There never was such a country for wandering liars; and they were of both sexes. Hardly a month went by without one of these tramps arriving; and generally loaded with a tale about some princess or other wanting help to get her out of some far-away castle where she was held in captivity by a lawless scoundrel, usually a giant. Now you would think that the first thing the king would do after listening to such a novelette from an entire stranger, would be to ask for credentials—yes, and a pointer or two as to locality of castle, best route to it, and so on. But nobody ever thought of so simple and common-sense a thing at that. No, everybody swallowed these people’s lies whole, and never asked a question of any sort or about anything. Well, one day when I was not around, one of these people came along—it was a she one, this time—and told a tale of the usual pattern. Her mistress was a captive in a vast and gloomy castle, along with forty-four other young and beautiful girls, pretty much all of them princesses; they had been languishing in that cruel captivity for twenty-six years; the masters of the castle were three stupendous brothers, each with four arms and one eye—the eye in the center of the forehead, and as big as a fruit. Sort of fruit not mentioned; their usual slovenliness in statistics.
Would you believe it? The king and the whole Round Table were in raptures over this preposterous opportunity for adventure. Every knight of the Table jumped for the chance, and begged for it; but to their vexation and chagrin the king conferred it upon me, who had not asked for it at all.
By an effort, I contained my joy when Clarence brought me the news. But he—he could not contain his. His mouth gushed delight and gratitude in a steady discharge—delight in my good fortune, gratitude to the king for this splendid mark of his favor for me. He could keep neither his legs nor his body still, but pirouetted about the place in an airy ecstasy of happiness.
On my side, I could have cursed the kindness that conferred upon me this benefaction, but I kept my vexation under the surface for policy’s sake, and did what I could to let on to be glad. Indeed, I said I was glad. And in a way it was true; I was as glad as a person is when he is scalped.
Well, one must make the best of things, and not waste time with useless fretting, but get down to business and see what can be done. In all lies there is wheat among the chaff; I must get at the wheat in this case: so I sent for the girl and she came. She was a comely enough creature, and soft and modest, but, if signs went for anything, she didn’t know as much as a lady’s watch. I said:
“My dear, have you been questioned as to particulars?”
She said she hadn’t.
“Well, I didn’t expect you had, but I thought I would ask, to make sure; it’s the way I’ve been raised. Now you mustn’t take it unkindly if I remind you that as we don’t know you, we must go a little slow. You may be all right, of course, and we’ll hope that you are; but to take it for granted isn’t business. You understand that. I’m obliged to ask you a few questions; just answer up fair and square, and don’t be afraid. Where do you live, when you are at home?”
“In the land of Moder, fair sir.”
“Land of Moder. I don’t remember hearing of it before. Parents living?”
“As to that, I know not if they be yet on live, sith it is many years that I have lain shut up in the castle.”
“Your name, please?”
“I hight the Demoiselle Alisande la Carteloise, an it please you.”
“Do you know anybody here who can identify you?”
“That were not likely, fair lord, I being come hither now for the first time.”
“Have you brought any letters—any documents—any proofs that you are trustworthy and truthful?”
“Of a surety, no; and wherefore should I? Have I not a tongue, and cannot I say all that myself?”
“But your saying it, you know, and somebody else’s saying it, is different.”
“Different? How might that be? I fear me I do not understand.”
“Don’t understand? Land of—why, you see—you see—why, great Scott, can’t you understand a little thing like that? Can’t you understand the difference between your—why do you look so innocent and idiotic!”
“I? In truth I know not, but an it were the will of God.”
“Yes, yes, I reckon that’s about the size of it. Don’t mind my seeming excited; I’m not. Let us change the subject. Now as to this castle, with forty-five princesses in it, and three ogres at the head of it, tell me—where is this harem?”
“The castle, you understand; where is the castle?”
“Oh, as to that, it is great, and strong, and well beseen, and lieth in a far country. Yes, it is many leagues.”
“Ah, fair sir, it were woundily hard to tell, they are so many, and do so lap the one upon the other, and being made all in the same image and tincted with the same color, one may not know the one league from its fellow, nor how to count them except they be taken apart, and ye wit well it were God’s work to do that, being not within man’s capacity; for ye will note—”
“Hold on, hold on, never mind about the distance; whereabouts does the castle lie? What’s the direction from here?”
“Ah, please you sir, it hath no direction from here; by reason that the road lieth not straight, but turneth evermore; wherefore the direction of its place abideth not, but is some time under the one sky and anon under another, whereso if ye be minded that it is in the east, and wend thitherward, ye shall observe that the way of the road doth yet again turn upon itself by the space of half a circle, and this marvel happing again and yet again and still again, it will grieve you that you had thought by vanities of the mind to thwart and bring to naught the will of Him that giveth not a castle a direction from a place except it pleaseth Him, and if it please Him not, will the rather that even all castles and all directions thereunto vanish out of the earth, leaving the places wherein they tarried desolate and vacant, so warning His creatures that where He will He will, and where He will not He—”
“Oh, that’s all right, that’s all right, give us a rest; never mind about the direction, hang the direction—I beg pardon, I beg a thousand pardons, I am not well to-day; pay no attention when I soliloquize, it is an old habit, an old, bad habit, and hard to get rid of when one’s digestion is all disordered with eating food that was raised forever and ever before he was born; good land! a man can’t keep his functions regular on spring chickens thirteen hundred years old. But come—never mind about that; let’s—have you got such a thing as a map of that region about you? Now a good map—”
“Is it peradventure that manner of thing which of late the unbelievers have brought from over the great seas, which, being boiled in oil, and an onion and salt added thereto, doth—”
“What, a map? What are you talking about? Don’t you know what a map is? There, there, never mind, don’t explain, I hate explanations; they fog a thing up so that you can’t tell anything about it. Run along, dear; good-day; show her the way, Clarence.”
