A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Part 8. eBook: Page2

Mark Twain (2004)


  CHAPTER XXXVII

  AN AWFUL PREDICAMENT

  Sleep? It was impossible. It would naturally have been impossiblein that noisome cavern of a jail, with its mangy crowd of drunken,quarrelsome, and song-singing rapscallions. But the thing thatmade sleep all the more a thing not to be dreamed of, was myracking impatience to get out of this place and find out the wholesize of what might have happened yonder in the slave-quartersin consequence of that intolerable miscarriage of mine.

  It was a long night, but the morning got around at last. I madea full and frank explanation to the court. I said I was a slave,the property of the great Earl Grip, who had arrived just afterdark at the Tabard inn in the village on the other side of thewater, and had stopped there over night, by compulsion, he beingtaken deadly sick with a strange and sudden disorder. I had beenordered to cross to the city in all haste and bring the bestphysician; I was doing my best; naturally I was running with allmy might; the night was dark, I ran against this common personhere, who seized me by the throat and began to pummel me, althoughI told him my errand, and implored him, for the sake of the greatearl my master's mortal peril--

  The common person interrupted and said it was a lie; and was goingto explain how I rushed upon him and attacked him without a word--

  "Silence, sirrah!" from the court. "Take him hence and give hima few stripes whereby to teach him how to treat the servant ofa nobleman after a different fashion another time. Go!"

  Then the court begged my pardon, and hoped I would not failto tell his lordship it was in no wise the court's fault that thishigh-handed thing had happened. I said I would make it all right,and so took my leave. Took it just in time, too; he was startingto ask me why I didn't fetch out these facts the moment I wasarrested. I said I would if I had thought of it--which was true--but that I was so battered by that man that all my wit was knockedout of me--and so forth and so on, and got myself away, stillmumbling. I didn't wait for breakfast. No grass grew under myfeet. I was soon at the slave quarters. Empty--everybody gone!That is, everybody except one body--the slave-master's. It laythere all battered to pulp; and all about were the evidences ofa terrific fight. There was a rude board coffin on a cart atthe door, and workmen, assisted by the police, were thinning aroad through the gaping crowd in order that they might bring it in.

  I picked out a man humble enough in life to condescend to talkwith one so shabby as I, and got his account of the matter.

  "There were sixteen slaves here. They rose against their masterin the night, and thou seest how it ended."

  "Yes. How did it begin?"

  "There was no witness but the slaves. They said the slave thatwas most valuable got free of his bonds and escaped in some strangeway--by magic arts 'twas thought, by reason that he had no key,and the locks were neither broke nor in any wise injured. Whenthe master discovered his loss, he was mad with despair, and threwhimself upon his people with his heavy stick, who resisted andbrake his back and in other and divers ways did give him hurtsthat brought him swiftly to his end."

  "This is dreadful. It will go hard with the slaves, no doubt,upon the trial."

  "Marry, the trial is over."

  "Over!"

  "Would they be a week, think you--and the matter so simple? Theywere not the half of a quarter of an hour at it."

  "Why, I don't see how they could determine which were the guiltyones in so short a time."

  "_Which_ ones? Indeed, they considered not particulars like to that.They condemned them in a body. Wit ye not the law?--which mensay the Romans left behind them here when they went--that if oneslave killeth his master all the slaves of that man must die for it."

  "True. I had forgotten. And when will these die?"

  "Belike within a four and twenty hours; albeit some say they willwait a pair of days more, if peradventure they may find the missingone meantime."

  The missing one! It made me feel uncomfortable.

  "Is it likely they will find him?"

  "Before the day is spent--yes. They seek him everywhere. Theystand at the gates of the town, with certain of the slaves whowill discover him to them if he cometh, and none can pass outbut he will be first examined."

  "Might one see the place where the rest are confined?"

  "The outside of it--yes. The inside of it--but ye will not wantto see that."

