Huck and Jim once again adopt the easy, peaceful rhythm of travel by river-raft. One day, however, two men run up to the riverbank and ask Huck to save them from the men and dogs they say are in pursuit. Huck allows them to come aboard and, though he hears men and dogs in the distance, they quickly leave them behind. One of the men is about seventy, the other about thirty. They are dressed very shabbily, and both carry “big, fat, ratty-looking carpet bags.” Both appear to be minor criminals who have been chased out of town for running scams. However, after a little while, the young man starts to sigh. He says that his heart has been broken and his property lost and that he carries with him a great secret. However, he quickly reveals the secret, saying that he is the rightful Duke of Bridgewater, whose lands and titles have been stolen by a usurper.
Jim and Huck try to make the Duke feel better by showing respect, using his title, and waiting on him at dinner. The older man becomes silent and reflective, then announces that he has a secret, too. He is the Dauphin of France, son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Huck and Jim then begin to call him “You Majesty” and wait on him as well. Huck, however, is not taken in by these two tricksters. He sees quickly enough that the two men are merely “low-down humbugs and frauds,” but he pretends to believe them for the sake of keeping the peace.
The Duke and the Dauphin have both made their living in numerous shady ways, but the Duke is particularly fond of acting. He suggests that when they come to a sizeable town, they should hire a hall and perform scenes from Shakespeare. In the next small town they come to, the Duke sets up a temporary printing press and makes a little money. He also prints a notice describing Jim and offering a $200 reward for him so that if they are ever stopped and asked to explain Jim’s presence, they can pretend they have captured him and are going to claim the reward. Meanwhile, the Dauphin manages to collect the sum of $87.75 by impersonating a reformed pirate at a religious revival meeting. He also steals a three-gallon jug of whiskey, which he finds under a wagon. The Duke and the Dauphin then get very drunk together, leading Jim to hope that they will not be joined by any more aristocracy or royalty on this trip.
The Duke and the Dauphin rehearse the scenes from Shakespeare they are going to perform: the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, sword-fighting from Richard III, and Hamlet’s soliloquy. The Duke teaches the Dauphin the version of Hamlet’s soliloquy he has committed to memory, a farrago of phrases from Hamlet and Macbeth, which pleases the Dauphin. The Duke has playbills printed, and when they come to a small riverside town in Arkansas, they hire the courthouse for their performance, announcing the Duke and the Dauphin as the great (and long-dead) English actors David Garrick and Edmund Kean.
Huck describes the town, which is dull, muddy, and full of loafers. The loafers are much entertained by a man named Boggs, who becomes hopelessly drunk once a month and comes into town “on the waw-path” threatening someone or other. He never kills the man he says he is going to kill, and one wit remarks that he wishes Boggs would threaten him, since there...
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is no more certain guarantee of safety. However, this time, the man he threatens, Colonel Sherburn, is irritated enough to shoot Boggs, who quickly dies. Someone says Sherburn ought to be lynched, and an angry mob soon forms, snatching down clothes-lines with which to hang the colonel.
A screaming mob swarms along the street to Colonel Sherburn’s house. They tear down the fence in front of it and rush into his garden. Sherburn comes out of the house with a gun and points it at the crowd, which immediately becomes quiet. He addresses them coolly and contemptuously, saying they are too cowardly even to lynch anyone and that there is not a real man among them. He dismisses the mob, and they slink away.
There is a circus in town, and Huck goes to see it. He enjoys the performance tremendously, contrasting it with the failure of the Duke and the Dauphin’s show that evening. The Shakespeare performance only attracts about twelve people, and the Duke says that it is wasted on “these Arkansaw lunkheads.” He draws up a new playbill with the words “ladies and children not admitted” in large letters at the end, remarking that if this line does not attract an audience, he doesn’t know Arkansas.
The Duke and the Dauphin spend all the next day preparing for that night’s performance. However, the performance consists of little but the Dauphin capering around, naked and covered in paint. This makes the audience laugh, but the show is quickly over, and when they see how short it is, they regard themselves as having been duped. One of them, however, points out that they will look foolish if they complain and that the best thing to do is to praise the show lavishly the next day so that the rest of the town will be duped as well, putting them all in the same boat. The second night of the play, therefore, draws a large crowd, but on the third night, the audience contains no newcomers, only those who have attended before. Their pockets are bulging with rotten eggs and vegetables, as well as dead cats and other noxious objects to throw at the performers. The Duke has anticipated this and slips away to the raft, where the Dauphin is already waiting. They have taken $465 over the three nights. Jim, who still believes the Duke and the Dauphin are who they claim to be, asks if royalty always behave like this, and Huck, who sees no point in trying to argue, says that this is about average, since “all kings is mostly rapscallions.”
The huckster who travels around the small towns of America, turning his hand to whatever trade might separate the locals from their money, is a stock figure of folklore. The Duke and the Dauphin who join Huck and Jim on their journey for this section of the book are particularly fine examples of this type of rascal, and their escapades provide some of the most memorable scenes in the novel. Even before staking his claim to the Dukedom of Bridgewater, the younger of the two gives a summary of his varied career, when the other man enquires after his line of work:
Jour printer by trade; do a little in patent medicines: theater actor—tragedy, you know; take a turn to mesmerism and phrenology when there’s a chance, teach singing—geography school for a change; sling a lecture sometimes . . .
Both men are clearly used to getting run out of town. When Huck and Jim first encounter them, they are being run out of town by men and dogs. Their acting is comically inept, with a seventy-year-old, white-whiskered Juliet and a Hamlet who is quoting Macbeth for half his soliloquy. Much of Twain’s comedy derives from the spectacle of ignorant people being duped by those who know only slightly more than they do. It is notable, however, that while Huck is ignorant, he is astute enough to see through the phony Duke and Dauphin as soon as he considers their claims. Jim, as always, is more credulous, though even he sees clearly enough that this is not how one would expect European royalty and aristocracy to behave.
The death of Boggs, and the abortive attempt to lynch Colonel Sherburn, show the ignorance and folly of the small-town people in a more somber light, perhaps making the reader think they deserve rather worse than the trickery of the Duke and the Dauphin. It is immediately obvious that Boggs is nothing more sinister than a drunken nuisance, a figure of fun for the whole town. Sherburn, who is described as the best-dressed man in the shabby little tow, and is clearly the social superior not only of Boggs, but of all the onlookers and the lynch mob, decides to shoot Boggs simply out of irritation, as a demonstration that a minor annoyance to him is a more serious matter than the life of such a miserable drunkard. He then coolly faces the lynch mob, sending them away with a contemptuous speech. Although Sherburn is a cold and unlikeable character, he does seem superior to the mob, if only because of his courage and self-assurance. He acts as a foil not only to the mob, but to the Duke and the Dauphin, in demonstrating the conduct of a genuine aristocrat.