A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
by Mark Twain
Chapter 34 - The Yankee and the King Sold as Slaves
WELL, what had I better do? Nothing in a hurry, sure. I must get up a
diversion; anything to employ me while I could think, and while these poor fellows could
have a chance to come to life again. There sat Marco, petrified in the act of trying to
get the hang of his miller-gun -- turned to stone, just in the attitude he was in when my
pile-driver fell, the toy still gripped in his unconscious fingers. So I took it from him
and proposed to explain its mystery. Mystery! a simple little thing like that; and yet it
was mysterious enough, for that race and that age.
I never saw such an awkward people,
with machinery; you see, they were totally unused to it. The miller-gun was a little
double-barreled tube of toughened glass, with a neat little trick of a spring to it, which
upon pressure would let a shot escape. But the shot wouldn't hurt anybody, it would only
drop into your hand. In the gun were two sizes -- wee mustardseed shot, and another sort
that were several times larger. They were money. The mustard-seed shot represented
milrays, the larger ones mills. So the gun was a purse; and very handy, too; you could pay
out money in the dark with it, with accuracy; and you could carry it in your mouth; or in
your vest pocket, if you had one. I made them of several sizes -- one size so large that
it would carry the equivalent of a dollar. Using shot for money was a good thing for the
government; the metal cost nothing, and the money couldn't be counterfeited, for I was the
only person in the kingdom who knew how to manage a shot tower. "Paying the
shot" soon came to be a common phrase. Yes, and I knew it would still be passing
men's lips, away down in the nineteenth century, yet none would suspect how and when it
The king joined us, about this time, mightily refreshed by his nap, and feeling good.
Anything could make me nervous now, I was so uneasy -- for our lives were in danger; and
so it worried me to detect a complacent something in the king's eye which seemed to
indicate that he had been loading himself up for a performance of some kind or other;
confound it, why must he go and choose such a time as this?
I was right. He began, straight off, in the most innocently artful, and transparent,
and lubberly way, to lead up to the subject of agriculture. The cold sweat broke out all
over me. I wanted to whisper in his ear, "Man, we are in awful danger! every moment
is worth a principality till we get back these men's confidence; DON'T waste any of this
golden time." But of course I couldn't do it. Whisper to him? It would look as if we
were conspiring. So I had to sit there and look calm and pleasant while the king stood
over that dynamite mine and mooned along about his damned onions and things. At first the
tumult of my own thoughts, summoned by the danger-signal and swarming to the rescue from
every quarter of my skull, kept up such a hurrah and confusion and fifing and drumming
that I couldn't take in a word; but presently when my mob of gathering plans began to
crystallize and fall into position and form line of battle, a sort of order and quiet
ensued and I caught the boom of the king's batteries, as if out of remote distance:
"-- were not the best way, methinks, albeit it is not to be denied that
authorities differ as concerning this point, some contending that the onion is but an
unwholesome berry when stricken early from the tree --"
The audience showed signs of life, and sought each other's eyes in a surprised and
"-- whileas others do yet maintain, with much show of reason, that this is not of
necessity the case, instancing that plums and other like cereals do be always dug in the
unripe state --"
The audience exhibited distinct distress; yes, and also fear.
"-- yet are they clearly wholesome, the more especially when one doth assuage the
asperities of their nature by admixture of the tranquilizing juice of the wayward cabbage
The wild light of terror began to glow in these men's eyes, and one of them muttered,
"These be errors, every one -- God hath surely smitten the mind of this farmer."
I was in miserable apprehension; I sat upon thorns.
"-- and further instancing the known truth that in the case of animals, the young,
which may be called the green fruit of the creature, is the better, all confessing that
when a goat is ripe, his fur doth heat and sore engame his flesh, the which defect, taken
in connection with his several rancid habits, and fulsome appetites, and godless attitudes
of mind, and bilious quality of morals --"
They rose and went for him! With a fierce shout, "The one would betray us, the
other is mad! Kill them! Kill them!" they flung themselves upon us. What joy flamed
up in the king's eye! He might be lame in agriculture, but this kind of thing was just in
his line. He had been fasting long, he was hungry for a fight. He hit the blacksmith a
crack under the jaw that lifted him clear off his feet and stretched him flat on his back.
"St. George for Britain!" and he downed the wheelwright. The mason was big, but
I laid him out like nothing. The three gathered themselves up and came again; went down
again; came again; and kept on repeating this, with native British pluck, until they were
battered to jelly, reeling with exhaustion, and so blind that they couldn't tell us from
each other; and yet they kept right on, hammering away with what might was left in them.
