The Complete Works of Mark Twain

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
Mark Twain > Luck > Story



[NOTE.--This is not a fancy sketch. I got it from a clergyman who was
an instructor at Woolwich forty years ago, and who vouched for its truth.

It was at a banquet in London in honour of one of the two or three
conspicuously illustrious English military names of this generation.
For reasons which will presently appear, I will withhold his real name
and titles, and call him Lieutenant-General Lord Arthur Scoresby, V.C.,
K.C.B., etc., etc., etc. What a fascination there is in a renowned name!
There say the man, in actual flesh, whom I had heard of so many thousands
of times since that day, thirty years before, when his name shot suddenly
to the zenith from a Crimean battle-field, to remain for ever celebrated.
It was food and drink to me to look, and look, and look at that demigod;
scanning, searching, noting: the quietness, the reserve, the noble
gravity of his countenance; the simple honesty that expressed itself all
over him; the sweet unconsciousness of his greatness--unconsciousness of
the hundreds of admiring eyes fastened upon him, unconsciousness of the
deep, loving, sincere worship welling out of the breasts of those people
and flowing toward him.

The clergyman at my left was an old acquaintance of mine--clergyman now,
but had spent the first half of his life in the camp and field, and as an
instructor in the military school at Woolwich. Just at the moment I have
been talking about, a veiled and singular light glimmered in his eyes,
and he leaned down and muttered confidentially to me--indicating the hero
of the banquet with a gesture,--'Privately--his glory is an accident--
just a product of incredible luck.'

This verdict was a great surprise to me. If its subject had been
Napoleon, or Socrates, or Solomon, my astonishment could not have been

Some days later came the explanation of this strange remark, and this is
what the Reverend told me.

About forty years ago I was an instructor in the military academy at
Woolwich. I was present in one of the sections when young Scoresby
underwent his preliminary examination. I was touched to the quick with
pity; for the rest of the class answered up brightly and handsomely,
while he--why, dear me, he didn't know anything, so to speak. He was
evidently good, and sweet, and lovable, and guileless; and so it was
exceedingly painful to see him stand there, as serene as a graven image,
and deliver himself of answers which were veritably miraculous for
stupidity and ignorance. All the compassion in me was aroused in his
behalf. I said to myself, when he comes to be examined again, he will be
flung over, of course; so it will be simple a harmless act of charity to
ease his fall as much as I can.

I took him aside, and found that he knew a little of Caesar's history;
and as he didn't know anything else, I went to work and drilled him like
a galley-slave on a certain line of stock questions concerning Caesar
which I knew would be used. If you'll believe me, he went through with
flying colours on examination day! He went through on that purely
superficial 'cram', and got compliments, too, while others, who knew a
thousand times more than he, got plucked. By some strangely lucky
accident--an accident not likely to happen twice in a century--he was
asked no question outside of the narrow limits of his drill.

It was stupefying. Well, although through his course I stood by him,
with something of the sentiment which a mother feels for a crippled
child; and he always saved himself--just by miracle, apparently.

Now of course the thing that would expose him and kill him at last was
mathematics. I resolved to make his death as easy as I could; so I
drilled him and crammed him, and crammed him and drilled him, just on the
line of questions which the examiner would be most likely to use, and
then launched him on his fate. Well, sir, try to conceive of the result:
to my consternation, he took the first prize! And with it he got a
perfect ovation in the way of compliments.

Sleep! There was no more sleep for me for a week. My conscience
tortured me day and night. What I had done I had done purely through
charity, and only to ease the poor youth's fall--I never had dreamed of
any such preposterous result as the thing that had happened. I felt as
guilty and miserable as the creator of Frankenstein. Here was a wooden-
head whom I had put in the way of glittering promotions and prodigious
responsibilities, and but one thing could happen: he and his
responsibilities would all go to ruin together at the first opportunity.

