An Awkward Encounter from A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain (1880)

To prove himself to his assistant Harris, Mark Twain approaches a young woman at a nearby table in a Swiss hotel restaurant—and finds himself in a fix.

The seven-thirty table d’hôte at the great Schweitzerhof furnished a mighty array and variety of nationalities, but it offered a better opportunity to observe costumes than people, for the multitude sat at immensely long tables, and therefore the faces were mainly seen in perspective; but the breakfasts were served at small round tables, and then if one had the fortune to get a table in the midst of the assemblage he could have as many faces to study as he could desire. We used to try to guess out the nationalities, and generally succeeded tolerably well. Sometimes we tried to guess people’s names; but that was a failure; that is a thing which probably requires a good deal of practice. We presently dropped it and gave our efforts to less difficult particulars. One morning I said:

“There is an American party.”

Harris said:

“Yes—but name the state.”

I named one state, Harris named another. We agreed upon one thing, however—that the young girl with the party was very beautiful, and very tastefully dressed. But we disagreed as to her age. I said she was eighteen, Harris said she was twenty. The dispute between us waxed warm, and I finally said, with a pretense of being in earnest:

“Well, there is one way to settle the matter—I will go and ask her.”

Harris said, sarcastically, “Certainly, that is the thing to do. All you need to do is to use the common formula over here: go and say, ‘I’m an American!’ Of course she will be glad to see you.”

Then he hinted that perhaps there was no great danger of my venturing to speak to her.

I said, “I was only talking—I didn’t intend to approach her, but I see that you do not know what an intrepid person I am. I am not afraid of any woman that walks. I will go and speak to this young girl.”

The thing I had in my mind was not difficult. I meant to address her in the most respectful way and ask her to pardon me if her strong resemblance to a former acquaintance of mine was deceiving me; and when she should reply that the name I mentioned was not the name she bore, I meant to beg pardon again, most respectfully, and retire. There would be no harm done. I walked to her table, bowed to the gentleman, then turned to her and was about to begin my little speech when she exclaimed:

“I knew I wasn’t mistaken—I told John it was you! John said it probably wasn’t, but I knew I was right. I said you would recognize me presently and come over; and I’m glad you did, for I shouldn’t have felt much flattered if you had gone out of this room without recognizing me. Sit down, sit down—how odd it is—you are the last person I was ever expecting to see again.”

This was a stupefying surprise. It took my wits clear away, for an instant. However, we shook hands cordially all around, and I sat down. But truly this was the tightest place I ever was in. I seemed to vaguely remember the girl’s face, now, but I had no idea where I had seen it before, or what name belonged with it. I immediately tried to get up a diversion about Swiss scenery, to keep her from launching into topics that might betray that I did not know her, but it was of no use, she went right along upon matters which interested her more:

“Oh dear, what a night that was, when the sea washed the forward boats away—do you remember it?”

“Oh, don’t I!” said I—but I didn’t. I wished the sea had washed the rudder and the smokestack and the captain away—then I could have located this questioner.

“And don’t you remember how frightened poor Mary was, and how she cried?”

“Indeed I do!” said I. “Dear me, how it all comes back!”

I fervently wished it would come back—but my memory was a blank. The wise way would have been to frankly own up; but I could not bring myself to do that, after the young girl had praised me so for recognizing her; so I went on, deeper and deeper into the mire, hoping for a chance clue but never getting one. The Unrecognizable continued, with vivacity:

“Do you know, George married Mary, after all?”

“Why, no! Did he?”

“Indeed he did. He said he did not believe she was half as much to blame as her father was, and I thought he was right. Didn’t you?”

“Of course he was. It was a perfectly plain case. I always said so.”

“Why, no you didn’t!—at least that summer.”

“Oh, no, not that summer. No, you are perfectly right about that. It was the following winter that I said it.”

“Well, as it turned out, Mary was not in the least to blame—it was all her father’s fault—at least his and old Darley’s.”

It was necessary to say something—so I said:

“I always regarded Darley as a troublesome old thing.”

“So he was, but then they always had a great affection for him, although he had so many eccentricities. You remember that when the weather was the least cold, he would try to come into the house.”

I was rather afraid to proceed. Evidently Darley was not a man—he must be some other kind of animal—possibly a dog, maybe an elephant. However, tails are common to all animals, so I ventured to say:

“And what a tail he had!”

One! He had a thousand!”

This was bewildering. I did not quite know what to say, so I only said:

“Yes, he was rather well fixed in the matter of tails.”

“For a negro, and a crazy one at that, I should say he was,” said she.

