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Chapter 27 – The Yankee and the King Travel Incognito

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

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ABOUT bedtime I took the king to my private
quarters to cut his hair and help him get the
hang of the lowly raiment he was to wear. The high
classes wore their hair banged across the forehead but
hanging to the shoulders the rest of the way around,
whereas the lowest ranks of commoners were banged
fore and aft both; the slaves were bangless, and
allowed their hair free growth. So I inverted a bowl
over his head and cut away all the locks that hung
below it. I also trimmed his whiskers and mustache
until they were only about a half-inch long; and tried
to do it inartistically, and succeeded. It was a villainous
disfigurement. When he got his lubberly sandals on,
and his long robe of coarse brown linen cloth, which
hung straight from his neck to his ankle-bones, he was
no longer the comeliest man in his kingdom, but one
of the unhandsomest and most commonplace and unattractive. We were dressed and barbered alike, and
could pass for small farmers, or farm bailiffs, or
shepherds, or carters; yes, or for village artisans, if
we chose, our costume being in effect universal among
the poor, because of its strength and cheapness. I
don’t mean that it was really cheap to a very poor
person, but I do mean that it was the cheapest material
there was for male attire — manufactured material, you
understand.

We slipped away an hour before dawn, and by broad
sun-up had made eight or ten miles, and were in the
midst of a sparsely settled country. I had a pretty
heavy knapsack; it was laden with provisions — provisions for the king to taper down on, till he could
take to the coarse fare of the country without damage.

I found a comfortable seat for the king by the roadside, and then gave him a morsel or two to stay his
stomach with. Then I said I would find some water
for him, and strolled away. Part of my project was to
get out of sight and sit down and rest a little myself.
It had always been my custom to stand when in his
presence; even at the council board, except upon
those rare occasions when the sitting was a very long
one, extending over hours; then I had a trifling little
backless thing which was like a reversed culvert and
was as comfortable as the toothache. I didn’t want to
break him in suddenly, but do it by degrees. We
should have to sit together now when in company, or
people would notice; but it would not be good politics
for me to be playing equality with him when there was
no necessity for it.

I found the water some three hundred yards away,
and had been resting about twenty minutes, when I
heard voices. That is all right, I thought — peasants
going to work; nobody else likely to be stirring this
early. But the next moment these comers jingled into
sight around a turn of the road — smartly clad people
of quality, with luggage-mules and servants in their
train! I was off like a shot, through the bushes, by
the shortest cut. For a while it did seem that these
people would pass the king before I could get to him;
but desperation gives you wings, you know, and I
canted my body forward, inflated my breast, and held
my breath and flew. I arrived. And in plenty good
enough time, too.

“Pardon, my king, but it’s no time for ceremony —
jump! Jump to your feet — some quality are coming!”

“Is that a marvel? Let them come.”

“But my liege! You must not be seen sitting.
Rise! — and stand in humble posture while they pass.
You are a peasant, you know.”

“True — I had forgot it, so lost was I in planning
of a huge war with Gaul” — he was up by this time,
but a farm could have got up quicker, if there was
any kind of a boom in real estate — “and right-so a
thought came randoming overthwart this majestic
dream the which –”

“A humbler attitude, my lord the king — and
quick! Duck your head! — more! — still more! —
droop it!”

He did his honest best, but lord, it was no great
things. He looked as humble as the leaning tower at
Pisa. It is the most you could say of it. Indeed, it
was such a thundering poor success that it raised
wondering scowls all along the line, and a gorgeous
flunkey at the tail end of it raised his whip; but I
jumped in time and was under it when it fell; and
under cover of the volley of coarse laughter which followed, I spoke up sharply and warned the king to take
no notice. He mastered himself for the moment, but
it was a sore tax; he wanted to eat up the procession.
I said:

“It would end our adventures at the very start;
and we, being without weapons, could do nothing with
that armed gang. If we are going to succeed in our
emprise, we must not only look the peasant but act
the peasant.”

“It is wisdom; none can gainsay it. Let us go on,
Sir Boss. I will take note and learn, and do the best
I may.”

He kept his word. He did the best he could, but
I’ve seen better. If you have ever seen an active,
heedless, enterprising child going diligently out of
one mischief and into another all day long, and an
anxious mother at its heels all the while, and just
saving it by a hair from drowning itself or breaking
its neck with each new experiment, you’ve seen the
king and me.

