Sketches New and Old, Part 2. eBook: Page1

Mark Twain (2004)




  Produced by David Widger

  SKETCHES NEW AND OLD

  by Mark Twain

  Part 2.

  ANSWERS TO CORRESPONDENTS--[Written about 1865.]

  "MORAL STATISTICIAN."--I don't want any of your statistics; I took yourwhole batch and lit my pipe with it. I hate your kind of people. Youare always ciphering out how much a man's health is injured, and how muchhis intellect is impaired, and how many pitiful dollars and cents hewastes in the course of ninety-two years' indulgence in the fatalpractice of smoking; and in the equally fatal practice of drinkingcoffee; and in playing billiards occasionally; and in taking a glass ofwine at dinner, etc., etc., etc. And you are always figuring out howmany women have been burned to death because of the dangerous fashion ofwearing expansive hoops, etc., etc., etc. You never see more than oneside of the question. You are blind to the fact that most old men inAmerica smoke and drink coffee, although, according to your theory, theyought to have died young; and that hearty old Englishmen drink wine andsurvive it, and portly old Dutchmen both drink and smoke freely, and yetgrow older and fatter all the time. And you never by to find out howmuch solid comfort, relaxation, and enjoyment a man derives from smokingin the course of a lifetime (which is worth ten times the money he wouldsave by letting it alone), nor the appalling aggregate of happiness lostin a lifetime your kind of people from not smoking. Of course you cansave money by denying yourself all the little vicious enjoyments forfifty years; but then what can you do with it? What use can you put itto? Money can't save your infinitesimal soul. All the use that moneycan be put to is to purchase comfort and enjoyment in this life;therefore, as you are an enemy to comfort and enjoyment, where is the useof accumulating cash? It won't do for you say that you can use it tobetter purpose in furnishing a good table, and in charities, and insupporting tract societies, because you know yourself that you people whohave no petty vices are never known to give away a cent, and that youstint yourselves so in the matter of food that you are always feeble andhungry. And you never dare to laugh in the daytime for fear some poorwretch, seeing you in a good humor, will try to borrow a dollar of you;and in church you are always down on your knees, with your eyes buried inthe cushion, when the contribution-box comes around; and you never givethe revenue officer: full statement of your income. Now you know thesethings yourself, don't you? Very well, then what is the use of yourstringing out your miserable lives to a lean and withered old age? Whatis the use of your saving money that is so utterly worthless to you? Ina word, why don't you go off somewhere and die, and not be always tryingto seduce people into becoming as "ornery" and unlovable as you areyourselves, by your villainous "moral statistics"? Now I don't approveof dissipation, and I don't indulge in it, either; but I haven't aparticle of confidence in a man who has no redeeming petty vices, and soI don't want to hear from you any more. I think you are the very sameman who read me a long lecture last week about the degrading vice ofsmoking cigars, and then came back, in my absence, with yourreprehensible fireproof gloves on, and carried off my beautiful parlorstove.

  "YOUNG AUTHOR."--Yes, Agassiz does recommend authors to eat fish, becausethe phosphorus in it makes brain. So far you are correct. But I cannothelp you to a decision about the amount you need to eat--at least, notwith certainty. If the specimen composition you send is about your fairusual average, I should judge that perhaps a couple of whales would beall you would want for the present. Not the largest kind, but simplygood, middling-sized whales.

  "SIMON WHEELER," Sonora.--The following simple and touching remarks andaccompanying poem have just come to hand from the rich gold-mining regionof Sonora:

  To Mr. Mark Twain: The within parson, which I have set to poetry under the name and style of "He Done His Level Best," was one among the whitest men I ever see, and it ain't every man that knowed him that can find it in his heart to say he's glad the poor cuss is busted and gone home to the States. He was here in an early day, and he was the handyest man about takin' holt of anything that come along you most ever see, I judge. He was a cheerful, stirnn' cretur, always doin' somethin', and no man can say he ever see him do anything by halvers. Preachin was his nateral gait, but he warn't a man to lay back a twidle his thumbs because there didn't happen to be nothin' do in his own especial line--no, sir, he was a man who would meander forth and stir up something for hisself. His last acts was to go his pile on "Kings-and" (calkatin' to fill, but which he didn't fill), when there was a "flush" out agin him, and naterally, you see, he went under. And so he was cleaned out as you may say, and he struck the home-trail, cheerful but flat broke. I knowed this talonted man in Arkansaw, and if you would print this humbly tribute to his gorgis abilities, you would greatly obleege his onhappy friend.

