Some days ago, in this second month of 1900, a friend made an afternoon call upon me here in London
. We are of that age when men who are smoking away their time in chat do not talk quite so much about the pleasantnesses of life as about its exasperations. By and by this friend began to abuse the War Office
. It appeared that he had a friend who had been inventing something which could be made very useful to the soldiers
in South Africa
. It was a light and very cheap and durable boot, which would remain dry in wet weather, and keep its shape and firmness. The inventor wanted to get the government’s attention called to it, but he was an unknown man and knew the great officials would pay no heed to a message from him.
“This shows that he was an ass—like the rest of us,” I said, interrupting. “Go on.”
“But why have you said that? The man spoke the truth.”
“The man spoke a lie. Go on.”
“I will prove that he—”
“You can’t prove anything of the kind. I am very old and very wise
. You must not argue with me: it is irreverent and offensive. Go on.”
“Very well. But you will presently see. I am not unknown, yet even I was not able to get the man’s message to the Director-General of the Shoe-Leather Department.”
“This is another lie. Pray go on.”
“But I assure you on my honor that I failed.”
“Oh, certainly. I knew that. You didn’t need to tell me.”
“Then where is the lie?”
“It is in your intimation that you were not able to get the Director-General’s immediate attention to the man’s message
. It is a lie, because you could have gotten his immediate attention to it.”
“I tell you I couldn’t. In three months I haven’t accomplished it.”
“Certainly. Of course. I could know that without your telling me. You could have gotten his immediate attention if you had gone at it in a sane way; and so could the other man.”
“I did go at it in a sane way.”
“How do you know? What do you know about the circumstances?”
“Nothing at all. But you didn’t go at it in a sane way. That much I know to a certainty.”
“How can you know it, when you don’t know what method I used?”
“I know by the result. The result is perfect proof. You went at it in an insane
way. I am very old and very w—”
“Oh, yes, I know. But will you let me tell you how I proceeded? I think that will settle whether it was insanity or not.”
“No; that has already been settled. But go on, since you so desire to expose yourself. I am very o—”
“Certainly, certainly. I sat down and wrote a courteous
letter to the Director-General of the Shoe-Leather Department, explai—”
“Do you know him personally?”
“You have scored one for my side. You began insanely. Go on.”
“In the letter I made the great value and inexpensiveness of the invention
clear, and offered to—”
“Call and see him? Of course you did. Score two against yourself. I am v—”
“He didn’t answer for three days.”
“Sent me three gruff lines thanking me for my trouble, and proposing—”
“That’s it—proposing nothing. Then I wrote him more elaborately and—”
“—and got no answer. At the end of a week I wrote and asked, with some touch of asperity, for an answer to that letter.”
“Four Go on.”
“An answer came back saying the letter had not been received, and asking for a copy. I traced the letter through the post-office
, and found that it had been received; but I sent a copy
and said nothing. Two weeks passed without further notice of me. In the mean time I gradually got myself cooled down to a polite-letter temperature
. Then I wrote and proposed an interview for next day, and said that if I did not hear from him in the mean time I should take his silence for assent.”
“I arrived at twelve sharp, and was given a chair in the anteroom and told to wait. I waited until half-past one; then I left, ashamed and angry. I waited another week, to cool down; then I wrote and made another appointment with him for next day noon.”
“He answered, assenting. I arrived promptly, and kept a chair warm until half-past two. I left then, and shook the dust of that place from my shoes for good and all. For rudeness, inefficiency, incapacity, indifference to the army
’s interests, the Director-General of the Shoe-Leather Department of the War Office is, in my o—”
“Peace! I am very old and very wise, and have seen many seemingly intelligent people who hadn’t common sense enough to go at a simple and easy thing like this in a common-sense way. You are not a curiosity to me; I have personally known millions and billions like you. You have lost three months quite unnecessarily; the inventor has lost three months; the soldiers have lost three—nine months altogether. I will now read you a little tale which I wrote last night. Then you will call on the Director-General at noon to-morrow and transact your business.”
“Splendid! Do you know him?”
“No; but listen to the tale.”
Summer was come, and all the strong were bowed by the burden of the awful heat, and many of the weak were prostrate and dying. For weeks the army had been wasting away with a plague of dysentery, that scourge of the soldier, and there was but little help. The doctors were in despair; such efficacy as their drugs and their science had once had—and it was not much at its best—was a thing of the past, and promised to remain so.