Hammering each other -- for we stepped aside and looked on while they rolled, and
struggled, and gouged, and pounded, and bit, with the strict and wordless attention to
business of so many bulldogs. We looked on without apprehension, for they were fast
getting past ability to go for help against us, and the arena was far enough from the
public road to be safe from intrusion.
Well, while they were gradually playing out, it suddenly occurred to me to wonder what
had become of Marco. I looked around; he was nowhere to be seen. Oh, but this was ominous!
I pulled the king's sleeve, and we glided away and rushed for the hut. No Marco there, no
Phyllis there! They had gone to the road for help, sure. I told the king to give his heels
wings, and I would explain later. We made good time across the open ground, and as we
darted into the shelter of the wood I glanced back and saw a mob of excited peasants swarm
into view, with Marco and his wife at their head. They were making a world of noise, but
that couldn't hurt anybody; the wood was dense, and as soon as we were well into its
depths we would take to a tree and let them whistle. Ah, but then came another sound --
dogs! Yes, that was quite another matter. It magnified our contract -- we must find
We tore along at a good gait, and soon left the sounds far behind and modified to a
murmur. We struck a stream and darted into it. We waded swiftly down it, in the dim forest
light, for as much as three hundred yards, and then came across an oak with a great bough
sticking out over the water. We climbed up on this bough, and began to work our way along
it to the body of the tree; now we began to hear those sounds more plainly; so the mob had
struck our trail. For a while the sounds approached pretty fast. And then for another
while they didn't. No doubt the dogs had found the place where we had entered the stream,
and were now waltzing up and down the shores trying to pick up the trail again.
When we were snugly lodged in the tree and curtained with foliage, the king was
satisfied, but I was doubtful. I believed we could crawl along a branch and get into the
next tree, and I judged it worth while to try. We tried it, and made a success of it,
though the king slipped, at the junction, and came near failing to connect. We got
comfortable lodgment and satisfactory concealment among the foliage, and then we had
nothing to do but listen to the hunt.
Presently we heard it coming -- and coming on the jump, too; yes, and down both sides
of the stream. Louder -- louder -- next minute it swelled swiftly up into a roar of
shoutings, barkings, tramplings, and swept by like a cyclone.
"I was afraid that the overhanging branch would suggest something to them,"
said I, "but I don't mind the disappointment. Come, my liege, it were well that we
make good use of our time. We've flanked them. Dark is coming on, presently. If we can
cross the stream and get a good start, and borrow a couple of horses from somebody's
pasture to use for a few hours, we shall be safe enough."
We started down, and got nearly to the lowest limb, when we seemed to hear the hunt
returning. We stopped to listen.
"Yes," said I, "they're baffled, they've given it up, they're on their
way home. We will climb back to our roost again, and let them go by."
So we climbed back. The king listened a moment and said:
"They still search -- I wit the sign. We did best to abide."
He was right. He knew more about hunting than I did. The noise approached steadily, but
not with a rush. The king said:
"They reason that we were advantaged by no parlous start of them, and being on
foot are as yet no mighty way from where we took the water."
"Yes, sire, that is about it, I am afraid, though I was hoping better
The noise drew nearer and nearer, and soon the van was drifting under us, on both sides
of the water. A voice called a halt from the other bank, and said:
"An they were so minded, they could get to yon tree by this branch that overhangs,
and yet not touch ground. Ye will do well to send a man up it."
"Marry, that we will do!"
I was obliged to admire my cuteness in foreseeing this very thing and swapping trees to
beat it. But, don't you know, there are some things that can beat smartness and foresight?
Awkwardness and stupidity can. The best swordsman in the world doesn't need to fear the
second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some
ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn't do the thing
he ought to do, and so the expert isn't prepared for him; he does the thing he ought not
to do; and often it catches the expert out and ends him on the spot. Well, how could I,
with all my gifts, make any valuable preparation against a near-sighted, cross-eyed,
pudding-headed clown who would aim himself at the wrong tree and hit the right one? And
that is what he did. He went for the wrong tree, which was, of course, the right one by
mistake, and up he started.
