FictionForest

Chapter 35 – A Pitiful Incident

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

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IT’S a world of surprises. The king brooded; this
was natural. What would he brood about, should
you say? Why, about the prodigious nature of his
fall, of course — from the loftiest place in the world to
the lowest; from the most illustrious station in the
world to the obscurest; from the grandest vocation
among men to the basest. No, I take my oath that
the thing that graveled him most, to start with, was
not this, but the price he had fetched! He couldn’t
seem to get over that seven dollars. Well, it stunned
me so, when I first found it out, that I couldn’t believe
it; it didn’t seem natural. But as soon as my mental
sight cleared and I got a right focus on it, I saw I was
mistaken; it WAS natural. For this reason: a king is
a mere artificiality, and so a king’s feelings, like the
impulses of an automatic doll, are mere artificialities;
but as a man, he is a reality, and his feelings, as a
man, are real, not phantoms. It shames the average
man to be valued below his own estimate of his worth,
and the king certainly wasn’t anything more than an
average man, if he was up that high.

Confound him, he wearied me with arguments to
show that in anything like a fair market he would have
fetched twenty-five dollars, sure — a thing which was
plainly nonsense, and full or the baldest conceit; I
wasn’t worth it myself. But it was tender ground for
me to argue on. In fact, I had to simply shirk argument and do the diplomatic instead. I had to throw
conscience aside, and brazenly concede that he ought
to have brought twenty-five dollars; whereas I was
quite well aware that in all the ages, the world had
never seen a king that was worth half the money, and
during the next thirteen centuries wouldn’t see one
that was worth the fourth of it. Yes, he tired me. If
he began to talk about the crops; or about the recent
weather; or about the condition of politics; or about
dogs, or cats, or morals, or theology — no matter
what — I sighed, for I knew what was coming; he
was going to get out of it a palliation of that tiresome
seven-dollar sale. Wherever we halted where there
was a crowd, he would give me a look which said
plainly: “if that thing could be tried over again now,
with this kind of folk, you would see a different result.” Well, when he was first sold, it secretly tickled
me to see him go for seven dollars; but before he was
done with his sweating and worrying I wished he had
fetched a hundred. The thing never got a chance to
die, for every day, at one place or another, possible
purchasers looked us over, and, as often as any other
way, their comment on the king was something like
this:

“Here’s a two-dollar-and-a-half chump with a thirtydollar style. Pity but style was marketable.”

At last this sort of remark produced an evil result.
Our owner was a practical person and he perceived
that this defect must be mended if he hoped to find a
purchaser for the king. So he went to work to take
the style out of his sacred majesty. I could have
given the man some valuable advice, but I didn’t; you
mustn’t volunteer advice to a slave-driver unless you
want to damage the cause you are arguing for. I had
found it a sufficiently difficult job to reduce the king’s
style to a peasant’s style, even when he was a willing
and anxious pupil; now then, to undertake to reduce
the king’s style to a slave’s style — and by force — go
to! it was a stately contract. Never mind the details
— it will save me trouble to let you imagine them. I
will only remark that at the end of a week there was
plenty of evidence that lash and club and fist had done
their work well; the king’s body was a sight to see —
and to weep over; but his spirit? — why, it wasn’t
even phased. Even that dull clod of a slave-driver
was able to see that there can be such a thing as a
slave who will remain a man till he dies; whose bones
you can break, but whose manhood you can’t. This
man found that from his first effort down to his latest,
he couldn’t ever come within reach of the king, but the
king was ready to plunge for him, and did it. So he
gave up at last, and left the king in possession of his
style unimpaired. The fact is, the king was a good
deal more than a king, he was a man; and when a
man is a man, you can’t knock it out of him.

We had a rough time for a month, tramping to and
fro in the earth, and suffering. And what Englishman
was the most interested in the slavery question by that
time? His grace the king! Yes; from being the
most indifferent, he was become the most interested.
He was become the bitterest hater of the institution I
had ever heard talk. And so I ventured to ask once
more a question which I had asked years before and
had gotten such a sharp answer that I had not thought
it prudent to meddle in the matter further. Would he
abolish slavery?