The Emperor commanded the physicians of greatest renown to appear before him for a consultation, for he was profoundly disturbed. He was very severe with them, and called them to account for letting his soldiers die: and asked them if they knew their trade, or didn’t; and were they properly healers, or merely assassins? Then the principal assassin, who was also the oldest doctor in the land and the most venerable in appearance, answered and said:
“We have done what we could, your Majesty, and for a good reason it has been little. No medicine and no physician can cure that disease; only nature and a good constitution can do it. I am old, and I know. No doctor and no medicine can cure it—I repeat it and I emphasize it. Sometimes they seem to help nature a little,—a very little,—but as a rule, they merely do damage.”
The Emperor was a profane and passionate man, and he deluged the doctors with rugged and unfamiliar names, and drove them from his presence.
Within a day he was attacked by that fell disease himself. The news flew from mouth to mouth, and carried consternation with it over all the land.
All the talk was about this awful disaster, and there was general depression, for few had hope. The Emperor himself was very melancholy, and sighed and said:
“The will of God be done. Send for the assassins again, and let us get over with it.”
They came, and felt his pulse and looked at his tongue, and fetched the drug store and emptied it into him, and sat down patiently to wait—for they were not paid by the job, but by the year.
Tommy was sixteen and a bright lad, but he was not in society. His rank was too humble for that, and his employment too base. In fact, it was the lowest of all employments, for he was second in command to his father, who emptied cesspools and drove a night-cart. Tommy’s closest friend was Jimmy the chimney-sweep, a slim little fellow of fourteen, who was honest and industrious, and had a good heart, and supported a bedridden mother by his dangerous and unpleasant trade.
About a month after the Emperor fell ill, these two lads met one evening about nine. Tommy was on his way to his night-work, and of course was not in his Sundays, but in his dreadful work-clothes, and not smelling very well. Jimmy was on his way home from his day’s labor, and was blacker than any other object imaginable, and he had his brushes on his shoulder and his soot-bag at his waist, and no feature of his sable face was distinguishable except his lively eyes.
They sat down on the curbstone to talk; and of course it was upon the one subject—the nation’s calamity, the Emperor’s disorder. Jimmy was full of a great project, and burning to unfold it. He said:
“Tommy, I can cure his Majesty. I know how to do it.”
Tommy was surprised.
“Why, you little fool, the best doctors can’t.”
“I don’t care: I can do it. I can cure him in fifteen minutes.”
“Oh, come off! What are you giving me?”
“The facts—that’s all.”
Jimmy’s manner was so serious that it sobered Tommy, who said:
“I believe you are in earnest, Jimmy. Are you in earnest?”
“I give you my word.”
“What is the plan? How’ll you cure him?”
“Tell him to eat a slice of ripe watermelon.”
It caught Tommy rather suddenly, and he was shouting with laughter at the absurdity of the idea before he could put on a stopper. But he sobered down when he saw that Jimmy was wounded. He patted Jimmy’s knee affectionately, not minding the soot, and said:
“I take the laugh all back. I didn’t mean any harm, Jimmy, and I won’t do it again. You see, it seemed so funny, because wherever there’s a soldier-camp and dysentery, the doctors always put up a sign saying anybody caught bringing watermelons there will be flogged with the cat till he can’t stand.”
“I know it—the idiots!” said Jimmy, with both tears and anger in his voice. “There’s plenty of watermelons, and not one of all those soldiers ought to have died.”
“But, Jimmy, what put the notion into your head?”
“It isn’t a notion; it’s a fact. Do you know that old gray-headed Zulu? Well, this long time back he has been curing a lot of our friends, and my mother has seen him do it, and so have I. It takes only one or two slices of melon, and it don’t make any difference whether the disease is new or old; it cures it.”
“It’s very odd. But, Jimmy, if it is so, the Emperor ought to be told of it.”
“Of course; and my mother has told people, hoping they could get the word to him; but they are poor working-folks and ignorant, and don’t know how to manage it.”
“Of course they don’t, the blunderheads,” said Tommy, scornfully. “I’ll get it to him!”
“You? You night-cart polecat!” And it was Jimmy’s turn to laugh. But Tommy retorted sturdily:
“Oh, laugh if you like; but I’ll do it!”
It had such an assured and confident sound that it made an impression, and Jimmy asked gravely:
“Do you know the Emperor?”
