A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
by Mark Twain
Chapter 37 - An Awful Predicament
SLEEP? It was impossible. It would naturally have been impossible in that
noisome cavern of a jail, with its mangy crowd of drunken, quarrelsome, and song-singing
rapscallions. But the thing that made sleep all the more a thing not to be dreamed of, was
my racking impatience to get out of this place and find out the whole size of what might
have happened yonder in the slave-quarters in consequence of that intolerable miscarriage
It was a long night, but the morning got around at last. I made a full and
frank explanation to the court. I said I was a slave, the property of the great Earl Grip,
who had arrived just after dark at the Tabard inn in the village on the other side of the
water, and had stopped there over night, by compulsion, he being taken deadly sick with a
strange and sudden disorder. I had been ordered to cross to the city in all haste and
bring the best physician; I was doing my best; naturally I was running with all my might;
the night was dark, I ran against this common person here, who seized me by the throat and
began to pummel me, although I told him my errand, and implored him, for the sake of the
great earl my master's mortal peril --
The common person interrupted and said it was a lie; and was going to explain how I
rushed upon him and attacked him without a word --
"Silence, sirrah!" from the court. "Take him hence and give him a few
stripes whereby to teach him how to treat the servant of a nobleman after a different
fashion another time. Go!"
Then the court begged my pardon, and hoped I would not fail to tell his lordship it was
in no wise the court's fault that this high-handed thing had happened. I said I would make
it all right, and so took my leave. Took it just in time, too; he was starting to ask me
why I didn't fetch out these facts the moment I was arrested. I said I would if I had
thought of it -- which was true -- but that I was so battered by that man that all my wit
was knocked out of me -- and so forth and so on, and got myself away, still mumbling. I
didn't wait for breakfast. No grass grew under my feet. I was soon at the slave quarters.
Empty -- everybody gone! That is, everybody except one body -- the slave-master's. It lay
there all battered to pulp; and all about were the evidences of a terrific fight. There
was a rude board coffin on a cart at the door, and workmen, assisted by the police, were
thinning a road through the gaping crowd in order that they might bring it in.
I picked out a man humble enough in life to condescend to talk with one so shabby as I,
and got his account of the matter.
"There were sixteen slaves here. They rose against their master in the night, and
thou seest how it ended."
"Yes. How did it begin?"
"There was no witness but the slaves. They said the slave that was most valuable
got free of his bonds and escaped in some strange way -- by magic arts 'twas thought, by
reason that he had no key, and the locks were neither broke nor in any wise injured. When
the master discovered his loss, he was mad with despair, and threw himself upon his people
with his heavy stick, who resisted and brake his back and in other and divers ways did
give him hurts that brought him swiftly to his end."
"This is dreadful. It will go hard with the slaves, no doubt, upon the
"Marry, the trial is over."
"Would they be a week, think you -- and the matter so simple? They were not the
half of a quarter of an hour at it."
"Why, I don't see how they could determine which were the guilty ones in so short
"WHICH ones? Indeed, they considered not particulars like to that. They condemned
them in a body. Wit ye not the law? -- which men say the Romans left behind them here when
they went -- that if one slave killeth his master all the slaves of that man must die for
"True. I had forgotten. And when will these die?"
"Belike within a four and twenty hours; albeit some say they will wait a pair of
days more, if peradventure they may find the missing one meantime."
The missing one! It made me feel uncomfortable.
"Is it likely they will find him?"
"Before the day is spent -- yes. They seek him everywhere. They stand at the gates
of the town, with certain of the slaves who will discover him to them if he cometh, and
none can pass out but he will be first examined."
"Might one see the place where the rest are confined?"
"The outside of it -- yes. The inside of it -- but ye will not want to see
I took the address of that prison for future reference and then sauntered off. At the
first second-hand clothing shop I came to, up a back street, I got a rough rig suitable
for a common seaman who might be going on a cold voyage, and bound up my face with a
liberal bandage, saying I had a toothache. This concealed my worst bruises. It was a
transformation. I no longer resembled my former self. Then I struck out for that wire,
found it and followed it to its den. It was a little room over a butcher's shop -- which
meant that business wasn't very brisk in the telegraphic line. The young chap in charge
was drowsing at his table. I locked the door and put the vast key in my bosom. This
alarmed the young fellow, and he was going to make a noise; but I said:
"Save your wind; if you open your mouth you are dead, sure. Tackle your
instrument. Lively, now! Call Camelot."
"This doth amaze me! How should such as you know aught of such matters as --"
"Call Camelot! I am a desperate man. Call Camelot, or get away from the instrument
and I will do it myself."
"What -- you?"
"Yes -- certainly. Stop gabbling. Call the palace."
He made the call.
"Now, then, call Clarence."
"Never mind Clarence who. Say you want Clarence; you'll get an answer."
He did so. We waited five nerve-straining minutes -- ten minutes -- how long it did
seem! -- and then came a click that was as familiar to me as a human voice; for Clarence
had been my own pupil.
"Now, my lad, vacate! They would have known MY touch, maybe, and so your call was
surest; but I'm all right now."
He vacated the place and cocked his ear to listen -- but it didn't win. I used a
cipher. I didn't waste any time in sociabilities with Clarence, but squared away for
business, straight-off -- thus:
"The king is here and in danger. We were captured and brought here as slaves. We
should not be able to prove our identity -- and the fact is, I am not in a position to
try. Send a telegram for the palace here which will carry conviction with it."
