FictionForest

Chapter 13 – Freemen

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

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YES, it is strange how little a while at a time a person can be contented. Only a little while back,
when I was riding and suffering, what a heaven this
peace, this rest, this sweet serenity in this secluded
shady nook by this purling stream would have seemed,
where I could keep perfectly comfortable all the time
by pouring a dipper of water into my armor now and
then; yet already I was getting dissatisfied; partly because I could not light my pipe — for, although I had
long ago started a match factory, I had forgotten to
bring matches with me — and partly because we had
nothing to eat. Here was another illustration of the
childlike improvidence of this age and people. A man
in armor always trusted to chance for his food on a
journey, and would have been scandalized at the idea
of hanging a basket of sandwiches on his spear. There
was probably not a knight of all the Round Table combination who would not rather have died than been
caught carrying such a thing as that on his flagstaff.
And yet there could not be anything more sensible.
It had been my intention to smuggle a couple of sandwiches into my helmet, but I was interrupted in the act,
and had to make an excuse and lay them aside, and a
dog got them.

Night approached, and with it a storm. The darkness came on fast. We must camp, of course. I
found a good shelter for the demoiselle under a rock,
and went off and found another for myself. But I was
obliged to remain in my armor, because I could not get
it off by myself and yet could not allow Alisande to
help, because it would have seemed so like undressing
before folk. It would not have amounted to that in
reality, because I had clothes on underneath; but the
prejudices of one’s breeding are not gotten rid of just
at a jump, and I knew that when it came to stripping
off that bob-tailed iron petticoat I should be embarrassed.

With the storm came a change of weather; and the
stronger the wind blew, and the wilder the rain lashed
around, the colder and colder it got. Pretty soon,
various kinds of bugs and ants and worms and things
began to flock in out of the wet and crawl down inside my armor to get warm; and while some of them
behaved well enough, and snuggled up amongst my
clothes and got quiet, the majority were of a restless,
uncomfortable sort, and never stayed still, but went
on prowling and hunting for they did not know what;
especially the ants, which went tickling along in
wearisome procession from one end of me to the other
by the hour, and are a kind of creatures which I
never wish to sleep with again. It would be my advice
to persons situated in this way, to not roll or thrash
around, because this excites the interest of all the
different sorts of animals and makes every last one of
them want to turn out and see what is going on, and
this makes things worse than they were before, and of
course makes you objurgate harder, too, if you can.
Still, if one did not roll and thrash around he would
die; so perhaps it is as well to do one way as the other;
there is no real choice. Even after I was frozen solid
I could still distinguish that tickling, just as a corpse
does when he is taking electric treatment. I said I
would never wear armor after this trip.

All those trying hours whilst I was frozen and yet
was in a living fire, as you may say, on account of that
swarm of crawlers, that same unanswerable question
kept circling and circling through my tired head: How
do people stand this miserable armor? How have they
managed to stand it all these generations? How can
they sleep at night for dreading the tortures of next
day?

When the morning came at last, I was in a bad
enough plight: seedy, drowsy, fagged, from want of
sleep; weary from thrashing around, famished from
long fasting; pining for a bath, and to get rid of the
animals; and crippled with rheumatism. And how
had it fared with the nobly born, the titled aristocrat,
the Demoiselle Alisande la Carteloise? Why, she was
as fresh as a squirrel; she had slept like the dead; and
as for a bath, probably neither she nor any other noble
in the land had ever had one, and so she was not
missing it. Measured by modern standards, they were
merely modified savages, those people. This noble
lady showed no impatience to get to breakfast — and
that smacks of the savage, too. On their journeys
those Britons were used to long fasts, and knew how to
bear them; and also how to freight up against probable
fasts before starting, after the style of the Indian and
the anaconda. As like as not, Sandy was loaded for a
three-day stretch.

