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The Prince and the Pauper(Chapter4)

2006-08-22 22:41

  Chapter IV. The Prince's troubles begin.

  After hours of persistent pursuit and persecution, the little prince was at last deserted by the rabble and left to himself. As long as he had been able to rage against the mob, and threaten it royally, and royally utter commands that were good stuff to laugh at, he was very entertaining; but when weariness finally forced him to be silent, he was no longer of use to his tormentors, and they sought amusement elsewhere. He looked about him, now, but could not recognise the locality. He was within the city of London——that was all he knew. He moved on, aimlessly, and in a little while the houses thinned, and the passers-by were infrequent. He bathed his bleeding feet in the brook which flowed then where Farringdon Street now is; rested a few moments, then passed on, and presently came upon a great space with only a few scattered houses in it, and a prodigious church. He recognised this church. Scaffoldings were about, everywhere, and swarms of workmen; for it was undergoing elaborate repairs. The prince took heart at once——he felt that his troubles were at an end, now. He said to himself, "It is the ancient Grey Friars' Church, which the king my father hath taken from the monks and given for a home for ever for poor and forsaken children, and new-named it Christ's Church. Right gladly will they serve the son of him who hath done so generously by them——and the more that that son is himself as poor and as forlorn as any that be sheltered here this day, or ever shall be."

  He was soon in the midst of a crowd of boys who were running, jumping, playing at ball and leap-frog, and otherwise disporting themselves, and right noisily, too. They were all dressed alike, and in the fashion which in that day prevailed among serving-men and 'prentices{1}——that is to say, each had on the crown of his head a flat black cap about the size of a saucer, which was not useful as a covering, it being of such scanty dimensions, neither was it ornamental; from beneath it the hair fell, unparted, to the middle of the forehead, and was cropped straight around; a clerical band at the neck; a blue gown that fitted closely and hung as low as the knees or lower; full sleeves; a broad red belt; bright yellow stockings, gartered above the knees; low shoes with large metal buckles. It was a sufficiently ugly costume.

  The boys stopped their play and flocked about the prince, who said with native dignity——

  "Good lads, say to your master that Edward Prince of Wales desireth speech with him."

  A great shout went up at this, and one rude fellow said——

  "Marry, art thou his grace's messenger, beggar?"

  The prince's face flushed with anger, and his ready hand flew to his hip, but there was nothing there. There was a storm of laughter, and one boy said——

  "Didst mark that? He fancied he had a sword——belike he is the prince himself."

  This sally brought more laughter. Poor Edward drew himself up proudly and said——

  "I am the prince; and it ill beseemeth you that feed upon the king my father's bounty to use me so."

  This was vastly enjoyed, as the laughter testified. The youth who had first spoken, shouted to his comrades——

  "Ho, swine, slaves, pensioners of his grace's princely father, where be your manners? Down on your marrow bones, all of ye, and do reverence to his kingly port and royal rags!"

  With boisterous mirth they dropped upon their knees in a body and did mock homage to their prey. The prince spurned the nearest boy with his foot, and said fiercely——

  "Take thou that, till the morrow come and I build thee a gibbet!"

  Ah, but this was not a joke——this was going beyond fun. The laughter ceased on the instant, and fury took its place. A dozen shouted——

  "Hale him forth! To the horse-pond, to the horse-pond! Where be the dogs? Ho, there, Lion! ho, Fangs!"

  Then followed such a thing as England had never seen before——the sacred person of the heir to the throne rudely buffeted by plebeian hands, and set upon and torn by dogs.

  As night drew to a close that day, the prince found himself far down in the close-built portion of the city. His body was bruised, his hands were bleeding, and his rags were all besmirched with mud. He wandered on and on, and grew more and more bewildered, and so tired and faint he could hardly drag one foot after the other. He had ceased to ask questions of anyone, since they brought him only insult instead of information. He kept muttering to himself, "Offal Court——that is the name; if I can but find it before my strength is wholly spent and I drop, then am I saved——for his people will take me to the palace and prove that I am none of theirs, but the true prince, and I shall have mine own again." And now and then his mind reverted to his treatment by those rude Christ's Hospital boys, and he said, "When I am king, they shall not have bread and shelter only, but also teachings out of books; for a full belly is little worth where the mind is starved, and the heart. I will keep this diligently in my remembrance, that this day's lesson be not lost upon me, and my people suffer thereby; for learning softeneth the heart and breedeth gentleness and charity. {1}

  The lights began to twinkle, it came on to rain, the wind rose, and a raw and gusty night set in. The houseless prince, the homeless heir to the throne of England, still moved on, drifting deeper into the maze of squalid alleys where the swarming hives of poverty and misery were massed together.

  Suddenly a great drunken ruffian collared him and said——

  "Out to this time of night again, and hast not brought a farthing home, I warrant me! If it be so, an' I do not break all the bones in thy lean body, then am I not John Canty, but some other."

  The prince twisted himself loose, unconsciously brushed his profaned shoulder, and eagerly said——

  "Oh, art his father, truly? Sweet heaven grant it be so——then wilt thou fetch him away and restore me!"

  "His father? I know not what thou mean'st; I but know I am thy father, as thou shalt soon have cause to——"

  "Oh, jest not, palter not, delay not!——I am worn, I am wounded, I can bear no more. Take me to the king my father, and he will make thee rich beyond thy wildest dreams. Believe me, man, believe me!——I speak no lie, but only the truth!——put forth thy hand and save me! I am indeed the Prince of Wales!"

  The man stared down, stupefied, upon the lad, then shook his head and muttered——

  "Gone stark mad as any Tom o' Bedlam!"——then collared him once more, and said with a coarse laugh and an oath, "But mad or no mad, I and thy Gammer Canty will soon find where the soft places in thy bones lie, or I'm no true man!"

  With this he dragged the frantic and struggling prince away, and disappeared up a front court followed by a delighted and noisy swarm of human vermin.

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