FictionForest

Chapter 25 – A Competitive Examination

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

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WHEN the king traveled for change of air, or made
a progress, or visited a distant noble whom he
wished to bankrupt with the cost of his keep, part of
the administration moved with him. It was a fashion
of the time. The Commission charged with the examination of candidates for posts in the army came
with the king to the Valley, whereas they could have
transacted their business just as well at home. And
although this expedition was strictly a holiday excursion for the king, he kept some of his business functions going just the same. He touched for the evil, as
usual; he held court in the gate at sunrise and tried
cases, for he was himself Chief Justice of the King’s
Bench.

He shone very well in this latter office. He was a
wise and humane judge, and he clearly did his honest
best and fairest, — according to his lights. That is a
large reservation. His lights — I mean his rearing —
often colored his decisions. Whenever there was a
dispute between a noble or gentleman and a person of
lower degree, the king’s leanings and sympathies were
for the former class always, whether he suspected it or
not. It was impossible that this should be otherwise.
The blunting effects of slavery upon the slaveholder’s
moral perceptions are known and conceded, the world
over; and a privileged class, an aristocracy, is but a
band of slaveholders under another name. This has a
harsh sound, and yet should not be offensive to any —
even to the noble himself — unless the fact itself be an
offense: for the statement simply formulates a fact.
The repulsive feature of slavery is the THING, not its
name. One needs but to hear an aristocrat speak of
the classes that are below him to recognize — and in
but indifferently modified measure — the very air and
tone of the actual slaveholder; and behind these are
the slaveholder’s spirit, the slaveholder’s blunted feeling. They are the result of the same cause in both
cases: the possessor’s old and inbred custom of regarding himself as a superior being. The king’s judgments wrought frequent injustices, but it was merely
the fault of his training, his natural and unalterable
sympathies. He was as unfitted for a judgeship as
would be the average mother for the position of milk-distributor to starving children in famine-time; her
own children would fare a shade better than the rest.

One very curious case came before the king. A
young girl, an orphan, who had a considerable estate,
married a fine young fellow who had nothing. The
girl’s property was within a seigniory held by the
Church. The bishop of the diocese, an arrogant scion
of the great nobility, claimed the girl’s estate on the
ground that she had married privately, and thus had
cheated the Church out of one of its rights as lord of
the seigniory — the one heretofore referred to as le droit
du seigneur. The penalty of refusal or avoidance was
confiscation. The girl’s defense was, that the lordship
of the seigniory was vested in the bishop, and the particular right here involved was not transferable, but
must be exercised by the lord himself or stand vacated;
and that an older law, of the Church itself, strictly
barred the bishop from exercising it. It was a very
odd case, indeed.

It reminded me of something I had read in my
youth about the ingenious way in which the aldermen
of London raised the money that built the Mansion
House. A person who had not taken the Sacrament
according to the Anglican rite could not stand as a
candidate for sheriff of London. Thus Dissenters were
ineligible; they could not run if asked, they could not
serve if elected. The aldermen, who without any
question were Yankees in disguise, hit upon this neat
device: they passed a by-law imposing a fine of L400
upon any one who should refuse to be a candidate for
sheriff, and a fine of L600 upon any person who, after
being elected sheriff, refused to serve. Then they went
to work and elected a lot of Dissenters, one after
another, and kept it up until they had collected
L15,000 in fines; and there stands the stately Mansion House to this day, to keep the blushing citizen in
mind of a long past and lamented day when a band of
Yankees slipped into London and played games of the
sort that has given their race a unique and shady
reputation among all truly good and holy peoples that
be in the earth.