His answer was as sharp as before, but it was music
this time; I shouldn’t ever wish to hear pleasanter,
though the profanity was not good, being awkwardly
put together, and with the crash-word almost in the
middle instead of at the end, where, of course, it ought
to have been.

I was ready and willing to get free now; I hadn’t
wanted to get free any sooner. No, I cannot quite
say that. I had wanted to, but I had not been willing
to take desperate chances, and had always dissuaded
the king from them. But now — ah, it was a new
atmosphere! Liberty would be worth any cost that
might be put upon it now. I set about a plan, and
was straightway charmed with it. It would require
time, yes, and patience, too, a great deal of both.
One could invent quicker ways, and fully as sure ones;
but none that would be as picturesque as this; none
that could be made so dramatic. And so I was not
going to give this one up. It might delay us months,
but no matter, I would carry it out or break something.

Now and then we had an adventure. One night we
were overtaken by a snow-storm while still a mile from
the village we were making for. Almost instantly we
were shut up as in a fog, the driving snow was so
thick. You couldn’t see a thing, and we were soon
lost. The slave-driver lashed us desperately, for he
saw ruin before him, but his lashings only made matters worse, for they drove us further from the road and
from likelihood of succor. So we had to stop at last
and slump down in the snow where we were. The
storm continued until toward midnight, then ceased.
By this time two of our feebler men and three of our
women were dead, and others past moving and threatened with death. Our master was nearly beside himself. He stirred up the living, and made us stand,
jump, slap ourselves, to restore our circulation, and he
helped as well as he could with his whip.

Now came a diversion. We heard shrieks and yells,
and soon a woman came running and crying; and seeing our group, she flung herself into our midst and
begged for protection. A mob of people came tearing
after her, some with torches, and they said she was a
witch who had caused several cows to die by a strange
disease, and practiced her arts by help of a devil in
the form of a black cat. This poor woman had been
stoned until she hardly looked human, she was so
battered and bloody. The mob wanted to burn her.

Well, now, what do you suppose our master did?
When we closed around this poor creature to shelter
her, he saw his chance. He said, burn her here, or
they shouldn’t have her at all. Imagine that! They
were willing. They fastened her to a post; they
brought wood and piled it about her; they applied
the torch while she shrieked and pleaded and strained
her two young daughters to her breast; and our brute,
with a heart solely for business, lashed us into position
about the stake and warmed us into life and commercial value by the same fire which took away the innocent life of that poor harmless mother. That was the
sort of master we had. I took HIS number. That
snow-storm cost him nine of his flock; and he was
more brutal to us than ever, after that, for many days
together, he was so enraged over his loss.

We had adventures all along. One day we ran into
a procession. And such a procession! All the riffraff
of the kingdom seemed to be comprehended in it; and
all drunk at that. In the van was a cart with a coffin
in it, and on the coffin sat a comely young girl of
about eighteen suckling a baby, which she squeezed to
her breast in a passion of love every little while, and
every little while wiped from its face the tears which
her eyes rained down upon it; and always the foolish
little thing smiled up at her, happy and content, kneading her breast with its dimpled fat hand, which she
patted and fondled right over her breaking heart.

Men and women, boys and girls, trotted along beside
or after the cart, hooting, shouting profane and ribald
remarks, singing snatches of foul song, skipping,
dancing — a very holiday of hellions, a sickening sight.
We had struck a suburb of London, outside the walls,
and this was a sample of one sort of London society.
Our master secured a good place for us near the
gallows. A priest was in attendance, and he helped
the girl climb up, and said comforting words to her,
and made the under-sheriff provide a stool for her.
Then he stood there by her on the gallows, and for a
moment looked down upon the mass of upturned faces
at his feet, then out over the solid pavement of heads
that stretched away on every side occupying the
vacancies far and near, and then began to tell the
story of the case. And there was pity in his voice —
how seldom a sound that was in that ignorant and
savage land! I remember every detail of what he said,
except the words he said it in; and so I change it into
my own words:

“Law is intended to mete out justice. Sometimes
it fails. This cannot be helped. We can only grieve,
and be resigned, and pray for the soul of him who
falls unfairly by the arm of the law, and that his fellows may be few. A law sends this poor young thing
to death — and it is right. But another law had placed
her where she must commit her crime or starve with
her child — and before God that law is responsible for
both her crime and her ignominious death!

