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Chapter 22 – The Holy Fountain

Mark TwainMay 20, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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THE pilgrims were human beings. Otherwise they
would have acted differently. They had come a
long and difficult journey, and now when the journey
was nearly finished, and they learned that the main
thing they had come for had ceased to exist, they
didn’t do as horses or cats or angle-worms would
probably have done — turn back and get at something
profitable — no, anxious as they had before been to
see the miraculous fountain, they were as much as
forty times as anxious now to see the place where it
had used to be. There is no accounting for human
beings.

We made good time; and a couple of hours before
sunset we stood upon the high confines of the Valley
of Holiness, and our eyes swept it from end to end
and noted its features. That is, its large features.
These were the three masses of buildings. They were
distant and isolated temporalities shrunken to toy constructions in the lonely waste of what seemed a desert
— and was. Such a scene is always mournful, it is so
impressively still, and looks so steeped in death. But
there was a sound here which interrupted the stillness
only to add to its mournfulness; this was the faint far
sound of tolling bells which floated fitfully to us on the
passing breeze, and so faintly, so softly, that we hardly
knew whether we heard it with our ears or with our
spirits.

We reached the monastery before dark, and there
the males were given lodging, but the women were sent
over to the nunnery. The bells were close at hand
now, and their solemn booming smote upon the ear
like a message of doom. A superstitious despair possessed the heart of every monk and published itself
in his ghastly face. Everywhere, these black-robed,
soft-sandaled, tallow-visaged specters appeared, flitted
about and disappeared, noiseless as the creatures of a
troubled dream, and as uncanny.

The old abbot’s joy to see me was pathetic. Even
to tears; but he did the shedding himself. He said:

“Delay not, son, but get to thy saving work. An
we bring not the water back again, and soon, we are
ruined, and the good work of two hundred years must
end. And see thou do it with enchantments that be
holy, for the Church will not endure that work in her
cause be done by devil’s magic.”

“When I work, Father, be sure there will be no
devil’s work connected with it. I shall use no arts
that come of the devil, and no elements not created
by the hand of God. But is Merlin working strictly
on pious lines?”

“Ah, he said he would, my son, he said he would,
and took oath to make his promise good.”

“Well, in that case, let him proceed.”

“But surely you will not sit idle by, but help?”

“It will not answer to mix methods, Father; neither
would it be professional courtesy. Two of a trade
must not underbid each other. We might as well cut
rates and be done with it; it would arrive at that in
the end. Merlin has the contract; no other magician
can touch it till he throws it up.”

“But I will take it from him; it is a terrible emergency and the act is thereby justified. And if it were
not so, who will give law to the Church? The Church
giveth law to all; and what she wills to do, that she
may do, hurt whom it may. I will take it from him;
you shall begin upon the moment.”

“It may not be, Father. No doubt, as you say,
where power is supreme, one can do as one likes and
suffer no injury; but we poor magicians are not so
situated. Merlin is a very good magician in a small
way, and has quite a neat provincial reputation. He
is struggling along, doing the best he can, and it would
not be etiquette for me to take his job until he himself
abandons it.”

The abbot’s face lighted.

“Ah, that is simple. There are ways to persuade
him to abandon it.”

“No-no, Father, it skills not, as these people say.
If he were persuaded against his will, he would load
that well with a malicious enchantment which would
balk me until I found out its secret. It might take a
month. I could set up a little enchantment of mine
which I call the telephone, and he could not find out
its secret in a hundred years. Yes, you perceive, he
might block me for a month. Would you like to risk a
month in a dry time like this?”

“A month! The mere thought of it maketh me to
shudder. Have it thy way, my son. But my heart is
heavy with this disappointment. Leave me, and let
me wear my spirit with weariness and waiting, even as
I have done these ten long days, counterfeiting thus
the thing that is called rest, the prone body making
outward sign of repose where inwardly is none.”

Of course, it would have been best, all round, for
Merlin to waive etiquette and quit and call it half a
day, since he would never be able to start that water,
for he was a true magician of the time; which is to
say, the big miracles, the ones that gave him his reputation, always had the luck to be performed when
nobody but Merlin was present; he couldn’t start this
well with all this crowd around to see; a crowd was as
bad for a magician’s miracle in that day as it was for a
spiritualist’s miracle in mine; there was sure to be
some skeptic on hand to turn up the gas at the crucial
moment and spoil everything. But I did not want
Merlin to retire from the job until I was ready to take
hold of it effectively myself; and I could not do that
until I got my things from Camelot, and that would
take two or three days.

