Read The Prince and the Pauper Online

Authors: Mark Twain

Tags: #Criticism, #Classics, #Literature: Classics, #Literature - Classics, #General, #Fiction, #Historical, #London (England), #Boys, #Princes, #Impostors and imposture, #Poor children, #King of England, #Edward, #VI, #1537-1553

The Prince and the Pauper (9 page)

BOOK: The Prince and the Pauper
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“Yet did my brother Hugh turn these faults to good account—he seeing that our brother Arthur’s health was but indifferent, and hoping the worst might work him profit were I swept out of the path—so—but ’twere a long tale, good my liege, and little worth the telling. Briefly, then, this brother did deftly magnify my faults and make them crimes; ending his base work with finding a silken ladder in mine apartments—conveyed thither by his own means—and did convince my father by this, and suborned evidence of servants and other lying knaves, that I was minded to carry off my Edith and marry with her, in rank defiance of his will.

“Three years of banishment from home and England might make a soldier and a man of me, my father said, and teach me some degree of wisdom. I fought out my long probation in the continental wars, tasting sumptuously of hard knocks, privation, and adventure; but in my last battle I was taken captive, and during the seven years that have waxed and waned since then, a foreign dungeon hath harbored me. Through wit and courage I won to the free air at last, and fled hither straight; and am but just arrived, right poor in purse and raiment, and poorer still in knowledge of what these dull seven years have wrought at Hendon Hall, its people and belongings. So please you, sir, my meager tale is told.”

“Thou hast been shamefully abused!” said the little king, with a flashing eye. “But I will right thee—by the cross will I! The king hath said it.”

Then, fired by the story of Miles’s wrongs, he loosed his tongue and poured the history of his own recent misfortunes into the ears of his astonished listener. When he had finished, Miles said to himself:

“Lo, what an imagination he hath! Verily this is no common mind; else, crazed or sane, it could not weave so straight and gaudy a tale as this out of the airy nothings wherewith it hath wrought this curious romaunt. Poor ruined little head, it shall not lack friend or shelter whilst I bide with the living. He shall never leave my side; he shall be my pet, my little comrade. And he shall be cured!—aye, made whole and sound—then will he make himself a name—and proud shall I be to say, ‘Yes, he is mine—I took him, a homeless little ragamuffin, but I saw what was in him, and I said his name would be heard some day—behold him, observe him—was I right?’ ”

The king spoke—in a thoughtful, measured voice:

“Thou didst save me injury and shame, perchance my life, and so my crown. Such service demandeth rich reward. Name thy desire, and so it be within the compass of my royal power, it is thine.”

This fantastic suggestion startled Hendon out of his reverie. He was about to thank the king and put the matter aside with saying he had only done his duty and desired no reward, but a wiser thought came into his head, and he asked leave to be silent a few moments and consider the gracious offer—an idea which the king gravely approved, remarking that it was best to be not too hasty with a thing of such great import.

Miles reflected during some moments, then said to himself, “Yes, that is the thing to do—by any other means it were impossible to get at it—and certes, this hour’s experience has taught me ‘twould be most wearing and inconvenient to continue it as it is. Yes, I will propose it; ’twas a happy accident that I did not throw the chance away.” Then he dropped upon one knee and said:

“My poor service went not beyond the limit of a subject’s simple duty, and therefore hath no merit; but since your majesty is pleased to hold it worthy some reward, I take heart of grace to make petition to this effect. Near four hundred years ago, as your grace knoweth, there being ill blood betwixt John, king of England, and the king of France, it was decreed that two champions should fight together in the lists, and so settle the dispute by what is called the arbitrament of God. These two kings, and the Spanish king, being assembled to witness and judge the conflict, the French champion appeared; but so redoubtable was he that our English knights refused to measure weapons with him. So the matter, which was a weighty one, was like to go against the English monarch by default. Now in the Tower lay the Lord de Courcy, the mightiest arm in England, stripped of his honors and possessions, and wasting with long captivity. Appeal was made to him; he gave assent, and came forth arrayed for battle; but no sooner did the Frenchman glimpse his huge frame and hear his famous name, but he fled away, and the French king’s cause was lost. King John restored De Courcy’s titles and possessions, and said, ‘Name thy wish and thou shalt have it, though it cost me half my kingdom’; whereat De Courcy, kneeling, as I do now, made answer, ‘This, then, I ask, my liege; that I and my successors may have and hold the privilege of remaining covered in the presence of the kings of England, henceforth while the throne shall last.’ The boon was granted, as your majesty knoweth; and there hath been no time, these four hundred years, that that line has failed of an heir; and so, even unto this day, the head of that ancient house still weareth his hat or helm before the king’s majesty, without let or hindrance, and this none other may do.
z
Invoking this precedent in aid of my prayer, I beseech the king to grant to me but this one grace and privilege—to my more than sufficient reward—and none other, to wit: that I and my heirs, forever, may
sit
in the presence of the majesty of England!”

