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Answers to Correspondents II

Mark Twain

"A RITHMETICUS," Virginia, Nevada. -- "If it would take a cannon ball 3 seconds to travel four miles, and 3 seconds to travel the next four, and 3 seconds to travel the next four, and if its rate of progress continued to diminish in the same ratio, how long would it take lt to go fifteen hundred millions of miles?"

I don`t know.

"AMBITIOUS LEARNER," Oakland. -- Yes, you are right -- America was not discovered by Alexander Selkirk.

"DISCARDED LOVER." -- "I loved, and still love the beautiful Edwitha Howard, and intended to marry her. Yet during my temporary absence at Benicia, last week, alas! she married Jones. Is my happiness to be thus blasted for life? Have I no redress?"

Of course you have. All the law, written and unwritten, is on your side. The intention and not the act constitutes crime -- in other words, constitutes the deed. If you call your bosom friend a fool, and intend it for an insult, it is an insult; but if you do it playfully, and meaning no insult, it is not an insult. If you discharge a pistol accidentally, and kill a man, you can go free, for you have done no murder; but if you try to kill a man, and manifestly intend to kill him, but fail utterly to do it, the law still holds that the intention constituted the crime, and you are guilty of murder. Ergo, if you had married Edwitha accidentally, and without really intending to do it, you would not actually be married to her at all, because the act of marriage could not be complete without the intention. And ergo, in the strict spirit of the law, since you deliberately intended to marry Edwitha, and didn`t do it, you are married to her all the same -- because, as I said before, the intention constitutes the crime. It is as clear as day that Edwitha is your wife, and your redress lies in taking a club and mutilating Jones with it as much as you can. Any man has a right to protect his own wife from the advances of other men. But you have another alternative -- you were married to Edwitha first, because of your deliberate intention, and now you can prosecute her for bigamy, in subsequently marrying Jones. But there is another phase in this complicated case: You intended to marry Edwitha, and consequently, according to law, she is your wife -- there is no getting around that; but she didn`t marry you, and if she never intended to marry you, you are not her husband, of course. Ergo, in marrying Jones, she was guilty of bigamy, because she was the wife of another man at the time; which is all very well as far as it goes -- but then, don`t you see, she had no other husband when she married Jones, and consequently she was not guilty of bigamy. Now, according to this view of the case, Jones married a spinster, who was a widow at the same time and another man`s wife at the same time, and yet who had no husband and never had one, and never had any intention of getting married, and therefore, of course, never had been married; and by the same reasoning you are a bachelor, because you have never been any one`s husband; and a married man, because you have a wife living; and to all intents and purposes a widower, because you have been deprived of that wife; and a consummate ass for going off to Benicia in the first place, while things were so mixed. And by this time I have got myself so tangled up in the intricacies of this extraordinary case that I shall have to give up any further attempt to advise you -- I might get confused and fail to make myself understood. I think I could take up the argument where I left off, and by following it closely awhile, perhaps I could prove to your satisfaction, either that you never existed at all, or that you are dead now, and consequently don`t need the faithless Edwitha -- I think I could do that, if it would afford you any comfort.

"PERSECUTED UNFORTUNATE." -- You say you owe six months` board, and you have no money to pay it with, and your landlord keeps harassing you about it, and you have made all the excuses and explanations possible, and now you are at a loss what to say to him in future. Well, it is a delicate matter to offer advice in a case like this, but your distress impels me to make a suggestion, at least, since I can not venture to do more. When he next importunes you, how would it do to take him impressively by the hand and ask, with simulated emotion, "Monsieur Jean, votre chien, comme se porteil?" Doubtless that is very bad French, but you will find that it will answer just as well as the unadulterated article.

