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| Home | Reading Room The Prince and the Pauper

The Prince and the Pauper
by Mark Twain

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Chapter XIX

The Prince with the peasants.

When the King awoke in the early morning, he found that a wet but

thoughtful rat had crept into the place during the night and made

a cosy bed for itself in his bosom. Being disturbed now, it

scampered away. The boy smiled, and said, "Poor fool, why so

fearful? I am as forlorn as thou. 'Twould be a sham in me to

hurt the helpless, who am myself so helpless. Moreover, I owe you

thanks for a good omen; for when a king has fallen so low that the

very rats do make a bed of him, it surely meaneth that his

fortunes be upon the turn, since it is plain he can no lower go."

He got up and stepped out of the stall, and just then he heard the

sound of children's voices. The barn door opened and a couple of

little girls came in. As soon as they saw him their talking and

laughing ceased, and they stopped and stood still, gazing at him

with strong curiosity; they presently began to whisper together,

then they approached nearer, and stopped again to gaze and

whisper. By-and-by they gathered courage and began to discuss him

aloud. One said--

"He hath a comely face."

The other added--

"And pretty hair."

"But is ill clothed enow."

"And how starved he looketh."

They came still nearer, sidling shyly around and about him,

examining him minutely from all points, as if he were some strange

new kind of animal, but warily and watchfully the while, as if

they half feared he might be a sort of animal that would bite,

upon occasion. Finally they halted before him, holding each

other's hands for protection, and took a good satisfying stare

with their innocent eyes; then one of them plucked up all her

courage and inquired with honest directness--

"Who art thou, boy?"

"I am the King," was the grave answer.

The children gave a little start, and their eyes spread themselves

wide open and remained so during a speechless half minute. Then

curiosity broke the silence--

"The KING? What King?"

"The King of England."

The children looked at each other--then at him--then at each other

again--wonderingly, perplexedly; then one said--

"Didst hear him, Margery?--he said he is the King. Can that be true?"

"How can it be else but true, Prissy? Would he say a lie? For

look you, Prissy, an' it were not true, it WOULD be a lie. It

surely would be. Now think on't. For all things that be not

true, be lies--thou canst make nought else out of it."

It was a good tight argument, without a leak in it anywhere; and

it left Prissy's half-doubts not a leg to stand on. She

considered a moment, then put the King upon his honour with the

simple remark--

"If thou art truly the King, then I believe thee."

"I am truly the King."

This settled the matter. His Majesty's royalty was accepted

without further question or discussion, and the two little girls

began at once to inquire into how he came to be where he was, and

how he came to be so unroyally clad, and whither he was bound, and

all about his affairs. It was a mighty relief to him to pour out

his troubles where they would not be scoffed at or doubted; so he

told his tale with feeling, forgetting even his hunger for the

time; and it was received with the deepest and tenderest sympathy

by the gentle little maids. But when he got down to his latest

experiences and they learned how long he had been without food,

they cut him short and hurried him away to the farmhouse to find a

breakfast for him.

The King was cheerful and happy now, and said to himself, "When I

am come to mine own again, I will always honour little children,

remembering how that these trusted me and believed in me in my

time of trouble; whilst they that were older, and thought

themselves wiser, mocked at me and held me for a liar."

The children's mother received the King kindly, and was full of

pity; for his forlorn condition and apparently crazed intellect

touched her womanly heart. She was a widow, and rather poor;

consequently she had seen trouble enough to enable her to feel for

the unfortunate. She imagined that the demented boy had wandered

away from his friends or keepers; so she tried to find out whence

he had come, in order that she might take measures to return him;

but all her references to neighbouring towns and villages, and all

her inquiries in the same line went for nothing--the boy's face,

and his answers, too, showed that the things she was talking of

were not familiar to him. He spoke earnestly and simply about

court matters, and broke down, more than once, when speaking of

the late King 'his father'; but whenever the conversation changed

to baser topics, he lost interest and became silent.

The woman was mightily puzzled; but she did not give up. As she

proceeded with her cooking, she set herself to contriving devices

to surprise the boy into betraying his real secret. She talked

about cattle--he showed no concern; then about sheep--the same

result: so her guess that he had been a shepherd boy was an

error; she talked about mills; and about weavers, tinkers, smiths,

trades and tradesmen of all sorts; and about Bedlam, and jails,

and charitable retreats: but no matter, she was baffled at all

points. Not altogether, either; for she argued that she had

narrowed the thing down to domestic service. Yes, she was sure

she was on the right track, now; he must have been a house

servant. So she led up to that. But the result was discouraging.