Matters were serious now. We remained still, and awaited developments. The peasant
toiled his difficult way up. The king raised himself up and stood; he made a leg ready,
and when the comer's head arrived in reach of it there was a dull thud, and down went the
man floundering to the ground. There was a wild outbreak of anger below, and the mob
swarmed in from all around, and there we were treed, and prisoners. Another man started
up; the bridging bough was detected, and a volunteer started up the tree that furnished
the bridge. The king ordered me to play Horatius and keep the bridge. For a while the
enemy came thick and fast; but no matter, the head man of each procession always got a
buffet that dislodged him as soon as he came in reach. The king's spirits rose, his joy
was limitless. He said that if nothing occurred to mar the prospect we shouldh the a
beautiful night, for on this line of tactics we could hold the tree against the whole
However, the mob soon came to that conclusion themselves; wherefore they called off the
assault and began to debate other plans. They had no weapons, but there were plenty of
stones, and stones might answer. We had no objections. A stone might possibly penetrate to
us once in a while, but it wasn't very likely; we were well protected by boughs and
foliage, and were not visible from any good aiming point. If they would but waste half an
hour in stonethrowing, the dark would come to our help. We were feeling very well
satisfied. We could smile; almost laugh.
But we didn't; which was just as well, for we should have been interrupted. Before the
stones had been raging through the leaves and bouncing from the boughs fifteen minutes, we
began to notice a smell. A couple of sniffs of it was enough of an explanation -- it was
smoke! Our game was up at last. We recognized that. When smoke invites you, you have to
come. They raised their pile of dry brush and damp weeds higher and higher, and when they
saw the thick cloud begin to roll up and smother the tree, they broke out in a storm of
joy-clamors. I got enough breath to say:
"Proceed, my liege; after you is manners."
The king gasped:
"Follow me down, and then back thyself against one side of the trunk, and leave me
the other. Then will we fight. Let each pile his dead according to his own fashion and
Then he descended, barking and coughing, and I followed. I struck the ground an instant
after him; we sprang to our appointed places, and began to give and take with all our
might. The powwow and racket were prodigious; it was a tempest of riot and confusion and
thick-falling blows. Suddenly some horsemen tore into the midst of the crowd, and a voice
"Hold -- or ye are dead men!"
How good it sounded! The owner of the voice bore all the marks of a gentleman:
picturesque and costly raiment, the aspect of command, a hard countenance, with complexion
and features marred by dissipation. The mob fell humbly back, like so many spaniels. The
gentleman inspected us critically, then said sharply to the peasants:
"What are ye doing to these people?"
"They be madmen, worshipful sir, that have come wandering we know not whence, and
"Ye know not whence? Do ye pretend ye know them not?"
"Most honored sir, we speak but the truth. They are strangers and unknown to any
in this region; and they be the most violent and bloodthirsty madmen that ever --"
"Peace! Ye know not what ye say. They are not mad. Who are ye? And whence are ye?
"We are but peaceful strangers, sir," I said, "and traveling upon our
own concerns. We are from a far country, and unacquainted here. We have purposed no harm;
and yet but for your brave interference and protection these people would have killed us.
As you have divined, sir, we are not mad; neither are we violent or bloodthirsty."
The gentleman turned to his retinue and said calmly: "Lash me these animals to
The mob vanished in an instant; and after them plunged the horsemen, laying about them
with their whips and pitilessly riding down such as were witless enough to keep the road
instead of taking to the bush. The shrieks and supplications presently died away in the
distance, and soon the horsemen began to straggle back. Meantime the gentleman had been
questioning us more closely, but had dug no particulars out of us. We were lavish of
recognition of the service he was doing us, but we revealed nothing more than that we were
friendless strangers from a far country. When the escort were all returned, the gentleman
said to one of his servants:
"Bring the led-horses and mount these people."
"Yes, my lord."
We were placed toward the rear, among the servants. We traveled pretty fast, and
finally drew rein some time after dark at a roadside inn some ten or twelve miles from the
scene of our troubles. My lord went immediately to his room, after ordering his supper,
and we saw no more of him. At dawn in the morning we breakfasted and made ready to start.
My lord's chief attendant sauntered forward at that moment with indolent grace, and
"Ye have said ye should continue upon this road, which is our direction likewise;
wherefore my lord, the earl Grip, hath given commandment that ye retain the horses and
ride, and that certain of us ride with ye a twenty mile to a fair town that hight
Cambenet, whenso ye shall be out of peril."
