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Chapter 39 – The Yankee’s Fight With the Knights

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

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HOME again, at Camelot. A morning or two later
I found the paper, damp from the press, by my
plate at the breakfast table. I turned to the advertising columns, knowing I should find something of
personal interest to me there. It was this:

             DE PAR LE ROI.

   Know that the great lord and illus-
   trious Kni8ht, SIR SAGRAMOR LE
   DESIROUS naving condescended to
   meet the King's Minister, Hank Mor-
    gan, the which is surnamed The Boss,
   for satisfgction of offence anciently given,
   these wilL engage in the lists by
   Camelot about the fourth hour of the
   morning of the sixteenth day of this
   next succeeding month. The battle
   will be a l outrance, sith the said offence
   was of a deadly sort, admitting of no
   comPosition.

             DE PAR LE ROI
Clarence's editorial reference to this affair was to this
effect:
   It will be observed, by a gl7nce at our
   advertising columns, that the commu-
   nity is to be favored with a treat of un-
   usual interest in the tournament line.
   The n ames of the artists are warrant of
   good enterTemment. The box-office
   will be open at noon of the 13th; ad-
   mission 3 cents, reserved seatsh 5; pro-
   ceeds to go to the hospital fund  The
   royal pair and all the Court will be pres-
   ent. With these exceptions, and the
   press and the clergy, the free list is strict-
   ly susPended. Parties are hereby warn-
   ed against buying tickets of speculators;
   they will not be good at the door.
   Everybody knows and likes The Boss,
   everybody knows and likes Sir Sag.;
   come, let us give the lads a good send-
   off. ReMember, the proceeds go to a
   great and free charity, and one whose
   broad begevolence stretches out its help-
   ing hand, warm with the blood of a lov-
   ing heart, to all that suffer, regardless of
   race, creed, condition or color--the
   only charity yet established in the earth
   which has no politico-religious stop-
   cock on its compassion, but says Here
   flows the stream, let ALL come and
   drink! Turn out, all hands! fetch along
   your dou3hnuts and your gum-drops
   and have a good time. Pie for sale on
   the grounds, and rocks to crack it with;
   and ciRcus-lemonade--three drops of
   lime juice to a barrel of water.
   N.B. This is the first tournament
   under the new law, whidh allow each
   combatant to use any weapon he may pre-
   fer. You may want to make a note of that.

Up to the day set, there was no talk in all Britain of
anything but this combat. All other topics sank into
insignificance and passed out of men's thoughts and
interest. It was not because a tournament was a great
matter, it was not because Sir Sagramor had found
the Holy Grail, for he had not, but had failed; it was
not because the second (official) personage in the kingdom was one of the duellists; no, all these features
were commonplace. Yet there was abundant reason
for the extraordinary interest which this coming fight
was creating. It was born of the fact that all the
nation knew that this was not to be a duel between
mere men, so to speak, but a duel between two mighty
magicians; a duel not of muscle but of mind, not of
human skill but of superhuman art and craft; a final
struggle for supremacy between the two master enchanters of the age. It was realized that the most
prodigious achievements of the most renowned knights
could not be worthy of comparison with a spectacle
like this; they could be but child's play, contrasted
with this mysterious and awful battle of the gods.
Yes, all the world knew it was going to be in reality a
duel between Merlin and me, a measuring of his magic
powers against mine. It was known that Merlin had
been busy whole days and nights together, imbuing Sir
Sagramor's arms and armor with supernal powers of
offense and defense, and that he had procured for him
from the spirits of the air a fleecy veil which would
render the wearer invisible to his antagonist while
still visible to other men. Against Sir Sagramor, so
weaponed and protected, a thousand knights could
accomplish nothing; against him no known enchantments could prevail. These facts were sure; regarding them there was no doubt, no reason for doubt.
There was but one question: might there be still other
enchantments, UNKNOWN to Merlin, which could render
Sir Sagramor's veil transparent to me, and make his
enchanted mail vulnerable to my weapons? This was
the one thing to be decided in the lists. Until then
the world must remain in suspense.

So the world thought there was a vast matter at stake
here, and the world was right, but it was not the one
they had in their minds. No, a far vaster one was
upon the cast of this die: THE LIFE OF KNIGHT-ERRANTRY.
I was a champion, it was true, but not the champion
of the frivolous black arts, I was the champion of hard
unsentimental common-sense and reason. I was entering the lists to either destroy knight-errantry or be its
victim.

