charity for eyes so long untortured by light--they were aspectacle to look at. Skeletons, scarecrows, goblins, patheticfrights, every one; legitimatest possible children of Monarchyby the Grace of God and the Established Church. I muttered absently:

  "I _wish_ I could photograph them!"

  You have seen that kind of people who will never let on that theydon't know the meaning of a new big word. The more ignorant theyare, the more pitifully certain they are to pretend you haven'tshot over their heads. The queen was just one of that sort, andwas always making the stupidest blunders by reason of it. Shehesitated a moment; then her face brightened up with suddencomprehension, and she said she would do it for me.

  I thought to myself: She? why what can she know about photography?But it was a poor time to be thinking. When I looked around, shewas moving on the procession with an axe!

  Well, she certainly was a curious one, was Morgan le Fay. I haveseen a good many kinds of women in my time, but she laid over themall for variety. And how sharply characteristic of her this episodewas. She had no more idea than a horse of how to photographa procession; but being in doubt, it was just like her to tryto do it with an axe.