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Chapter 29 – The Smallpox Hut

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

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WHEN we arrived at that hut at mid-afternoon, we
saw no signs of life about it. The field near by
had been denuded of its crop some time before, and
had a skinned look, so exhaustively had it been harvested and gleaned. Fences, sheds, everything had a
ruined look, and were eloquent of poverty. No animal
was around anywhere, no living thing in sight. The
stillness was awful, it was like the stillness of death.
The cabin was a one-story one, whose thatch was
black with age, and ragged from lack of repair.

The door stood a trifle ajar. We approached it
stealthily — on tiptoe and at half-breath — for that is
the way one’s feeling makes him do, at such a time.
The king knocked. We waited. No answer. Knocked
again. No answer. I pushed the door softly open
and looked in. I made out some dim forms, and a
woman started up from the ground and stared at me,
as one does who is wakened from sleep. Presently
she found her voice:

“Have mercy!” she pleaded. “All is taken,
nothing is left.”

“I have not come to take anything, poor woman.”

“You are not a priest?”

“No.”

“Nor come not from the lord of the manor?”

“No, I am a stranger.”

“Oh, then, for the fear of God, who visits with
misery and death such as be harmless, tarry not here,
but fly! This place is under his curse — and his
Church’s.”

“Let me come in and help you — you are sick and
in trouble.”

I was better used to the dim light now. I could see
her hollow eyes fixed upon me. I could see how
emaciated she was.

“I tell you the place is under the Church’s ban.
Save yourself — and go, before some straggler see thee
here, and report it.”

“Give yourself no trouble about me; I don’t care
anything for the Church’s curse. Let me help you.”

“Now all good spirits — if there be any such —
bless thee for that word. Would God I had a sup of
water! — but hold, hold, forget I said it, and fly; for
there is that here that even he that feareth not the
Church must fear: this disease whereof we die. Leave
us, thou brave, good stranger, and take with thee such
whole and sincere blessing as them that be accursed
can give.”

But before this I had picked up a wooden bowl and
was rushing past the king on my way to the brook.
It was ten yards away. When I got back and entered,
the king was within, and was opening the shutter that
closed the window-hole, to let in air and light. The
place was full of a foul stench. I put the bowl to the
woman’s lips, and as she gripped it with her eager
talons the shutter came open and a strong light flooded
her face. Smallpox!

I sprang to the king, and said in his ear:

“Out of the door on the instant, sire! the woman
is dying of that disease that wasted the skirts of
Camelot two years ago.”

He did not budge.

“Of a truth I shall remain — and likewise help.”

I whispered again:

“King, it must not be. You must go.”

“Ye mean well, and ye speak not unwisely. But it
were shame that a king should know fear, and shame
that belted knight should withhold his hand where be
such as need succor. Peace, I will not go. It is you
who must go. The Church’s ban is not upon me, but
it forbiddeth you to be here, and she will deal with
you with a heavy hand an word come to her of your
trespass.”

It was a desperate place for him to be in, and might
cost him his life, but it was no use to argue with him.
If he considered his knightly honor at stake here, that
was the end of argument; he would stay, and nothing
could prevent it; I was aware of that. And so I
dropped the subject. The woman spoke:

“Fair sir, of your kindness will ye climb the ladder
there, and bring me news of what ye find? Be not
afraid to report, for times can come when even a
mother’s heart is past breaking — being already broke.”

“Abide,” said the king, “and give the woman to
eat. I will go.” And he put down the knapsack.

I turned to start, but the king had already started.
He halted, and looked down upon a man who lay in a
dim light, and had not noticed us thus far, or spoken.

“Is it your husband?” the king asked.

“Yes.”

“Is he asleep?”

“God be thanked for that one charity, yes — these
three hours. Where shall I pay to the full, my gratitude! for my heart is bursting with it for that sleep he
sleepeth now.”

I said:

“We will be careful. We will not wake him.”

“Ah, no, that ye will not, for he is dead.”

“Dead?”

“Yes, what triumph it is to know it! None can
harm him, none insult him more. He is in heaven
now, and happy; or if not there, he bides in hell and
is content; for in that place he will find neither abbot
nor yet bishop. We were boy and girl together; we
were man and wife these five and twenty years, and
never separated till this day. Think how long that is
to love and suffer together. This morning was he out
of his mind, and in his fancy we were boy and girl
again and wandering in the happy fields; and so in
that innocent glad converse wandered he far and
farther, still lightly gossiping, and entered into those
other fields we know not of, and was shut away from
mortal sight. And so there was no parting, for in his
fancy I went with him; he knew not but I went with
him, my hand in his — my young soft hand, not this
withered claw. Ah, yes, to go, and know it not; to
separate and know it not; how could one go peace —
fuller than that? It was his reward for a cruel life
patiently borne.”

There was a slight noise from the direction of the
dim corner where the ladder was. It was the king
descending. I could see that he was bearing something in one arm, and assisting himself with the other.
He came forward into the light; upon his breast lay a
slender girl of fifteen. She was but half conscious;
she was dying of smallpox. Here was heroism at its
last and loftiest possibility, its utmost summit; this
was challenging death in the open field unarmed, with
all the odds against the challenger, no reward set upon
the contest, and no admiring world in silks and cloth
of gold to gaze and applaud; and yet the king’s bearing was as serenely brave as it had always been in those
cheaper contests where knight meets knight in equal
fight and clothed in protecting steel. He was great
now; sublimely great. The rude statues of his ancestors in his palace should have an addition — I would
see to that; and it would not be a mailed king killing
a giant or a dragon, like the rest, it would be a king
in commoner’s garb bearing death in his arms that a
peasant mother might look her last upon her child and
be comforted.