Vast as the show-grounds were, there were no vacant
spaces in them outside of the lists, at ten o'clock on
the morning of the 16th. The mammoth grand-stand
was clothed in flags, streamers, and rich tapestries, and
packed with several acres of small-fry tributary kings,
their suites, and the British aristocracy; with our own
royal gang in the chief place, and each and every
individual a flashing prism of gaudy silks and velvets --
well, I never saw anything to begin with it but a fight
between an Upper Mississippi sunset and the aurora
borealis. The huge camp of beflagged and gaycolored tents at one end of the lists, with a stiffstanding sentinel at every door and a shining shield
hanging by him for challenge, was another fine sight.
You see, every knight was there who had any ambition
or any caste feeling; for my feeling toward their order
was not much of a secret, and so here was their
chance. If I won my fight with Sir Sagramor, others
would have the right to call me out as long as I might
be willing to respond.

Down at our end there were but two tents; one for
me, and another for my servants. At the appointed
hour the king made a sign, and the heralds, in their
tabards, appeared and made proclamation, naming the
combatants and stating the cause of quarrel. There
was a pause, then a ringing bugle-blast, which was the
signal for us to come forth. All the multitude caught
their breath, and an eager curiosity flashed into every
face.

Out from his tent rode great Sir Sagramor, an imposing tower of iron, stately and rigid, his huge spear
standing upright in its socket and grasped in his strong
hand, his grand horse's face and breast cased in steel,
his body clothed in rich trappings that almost dragged
the ground -- oh, a most noble picture. A great shout
went up, of welcome and admiration.

And then out I came. But I didn't get any shout.
There was a wondering and eloquent silence for a moment, then a great wave of laughter began to sweep
along that human sea, but a warning bugle-blast cut its
career short. I was in the simplest and comfortablest
of gymnast costumes -- flesh-colored tights from neck
to heel, with blue silk puffings about my loins, and
bareheaded. My horse was not above medium size,
but he was alert, slender-limbed, muscled with watchsprings, and just a greyhound to go. He was a beauty,
glossy as silk, and naked as he was when he was born,
except for bridle and ranger-saddle.

The iron tower and the gorgeous bedquilt came
cumbrously but gracefully pirouetting down the lists,
and we tripped lightly up to meet them. We halted;
the tower saluted, I responded; then we wheeled and
rode side by side to the grand-stand and faced our king
and queen, to whom we made obeisance. The queen
exclaimed:

"Alack, Sir Boss, wilt fight naked, and without
lance or sword or --"

But the king checked her and made her understand,
with a polite phrase or two, that this was none of her
business. The bugles rang again; and we separated
and rode to the ends of the lists, and took position.
Now old Merlin stepped into view and cast a dainty
web of gossamer threads over Sir Sagramor which
turned him into Hamlet's ghost; the king made a
sign, the bugles blew, Sir Sagramor laid his great
lance in rest, and the next moment here he came
thundering down the course with his veil flying out
behind, and I went whistling through the air like an
arrow to meet him -- cocking my ear the while, as if
noting the invisible knight's position and progress by
hearing, not sight. A chorus of encouraging shouts
burst out for him, and one brave voice flung out a
heartening word for me -- said:

"Go it, slim Jim!"

It was an even bet that Clarence had procured that
favor for me -- and furnished the language, too. When
that formidable lance-point was within a yard and a
half of my breast I twitched my horse aside without an
effort, and the big knight swept by, scoring a blank.
I got plenty of applause that time. We turned,
braced up, and down we came again. Another blank
for the knight, a roar of applause for me. This same
thing was repeated once more; and it fetched such a
whirlwind of applause that Sir Sagramor lost his
temper, and at once changed his tactics and set himself the task of chasing me down. Why, he hadn't
any show in the world at that; it was a game of tag,
with all the advantage on my side; I whirled out of
his path with ease whenever I chose, and once I
slapped him on the back as I went to the rear. Finally
I took the chase into my own hands; and after that,
turn, or twist, or do what he would, he was never able
to get behind me again; he found himself always in
front at the end of his maneuver. So he gave up that
business and retired to his end of the lists. His temper
was clear gone now, and he forgot himself and flung
an insult at me which disposed of mine. I slipped my
lasso from the horn of my saddle, and grasped the coil
in my right hand. This time you should have seen
him come! -- it was a business trip, sure; by his gait
there was blood in his eye. I was sitting my horse at
ease, and swinging the great loop of my lasso in wide
circles about my head; the moment he was under way,
I started for him; when the space between us had
narrowed to forty feet, I sent the snaky spirals of the
rope a-cleaving through the air, then darted aside and
faced about and brought my trained animal to a halt
with all his feet braced under him for a surge. The
next moment the rope sprang taut and yanked Sir
Sagramor out of the saddle! Great Scott, but there
was a sensation!

