Home | Quotations | Newspaper Articles | Special Features | Links | Search


July 7, 1867

A Reminiscence of Artemus Ward

I had never seen him before. He brought letters of introduction from mutual friends in San Francisco, and by invitation I breakfasted with him. It was almost religion, there in the silver mines, to precede such a meal with whisky cocktails. Artemus, with the true cosmopolitan instinct, always deferred the customs of the country he was in, and so he ordered three of those abominations. Hingston was present. I am a match for nearly any beverage you can mention except a whisky-cocktail, and therefore I said I would rather not drink one. I said it would go right to my head and confuse me so I would be in a hopeless tangle in ten minutes. I did not want to act like a lunatic before strangers. But Artemus gently insisted, and I drank the treasonable mixture under protest, and felt all the time that I was doing a thing I might be sorry for. In a minute or two I began to imagine that my ideas were getting clouded. I waited in great anxiety for the conversation to open, with a sort of vague hope that my understanding would prove clear, after all, and my misgivings groundless.

Artemus dropped an unimportant remark or two, and then assumed a look of superhuman earnestness, and made the following astounding speech. He said:

"Now, there is one thing I ought to ask you about before I forget it. You have been here in Silverland -- here in Nevada -- two or three years, and, of course, your position on the daily press has made it necessary for you to go down in the mines and examine them carefully in detail, and therefore you know all about the silver-mining business. Now, what I want to get at is -- is. Well, the way the deposits of ore are made, you know. For instance. Now as I understand it, the vein which contains the silver is sandwiched in between casings of granite, and runs along the ground, and sticks up like a curbstone. Well, take a vein forty feet thick, for example -- or eighty, for that matter, or even a hundred -- say you go down on it with a shaft -- straight down, you know, or with what you call an 'incline' -- maybe you go down five hundred feet, or maybe you don't go down but two hundred -- anyway, you go down -- and all the time this vein grows narrower, when the casings come nearer, or approach each other, as you may say, that is, when they do approach, which of course they do not always do, particularly in cases where the nature of the formation is such that they stand apart wider than they otherwise would, and which geology has failed to account for, although everything in that science goes to prove that, all things being equal, it would, if it did not, or would not, certainly if it did, and then, of course they are. Do not you think it is?"

I said to myself, "Now I just knew how it would be -- that cussed whisky-cocktail has done the business for me; I don't understand any more than a clam." And then I said aloud, "I - I -- that is -- if you don't mind, would you -- would you say that over again? I ought -- "

"O, certainly, certainly. You see I am very unfamiliar with the subject, and perhaps I don't present my case clearly, but I -- "

"No, no -- no, no -- you state it plain enough, but that vile cocktail has muddled me a little. But I will un -- I do understand, for that matter, but I would get the hang of it all the better if you went over it again -- and I'll pay better attention this time."

He said, "Why, what I was after, was this." [Here he became even more fearfully impressive than ever, and emphasized each particular point by checking it off on his finger-ends.] "This vein, or lode, or ledge, or whatever you call it, runs along like a curbstone, runs along between two layers of granite, just the same as if it were a sandwich. Very well. Now, suppose you go down on that, say a thousand feet, or maybe twelve hundred (it don't really matter), before you drift; and then you start your drifts, some of them across the ledge and others along the length of it, where the sulphurets -- I believe they call them sulphurets, though why they should, considering that, so far as I can see, the main dependence of a miner does not so lie as some suppose, but in which it cannot be successfully maintained, wherein the same should not continue while part and parcel of the same and not committed to either in the sense referred to, whereas under different circumstances the most inexperienced among us could not detect it if it were, or might overlook it if it did, or scorn the very idea of such a thing, even though it were palpably demonstrated as such. Am I not right?"

I said, sorrowfully, "I feel ashamed of myself, Mr. Ward. I know I ought to understand you perfectly well -- but you see that infernal whisky-cocktail has got into my head, and now I cannot understand even the simplest proposition. I told you how it would be."

"Oh, don't mind it, don't mind it, the fault was my own, no doubt -- though I did think I was making it clear enough for -- "

"Don't say a word. Clear? Why you stated it as clear as the sun to anybody but an abject idiot, but it's that confounded cocktail that has played the mischief."

"No, now don't say that -- I'll begin all over again, and -- "

"Don't now -- for goodness' sake don't do anything of the kind -- because I tell you my head is in such a condition that I don't believe I could understand the most trifling question a man could ask me."

"Now don't you be afraid. I'll put it so plain this time that you can't help but get the hang of it. We will begin at the very beginning." (Leaning far across the table, with determined impressiveness wrought upon his every feature, and fingers prepared to keep tally of each point as enumerated -- and I leaning forward with painful interest also, resolved to comprehend or perish.) "You know the vein, the ledge, the thing that contains the metal, whereby it constitutes the medium between all other forces whether of present or remote agencies so brought to bear in favor of the former against the latter, or the latter against the former, or all or both, or compromising as far as possible the relative differences existing within the radius whence culminates the several degrees of similarity as to which -- ."

I said, "O blame my wooden head, it ain't any use! -- it ain't any use to try -- I can't understand anything. The plainer you get it, the more I can't get the hang of it."

I heard a suspicious noise behind me, and turned in time to see Hingston dodging behind a newspaper and quaking with a gentle ecstasy of laughter. I looked at Ward again, and he had thrown off his dread solemnity and was laughing also. Then I saw that I had been sold -- that I had been made the victim of a swindle in the way of a string of plausibly-worded sentences that didn't mean anything under the sun.

Artemus Ward was one of the best fellows in the world, and one of the most companionable. It has been said that he was not fluent in conversation, but with the above experience in my mind, I differ.

[Text from Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays, 1852 - 1890, edited by Louis J. Budd.]

Return to New York Sunday Mercury index


Home | Quotations | Newspaper Articles | Special Features | Links | Search