A Tramp Abroad — Volume 04 eBook: Page2

Mark Twain (1994)


  Science has recently discovered that the ant does not lay up anythingfor winter use. This will knock him out of literature, to some extent.He does not work, except when people are looking, and only then when theobserver has a green, naturalistic look, and seems to be taking notes.This amounts to deception, and will injure him for the Sunday-schools.He has not judgment enough to know what is good to eat from what isn't.This amounts to ignorance, and will impair the world's respect forhim. He cannot stroll around a stump and find his way home again. Thisamounts to idiocy, and once the damaging fact is established, thoughtfulpeople will cease to look up to him, the sentimental will cease tofondle him. His vaunted industry is but a vanity and of no effect, sincehe never gets home with anything he starts with. This disposes of thelast remnant of his reputation and wholly destroys his main usefulnessas a moral agent, since it will make the sluggard hesitate to go to himany more. It is strange, beyond comprehension, that so manifest a humbugas the ant has been able to fool so many nations and keep it up so manyages without being found out.

  The ant is strong, but we saw another strong thing, where we had notsuspected the presence of much muscular power before. A toadstool--thatvegetable which springs to full growth in a single night--had torn looseand lifted a matted mass of pine needles and dirt of twice its own bulkinto the air, and supported it there, like a column supporting a shed.Ten thousand toadstools, with the right purchase, could lift a man, Isuppose. But what good would it do?

  All our afternoon's progress had been uphill. About five or half past wereached the summit, and all of a sudden the dense curtain of the forestparted and we looked down into a deep and beautiful gorge and out over awide panorama of wooded mountains with their summits shining in the sunand their glade-furrowed sides dimmed with purple shade. The gorge underour feet--called Allerheiligen--afforded room in the grassy level at itshead for a cozy and delightful human nest, shut away from the world andits botherations, and consequently the monks of the old times had notfailed to spy it out; and here were the brown and comely ruins of theirchurch and convent to prove that priests had as fine an instinct sevenhundred years ago in ferreting out the choicest nooks and corners in aland as priests have today.

  A big hotel crowds the ruins a little, now, and drives a brisk tradewith summer tourists. We descended into the gorge and had a supper whichwould have been very satisfactory if the trout had not been boiled.The Germans are pretty sure to boil a trout or anything else if left totheir own devices. This is an argument of some value in support of thetheory that they were the original colonists of the wild islands of thecoast of Scotland. A schooner laden with oranges was wrecked upon oneof those islands a few years ago, and the gentle savages rendered thecaptain such willing assistance that he gave them as many oranges asthey wanted. Next day he asked them how they liked them. They shooktheir heads and said:

  "Baked, they were tough; and even boiled, they warn't things for ahungry man to hanker after."

  We went down the glen after supper. It is beautiful--a mixture of sylvanloveliness and craggy wildness. A limpid torrent goes whistling downthe glen, and toward the foot of it winds through a narrow cleft betweenlofty precipices and hurls itself over a succession of falls. After onepasses the last of these he has a backward glimpse at the falls whichis very pleasing--they rise in a seven-stepped stairway of foamy andglittering cascades, and make a picture which is as charming as it isunusual.

  CHAPTER XXIII

  [Nicodemus Dodge and the Skeleton]

  We were satisfied that we could walk to Oppenau in one day, now thatwe were in practice; so we set out the next morning after breakfastdetermined to do it. It was all the way downhill, and we had theloveliest summer weather for it. So we set the pedometer and thenstretched away on an easy, regular stride, down through the clovenforest, drawing in the fragrant breath of the morning in deep refreshingdraughts, and wishing we might never have anything to do forever butwalk to Oppenau and keep on doing it and then doing it over again.