“Rise, Sir Miles Hendon, knight,” said the king, gravely—giving the accolade with Hendon’s sword—“rise and seat thyself. Thy petition is granted. While England remains, and the crown continues, the privilege shall not lapse.”

His majesty walked apart, musing, and Hendon dropped into a chair at table, observing to himself, “’Twas a brave thought, and hath wrought me a mighty deliverance; my legs are grievously wearied. An I had not thought of that, I must have had to stand for weeks, till my poor lad’s wits are cured.” After a little he went on, “And so I am become a knight of the Kingdom of Dreams and Shadows! A most odd and strange position, truly, for one so matter-of-fact as I. I will not laugh—no, God forbid, for this thing which is so substanceless to me is
real
to him. And to me, also, in one way, it is not a falsity, for it reflects with truth the sweet and generous spirit that is in him.” After a pause: “Ah, what if he should call me by my fine title before folk!—there’d be a merry contrast betwixt my glory and my raiment! But no matter; let him call me what he will, so it please him; I shall be content.”

XIII

The Disappearance of the Prince

A
heavy drowsiness presently fell upon the two comrades. The king said:

“Remove these rags”—meaning his clothing. Hendon disappareled the boy without dissent or remark, tucked him up in bed, then glanced about the room saying to himself, ruefully, “He hath taken my bed again, as before—marry what shall
I
do?” The little king observed his perplexity, and dissipated it with a word. He said, sleepily:

“Thou wilt sleep athwart the door, and guard it.” In a moment more he was out of his troubles, in a deep slumber.

“Dear heart, he should have been born a king!” muttered Hendon, admiringly; “he playeth the part to a marvel.”

Then he stretched himself across the door, on the floor, saying contentedly:

“I have lodged worse for seven years; ’twould be but ill gratitude to Him above to find fault with this.”

He dropped asleep as the dawn appeared. Toward noon he rose, uncovered his unconscious ward—a section at a time—and took his measure with a string. The king awoke just as he had completed his work, complained of the cold, and asked what he was doing.

“ ’Tis done now, my liege,” said Hendon; “I have a bit of business outside, but will presently return; sleep thou again—thou needest it. There—let me cover thy head also—thou’lt be warm the sooner.”

The king was back in dreamland before this speech was ended. Miles slipped softly out, and slipped as softly in again, in the course of thirty or forty minutes, with a complete second-hand suit of boy’s clothing, of cheap material, and showing signs of wear; but tidy, and suited to the season of the year. He seated himself, and began to overhaul his purchase, mumbling to himself:

“A longer purse would have got a better sort, but when one has not the long purse one must be content with what a short one may do—

“ ’There was a woman in our town,
In our town did dwell’—

“He stirred, methinks—I must sing in a less thunderous key; ‘tis not good to mar his sleep, with this journey before him and he so wearied out, poor chap.... This garment—’tis well enough—a stitch here and another one there will set it aright. This other is better, albeit a stitch or two will not come amiss in it, likewise.... These be very good and sound, and will keep his small feet warm and dry—an odd new thing to him, belike, since he has doubtless been used to foot it bare, winters and summers the same.... Would thread were bread, seeing one getteth a year’s sufficiency for a farthing, and such a brave big needle without cost, for mere love. Now shall I have the demon’s own time to thread it!”