  HE DONE HIS LEVEL BEST Was he a mining on the flat-- He done it with a zest; Was he a leading of the choir-- He done his level best.

  If he'd a reg'lar task to do, He never took no rest; Or if 'twas off-and-on-the same-- He done his level best.

  If he was preachin' on his beat, He'd tramp from east to west, And north to south-in cold and heat He done his level best.

  He'd yank a sinner outen (Hades),** And land him with the blest; Then snatch a prayer'n waltz in again, And do his level best.

  **Here I have taken a slight liberty with the original MS. "Hades" does not make such good meter as the other word of one syllable, but it sounds better.

  He'd cuss and sing and howl and pray, And dance and drink and jest, And lie and steal--all one to him-- He done his level best.

  Whate'er this man was sot to do, He done it with a zest; No matter what his contract was, HE'D DO HIS LEVEL BEST.

  Verily, this man was gifted with "gorgis abilities," and it is ahappiness to me to embalm the memory of their luster in these columns.If it were not that the poet crop is unusually large and rank inCalifornia this year, I would encourage you to continue writing, SimonWheeler; but, as it is, perhaps it might be too risky in you to enteragainst so much opposition.

  "PROFESSIONAL BEGGAR."--NO; you are not obliged to take greenbacks atpar.

  "MELTON MOWBRAY," Dutch Flat.--This correspondent sends a lot ofdoggerel, and says it has been regarded as very good in Dutch Flat. Igive a specimen verse:

  The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold, And his cohorts were gleaming with purple and gold; And the sheen of his spears was like stars on the sea, When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.**

  **This piece of pleasantry, published in a San Francisco paper, was mistaken by the country journals for seriousness, and many and loud were the denunciations of the ignorance of author and editor, in not knowing that the lines in question were "written by Byron."

  There, that will do. That may be very good Dutch Flat poetry, but itwon't do in the metropolis. It is too smooth and blubbery; it reads likebutter milk gurgling from a jug. What the people ought to have issomething spirited--something like "Johnny Comes Marching Home." Howeverkeep on practising, and you may succeed yet. There is genius in you, buttoo much blubber.

  "ST. CLAIR HIGGINS." Los Angeles.--"My life is a failure; I have adored, wildly, madly, and she whom I love has turned
coldly from me and shed her affections upon another. What would you advise me to do?"

  You should set your affections on another also--or on several, if thereare enough to go round. Also, do everything you can to make your formerflame unhappy. There is an absurd idea disseminated in novels, that thehappier a girl is with another man, the happier it makes the old lovershe has blighted. Don't allow yourself to believe any such nonsense asthat. The more cause that girl finds to regret that she did not marryyou, the more comfortable you will feel over it. It isn't poetical, butit is mighty sound doctrine.

  "ARITHMETICUS." Virginia, Nevada.--"If it would take a cannon-ball 3 and 1/3 seconds to travel four miles, and 3 and 3/8 seconds to travel the next four, and 3 and 5/8 to travel the next four, and if its rate of progress continued to diminish in the same ratio, how long would it take it to go fifteen hundred million miles?"

  I don't know.

  "AMBITIOUS LEARNER," Oakland.--Yes; you are right America was notdiscovered by Alexander Selkirk.

  "DISCARDED LOVER."--"I loved, and still love, the beautiful Edwitha Howard, and intended to marry her. Yet, during my temporary absence at Benicia, last week, alas! she married Jones. Is my happiness to be thus blasted for life? Have I no redress?"