  Now, the true charm of pedestrianism does not lie in the walking, orin the scenery, but in the talking. The walking is good to time themovement of the tongue by, and to keep the blood and the brain stirredup and active; the scenery and the woodsy smells are good to bear inupon a man an unconscious and unobtrusive charm and solace to eye andsoul and sense; but the supreme pleasure comes from the talk. It is nomatter whether one talks wisdom or nonsense, the case is the same, thebulk of the enjoyment lies in the wagging of the gladsome jaw and theflapping of the sympathetic ear.

  And what motley variety of subjects a couple of people will casuallyrake over in the course of a day's tramp! There being no constraint,a change of subject is always in order, and so a body is not likely tokeep pegging at a single topic until it grows tiresome. We discussedeverything we knew, during the first fifteen or twenty minutes, thatmorning, and then branched out into the glad, free, boundless realm ofthe things we were not certain about.

  Harris said that if the best writer in the world once got the slovenlyhabit of doubling up his "haves" he could never get rid of it while helived. That is to say, if a man gets the habit of saying "I shouldhave liked to have known more about it" instead of saying simply andsensibly, "I should have liked to know more about it," that man'sdisease is incurable. Harris said that his sort of lapse is to be foundin every copy of every newspaper that has ever been printed in English,and in almost all of our books. He said he had observed it in Kirkham'sgrammar and in Macaulay. Harris believed that milk-teeth are commoner inmen's mouths than those "doubled-up haves."

  I do not know that there have not been moments in the course of thepresent session when I should have been very glad to have accepted theproposal of my noble friend, and to have exchanged parts in some of ourevenings of work.--[From a Speech of the English Chancellor of theExchequer, August, 1879.]

  That changed the subject to dentistry. I said I believed the averageman dreaded tooth-pulling more than amputation, and that he would yellquicker under the former operation than he would under the latter. Thephilosopher Harris said that the average man would not yell in eithercase if he had an audience. Then he continued:

  "When our brigade first went into camp on the Potomac, we used to bebrought up standing, occasionally, by an ear-splitting howl of anguish.That meant that a soldier was getting a tooth pulled in a tent. But thesurgeons soon changed that; they instituted open-air dentistry. Therenever was a howl afterward--that is, from the man who was having thetooth pulled. At the daily dental hour there would always be about fivehundred soldiers gathered together in the neighborhood of that dentalchair waiting to see the performance--and help; and the moment thesurgeon took a grip on the candidate's tooth and began to lift, everyone of those five hundred rascals would clap his hand to his jaw andbegin to hop around on one leg and howl with all the lungs he had!It was enough to raise your hair to hear that variegated and enormousunanimous caterwaul burst out!

  With so big and so derisive an audience as that, a sufferer wouldn'temit a sound though you pulled his head off. The surgeons said thatpretty often a patient was compelled to laugh, in the midst of hispangs, but that they had never caught one crying out, after the open-airexhibition was instituted."

  Dental surgeons suggested doctors, doctors suggested death, deathsuggested skeletons--and so, by a logical process the conversationmelted out of one of these subjects and into the next, until the topicof skeletons raised up Nicodemus Dodge out of the deep grave in mymemory where he had lain buried and forgotten for twenty-five years.When I was a boy in a printing-office in Missouri, a loose-jointed,long-legged, tow-headed, jeans-clad countrified cub of about sixteenlounged in one day, and without removing his hands from the depths ofhis trousers pockets or taking off his faded ruin of a slouch hat, whosebroken rim hung limp and ragged about his eyes and ears like a bug-eatencabbage leaf, stared indifferently around, then leaned his hip againstthe editor's table, crossed his mighty brogans, aimed at a distantfly from a crevice in his upper teeth, laid him low, and said wi
thcomposure:

  "Whar's the boss?"

  "I am the boss," said the editor, following this curious bit ofarchitecture wonderingly along up to its clock-face with his eye.

  "Don't want anybody fur to learn the business, 'tain't likely?"

  "Well, I don't know. Would you like to learn it?"

  "Pap's so po' he cain't run me no mo', so I want to git a show somers ifI kin, 'taint no diffunce what--I'm strong and hearty, and I don't turnmy back on no kind of work, hard nur soft."