The girl’s case seemed strong to me; the bishop’s
case was just as strong. I did not see how the king
was going to get out of this hole. But he got out. I
append his decision:

“Truly I find small difficulty here, the matter being
even a child’s affair for simpleness. An the young
bride had conveyed notice, as in duty bound, to her
feudal lord and proper master and protector the bishop,
she had suffered no loss, for the said bishop could have
got a dispensation making him, for temporary conveniency, eligible to the exercise of his said right, and
thus would she have kept all she had. Whereas, failing in her first duty, she hath by that failure failed in
all; for whoso, clinging to a rope, severeth it above
his hands, must fall; it being no defense to claim that
the rest of the rope is sound, neither any deliverance
from his peril, as he shall find. Pardy, the woman’s
case is rotten at the source. It is the decree of the
court that she forfeit to the said lord bishop all her
goods, even to the last farthing that she doth possess,
and be thereto mulcted in the costs. Next!”

Here was a tragic end to a beautiful honeymoon not
yet three months old. Poor young creatures! They
had lived these three months lapped to the lips in
worldly comforts. These clothes and trinkets they
were wearing were as fine and dainty as the shrewdest
stretch of the sumptuary laws allowed to people of
their degree; and in these pretty clothes, she crying
on his shoulder, and he trying to comfort her with
hopeful words set to the music of despair, they went
from the judgment seat out into the world homeless,
bedless, breadless; why, the very beggars by the roadsides were not so poor as they.

Well, the king was out of the hole; and on terms
satisfactory to the Church and the rest of the aristocracy, no doubt. Men write many fine and plausible
arguments in support of monarchy, but the fact remains that where every man in a State has a vote,
brutal laws are impossible. Arthur’s people were of
course poor material for a republic, because they had
been debased so long by monarchy; and yet even they
would have been intelligent enough to make short work
of that law which the king had just been administering
if it had been submitted to their full and free vote.
There is a phrase which has grown so common in the
world’s mouth that it has come to seem to have sense
and meaning — the sense and meaning implied when it
is used; that is the phrase which refers to this or that
or the other nation as possibly being “capable of selfgovernment”; and the implied sense of it is, that there
has been a nation somewhere, some time or other
which WASN’T capable of it — wasn’t as able to govern
itself as some self-appointed specialists were or would
be to govern it. The master minds of all nations, in
all ages, have sprung in affluent multitude from the
mass of the nation, and from the mass of the nation
only — not from its privileged classes; and so, no
matter what the nation’s intellectual grade was; whether
high or low, the bulk of its ability was in the long
ranks of its nameless and its poor, and so it never saw
the day that it had not the material in abundance
whereby to govern itself. Which is to assert an always
self-proven fact: that even the best governed and most
free and most enlightened monarchy is still behind the
best condition attainable by its people; and that the
same is true of kindred governments of lower grades,
all the way down to the lowest.

King Arthur had hurried up the army business
altogether beyond my calculations. I had not supposed he would move in the matter while I was away;
and so I had not mapped out a scheme for determining
the merits of officers; I had only remarked that it
would be wise to submit every candidate to a sharp
and searching examination; and privately I meant to
put together a list of military qualifications that nobody could answer to but my West Pointers. That
ought to have been attended to before I left; for the
king was so taken with the idea of a standing army
that he couldn’t wait but must get about it at once,
and get up as good a scheme of examination as he
could invent out of his own head.

I was impatient to see what this was; and to show,
too, how much more admirable was the one which I
should display to the Examining Board. I intimated
this, gently, to the king, and it fired his curiosity
When the Board was assembled, I followed him in;
and behind us came the candidates. One of these
candidates was a bright young West Pointer of mine,
and with him were a couple of my West Point professors.

When I saw the Board, I did not know whether to
cry or to laugh. The head of it was the officer known
to later centuries as Norroy King-at-Arms! The two
other members were chiefs of bureaus in his department; and all three were priests, of course; all officials
who had to know how to read and write were priests.

My candidate was called first, out of courtesy to
me, and the head of the Board opened on him with
official solemnity:

“Name?”

“Mal-ease.”

“Son of?”

“Webster.”

“Webster — Webster. H’m — I — my memory
faileth to recall the name. Condition?”

“Weaver.”

“Weaver! — God keep us!”