“Do I know him? Why, how you talk! Of course I don’t.”
“Then how’ll you do it?”
“It’s very simple and very easy. Guess. How would you do it, Jimmy?”
“Send him a letter. I never thought of it till this minute. But I’ll bet that’s your way.”
“I’ll bet it ain’t. Tell me, how would you send it?”
“Why, through the mail, of course.”
Tommy overwhelmed him with scoffings, and said:
“Now, don’t you suppose every crank in the empire is doing the same thing? Do you mean to say you haven’t thought of that?”
“Well—no,” said Jimmy, abashed.
“You might have thought of it, if you weren’t so young and inexperienced. Why, Jimmy, when even a common general, or a poet, or an actor, or any-body that’s a little famous gets sick, all the cranks in the kingdom load up the mails with certain-sure quack cures for him. And so, what’s bound to happen when it’s the Emperor?”
“I suppose it’s worse,” said Jimmy, sheepishly.
“Well, I should think so! Look here, Jimmy: every single night we cart off as many as six loads of that kind of letters from the back yard of the palace, where they’re thrown. Eighty thousand letters in one night! Do you reckon anybody reads them? Sho! not a single one. It’s what would happen to your letter if you wrote it—which you won’t, I reckon?”
“No,” sighed Jimmy, crushed.
“But it’s all right, Jimmy. Don’t you fret: there’s more than one way to skin a cat. I’ll get the word to him.”
“Oh, if you only could, Tommy, I should love you forever!”
“I’ll do it, I tell you. Don’t you worry; you depend on me.”
“Indeed I will, Tommy, for you do know so much. You’re not like other boys: they never know anything. How’ll you manage, Tommy?”
Tommy was greatly pleased. He settled himself for reposeful talk, and said:
“Do you know that ragged poor thing that thinks he’s a butcher because he goes around with a basket and sells cat’s meat and rotten livers? Well, to begin with, I’ll tell him.”
Jimmy was deeply disappointed and chagrined, and said:
“Now, Tommy, it’s a shame to talk so. You know my heart’s in it, and it’s not right.”
Tommy gave him a love-pat, and said:
“Don’t you be troubled, Jimmy. I know what I’m about. Pretty soon you’ll see. That half-breed butcher will tell the old woman that sells chestnuts at the corner of the lane—she’s his closest friend, and I’ll ask him to; then, by request, she’ll tell her rich aunt that keeps the little fruit-shop on the corner two blocks above; and that one will tell her particular friend, the man that keeps the game-shop; and he will tell his friend the sergeant of police; and the sergeant will tell his captain, and the captain will tell the magistrate, and the magistrate will tell his brother-in-law the county judge, and the county judge will tell the sheriff, and the sheriff will tell the Lord Mayor, and the Lord Mayor will tell the President of the Council, and the President of the Council will tell the—”
“By George, but it’s a wonderful scheme, Tommy! How ever did you—”
“—Rear-Admiral, and the Rear will tell the Vice, and the Vice will tell the Admiral of the Blue, and the Blue will tell the Red, and the Red will tell the White, and the White will tell the First Lord of the Admiralty, and the First Lord will tell the Speaker of the House, and the Speaker—”
“Go it, Tommy; you’re ’most there!”
“—will tell the Master of the Hounds, and the Master will tell the Head Groom of the Stables, and the Head Groom will tell the Chief Equerry, and the Chief Equerry will tell the First Lord in Waiting, and the First Lord will tell the Lord High Chamber-lain, and the Lord High Chamberlain will tell the Master of the Household, and the Master of the Household will tell the little pet page that fans the flies off the Emperor, and the page will get down on his knees and whisper it to his Majesty—and the game’s made!”
“I’ve got to get up and hurrah a couple of times, Tommy. It’s the grandest idea that ever was. What ever put it into your head?”
“Sit down and listen, and I’ll give you some wisdom—and don’t you ever forget it as long as you live. Now, then, who is the closest friend you’ve got, and the one you couldn’t and wouldn’t ever refuse anything in the world to?”
“Why, it’s you, Tommy. You know that.”
“Suppose you wanted to ask a pretty large favor of the cat’s-meat man. Well, you don’t know him, and he would tell you to go to thunder, for he is that kind of a person; but he is my next best friend after you, and would run his legs off to do me a kindness—any kindness, he don’t care what it is. Now, I’ll ask you: which is the most common-sensible—for you to go and ask him to tell the chestnut-woman about your watermelon cure, or for you to get me to do it for you?”
