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Chapter 17 – A Royal Banquet

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

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MADAME, seeing me pacific and unresentful, no
doubt judged that I was deceived by her excuse;
for her fright dissolved away, and she was soon so
importunate to have me give an exhibition and kill
somebody, that the thing grew to be embarrassing.
However, to my relief she was presently interrupted by
the call to prayers. I will say this much for the
nobility: that, tyrannical, murderous, rapacious, and
morally rotten as they were, they were deeply and
enthusiastically religious. Nothing could divert them
from the regular and faithful performance of the pieties
enjoined by the Church. More than once I had seen
a noble who had gotten his enemy at a disadvantage,
stop to pray before cutting his throat; more than once
I had seen a noble, after ambushing and despatching
his enemy, retire to the nearest wayside shrine and
humbly give thanks, without even waiting to rob the
body. There was to be nothing finer or sweeter in the
life of even Benvenuto Cellini, that rough-hewn saint,
ten centuries later. All the nobles of Britain, with
their families, attended divine service morning and
night daily, in their private chapels, and even the
worst of them had family worship five or six times a
day besides. The credit of this belonged entirely to
the Church. Although I was no friend to that Catholic Church, I was obliged to admit this. And often,
in spite of me, I found myself saying, “What would
this country be without the Church?”

After prayers we had dinner in a great banqueting
hall which was lighted by hundreds of grease-jets, and
everything was as fine and lavish and rudely splendid
as might become the royal degree of the hosts. At
the head of the hall, on a dais, was the table of the
king, queen, and their son, Prince Uwaine. Stretching
down the hall from this, was the general table, on the
floor. At this, above the salt, sat the visiting nobles
and the grown members of their families, of both
sexes, — the resident Court, in effect — sixty-one persons; below the salt sat minor officers of the household, with their principal subordinates: altogether a
hundred and eighteen persons sitting, and about as
many liveried servants standing behind their chairs, or
serving in one capacity or another. It was a very fine
show. In a gallery a band with cymbals, horns, harps,
and other horrors, opened the proceedings with what
seemed to be the crude first-draft or original agony of
the wail known to later centuries as “In the Sweet
Bye and Bye.” It was new, and ought to have been
rehearsed a little more. For some reason or other the
queen had the composer hanged, after dinner.

After this music, the priest who stood behind the
royal table said a noble long grace in ostensible Latin.
Then the battalion of waiters broke away from their
posts, and darted, rushed, flew, fetched and carried,
and the mighty feeding began; no words anywhere,
but absorbing attention to business. The rows of
chops opened and shut in vast unison, and the sound
of it was like to the muffled burr of subterranean
machinery.

The havoc continued an hour and a half, and unimaginable was the destruction of substantials. Of the
chief feature of the feast — the huge wild boar that lay
stretched out so portly and imposing at the start —
nothing was left but the semblance of a hoop-skirt;
and he was but the type and symbol of what had happened to all the other dishes.

With the pastries and so on, the heavy drinking
began — and the talk. Gallon after gallon of wine and
mead disappeared, and everybody got comfortable,
then happy, then sparklingly joyous — both sexes, —
and by and by pretty noisy. Men told anecdotes that
were terrific to hear, but nobody blushed; and when
the nub was sprung, the assemblage let go with a
horse-laugh that shook the fortress. Ladies answered
back with historiettes that would almost have made
Queen Margaret of Navarre or even the great Elizabeth
of England hide behind a handkerchief, but nobody
hid here, but only laughed — howled, you may say.
In pretty much all of these dreadful stories, ecclesiastics
were the hardy heroes, but that didn’t worry the chaplain any, he had his laugh with the rest; more than
that, upon invitation he roared out a song which was
of as daring a sort as any that was sung that night.

By midnight everybody was fagged out, and sore
with laughing; and, as a rule, drunk: some weepingly,
some affectionately, some hilariously, some quarrelsomely, some dead and under the table. Of the
ladies, the worst spectacle was a lovely young duchess, whose wedding-eve this was; and indeed she was
a spectacle, sure enough. Just as she was she could
have sat in advance for the portrait of the young
daughter of the Regent d’Orleans, at the famous dinner
whence she was carried, foul-mouthed, intoxicated, and
helpless, to her bed, in the lost and lamented days of
the Ancient Regime.

Suddenly, even while the priest was lifting his hands,
and all conscious heads were bowed in reverent expectation of the coming blessing, there appeared under
the arch of the far-off door at the bottom of the hall
an old and bent and white-haired lady, leaning upon a
crutch-stick; and she lifted the stick and pointed it
toward the queen and cried out:

“The wrath and curse of God fall upon you, woman
without pity, who have slain mine innocent grandchild
and made desolate this old heart that had nor chick, nor
friend nor stay nor comfort in all this world but him!”

Everybody crossed himself in a grisly fright, for a
curse was an awful thing to those people; but the
queen rose up majestic, with the death-light in her
eye, and flung back this ruthless command:

“Lay hands on her! To the stake with her!”

