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Mark Twain > A Tramp Abroad > Chapter XXIII

A Tramp Abroad

Chapter XXIII


[Nicodemus Dodge and the Skeleton]

We were satisfied that we could walk to Oppenau in
one day, now that we were in practice; so we set out
the next morning after breakfast determined to do it.
It was all the way downhill, and we had the loveliest
summer weather for it. So we set the pedometer and then
stretched away on an easy, regular stride, down through
the cloven forest, drawing in the fragrant breath
of the morning in deep refreshing draughts, and wishing
we might never have anything to do forever but walk
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, or in the scenery, but in the talking.
The walking is good to time the movement of the tongue by,
and to keep the blood and the brain stirred up and active;
the scenery and the woodsy smells are good to bear in upon
a man an unconscious and unobtrusive charm and solace
to eye and soul and sense; but the supreme pleasure comes
from the talk. It is no matter whether one talks wisdom
or nonsense, the case is the same, the bulk of the enjoyment
lies in the wagging of the gladsome jaw and the flapping
of the sympathetic ear.

And what motley variety of subjects a couple of people will
casually rake 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 to keep pegging at a single
topic until it grows tiresome. We discussed everything
we knew, during the first fifteen or twenty minutes,
that morning, and then branched out into the glad, free,
boundless realm of the things we were not certain about.

Harris said that if the best writer in the world once got
the slovenly habit of doubling up his "haves" he could
never get rid of it while he lived. That is to say,
if a man gets the habit of saying "I should have liked
to have known more about it" instead of saying simply
and sensibly, "I should have liked to know more about it,"
that man's disease is incurable. Harris said that his sort
of lapse is to be found in 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's
grammar and in Macaulay. Harris believed that milk-teeth
are commoner in men's mouths than those "doubled-up haves." [1]

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

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

"When our brigade first went into camp on the Potomac,
we used to be brought up standing, occasionally, by an
ear-splitting howl of anguish. That meant that a soldier
was getting a tooth pulled in a tent. But the surgeons
soon changed that; they instituted open-air dentistry.
There never was a howl afterward--that is, from the man
who was having the tooth pulled. At the daily dental
hour there would always be about five hundred soldiers
gathered together in the neighborhood of that dental chair
waiting to see the performance--and help; and the moment
the surgeon took a grip on the candidate's tooth and began
to lift, every one of those five hundred rascals would
clap his hand to his jaw and begin 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 enormous
unanimous caterwaul burst out! With so big and so derisive
an audience as that, a suffer wouldn't emit a sound though
you pulled his head off. The surgeons said that pretty
often a patient was compelled to laugh, in the midst
of his pangs, but that had never caught one crying out,
after the open-air exhibition was instituted."

Dental surgeons suggested doctors, doctors suggested death,
death suggested skeletons--and so, by a logical process
the conversation melted out of one of these subjects
and into the next, until the topic of skeletons raised up
Nicodemus Dodge out of the deep grave in my memory 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 sixteen lounged in one day,
and without removing his hands from the depths
of his trousers pockets or taking off his faded ruin
of a slouch hat, whose broken rim hung limp and ragged
about his eyes and ears like a bug-eaten cabbage leaf,
stared indifferently around, then leaned his hip
against the editor's table, crossed his mighty brogans,
aimed at a distant fly from a crevice in his upper teeth,
laid him low, and said with composure:

"Whar's the boss?"

"I am the boss," said the editor, following this curious
bit of architecture 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 if I kin, 'taint no diffunce what--I'm strong
and hearty, and I don't turn my 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 chance fur 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 as twelve-times-twelve I ain't no slouch.
'Tother side of that is what gits me."

"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 to any CHURCH?"

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

"What is your own religion?"

"Well, boss, you've kind o' got me, there--and yit
you hain't got me so mighty much, nuther. I think 't
if a feller he'ps another feller when he's in trouble,
and don't cuss, and don't do no mean things, nur noth'n'
he ain' no business to do, and don't spell the Saviour's
name with a little g, he ain't runnin' no resks--he's
about as saift as he b'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--he OUGHTN'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 he was 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 and villainous "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 a smoke-house a generation before.
Nicodemus was given this lonely and ghostly den as a bedchamber.

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

"I consider them kind of seeg'yars dangersome,"--and
seemed to suspect nothing. The next evening Nicodemus
waylaid George and poured a bucket of ice-water over him.

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

A third joke was played upon Nicodemus a day or two later--he
walked up the middle aisle of the village church, Sunday night,
with a staring handbill pinned between his shoulders.
The joker spent the remainder of the night, after church,
in the cellar of a deserted house, and Nicodemus sat on
the cellar door till toward breakfast-time to make sure
that the prisoner remembered that if any noise was made,
some rough treatment would be the consequence. The cellar
had two feet of stagnant water in it, and was bottomed
with six inches of soft mud.

But I wander from the point. It was the subject of
skeletons that brought this boy back to my recollection.
Before a very long time had elapsed, the village smarties
began to feel an uncomfortable consciousness of not having
made a very shining success out of their attempts on the
simpleton from "old Shelby." Experimenters grew scarce
and chary. Now the young doctor came to the rescue.
There was delight and applause when he proposed to scare
Nicodemus to death, and explained how he was going to do it.
He had a noble new skeleton--the skeleton of the late
and only local celebrity, Jimmy Finn, the village
drunkard--a grisly piece of property which he had bought
of Jimmy Finn himself, at auction, for fifty dollars,
under great competition, when Jimmy lay very sick in
the tan-yard a fortnight before his death. The fifty
dollars had gone promptly for whiskey and had considerably
hurried up the change of ownership in the skeleton.
The doctor would put Jimmy Finn's skeleton in Nicodemus's
bed!

This was done--about half past ten in the evening.
About Nicodemus's usual bedtime--midnight--the village
jokers came creeping stealthily through 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 dangling his legs contentedly
back and forth, and wheezing the music of "Camptown Races"
out of a paper-overlaid comb which he was pressing
against his mouth; by him lay a new jewsharp, a new top,
and solid india-rubber ball, a handful of painted marbles,
five pounds of "store" candy, and a well-gnawed slab of
gingerbread as big and as thick as a volume of sheet-music.
He had sold the skeleton to a traveling quack for three
dollars and was enjoying the result!

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

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

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

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


Harris and I were included in all the descriptions;
how we were coming along; how Hans Gross shouted;
how we looked up startled; how we saw Peter 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 and brushed 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 so recognized;
we were taken with Peter and the populace to Peter's
mother's cottage, and there we ate bread and cheese,
and drank milk and beer with everybody, and had a most
sociable good time; and when we left we 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 kindly new friends forever.

We accomplished our undertaking. At half past eight
in the evening we stepped into Oppenau, just eleven
hours and a half out of Allerheiligen--one hundred
and forty-six miles. This is the distance by pedometer;
the guide-book and the Imperial Ordinance maps make
it only ten and a quarter--a surprising blunder,
for these two authorities are usually singularly accurate
in the matter of distances.

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