  "Do you think you would like to learn the printing business?"

  "Well, I don't re'ly k'yer a durn what I DO learn, so's I git a chancefur to make my way. I'd jist as soon learn print'n's anything."

  "Can you read?"

  "Yes--middlin'."

  "Write?"

  "Well, I've seed people could lay over me thar."

  "Cipher?"

  "Not good enough to keep store, I don't reckon, but up as fur astwelve-times-twelve I ain't no slouch. 'Tother side of that is what gitsme."

  "Where is your home?"

  "I'm f'm old Shelby."

  "What's your father's religious denomination?"

  "Him? Oh, he's a blacksmith."

  "No, no--I don't mean his trade. What's his RELIGIOUS DENOMINATION?"

  "OH--I didn't understand you befo'. He's a Freemason."

  "No, no, you don't get my meaning yet. What I mean is, does he belong toany CHURCH?"

  "NOW you're talkin'! Couldn't make out what you was a-tryin' to gitthrough yo' head no way. B'long to a CHURCH! Why, boss, he's ben thepizenest kind of Free-will Babtis' for forty year. They ain't no pizenerones 'n what HE is. Mighty good man, pap is. Everybody says that. Ifthey said any diffrunt they wouldn't say it whar I wuz--not MUCH theywouldn't."

  "What is your own religion?"

  "Well, boss, you've kind o' got me, there--and yit you hain't got me somighty much, nuther. I think 't if a feller he'ps another feller whenhe's in trouble, and don't cuss, and don't do no mean things, nurnoth'n' he ain' no business to do, and don't spell the Saviour's namewith a little g, he ain't runnin' no resks--he's about as saift as heb'longed to a church."

  "But suppose he did spell it with a little g--what then?"

  "Well, if he done it a-purpose, I reckon he wouldn't stand no chance--heOUGHTN'T to have no chance, anyway, I'm most rotten certain 'bout that."

  "What is your name?"

  "Nicodemus Dodge."

  "I think maybe you'll do, Nicodemus. We'll give you a trial, anyway."

  "All right."

  "When would you like to begin?"

  "Now."

  So, within ten minutes after we had first glimpsed this nondescript hewas one of us, and with his coat off and hard at it.

  Beyond that end of our establishment which was furthest from the street,was a deserted garden, pathless, and thickly grown with the bloomy andvillainous "jimpson" weed and its common friend the stately sunflower.In the midst of this mournful spot was a decayed and aged little "frame"house with but one room, one window, and no ceiling--it had been asmoke-house a generation before. Nicodemus was given this lonely andghostly den as a bedchamber.

  The village smarties recognized a treasure in Nicodemus, right away--abutt to play jokes on. It was easy to see that he was inconceivablygreen and confiding. George Jones had the glory of perpetrating thefirst joke on him; he gave him a cigar with a firecracker in it andwinked to the crowd to come; the thing exploded presently and swept awaythe bulk of Nicodemus's eyebrows and eyelashes. He simply said:

  "I consider them kind of seeg'yars dangersome,"--and seemed to suspectnothing. The next evening Nicodemus waylaid George and poured a bucketof ice-water over him.

  One day, while Nicodemus was in swimming, Tom McElroy "tied" hisclothes. Nicodemus made a bonfire of Tom's by way of retaliation.

  A third joke was played upon Nicodemus a day or two later--he walkedup the middle aisle of the village church, Sunday night, with a staringhandbill pinned between his shoulders. The joker spent the remainderof the night, after church, in the cellar of a deserted house, andNicodemus sat on the cellar door till toward breakfast-time to makesure that the prisoner remembered that if any noise was made, some roughtreatment would be the consequence. The cellar had two feet of stagnantwater in it, and was bottomed with six inches of soft mud.