We could do nothing less than express our thanks and accept the offer. We jogged along,
six in the party, at a moderate and comfortable gait, and in conversation learned that my
lord Grip was a very great personage in his own region, which lay a day's journey beyond
Cambenet. We loitered to such a degree that it was near the middle of the forenoon when we
entered the market square of the town. We dismounted, and left our thanks once more for my
lord, and then approached a crowd assembled in the center of the square, to see what might
be the object of interest. It was the remnant of that old peregrinating band of slaves! So
they had been dragging their chains about, all this weary time. That poor husband was
gone, and also many others; and some few purchases had been added to the gang. The king
was not interested, and wanted to move along, but I was absorbed, and full of pity. I
could not take my eyes away from these worn and wasted wrecks of humanity. There they sat,
grounded upon the ground, silent, uncomplaining, with bowed heads, a pathetic sight. And
by hideous contrast, a redundant orator was making a speech to another gathering not
thirty steps away, in fulsome laudation of "our glorious British liberties!"
I was boiling. I had forgotten I was a plebeian, I was remembering I was a man. Cost
what it might, I would mount that rostrum and --
Click! the king and I were handcuffed together! Our companions, those servants, had
done it; my lord Grip stood looking on. The king burst out in a fury, and said:
"What meaneth this ill-mannered jest?"
My lord merely said to his head miscreant, coolly:
"Put up the slaves and sell them!"
SLAVES! The word had a new sound -- and how unspeakably awful! The king lifted his
manacles and brought them down with a deadly force; but my lord was out of the way when
they arrived. A dozen of the rascal's servants sprang forward, and in a moment we were
helpless, with our hands bound behind us. We so loudly and so earnestly proclaimed
ourselves freemen, that we got the interested attention of that liberty-mouthing orator
and his patriotic crowd, and they gathered about us and assumed a very determined
attitude. The orator said:
"If, indeed, ye are freemen, ye have nought to fear -- the God-given liberties of
Britain are about ye for your shield and shelter! (Applause.) Ye shall soon see. Bring
forth your proofs."
"Proof that ye are freemen."
Ah -- I remembered! I came to myself; I said nothing. But the king stormed out:
"Thou'rt insane, man. It were better, and more in reason, that this thief and
scoundrel here prove that we are NOT freemen."
You see, he knew his own laws just as other people so often know the laws; by words,
not by effects. They take a MEANING, and get to be very vivid, when you come to apply them
All hands shook their heads and looked disappointed; some turned away, no longer
interested. The orator said -- and this time in the tones of business, not of sentiment:
"An ye do not know your country's laws, it were time ye learned them. Ye are
strangers to us; ye will not deny that. Ye may be freemen, we do not deny that; but also
ye may be slaves. The law is clear: it doth not require the claimant to prove ye are
slaves, it requireth you to prove ye are not."
"Dear sir, give us only time to send to Astolat; or give us only time to send to
the Valley of Holiness --"
"Peace, good man, these are extraordinary requests, and you may not hope to have
them granted. It would cost much time, and would unwarrantably inconvenience your master
"MASTER, idiot!" stormed the king. "I have no master, I myself am the
"Silence, for God's sake!"
I got the words out in time to stop the king. We were in trouble enough already; it
could not help us any to give these people the notion that we were lunatics.
There is no use in stringing out the details. The earl put us up and sold us at
auction. This same infernal law had existed in our own South in my own time, more than
thirteen hundred years later, and under it hundreds of freemen who could not prove that
they were freemen had been sold into lifelong slavery without the circumstance making any
particular impression upon me; but the minute law and the auction block came into my
personal experience, a thing which had been merely improper before became suddenly
hellish. Well, that's the way we are made.
Yes, we were sold at auction, like swine. In a big town and an active market we should
have brought a good price; but this place was utterly stagnant and so we sold at a figure
which makes me ashamed, every time I think of it. The King of England brought seven
dollars, and his prime minister nine; whereas the king was easily worth twelve dollars and
I as easily worth fifteen. But that is the way things always go; if you force a sale on a
dull market, I don't care what the property is, you are going to make a poor business of
it, and you can make up your mind to it. If the earl had had wit enough to --
However, there is no occasion for my working my sympathies up on his account. Let him
go, for the present; I took his number, so to speak.
The slave-dealer bought us both, and hitched us onto that long chain of his, and we
constituted the rear of his procession. We took up our line of march and passed out of
Cambenet at noon; and it seemed to me unaccountably strange and odd that the King of
England and his chief minister, marching manacled and fettered and yoked, in a slave
convoy, could move by all manner of idle men and women, and under windows where sat the
sweet and the lovely, and yet never attract a curious eye, never provoke a single remark.
Dear, dear, it only shows that there is nothing diviner about a king than there is about a
tramp, after all. He is just a cheap and hollow artificiality when you don't know he is a
king. But reveal his quality, and dear me it takes your very breath away to look at him. I
reckon we are all fools. Born so, no doubt.
The Celtic Hammer June 22, 1996