The guards left their posts to obey. It was a
shame; it was a cruel thing to see. What could be
done? Sandy gave me a look; I knew she had another inspiration. I said:

“Do what you choose.”

She was up and facing toward the queen in a moment. She indicated me, and said:

“Madame, HE saith this may not be. Recall the
commandment, or he will dissolve the castle and it
shall vanish away like the instable fabric of a dream!”

Confound it, what a crazy contract to pledge a person to! What if the queen —

But my consternation subsided there, and my panic
passed off; for the queen, all in a collapse, made no
show of resistance but gave a countermanding sign and
sunk into her seat. When she reached it she was
sober. So were many of the others. The assemblage
rose, whiffed ceremony to the winds, and rushed for
the door like a mob; overturning chairs, smashing
crockery, tugging, struggling, shouldering, crowding
— anything to get out before I should change my
mind and puff the castle into the measureless dim
vacancies of space. Well, well, well, they WERE a
superstitious lot. It is all a body can do to conceive
of it.

The poor queen was so scared and humbled that she
was even afraid to hang the composer without first
consulting me. I was very sorry for her — indeed, any
one would have been, for she was really suffering; so
I was willing to do anything that was reasonable, and
had no desire to carry things to wanton extremities. I
therefore considered the matter thoughtfully, and ended
by having the musicians ordered into our presence to
play that Sweet Bye and Bye again, which they did.
Then I saw that she was right, and gave her permission
to hang the whole band. This little relaxation of
sternness had a good effect upon the queen. A statesman gains little by the arbitrary exercise of iron-clad
authority upon all occasions that offer, for this wounds
the just pride of his subordinates, and thus tends to
undermine his strength. A little concession, now and
then, where it can do no harm, is the wiser policy.

Now that the queen was at ease in her mind once
more, and measurably happy, her wine naturally began
to assert itself again, and it got a little the start of her.
I mean it set her music going — her silver bell of a
tongue. Dear me, she was a master talker. It would
not become me to suggest that it was pretty late and
that I was a tired man and very sleepy. I wished I
had gone off to bed when I had the chance. Now I
must stick it out; there was no other way. So she
tinkled along and along, in the otherwise profound and
ghostly hush of the sleeping castle, until by and by
there came, as if from deep down under us, a far-away
sound, as of a muffled shriek — with an expression of
agony about it that made my flesh crawl. The queen
stopped, and her eyes lighted with pleasure; she tilted
her graceful head as a bird does when it listens. The
sound bored its way up through the stillness again.

“What is it?” I said.

“It is truly a stubborn soul, and endureth long. It
is many hours now.”

“Endureth what?”

“The rack. Come — ye shall see a blithe sight.
An he yield not his secret now, ye shall see him torn
asunder.”

What a silky smooth hellion she was; and so composed and serene, when the cords all down my legs
were hurting in sympathy with that man’s pain. Conducted by mailed guards bearing flaring torches, we
tramped along echoing corridors, and down stone stairways dank and dripping, and smelling of mould and
ages of imprisoned night — a chill, uncanny journey
and a long one, and not made the shorter or the
cheerier by the sorceress’s talk, which was about this
sufferer and his crime. He had been accused by an
anonymous informer, of having killed a stag in the
royal preserves. I said:

“Anonymous testimony isn’t just the right thing,
your Highness. It were fairer to confront the accused
with the accuser.”

“I had not thought of that, it being but of small
consequence. But an I would, I could not, for that
the accuser came masked by night, and told the
forester, and straightway got him hence again, and so
the forester knoweth him not.”

“Then is this Unknown the only person who saw
the stag killed?”

“Marry, NO man SAW the killing, but this Unknown
saw this hardy wretch near to the spot where the stag
lay, and came with right loyal zeal and betrayed him
to the forester.”

“So the Unknown was near the dead stag, too?
Isn’t it just possible that he did the killing himself?
His loyal zeal — in a mask — looks just a shade suspicious. But what is your highness’s idea for racking
the prisoner? Where is the profit?”

“He will not confess, else; and then were his soul
lost. For his crime his life is forfeited by the law —
and of a surety will I see that he payeth it! — but it
were peril to my own soul to let him die unconfessed
and unabsolved. Nay, I were a fool to fling me into
hell for HIS accommodation.”

“But, your Highness, suppose he has nothing to
confess?”

“As to that, we shall see, anon. An I rack him to
death and he confess not, it will peradventure show
that he had indeed naught to confess — ye will grant
that that is sooth? Then shall I not be damned for
an unconfessed man that had naught to confess —
wherefore, I shall be safe.”

It was the stubborn unreasoning of the time. It was
useless to argue with her. Arguments have no chance
against petrified training; they wear it as little as the
waves wear a cliff. And her training was everybody’s.
The brightest intellect in the land would not have been
able to see that her position was defective.

