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Chapter 6 – The Eclipse

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

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IN the stillness and the darkness, realization soon
began to supplement knowledge. The mere knowledge of a fact is pale; but when you come to REALIZE
your fact, it takes on color. It is all the difference between hearing of a man being stabbed to the heart, and
seeing it done. In the stillness and the darkness, the
knowledge that I was in deadly danger took to itself
deeper and deeper meaning all the time; a something
which was realization crept inch by inch through my
veins and turned me cold.

But it is a blessed provision of nature that at times
like these, as soon as a man’s mercury has got down to
a certain point there comes a revulsion, and he rallies.
Hope springs up, and cheerfulness along with it, and
then he is in good shape to do something for himself,
if anything can be done. When my rally came, it
came with a bound. I said to myself that my eclipse
would be sure to save me, and make me the greatest
man in the kingdom besides; and straightway my
mercury went up to the top of the tube, and my solicitudes all vanished. I was as happy a man as there
was in the world. I was even impatient for tomorrow to come, I so wanted to gather in that great
triumph and be the center of all the nation’s wonder
and reverence. Besides, in a business way it would be
the making of me; I knew that.

Meantime there was one thing which had got pushed
into the background of my mind. That was the halfconviction that when the nature of my proposed
calamity should be reported to those superstitious
people, it would have such an effect that they would
want to compromise. So, by and by when I heard
footsteps coming, that thought was recalled to me, and
I said to myself, “As sure as anything, it’s the compromise. Well, if it is good, all right, I will accept;
but if it isn’t, I mean to stand my ground and play my
hand for all it is worth.”

The door opened, and some men-at-arms appeared.
The leader said:

“The stake is ready. Come!”

The stake! The strength went out of me, and I
almost fell down. It is hard to get one’s breath at
such a time, such lumps come into one’s throat, and
such gaspings; but as soon as I could speak, I said:

“But this is a mistake — the execution is tomorrow.”

“Order changed; been set forward a day. Haste
thee!”

I was lost. There was no help for me. I was
dazed, stupefied; I had no command over myself, I
only wandered purposely about, like one out of his
mind; so the soldiers took hold of me, and pulled me
along with them, out of the cell and along the maze of
underground corridors, and finally into the fierce glare
of daylight and the upper world. As we stepped into
the vast enclosed court of the castle I got a shock;
for the first thing I saw was the stake, standing in the
center, and near it the piled fagots and a monk. On
all four sides of the court the seated multitudes rose
rank above rank, forming sloping terraces that were
rich with color. The king and the queen sat in their
thrones, the most conspicuous figures there, of course.

To note all this, occupied but a second. The next
second Clarence had slipped from some place of concealment and was pouring news into my ear, his eyes
beaming with triumph and gladness. He said:

“‘Tis through ME the change was wrought! And
main hard have I worked to do it, too. But when I
revealed to them the calamity in store, and saw how
mighty was the terror it did engender, then saw I also
that this was the time to strike! Wherefore I diligently
pretended, unto this and that and the other one, that
your power against the sun could not reach its full
until the morrow; and so if any would save the sun
and the world, you must be slain to-day, while your
enchantments are but in the weaving and lack potency.
Odsbodikins, it was but a dull lie, a most indifferent
invention, but you should have seen them seize it and
swallow it, in the frenzy of their fright, as it were salvation sent from heaven; and all the while was I
laughing in my sleeve the one moment, to see them so
cheaply deceived, and glorifying God the next, that
He was content to let the meanest of His creatures be
His instrument to the saving of thy life. Ah how
happy has the matter sped! You will not need to do
the sun a REAL hurt — ah, forget not that, on your soul
forget it not! Only make a little darkness — only the
littlest little darkness, mind, and cease with that. It
will be sufficient. They will see that I spoke falsely, —
being ignorant, as they will fancy — and with the falling of the first shadow of that darkness you shall see
them go mad with fear; and they will set you free and
make you great! Go to thy triumph, now! But remember — ah, good friend, I implore thee remember
my supplication, and do the blessed sun no hurt. For
MY sake, thy true friend.”

I choked out some words through my grief and
misery; as much as to say I would spare the sun; for
which the lad’s eyes paid me back with such deep and
loving gratitude that I had not the heart to tell him his
good-hearted foolishness had ruined me and sent me
to my death.

As the soldiers assisted me across the court the stillness was so profound that if I had been blindfold I
should have supposed I was in a solitude instead of
walled in by four thousand people. There was not a
movement perceptible in those masses of humanity;
they were as rigid as stone images, and as pale; and
dread sat upon every countenance. This hush continued while I was being chained to the stake; it still
continued while the fagots were carefully and tediously
piled about my ankles, my knees, my thighs, my body.
Then there was a pause, and a deeper hush, if possible,
and a man knelt down at my feet with a blazing torch;
the multitude strained forward, gazing, and parting
slightly from their seats without knowing it; the monk
raised his hands above my head, and his eyes toward
the blue sky, and began some words in Latin; in this
attitude he droned on and on, a little while, and then
stopped. I waited two or three moments; then looked
up; he was standing there petrified. With a common
impulse the multitude rose slowly up and stared into
the sky. I followed their eyes, as sure as guns, there
was my eclipse beginning! The life went boiling
through my veins; I was a new man! The rim of
black spread slowly into the sun’s disk, my heart beat
higher and higher, and still the assemblage and the
priest stared into the sky, motionless. I knew that
this gaze would be turned upon me, next. When it
was, l was ready. I was in one of the most grand
attitudes I ever struck, with my arm stretched up
pointing to the sun. It was a noble effect. You
could SEE the shudder sweep the mass like a wave.
Two shouts rang out, one close upon the heels of the
other:

“Apply the torch!”

