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November 18, 1865

"Mark Twain" on the Launch of the Steamer "Capital"



I was just starting off to see the launch of the great steamboat Capital, on Saturday week, when I came across Mulph, Mulff, Muff, Mumph, Murph, Mumf, Murf, Mumford, Mulford, Murphy Nickerson - (he is well known to the public by all these names, and I cannot say which is the right one) - bound on the same errand, He said that if there was one thing he took more delight in than another, it was a steamboat launch; he would walk miles to see one, any day; he had seen a hundred thousand steamboat launches in his time, and hoped he might live to see a hundred thousand more; he knew all about them; knew everything - everything connected with them - said he "had it all down to a scratch;" he could explain the whole process in minute detail; to the uncultivated eye a steamboat-launch presented nothing grand, nothing startling, nothing beautiful, nothing romantic, or awe- inspiring or sublime-but to an optic like his (which saw not the dull outer coating, but the radiant gem it hid from other eyes,) it presented all these- and behold, he had power to lift the veil and display the vision even unto the uninspired. He could do this by word of mouth- by explanation and illustration. Let a man stand by his side, and to him that launch should seem arrayed in the beauty and the glory of enchantment!

This was the man I wanted. I could see that plainly enough. There would be many reporters present at the launch, and the papers would teem with the inevitable old platitudinal trash which this sort of people have compelled to do duty on every occasion like this since Noah launched his ark - but I aspired to higher things. I wanted to write a report which should astonish and delight the whole intellectual world - which should dissect, analyze, and utterly exhaust the subject - which should serve for a model in this species of literature for all time to come. I dropped alongside of Mr. M. M. M. M. M. M. M. M. M. M. Nickerson, and we went to the launch together.

We set out in a steamer whose decks were crowded with persons of all ages, who were happy in their nervous anxiety to behold the novelty of a steamboat launch. I tried not to pity them, but I could not help whispering to myself, "These poor devils will see nothing but some stupid boards and timbers nailed together - a mere soulless hulk - sliding into the water!"

As we approached the spot where the launch was to take place, a gentleman from Reese River, by the name of Thompson, came up, with several friends, and said he had been prospecting on the main deck, and had found an object of interest - a bar. This was all very well, and showed him to be a man of parts - but like many another man who produces a favorable impression by an introductory remark replete with wisdom, he followed it up with a vain and unnecessary question - Would we take a drink? This to me! - This to M. M. M., etc., Nickerson!

We proceeded, two-by-two, arm-in-arm, down to the bar in the nether regions, chatting pleasantly and elbowing the restless multitude. We took pure, cold, health-giving water, with some other things in it, and clinked our glasses together, and were about to drink, when Smith, of Excelsior, drew forth his handkerchief and wiped away a tear; and then, noticing that the action had excited some attention, he explained it by recounting a most affecting incident in the history of a venerated aunt of his - now deceased - and said that, although long years had passed since the touching event he had narrated, he could never take a drink without thinking of the kind-hearted old lady.

Mr. Nickerson blew his nose, and said with deep emotion that it gave him a better opinion of human nature to see a man who had had a good aunt, eternally and forever thinking about her.

This episode reminded Jones, of Mud Springs, of a circumstance which happened many years ago in the home of his childhood, and we held our glasses untouched and rested our elbows on the counter, while we listened with rapt attention to his story.

There was something in it about a good natured, stupid man, and this reminded Thompson of Reese River of a person of the same kind whom he had once fallen in with while travelling through the back-settlements of one of the Atlantic States, and we postponed drinking until he should give us the facts in the case. The hero of the tale had unintentionally created some consternation at a camp-meeting by one of his innocent asinine freaks, and this reminded Mr. M. Nickerson of a reminiscence of his temporary sojourn in the interior of Connecticut some months ago, and again our uplifted glasses were stayed on their way to our lips, and we listened attentively to


[I give the story in Mr. Nickerson's own language.]

There was a fellow travelling around, in that country, (said Mr. Nickerson,) with a moral religious show - a sort of a scriptural panorama - and he hired a wooden-headed old slab to play the piano for him. After the first night's performance, the show- man says:

"My friend, you seem to know pretty much all the tunes there are, and you worry along first-rate. But then didn't you notice that sometimes last night the piece you happened to be playing was a little rough on the proprieties so to speak - didn't seem to jibe with the general gait of the picture that was passing at the time, as it were - was a little foreign to the subject, you know - as if you didn't either trump or follow suit, you understand?"

