After half a year's luxurious vagrancy in the islands, I took shipping in
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a sailing vessel, and regretfully returned to San Francisco--a voyage in
every way delightful, but without an incident: unless lying two long
weeks in a dead calm, eighteen hundred miles from the nearest land, may
rank as an incident. Schools of whales grew so tame that day after day
they played about the ship among the porpoises and the sharks without the
least apparent fear of us, and we pelted them with empty bottles for lack
of better sport. Twenty-four hours afterward these bottles would be
still lying on the glassy water under our noses, showing that the ship
had not moved out of her place in all that time. The calm was absolutely
breathless, and the surface of the sea absolutely without a wrinkle.
For a whole day and part of a night we lay so close to another ship that
had drifted to our vicinity, that we carried on conversations with her
passengers, introduced each other by name, and became pretty intimately
acquainted with people we had never heard of before, and have never heard
of since. This was the only vessel we saw during the whole lonely
voyage. We had fifteen passengers, and to show how hard pressed they
were at last for occupation and amusement, I will mention that the
gentlemen gave a good part of their time every day, during the calm, to
trying to sit on an empty champagne bottle (lying on its side), and
thread a needle without touching their heels to the deck, or falling
over; and the ladies sat in the shade of the mainsail, and watched the
enterprise with absorbing interest. We were at sea five Sundays; and
yet, but for the almanac, we never would have known but that all the
other days were Sundays too.
I was home again, in San Francisco, without means and without employment.
I tortured my brain for a saving scheme of some kind, and at last a
public lecture occurred to me! I sat down and wrote one, in a fever of
hopeful anticipation. I showed it to several friends, but they all shook
their heads. They said nobody would come to hear me, and I would make a
humiliating failure of it.
They said that as I had never spoken in public, I would break down in the
delivery, anyhow. I was disconsolate now. But at last an editor slapped
me on the back and told me to "go ahead." He said, "Take the largest
house in town, and charge a dollar a ticket." The audacity of the
proposition was charming; it seemed fraught with practical worldly
wisdom, however. The proprietor of the several theatres endorsed the
advice, and said I might have his handsome new opera-house at half price
--fifty dollars. In sheer desperation I took it--on credit, for
sufficient reasons. In three days I did a hundred and fifty dollars'
worth of printing and advertising, and was the most distressed and
frightened creature on the Pacific coast. I could not sleep--who could,
under such circumstances? For other people there was facetiousness in
the last line of my posters, but to me it was plaintive with a pang when
I wrote it:
"Doors open at 7 1/2. The trouble will begin at 8."
That line has done good service since. Showmen have borrowed it
frequently. I have even seen it appended to a newspaper advertisement
reminding school pupils in vacation what time next term would begin. As
those three days of suspense dragged by, I grew more and more unhappy.
I had sold two hundred tickets among my personal friends, but I feared
they might not come. My lecture, which had seemed "humorous" to me, at
first, grew steadily more and more dreary, till not a vestige of fun
seemed left, and I grieved that I could not bring a coffin on the stage
and turn the thing into a funeral. I was so panic-stricken, at last,
that I went to three old friends, giants in stature, cordial by nature,
and stormy-voiced, and said:
"This thing is going to be a failure; the jokes in it are so dim that
nobody will ever see them; I would like to have you sit in the parquette,
and help me through."
They said they would. Then I went to the wife of a popular citizen, and
said that if she was willing to do me a very great kindness, I would be
glad if she and her husband would sit prominently in the left-hand stage-
box, where the whole house could see them. I explained that I should
need help, and would turn toward her and smile, as a signal, when I had
been delivered of an obscure joke--"and then," I added, "don't wait to
investigate, but respond!"
She promised. Down the street I met a man I never had seen before. He
had been drinking, and was beaming with smiles and good nature. He said:
"My name's Sawyer. You don't know me, but that don't matter. I haven't
got a cent, but if you knew how bad I wanted to laugh, you'd give me a
ticket. Come, now, what do you say?"
"Is your laugh hung on a hair-trigger?--that is, is it critical, or can
you get it off easy?"
My drawling infirmity of speech so affected him that he laughed a
specimen or two that struck me as being about the article I wanted, and I
gave him a ticket, and appointed him to sit in the second circle, in the
centre, and be responsible for that division of the house. I gave him
minute instructions about how to detect indistinct jokes, and then went
away, and left him chuckling placidly over the novelty of the idea.
I ate nothing on the last of the three eventful days--I only suffered.
I had advertised that on this third day the box-office would be opened
for the sale of reserved seats. I crept down to the theater at four in
the afternoon to see if any sales had been made. The ticket seller was
gone, the box-office was locked up. I had to swallow suddenly, or my
heart would have got out. "No sales," I said to myself; "I might have
known it." I thought of suicide, pretended illness, flight. I thought
of these things in earnest, for I was very miserable and scared. But of
course I had to drive them away, and prepare to meet my fate. I could
not wait for half-past seven--I wanted to face the horror, and end it--
the feeling of many a man doomed to hang, no doubt. I went down back
streets at six o'clock, and entered the theatre by the back door.
I stumbled my way in the dark among the ranks of canvas scenery, and
stood on the stage. The house was gloomy and silent, and its emptiness
depressing. I went into the dark among the scenes again, and for an hour
and a half gave myself up to the horrors, wholly unconscious of
everything else. Then I heard a murmur; it rose higher and higher, and
ended in a crash, mingled with cheers. It made my hair raise, it was so
close to me, and so loud.
There was a pause, and then another; presently came a third, and before I
well knew what I was about, I was in the middle of the stage, staring at
a sea of faces, bewildered by the fierce glare of the lights, and quaking
in every limb with a terror that seemed like to take my life away. The
house was full, aisles and all!
The tummult in my heart and brain and legs continued a full minute before
I could gain any command over myself. Then I recognized the charity and
the friendliness in the faces before me, and little by little my fright
melted away, and I began to talk Within three or four minutes I was
comfortable, and even content. My three chief allies, with three
auxiliaries, were on hand, in the parquette, all sitting together, all
armed with bludgeons, and all ready to make an onslaught upon the
feeblest joke that might show its head. And whenever a joke did fall,
their bludgeons came down and their faces seemed to split from ear to
Sawyer, whose hearty countenance was seen looming redly in the centre of
the second circle, took it up, and the house was carried handsomely.
Inferior jokes never fared so royally before. Presently I delivered a
bit of serious matter with impressive unction (it was my pet), and the
audience listened with an absorbed hush that gratified me more than any
applause; and as I dropped the last word of the clause, I happened to
turn and catch Mrs.--'s intent and waiting eye; my conversation with her
flashed upon me, and in spite of all I could do I smiled. She took it
for the signal, and promptly delivered a mellow laugh that touched off
the whole audience; and the explosion that followed was the triumph of
the evening. I thought that that honest man Sawyer would choke himself;
and as for the bludgeons, they performed like pile-drivers. But my poor
little morsel of pathos was ruined. It was taken in good faith as an
intentional joke, and the prize one of the entertainment, and I wisely
let it go at that.
All the papers were kind in the morning; my appetite returned; I had a
abundance of money. All's well that ends well.