He laid the girl down by her mother, who poured
out endearments and caresses from an overflowing
heart, and one could detect a flickering faint light of
response in the child’s eyes, but that was all. The
mother hung over her, kissing her, petting her, and
imploring her to speak, but the lips only moved and
no sound came. I snatched my liquor flask from my
knapsack, but the woman forbade me, and said:

“No — she does not suffer; it is better so. It
might bring her back to life. None that be so good
and kind as ye are would do her that cruel hurt. For
look you — what is left to live for? Her brothers are
gone, her father is gone, her mother goeth, the
Church’s curse is upon her, and none may shelter or
befriend her even though she lay perishing in the road.
She is desolate. I have not asked you, good heart, if
her sister be still on live, here overhead; I had no
need; ye had gone back, else, and not left the poor
thing forsaken –”

“She lieth at peace,” interrupted the king, in a
subdued voice.

“I would not change it. How rich is this day in
happiness! Ah, my Annis, thou shalt join thy sister
soon — thou’rt on thy way, and these be merciful
friends that will not hinder.”

And so she fell to murmuring and cooing over the
girl again, and softly stroking her face and hair, and
kissing her and calling her by endearing names; but
there was scarcely sign of response now in the glazing
eyes. I saw tears well from the king’s eyes, and
trickle down his face. The woman noticed them, too,
and said:

“Ah, I know that sign: thou’st a wife at home,
poor soul, and you and she have gone hungry to bed,
many’s the time, that the little ones might have your
crust; you know what poverty is, and the daily insults
of your betters, and the heavy hand of the Church and
the king.”

The king winced under this accidental home-shot,
but kept still; he was learning his part; and he was
playing it well, too, for a pretty dull beginner. I
struck up a diversion. I offered the woman food and
liquor, but she refused both. She would allow nothing to come between her and the release of death.
Then I slipped away and brought the dead child from
aloft, and laid it by her. This broke her down again,
and there was another scene that was full of heartbreak. By and by I made another diversion, and
beguiled her to sketch her story.

“Ye know it well yourselves, having suffered it —
for truly none of our condition in Britain escape it.
It is the old, weary tale. We fought and struggled
and succeeded; meaning by success, that we lived and
did not die; more than that is not to be claimed. No
troubles came that we could not outlive, till this year
brought them; then came they all at once, as one
might say, and overwhelmed us. Years ago the lord
of the manor planted certain fruit trees on our farm;
in the best part of it, too — a grievous wrong and
shame –”

“But it was his right,” interrupted the king.

“None denieth that, indeed; an the law mean anything, what is the lord’s is his, and what is mine is his
also. Our farm was ours by lease, therefore ’twas
likewise his, to do with it as he would. Some little
time ago, three of those trees were found hewn down.
Our three grown sons ran frightened to report the
crime. Well, in his lordship’s dungeon there they lie,
who saith there shall they lie and rot till they confess.
They have naught to confess, being innocent, wherefore there will they remain until they die. Ye know
that right well, I ween. Think how this left us; a
man, a woman and two children, to gather a crop that
was planted by so much greater force, yes, and protect it night and day from pigeons and prowling
animals that be sacred and must not be hurt by any
of our sort. When my lord’s crop was nearly ready
for the harvest, so also was ours; when his bell rang
to call us to his fields to harvest his crop for nothing,
he would not allow that I and my two girls should
count for our three captive sons, but for only two of
them; so, for the lacking one were we daily fined.
All this time our own crop was perishing through neglect; and so both the priest and his lordship fined us
because their shares of it were suffering through
damage. In the end the fines ate up our crop — and
they took it all; they took it all and made us harvest
it for them, without pay or food, and we starving.
Then the worst came when I, being out of my mind
with hunger and loss of my boys, and grief to see my
husband and my little maids in rags and misery and
despair, uttered a deep blasphemy — oh! a thousand
of them! — against the Church and the Church’s ways.
It was ten days ago. I had fallen sick with this disease, and it was to the priest I said the words, for he
was come to chide me for lack of due humility under
the chastening hand of God. He carried my trespass
to his betters; I was stubborn; wherefore, presently
upon my head and upon all heads that were dear to
me, fell the curse of Rome.

“Since that day we are avoided, shunned with horror.
None has come near this hut to know whether we live
or not. The rest of us were taken down. Then I
roused me and got up, as wife and mother will. It
was little they could have eaten in any case; it was
less than little they had to eat. But there was water,
and I gave them that. How they craved it! and how
they blessed it! But the end came yesterday; my
strength broke down. Yesterday was the last time I
ever saw my husband and this youngest child alive. I
have lain here all these hours — these ages, ye may
say — listening, listening for any sound up there
that –”

She gave a sharp quick glance at her eldest daughter,
then cried out, “Oh, my darling!” and feebly gathered the stiffening form to her sheltering arms. She
had recognized the death-rattle.

 

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