  I took the address of that prison for future reference and thensauntered off. At the first second-hand clothing shop I came to,up a back street, I got a rough rig suitable for a common seamanwho might be going on a cold voyage, and bound up my face witha liberal bandage, saying I had a toothache. This concealed myworst bruises. It was a transformation. I no longer resembled myformer self. Then I struck out for that wire, found it andfollowed it to its den. It was a little room over a butcher'sshop--which meant that business wasn't very brisk in the telegraphicline. The young chap in charge was drowsing at his table. I lockedthe door and put the vast key in my bosom. This alarmed the youngfellow, and he was going to make a noise; but I said:

  "Save your wind; if you open your mouth you are dead, sure. Tackleyour instrument. Lively, now! Call Camelot."

  "This doth amaze me! How should such as you know aught of suchmatters as--"

  "Call Camelot! I am a desperate man. Call Camelot, or get awayfrom the instrument and I will do it myself."

  "What--you?"

  "Yes--certainly. Stop gabbling. Call the palace."

  He made the call.

  "Now, then, call Clarence."

  "Clarence _who_?"

  "Never mind Clarence who. Say you want Clarence; you'll getan answer."

  He did so. We waited five nerve-straining minutes--ten minutes--how long it did seem!--and then came a click that was as familiarto me as a human voice; for Clarence had been my own pupil.

  "Now, my lad, vacate! They would have known _my_ touch, maybe,and so your call was surest; but I'm all right now."

  He vacated the place and cocked his ear to listen--but it didn'twin. I used a cipher. I didn't waste any time in sociabilitieswith Clarence, but squared away for business, straight-off--thus:

  "The king is here and in danger. We were captured and broughthere as slaves. We should not be able to prove our identity--and the fact is, I am not in a position to try. Send a telegramfor the palace here which will carry conviction with it."

  His answer came straight back:

  "They don't know anything about the telegraph; they haven't hadany experience yet, the line to London is so new. Better notventure that. They might hang you. Think up something else."

  Might hang us! Little he knew how closely he was crowding thefacts. I couldn't think up anything for the moment. Then an ideastruck me, and I started it along:

  "Send five hundred picked knights with Launcelot in the lead; andsend them on the jump. Let them enter by the southwest gate, andlook out for the man with a white cloth around his right arm."

  The answer was prompt:

  "They shall start in half an hour."

  "All right, Clarence; now tell this lad here that I'm a friendof yours and a dead-head; and that he must be discreet and saynothing about this visit of mine."

  The instrument began to talk to the youth and I hurried away.I fell to ciphering. In half an hour it would be nine o'clock.Knights and horses in heavy armor couldn't travel very fast.These would make the best time they could, and now that the groundwas in good condition, and no snow or mud, they would probablymake a seven-mile gait; they would have to change horses a coupleof times; they would arrive about six, or a little after; it wouldstill be plenty light enough; they would see the white cloth whichI should tie around my right arm, and I would take command. Wewould surround that prison and have the king out in no time.It would be showy and picturesque enough, all things considered,though I would have preferred noonday, on account of the moretheatrical aspect the thing would have.

  Now, then, in order to increase the strings to my bow, I thoughtI would l
ook up some of those people whom I had formerly recognized,and make myself known. That would help us out of our scrape,without the knights. But I must proceed cautiously, for it wasa risky business. I must get into sumptuous raiment, and itwouldn't do to run and jump into it. No, I must work up to itby degrees, buying suit after suit of clothes, in shops wide apart,and getting a little finer article with each change, until I shouldfinally reach silk and velvet, and be ready for my project. SoI started.

