FictionForest

Chapter 36 – An Encounter in the Dark

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

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LONDON — to a slave — was a sufficiently interesting place. It was merely a great big village;
and mainly mud and thatch. The streets were muddy,
crooked, unpaved. The populace was an ever flocking
and drifting swarm of rags, and splendors, of nodding
plumes and shining armor. The king had a palace
there; he saw the outside of it. It made him sigh;
yes, and swear a little, in a poor juvenile sixth century
way. We saw knights and grandees whom we knew,
but they didn’t know us in our rags and dirt and raw
welts and bruises, and wouldn’t have recognized us if
we had hailed them, nor stopped to answer, either, it
being unlawful to speak with slaves on a chain. Sandy
passed within ten yards of me on a mule — hunting
for me, I imagined. But the thing which clean broke
my heart was something which happened in front of
our old barrack in a square, while we were enduring
the spectacle of a man being boiled to death in oil for
counterfeiting pennies. It was the sight of a newsboy
— and I couldn’t get at him! Still, I had one comfort — here was proof that Clarence was still alive and
banging away. I meant to be with him before long;
the thought was full of cheer.

I had one little glimpse of another thing, one day,
which gave me a great uplift. It was a wire stretching
from housetop to housetop. Telegraph or telephone,
sure. I did very much wish I had a little piece of it.
It was just what I needed, in order to carry out my
project of escape. My idea was to get loose some
night, along with the king, then gag and bind our
master, change clothes with him, batter him into the
aspect of a stranger, hitch him to the slave-chain,
assume possession of the property, march to Camelot,
and —

But you get my idea; you see what a stunning
dramatic surprise I would wind up with at the palace.
It was all feasible, if I could only get hold of a slender
piece of iron which I could shape into a lock-pick. I
could then undo the lumbering padlocks with which
our chains were fastened, whenever I might choose.
But I never had any luck; no such thing ever happened to fall in my way. However, my chance came
at last. A gentleman who had come twice before to
dicker for me, without result, or indeed any approach
to a result, came again. I was far from expecting
ever to belong to him, for the price asked for me from
the time I was first enslaved was exorbitant, and always
provoked either anger or derision, yet my master stuck
stubbornly to it — twenty-two dollars. He wouldn’t
bate a cent. The king was greatly admired, because
of his grand physique, but his kingly style was against
him, and he wasn’t salable; nobody wanted that kind
of a slave. I considered myself safe from parting
from him because of my extravagant price. No, I
was not expecting to ever belong to this gentleman
whom I have spoken of, but he had something which
I expected would belong to me eventually, if he would
but visit us often enough. It was a steel thing with a
long pin to it, with which his long cloth outside garment was fastened together in front. There were
three of them. He had disappointed me twice, because he did not come quite close enough to me to
make my project entirely safe; but this time I succeeded; I captured the lower clasp of the three, and
when he missed it he thought he had lost it on the
way.

I had a chance to be glad about a minute, then
straightway a chance to be sad again. For when the
purchase was about to fail, as usual, the master suddenly spoke up and said what would be worded thus —
in modern English:

“I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’m tired supporting
these two for no good. Give me twenty-two dollars
for this one, and I’ll throw the other one in.”

The king couldn’t get his breath, he was in such a
fury. He began to choke and gag, and meantime the
master and the gentleman moved away discussing.

“An ye will keep the offer open –”

“‘Tis open till the morrow at this hour.”

“Then I will answer you at that time,” said the
gentleman, and disappeared, the master following him.

I had a time of it to cool the king down, but I
managed it. I whispered in his ear, to this effect:

“Your grace WILL go for nothing, but after another
fashion. And so shall I. To-night we shall both be
free.”

“Ah! How is that?”

“With this thing which I have stolen, I will unlock
these locks and cast off these chains to-night. When
he comes about nine-thirty to inspect us for the night,
we will seize him, gag him, batter him, and early in
the morning we will march out of this town, proprietors
of this caravan of slaves.”

That was as far as I went, but the king was charmed
and satisfied. That evening we waited patiently for
our fellow-slaves to get to sleep and signify it by the
usual sign, for you must not take many chances on
those poor fellows if you can avoid it. It is best to
keep your own secrets. No doubt they fidgeted only
about as usual, but it didn’t seem so to me. It seemed
to me that they were going to be forever getting down
to their regular snoring. As the time dragged on I
got nervously afraid we shouldn’t have enough of it
left for our needs; so I made several premature
attempts, and merely delayed things by it; for I
couldn’t seem to touch a padlock, there in the dark,
without starting a rattle out of it which interrupted
somebody’s sleep and made him turn over and wake
some more of the gang.

But finally I did get my last iron off, and was a free
man once more. I took a good breath of relief, and
reached for the king’s irons. Too late! in comes the
master, with a light in one hand and his heavy walkingstaff in the other. I snuggled close among the wallow
of snorers, to conceal as nearly as possible that I was
naked of irons; and I kept a sharp lookout and prepared to spring for my man the moment he should
bend over me.

But he didn’t approach. He stopped, gazed absently toward our dusky mass a minute, evidently
thinking about something else; then set down his
light, moved musingly toward the door, and before a
body could imagine what he was going to do, he was
out of the door and had closed it behind him.

“Quick!” said the king. “Fetch him back!”

Of course, it was the thing to do, and I was up and
out in a moment. But, dear me, there were no lamps
in those days, and it was a dark night. But I glimpsed
a dim figure a few steps away. I darted for it, threw
myself upon it, and then there was a state of things
and lively! We fought and scuffled and struggled,
and drew a crowd in no time. They took an immense
interest in the fight and encouraged us all they could,
and, in fact, couldn’t have been pleasanter or more
cordial if it had been their own fight. Then a tremendous row broke out behind us, and as much as half of
our audience left us, with a rush, to invest some sympathy in that. Lanterns began to swing in all directions; it was the watch gathering from far and near.
Presently a halberd fell across my back, as a reminder,
and I knew what it meant. I was in custody. So
was my adversary. We were marched off toward
prison, one on each side of the watchman. Here was
disaster, here was a fine scheme gone to sudden destruction! I tried to imagine what would happen
when the master should discover that it was I who
had been fighting him; and what would happen if they
jailed us together in the general apartment for brawlers
and petty law-breakers, as was the custom; and what
might —

Just then my antagonist turned his face around in
my direction, the freckled light from the watchman’s
tin lantern fell on it, and, by George, he was the wrong
man!

 

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