We were off before sunrise, Sandy riding and I limping along behind. In half an hour we came upon a
group of ragged poor creatures who had assembled to
mend the thing which was regarded as a road. They
were as humble as animals to me; and when I proposed to breakfast with them, they were so flattered, so
overwhelmed by this extraordinary condescension of
mine that at first they were not able to believe that I
was in earnest. My lady put up her scornful lip and
withdrew to one side; she said in their hearing that she
would as soon think of eating with the other cattle — a
remark which embarrassed these poor devils merely because it referred to them, and not because it insulted or
offended them, for it didn’t. And yet they were not
slaves, not chattels. By a sarcasm of law and phrase
they were freemen. Seven-tenths of the free population of the country were of just their class and degree:
small “independent” farmers, artisans, etc.; which
is to say, they were the nation, the actual Nation;
they were about all of it that was useful, or worth saving, or really respect-worthy, and to subtract them would
have been to subtract the Nation and leave behind some
dregs, some refuse, in the shape of a king, nobility
and gentry, idle, unproductive, acquainted mainly with
the arts of wasting and destroying, and of no sort of
use or value in any rationally constructed world. And
yet, by ingenious contrivance, this gilded minority, instead of being in the tail of the procession where it belonged, was marching head up and banners flying, at the
other end of it; had elected itself to be the Nation,
and these innumerable clams had permitted it so long
that they had come at last to accept it as a truth; and
not only that, but to believe it right and as it should
be. The priests had told their fathers and themselves
that this ironical state of things was ordained of God;
and so, not reflecting upon how unlike God it would
be to amuse himself with sarcasms, and especially such
poor transparent ones as this, they had dropped the
matter there and become respectfully quiet.

The talk of these meek people had a strange enough
sound in a formerly American ear. They were freemen, but they could not leave the estates of their lord
or their bishop without his permission; they could not
prepare their own bread, but must have their corn
ground and their bread baked at his mill and his
bakery, and pay roundly for the same; they could not
sell a piece of their own property without paying him a
handsome percentage of the proceeds, nor buy a piece
of somebody else’s without remembering him in cash
for the privilege; they had to harvest his grain for him
gratis, and be ready to come at a moment’s notice,
leaving their own crop to destruction by the threatened
storm; they had to let him plant fruit trees in their
fields, and then keep their indignation to themselves
when his heedless fruit-gatherers trampled the grain
around the trees; they had to smother their anger when
his hunting parties galloped through their fields laying
waste the result of their patient toil; they were not
allowed to keep doves themselves, and when the swarms
from my lord’s dovecote settled on their crops they
must not lose their temper and kill a bird, for awful
would the penalty be; when the harvest was at last
gathered, then came the procession of robbers to levy
their blackmail upon it: first the Church carted off its
fat tenth, then the king’s commissioner took his twentieth, then my lord’s people made a mighty inroad
upon the remainder; after which, the skinned freeman
had liberty to bestow the remnant in his barn, in case
it was worth the trouble; there were taxes, and taxes,
and taxes, and more taxes, and taxes again, and yet
other taxes — upon this free and independent pauper,
but none upon his lord the baron or the bishop, none
upon the wasteful nobility or the all-devouring Church;
if the baron would sleep unvexed, the freeman must sit
up all night after his day’s work and whip the ponds to
keep the frogs quiet; if the freeman’s daughter — but
no, that last infamy of monarchical government is unprintable; and finally, if the freeman, grown desperate
with his tortures, found his life unendurable under such
conditions, and sacrificed it and fled to death for mercy
and refuge, the gentle Church condemned him to
eternal fire, the gentle law buried him at midnight at the
cross-roads with a stake through his back, and his master
the baron or the bishop confiscated all his property and
turned his widow and his orphans out of doors.

And here were these freemen assembled in the early
morning to work on their lord the bishop’s road three
days each — gratis; every head of a family, and every
son of a family, three days each, gratis, and a day or
so added for their servants. Why, it was like reading
about France and the French, before the ever memorable and blessed Revolution, which swept a thousand
years of such villany away in one swift tidal-wave of
blood — one: a settlement of that hoary debt in the
proportion of half a drop of blood for each hogshead
of it that had been pressed by slow tortures out of that
people in the weary stretch of ten centuries of wrong
and shame and misery the like of which was not to be
mated but in hell. There were two “Reigns of
Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it;
the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in
heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the
other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted
death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a
hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the
“horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift
death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from
hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? What is
swift death by lightning compared with death by slow
fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the
coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been
so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but
all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that
older and real Terror — that unspeakably bitter and
awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see
in its vastness or pity as it deserves.

These poor ostensible freemen who were sharing
their breakfast and their talk with me, were as full of
humble reverence for their king and Church and nobility
as their worst enemy could desire. There was something pitifully ludicrous about it. I asked them if they
supposed a nation of people ever existed, who, with a
free vote in every man’s hand, would elect that a single
family and its descendants should reign over it forever,
whether gifted or boobies, to the exclusion of all other
families — including the voter’s; and would also elect
that a certain hundred families should be raised to dizzy
summits of rank, and clothed on with offensive transmissible glories and privileges to the exclusion of the
rest of the nation’s families — INCLUDING HIS OWN.

