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WASHINGTON POST, June 30, 1881, p. 3.
THE LOOKOUT OF THE WORLD.
Mark Twain's Preparations for a Possible Encounter With the Comet.
From the New York Sun.
HARTFORD, June 27. - Desiring to get the opinion of that celebrated amateur astronomer, Mr. Samuel Langhorne Clemens, on the new comet, I visited his house this morning just before daybreak. His passionate fondness for observing celestial phenomena is well known. I was confident that I should find him at his telescope in the turret that caps the northeast corner of his extraordinary mansion. A few well directed pebbles brought him to the window. "Hello!" said he. "Come up; but don't wake the baby. Mind the sixth stair on the second flight; it creaks a Hades of a falsetto." So saying, he let down his door key at the end of a string.
When I reached the turret my friend was no longer inside. He was sitting in an open scuttle leading to the roof, smoking a cigar. With both hands he grasped a long pole. When it grew lighter I perceived that it was a boat hook. His face had a haggard look, and his long legs hung listlessly through the scuttleway. "You look tired, Mark," said I. "Have you been at it all night?"
"All night?" said he, with a groan that consisted of a vowel and two consonant sounds. "All night?" This makes the fourth consecutive night that I haven't closed half an eye. It's wearing on me. This constant responsibility is undermining my constitution. My sense of duty is as strong as the next man's, but sometimes I feel like letting go my grip, even if the condemned planet slides into the revised version of brimstone. All night? Good night! Some other night!"
There was a degree of exasperation in his tone which the circumstances did not seem to warrant. "Well," said I, "there's no occasion for anger. Nobody compels you to sit up here in the malarious morning atmosphere and early dew."
He looked for a moment as if he was going to break out with a torrent of objurgation. Then he mastered his wrath and gazed down upon me with an expression of melancholy pity.
"The tail of that comet," said he, sadly waving the end of his pole toward the northern sky, "is, according to my calculations, a trifle over forty-two million miles long; yet it wouldn't reach more than a quarter way through the skulls of some people that I know. The reckless ignorance of mankind amazes me more and more the older I grow. Why don't I go to bed? Yes, it would be a perfectly easy and natural thing to go to bed, wouldn't it, now? Perhaps I had better go to bed." And he laughed derisively.
"What in the name of common sense are you driving at, Clemens?" I demanded.
"Oh, nothing at all," he replied, with a sardonic wave of his pole. "Nothing except that while the mad revelry of the world goes on below, and the multitude pursues its wonted avocations precisely as though a universal catastrophe was not imminent, one solitary watcher sits up here in his lonely tower, braving danger and incurring great fatigue for the sake of his infatuated fellow beings. There have been examples of such devotion to duty in history, but they are rare, and it has always been left to posterity to recognize them. At the present moment I fill the post of lookout to the planet, young man. You'll find set down in the census the exact number of fellow citizens whose existence depends upon my vigilance. That's all I am driving at!"
I saw now pretty well how things were with my friend. So, to humor him, I gravely remarked: "I always knew your philanthropy, Mark. Yet I must say that this last undertaking surprises me."
He immediately became affable and even confidential. "There is a good deal of the true Christian spirit of self-denial in it, isn't there, now? You see, they are all wrong about the tail. I've ciphered on that tail until I understand every inch of it. It's absurd to suppose that the tail isn't solid, and pretty tough, too. Do you imagine that this comet would go bulging through space at the rate of 200 miles a minute without knocking spots out of a tail that is vapor? Tie a fog bank on to the rear end of the New York and Boston 4 o'clock express, start her off at even forty miles an hour, and see how long your fog bank will travel in company with your locomotive. Yet they ask us to swallow this infernal nonsense about the comet's tail. My observations of this fellow, and also Coggia's comet, seven years ago, have convinced me that comets' tails are fastened on tight, and are of a fibrous and durable nature, like Hartford beefsteak."
"And what do you propose to do with your pole?" I asked.
"Great Caesar!" he exclaimed. "With a tail 42,000,000 miles long, 3,000,000 miles thick, and touch as whip leather, whisking about in the wake of that piratical craft every time she tacks overhead, don't you see the necessity of keeping a cool-headed and muscular man on deck her to fend off, in case the cussed thing whisks this way?"