“To get you to do it for me, of course. I wouldn’t ever have thought of that, Tommy; it’s splendid!”
“It’s a philosophy, you see. Mighty good word—and large. It goes on this idea: everybody in the world, little and big, has one special friend, a friend that he’s glad to do favors to—not sour about it, but glad—glad clear to the marrow. And so, I don’t care where you start, you can get at anybody’s ear that you want to—I don’t care how low you are, nor how high he is. And it’s so simple: you’ve only to find the first friend, that is all; that ends your part of the work. He finds the next friend himself, and that one finds the third, and so on, friend after friend, link after link, like a chain; and you can go up it or down it, as high as you like or as low as you like.”
“It’s just beautiful, Tommy.”
“It’s as simple and easy as a-b-c; but did you ever hear of anybody trying it? No; everybody is a fool. He goes to a stranger without any introduction, or writes him a letter, and of course he strikes a cold wave—and serves him gorgeously right. Now, the Emperor don’t know me, but that’s no matter—he’ll eat his watermelon to-morrow. You’ll see. Hi-hi—stop! It’s the cat’s-meat man. Good-by, Jimmy; I’ll overtake him.”
He did overtake him, and said:
“Say, will you do me a favor?”
“Will I? Well, I should say! I’m your man. Name it, and see me fly!”
“Go tell the chestnut-woman to put down every-thing and carry this message to her first-best friend, and tell the friend to pass it along.” He worded the message, and said, “Now, then, rush!”
The next moment the chimney-sweep’s word to the Emperor was on its way.
The next evening, toward midnight, the doctors sat whispering together in the imperial sick-room, and they were in deep trouble, for the Emperor was in very bad case. They could not hide it from themselves that every time they emptied a fresh drugstore into him he got worse. It saddened them, for they were expecting that result. The poor emaciated Emperor lay motionless, with his eyes, closed, and the page that was his darling was fanning the flies away and crying softly. Presently the boy heard the silken rustle of a portière, and turned and saw the Lord High Great Master of the Household peering in at the door and excitedly motioning to him to come. Lightly and swiftly the page tiptoed his way to his dear and worshiped friend the Master, who said:
“Only you can persuade him, my child, and oh, don’t fail to do it! Take this, make him eat it, and he is saved.”
“On my head be it. He shall eat it!”
It was a couple of great slices of ruddy, fresh watermelon.
The next morning the news flew everywhere that the Emperor was sound and well again, and had hanged the doctors. A wave of joy swept the land, and frantic preparations were made to illuminate.
After breakfast his Majesty sat meditating. His gratitude was unspeakable, and he was trying to devise a reward rich enough to properly testify it to his benefactor. He got it arranged in his mind, and called the page, and asked him if he had invented that cure. The boy said no—he got it from the Master of the Household.
He was sent away, and the Emperor went to devising again. The Master was an earl; he would make him a duke, and give him a vast estate which belonged to a member of the Opposition. He had him called, and asked him if he was the inventor of the remedy. But the Master was an honest man, and said he got it of the Grand Chamberlain. He was sent away, and the Emperor thought some more. The Chamberlain was a viscount; he would make him an earl, and give him a large income. But the Chamberlain referred him to the First Lord in Waiting, and there was some more thinking; his Majesty thought out a smaller reward. But the First Lord in Waiting referred him back further, and he had to sit down and think out a further and becomingly and suitably smaller reward.
Then, to break the tediousness of the inquiry and hurry the business, he sent for the Grand High Chief Detective, and commanded him to trace the cure to the bottom, so that he could properly reward his benefactor.
At nine in the evening the High Chief Detective brought the word. He had traced the cure down to a lad named Jimmy, a chimney-sweep. The Emperor said, with deep feeling:
“Brave boy, he saved my life, and shall not regret it!”
“There—do you get the idea?”
“I am obliged to admit that I do. And it will be as you have said. I will transact the business tomorrow. I intimately know the Director-General’s nearest friend. He will give me a note of introduction, with a word to say my matter is of real importance to the government. I will take it along, without an appointment, and send it in, with my card, and I shan’t have to wait so much as half a minute.”
That turned out true to the letter, and the government adopted the boots.
-- Mark Twain