My presence gave the monks hope, and cheered
them up a good deal; insomuch that they ate a square
meal that night for the first time in ten days. As
soon as their stomachs had been properly reinforced
with food, their spirits began to rise fast; when the
mead began to go round they rose faster. By the
time everybody was half-seas over, the holy community was in good shape to make a night of it; so
we stayed by the board and put it through on that
line. Matters got to be very jolly. Good old questionable stories were told that made the tears run down
and cavernous mouths stand wide and the round bellies
shake with laughter; and questionable songs were
bellowed out in a mighty chorus that drowned the
boom of the tolling bells.

At last I ventured a story myself; and vast was the
success of it. Not right off, of course, for the native
of those islands does not, as a rule, dissolve upon the
early applications of a humorous thing; but the fifth
time I told it, they began to crack in places; the eight
time I told it, they began to crumble; at the twelfth
repetition they fell apart in chunks; and at the fifteenth
they disintegrated, and I got a broom and swept them
up. This language is figurative. Those islanders —
well, they are slow pay at first, in the matter of return
for your investment of effort, but in the end they make
the pay of all other nations poor and small by contrast.

I was at the well next day betimes. Merlin was
there, enchanting away like a beaver, but not raising
the moisture. He was not in a pleasant humor; and
every time I hinted that perhaps this contract was a
shade too hefty for a novice he unlimbered his tongue
and cursed like a bishop — French bishop of the
Regency days, I mean.

Matters were about as I expected to find them.
The “fountain” was an ordinary well, it had been dug
in the ordinary way, and stoned up in the ordinary
way. There was no miracle about it. Even the lie
that had created its reputation was not miraculous; I
could have told it myself, with one hand tied behind
me. The well was in a dark chamber which stood in
the center of a cut-stone chapel, whose walls were
hung with pious pictures of a workmanship that would
have made a chromo feel good; pictures historically
commemorative of curative miracles which had been
achieved by the waters when nobody was looking.
That is, nobody but angels; they are always on deck
when there is a miracle to the fore — so as to get put
in the picture, perhaps. Angels are as fond of that as
a fire company; look at the old masters.

The well-chamber was dimly lighted by lamps; the
water was drawn with a windlass and chain by monks,
and poured into troughs which delivered it into stone
reservoirs outside in the chapel — when there was
water to draw, I mean — and none but monks could
enter the well-chamber. I entered it, for I had temporary authority to do so, by courtesy of my professional
brother and subordinate. But he hadn’t entered it
himself. He did everything by incantations; he never
worked his intellect. If he had stepped in there and
used his eyes, instead of his disordered mind, he could
have cured the well by natural means, and then turned
it into a miracle in the customary way; but no, he was
an old numskull, a magician who believed in his own
magic; and no magician can thrive who is handicapped
with a superstition like that.

I had an idea that the well had sprung a leak; that
some of the wall stones near the bottom had fallen and
exposed fissures that allowed the water to escape. I
measured the chain — 98 feet. Then I called in
couple of monks, locked the door, took a candle, and
made them lower me in the bucket. When the chain
was all paid out, the candle confirmed my suspicion;
a considerable section of the wall was gone, exposing a
good big fissure.

I almost regretted that my theory about the well’s
trouble was correct, because I had another one that
had a showy point or two about it for a miracle. I
remembered that in America, many centuries later,
when an oil well ceased to flow, they used to blast it
out with a dynamite torpedo. If I should find this
well dry and no explanation of it, I could astonish
these people most nobly by having a person of no
especial value drop a dynamite bomb into it. It was
my idea to appoint Merlin. However, it was plain
that there was no occasion for the bomb. One cannot
have everything the way he would like it. A man has
no business to be depressed by a disappointment, anyway; he ought to make up his mind to get even.
That is what I did. I said to myself, I am in no
hurry, I can wait; that bomb will come good yet.
And it did, too.

When I was above ground again, I turned out the
monks, and let down a fish-line; the well was a hundred and fifty feet deep, and there was forty-one feet
of water in it I I called in a monk and asked:

“How deep is the well?”

“That, sir, I wit not, having never been told.”

“How does the water usually stand in it?”

“Near to the top, these two centuries, as the testimony goeth, brought down to us through our predecessors.”

