Abroad with Mark Twain and Eugene Field/The Funniest Speech Mark Ever Heard


"The funniest thing I ever heard was chirped right here in this neighborhood," said Mark Twain, snuggling down in his big armchair before the fire, which wasn't blazing, and "didn't mean to—without kerosene" (he told the maid, warning her not to let the "Missus" know).

The "neighborhood" was Tedworth Square, London, "quite the other side of Mayfair," and leading to some queer streetlets and lanes.

"London's Fifth Avenues," mused Mark, "remind me of a sable coat (such as Pauline Bonaparte used to wear) edged with cat-skin: There are always Hell-kitchens within hailing distance.

"Well, at that time my girls had a friend living in Clapham, and nightly she walked me ten or more blocks to her bus through one of those Hell-kitchens lined with fried-fish shops and other ill-smelling emporiums for acquisitioning lucre."

He turned to an English friend:

"Maybe lined isn't correct, for the fish shops were all on one side of the lane, and naturally I ambled along the other. I thought I was safe there, but of course I wasn't, for the smells zigzagged across the pavement and followed me like a rotten conscience. My haven of safety, or comparative safety, from the rancid oil compost was an undertaker's shop at the lane's extreme end. When I got there, I used to hoist up my coat-tails and skip across the street right into the Public 'Ouse opposite for a Scotch. Naturally I took more or less interest in that cemetery-correspondence school. From a notice posted, I learned that it was under 'new management'—I call that an ingenious appeal for corpses, don't you?

"Well, it wasn't merely an office, the carpentry was right at the tail of the roll topper; there, night after night, an old, sad-faced man sat, looking for customers. Now, the English metropolis is reputed the healthiest city in the world, which proves that the legend about cleanliness being nearest to godliness is blooming rot, for London is ten times dirtier than Berlin, seven and a half times dirtier than New York and six times dirtier than the best parts of Paris. Anyhow, that man-hyena, hungry for worm-food, didn't enjoy the low rate of mortality one single bit. I could see that every time I eyed him, and I lamped him regularly before I waltzed into the gin-mill to drown the fried-fish smell."

"And did one Scotch suffice for the operation?" asked Mr. Bell.

Mark looked at Mrs. Clemens and lied brazenly: "Yes, of course." But as she had risen to go out and was walking toward the door, he added in an undertone: "One Scotch was like taking a bottle of perfume from the ten-cent store into a glue factory to paralyze the Cologne smell of a four-acre establishment of that sort."

"To resume," resumed Mark, "seeing each other nightly for a week or a week and a half, that undertaker chap and this here yellow journalist of literature got on famously, and our acquaintance, though by eyesight only, gradually blossomed into real brotherhood. Whenever I clapped eyes on the poor devil, I used to think: I do wish some one would have the heart to die. Why don't the Gloomy Dean or His Grace of Canterbury oblige the poor shark?

"And no doubt, observing my gray locks and general decrepitude, he calculated: 'Time for him to kick the bucket—hope his wife will give me a chance to measure him for a ten-guinea wooden coat—yes, he looks good for ten guineas.'

"Anyhow," said Mark, "I felt in my heart of hearts that I was worth more dead than alive to this person—rotten grammar, I know, but don't let that muss up your tempers, gents—and while the idea of suicide was repugnant (I was making big money then, that is, I expected to rake in $100.00 or more next week) still I cudgeled my brain for ways and means to improve his business. It's easy enough to promote a grocer's or butcher's trade; all you have to do is to get rid of your sour stomach at some Appetite Cure Factory, and pitch in anew with dill pickles and strong coffee and frankfurters and sweetbreads and deep-dish pies. But an undertaker's! Really, I had no desire to pose for Madame Toussaud's dead-uns. At the same time, no dog-gone friend of mine would die, giving me the chance to bury him at my expense. Running away from that fried-fish smell, I always felt like Henry the Eighth, when one of his half-dozen queens wouldn't be introduced to the axe-man. Indeed, if that starving undertaker had been my own best enemy, I couldn't have felt more sorry for him. But lo!—the silver lining to the cloud! One evening, as I approached the carcassery, my startled ears were assailed by that quaint ditty:

For we are the drunkenest lot
Of the drunken Irish crew—

and, leaping forward like oiled lightning, I saw the undertaker at work in the rear of the shop.

"'Bless me, if the ban isn't broke,' I thought, 'and with this dent in the armor. Fate will waltz up plenty more diseased ones. It's always thus.'

"Suiting my action to the classic monologue—'thus' is a beautiful word, isn't it?—I peered through the side window, expecting the janitor of tenements-of-clay to be at work on a nine-foot coffin or thereabout—"

All the merriment fled from Mark Twain's face and manner when he added: "Damme, if that God-forsaken corpse-slinger was not planing a baby coffin!

"That night I took three Scotch, and" (looking around) "I don't care if Livy knows." "I thought you were going to tell a funny one," said one of us, after a while. Clemens had got rid of his emotion by that time."Correct," he drawled, "It happened a few days later, when I was working the fried-fish side of the lane. The street was quite deserted on account of the lateness of the hour and owing to the burial of herrings and crab-meat in innumerable stomachs, big and little. As I put on extra steam to reach the gin-mill before closing time, this pretty legend wafted across the moonbeams:

"'I say, my little female doggie' (as a matter of fact, the shorter and uglier word was used, but it isn't good form, though one may mention 'bull pups' at Mrs. Van Astorbilt's tea) 'I say, my little female doggie, tell Mother if she has another litter by that crossing sweeper of hers, to take care to drown 'em before they grow up as big as you.'

"The lady speaking, or rather shrieking, repeated this admonition three or four times, and followed it up with a succession of oaths that I frankly envied her. Yes, indeed, her 'female doggie,' her 'crossing sweeper,' her 'litter,' and her brand of blasphemy filled me with obscene delight, and I chuckled over them for a week."

After the laughter had subsided, Richard Harding Davis asked: "And what is a crossing sweeper, pray"

"A compound of rags and dirt, fitted with a face and feet and a broom, who mops up the dirty pavement to save your spats, and curses you for a curmudgeon if you give him less than a ha'penny for his trouble."