Unquestionably, the popular thing in this world is
novelty. These people had never seen anything of
that cowboy business before, and it carried them clear
off their feet with delight. From all around and everywhere, the shout went up:

"Encore! encore!"

I wondered where they got the word, but there was
no time to cipher on philological matters, because the
whole knight-errantry hive was just humming now, and
my prospect for trade couldn't have been better. The
moment my lasso was released and Sir Sagramor had
been assisted to his tent, I hauled in the slack, took
my station and began to swing my loop around my
head again. I was sure to have use for it as soon as
they could elect a successor for Sir Sagramor, and
that couldn't take long where there were so many
hungry candidates. Indeed, they elected one straight
off -- Sir Hervis de Revel.

BZZ! Here he came, like a house afire; I dodged:
he passed like a flash, with my horse-hair coils settling
around his neck; a second or so later, FST! his saddle
was empty.

I got another encore; and another, and another, and
still another. When I had snaked five men out, things
began to look serious to the ironclads, and they
stopped and consulted together. As a result, they decided that it was time to waive etiquette and send their
greatest and best against me. To the astonishment of
that little world, I lassoed Sir Lamorak de Galis, and
after him Sir Galahad. So you see there was simply
nothing to be done now, but play their right bower --
bring out the superbest of the superb, the mightiest of
the mighty, the great Sir Launcelot himself!

A proud moment for me? I should think so.
Yonder was Arthur, King of Britain; yonder was
Guenever; yes, and whole tribes of little provincial
kings and kinglets; and in the tented camp yonder,
renowned knights from many lands; and likewise the
selectest body known to chivalry, the Knights of the
Table Round, the most illustrious in Christendom; and
biggest fact of all, the very sun of their shining system
was yonder couching his lance, the focal point of forty
thousand adoring eyes; and all by myself, here was I
laying for him. Across my mind flitted the dear
image of a certain hello-girl of West Hartford, and I
wished she could see me now. In that moment, down
came the Invincible, with the rush of a whirlwind --
the courtly world rose to its feet and bent forward --
the fateful coils went circling through the air, and
before you could wink I was towing Sir Launcelot
across the field on his back, and kissing my hand to
the storm of waving kerchiefs and the thunder-crash of
applause that greeted me!

Said I to myself, as I coiled my lariat and hung it on
my saddle-horn, and sat there drunk with glory, "The
victory is perfect -- no other will venture against me --
knight-errantry is dead." Now imagine my astonishment -- and everybody else's, too -- to hear the peculiar
bugle-call which announces that another competitor is
about to enter the lists! There was a mystery here; I
couldn't account for this thing. Next, I noticed Merlin gliding away from me; and then I noticed that my
lasso was gone! The old sleight-of-hand expert had
stolen it, sure, and slipped it under his robe.

The bugle blew again. I looked, and down came
Sagramor riding again, with his dust brushed off and
is veil nicely re-arranged. I trotted up to meet him,
and pretended to find him by the sound of his horse's
hoofs. He said:

"Thou'rt quick of ear, but it will not save thee from
this!" and he touched the hilt of his great sword .
"An ye are not able to see it, because of the influence
of the veil, know that it is no cumbrous lance, but a
sword -- and I ween ye will not be able to avoid it."

His visor was up; there was death in his smile. I
should never be able to dodge his sword, that was
plain. Somebody was going to die this time. If he
got the drop on me, I could name the corpse. We
rode forward together, and saluted the royalties. This
time the king was disturbed. He said:

"Where is thy strange weapon?"

"It is stolen, sire."

"Hast another at hand?"

"No, sire, I brought only the one."