The king was staggered, from his summit to his
foundations; one clerk fainted, and the others came
near it. The chairman pulled himself together, and
said indignantly:

“It is sufficient. Get you hence.”

But I appealed to the king. I begged that my candidate might be examined. The king was willing, but
the Board, who were all well-born folk, implored the
king to spare them the indignity of examining the
weaver’s son. I knew they didn’t know enough to
examine him anyway, so I joined my prayers to theirs
and the king turned the duty over to my professors.
I had had a blackboard prepared, and it was put up
now, and the circus began. It was beautiful to hear
the lad lay out the science of war, and wallow in details of battle and siege, of supply, transportation,
mining and countermining, grand tactics, big strategy
and little strategy, signal service, infantry, cavalry,
artillery, and all about siege guns, field guns, gatling
guns, rifled guns, smooth bores, musket practice,
revolver practice — and not a solitary word of it all
could these catfish make head or tail of, you understand — and it was handsome to see him chalk off
mathematical nightmares on the blackboard that would
stump the angels themselves, and do it like nothing,
too — all about eclipses, and comets, and solstices, and
constellations, and mean time, and sidereal time, and
dinner time, and bedtime, and every other imaginable
thing above the clouds or under them that you could
harry or bullyrag an enemy with and make him wish
he hadn’t come — and when the boy made his military
salute and stood aside at last, I was proud enough to
hug him, and all those other people were so dazed they
looked partly petrified, partly drunk, and wholly caught
out and snowed under. I judged that the cake was ours,
and by a large majority.

Education is a great thing. This was the same
youth who had come to West Point so ignorant that
when I asked him, “If a general officer should have a
horse shot under him on the field of battle, what ought
he to do?” answered up naively and said:

“Get up and brush himself.”

One of the young nobles was called up now. I
thought I would question him a little myself. I said:

“Can your lordship read?”

His face flushed indignantly, and he fired this at me:

“Takest me for a clerk? I trow I am not of a blood
that –”

“Answer the question!”

He crowded his wrath down and made out to answer
“No.”

“Can you write?”

He wanted to resent this, too, but I said:

“You will confine yourself to the questions, and
make no comments. You are not here to air your
blood or your graces, and nothing of the sort will be
permitted. Can you write?”

“No.”

“Do you know the multiplication table?”

“I wit not what ye refer to.”

“How much is 9 times 6?”

“It is a mystery that is hidden from me by reason
that the emergency requiring the fathoming of it hath
not in my life-days occurred, and so, not having no
need to know this thing, I abide barren of the knowledge.”

“If A trade a barrel of onions to B, worth 2 pence
the bushel, in exchange for a sheep worth 4 pence and
a dog worth a penny, and C kill the dog before delivery, because bitten by the same, who mistook him
for D, what sum is still due to A from B, and which
party pays for the dog, C or D, and who gets the
money? If A, is the penny sufficient, or may he claim
consequential damages in the form of additional money
to represent the possible profit which might have
inured from the dog, and classifiable as earned increment, that is to say, usufruct?”

“Verily, in the all-wise and unknowable providence of
God, who moveth in mysterious ways his wonders to
perform, have I never heard the fellow to this question
for confusion of the mind and congestion of the ducts
of thought. Wherefore I beseech you let the dog and
the onions and these people of the strange and godless
names work out their several salvations from their
piteous and wonderful difficulties without help of mine,
for indeed their trouble is sufficient as it is, whereas an
I tried to help I should but damage their cause the
more and yet mayhap not live myself to see the desolation wrought.”

“What do you know of the laws of attraction and
gravitation?”

“If there be such, mayhap his grace the king did promulgate them whilst that I lay sick about the beginning
of the year and thereby failed to hear his proclamation.”

“What do you know of the science of optics?”

“I know of governors of places, and seneschals of
castles, and sheriffs of counties, and many like small
offices and titles of honor, but him you call the Science
of Optics I have not heard of before; peradventure it
is a new dignity.”

“Yes, in this country.”