It was true — as to recent times at least — for there
was witness to it, and better witness than a monk;
only about twenty or thirty feet of the chain showed
wear and use, the rest of it was unworn and rusty.
What had happened when the well gave out that other
time? Without doubt some practical person had come
along and mended the leak, and then had come up and
told the abbot he had discovered by divination that if
the sinful bath were destroyed the well would flow
again. The leak had befallen again now, and these
children would have prayed, and processioned, and
tolled their bells for heavenly succor till they all dried
up and blew away, and no innocent of them all would
ever have thought to drop a fish-line into the well or
go down in it and find out what was really the matter.
Old habit of mind is one of the toughest things to
get away from in the world. It transmits itself like
physical form and feature; and for a man, in those
days, to have had an idea that his ancestors hadn’t
had, would have brought him under suspicion of being
illegitimate. I said to the monk:

“It is a difficult miracle to restore water in a dry
well, but we will try, if my brother Merlin fails.
Brother Merlin is a very passable artist, but only in the
parlor-magic line, and he may not succeed; in fact, is
not likely to succeed. But that should be nothing to
his discredit; the man that can do THIS kind of miracle
knows enough to keep hotel.”

“Hotel? I mind not to have heard –”

“Of hotel? It’s what you call hostel. The man
that can do this miracle can keep hostel. I can do this
miracle; I shall do this miracle; yet I do not try to
conceal from you that it is a miracle to tax the occult
powers to the last strain.”

“None knoweth that truth better than the brotherhood, indeed; for it is of record that aforetime it was
parlous difficult and took a year. Natheless, God send
you good success, and to that end will we pray.”

As a matter of business it was a good idea to get the
notion around that the thing was difficult. Many a
small thing has been made large by the right kind of
advertising. That monk was filled up with the difficulty of this enterprise; he would fill up the others.
In two days the solicitude would be booming.

On my way home at noon, I met Sandy. She had
been sampling the hermits. I said:

“I would like to do that myself. This is Wednesday. Is there a matinee?”

“A which, please you, sir?”

“Matinee. Do they keep open afternoons?”

“Who?”

“The hermits, of course.”

“Keep open?”

“Yes, keep open. Isn’t that plain enough? Do
they knock off at noon?”

“Knock off?”

“Knock off? — yes, knock off. What is the matter
with knock off? I never saw such a dunderhead;
can’t you understand anything at all? In plain terms,
do they shut up shop, draw the game, bank the
fires –”

“Shut up shop, draw –”

“There, never mind, let it go; you make me tired.
You can’t seem to understand the simplest thing.”

I would I might please thee, sir, and it is to me
dole and sorrow that I fail, albeit sith I am but a
simple damsel and taught of none, being from the
cradle unbaptized in those deep waters of learning that
do anoint with a sovereignty him that partaketh of that
most noble sacrament, investing him with reverend
state to the mental eye of the humble mortal who, by
bar and lack of that great consecration seeth in his
own unlearned estate but a symbol of that other sort
of lack and loss which men do publish to the pitying
eye with sackcloth trappings whereon the ashes of
grief do lie bepowdered and bestrewn, and so, when
such shall in the darkness of his mind encounter these
golden phrases of high mystery, these shut-up-shops,
and draw-the-game, and bank-the-fires, it is but by the
grace of God that he burst not for envy of the mind
that can beget, and tongue that can deliver so great
and mellow-sounding miracles of speech, and if there
do ensue confusion in that humbler mind, and failure
to divine the meanings of these wonders, then if so be
this miscomprehension is not vain but sooth and true,
wit ye well it is the very substance of worshipful dear
homage and may not lightly be misprized, nor had
been, an ye had noted this complexion of mood
and mind and understood that that I would I could
not, and that I could not I might not, nor yet nor
might NOR could, nor might-not nor could-not, might
be by advantage turned to the desired WOULD, and so I
pray you mercy of my fault, and that ye will of your
kindness and your charity forgive it, good my master
and most dear lord.”

I couldn’t make it all out — that is, the details — but
I got the general idea; and enough of it, too, to be
ashamed. It was not fair to spring those nineteenth
century technicalities upon the untutored infant of the
sixth and then rail at her because she couldn’t get
their drift; and when she was making the honest best
drive at it she could, too, and no fault of hers that she
couldn’t fetch the home plate; and so I apologized.
Then we meandered pleasantly away toward the hermit
holes in sociable converse together, and better friends
than ever.