Then Merlin mixed in:

"He brought but the one because there was but the
one to bring. There exists none other but that one.
It belongeth to the king of the Demons of the Sea.
This man is a pretender, and ignorant, else he had
known that that weapon can be used in but eight
bouts only, and then it vanisheth away to its home
under the sea."

"Then is he weaponless," said the king. "Sir
Sagramore, ye will grant him leave to borrow."

"And I will lend!" said Sir Launcelot, limping
up. "He is as brave a knight of his hands as any
that be on live, and he shall have mine."

He put his hand on his sword to draw it, but Sir
Sagramor said:

"Stay, it may not be. He shall fight with his own
weapons; it was his privilege to choose them and bring
them. If he has erred, on his head be it."

"Knight!" said the king. "Thou'rt overwrought
with passion; it disorders thy mind. Wouldst kill a
naked man?"

"An he do it, he shall answer it to me," said Sir
Launcelot.

"I will answer it to any he that desireth!" retorted
Sir Sagramor hotly.

Merlin broke in, rubbing his hands and smiling his
lowdownest smile of malicious gratification:

"'Tis well said, right well said! And 'tis enough
of parleying, let my lord the king deliver the battle
signal."

The king had to yield. The bugle made proclamation, and we turned apart and rode to our stations.
There we stood, a hundred yards apart, facing each
other, rigid and motionless, like horsed statues. And
so we remained, in a soundless hush, as much as a full
minute, everybody gazing, nobody stirring. It seemed
as if the king could not take heart to give the signal.
But at last he lifted his hand, the clear note of the
bugle followed, Sir Sagramor's long blade described a
flashing curve in the air, and it was superb to see him
come. I sat still. On he came. I did not move.
People got so excited that they shouted to me:

"Fly, fly! Save thyself! This is murther!"

I never budged so much as an inch till that thunderng apparition had got within fifteen paces of me; then
I snatched a dragoon revolver out of my holster, there
was a flash and a roar, and the revolver was back in
the holster before anybody could tell what had happened.

Here was a riderless horse plunging by, and yonder
lay Sir Sagramor, stone dead.

The people that ran to him were stricken dumb to
find that the life was actually gone out of the man and
no reason for it visible, no hurt upon his body, nothing
like a wound. There was a hole through the breast of
his chain-mail, but they attached no importance to a
little thing like that; and as a bullet wound there produces but little blood, none came in sight because of
the clothing and swaddlings under the armor. The
body was dragged over to let the king and the swells
look down upon it. They were stupefied with astonishment naturally. I was requested to come and explain the miracle. But I remained in my tracks, like
a statue, and said:

"If it is a command, I will come, but my lord the
king knows that I am where the laws of combat require
me to remain while any desire to come against me."

I waited. Nobody challenged. Then I said:

"If there are any who doubt that this field is well
and fairly won, I do not wait for them to challenge
me, I challenge them."

"It is a gallant offer," said the king, "and well beseems you. Whom will you name first?"

"I name none, I challenge all! Here I stand, and
dare the chivalry of England to come against me -- not
by individuals, but in mass!"

"What!" shouted a score of knights.

"You have heard the challenge. Take it, or I proclaim you recreant knights and vanquished, every
one!"

It was a "bluff" you know. At such a time it is
sound judgment to put on a bold face and play your
hand for a hundred times what it is worth; forty-nine
times out of fifty nobody dares to "call," and you
rake in the chips. But just this once -- well, things
looked squally! In just no time, five hundred knights
were scrambling into their saddles, and before you
could wink a widely scattering drove were under way
and clattering down upon me. I snatched both revolvers from the holsters and began to measure distances
and calculate chances.

Bang! One saddle empty. Bang! another one.
Bang -- bang, and I bagged two. Well, it was nip and
tuck with us, and I knew it. If I spent the eleventh
shot without convincing these people, the twelfth man
would kill me, sure. And so I never did feel so happy
as I did when my ninth downed its man and I detected
the wavering in the crowd which is premonitory of
panic. An instant lost now could knock out my last
chance. But I didn't lose it. I raised both revolvers
and pointed them -- the halted host stood their ground
just about one good square moment, then broke and
fled.

The day was mine. Knight-errantry was a doomed
institution. The march of civilization was begun.
How did I feel? Ah, you never could imagine it.

And Brer Merlin? His stock was flat again. Somehow, every time the magic of fol-de-rol tried conclusions with the magic of science, the magic of fol-de-rol
got left.

 

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