Try to conceive of this mollusk gravely applying for
an official position, of any kind under the sun! Why,
he had all the earmarks of a typewriter copyist, if you
leave out the disposition to contribute uninvited emendations of your grammar and punctuation. It was
unaccountable that he didn’t attempt a little help of
that sort out of his majestic supply of incapacity for
the job. But that didn’t prove that he hadn’t material
in him for the disposition, it only proved that he
wasn’t a typewriter copyist yet. After nagging him a
little more, I let the professors loose on him and they
turned him inside out, on the line of scientific war, and
found him empty, of course. He knew somewhat
about the warfare of the time — bushwhacking around
for ogres, and bull-fights in the tournament ring, and
such things — but otherwise he was empty and useless.
Then we took the other young noble in hand, and he
was the first one’s twin, for ignorance and incapacity.
I delivered them into the hands of the chairman of the
Board with the comfortable consciousness that their
cake was dough. They were examined in the previous
order of precedence.

“Name, so please you?”

“Pertipole, son of Sir Pertipole, Baron of Barley
Mash.”

“Grandfather?”

“Also Sir Pertipole, Baron of Barley Mash.”

“Great-grandfather?”

“The same name and title.”

“Great-great-grandfather?”

“We had none, worshipful sir, the line failing before it had reached so far back.”

“It mattereth not. It is a good four generations,
and fulfilleth the requirements of the rule.”

“Fulfills what rule?” I asked.

“The rule requiring four generations of nobility or
else the candidate is not eligible.”

“A man not eligible for a lieutenancy in the
army unless he can prove four generations of noble
descent?”

“Even so; neither lieutenant nor any other officer
may be commissioned without that qualification.”

“Oh, come, this is an astonishing thing. What
good is such a qualification as that?”

“What good? It is a hardy question, fair sir and
Boss, since it doth go far to impugn the wisdom of
even our holy Mother Church herself.”

“As how?”

“For that she hath established the self-same rule
regarding saints. By her law none may be canonized
until he hath lain dead four generations.”

“I see, I see — it is the same thing. It is wonderful. In the one case a man lies dead-alive four generations — mummified in ignorance and sloth — and that
qualifies him to command live people, and take their
weal and woe into his impotent hands; and in the
other case, a man lies bedded with death and worms
four generations, and that qualifies him for office in the
celestial camp. Does the king’s grace approve of this
strange law?”

The king said:

“Why, truly I see naught about it that is strange.
All places of honor and of profit do belong, by natural
right, to them that be of noble blood, and so these
dignities in the army are their property and would be
so without this or any rule. The rule is but to mark a
limit. Its purpose is to keep out too recent blood,
which would bring into contempt these offices, and
men of lofty lineage would turn their backs and scorn
to take them. I were to blame an I permitted this
calamity. YOU can permit it an you are minded so to
do, for you have the delegated authority, but that the
king should do it were a most strange madness and not
comprehensible to any.”

“I yield. Proceed, sir Chief of the Herald’s College. ”

The chairman resumed as follows:

“By what illustrious achievement for the honor of
the Throne and State did the founder of your great
line lift himself to the sacred dignity of the British
nobility?”

“He built a brewery.”

“Sire, the Board finds this candidate perfect in all
the requirements and qualifications for military command, and doth hold his case open for decision after
due examination of his competitor.”

The competitor came forward and proved exactly
four generations of nobility himself. So there was a
tie in military qualifications that far.

He stood aside a moment, and Sir Pertipole was
questioned further:

“Of what condition was the wife of the founder of
your line?”

“She came of the highest landed gentry, yet she
was not noble; she was gracious and pure and charitable, of a blameless life and character, insomuch that
in these regards was she peer of the best lady in the
land.”

“That will do. Stand down.” He called up the
competing lordling again, and asked: “What was the
rank and condition of the great-grandmother who conferred British nobility upon your great house?”

“She was a king’s leman and did climb to that
splendid eminence by her own unholpen merit from
the sewer where she was born.”