His answer came straight back:
"They don't know anything about the telegraph; they haven't had any experience
yet, the line to London is so new. Better not venture that. They might hang you. Think up
Might hang us! Little he knew how closely he was crowding the facts. I couldn't think
up anything for the moment. Then an idea struck me, and I started it along:
"Send five hundred picked knights with Launcelot in the lead; and send them on the
jump. Let them enter by the southwest gate, and look out for the man with a white cloth
around his right arm."
The answer was prompt:
"They shall start in half an hour."
"All right, Clarence; now tell this lad here that I'm a friend of yours and a
dead-head; and that he must be discreet and say nothing about this visit of mine."
The instrument began to talk to the youth and I hurried away. I fell to ciphering. In
half an hour it would be nine o'clock. Knights and horses in heavy armor couldn't travel
very fast. These would make the best time they could, and now that the ground was in good
condition, and no snow or mud, they would probably make a seven-mile gait; they would have
to change horses a couple of times; they would arrive about six, or a little after; it
would still be plenty light enough; they would see the white cloth which I should tie
around my right arm, and I would take command. We would surround that prison and have the
king out in no time. It would be showy and picturesque enough, all things considered,
though I would have preferred noonday, on account of the more theatrical aspect the thing
Now, then, in order to increase the strings to my bow, I thought I would look up some
of those people whom I had formerly recognized, and make myself known. That would help us
out of our scrape, without the knights. But I must proceed cautiously, for it was a risky
business. I must get into sumptuous raiment, and it wouldn't do to run and jump into it.
No, I must work up to it by degrees, buying suit after suit of clothes, in shops wide
apart, and getting a little finer article with each change, until I should finally reach
silk and velvet, and be ready for my project. So I started.
But the scheme fell through like scat! The first corner I turned, I came plump upon one
of our slaves, snooping around with a watchman. I coughed at the moment, and he gave me a
sudden look that bit right into my marrow. I judge he thought he had heard that cough
before. I turned immediately into a shop and worked along down the counter, pricing things
and watching out of the corner of my eye. Those people had stopped, and were talking
together and looking in at the door. I made up my mind to get out the back way, if there
was a back way, and I asked the shopwoman if I could step out there and look for the
escaped slave, who was believed to be in hiding back there somewhere, and said I was an
officer in disguise, and my pard was yonder at the door with one of the murderers in
charge, and would she be good enough to step there and tell him he needn't wait, but had
better go at once to the further end of the back alley and be ready to head him off when I
rousted him out.
She was blazing with eagerness to see one of those already celebrated murderers, and
she started on the errand at once. I slipped out the back way, locked the door behind me,
put the key in my pocket and started off, chuckling to myself and comfortable.
Well, I had gone and spoiled it again, made another mistake. A double one, in fact.
There were plenty of ways to get rid of that officer by some simple and plausible device,
but no, I must pick out a picturesque one; it is the crying defect of my character. And
then, I had ordered my procedure upon what the officer, being human, would NATURALLY do;
whereas when you are least expecting it, a man will now and then go and do the very thing
which it's NOT natural for him to do. The natural thing for the officer to do, in this
case, was to follow straight on my heels; he would find a stout oaken door, securely
locked, between him and me; before he could break it down, I should be far away and
engaged in slipping into a succession of baffling disguises which would soon get me into a
sort of raiment which was a surer protection from meddling law-dogs in Britain than any
amount of mere innocence and purity of character. But instead of doing the natural thing,
the officer took me at my word, and followed my instructions. And so, as I came trotting
out of that cul de sac, full of satisfaction with my own cleverness, he turned the corner
and I walked right into his handcuffs. If I had known it was a cul de sac -- however,
there isn't any excusing a blunder like that, let it go. Charge it up to profit and loss.
Of course, I was indignant, and swore I had just come ashore from a long voyage, and
all that sort of thing -- just to see, you know, if it would deceive that slave. But it
didn't. He knew me. Then I reproached him for betraying me. He was more surprised than
hurt. He stretched his eyes wide, and said:
"What, wouldst have me let thee, of all men, escape and not hang with us, when
thou'rt the very CAUSE of our hanging? Go to!"
"Go to" was their way of saying "I should smile!" or "I like
that!" Queer talkers, those people.
Well, there was a sort of bastard justice in his view of the case, and so I dropped the
matter. When you can't cure a disaster by argument, what is the use to argue? It isn't my
way. So I only said:
"You're not going to be hanged. None of us are."
Both men laughed, and the slave said:
"Ye have not ranked as a fool -- before. You might better keep your reputation,
seeing the strain would not be for long."
"It will stand it, I reckon. Before to-morrow we shall be out of prison, and free
to go where we will, besides."
The witty officer lifted at his left ear with his thumb, made a rasping noise in his
throat, and said:
"Out of prison -- yes -- ye say true. And free likewise to go where ye will, so ye
wander not out of his grace the Devil's sultry realm."
I kept my temper, and said, indifferently:
"Now I suppose you really think we are going to hang within a day or two."
"I thought it not many minutes ago, for so the thing was decided and
"Ah, then you've changed your mind, is that it?"
"Even that. I only THOUGHT, then; I KNOW, now."
I felt sarcastical, so I said:
"Oh, sapient servant of the law, condescend to tell us, then, what you KNOW."
"That ye will all be hanged TO-DAY, at mid-afternoon! Oho! that shot hit home!
Lean upon me."
The fact is I did need to lean upon somebody. My knights couldn't arrive in time. They
would be as much as three hours too late. Nothing in the world could save the King of
England; nor me, which was more important. More important, not merely to me, but to the
nation -- the only nation on earth standing ready to blossom into civilization. I was
sick. I said no more, there wasn't anything to say. I knew what the man meant; that if the
missing slave was found, the postponement would be revoked, the execution take place
to-day. Well, the missing slave was found.
The Celtic Hammer June 22, 1996