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Chapter 18 – In The Queen’s Dungeons

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

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WELL, I arranged all that; and I had the man sent
to his home. I had a great desire to rack the
executioner; not because he was a good, painstaking
and paingiving official, — for surely it was not to his
discredit that he performed his functions well — but to
pay him back for wantonly cuffing and otherwise distressing that young woman. The priests told me about
this, and were generously hot to have him punished.
Something of this disagreeable sort was turning up
every now and then. I mean, episodes that showed
that not all priests were frauds and self-seekers, but
that many, even the great majority, of these that were
down on the ground among the common people, were
sincere and right-hearted, and devoted to the alleviation
of human troubles and sufferings. Well, it was a thing
which could not be helped, so I seldom fretted about
it, and never many minutes at a time; it has never
been my way to bother much about things which you
can’t cure. But I did not like it, for it was just the
sort of thing to keep people reconciled to an Established Church. We MUST have a religion — it goes
without saying — but my idea is, to have it cut up into
forty free sects, so that they will police each other, as
had been the case in the United States in my time.
Concentration of power in a political machine is bad;
and and an Established Church is only a political machine;
it was invented for that; it is nursed, cradled, preserved for that; it is an enemy to human liberty, and
does no good which it could not better do in a split-up
and scattered condition. That wasn’t law; it wasn’t
gospel: it was only an opinion — my opinion, and I
was only a man, one man: so it wasn’t worth any
more than the pope’s — or any less, for that matter.

Well, I couldn’t rack the executioner, neither would
I overlook the just complaint of the priests. The man
must be punished somehow or other, so I degraded
him from his office and made him leader of the band
— the new one that was to be started. He begged
hard, and said he couldn’t play — a plausible excuse,
but too thin; there wasn’t a musician in the country
that could.

The queen was a good deal outraged, next morning
when she found she was going to have neither Hugo’s
life nor his property. But I told her she must bear
this cross; that while by law and custom she certainly
was entitled to both the man’s life and his property,
there were extenuating circumstances, and so in Arthur
the king’s name I had pardoned him. The deer was
ravaging the man’s fields, and he had killed it in sudden passion, and not for gain; and he had carried it
into the royal forest in the hope that that might make
detection of the misdoer impossible. Confound her, I
couldn’t make her see that sudden passion is an extenuating circumstance in the killing of venison — or
of a person — so I gave it up and let her sulk it out
I DID think I was going to make her see it by remarking that her own sudden passion in the case of the
page modified that crime.

“Crime!” she exclaimed. “How thou talkest!
Crime, forsooth! Man, I am going to PAY for him!”

Oh, it was no use to waste sense on her. Training
— training is everything; training is all there is TO a
person. We speak of nature; it is folly; there is no
such thing as nature; what we call by that misleading
name is merely heredity and training. We have no
thoughts of our own, no opinions of our own; they
are transmitted to us, trained into us. All that is
original in us, and therefore fairly creditable or discreditable to us, can be covered up and hidden by the
point of a cambric needle, all the rest being atoms
contributed by, and inherited from, a procession of
ancestors that stretches back a billion years to the
Adam-clam or grasshopper or monkey from whom our
race has been so tediously and ostentatiously and unprofitably developed. And as for me, all that I think
about in this plodding sad pilgrimage, this pathetic
drift between the eternities, is to look out and humbly
live a pure and high and blameless life, and save that
one microscopic atom in me that is truly ME: the rest
may land in Sheol and welcome for all I care.

No, confound her, her intellect was good, she had
brains enough, but her training made her an ass — that
is, from a many-centuries-later point of view. To kill
the page was no crime — it was her right; and upon
her right she stood, serenely and unconscious of
offense. She was a result of generations of training
in the unexamined and unassailed belief that the law
which permitted her to kill a subject when she chose
was a perfectly right and righteous one.

Well, we must give even Satan his due. She deserved a compliment for one thing; and I tried to pay
it, but the words stuck in my throat. She had a right
to kill the boy, but she was in no wise obliged to pay
for him. That was law for some other people, but
not for her. She knew quite well that she was doing a
large and generous thing to pay for that lad, and that
I ought in common fairness to come out with something handsome about it, but I couldn’t — my mouth
refused. I couldn’t help seeing, in my fancy, that
poor old grandma with the broken heart, and that fair
young creature lying butchered, his little silken pomps
and vanities laced with his golden blood. How could
she PAY for him! WHOM could she pay? And so,
well knowing that this woman, trained as she had been,
deserved praise, even adulation, I was yet not able to
utter it, trained as I had been. The best I could do
was to fish up a compliment from outside, so to speak
— and the pity of it was, that it was true:

“Madame, your people will adore you for this.”