And so he had. He did as men have always done, and probably always will do, to the end of time—held the needle still, and tried to thrust the thread through the eye, which is the opposite of a woman’s way. Time and time again the thread missed the mark, going sometimes on one side of the needle, sometimes on the other, sometimes doubling up against the shaft; but he was patient, having been through these experiences before, when he was soldiering. He succeeded at last, and took up the garment that had lain waiting, meantime, across his lap, and began his work. “The inn is paid—the breakfast that is to come, included—and there is wherewithal left to buy a couple of donkeys and meet our little costs for the two or three days betwixt this and the plenty that awaits us at Hendon Hall—

“ ’She loved her hus’—

“Body o’ me! I have driven the needle under my nail! ... It matters little—‘tis not a novelty—yet ’tis not a convenience, neither.... We shall be merry there, little one, never doubt it! Thy troubles will vanish there, and likewise thy sad distemper—

“ ‘She loved her husband dearilee,
But another man’—

“These be noble large stitches!”—holding the garment up and viewing it admiringly—“they have a grandeur and a majesty that do cause these small stingy ones of the tailor-man to look mighty paltry and plebeian—

“ ‘She loved her husband dearilee,
But another man he loved she,’—

“Marry, ’tis done—a goodly piece of work, too, and wrought with expedition. Now will I wake him, apparel him, pour for him, feed him, and then will we hie us to the mart by the Tabard inn in Southwark and—be pleased to rise, my liege!—he answereth not—what ho, my liege!—of a truth must I profane his sacred person with a touch, sith his slumber is deaf to speech. What!”

He threw back the covers—the boy was gone!

He stared about him in speechless astonishment for a moment; noticed for the first time that his ward’s ragged raiment was also missing, then he began to rage and storm, and shout for the innkeeper. At that moment a servant entered with the breakfast.

“Explain, thou limb of Satan, or thy time is come!” roared the man of war, and made so savage a spring toward the waiter that this latter could not find his tongue, for the instant, for fright and surprise. “Where is the boy?”

In disjointed and trembling syllables the man gave the information desired.

“You were hardly gone from the place, your worship, when a youth came running and said it was your worship’s will that the boy come to you straight, at the bridge-end on the Southwark side. I brought him thither; and when he woke the lad and gave his message, the lad did grumble some little for being disturbed ‘so early,’ as he called it, but straightway trussed on his rags and went with the youth, only saying it had been better manners that your worship came yourself, not sent a stranger—and so—”

“And so thou’rt a fool!—a fool, and easily cozened
aa
—hang all thy breed! Yet mayhap no hurt is done. Possibly no harm is meant the boy. I will go fetch him. Make the table ready. Stay! the coverings of the bed were disposed as if one lay beneath them—happened that by accident?”

“I know not, good your worship. I saw the youth meddle with them—he that came for the boy.”

“Thousand deaths! ‘twas done to deceive me—’tis plain ’twas done to gain time. Hark ye! Was that youth alone?”

“All alone, your worship.”

“Art sure?”

“Sure, your worship.”

“Collect thy scattered wits—bethink thee—take time, man.”

After a moment’s thought, the servant said:

“When he came, none came with him; but now I remember me that as the two stepped into the throng of the Bridge, a ruffian-looking man plunged out from some near place; and just as he was joining them—”

“What
then?
—out with it!” thundered the impatient Hendon, interrupting.

“Just then the crowd lapped them up and closed them in, and I saw no more, being called by my master, who was in a rage because a joint that the scrivener had ordered was forgot, though I take all the saints to witness that to blame me for that miscarriage were like holding the unborn babe to judgment for sins com—”

“Out of my sight, idiot! Thy prating drives me mad! Hold! whither art flying? Canst not bide still an instant? Went they toward Southwark?”

“Even so, your worship—for, as I said before, as to that detestable joint, the babe unborn is no whit more blameless than—”

“Art here yet! And prating still? Vanish, lest I throttle thee!” The servitor vanished. Hendon followed after him, passed him, and plunged down the stairs two steps at a stride, muttering, “ ’Tis that scurvy villain that claimed he was his son. I have lost thee, my poor little mad master—it is a bitter thought—and I had come to love thee so! No! by book and bell,
not
lost! Not lost, for I will ransack the land till I find thee again. Poor child, yonder is his breakfast—and mine, but I have no hunger now—so, let the rats have it—speed, speed! that is the word!” As he wormed his swift way through the noisy multitudes upon the Bridge, he several times said to himself—clinging to the thought as if it were a particularly pleasing one: ”He grumbled, but he
went
—he went, yes, because he thought Miles Hendon asked it, sweet lad—he would ne’er have done it for another, I know it well!”

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