"Well, no," the fellow said; he hadn't noticed, but it might be; he had played along just as it came handy.

So they put it up that the simple old dummy was to keep his eye on the panorama after that, and as soon as a stunning picture was reeled out, he was to fit it to a dot with a piece of music that would help the audience get the idea of the subject, and warm them up like a camp-meeting revival. That sort of thing would corral their sympathies, the showman said.

There was a big audience that night - mostly middle-aged and old people who belonged to the church and took a strong interest in Bible matters, and the balance were pretty much young bucks and heifers - they always come out strong on panoramas, you know, because it gives them a chance to taste one another's mugs in the dark.

Well, the showman began to swell himself up for his lecture, and the old mud-dobber tackled the piano and run his fingers up and down once or twice to see that she was all right, and the fellows behind the curtain commenced to grind out the panorama. The showman balanced his weight on his right foot, and propped his hands on his hips, and flung his eye over his shoulder at the scenery, and says:
"Ladies and gentlemen, the painting now before you illustrates the beautiful and touching parable of the Prodigal Son. Observe the happy expression just breaking over the features of the poor suffering youth - so worn and weary with his long march: note also the ecstasy beaming from the uplifted countenance of the aged father, and the joy that sparkles in the eyes of the excited group of youths and maidens and seems ready to burst in a welcoming chorus from their lips. The lesson, my friends, is as solemn and instructive as the story is tender and beautiful."

The mud-dobber was all ready, and the second the speech was finished he struck up:

"Oh, we'll all get blind drunk
When Johnny comes marching home!"

Some of the people giggled, and some groaned a little. The showman couldn't say a word. He looked at the piano sharp, but he was all lovely and serene - he didn't know there was anything out of gear.

The panorama moved on, and the showman drummed up his grit and started in fresh:

"Ladies and gentlemen, the fine picture now unfolding itself to your gaze exhibits one of the most notable events in Bible History - our Savior and his disciples upon the Sea of Galilee. How grand, how awe inspiring are the reflections which the subject invokes! What sublimity of faith is revealed to us in this lesson from the sacred writings! The Savior rebukes the angry waves, and walks securely upon the bosom of the deep!"

All around the house they were whispering: "Oh, how lovely! how beautiful!" and the orchestra let himself out again:

"Oh, a life on the ocean wave,
And a home on the rolling deep!"

There was a good deal of honest snickering turned on this time, and considerable groaning, and one or two old deacons got up and went out. The showman gritted his teeth and cursed the piano man to himself, but the fellow sat there like a knot on a log, and seemed to think he was doing first-rate.

After things got quiet, the showman thought he would make one more stagger at it, any how, though his confidence was beginning to get mighty shaky. The supes started the panorama to grinding along again, and he says:

"Ladies and gentlemen, this exquisite painting illustrates the raising of Lazarus from the dead by our Savior. The subject has been handled with rare ability by the artist, and such touching sweetness and tenderness of expression has he thrown into it, that I have known peculiarly sensitive persons to be even affected to tears by looking at it. Observe the half-confused, half-inquiring look, upon the countenance of the awakening Lazarus. Observe, also, the attitude and expression of the Savior, who takes him gently by the sleeve of his shroud with one hand, while he points with the other toward the distant city."

Before anybody could get off an opinion in the case, the innocent old ass at the piano struck up:

"Come rise up, William Ri-i-ley,
And go along with me!"

It was rough on the audience, you bet you. All the solemn old flats got up in a huff to go, and everybody else laughed till the windows rattled.

The showman went down and grabbed the orchestra, and shook him up, and says:

"That lets you out, you know, you chowder-headed old clam! Go to the door-keeper and get your money, and cut your stick! - vamose the ranch! Ladies and gentlemen, circumstances over which I have no control compel me prematurely to dismiss - "

"By George! it was splendid! - come! all hands! let's take a drink!"

It was Phelim O'Flannigan, of San Luis Obispo, who interrupted. I had not seen him before. "What was splendid?" I inquired.

"The launch!"

Our party clinked glasses once more, and drank in respectful silence.


P. S. - You will excuse me from making a model report of the great launch. I was with Mulf Nickerson, who was going to "explain the whole thing to me as clear as glass," but, you see, they launched the boat with such indecent haste, that we never got a chance to see it. It was a great pity, because Mulph Nickerson understands launches as well as any man.

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