"ARTHUR AUGUSTUS." -- No, you are wrong; that is the proper way to throw a brickbat or a tomahawk; but it doesn`t answer so well for a bouquet; you will hurt somebody if you keep it up. Turn your nosegay upside down, take it by the stems, and toss it with an upward sweep. Did you ever pitch quoits? that is the idea. The practice of recklessly heaving immense solid bouquets, of the general size and weight of prize cabbages, from the dizzy altitude of the galleries, is dangerous and very reprehensible. Now, night before last, at the Academy of Music, just after Signorina Sconcia had finished that exquisite melody, "The Last Rose of Summer," one of these floral pile-drivers came cleaving down through the atmosphere of applause, and if she hadn`t deployed suddenly to the right, it would have driven her into the door like a shingle-nail. Of course that bouquet was well meant; but how would you have liked to have been the target? A sincere compliment is always grateful to a lady, so long as you don`t try to knock her down with it.

"YOUNG MOTHER." -- And so you think a baby is a thing of beauty and a joy forever? Well, the idea is pleasing, but not original; every cow thinks the same of its own calf. Perhaps the cow may not think it so elegantly, but still she thinks it, nevertheless. I honor the cow for it. We all honor this touching maternal instinct wherever we find it, be it in the home of luxury or in the humble cow-shed. But really, madam, when I come to examine the matter in all its bearings, I find that the correctness of your assertion does not manifest itself in all cases. A sore-faced baby, with a neglected nose, can not be conscientiously regarded as a thing of beauty; and inasmuch as babyhood spans but three short years, no baby is competent to be a joy "forever." It pains me thus to demolish two thirds of your pretty sentiment in a single sentence; but the position I hold in this chair requires that I shall not permit you to deceive and mislead the public with your plausible figures of speech. I know a female baby, aged eighteen months, in this city, which can not hold out as a "joy" twenty-four hours on a stretch, let alone "forever." And it possesses some of the most remarkable eccentricities of character and appetite that have ever fallen under my notice. I will set down here a statement of this infant`s operations, (conceived, planned, and carried out by itself; and without suggestion or assistance from its mother or any one else,) during a single day; and what I shall say can be substantiated by the sworn testimony of witnesses.

It commenced by eating one dozen large blue-mass pills, box and all; then it fell down a flight of stairs, and arose with a bruised and purple knot on its forehead, after which it proceeded in quest of further refreshment and amusement. It found a glass trinket ornamented with brasswork -- mashed up and ate the glass, and then swallowed the brass. Then it drank about twenty drops of laudanum, and more than a dozen table-spoonfuls of strong spirits of camphor. The reason why it took no more laudanum was because there was no more to take. After this it lay down on its back, and shoved five or six inches of a silver-headed whalebone cane down its throat; got it fast there, and it was all its mother could do to pull the cane out again, without pulling out some of the child with it. Then, being hungry for glass again, it broke up several wine glasses, and fell to eating and swallowing the fragments, not minding a cut or two. Then it ate a quantity of butter, pepper, salt, and California matches, actually taking a spoonful of butter, a spoonful of salt, a spoonful of pepper, and three or four lucifer matches at each mouthful. (I will remark here that this thing of beauty likes painted German lucifers, and eats all she can get of them; but she infinitely prefers California matches, which I regard as a compliment to our home manufactures of more than ordinary value, coming, as it does, from one who is too young to flatter.) Then she washed her head with soap and water, and afterward ate what soap was left, and drank as much of the suds as she had room for; after which she sallied forth and took the cow familiarly by the tail, and got kicked heels over head. At odd times during the day, when this joy forever happened to have nothing particular on hand, she put in the time by climbing up on places, and falling down off them, uniformly damaging herself in the operation. As young as she is, she speaks many words tolerably distinctly; and being plain-spoken in other respects, blunt and to the point, she opens conversation with all strangers, male or female, with the same formula, "How do, Jim?" Not being familiar with the ways of children, it is possible that I have been magnifying into matter of surprise things which may not strike any one who is familiar with infancy as being at all astonishing. However, I can not believe that such is the case, and so I repeat that my report of this baby`s performances is strictly true; and if any one doubts it, I can produce the child. I will further engage that she will devour any thing that is given her, (reserving to myself only the right to exclude anvils,) and fall down from any place to which she may be elevated, (merely stipulating that her preference for alighting on her head shall be respected, and, therefore, that the elevation chosen shall be high enough to enable her to accomplish this to her satisfaction.) But I find I have wandered from my subject; so, without further argument, I will reiterate my conviction that not all babies are things of beauty and joys forever.