“A little while ago this young thing, this child of
eighteen years, was as happy a wife and mother as
any in England; and her lips were blithe with song,
which is the native speech of glad and innocent hearts.
Her young husband was as happy as she; for he was
doing his whole duty, he worked early and late at his
handicraft, his bread was honest bread well and fairly
earned, he was prospering, he was furnishing shelter
and sustenance to his family, he was adding his mite
to the wealth of the nation. By consent of a treacherous law, instant destruction fell upon this holy home
and swept it away! That young husband was waylaid
and impressed, and sent to sea. The wife knew
nothing of it. She sought him everywhere, she moved
the hardest hearts with the supplications of her tears,
the broken eloquence of her despair. Weeks dragged
by, she watching, waiting, hoping, her mind going
slowly to wreck under the burden of her misery.
Little by little all her small possessions went for food.
When she could no longer pay her rent, they turned
her out of doors. She begged, while she had strength;
when she was starving at last, and her milk failing, she
stole a piece of linen cloth of the value of a fourth part
of a cent, thinking to sell it and save her child. But
she was seen by the owner of the cloth. She was put
in jail and brought to trial. The man testified to the
facts. A plea was made for her, and her sorrowful
story was told in her behalf. She spoke, too, by permission, and said she did steal the cloth, but that her
mind was so disordered of late by trouble that when
she was overborne with hunger all acts, criminal or
other, swam meaningless through her brain and she
knew nothing rightly, except that she was so hungry!
For a moment all were touched, and there was disposition to deal mercifully with her, seeing that she was so
young and friendless, and her case so piteous, and the
law that robbed her of her support to blame as being
the first and only cause of her transgression; but the
prosecuting officer replied that whereas these things
were all true, and most pitiful as well, still there was
much small theft in these days, and mistimed mercy
here would be a danger to property — oh, my God, is
there no property in ruined homes, and orphaned
babes, and broken hearts that British law holds
precious! — and so he must require sentence.

“When the judge put on his black cap, the owner
of the stolen linen rose trembling up, his lip quivering,
his face as gray as ashes; and when the awful words
came, he cried out, ‘Oh, poor child, poor child, I did
not know it was death!’ and fell as a tree falls. When
they lifted him up his reason was gone; before the
sun was set, he had taken his own life. A kindly
man; a man whose heart was right, at bottom; add
his murder to this that is to be now done here; and
charge them both where they belong — to the rulers
and the bitter laws of Britain. The time is come, my
child; let me pray over thee — not FOR thee, dear
abused poor heart and innocent, but for them that be
guilty of thy ruin and death, who need it more.”

After his prayer they put the noose around the
young girl’s neck, and they had great trouble to adjust
the knot under her ear, because she was devouring the
baby all the time, wildly kissing it, and snatching it to
her face and her breast, and drenching it with tears,
and half moaning, half shrieking all the while, and the
baby crowing, and laughing, and kicking its feet with
delight over what it took for romp and play. Even
the hangman couldn’t stand it, but turned away.
When all was ready the priest gently pulled and tugged
and forced the child out of the mother’s arms, and
stepped quickly out of her reach; but she clasped her
hands, and made a wild spring toward him, with a
shriek; but the rope — and the under-sheriff — held
her short. Then she went on her knees and stretched
out her hands and cried:

“One more kiss — oh, my God, one more, one
more, — it is the dying that begs it!”

She got it; she almost smothered the little thing.
And when they got it away again, she cried out:

“Oh, my child, my darling, it will die! It has no
home, it has no father, no friend, no mother –”

“It has them all!” said that good priest. “All
these will I be to it till I die.”

You should have seen her face then! Gratitude?
Lord, what do you want with words to express that?
Words are only painted fire; a look is the fire itself.
She gave that look, and carried it away to the treasury
of heaven, where all things that are divine belong.

 

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