As we entered the rack-cell I caught a picture that
will not go from me; I wish it would. A native young
giant of thirty or thereabouts lay stretched upon the
frame on his back, with his wrists and ankles tied to
ropes which led over windlasses at either end. There
was no color in him; his features were contorted and
set, and sweat-drops stood upon his forehead. A
priest bent over him on each side; the executioner
stood by; guards were on duty; smoking torches
stood in sockets along the walls; in a corner crouched
a poor young creature, her face drawn with anguish,
a half-wild and hunted look in her eyes, and in her lap
lay a little child asleep. Just as we stepped across the
threshold the executioner gave his machine a slight
turn, which wrung a cry from both the prisoner and
the woman; but I shouted, and the executioner released
the strain without waiting to see who spoke. I could
not let this horror go on; it would have killed me to
see it. I asked the queen to let me clear the place
and speak to the prisoner privately; and when she was
going to object I spoke in a low voice and said I did
not want to make a scene before her servants, but I
must have my way; for I was King Arthur’s representative, and was speaking in his name. She saw she
had to yield. I asked her to indorse me to these people, and then leave me. It was not pleasant for her,
but she took the pill; and even went further than I
was meaning to require. I only wanted the backing of
her own authority; but she said:

“Ye will do in all things as this lord shall command.
It is The Boss.”

It was certainly a good word to conjure with: you
could see it by the squirming of these rats. The
queen’s guards fell into line, and she and they marched
away, with their torch-bearers, and woke the echoes of
the cavernous tunnels with the measured beat of their
retreating footfalls. I had the prisoner taken from
the rack and placed upon his bed, and medicaments
applied to his hurts, and wine given him to drink.
The woman crept near and looked on, eagerly, lovingly, but timorously, — like one who fears a repulse;
indeed, she tried furtively to touch the man’s forehead,
and jumped back, the picture of fright, when I turned
unconsciously toward her. It was pitiful to see.

“Lord,” I said, “stroke him, lass, if you want to.
Do anything you’re a mind to; don’t mind me.”

Why, her eyes were as grateful as an animal’s, when
you do it a kindness that it understands. The baby
was out of her way and she had her cheek against the
man’s in a minute. and her hands fondling his hair,
and her happy tears running down. The man revived
and caressed his wife with his eyes, which was all he
could do. I judged I might clear the den, now, and I
did; cleared it of all but the family and myself. Then
I said:

“Now, my friend, tell me your side of this matter;
I know the other side.”

The man moved his head in sign of refusal. But
the woman looked pleased — as it seemed to me —
pleased with my suggestion. I went on —

“You know of me?”

“Yes. All do, in Arthur’s realms.”

“If my reputation has come to you right and
straight, you should not be afraid to speak.”

The woman broke in, eagerly:

“Ah, fair my lord, do thou persuade him! Thou
canst an thou wilt. Ah, he suffereth so; and it is for
me — for ME! And how can I bear it? I would I
might see him die — a sweet, swift death; oh, my
Hugo, I cannot bear this one!”

And she fell to sobbing and grovelling about my
feet, and still imploring. Imploring what? The man’s
death? I could not quite get the bearings of the thing.
But Hugo interrupted her and said:

“Peace! Ye wit not what ye ask. Shall I starve
whom I love, to win a gentle death? I wend thou
knewest me better.”

“Well,” I said, “I can’t quite make this out. It
is a puzzle. Now –”

“Ah, dear my lord, an ye will but persuade him!
Consider how these his tortures wound me! Oh, and
he will not speak! — whereas, the healing, the solace
that lie in a blessed swift death –”

“What ARE you maundering about? He’s going out
from here a free man and whole — he’s not going to
die.”

The man’s white face lit up, and the woman flung
herself at me in a most surprising explosion of joy,
and cried out:

“He is saved! — for it is the king’s word by the
mouth of the king’s servant — Arthur, the king whose
word is gold!”

“Well, then you do believe I can be trusted, after
all. Why didn’t you before?”

“Who doubted? Not I, indeed; and not she.”

“Well, why wouldn’t you tell me your story, then?”

“Ye had made no promise; else had it been otherwise.”

“I see, I see…. And yet I believe I don’t quite
see, after all. You stood the torture and refused to
confess; which shows plain enough to even the dullest understanding that you had nothing to confess –”

“I, my lord? How so? It was I that killed the
deer!”

“You DID? Oh, dear, this is the most mixed-up
business that ever –”

“Dear lord, I begged him on my knees to confess,
but –”

“You DID! It gets thicker and thicker. What did
you want him to do that for?”

“Sith it would bring him a quick death and save
him all this cruel pain.”

“Well — yes, there is reason in that. But HE didn’t
want the quick death.”

“He? Why, of a surety he DID.”

“Well, then, why in the world DIDN’T he confess?”

“Ah, sweet sir, and leave my wife and chick without bread and shelter?”

“Oh, heart of gold, now I see it! The bitter law
takes the convicted man’s estate and beggars his widow
and his orphans. They could torture you to death,
but without conviction or confession they could not
rob your wife and baby. You stood by them like a
man; and YOU — true wife and the woman that you
are — you would have bought him release from torture
at cost to yourself of slow starvation and death — well,
it humbles a body to think what your sex can do when
it comes to self-sacrifice. I’ll book you both for my
colony; you’ll like it there; it’s a Factory where I’m
going to turn groping and grubbing automata into
MEN.”

 

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