If I could have foreseen what the thing was going to
be like, I should have said, No, if anybody wants to
make his living exhibiting a king as a peasant, let him
take the layout; I can do better with a menagerie, and
last longer. And yet, during the first three days I
never allowed him to enter a hut or other dwelling. If
he could pass muster anywhere during his early
novitiate it would be in small inns and on the road;
so to these places we confined ourselves. Yes, he
certainly did the best he could, but what of that? He
didn’t improve a bit that I could see.

He was always frightening me, always breaking out
with fresh astonishers, in new and unexpected places.
Toward evening on the second day, what does he do
but blandly fetch out a dirk from inside his robe!

“Great guns, my liege, where did you get that?”

“From a smuggler at the inn, yester eve.”

“What in the world possessed you to buy it?”

“We have escaped divers dangers by wit — thy wit
— but I have bethought me that it were but prudence
if I bore a weapon, too. Thine might fail thee in
some pinch.”

“But people of our condition are not allowed to
carry arms. What would a lord say — yes, or any
other person of whatever condition — if he caught an
upstart peasant with a dagger on his person?”

It was a lucky thing for us that nobody came along
just then. I persuaded him to throw the dirk away;
and it was as easy as persuading a child to give up
some bright fresh new way of killing itself. We walked
along, silent and thinking. Finally the king said:

“When ye know that I meditate a thing inconvenient, or that hath a peril in it, why do you not
warn me to cease from that project?”

It was a startling question, and a puzzler. I didn’t
quite know how to take hold of it, or what to say, and
so, of course, I ended by saying the natural thing:

“But, sire, how can I know what your thoughts
are?”

The king stopped dead in his tracks, and stared at
me.

“I believed thou wert greater than Merlin; and
truly in magic thou art. But prophecy is greater than
magic. Merlin is a prophet.”

I saw I had made a blunder. I must get back my
lost ground. After a deep reflection and careful planning, I said:

“Sire, I have been misunderstood. I will explain.
There are two kinds of prophecy. One is the gift to
foretell things that are but a little way off, the other is
the gift to foretell things that are whole ages and
centuries away. Which is the mightier gift, do you
think?”

“Oh, the last, most surely!”

“True. Does Merlin possess it?”

“Partly, yes. He foretold mysteries about my birth
and future kingship that were twenty years away.”

“Has he ever gone beyond that?”

“He would not claim more, I think.”

“It is probably his limit. All prophets have their
limit. The limit of some of the great prophets has
been a hundred years.”

“These are few, I ween.”

“There have been two still greater ones, whose limit
was four hundred and six hundred years, and one
whose limit compassed even seven hundred and
twenty.”

“Gramercy, it is marvelous!”

“But what are these in comparison with me? They
are nothing.”

“What? Canst thou truly look beyond even so
vast a stretch of time as –”

“Seven hundred years? My liege, as clear as the
vision of an eagle does my prophetic eye penetrate and
lay bare the future of this world for nearly thirteen
centuries and a half!”

My land, you should have seen the king’s eyes
spread slowly open, and lift the earth’s entire atmosphere as much as an inch! That settled Brer Merlin.
One never had any occasion to prove his facts, with
these people; all he had to do was to state them. It
never occurred to anybody to doubt the statement.

“Now, then,” I continued, “I COULD work both
kinds of prophecy — the long and the short — if I
chose to take the trouble to keep in practice; but I
seldom exercise any but the long kind, because the
other is beneath my dignity. It is properer to Merlin’s
sort — stump-tail prophets, as we call them in the profession. Of course, I whet up now and then and flirt
out a minor prophecy, but not often — hardly ever, in
fact. You will remember that there was great talk,
when you reached the Valley of Holiness, about my
having prophesied your coming and the very hour of
your arrival, two or three days beforehand.”

“Indeed, yes, I mind it now.”

“Well, I could have done it as much as forty times
easier, and piled on a thousand times more detail into
the bargain, if it had been five hundred years away
instead of two or three days.”

“How amazing that it should be so!”

“Yes, a genuine expert can always foretell a thing
that is five hundred years away easier than he can a
thing that’s only five hundred seconds off.”

“And yet in reason it should clearly be the other
way; it should be five hundred times as easy to foretell the last as the first, for, indeed, it is so close by
that one uninspired might almost see it. In truth, the
law of prophecy doth contradict the likelihoods, most
strangely making the difficult easy, and the easy
difficult.”

It was a wise head. A peasant’s cap was no safe
disguise for it; you could know it for a king’s under a
diving-bell, if you could hear it work its intellect.