The subject of sweeping appeared to weary him; fire-building

failed to stir him; scrubbing and scouring awoke no enthusiasm.

The goodwife touched, with a perishing hope, and rather as a

matter of form, upon the subject of cooking. To her surprise, and

her vast delight, the King's face lighted at once! Ah, she had

hunted him down at last, she thought; and she was right proud,

too, of the devious shrewdness and tact which had accomplished it.

Her tired tongue got a chance to rest, now; for the King's,

inspired by gnawing hunger and the fragrant smells that came from

the sputtering pots and pans, turned itself loose and delivered

itself up to such an eloquent dissertation upon certain toothsome

dishes, that within three minutes the woman said to herself, "Of a

truth I was right--he hath holpen in a kitchen!" Then he

broadened his bill of fare, and discussed it with such

appreciation and animation, that the goodwife said to herself,

"Good lack! how can he know so many dishes, and so fine ones

withal? For these belong only upon the tables of the rich and

great. Ah, now I see! ragged outcast as he is, he must have

served in the palace before his reason went astray; yes, he must

have helped in the very kitchen of the King himself! I will test him."

Full of eagerness to prove her sagacity, she told the King to mind

the cooking a moment--hinting that he might manufacture and add a

dish or two, if he chose; then she went out of the room and gave

her children a sign to follow after. The King muttered--

"Another English king had a commission like to this, in a bygone

time--it is nothing against my dignity to undertake an office

which the great Alfred stooped to assume. But I will try to

better serve my trust than he; for he let the cakes burn."

The intent was good, but the performance was not answerable to it,

for this King, like the other one, soon fell into deep thinkings

concerning his vast affairs, and the same calamity resulted--the

cookery got burned. The woman returned in time to save the

breakfast from entire destruction; and she promptly brought the

King out of his dreams with a brisk and cordial tongue-lashing.

Then, seeing how troubled he was over his violated trust, she

softened at once, and was all goodness and gentleness toward him.

The boy made a hearty and satisfying meal, and was greatly

refreshed and gladdened by it. It was a meal which was

distinguished by this curious feature, that rank was waived on

both sides; yet neither recipient of the favour was aware that it

had been extended. The goodwife had intended to feed this young

tramp with broken victuals in a corner, like any other tramp or

like a dog; but she was so remorseful for the scolding she had

given him, that she did what she could to atone for it by allowing

him to sit at the family table and eat with his betters, on

ostensible terms of equality with them; and the King, on his side,

was so remorseful for having broken his trust, after the family

had been so kind to him, that he forced himself to atone for it by

humbling himself to the family level, instead of requiring the

woman and her children to stand and wait upon him, while he

occupied their table in the solitary state due to his birth and

dignity. It does us all good to unbend sometimes. This good

woman was made happy all the day long by the applauses which she

got out of herself for her magnanimous condescension to a tramp;

and the King was just as self-complacent over his gracious

humility toward a humble peasant woman.

When breakfast was over, the housewife told the King to wash up

the dishes. This command was a staggerer, for a moment, and the

King came near rebelling; but then he said to himself, "Alfred the

Great watched the cakes; doubtless he would have washed the dishes

too--therefore will I essay it."

He made a sufficiently poor job of it; and to his surprise too,

for the cleaning of wooden spoons and trenchers had seemed an easy

thing to do. It was a tedious and troublesome piece of work, but

he finished it at last. He was becoming impatient to get away on

his journey now; however, he was not to lose this thrifty dame's

society so easily. She furnished him some little odds and ends of

employment, which he got through with after a fair fashion and

with some credit. Then she set him and the little girls to paring

some winter apples; but he was so awkward at this service that she

retired him from it and gave him a butcher knife to grind.

Afterwards she kept him carding wool until he began to think he

had laid the good King Alfred about far enough in the shade for

the present in the matter of showy menial heroisms that would read

picturesquely in story-books and histories, and so he was half-

minded to resign. And when, just after the noonday dinner, the

goodwife gave him a basket of kittens to drown, he did resign. At

least he was just going to resign--for he felt that he must draw

the line somewhere, and it seemed to him that to draw it at

kitten-drowning was about the right thing--when there was an

interruption. The interruption was John Canty--with a peddler's

pack on his back--and Hugo.

The King discovered these rascals approaching the front gate

before they had had a chance to see him; so he said nothing about

drawing the line, but took up his basket of kittens and stepped

quietly out the back way, without a word. He left the creatures

in an out-house, and hurried on, into a narrow lane at the rear.



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