  But I wander from the point. It was the subject of skeletons thatbrought this boy back to my recollection. Before a very long timehad elapsed, the village smarties began to feel an uncomfortableconsciousness of not having made a very shining success out of theirattempts on the simpleton from "old Shelby." Experimenters grew scarceand chary. Now the young doctor came to the rescue. There was delightand applause when he proposed to scare Nicodemus to death, and explainedhow he was going to do it. He had a noble new skeleton--the skeleton ofthe late and only local celebrity, Jimmy Finn, the village drunkard--agrisly piece of property which he had bought of Jimmy Finn himself, atauction, for fifty dollars, under great competition, when Jimmy lay verysick in the tan-yard a fortnight before his death. The fifty dollars hadgone promptly for whiskey and had considerably hurried up the change ofownership in the skeleton. The doctor would put Jimmy Finn's skeleton inNicodemus's bed!

  This was done--about half past ten in the evening. About Nicodemus'susual bedtime--midnight--the village jokers came creeping stealthilythrough the jimpson weeds and sunflowers toward the lonely frame den.They reached the window and peeped in. There sat the long-legged pauper,on his bed, in a very short shirt, and nothing more; he was danglinghis legs contentedly back and forth, and wheezing the music of "CamptownRaces" out of a paper-overlaid comb which he was pressing against hismouth; by him lay a new jewsharp, a new top, and solid india-rubberball, a handful of painted marbles, five pounds of "store" candy, anda well-gnawed slab of gingerbread as big and as thick as a volume ofsheet-music. He had sold the skeleton to a traveling quack for threedollars and was enjoying the result!

  Just as we had finished talking about skeletons and were drifting intothe subject of fossils, Harris and I heard a shout, and glanced up thesteep hillside. We saw men and women standing away up there lookingfrightened, and there was a bulky object tumbling and floundering downthe steep slope toward us. We got out of the way, and when the objectlanded in the road it proved to be a boy. He had tripped and fallen, andthere was nothing for him to do but trust to luck and take what mightcome.

  When one starts to roll down a place like that, there is no stoppingtill the bottom is reached. Think of people FARMING on a slant which isso steep that the best you can say of it--if you want to be fastidiouslyaccurate--is, that it is a little steeper than a ladder and not quiteso steep as a mansard roof. But that is what they do. Some of the littlefarms on the hillside opposite Heidelberg were stood up "edgeways."The boy was wonderfully jolted up, and his head was bleeding, from cutswhich it had got from small stones on the way.

  Harris and I gathered him up and set him on a stone, and by that timethe men and women had scampered down and brought his cap.

  Men, women, and children flocked out from neighboring cottagesand joined the crowd; the pale boy was petted, and stared at, andcommiserated, and water was brought for him to drink and bathe hisbruises in. And such another clatter of tongues! All who had seen thecatastrophe were describing it at once, and each trying to talk louderthan his neighbor; and one youth of a superior genius ran a little wayup the hill, called attention, tripped, fell, rolled down among us, andthus triumphantly showed exactly how the thing had been done.

  Harris and I were included in all the descriptions; how we were comingalong; how Hans Gross shouted; how we looked up startled; how we sawPeter coming like a cannon-shot; how judiciously we got out of the way,and let him come; and with what presence of mind we picked him up andbrushed him off and set him on a rock when the performance was over.We were as much heroes as anybody else, except Peter, and were sorecognized; we were taken with Peter and the populace to Peter'smother's cottage, and there we ate bread and cheese, and
drank milk andbeer with everybody, and had a most sociable good time; and when we leftwe had a handshake all around, and were receiving and shouting back LEB'WOHL's until a turn in the road separated us from our cordial and kindlynew friends forever.

  We accomplished our undertaking. At half past eight in the eveningwe stepped into Oppenau, just eleven hours and a half out ofAllerheiligen--one hundred and forty-six miles. This is the distance bypedometer; the guide-book and the Imperial Ordinance maps make it onlyten and a quarter--a surprising blunder, for these two authorities areusually singularly accurate in the matter of distances.