I was gradually coming to have a mysterious and
shuddery reverence for this girl; nowadays whenever
she pulled out from the station and got her train fairly
started on one of those horizonless transcontinental
sentences of hers, it was borne in upon me that I was
standing in the awful presence of the Mother of the
German Language. I was so impressed with this, that
sometimes when she began to empty one of these sentences on me I unconsciously took the very attitude of
reverence, and stood uncovered; and if words had
been water, I had been drowned, sure. She had exactly the German way; whatever was in her mind to
be delivered, whether a mere remark, or a sermon, or
a cyclopedia, or the history of a war, she would get it
into a single sentence or die. Whenever the literary
German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are
going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of
his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth.

We drifted from hermit to hermit all the afternoon.
It was a most strange menagerie. The chief emulation
among them seemed to be, to see which could manage
to be the uncleanest and most prosperous with vermin.
Their manner and attitudes were the last expression of
complacent self-righteousness. It was one anchorite’s
pride to lie naked in the mud and let the insects bite
him and blister him unmolested; it was another’s to
lean against a rock, all day long, conspicuous to the
admiration of the throng of pilgrims and pray; it was
another’s to go naked and crawl around on all fours;
it was another’s to drag about with him, year in and
year out, eighty pounds of iron; it was another’s to
never lie down when he slept, but to stand among the
thorn-bushes and snore when there were pilgrims
around to look; a woman, who had the white hair of
age, and no other apparel, was black from crown to
heel with forty-seven years of holy abstinence from
water. Groups of gazing pilgrims stood around all
and every of these strange objects, lost in reverent
wonder, and envious of the fleckless sanctity which
these pious austerities had won for them from an
exacting heaven.

By and by we went to see one of the supremely
great ones. He was a mighty celebrity; his fame had
penetrated all Christendom; the noble and the renowned journeyed from the remotest lands on the
globe to pay him reverence. His stand was in the
center of the widest part of the valley; and it took all
that space to hold his crowds.

His stand was a pillar sixty feet high, with a broad
platform on the top of it. He was now doing what he
had been doing every day for twenty years up there —
bowing his body ceaselessly and rapidly almost to his
feet. It was his way of praying. I timed him with a
stop watch, and he made 1,244 revolutions in 24 minutes and 46 seconds. It seemed a pity to have all this
power going to waste. It was one of the most useful
motions in mechanics, the pedal movement; so I made
a note in my memorandum book, purposing some day
to apply a system of elastic cords to him and run a
sewing machine with it. I afterward carried out that
scheme, and got five years’ good service out of him;
in which time he turned out upward of eighteen thousand first-rate tow-linen shirts, which was ten a day. I
worked him Sundays and all; he was going, Sundays,
the same as week days, and it was no use to waste the
power. These shirts cost me nothing but just the mere
trifle for the materials — I furnished those myself, it
would not have been right to make him do that — and
they sold like smoke to pilgrims at a dollar and a half
apiece, which was the price of fifty cows or a blooded
race horse in Arthurdom. They were regarded as a
perfect protection against sin, and advertised as such
by my knights everywhere, with the paint-pot and
stencil-plate; insomuch that there was not a cliff or a
bowlder or a dead wall in England but you could read
on it at a mile distance:

“Buy the only genuine St. Stylite; patronized by the
Nobility. Patent applied for.”

There was more money in the business than one
knew what to do with. As it extended, I brought out
a line of goods suitable for kings, and a nobby thing
for duchesses and that sort, with ruffles down the forehatch and the running-gear clewed up with a featherstitch to leeward and then hauled aft with a back-stay
and triced up with a half-turn in the standing rigging
forward of the weather-gaskets. Yes, it was a daisy.

But about that time I noticed that the motive power
had taken to standing on one leg, and I found that
there was something the matter with the other one; so
I stocked the business and unloaded, taking Sir Bors
de Ganis into camp financially along with certain of his
friends; for the works stopped within a year, and the
good saint got him to his rest. But he had earned it.
I can say that for him.

When I saw him that first time — however, his personal condition will not quite bear description here.
You can read it in the Lives of the Saints. *

[* All the details concerning the hermits, in this
chapter, are from Lecky — but greatly modified. This
book not being a history but only a tale, the majority
of the historian’s frank details were too strong for
reproduction in it. – EDITOR]

 

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