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Chapter 18


Chapter XVIII. The Prince with the tramps.

The troop of vagabonds turned out at early dawn, and set forward
on their march.  There was a lowering sky overhead, sloppy ground
under foot, and a winter chill in the air.  All gaiety was gone
from the company; some were sullen and silent, some were irritable
and petulant, none were gentle-humoured, all were thirsty.

The Ruffler put 'Jack' in Hugo's charge, with some brief
instructions, and commanded John Canty to keep away from him and
let him alone; he also warned Hugo not to be too rough with the
lad.

After a while the weather grew milder, and the clouds lifted
somewhat.  The troop ceased to shiver, and their spirits began to
improve.  They grew more and more cheerful, and finally began to
chaff each other and insult passengers along the highway.  This
showed that they were awaking to an appreciation of life and its
joys once more.  The dread in which their sort was held was
apparent in the fact that everybody gave them the road, and took
their ribald insolences meekly, without venturing to talk back.
They snatched linen from the hedges, occasionally in full view of
the owners, who made no protest, but only seemed grateful that
they did not take the hedges, too.

By-and-by they invaded a small farmhouse and made themselves at
home while the trembling farmer and his people swept the larder
clean to furnish a breakfast for them.  They chucked the housewife
and her daughters under the chin whilst receiving the food from
their hands, and made coarse jests about them, accompanied with
insulting epithets and bursts of horse-laughter.  They threw bones
and vegetables at the farmer and his sons, kept them dodging all
the time, and applauded uproariously when a good hit was made.
They ended by buttering the head of one of the daughters who
resented some of their familiarities.  When they took their leave
they threatened to come back and burn the house over the heads of
the family if any report of their doings got to the ears of the
authorities.

About noon, after a long and weary tramp, the gang came to a halt
behind a hedge on the outskirts of a considerable village.  An
hour was allowed for rest, then the crew scattered themselves
abroad to enter the village at different points to ply their
various trades--'Jack' was sent with Hugo.  They wandered hither
and thither for some time, Hugo watching for opportunities to do a
stroke of business, but finding none--so he finally said--

"I see nought to steal; it is a paltry place.  Wherefore we will
beg."

"WE, forsooth!  Follow thy trade--it befits thee.  But _I_ will
not beg."

"Thou'lt not beg!" exclaimed Hugo, eyeing the King with surprise.
"Prithee, since when hast thou reformed?"

"What dost thou mean?"

"Mean?  Hast thou not begged the streets of London all thy life?"

"I?  Thou idiot!"

"Spare thy compliments--thy stock will last the longer.  Thy
father says thou hast begged all thy days.  Mayhap he lied.
Peradventure you will even make so bold as to SAY he lied,"
scoffed Hugo.

"Him YOU call my father?  Yes, he lied."

"Come, play not thy merry game of madman so far, mate; use it for
thy amusement, not thy hurt.  An' I tell him this, he will scorch
thee finely for it."

"Save thyself the trouble.  I will tell him."

"I like thy spirit, I do in truth; but I do not admire thy
judgment.  Bone-rackings and bastings be plenty enow in this life,
without going out of one's way to invite them.  But a truce to
these matters; _I_ believe your father.  I doubt not he can lie; I
doubt not he DOTH lie, upon occasion, for the best of us do that;
but there is no occasion here.  A wise man does not waste so good
a commodity as lying for nought.  But come; sith it is thy humour
to give over begging, wherewithal shall we busy ourselves?  With
robbing kitchens?"

The King said, impatiently--

"Have done with this folly--you weary me!"

Hugo replied, with temper--

"Now harkee, mate; you will not beg, you will not rob; so be it.
But I will tell you what you WILL do.  You will play decoy whilst
_I_ beg.  Refuse, an' you think you may venture!"

The King was about to reply contemptuously, when Hugo said,
interrupting--

"Peace!  Here comes one with a kindly face.  Now will I fall down
in a fit.  When the stranger runs to me, set you up a wail, and
fall upon your knees, seeming to weep; then cry out as all the
devils of misery were in your belly, and say, 'Oh, sir, it is my
poor afflicted brother, and we be friendless; o' God's name cast
through your merciful eyes one pitiful look upon a sick, forsaken,
and most miserable wretch; bestow one little penny out of thy
riches upon one smitten of God and ready to perish!'--and mind
you, keep you ON wailing, and abate not till we bilk him of his
penny, else shall you rue it."

Then immediately Hugo began to moan, and groan, and roll his eyes,
and reel and totter about; and when the stranger was close at
hand, down he sprawled before him, with a shriek, and began to
writhe and wallow in the dirt, in seeming agony.