Quite true, but I meant to hang her for it some day
if I lived. Some of those laws were too bad, altogether
too bad. A master might kill his slave for nothing —
for mere spite, malice, or to pass the time — just as
we have seen that the crowned head could do it with
HIS slave, that is to say, anybody. A gentleman could
kill a free commoner, and pay for him — cash or
garden-truck. A noble could kill a noble without expense, as far as the law was concerned, but reprisals in
kind were to be expected. ANYbody could kill SOME-
body, except the commoner and the slave; these had
no privileges. If they killed, it was murder, and the
law wouldn’t stand murder. It made short work of
the experimenter — and of his family, too, if he murdered somebody who belonged up among the ornamental ranks. If a commoner gave a noble even so
much as a Damiens-scratch which didn’t kill or even
hurt, he got Damiens’ dose for it just the same; they
pulled him to rags and tatters with horses, and all the
world came to see the show, and crack jokes, and have
a good time; and some of the performances of the
best people present were as tough, and as properly
unprintable, as any that have been printed by the
pleasant Casanova in his chapter about the dismemberment of Louis XV.’s poor awkward enemy.

I had had enough of this grisly place by this time,
and wanted to leave, but I couldn’t, because I had
something on my mind that my conscience kept prodding me about, and wouldn’t let me forget. If I had
the remaking of man, he wouldn’t have any conscience.
It is one of the most disagreeable things connected
with a person; and although it certainly does a great
deal of good, it cannot be said to pay, in the long run;
it would be much better to have less good and more
comfort. Still, this is only my opinion, and I am only
one man; others, with less experience, may think
differently. They have a right to their view. I only
stand to this: I have noticed my conscience for many
years, and I know it is more trouble and bother to me
than anything else I started with. I suppose that in
the beginning I prized it, because we prize anything
that is ours; and yet how foolish it was to think so.
If we look at it in another way, we see how absurd it
is: if I had an anvil in me would I prize it? Of course
not. And yet when you come to think, there is no
real difference between a conscience and an anvil — I
mean for comfort. I have noticed it a thousand times.
And you could dissolve an anvil with acids, when you
couldn’t stand it any longer; but there isn’t any way
that you can work off a conscience — at least so it will
stay worked off; not that I know of, anyway.

There was something I wanted to do before leaving,
but it was a disagreeable matter, and I hated to go at
it. Well, it bothered me all the morning. I could
have mentioned it to the old king, but what would be
the use? — he was but an extinct volcano; he had
been active in his time, but his fire was out, this good
while, he was only a stately ash-pile now; gentle
enough, and kindly enough for my purpose, without
doubt, but not usable. He was nothing, this so-called
king: the queen was the only power there. And she
was a Vesuvius. As a favor, she might consent to
warm a flock of sparrows for you, but then she might
take that very opportunity to turn herself loose and
bury a city. However, I reflected that as often as any
other way, when you are expecting the worst, you get
something that is not so bad, after all.

So I braced up and placed my matter before her
royal Highness. I said I had been having a general
jail-delivery at Camelot and among neighboring castles,
and with her permission I would like to examine her
collection, her bric-a-brac — that is to say, her prisoners. She resisted; but I was expecting that. But she
finally consented. I was expecting that, too, but not
so soon. That about ended my discomfort. She
called her guards and torches, and we went down into
the dungeons. These were down under the castle’s
foundations, and mainly were small cells hollowed out
of the living rock. Some of these cells had no light at
all. In one of them was a woman, in foul rags, who
sat on the ground, and would not answer a question or
speak a word, but only looked up at us once or twice,
through a cobweb of tangled hair, as if to see what
casual thing it might be that was disturbing with sound
and light the meaningless dull dream that was become
her life; after that, she sat bowed, with her dirt-caked
fingers idly interlocked in her lap, and gave no further
sign. This poor rack of bones was a woman of middle
age, apparently; but only apparently; she had been
there nine years, and was eighteen when she entered.
She was a commoner, and had been sent here on her
bridal night by Sir Breuse Sance Pite, a neighboring
lord whose vassal her father was, and to which said
lord she had refused what has since been called le droit
du seigneur, and, moreover, had opposed violence to
violence and spilt half a gill of his almost sacred blood.
The young husband had interfered at that point. believing the bride’s life in danger, and had flung the
noble out into the midst of the humble and trembling
wedding guests, in the parlor, and left him there astonished at this strange treatment, and implacably embittered against both bride and groom. The said lord
being cramped for dungeon-room had asked the queen
to accommodate his two criminals, and here in her
bastile they had been ever since; hither, indeed, they
had come before their crime was an hour old, and had
never seen each other since. Here they were, kenneled like toads in the same rock; they had passed
nine pitch dark years within fifty feet of each other,
yet neither knew whether the other was alive or not.
All the first years, their only question had been —
asked with beseechings and tears that might have
moved stones, in time, perhaps, but hearts are not
stones: “Is he alive?” “Is she alive?” But they
had never got an answer; and at last that question was
not asked any more — or any other.