  Of course you have. All the law, written and unwritten, is on your side.The intention and not the act constitutes crime--in other words,constitutes the deed. If you call your bosom friend a fool, and intendit for an insult, it is an insult; but if you do it playfully, andmeaning no insult, it is not an insult. If you discharge a pistolaccidentally, and kill a man, you can go free, for you have done nomurder; but if you try to kill a man, and manifestly intend to kill him,but fail utterly to do it, the law still holds that the intentionconstituted the crime, and you are guilty of murder. Ergo, if you hadmarried Edwitha accidentally, and without really intending to do it, youwould not actually be married to her at all, because the act of marriagecould not be complete without the intention. And ergo, in the strictspirit of the law, since you deliberately intended to marry Edwitha, anddidn't do it, you are married to her all the same--because, as I saidbefore, the intention constitutes the crime. It is as clear as day thatEdwitha is your wife, and your redress lies in taking a club andmutilating Jones with it as much as you can. Any man has a right toprotect his own wife from the advances of other men. But you haveanother alternative--you were married to Edwitha first, because of yourdeliberate intention, and now you can prosecute her for bigamy, insubsequently marrying Jones. But there is another phase in thiscomplicated case: You intended to marry Edwitha, and consequently,according to law, she is your wife--there is no getting around that; butshe didn't marry you, and if she never intended to marry you, you are nother husband, of course. Ergo, in marrying Jones, she was guilty ofbigamy, because she was the wife of another man at the time; which is allvery well as far as it goes--but then, don't you see, she had no otherhusband when she married Jones, and consequently she was not guilty ofbigamy. Now, according to this view of the case, Jones married aspinster, who was a widow at the same time and another man's wife at thesame time, and yet who had no husband and never had one, and never hadany intention of getting married, and therefore, of course, never hadbeen married; and by the same reasoning you are a bachelor, because youhave never been any one's husband; and a married man, because you have awife living; and to all intents and purposes a widower, because you havebeen deprived of that wife; and a consummate ass for going off to Beniciain the first place, while things were so mixed. And by this time I havegot myself so tangled up in the intricacies of this extraordinary casethat I shall have to give up any further attempt to advise you--I mightget confused and fail to make myself understood. I think I could take upthe argument where I left off, and by following it closely awhile,perhaps I could prove to your satisfaction, either that you never existedat all, or that you are dead now, and consequently don't need thefaithless Edwitha--I think I could do that, if it would afford you anycomfort.

  "ARTHUR AUGUSTUS."--No; you are wrong; that is the proper way to throw abrickbat or a tomahawk; but it doesn't answer so well for a bouquet; youwill hurt somebody if you keep it up. Turn your nosegay upside down,take it by the stems, and toss it with an upward sweep. Did you everpitch quoits? that is the idea. The practice of recklessly heavingimmense solid bouquets, of the general size and weight of prize cabbages,from the dizzy altitude of the galleries, is dangerous and veryreprehensible. Now, night before last, at the Academy of Music, justafter Signorina had finished that exquisite melody, "The Last Rose ofSummer," one of these floral pile-drivers came cleaving down through theatmosphere of applause, and if she hadn't deployed suddenly to the right,it would have driven her into the floor like a shinglenail. Of coursethat bouquet was well meant; but how would you like to have been thetarget? A sincere compliment is always grateful to a lady, so long asyou don't try to knock her down with it.

  "YOUNG MOTHER."--And so you think a baby is a thing of beauty and a joyforever? Well, the idea is pleasing, but not original; every cow thinksthe same of its own calf. Perhaps the cow may not think it so elegantly,but still she thinks it nevertheless. I honor the cow for it. We allhonor this touching maternal instinct wherever we find it, be it in thehome of luxury or in the humble cow-shed. But really, madam, when Icome to examine the matter in all its bearings, I find that thecorrectness of your assertion does not assert itself in all cases.A soiled baby, with a neglected nose, cannot be conscientiously regardedas a thing of beauty; and inasmuch as babyhood spans but three shortyears, no baby is competent to be a joy "forever." It pains me thus todemolish two-thirds of your pretty sentiment in a single sentence; butthe position I hold in this chair requires that I shall not permit you todeceive and mislead the public with your plausible figures of speech.I know a female baby, aged eighteen months, in this city, which cannothold out as a "joy" twenty-four hours on a stretch, let alone "forever."And it possesses some of the most remarkable eccentricities of characterand appetite that have ever fallen under my notice. I will set down herea statement of this infant's operations (conceived, planned, and earnedout by itself, and without suggestion or assistance from its mother orany one else), during a single day; and what I shall say can besubstantiated by the sworn testimony of witnesses.