“I forbid it!”

The one was from Merlin, the other from the king.
Merlin started from his place — to apply the torch
himself, I judged. I said:

“Stay where you are. If any man moves — even
the king — before I give him leave, I will blast him
with thunder, I will consume him with lightnings!”

The multitude sank meekly into their seats, and I was
just expecting they would. Merlin hesitated a moment
or two, and I was on pins and needles during that little
while. Then he sat down, and I took a good breath;
for I knew I was master of the situation now. The
king said:

“Be merciful, fair sir, and essay no further in this
perilous matter, lest disaster follow. It was reported
to us that your powers could not attain unto their full
strength until the morrow; but –”

“Your Majesty thinks the report may have been a
lie? It WAS a lie.”

That made an immense effect; up went appealing
hands everywhere, and the king was assailed with a
storm of supplications that I might be bought off at
any price, and the calamity stayed. The king was
eager to comply. He said:

“Name any terms, reverend sir, even to the halving
of my kingdom; but banish this calamity, spare the
sun!”

My fortune was made. I would have taken him up
in a minute, but I couldn’t stop an eclipse; the thing
was out of the question. So I asked time to consider.
The king said:

“How long — ah, how long, good sir? Be merciful; look, it groweth darker, moment by moment.
Prithee how long?”

“Not long. Half an hour — maybe an hour.”

There were a thousand pathetic protests, but I
couldn’t shorten up any, for I couldn’t remember
how long a total eclipse lasts. I was in a puzzled condition, anyway, and wanted to think. Something was
wrong about that eclipse, and the fact was very unsettling. If this wasn’t the one I was after, how was
I to tell whether this was the sixth century, or nothing
but a dream? Dear me, if I could only prove it was
the latter! Here was a glad new hope. If the boy
was right about the date, and this was surely the 20th,
it WASN’T the sixth century. I reached for the monk’s
sleeve, in considerable excitement, and asked him what
day of the month it was.

Hang him, he said it was the TWENTY-FIRST! It made
me turn cold to hear him. I begged him not to make
any mistake about it; but he was sure; he knew it
was the 21st. So, that feather-headed boy had botched
things again! The time of the day was right for the
eclipse; I had seen that for myself, in the beginning,
by the dial that was near by. Yes, I was in King
Arthur’s court, and I might as well make the most out
of it I could.

The darkness was steadily growing, the people becoming more and more distressed. I now said:

“I have reflected, Sir King. For a lesson, I will
let this darkness proceed, and spread night in the
world; but whether I blot out the sun for good, or
restore it, shall rest with you. These are the terms, to
wit: You shall remain king over all your dominions,
and receive all the glories and honors that belong to
the kingship; but you shall appoint me your perpetual
minister and executive, and give me for my services
one per cent. of such actual increase of revenue over
and above its present amount as I may succeed in
creating for the state. If I can’t live on that, I sha’n’t
ask anybody to give me a lift. Is it satisfactory?”

There was a prodigious roar of applause, and out of
the midst of it the king’s voice rose, saying:

“Away with his bonds, and set him free! and do
him homage, high and low, rich and poor, for he is
become the king’s right hand, is clothed with power
and authority, and his seat is upon the highest step of
the throne! Now sweep away this creeping night, and
bring the light and cheer again, that all the world may
bless thee.”

But I said:

“That a common man should be shamed before
the world, is nothing; but it were dishonor to the KING
if any that saw his minister naked should not also see
him delivered from his shame. If I might ask that my
clothes be brought again –”

“They are not meet,” the king broke in. “Fetch
raiment of another sort; clothe him like a prince!”

My idea worked. I wanted to keep things as they
were till the eclipse was total, otherwise they would be
trying again to get me to dismiss the darkness, and of
course I couldn’t do it. Sending for the clothes
gained some delay, but not enough. So I had to
make another excuse. I said it would be but natural
if the king should change his mind and repent to some
extent of what he had done under excitement; therefore I would let the darkness grow a while, and if at
the end of a reasonable time the king had kept his
mind the same, the darkness should be dismissed.
Neither the king nor anybody else was satisfied with
that arrangement, but I had to stick to my point.

It grew darker and darker and blacker and blacker,
while I struggled with those awkward sixth-century
clothes. It got to be pitch dark, at last, and the
multitude groaned with horror to feel the cold uncanny
night breezes fan through the place and see the stars
come out and twinkle in the sky. At last the eclipse
was total, and I was very glad of it, but everybody
else was in misery; which was quite natural. I said:

“The king, by his silence, still stands to the terms.”
Then I lifted up my hands — stood just so a moment —
then I said, with the most awful solemnity: “Let the
enchantment dissolve and pass harmless away!”

There was no response, for a moment, in that deep
darkness and that graveyard hush. But when the
silver rim of the sun pushed itself out, a moment or
two later, the assemblage broke loose with a vast shout
and came pouring down like a deluge to smother me
with blessings and gratitude; and Clarence was not the
last of the wash, to be sure.

 

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