I wanted to see the man, after hearing all this. He
was thirty-four years old, and looked sixty. He sat
upon a squared block of stone, with his head bent
down, his forearms resting on his knees, his long hair
hanging like a fringe before his face, and he was
muttering to himself. He raised his chin and looked
us slowly over, in a listless dull way, blinking with the
distress of the torchlight, then dropped his head and
fell to muttering again and took no further notice of
us. There were some pathetically suggestive dumb
witnesses present. On his wrists and ankles were
cicatrices, old smooth scars, and fastened to the stone
on which he sat was a chain with manacles and fetters
attached; but this apparatus lay idle on the ground,
and was thick with rust. Chains cease to be needed
after the spirit has gone out of a prisoner.

I could not rouse the man; so I said we would take
him to her, and see — to the bride who was the fairest
thing in the earth to him, once — roses, pearls, and dew
made flesh, for him; a wonder-work, the master-work
of nature: with eyes like no other eyes, and voice like
no other voice, and a freshness, and lithe young grace,
and beauty, that belonged properly to the creatures of
dreams — as he thought — and to no other. The sight
of her would set his stagnant blood leaping; the sight
of her —

But it was a disappointment. They sat together on
the ground and looked dimly wondering into each
other’s faces a while, with a sort of weak animal curiosity; then forgot each other’s presence, and dropped
their eyes, and you saw that they were away again and
wandering in some far land of dreams and shadows
that we know nothing about.

I had them taken out and sent to their friends. The
queen did not like it much. Not that she felt any
personal interest in the matter, but she thought it disrespectful to Sir Breuse Sance Pite. However, I
assured her that if he found he couldn’t stand it I
would fix him so that he could.

I set forty-seven prisoners loose out of those awful
rat-holes, and left only one in captivity. He was a
lord, and had killed another lord, a sort of kinsman of
the queen. That other lord had ambushed him to
assassinate him, but this fellow had got the best of him
and cut his throat. However, it was not for that that
I left him jailed, but for maliciously destroying the
only public well in one of his wretched villages. The
queen was bound to hang him for killing her kinsman,
but I would not allow it: it was no crime to kill an
assassin. But I said I was willing to let her hang him
for destroying the well; so she concluded to put up
with that, as it was better than nothing.

Dear me, for what trifling offenses the most of those
forty-seven men and women were shut up there! Indeed, some were there for no distinct offense at all,
but only to gratify somebody’s spite; and not always
the queen’s by any means, but a friend’s. The newest
prisoner’s crime was a mere remark which he had
made. He said he believed that men were about all
alike, and one man as good as another, barring clothes.
He said he believed that if you were to strip the nation
naked and send a stranger through the crowd, he
couldn’t tell the king from a quack doctor, nor a duke
from a hotel clerk. Apparently here was a man whose
brains had not been reduced to an ineffectual mush by
idiotic training. I set him loose and sent him to the
Factory.