“Ah, this, indeed, is true nobility, this is the right
and perfect intermixture. The lieutenancy is yours,
fair lord. Hold it not in contempt; it is the humble
step which will lead to grandeurs more worthy of the
splendor of an origin like to thine.”

I was down in the bottomless pit of humiliation. I
had promised myself an easy and zenith-scouring
triumph, and this was the outcome!

I was almost ashamed to look my poor disappointed
cadet in the face. I told him to go home and be
patient, this wasn’t the end.

I had a private audience with the king, and made a
proposition. I said it was quite right to officer that
regiment with nobilities, and he couldn’t have done a
wiser thing. It would also be a good idea to add five
hundred officers to it; in fact, add as many officers
as there were nobles and relatives of nobles in the
country, even if there should finally be five times as
many officers as privates in it; and thus make it the
crack regiment, the envied regiment, the King’s Own
regiment, and entitled to fight on its own hook and in
its own way, and go whither it would and come when
it pleased, in time of war, and be utterly swell and
independent. This would make that regiment the
heart’s desire of all the nobility, and they would all
be satisfied and happy. Then we would make up the
rest of the standing army out of commonplace materials, and officer it with nobodies, as was proper —
nobodies selected on a basis of mere efficiency — and
we would make this regiment toe the line, allow it no
aristocratic freedom from restraint, and force it to do
all the work and persistent hammering, to the end that
whenever the King’s Own was tired and wanted to go
off for a change and rummage around amongst ogres
and have a good time, it could go without uneasiness,
knowing that matters were in safe hands behind it, and
business going to be continued at the old stand, same
as usual. The king was charmed with the idea.

When I noticed that, it gave me a valuable notion.
I thought I saw my way out of an old and stubborn
difficulty at last. You see, the royalties of the Pendragon stock were a long-lived race and very fruitful.
Whenever a child was born to any of these — and it
was pretty often — there was wild joy in the nation’s
mouth, and piteous sorrow in the nation’s heart. The
joy was questionable, but the grief was honest. Because the event meant another call for a Royal Grant.
Long was the list of these royalties, and they were a
heavy and steadily increasing burden upon the treasury
and a menace to the crown. Yet Arthur could not
believe this latter fact, and he would not listen to any
of my various projects for substituting something in
the place of the royal grants. If I could have persuaded him to now and then provide a support for one
of these outlying scions from his own pocket, I could
have made a grand to-do over it, and it would have
had a good effect with the nation; but no, he wouldn’t
hear of such a thing. He had something like a
religious passion for royal grant; he seemed to look
upon it as a sort of sacred swag, and one could not
irritate him in any way so quickly and so surely as by
an attack upon that venerable institution. If I ventured to cautiously hint that there was not another
respectable family in England that would humble itself
to hold out the hat — however, that is as far as I ever
got; he always cut me short there, and peremptorily,
too.

But I believed I saw my chance at last. I would
form this crack regiment out of officers alone — not a
single private. Half of it should consist of nobles,
who should fill all the places up to Major-General, and
serve gratis and pay their own expenses; and they
would be glad to do this when they should learn that
the rest of the regiment would consist exclusively of
princes of the blood. These princes of the blood should
range in rank from Lieutenant-General up to Field
Marshal, and be gorgeously salaried and equipped and
fed by the state. Moreover — and this was the master
stroke — it should be decreed that these princely grandees should be always addressed by a stunningly gaudy
and awe-compelling title (which I would presently invent), and they and they only in all England should
be so addressed. Finally, all princes of the blood
should have free choice; join that regiment, get that
great title, and renounce the royal grant, or stay out
and receive a grant. Neatest touch of all: unborn but
imminent princes of the blood could be BORN into the
regiment, and start fair, with good wages and a permanent situation, upon due notice from the parents.

All the boys would join, I was sure of that; so, all
existing grants would be relinquished; that the newly
born would always join was equally certain. Within
sixty days that quaint and bizarre anomaly, the Royal
Grant, would cease to be a living fact, and take its
place among the curiosities of the past.

 

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