The Crimean war had just broken out. Of course there had to be a war, I
said to myself: we couldn't have peace and give this donkey a chance to
die before he is found out. I waited for the earthquake. It came. And
it made me reel when it did come. He was actually gazetted to a
captaincy in a marching regiment! Better men grow old and gray in the
service before they climb to a sublimity like that. And who could ever
have foreseen that they would go and put such a load of responsibility on
such green and inadequate shoulders? I could just barely have stood it
if they had made him a cornet; but a captain--think of it! I thought my
hair would turn white.

Consider what I did--I who so loved repose and inaction. I said to
myself, I am responsible to the country for this, and I must go along
with him and protect the country against him as far as I can. So I took
my poor little capital that I had saved up through years of work and
grinding economy, and went with a sigh and bought a cornetcy in his
regiment, and away we went to the field.

And there--oh dear, it was awful. Blunders? why, he never did anything
but blunder. But, you see, nobody was in the fellow's secret--everybody
had him focused wrong, and necessarily misinterpreted his performance
every time--consequently they took his idiotic blunders for inspirations
of genius; they did honestly! His mildest blunders were enough to make a
man in his right mind cry; and they did make me cry--and rage and rave
too, privately. And the thing that kept me always in a sweat of
apprehension was the fact that every fresh blunder he made increased the
lustre of his reputation! I kept saying to myself, he'll get so high
that when discovery does finally come it will be like the sun falling out
of the sky.

He went right along up, from grade to grade, over the dead bodies of his
superiors, until at last, in the hottest moment of the battle of....
down went our colonel, and my heart jumped into my mouth, for Scoresby
was next in rank! Now for it, said I; we'll all land in Sheol in ten
minutes, sure.

The battle was awfully hot; the allies were steadily giving way all over
the field. Our regiment occupied a position that was vital; a blunder
now must be destruction. At this critical moment, what does this
immortal fool do but detach the regiment from its place and order a
charge over a neighbouring hill where there wasn't a suggestion of an
enemy! 'There you go!' I said to myself; 'this is the end at last.'

And away we did go, and were over the shoulder of the hill before the
insane movement could be discovered and stopped. And what did we find?
An entire and unsuspected Russian army in reserve! And what happened?
We were eaten up? That is necessarily what would have happened in
ninety-nine cases out of a hundred. But no; those Russians argued that
no single regiment would come browsing around there at such a time. It
must be the entire English army, and that the sly Russian game was
detected and blocked; so they turned tail, and away they went, pell-mell,
over the hill and down into the field, in wild confusion, and we after
them; they themselves broke the solid Russia centre in the field, and
tore through, and in no time there was the most tremendous rout you ever
saw, and the defeat of the allies was turned into a sweeping and splendid
victory! Marshal Canrobert looked on, dizzy with astonishment,
admiration, and delight; and sent right off for Scoresby, and hugged him,
and decorated him on the field in presence of all the armies!

And what was Scoresby's blunder that time? Merely the mistaking his
right hand for his left--that was all. An order had come to him to fall
back and support our right; and instead he fell forward and went over the
hill to the left. But the name he won that day as a marvellous military
genius filled the world with his glory, and that glory will never fade
while history books last.

He is just as good and sweet and lovable and unpretending as a man can
be, but he doesn't know enough to come in when it rains. He has been
pursued, day by day and year by year, by a most phenomenal and
astonishing luckiness. He has been a shining soldier in all our wars for
half a generation; he has littered his military life with blunders, and
yet has never committed one that didn't make him a knight or a baronet or
a lord or something. Look at his breast; why, he is just clothed in
domestic and foreign decorations. Well, sir, every one of them is a
record of some shouting stupidity or other; and, taken together, they are
proof that the very best thing in all this world that can befall a man is
to be born lucky.

Index Index

Other Authors Other Authors

Mark Twain. Copyright 2008,
Contact the webmaster
Disclaimer here. Privacy Policy here.