Some of the cells carved in the living rock were just
behind the face of the precipice, and in each of these
an arrow-slit had been pierced outward to the daylight,
and so the captive had a thin ray from the blessed sun
for his comfort. The case of one of these poor fellows was particularly hard. From his dusky swallow’s
hole high up in that vast wall of native rock he could
peer out through the arrow-slit and see his own home
off yonder in the valley; and for twenty-two years he
had watched it, with heartache and longing, through
that crack. He could see the lights shine there at
night, and in the daytime he could see figures go in
and come out — his wife and children, some of them,
no doubt, though he could not make out at that distance. In the course of years he noted festivities
there, and tried to rejoice, and wondered if they were
weddings or what they might be. And he noted
funerals; and they wrung his heart. He could make
out the coffin, but he could not determine its size, and
so could not tell whether it was wife or child. He
could see the procession form, with priests and mourners, and move solemnly away, bearing the secret with
them. He had left behind him five children and a
wife; and in nineteen years he had seen five funerals
issue, and none of them humble enough in pomp to
denote a servant. So he had lost five of his treasures;
there must still be one remaining — one now infinitely,
unspeakably precious, — but WHICH one? wife, or child?
That was the question that tortured him, by night and
by day, asleep and awake. Well, to have an interest,
of some sort, and half a ray of light, when you are in
a dungeon, is a great support to the body and preserver
of the intellect. This man was in pretty good condition yet. By the time he had finished telling me his
distressful tale, I was in the same state of mind that
you would have been in yourself, if you have got
average human curiosity; that is to say, I was as
burning up as he was to find out which member of
the family it was that was left. So I took him over
home myself; and an amazing kind of a surprise party
it was, too — typhoons and cyclones of frantic joy,
and whole Niagaras of happy tears; and by George!
we found the aforetime young matron graying toward
the imminent verge of her half century, and the babies
all men and women, and some of them married and
experimenting familywise themselves — for not a soul
of the tribe was dead! Conceive of the ingenious
devilishness of that queen: she had a special hatred
for this prisoner, and she had INVENTED all those funerals herself, to scorch his heart with; and the sublimest
stroke of genius of the whole thing was leaving the
family-invoice a funeral SHORT, so as to let him wear his
poor old soul out guessing.

But for me, he never would have got out. Morgan
le Fay hated him with her whole heart, and she never
would have softened toward him. And yet his crime
was committed more in thoughtlessness than deliberate
depravity. He had said she had red hair. Well, she
had; but that was no way to speak of it. When redheaded people are above a certain social grade their
hair is auburn.

Consider it: among these forty-seven captives there
were five whose names, offenses, and dates of incarceration were no longer known! One woman and four
men — all bent, and wrinkled, and mind-extinguished
patriarchs. They themselves had long ago forgotten
these details; at any rate they had mere vague theories
about them, nothing definite and nothing that they repeated twice in the same way. The succession of
priests whose office it had been to pray daily with the
captives and remind them that God had put them
there, for some wise purpose or other, and teach them
that patience, humbleness, and submission to oppression was what He loved to see in parties of a subordinate rank, had traditions about these poor old human
ruins, but nothing more. These traditions went but
little way, for they concerned the length of the incarceration only, and not the names of the offenses. And
even by the help of tradition the only thing that could
be proven was that none of the five had seen daylight
for thirty-five years: how much longer this privation
has lasted was not guessable. The king and the queen
knew nothing about these poor creatures, except that
they were heirlooms, assets inherited, along with the
throne, from the former firm. Nothing of their history
had been transmitted with their persons, and so the
inheriting owners had considered them of no value,
and had felt no interest in them. I said to the queen:

“Then why in the world didn’t you set them free?”

The question was a puzzler. She didn’t know WHY
she hadn’t, the thing had never come up in her mind.
So here she was, forecasting the veritable history of
future prisoners of the Castle d’If, without knowing it.
It seemed plain to me now, that with her training,
those inherited prisoners were merely property — nothing more, nothing less. Well, when we inherit property, it does not occur to us to throw it away, even
when we do not value it.

When I brought my procession of human bats up
into the open world and the glare of the afternoon sun
— previously blindfolding them, in charity for eyes
so long untortured by light — they were a spectacle
to look at. Skeletons, scarecrows, goblins, pathetic
frights, every one; legitimatest possible children of
Monarchy by the Grace of God and the Established
Church. I muttered absently:

“I WISH I could photograph them!”

You have seen that kind of people who will never let
on that they don’t know the meaning of a new big
word. The more ignorant they are, the more pitifully
certain they are to pretend you haven’t shot over their
heads. The queen was just one of that sort, and was
always making the stupidest blunders by reason of it.
She hesitated a moment; then her face brightened up
with sudden comprehension, and she said she would
do it for me.

I thought to myself: She? why what can she know
about photography? But it was a poor time to be
thinking. When I looked around, she was moving on
the procession with an axe!

Well, she certainly was a curious one, was Morgan
le Fay. I have seen a good many kinds of women in
my time, but she laid over them all for variety. And
how sharply characteristic of her this episode was.
She had no more idea than a horse of how to photograph a procession; but being in doubt, it was just
like her to try to do it with an axe.

 

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