AN AWFUL PREDICAMENT
Sleep? It was impossible. It would naturally have been impossible in that noisome cavern of a jail, with its mangy crowd of drunken, quarrelsome, and song-singing rapscallions. But the thing that made sleep all the more a thing not to be dreamed of, was my racking impatience to get out of this place and find out the whole size of what might have happened yonder in the slave-quarters in consequence of that intolerable miscarriage of mine.
It was a long night, but the morning got around at last. I made a full and frank explanation to the court. I said I was a slave, the property of the great Earl Grip, who had arrived just after dark at the Tabard inn in the village on the other side of the water, and had stopped there over night, by compulsion, he being taken deadly sick with a strange and sudden disorder. I had been ordered to cross to the city in all haste and bring the best physician; I was doing my best; naturally I was running with all my might; the night was dark, I ran against this common person here, who seized me by the throat and began to pummel me, although I told him my errand, and implored him, for the sake of the great earl my master's mortal peril —
The common person interrupted and said it was a lie; and was going to explain how I rushed upon him and attacked him without a word —
"Silence, sirrah!" from the court. "Take him hence and give him a few stripes whereby to teach him how to treat the servant of a nobleman after a different fashion another time. Go!"
Then the court begged my pardon, and hoped I would not fail to tell his lordship it was in no wise the court's fault that this high-handed thing had happened. I said I would make it all right, and so took my leave. Took it just in time, too; he was starting to ask me why I didn't fetch out these facts the moment I was arrested. I said I would if I had thought of it — which was true — but that I was so battered by that man that all my wit was knocked out of me — and so forth and so on, and got myself away, still mumbling. I didn't wait for breakfast. No grass grew under my feet. I was soon at the slave quarters. Empty — everybody gone! That is, everybody except one body — the slave-master's. It lay there all battered to pulp; and all about were the evidences of a terrific fight. There was a rude board coffin on a cart at the door, and workmen, assisted by the police, were thinning a road through the gaping crowd in order that they might bring it in.
I picked out a man humble enough in life to condescend to talk with one so shabby as I, and got his account of the matter.
"There were sixteen slaves here. They rose against their master in the night, and thou seest how it ended."
"Yes. How did it begin?"
"There was no witness but the slaves. They said the slave that was most valuable got free of his bonds and escaped in some strange way — by magic arts 'twas thought, by reason that he had no key, and the locks were neither broke nor in any wise injured. When the master discovered his loss, he was mad with despair, and threw himself upon his people with his heavy stick, who resisted and brake his back and in other and divers ways did give him hurts that brought him swiftly to his end."
"This is dreadful. It will go hard with the slaves, no doubt, upon the trial."
"Marry, the trial is over."
"Would they be a week, think you — and the matter so simple? They were not the half of a quarter of an hour at it."
"Why, I don't see how they could determine which were the guilty ones in so short a time."
"Which ones? Indeed, they considered not particulars like to that. They condemned them in a body. Wit ye not the law? — which men say the Romans left behind them here when they went — that if one slave killeth his master all the slaves of that man must die for it."
"True. I had forgotten. And when will these die?"
"Belike within a four and twenty hours; albeit some say they will wait a pair of days more, if peradventure they may find the missing one meantime."
The missing one! It made me feel uncomfortable.
"Is it likely they will find him?"
"Before the day is spent — yes. They seek him everywhere. They stand at the gates of the town, with certain of the slaves who will discover him to them if he cometh, and none can pass out but he will be first examined."
"Might one see the place where the rest are confined?"
"The outside of it — yes. The inside of it — but ye will not want to see that."
I took the address of that prison for future reference and then sauntered off. At the first second-hand clothing shop I came to, up a back street, I got a rough rig suitable for a common seaman who might be going on a cold voyage, and bound up my face with a liberal bandage, saying I had a toothache. This concealed my worst bruises. It was a transformation. I no longer resembled my former self. Then I struck out for that wire, found it and followed it to its den. It was a little room over a butcher's shop — which meant that business wasn't very brisk in the telegraphic line. The young chap in charge was drowsing at his table. I locked the door and put the vast key in my bosom. This alarmed the young fellow, and he was going to make a noise; but I said:
"Save your wind; if you open your mouth you are dead, sure. Tackle your instrument. Lively, now! Call Camelot."
"This doth amaze me! How should such as you know aught of such matters as — "
"Call Camelot! I am a desperate man. Call Camelot, or get away from the instrument and I will do it myself."
"What — you?"
"Yes — certainly. Stop gabbling. Call the palace."
He made the call.
"Now, then, call Clarence."
"Clarence who ?"
"Never mind Clarence who. Say you want Clarence; you'll get an answer."
He did so. We waited five nerve-straining minutes — ten minutes — how long it did seem! — and then came a click that was as familiar to me as a human voice; for Clarence had been my own pupil.
"Now, my lad, vacate! They would have known my touch, maybe, and so your call was surest; but I'm all right now."
He vacated the place and cocked his ear to listen — but it didn't win. I used a cipher. I didn't waste any time in sociabilities with Clarence, but squared away for business, straight-off — thus:
"The king is here and in danger. We were captured and brought here as slaves. We should not be able to prove our identity — and the fact is, I am not in a position to try. Send a telegram for the palace here which will carry conviction with it."
His answer came straight back:
"They don't know anything about the telegraph; they haven't had any experience yet, the line to London is so new. Better not venture that. They might hang you. Think up something else."
Might hang us! Little he knew how closely he was crowding the facts. I couldn't think up anything for the moment. Then an idea struck me, and I started it along:
"Send five hundred picked knights with Launcelot in the lead; and send them on the jump. Let them enter by the southwest gate, and look out for the man with a white cloth around his right arm."
The answer was prompt:
"They shall start in half an hour."
"All right, Clarence; now tell this lad here that I'm a friend of yours and a dead-head; and that he must be discreet and say nothing about this visit of mine."