  It commenced by eating one dozen large blue-mass pills, box and all; thenit fell down a flight of stairs, and arose with a blue and purple knot onits forehead, after which it proceeded in quest of further refreshmentand amusement. It found a glass trinket ornamented with brass-work--smashed up and ate the glass, and then swallowed the brass.Then it drank about twenty drops of laudanum, and more than a dozentablespoonfuls of strong spirits of camphor. The reason why it took nomore laudanum was because there was no more to take. After this it laydown on its back, and shoved five or six, inches of a silver-headedwhalebone cane down its throat; got it fast there, and it was all itsmother could do to pull the cane out again, without pulling out some ofthe child with it. Then, being hungry for glass again, it broke upseveral wine glasses, and fell to eating and swallowing the fragments,not minding a cut or two. Then it ate a quantity of butter, pepper,salt, and California matches, actually taking a spoonful of butter, aspoonful of salt, a spoonful of pepper, and three or four lucifer matchesat each mouthful. (I will remark here that this thing of beauty likespainted German lucifers, and eats all she can get of them; but sheprefers California matches, which I regard as a compliment to our homemanufactures of more than ordinary value, coming, as it does, from onewho is too young to flatter.) Then she washed her head with soap andwater, and afterward ate what soap was left, and drank as much of thesuds as she had room for; after which she sallied forth and took the cowfamiliarly by the tail, and got kicked heels over head. At odd timesduring the day, when this joy forever happened to have nothing particularon hand, she put in the time by climbing up on places, and falling downoff them, uniformly damaging her self in the operation. As young as sheis, s
he speaks many words tolerably distinctly; and being plain spoken inother respects, blunt and to the point, she opens conversation with allstrangers, male or female, with the same formula, "How do, Jim?"

  Not being familiar with the ways of children, it is possible that I havebeen magnifying into matter of surprise things which may not strike anyone who is familiar with infancy as being at all astonishing. However, Icannot believe that such is the case, and so I repeat that my report ofthis baby's performances is strictly true; and if any one doubts it,I can produce the child. I will further engage that she will devouranything that is given her (reserving to myself only the right to excludeanvils), and fall down from any place to which she may be elevated(merely stipulating that her preference for alighting on her head shallbe respected, and, therefore, that the elevation chosen shall be highenough to enable her to accomplish this to her satisfaction). But I findI have wandered from my subject; so, without further argument, I willreiterate my conviction that not all babies are things of beauty and joysforever.

  "ARITHMETICUS." Virginia, Nevada.--"I am an enthusiastic student of mathematics, and it is so vexatious to me to find my progress constantly impeded by these mysterious arithmetical technicalities. Now do tell me what the difference is between geometry and conchology?"

  Here you come again with your arithmetical conundrums, when I amsuffering death with a cold in the head. If you could have seen theexpression of scorn that darkened my countenance a moment ago, and wasinstantly split from the center in every direction like a fracturedlooking-glass by my last sneeze, you never would have written thatdisgraceful question. Conchology is a science which has nothing to dowith mathematics; it relates only to shells. At the same time, however,a man who opens oysters for a hotel, or shells a fortified town, or suckseggs, is not, strictly speaking, a conchologist-a fine stroke of sarcasmthat, but it will be lost on such an unintellectual clam as you. Nowcompare conchology and geometry together, and you will see what thedifference is, and your question will be answered. But don't torture mewith any more arithmetical horrors until you know I am rid of my cold. Ifeel the bitterest animosity toward you at this moment-bothering me inthis way, when I can do nothing but sneeze and rage and snortpocket-handkerchiefs to atoms. If I had you in range of my nose nowI would blow your brains out.