The Prince and the Pauper
Chapter 15: Tom as King
Copyright© 2012 by Mark Twain
The next day the foreign ambassadors came, with their gorgeous trains; and Tom, throned in awful state, received them. The splendours of the scene delighted his eye and fired his imagination at first, but the audience was long and dreary, and so were most of the addresses
--wherefore, what began as a pleasure grew into weariness and home-sickness by-and-by. Tom said the words which Hertford put into his mouth from time to time, and tried hard to acquit himself satisfactorily, but he was too new to such things, and too ill at ease to accomplish more than a tolerable success. He looked sufficiently like a king, but he was ill able to feel like one. He was cordially glad when the ceremony was ended.
The larger part of his day was 'wasted'--as he termed it, in his own mind--in labours pertaining to his royal office. Even the two hours devoted to certain princely pastimes and recreations were rather a burden to him than otherwise, they were so fettered by restrictions and ceremonious observances. However, he had a private hour with his whipping-boy which he counted clear gain, since he got both entertainment and needful information out of it.
The third day of Tom Canty's kingship came and went much as the others had done, but there was a lifting of his cloud in one way--he felt less uncomfortable than at first; he was getting a little used to his circumstances and surroundings; his chains still galled, but not all the time; he found that the presence and homage of the great afflicted and embarrassed him less and less sharply with every hour that drifted over his head.
But for one single dread, he could have seen the fourth day approach without serious distress--the dining in public; it was to begin that day.
There were greater matters in the programme--for on that day he would have to preside at a council which would take his views and commands concerning the policy to be pursued toward various foreign nations scattered far and near over the great globe; on that day, too, Hertford would be formally chosen to the grand office of Lord Protector; other things of note were appointed for that fourth day, also; but to Tom they were all insignificant compared with the ordeal of dining all by himself with a multitude of curious eyes fastened upon him and a multitude of mouths whispering comments upon his performance, --and upon his mistakes, if he should be so unlucky as to make any.
Still, nothing could stop that fourth day, and so it came. It found poor
Tom low-spirited and absent-minded, and this mood continued; he could not shake it off. The ordinary duties of the morning dragged upon his hands, and wearied him. Once more he felt the sense of captivity heavy upon him.
Late in the forenoon he was in a large audience-chamber, conversing with the Earl of Hertford and dully awaiting the striking of the hour appointed for a visit of ceremony from a considerable number of great officials and courtiers.
After a little while, Tom, who had wandered to a window and become interested in the life and movement of the great highway beyond the palace gates--and not idly interested, but longing with all his heart to take part in person in its stir and freedom--saw the van of a hooting and shouting mob of disorderly men, women, and children of the lowest and poorest degree approaching from up the road.
"I would I knew what 'tis about!" he exclaimed, with all a boy's curiosity in such happenings.
"Thou art the King!" solemnly responded the Earl, with a reverence.
"Have I your Grace's leave to act?"
"O blithely, yes! O gladly, yes!" exclaimed Tom excitedly, adding to himself with a lively sense of satisfaction, "In truth, being a king is not all dreariness--it hath its compensations and conveniences."
The Earl called a page, and sent him to the captain of the guard with the order--
"Let the mob be halted, and inquiry made concerning the occasion of its movement. By the King's command!"
A few seconds later a long rank of the royal guards, cased in flashing steel, filed out at the gates and formed across the highway in front of the multitude. A messenger returned, to report that the crowd were following a man, a woman, and a young girl to execution for crimes committed against the peace and dignity of the realm.
Death--and a violent death--for these poor unfortunates! The thought wrung Tom's heart-strings. The spirit of compassion took control of him, to the exclusion of all other considerations; he never thought of the offended laws, or of the grief or loss which these three criminals had inflicted upon their victims; he could think of nothing but the scaffold and the grisly fate hanging over the heads of the condemned. His concern made him even forget, for the moment, that he was but the false shadow of a king, not the substance; and before he knew it he had blurted out the command--
"Bring them here!"
Then he blushed scarlet, and a sort of apology sprung to his lips; but observing that his order had wrought no sort of surprise in the Earl or the waiting page, he suppressed the words he was about to utter. The page, in the most matter-of-course way, made a profound obeisance and retired backwards out of the room to deliver the command. Tom experienced a glow of pride and a renewed sense of the compensating advantages of the kingly office. He said to himself, "Truly it is like what I was used to feel when I read the old priest's tales, and did imagine mine own self a prince, giving law and command to all, saying 'Do this, do that, ' whilst none durst offer let or hindrance to my will."
Now the doors swung open; one high-sounding title after another was announced, the personages owning them followed, and the place was quickly half-filled with noble folk and finery. But Tom was hardly conscious of the presence of these people, so wrought up was he and so intensely absorbed in that other and more interesting matter. He seated himself absently in his chair of state, and turned his eyes upon the door with manifestations of impatient expectancy; seeing which, the company forbore to trouble him, and fell to chatting a mixture of public business and court gossip one with another.
