The Joke that Made Ed’s Fortune
Let us be thankful for the fools. But for them the rest of us could not succeed.
Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar
A few years before the outbreak of the Civil War it began to appear that Memphis, Tennessee, was going to be a great tobacco entrepot –
the wise could see the signs of it. At that time Memphis had a wharfboat, of course.
There was a paved sloping wharf, for the accommodation of freight, but the steamers landed on the outside of the wharfboat,
and all loading and unloading was done across it, between steamer and shore.
A number of wharfboat clerks were needed, and part of the time, every day, they were very busy, and part of the time tediously idle.
They were boiling over with youth and spirits, and they had to make the intervals of idleness endurable in some way;
and as a rule, they did it by contriving practical jokes and playing them upon each other.
The favorite butt for the jokes was Ed Jackson, because he played none himself, and was easy game for other people’s
– for he always believed whatever was told him.
One day he told the others his scheme for his holiday.
He was not going fishing or hunting this time – no, he had thought out a better plan.
Out of his forty dollars a month he had saved enough for his purpose, in an economical way, and he was going to have a look at New York.
It was a great and surprising idea. It meant travel – immense travel – in those days it meant seeing the world;
it was the equivalent of a voyage around it in ours.
At first the other youths thought his mind was affected, but when they found that he was in earnest,
the next thing to be thought of was, what sort of opportunity this venture might afford for a practical joke.
The young men studied over the matter, then held a secret consultation and made a plan.
The idea was, that one of the conspirators should offer Ed a letter of introduction to Commodore Vanderbilt, and trick him into delivering it.
It would be easy to do this. But what would Ed do when he got back to Memphis? That was a serious matter.
He was good-hearted, and had always taken the jokes patiently; but they had been jokes which did not humiliate him, did not bring him to shame;
whereas, this would be a cruel one in that way, and to play it was to meddle with fire;
for with all his good nature, Ed was a Southerner – and the English of that was,
that when he came back he would kill as many of the conspirators as he could before falling himself.
However, the chances must be taken – it wouldn’t do to waste such a joke as that.
So the letter was prepared with great care and elaboration. It was signed Alfred Fairchild, and was written in an easy and friendly spirit.
It stated that the bearer was the bosom friend of the writer’s son, and was of good parts and sterling character,
and it begged the Commodore to be kind to the young stranger for the writer’s sake.
It went on to say, “You may have forgotten me, in this long stretch of time,
but you will easily call me back out of your boyhood memories
when I remind you of how we robbed old Stevenson’s orchard that night;
and how, while he was chasing down the road after us, we cut across the field and doubled back
and sold his own apples to his own cook for an hatful of doughnuts; and the time that we and so forth and so on, bringing in names of imaginary comrades,
and detailing all sorts of wild and absurd and, of course, wholly imaginary school-boy pranks and adventures, but putting them into lively and telling shape.
With all gravity Ed was asked if he would like to have a letter to Commodore Vanderbilt, the great millionaire.
It was expected that the question would astonish Ed, and it did.
“What? Do you know that extraordinary man?”
“No; but my father does. They were schoolboys together. And if you like, I’ll write and ask father.
I know he’ll be glad to give it to you for my sake.”
Ed could not find words capable of expressing his gratitude and delight. The three days passed, and the letter was put into his hands.
He started on his trip, still pouring out his thanks while he shook good-by all around.
And when he was out of sight his comrades let fly their laughter in a storm of happy satisfaction
– and then quieted down, and were less happy, less satisfied.
For the old doubts as to the wisdom of this deception began to intrude again.
Arrived in New York, Ed found his way to Commodore Vanderbilt’s business quarters,
and was ushered into a large anteroom, where a score of people were patiently awaiting their turn
for a two-minute interview with the millionaire in his private office.
A servant asked for Ed’s card, and got the letter instead.
Ed was sent for a moment later, and found Mr. Vanderbilt alone, with the letter – open – in his hand.
“Pray sit down, Mr. – er – ”
“Ah – sit down, Mr. Jackson. By the opening sentences it seems to be a letter from an old friend.
Allow me – I will run my eye through it. He says – he says – why, who is it?” He turned the sheet and found the signature.
“Alfred Fairchild – h’m – Fairchild – I don’t recall the name. But that is nothing – a thousand names have gone from me.
He says – he says – h’m – h’m – oh, dear, but it’s good! Oh, it’s rare!
I don’t quite remember it, but I seem to – it’ll all come back to me presently.
He says – he says – h’m – h’m – oh, but that was a game! Oh, spl-endid! How it carries me back!
It’s all dim, of course – it’s a long time ago – and the names – some of the names are wavery and indistinct –
but sho’, I know it happened – I can feel it! and lord, how it warms my heart, and brings back my lost youth!
Well, well, well, I’ve got to come back into this workaday world now – business presses and people are waiting –
I’ll keep the rest for bed to-night, and live my youth over again.
And you’ll thank Fairchild for me when you see him – I used to call him Alf, I think –
and you’ll give him my gratitude for what this letter has done for the tired spirit of a hardworked man,
and tell him there isn’t anything that I can do for him or any friend of his that I won’t do.
And as for you, my lad, you are my guest; you can’t stop at any hotel in New York.
Sit where you are a little while, till I get through with these people, then we’ll go home.
I’ll take care of you, my boy – make yourself easy as to that.”
2013 Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH & Co. KG, München
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eBook ISBN 978-3-423-41951-2 (epub)
ISBN der gedruckten Ausgabe 978-3-423-09278-4
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