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Chapter 23

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

"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?"



"Well, I've seed people could lay over me thar."


"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

"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

"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?"


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

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.

Mark Twain