  But the scheme fell through like scat! The first corner I turned,I came plump upon one of our slaves, snooping around with a watchman.I coughed at the moment, and he gave me a sudden look that bit rightinto my marrow. I judge he thought he had heard that cough before.I turned immediately into a shop and worked along down the counter,pricing things and watching out of the corner of my eye. Thosepeople had stopped, and were talking together and looking in atthe door. I made up my mind to get out the back way, if therewas a back way, and I asked the shopwoman if I could step outthere and look for the escaped slave, who was believed to be inhiding back there somewhere, and said I was an officer in disguise,and my pard was yonder at the door with one of the murderers incharge, and would she be good enough to step there and tell himhe needn't wait, but had better go at once to the further end ofthe back alley and be ready to head him off when I rousted him out.

  She was blazing with eagerness to see one of those already celebratedmurderers, and she started on the errand at once. I slipped outthe back way, locked the door behind me, put the key in my pocketand started off, chuckling to myself and comfortable.

  Well, I had gone and spoiled it again, made another mistake.A double one, in fact. There were plenty of ways to get rid ofthat officer by some simple and plausible device, but no, I mustpick out a picturesque one; it is the crying defect of my character.And then, I had ordered my procedure upon what the officer, beinghuman, would _naturally_ do; whereas when you are least expecting it,a man will now and then go and do the very thing which it's _not_natural for him to do. The natural thing for the officer to do,in this case, was to follow straight on my heels; he would finda stout oaken door, securely locked, between him and me; beforehe could break it down, I should be far away and engaged in slippinginto a succession of baffling disguises which would soon get meinto a sort of raiment which was a surer protection from meddlinglaw-dogs in Britain than any amount of mere innocence and purityof character. But instead of doing the natural thing, the officertook me at my word, and followed my instructions. And so, as Icame trotting out of that cul de sac, full of satisfaction with myown cleverness, he turned the corner and I walked right into hishandcuffs. If I had known it was a cul de sac--however, thereisn't any excusing a blunder like that, let it go. Charge it upto profit and loss.

  Of course, I was indignant, and swore I had just come ashore froma long voyage, and all that sort of thing--just to see, you know,if it would deceive that slave. But it didn't. He knew me. ThenI reproached him for betraying me. He was more surprised thanhurt. He stretched his eyes wide, and said:

  "What, wouldst have me let thee, of all men, escape and not hangwith us, when thou'rt the very _cause_ of our hanging? Go to!"

  "Go to" was their way of saying "I should smile!" or "I like that!"Queer talkers, those people.

  Well, there was a sort of bastard justice in his view of the case,and so I dropped the matter. When you can't cure a disaster byargument, what is the use to argue? It isn't my way. So I only said:

  "You're not going to be hanged. None of us are."

  Both men laughed, and the slave said:

  "Ye have not ranked as a fool--before. You might better keepyour reputation, seeing the strain would not be for long."

  "It will stand it, I reckon. Before to-morrow we shall be outof prison, and free to go where we will, besides."

  The witty officer lifted at his left ear with his thumb, madea rasping noise in his throat, and said:

  "Out of prison--yes--ye say true. And free likewise to go whereye will, so ye wander not out of his grace the Devil's sultry realm."

  I kept my temper, and said, indifferently:

  "Now I suppose you really think we are going to hang withina day or two."

  "I thought it not many minutes ago, for so the thing was decidedand proclaimed."

  "Ah, then you've changed your mind, is that it?"

  "Even that. I only _thought_, then; I _know_, now."

  I felt sarcastical, so I said:

  "Oh, sapient servant of the law, condescend to tell us, then,what you _know_."

  "That ye will all be hanged _to-day_, at mid-afternoon! Oho! thatshot hit home! Lean upon me."

  The fact is I did need to lean upon somebody. My knights couldn'tarrive in time. They would be as much as three hours too late.Nothing in the world could save the King of England; nor me, whichwas more important. More important, not merely to me, but tothe nation--the only nation on earth standing ready to blossominto civilization. I was sick. I said no more, there wasn'tanything to say. I knew what the man meant; that if the missingslave was found, the postponement would be revoked, the executiontake place to-day. Well, the missing slave was found.