"ARITHMETICUS," Virginia, Nevada. -- "I am an enthusiastic student of mathematics, and it is so vexatious to me to find my progress constantly impeded by these mysterious arithmetical technicalities. Now do tell me what the difference is between geometry and conchology?"

Here you come again, with your diabolical arithmetical conundrums, when I am suffering death with a cold in the head. If you could have seen the expression of ineffable scorn that darkened my countenance a moment ago and was instantly split from the center in every direction like a fractured looking-glass by my last sneeze, you never would have written that disgraceful question. Conchology is a science which has nothing to do with mathematics; it relates only to shells. At the same time, however, a man who opens oysters for a hotel, or shells a fortified town, or sucks eggs, is not, strictly speaking, a conchologist -- a fine stroke of sarcasm, that, but it will be lost on such an intellectual clam as you. Now compare conchology and geometry together, and you will see what the difference is, and your question will be answered. But don`t torture me with any more of your ghastly arithmetical horrors (for I do detest figures any how) until you know I am rid of my cold. I feel the bitterest animosity toward you at this moment -- bothering me in this way, when I can do nothing but sneeze and swear and snort pocket-handkerchiefs to atoms. If I had you in range of my nose, now, I would blow your brains out.

"SOCRATES MURPHY." -- You speak of having given offense to a gentleman at the opera by unconsciously humming an air which the tenor was singing at the time. Now, part of that is a deliberate falsehood. You were not doing it "unconsciously;" no man does such a mean, vulgar, egotistical thing as that unconsciously. You were doing it to "show off;" you wanted the people around you to know you had been to operas before, and to think you were not such an ignorant, self-conceited, supercilious ass as you looked. I can tell you Arizona opera-sharps, any time; you prowl around beer cellars and listen to some howling-dervish of a Dutchman exterminating an Italian air, and then you come into the Academy and prop yourself up against the wall with the stuffy aspect and the imbecile leer of a clothing store dummy, and go to droning along about half an octave below the tenor, and disgusting every body in your neighborhood with your beery strains. [N. B. -- If this rough-shod eloquence of mine touches you on a raw spot occasionally, recollect that I am talking for your good, Murphy, and that I am simplifying my language so as to bring it clearly within the margin of your comprehension; it might be gratifying to you to be addressed as if you were an Oxford graduate, but then you wouldn`t understand it, you know.] You have got another abominable habit, my sage-brush amateur. When one of those Italian footmen in British uniform comes in and sings, "O tol de rol! -- O Signo-o-o-ra! -- loango -- congo -- Venezue-e-e-la! whack fol de rol!" (which means, "O noble madame! here`s one of them dukes from the palace, out here, come to borrow a dollar and a half,") you always stand with expanded eyes and mouth, and one pile-driver uplifted, and your sprawling hands held apart in front of your face, like a couple of canvas-covered hams, and when he gets almost through, how you do uncork your pent-up enthusiasm, and applaud with hoof and palm! You have it pretty much to yourself, and then you look sheepish when you find every body staring at you. But how very idiotic you do look when something really fine is sung -- you generally keep quiet, then. Never mind, though, Murphy, entire audiences do things at the opera that they have no business to do; for instance, they never let one of those thousand-dollar singers finish -- they always break in with their ill-timed applause, just as he or she, as the case may be, is preparing to throw all his or her concentrated sweetness into the final strain, and so all that sweetness is lost. Write me again, Murphy, I shall always be happy to hear from you.