A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
by Mark Twain
Chapter 16 - Morgan Le Fay
knights errant were to be believed, not all castles were desirable places to seek
hospitality in. As a matter of fact, knights errant were NOT persons to be believed --
that is, measured by modern standards of veracity; yet, measured by the standards of their
own time, and scaled accordingly, you got the truth. It was very simple: you discounted a
statement ninetyseven per cent.; the rest was fact. Now after making this allowance, the
truth remained that if I could find out something about a castle before ringing the
doorbell -- I mean hailing the warders -- it was the sensible thing to do. So I was
pleased when I saw in the distance a horseman making the bottom turn of the road that
wound down from this castle.
As we approached each other, I saw that he wore a plumed
helmet, and seemed to be otherwise clothed in steel, but bore a curious addition also -- a
stiff square garment like a herald's tabard. However, I had to smile at my own
forgetfulness when I got nearer and read this sign on his tabard:
"Persimmon's Soap -- All the Prime-Donna Use It."
That was a little idea of my own, and had several wholesome purposes in view toward the
civilizing and uplifting of this nation. In the first place, it was a furtive, underhand
blow at this nonsense of knight errantry, though nobody suspected that but me. I had
started a number of these people out -- the bravest knights I could get -- each sandwiched
between bulletin-boards bearing one device or another, and I judged that by and by when
they got to be numerous enough they would begin to look ridiculous; and then, even the
steel-clad ass that HADN'T any board would himself begin to look ridiculous because he was
out of the fashion.
Secondly, these missionaries would gradually, and without creating suspicion or
exciting alarm, introduce a rudimentary cleanliness among the nobility, and from them it
would work down to the people, if the priests could be kept quiet.
This would undermine the Church. I mean would be a step toward that. Next, education -- next,
freedom -- and then she would begin to crumble. It being my conviction that any
Established Church is an established crime, an established slave-pen, I had no scruples,
but was willing to assail it in any way or with any weapon that promised to hurt it. Why,
in my own former day -- in remote centuries not yet stirring in the womb of time -- there
were old Englishmen who imagined that they had been born in a free country: a
"free" country with the Corporation Act and the Test still in force in it --
timbers propped against men's liberties and dishonored consciences to shore up an
Established Anachronism with.
My missionaries were taught to spell out the gilt signs on their tabards -- the showy
gilding was a neat idea, I could have got the king to wear a bulletin-board for the sake
of that barbaric splendor -- they were to spell out these signs and then explain to the
lords and ladies what soap was; and if the lords and ladies were afraid of it, get them to
try it on a dog. The missionary's next move was to get the family together and try it on
himself; he was to stop at no experiment, however desperate. that could convince the
nobility that soap was harmless; if any final doubt remained, he must catch a hermit --
the woods were full of them; saints they called themselves, and saints they were believed
to be. They were unspeakably holy, and worked miracles, and everybody stood in awe of
them. If a hermit could survive a wash, and that failed to convince a duke, give him up,
let him alone.
Whenever my missionaries overcame a knight errant on the road they washed him, and when
he got well they swore him to go and get a bulletin-board and disseminate soap and
civilization the rest of his days. As a consequence the workers in the field were
increasing by degrees, and the reform was steadily spreading. My soap factory felt the
strain early. At first I had only two hands; but before I had left home I was already
employing fifteen, and running night and day; and the atmospheric result was getting so
pronounced that the king went sort of fainting and gasping around and said he did not
believe he could stand it much longer, and Sir Launcelot got so that he did hardly
anything but walk up and down the roof and swear, although I told him it was worse up
there than anywhere else, but he said he wanted plenty of air; and he was always
complaining that a palace was no place for a soap factory anyway, and said if a man was to
start one in his house he would be damned if he wouldn't strangle him. There were ladies
present, too, but much these people ever cared for that; they would swear before children,
if the wind was their way when the factory was going.
missionary knight's name was La Cote Male Taile, and he said that this castle was the
abode of Morgan le Fay, sister of King Arthur, and wife of King Uriens. monarch of a realm
about as big as the District of Columbia -- you could stand in the middle of it and throw
bricks into the next kingdom. "Kings" and "Kingdoms" were as thick in
Britain as they had been in little Palestine in Joshua's time, when people had to sleep
with their knees pulled up because they couldn't stretch out without a passport.
La Cote was much depressed, for he had scored here the worst failure of his campaign.
He had not worked off a cake; yet he had tried all the tricks of the trade, even to the
washing of a hermit; but the hermit died. This was, indeed, a bad failure, for this animal
would now be dubbed a martyr, and would take his place among the saints of the Roman
calendar. Thus made he his moan, this poor Sir La Cote Male Taile, and sorrowed passing
sore. And so my heart bled for him, and I was moved to comfort and stay him. Wherefore I
"Forbear to grieve, fair knight, for this is not a defeat. We have brains, you and
I; and for such as have brains there are no defeats, but only victories. Observe how we
will turn this seeming disaster into an advertisement; an advertisement for our soap; and
the biggest one, to draw, that was ever thought of; an advertisement that will transform
that Mount Washington defeat into a Matterhorn victory. We will put on your
bulletin-board, 'PATRONIZED BY THE ELECT.' How does that strike you?"
"Verily, it is wonderly bethought!"
