A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
Chapter 18 - In The Queen's DungeonsELL, 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.
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.