Oh, well, it was reasonably plain, now, why these donkeys didn’t prospect these liars for details. It may be that this girl had a fact in her somewhere, but I don’t believe you could have sluiced it out with a hydraulic; nor got it with the earlier forms of blasting, even; it was a case for dynamite. Why, she was a perfect ass; and yet the king and his knights had listened to her as if she had been a leaf out of the gospel. It kind of sizes up the whole party. And think of the simple ways of this court: this wandering wench hadn’t any more trouble to get access to the king in his palace than she would have had to get into the poorhouse in my day and country. In fact, he was glad to see her, glad to hear her tale; with that adventure of hers to offer, she was as welcome as a corpse is to a coroner.
Just as I was ending-up these reflections, Clarence came back. I remarked upon the barren result of my efforts with the girl; hadn’t got hold of a single point that could help me to find the castle. The youth looked a little surprised, or puzzled, or something, and intimated that he had been wondering to himself what I had wanted to ask the girl all those questions for.
“Why, great guns,” I said, “don’t I want to find the castle? And how else would I go about it?”
“La, sweet your worship, one may lightly answer that, I ween. She will go with thee. They always do. She will ride with thee.”
“Ride with me? Nonsense!”
“But of a truth she will. She will ride with thee. Thou shalt see.”
“What? She browse around the hills and scour the woods with me—alone—and I as good as engaged to be married? Why, it’s scandalous. Think how it would look.”
My, the dear face that rose before me! The boy was eager to know all about this tender matter. I swore him to secrecy and then whispered her name—“Puss Flanagan.” He looked disappointed, and said he didn’t remember the countess. How natural it was for the little courtier to give her a rank. He asked me where she lived.
“In East Har—” I came to myself and stopped, a little confused; then I said, “Never mind, now; I’ll tell you some time.”
And might he see her? Would I let him see her some day?
It was but a little thing to promise—thirteen hundred years or so—and he so eager; so I said Yes. But I sighed; I couldn’t help it. And yet there was no sense in sighing, for she wasn’t born yet. But that is the way we are made: we don’t reason, where we feel; we just feel.
My expedition was all the talk that day and that night, and the boys were very good to me, and made much of me, and seemed to have forgotten their vexation and disappointment, and come to be as anxious for me to hive those ogres and set those ripe old virgins loose as if it were themselves that had the contract. Well, they were good children—but just children, that is all. And they gave me no end of points about how to scout for giants, and how to scoop them in; and they told me all sorts of charms against enchantments, and gave me salves and other rubbish to put on my wounds. But it never occurred to one of them to reflect that if I was such a wonderful necromancer as I was pretending to be, I ought not to need salves or instructions, or charms against enchantments, and, least of all, arms and armor, on a foray of any kind—even against fire-spouting dragons, and devils hot from perdition, let alone such poor adversaries as these I was after, these commonplace ogres of the back settlements.
I was to have an early breakfast, and start at dawn, for that was the usual way; but I had the demon’s own time with my armor, and this delayed me a little. It is troublesome to get into, and there is so much detail. First you wrap a layer or two of blanket around your body, for a sort of cushion and to keep off the cold iron; then you put on your sleeves and shirt of chain mail—these are made of small steel links woven together, and they form a fabric so flexible that if you toss your shirt onto the floor, it slumps into a pile like a peck of wet fish-net; it is very heavy and is nearly the uncomfortablest material in the world for a night shirt, yet plenty used it for that—tax collectors, and reformers, and one-horse kings with a defective title, and those sorts of people; then you put on your shoes—flat-boats roofed over with interleaving bands of steel—and screw your clumsy spurs into the heels. Next you buckle your greaves on your legs, and your cuisses on your thighs; then come your backplate and your breastplate, and you begin to feel crowded; then you hitch onto the breastplate the half-petticoat of broad overlapping bands of steel which hangs down in front but is scolloped out behind so you can sit down, and isn’t any real improvement on an inverted coal scuttle, either for looks or for wear, or to wipe your hands on; next you belt on your sword; then you put your stove-pipe joints onto your arms, your iron gauntlets onto your hands, your iron rat-trap onto your head, with a rag of steel web hitched onto it to hang over the back of your neck—and there you are, snug as a candle in a candle-mould. This is no time to dance. Well, a man that is packed away like that is a nut that isn’t worth the cracking, there is so little of the meat, when you get down to it, by comparison with the shell.