"O, dear, O dear!" cried the benevolent stranger, "O poor soul,
poor soul, how he doth suffer!  There--let me help thee up."

"O noble sir, forbear, and God love you for a princely gentleman--
but it giveth me cruel pain to touch me when I am taken so.  My
brother there will tell your worship how I am racked with anguish
when these fits be upon me.  A penny, dear sir, a penny, to buy a
little food; then leave me to my sorrows."

"A penny! thou shalt have three, thou hapless creature"--and he
fumbled in his pocket with nervous haste and got them out.
"There, poor lad, take them and most welcome.  Now come hither, my
boy, and help me carry thy stricken brother to yon house, where--"

"I am not his brother," said the King, interrupting.

"What! not his brother?"

"Oh, hear him!" groaned Hugo, then privately ground his teeth.
"He denies his own brother--and he with one foot in the grave!"

"Boy, thou art indeed hard of heart, if this is thy brother.  For
shame!--and he scarce able to move hand or foot.  If he is not thy
brother, who is he, then?"

"A beggar and a thief!  He has got your money and has picked your
pocket likewise.  An' thou would'st do a healing miracle, lay thy
staff over his shoulders and trust Providence for the rest."

But Hugo did not tarry for the miracle.  In a moment he was up and
off like the wind, the gentleman following after and raising the
hue and cry lustily as he went.  The King, breathing deep
gratitude to Heaven for his own release, fled in the opposite
direction, and did not slacken his pace until he was out of harm's
reach.  He took the first road that offered, and soon put the
village behind him.  He hurried along, as briskly as he could,
during several hours, keeping a nervous watch over his shoulder
for pursuit; but his fears left him at last, and a grateful sense
of security took their place.  He recognised, now, that he was
hungry, and also very tired.  So he halted at a farmhouse; but
when he was about to speak, he was cut short and driven rudely
away.  His clothes were against him.

He wandered on, wounded and indignant, and was resolved to put
himself in the way of like treatment no more.  But hunger is
pride's master; so, as the evening drew near, he made an attempt
at another farmhouse; but here he fared worse than before; for he
was called hard names and was promised arrest as a vagrant except
he moved on promptly.

The night came on, chilly and overcast; and still the footsore
monarch laboured slowly on.  He was obliged to keep moving, for
every time he sat down to rest he was soon penetrated to the bone
with the cold.  All his sensations and experiences, as he moved
through the solemn gloom and the empty vastness of the night, were
new and strange to him.  At intervals he heard voices approach,
pass by, and fade into silence; and as he saw nothing more of the
bodies they belonged to than a sort of formless drifting blur,
there was something spectral and uncanny about it all that made
him shudder.  Occasionally he caught the twinkle of a light--
always far away, apparently--almost in another world; if he heard
the tinkle of a sheep's bell, it was vague, distant, indistinct;
the muffled lowing of the herds floated to him on the night wind
in vanishing cadences, a mournful sound; now and then came the
complaining howl of a dog over viewless expanses of field and
forest; all sounds were remote; they made the little King feel
that all life and activity were far removed from him, and that he
stood solitary, companionless, in the centre of a measureless
solitude.

He stumbled along, through the gruesome fascinations of this new
experience, startled occasionally by the soft rustling of the dry
leaves overhead, so like human whispers they seemed to sound; and
by-and-by he came suddenly upon the freckled light of a tin
lantern near at hand.  He stepped back into the shadows and
waited.  The lantern stood by the open door of a barn.  The King
waited some time--there was no sound, and nobody stirring.  He got
so cold, standing still, and the hospitable barn looked so
enticing, that at last he resolved to risk everything and enter.
He started swiftly and stealthily, and just as he was crossing the
threshold he heard voices behind him.  He darted behind a cask,
within the barn, and stooped down.  Two farm-labourers came in,
bringing the lantern with them, and fell to work, talking
meanwhile.  Whilst they moved about with the light, the King made
good use of his eyes and took the bearings of what seemed to be a
good-sized stall at the further end of the place, purposing to
grope his way to it when he should be left to himself.  He also
noted the position of a pile of horse blankets, midway of the
route, with the intent to levy upon them for the service of the
crown of England for one night.

By-and-by the men finished and went away, fastening the door
behind them and taking the lantern with them.  The shivering King
made for the blankets, with as good speed as the darkness would
allow; gathered them up, and then groped his way safely to the
stall.  Of two of the blankets he made a bed, then covered himself
with the remaining two.  He was a glad monarch, now, though the
blankets were old and thin, and not quite warm enough; and besides
gave out a pungent horsey odour that was almost suffocatingly
powerful.