I had a new trade now, and plenty of business in it.
The king was as hungry to find out everything that was
going to happen during the next thirteen centuries as
if he were expecting to live in them. From that time
out, I prophesied myself bald-headed trying to supply
the demand. I have done some indiscreet things in
my day, but this thing of playing myself for a prophet
was the worst. Still, it had its ameliorations. A
prophet doesn’t have to have any brains. They are
good to have, of course, for the ordinary exigencies of
life, but they are no use in professional work. It is
the restfulest vocation there is. When the spirit of
prophecy comes upon you, you merely cake your
intellect and lay it off in a cool place for a rest, and
unship your jaw and leave it alone; it will work itself:
the result is prophecy.

Every day a knight-errant or so came along, and
the sight of them fired the king’s martial spirit every
time. He would have forgotten himself, sure, and
said something to them in a style a suspicious shade
or so above his ostensible degree, and so I always got
him well out of the road in time. Then he would stand
and look with all his eyes; and a proud light would
flash from them, and his nostrils would inflate like a
war-horse’s, and I knew he was longing for a brush
with them. But about noon of the third day I had
stopped in the road to take a precaution which had
been suggested by the whip-stroke that had fallen to
my share two days before; a precaution which I had
afterward decided to leave untaken, I was so loath to
institute it; but now I had just had a fresh reminder:
while striding heedlessly along, with jaw spread and
intellect at rest, for I was prophesying, I stubbed my
toe and fell sprawling. I was so pale I couldn’t think
for a moment; then I got softly and carefully up and
unstrapped my knapsack. I had that dynamite bomb
in it, done up in wool in a box. It was a good thing
to have along; the time would come when I could do
a valuable miracle with it, maybe, but it was a nervous
thing to have about me, and I didn’t like to ask the
king to carry it. Yet I must either throw it away or
think up some safe way to get along with its society.
I got it out and slipped it into my scrip, and just then
here came a couple of knights. The king stood,
stately as a statue, gazing toward them — had forgotten himself again, of course — and before I could
get a word of warning out, it was time for him to skip,
and well that he did it, too. He supposed they would
turn aside. Turn aside to avoid trampling peasant dirt
under foot? When had he ever turned aside himself —
or ever had the chance to do it, if a peasant saw him
or any other noble knight in time to judiciously save
him the trouble? The knights paid no attention to
the king at all; it was his place to look out himself,
and if he hadn’t skipped he would have been placidly
ridden down, and laughed at besides.

The king was in a flaming fury, and launched out
his challenge and epithets with a most royal vigor.
The knights were some little distance by now. They
halted, greatly surprised, and turned in their saddles
and looked back, as if wondering if it might be worth
while to bother with such scum as we. Then they
wheeled and started for us. Not a moment must be
lost. I started for THEM. I passed them at a rattling
gait, and as I went by I flung out a hair-lifting soulscorching thirteen-jointed insult which made the king’s
effort poor and cheap by comparison. I got it out of
the nineteenth century where they know how. They
had such headway that they were nearly to the king
before they could check up; then, frantic with rage,
they stood up their horses on their hind hoofs and
whirled them around, and the next moment here they
came, breast to breast. I was seventy yards off, then,
and scrambling up a great bowlder at the roadside.
When they were within thirty yards of me they let their
long lances droop to a level, depressed their mailed
heads, and so, with their horse-hair plumes streaming
straight out behind, most gallant to see, this lightning
express came tearing for me! When they were within
fifteen yards, I sent that bomb with a sure aim, and it
struck the ground just under the horses’ noses.

Yes, it was a neat thing, very neat and pretty to
see. It resembled a steamboat explosion on the Mississippi; and during the next fifteen minutes we stood
under a steady drizzle of microscopic fragments of
knights and hardware and horse-flesh. I say we, for
the king joined the audience, of course, as soon as he
had got his breath again. There was a hole there
which would afford steady work for all the people in
that region for some years to come — in trying to explain it, I mean; as for filling it up, that service would
be comparatively prompt, and would fall to the lot of
a select few — peasants of that seignory; and they
wouldn’t get anything for it, either.

But I explained it to the king myself. I said it was
done with a dynamite bomb, This information did
him no damage, because it left him as intelligent as he
was before. However, it was a noble miracle, in his
eyes, and was another settler for Merlin. I thought it
well enough to explain that this was a miracle of so
rare a sort that it couldn’t be done except when the
atmospheric conditions were just right. Otherwise he
would be encoring it every time we had a good subject, and that would be inconvenient, because I hadn’t
any more bombs along.

 

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