In a little while the measured tread of military men was heard approaching, and the culprits entered the presence in charge of an under-sheriff and escorted by a detail of the king's guard. The civil officer knelt before Tom, then stood aside; the three doomed persons knelt, also, and remained so; the guard took position behind Tom's chair.
Tom scanned the prisoners curiously. Something about the dress or appearance of the man had stirred a vague memory in him. "Methinks I have seen this man ere now ... but the when or the where fail me."--
Such was Tom's thought. Just then the man glanced quickly up and quickly dropped his face again, not being able to endure the awful port of sovereignty; but the one full glimpse of the face which Tom got was sufficient. He said to himself: "Now is the matter clear; this is the stranger that plucked Giles Witt out of the Thames, and saved his life, that windy, bitter, first day of the New Year--a brave good deed--pity he hath been doing baser ones and got himself in this sad case ... I have not forgot the day, neither the hour; by reason that an hour after, upon the stroke of eleven, I did get a hiding by the hand of Gammer Canty which was of so goodly and admired severity that all that went before or followed after it were but fondlings and caresses by comparison."
Tom now ordered that the woman and the girl be removed from the presence for a little time; then addressed himself to the under-sheriff, saying--
"Good sir, what is this man's offence?"
The officer knelt, and answered--
"So please your Majesty, he hath taken the life of a subject by poison."
Tom's compassion for the prisoner, and admiration of him as the daring rescuer of a drowning boy, experienced a most damaging shock.
"The thing was proven upon him?" he asked.
"Most clearly, sire."
Tom sighed, and said--
"Take him away--he hath earned his death. 'Tis a pity, for he was a brave heart--na--na, I mean he hath the LOOK of it!"
The prisoner clasped his hands together with sudden energy, and wrung them despairingly, at the same time appealing imploringly to the 'King' in broken and terrified phrases--
"O my lord the King, an' thou canst pity the lost, have pity upon me! I am innocent--neither hath that wherewith I am charged been more than but lamely proved--yet I speak not of that; the judgment is gone forth against me and may not suffer alteration; yet in mine extremity I beg a boon, for my doom is more than I can bear. A grace, a grace, my lord the
King! in thy royal compassion grant my prayer--give commandment that I be hanged!"
Tom was amazed. This was not the outcome he had looked for.
"Odds my life, a strange BOON! Was it not the fate intended thee?"
"O good my liege, not so! It is ordered that I be BOILED ALIVE!"
The hideous surprise of these words almost made Tom spring from his chair. As soon as he could recover his wits he cried out--
"Have thy wish, poor soul! an' thou had poisoned a hundred men thou shouldst not suffer so miserable a death."
The prisoner bowed his face to the ground and burst into passionate expressions of gratitude--ending with--
"If ever thou shouldst know misfortune--which God forefend!--may thy goodness to me this day be remembered and requited!"
Tom turned to the Earl of Hertford, and said--
"My lord, is it believable that there was warrant for this man's ferocious doom?"
"It is the law, your Grace--for poisoners. In Germany coiners be boiled to death in OIL--not cast in of a sudden, but by a rope let down into the oil by degrees, and slowly; first the feet, then the legs, then--"
"O prithee no more, my lord, I cannot bear it!" cried Tom, covering his eyes with his hands to shut out the picture. "I beseech your good lordship that order be taken to change this law--oh, let no more poor creatures be visited with its tortures."
The Earl's face showed profound gratification, for he was a man of merciful and generous impulses--a thing not very common with his class in that fierce age. He said--
"These your Grace's noble words have sealed its doom. History will remember it to the honour of your royal house."
The under-sheriff was about to remove his prisoner; Tom gave him a sign to wait; then he said--
"Good sir, I would look into this matter further. The man has said his deed was but lamely proved. Tell me what thou knowest."
"If the King's grace please, it did appear upon the trial that this man entered into a house in the hamlet of Islington where one lay sick--three witnesses say it was at ten of the clock in the morning, and two say it was some minutes later--the sick man being alone at the time, and sleeping--and presently the man came forth again and went his way. The sick man died within the hour, being torn with spasms and retchings."
"Did any see the poison given? Was poison found?"
"Marry, no, my liege."
"Then how doth one know there was poison given at all?"
"Please your Majesty, the doctors testified that none die with such symptoms but by poison."
Weighty evidence, this, in that simple age. Tom recognised its formidable nature, and said--
"The doctor knoweth his trade--belike they were right. The matter hath an ill-look for this poor man."
"Yet was not this all, your Majesty; there is more and worse. Many testified that a witch, since gone from the village, none know whither, did foretell, and speak it privately in their ears, that the sick man
WOULD DIE BY POISON--and more, that a stranger would give it--a stranger with brown hair and clothed in a worn and common garb; and surely this prisoner doth answer woundily to the bill. Please your Majesty to give the circumstance that solemn weight which is its due, seeing it was
This was an argument of tremendous force in that superstitious day. Tom felt that the thing was settled; if evidence was worth anything, this poor fellow's guilt was proved. Still he offered the prisoner a chance, saying--
"If thou canst say aught in thy behalf, speak."