"Well, a body is bound to admit that for just a modest little one-line ad., it's a
So the poor colporteur's griefs vanished away. He was a brave fellow, and had done
mighty feats of arms in his time. His chief celebrity rested upon the events of an
excursion like this one of mine, which he had once made with a damsel named Maledisant,
who was as handy with her tongue as was Sandy, though in a different way, for her tongue
churned forth only railings and insult, whereas Sandy's music was of a kindlier sort. I
knew his story well, and so I knew how to interpret the compassion that was in his face
when he bade me farewell. He supposed I was having a bitter hard time of it.
Sandy and I discussed his story, as we rode along, and she said that La Cote's bad luck
had begun with the very beginning of that trip; for the king's fool had overthrown him on
the first day, and in such cases it was customary for the girl to desert to the conqueror,
but Maledisant didn't do it; and also persisted afterward in sticking to him, after all
his defeats. But, said I, suppose the victor should decline to accept his spoil? She said
that that wouldn't answer -- he must. He couldn't decline; it wouldn't be regular. I made
a note of that. If Sandy's music got to be too burdensome, some time, I would let a knight
defeat me, on the chance that she would desert to him.
In due time we were challenged by the warders, from the castle walls, and
after a parley admitted. I have nothing pleasant to tell about that visit. But it was not
a disappointment, for I knew Mrs. le Fay by reputation, and was not expecting anything
pleasant. She was held in awe by the whole realm, for she had made everybody believe she
was a great sorceress. All her ways were wicked, all her instincts devilish. She was
loaded to the eyelids with cold malice. All her history was black with crime; and among
her crimes murder was common. I was most curious to see her; as curious as I could have
been to see Satan. To my surprise she was beautiful; black thoughts had failed to make her
expression repulsive, age had failed to wrinkle her satin skin or mar its bloomy
freshness. She could have passed for old Uriens' granddaughter, she could have been
mistaken for sister to her own son.
As soon as we were fairly within the castle gates we were ordered into her
presence. King Uriens was there, a kind-faced old man with a subdued look; and also the
son, Sir Uwaine le Blanchemains, in whom I was, of course, interested on account of the
tradition that he had once done battle with thirty knights, and also on account of his
trip with Sir Gawaine and Sir Marhaus, which Sandy had been aging me with.
But Morgan was the
main attraction, the conspicuous personality here; she was head chief of this household,
that was plain. She caused us to be seated, and then she began, with all manner of pretty
graces and graciousnesses, to ask me questions. Dear me, it was like a bird or a flute, or
something, talking. I felt persuaded that this woman must have been misrepresented, lied
about. She trilled along, and trilled along, and presently a handsome young page, clothed
like the rainbow, and as easy and undulatory of movement as a wave, came with something on
a golden salver, and, kneeling to present it to her, overdid his graces and lost his
balance, and so fell lightly against her knee. She slipped a dirk into him in as
matter-of-course a way as another person would have harpooned a rat!
Poor child! he slumped to the floor, twisted his silken limbs in one great straining
contortion of pain, and was dead. Out of the old king was wrung an involuntary
"O-h!" of compassion. The look he got, made him cut it suddenly short and not
put any more hyphens in it. Sir Uwaine, at a sign from his mother, went to the anteroom
and called some servants, and meanwhile madame went rippling sweetly along with her talk.
I saw that she was a good housekeeper, for while she talked she kept a corner of her
eye on the servants to see that they made no balks in handling the body and getting it
out; when they came with fresh clean towels, she sent back for the other kind; and when
they had finished wiping the floor and were going, she indicated a crimson fleck the size
of a tear which their duller eyes had overlooked. It was plain to me that La Cote Male
Taile had failed to see the mistress of the house. Often, how louder and clearer than any
tongue, does dumb circumstantial evidence speak.
Morgan le Fay rippled along as musically as ever. Marvelous woman. And what a glance
she had: when it fell in reproof upon those servants, they shrunk and quailed as timid
people do when the lightning flashes out of a cloud. I could have got the habit myself. It
was the same with that poor old Brer Uriens; he was always on the ragged edge of
apprehension; she could not even turn toward him but he winced.
In the midst of the talk I let drop a complimentary word about King Arthur, forgetting
for the moment how this woman hated her brother. That one little compliment was enough.
She clouded up like storm; she called for her guards, and said:
"Hale me these varlets to the dungeons."
That struck cold on my ears, for her dungeons had a reputation. Nothing occurred to me
to say -- or do. But not so with Sandy. As the guard laid a hand upon me, she piped up
with the tranquilest confidence, and said:
"God's wounds, dost thou covet destruction, thou maniac? It is The Boss!"
Now what a happy idea that was! -- and so simple; yet it would never have occurred to
me. I was born modest; not all over, but in spots; and this was one of the spots.
The effect upon madame was electrical. It cleared her countenance and brought back her
smiles and all her persuasive graces and blandishments; but nevertheless she was not able
to entirely cover up with them the fact that she was in a ghastly fright. She said:
"La, but do list to thine handmaid! as if one gifted with powers like to mine
might say the thing which I have said unto one who has vanquished Merlin, and not be
jesting. By mine enchantments I foresaw your coming, and by them I knew you when you
entered here. I did but play this little jest with hope to surprise you into some display
of your art, as not doubting you would blast the guards with occult fires, consuming them
to ashes on the spot, a marvel much beyond mine own ability, yet one which I have long
been childishly curious to see."
The guards were less curious, and got out as soon as they got permission.
The Celtic Hammer June 22, 1996