They all looked unhit, and said they didn’t know;
that they had never thought about it before, and it
hadn’t ever occurred to them that a nation could be so
situated that every man COULD have a say in the government. I said I had seen one — and that it would last
until it had an Established Church. Again they were
all unhit — at first. But presently one man looked up
and asked me to state that proposition again; and state
it slowly, so it could soak into his understanding. I
did it; and after a little he had the idea, and he
brought his fist down and said HE didn’t believe a
nation where every man had a vote would voluntarily
get down in the mud and dirt in any such way; and
that to steal from a nation its will and preference must
be a crime and the first of all crimes. I said to myself:

“This one’s a man. If I were backed by enough of
his sort, I would make a strike for the welfare of this
country, and try to prove myself its loyalest citizen
by making a wholesome change in its system of
government.”

You see my kind of loyalty was loyalty to one’s
country, not to its institutions or its office-holders.
The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the
eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over, and care
for, and be loyal to; institutions are extraneous, they
are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect
the body from winter, disease, and death. To be
loyal to rags, to shout for rags, to worship rags, to die
for rags — that is a loyalty of unreason, it is pure
animal; it belongs to monarchy, was invented by
monarchy; let monarchy keep it. I was from Connecticut, whose Constitution declares “that all political
power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for
their benefit; and that they have AT ALL TIMES an undeniable and indefeasible right to ALTER THEIR FORM OF GOVERNMENT in such a manner as they may think expedient.”

Under that gospel, the citizen who thinks he sees
that the commonwealth’s political clothes are worn out,
and yet holds his peace and does not agitate for a new
suit, is disloyal; he is a traitor. That he may be the
only one who thinks he sees this decay, does not excuse him; it is his duty to agitate anyway, and it is the
duty of the others to vote him down if they do not see
the matter as he does.

And now here I was, in a country where a right to
say how the country should be governed was restricted
to six persons in each thousand of its population.
For the nine hundred and ninety-four to express dissatisfaction with the regnant system and propose to
change it, would have made the whole six shudder as
one man, it would have been so disloyal, so dishonorable, such putrid black treason. So to speak, I was
become a stockholder in a corporation where nine hundred and ninety-four of the members furnished all the
money and did all the work, and the other six elected
themselves a permanent board of direction and took all
the dividends. It seemed to me that what the nine
hundred and ninety-four dupes needed was a new deal.
The thing that would have best suited the circus side
of my nature would have been to resign the Boss-ship
and get up an insurrection and turn it into a revolution;
but I knew that the Jack Cade or the Wat Tyler who
tries such a thing without first educating his materials
up to revolution grade is almost absolutely certain to
get left. I had never been accustomed to getting left,
even if I do say it myself. Wherefore, the “deal”
which had been for some time working into shape
in my mind was of a quite different pattern from the
Cade-Tyler sort.

So I did not talk blood and insurrection to that man
there who sat munching black bread with that abused
and mistaught herd of human sheep, but took him
aside and talked matter of another sort to him. After
I had finished, I got him to lend me a little ink from
his veins; and with this and a sliver I wrote on a piece
of bark —

Put him in the Man-factory —

and gave it to him, and said:

“Take it to the palace at Camelot and give it into
the hands of Amyas le Poulet, whom I call Clarence,
and he will understand.”

“He is a priest, then,” said the man, and some of
the enthusiasm went out of his face.

“How — a priest? Didn’t I tell you that no chattel
of the Church, no bond-slave of pope or bishop can
enter my Man-Factory? Didn’t I tell you that YOU
couldn’t enter unless your religion, whatever it might
be, was your own free property?”

“Marry, it is so, and for that I was glad; wherefore
it liked me not, and bred in me a cold doubt, to hear
of this priest being there.”

“But he isn’t a priest, I tell you.”

The man looked far from satisfied. He said:

“He is not a priest, and yet can read?”

“He is not a priest and yet can read — yes, and
write, too, for that matter. I taught him myself.”
The man’s face cleared. “And it is the first thing
that you yourself will be taught in that Factory –”

“I? I would give blood out of my heart to know
that art. Why, I will be your slave, your –”

“No you won’t, you won’t be anybody’s slave.
Take your family and go along. Your lord the bishop
will confiscate your small property, but no matter.
Clarence will fix you all right.”

 

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