Although the King was hungry and chilly, he was also so tired and
so drowsy that these latter influences soon began to get the
advantage of the former, and he presently dozed off into a state
of semi-consciousness.  Then, just as he was on the point of
losing himself wholly, he distinctly felt something touch him!  He
was broad awake in a moment, and gasping for breath.  The cold
horror of that mysterious touch in the dark almost made his heart
stand still.  He lay motionless, and listened, scarcely breathing.
But nothing stirred, and there was no sound.  He continued to
listen, and wait, during what seemed a long time, but still
nothing stirred, and there was no sound.  So he began to drop into
a drowse once more, at last; and all at once he felt that
mysterious touch again!  It was a grisly thing, this light touch
from this noiseless and invisible presence; it made the boy sick
with ghostly fears.  What should he do?  That was the question;
but he did not know how to answer it.  Should he leave these
reasonably comfortable quarters and fly from this inscrutable
horror?  But fly whither?  He could not get out of the barn; and
the idea of scurrying blindly hither and thither in the dark,
within the captivity of the four walls, with this phantom gliding
after him, and visiting him with that soft hideous touch upon
cheek or shoulder at every turn, was intolerable.  But to stay
where he was, and endure this living death all night--was that
better?  No.  What, then, was there left to do?  Ah, there was but
one course; he knew it well--he must put out his hand and find
that thing!

It was easy to think this; but it was hard to brace himself up to
try it.  Three times he stretched his hand a little way out into
the dark, gingerly; and snatched it suddenly back, with a gasp--
not because it had encountered anything, but because he had felt
so sure it was just GOING to.  But the fourth time, he groped a
little further, and his hand lightly swept against something soft
and warm.  This petrified him, nearly, with fright; his mind was
in such a state that he could imagine the thing to be nothing else
than a corpse, newly dead and still warm.  He thought he would
rather die than touch it again.  But he thought this false thought
because he did not know the immortal strength of human curiosity.
In no long time his hand was tremblingly groping again--against
his judgment, and without his consent--but groping persistently
on, just the same.  It encountered a bunch of long hair; he
shuddered, but followed up the hair and found what seemed to be a
warm rope; followed up the rope and found an innocent calf!--for
the rope was not a rope at all, but the calf's tail.

The King was cordially ashamed of himself for having gotten all
that fright and misery out of so paltry a matter as a slumbering
calf; but he need not have felt so about it, for it was not the
calf that frightened him, but a dreadful non-existent something
which the calf stood for; and any other boy, in those old
superstitious times, would have acted and suffered just as he had
done.

The King was not only delighted to find that the creature was only
a calf, but delighted to have the calf's company; for he had been
feeling so lonesome and friendless that the company and
comradeship of even this humble animal were welcome.  And he had
been so buffeted, so rudely entreated by his own kind, that it was
a real comfort to him to feel that he was at last in the society
of a fellow-creature that had at least a soft heart and a gentle
spirit, whatever loftier attributes might be lacking.  So he
resolved to waive rank and make friends with the calf.

While stroking its sleek warm back--for it lay near him and within
easy reach--it occurred to him that this calf might be utilised in
more ways than one.  Whereupon he re-arranged his bed, spreading
it down close to the calf; then he cuddled himself up to the
calf's back, drew the covers up over himself and his friend, and
in a minute or two was as warm and comfortable as he had ever been
in the downy couches of the regal palace of Westminster.

Pleasant thoughts came at once; life took on a cheerfuller
seeming.  He was free of the bonds of servitude and crime, free of
the companionship of base and brutal outlaws; he was warm; he was
sheltered; in a word, he was happy.  The night wind was rising; it
swept by in fitful gusts that made the old barn quake and rattle,
then its forces died down at intervals, and went moaning and
wailing around corners and projections--but it was all music to
the King, now that he was snug and comfortable:  let it blow and
rage, let it batter and bang, let it moan and wail, he minded it
not, he only enjoyed it.  He merely snuggled the closer to his
friend, in a luxury of warm contentment, and drifted blissfully
out of consciousness into a deep and dreamless sleep that was full
of serenity and peace.  The distant dogs howled, the melancholy
kine complained, and the winds went on raging, whilst furious
sheets of rain drove along the roof; but the Majesty of England
slept on, undisturbed, and the calf did the same, it being a
simple creature, and not easily troubled by storms or embarrassed
by sleeping with a king.


Mark Twain