Soldier by Mark Twain
In the course of a certain battle a soldier whose leg had been shot
off appealed to another soldier who was hurrying by to carry him to
the rear, informing him at the same time of the loss which he had
sustained; whereupon the generous son of Mars, shouldering the
unfortunate, proceeded to carry out his desire. The bullets and
cannon-balls were flying in all directions, and presently one of the
latter took the wounded man's head off--without, however, his
deliverer being aware of it. In no-long time he was hailed by an
officer, who said:
"Where are you going with that carcass?"
"To the rear, sir--he's lost his leg!"
"His leg, forsooth?" responded the astonished officer; "you mean
his head, you booby."
Whereupon the soldier dispossessed himself of his burden, and stood
looking down upon it in great perplexity. At length he said:
"It is true, sir, just as you have said." Then after a pause he
added, "But he TOLD me IT WAS HIS LEG! ! ! ! !"
Here the narrator bursts into explosion after explosion of
thunderous horse-laughter, repeating that nub from time to time
through his gaspings and shriekings and suffocatings.
It takes only a minute and a half to tell that in its comic-story
form; and isn't worth the telling, after all. Put into the
humorous-story form it takes ten minutes, and is about the funniest
thing I have ever listened to--as James Whitcomb Riley tells it.
He tells it in the character of a dull-witted old farmer who has
just heard it for the first time, thinks it is unspeakably funny, and
is trying to repeat it to a neighbor. But he can't remember it; so he
gets all mixed up and wanders helplessly round and round, putting in
tedious details that don't belong in the tale and only retard it;
taking them out conscientiously and putting in others that are just as
useless; making minor mistakes now and then and stopping to correct
them and explain how he came to make them; remembering things which he
forgot to put in in their proper place and going back to put them in
there; stopping his narrative a good while in order to try to recall
the name of the soldier that was hurt, and finally remembering that
the soldier's name was not mentioned, and remarking placidly that the
name is of no real importance, anyway--better, of course, if one knew
it, but not essential, after all-- and so on, and so on, and so on.
The teller is innocent and happy and pleased with himself, and has
to stop every little while to hold himself in and keep from laughing
outright; and does hold in, but his body quakes in a jelly-like way
with interior chuckles; and at the end of the ten minutes the audience
have laughed until they are exhausted, and the tears are running down
The simplicity and innocence and sincerity and unconsciousness of
the old farmer are perfectly simulated, and the result is a
performance which is thoroughly charming and delicious. This is art
and fine and beautiful, and only a master can compass it; but a
machine could tell the other story.
To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and
sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are
absurdities, is the basis of the American art, if my position is
correct. Another feature is the slurring of the point. A third is the
dropping of a studied remark apparently without knowing it, as if one
were thinking aloud. The fourth and last is the pause.
Artemus Ward dealt in numbers three and four a good deal. He would
begin to tell with great animation something which he seemed to think
was wonderful; then lose confidence, and after an apparently
absent-minded pause add an incongruous remark in a soliloquizing way;
and that was the remark intended to explode the mine--and it did.
For instance, he would say eagerly, excitedly, "I once knew a man
in New Zealand who hadn't a tooth in his head"--here his animation
would die out; a silent, reflective pause would follow, then he would
say dreamily, and as if to himself, "and yet that man could beat a
drum better than any man I ever saw."
The pause is an exceedingly important feature in any kind of story,
and a frequently recurring feature, too. It is a dainty thing, and
delicate, and also uncertain and treacherous; for it must be exactly
the right length--no more and no less--or it fails of its purpose and
makes trouble. If the pause is too short the impressive point is
passed, and [and if too long] the audience have had time to divine
that a surprise is intended--and then you can't surprise them, of
On the platform I used to tell a negro ghost story that had a pause
in front of the snapper on the end, and that pause was the most
important thing in the whole story. If I got it the right length
precisely, I could spring the finishing ejaculation with effect enough
to make some impressible girl deliver a startled little yelp and jump
out of her seat --and that was what I was after. This story was
called "The Golden Arm," and was told in this fashion. You can
practise with it yourself--and mind you look out for the pause and get