It was getting pretty sultry for me. I said to myself, “Is it possible she is going to stop there, and wait for me to speak? If she does, the conversation is blocked. A negro with a thousand tails is a topic which a person cannot talk upon fluently and instructively without more or less preparation. As to diving rashly into such a vast subject—”

But here, to my gratitude, she interrupted my thoughts by saying:

“Yes, when it came to tales of his crazy woes, there was simply no end to them if anybody would listen. His own quarters were comfortable enough, but when the weather was cold, the family were sure to have his company—nothing could keep him out of the house. But they always bore it kindly because he had saved Tom’s life, years before. You remember Tom?

“Oh, perfectly. Fine fellow he was, too.”

“Yes he was. And what a pretty little thing his child was!”

“You may well say that. I never saw a prettier child.”

“I used to delight to pet it and dandle it and play with it.”

“So did I.”

“You named it. What was that name? I can’t call it to mind.”

It appeared to me that the ice was getting pretty thin, here. I would have given something to know what the child’s sex was. However, I had the good luck to think of a name that would fit either sex—so I brought it out:

“I named it Frances.”

“From a relative, I suppose? But you named the one that died, too—one that I never saw. What did you call that one?”

I was out of neutral names, but as the child was dead and she had never seen it, I thought I might risk a name for it and trust to luck. Therefore I said:

“I called that one Thomas Henry.”

She said, musingly:

“That is very singular … very singular.”

I sat still and let the cold sweat run down. I was in a good deal of trouble, but I believed I could worry through if she wouldn’t ask me to name any more children. I wondered where the lightning was going to strike next. She was still ruminating over that last child’s title, but presently she said:

“I have always been sorry you were away at the time—I would have had you name my child.”

Your child! Are you married?”

“I have been married thirteen years.”

“Christened, you mean.”

“No, married. The youth by your side is my son.”

“It seems incredible—even impossible. I do not mean any harm by it, but would you mind telling me if you are any over eighteen?—that is to say, will you tell me how old you are?”

“I was just nineteen the day of the storm we were talking about. That was my birthday.”

That did not help matters, much, as I did not know the date of the storm. I tried to think of some noncommittal thing to say, to keep up my end of the talk, and render my poverty in the matter of reminiscences as little noticeable as possible, but I seemed to be about out of noncommittal things. I was about to say, “You haven’t changed a bit since then”—but that was risky. I thought of saying, “You have improved ever so much since then”—but that wouldn’t answer, of course. I was about to try a shy at the weather, for a saving change, when the girl slipped in ahead of me and said:

“How I have enjoyed this talk over those happy old times—haven’t you?”

“I never have spent such a half-hour in all my life before!” said I, with emotion; and I could have added, with a near approach to truth, “and I would rather be scalped than spend another one like it.” I was holily grateful to be through with the ordeal, and was about to make my good-byes and get out, when the girl said:

“But there is one thing that is ever so puzzling to me.”

“Why, what is that?”

“That dead child’s name. What did you say it was?”

Here was another balmy place to be in: I had forgotten the child’s name; I hadn’t imagined it would be needed again. However, I had to pretend to know, anyway, so I said:

“Joseph William.”

The youth at my side corrected me, and said:

“No, Thomas Henry.”

I thanked him—in words—and said, with trepidation:

“Oh yes—I was thinking of another child that I named—I have named a great many, and I get them confused—this one was named Henry Thompson—”

“Thomas Henry,” calmly interposed the boy.

I thanked him again—strictly in words—and stammered out:

“Thomas Henry—yes, Thomas Henry was the poor child’s name. I named him for Thomas—er—Thomas Carlyle, the great author, you know—and Henry—er—er—Henry the Eighth. The parents were very grateful to have a child named Thomas Henry.”

“That makes it more singular than ever,” murmured my beautiful friend.

“Does it? Why?”

“Because when the parents speak of that child now, they always call it Susan Amelia.”

That spiked my gun. I could not say anything. I was entirely out of verbal obliquities; to go further would be to lie, and that I would not do; so I simply sat still and suffered—sat mutely and resignedly there, and sizzled—for I was being slowly fried to death in my own blushes. Presently the enemy laughed a happy laugh and said:

“I have enjoyed this talk over old times, but you have not. I saw very soon that you were only pretending to know me, and so as I had wasted a compliment on you in the beginning, I made up my mind to punish you. And I have succeeded pretty well. I was glad to see that you knew George and Tom and Darley, for I had never heard of them before and therefore could not be sure that you had; and I was glad to learn the names of those imaginary children, too. One can get quite a fund of information out of you if one goes at it cleverly. Mary and the storm, and the sweeping away of the forward boats, were facts—all the rest was fiction. Mary was my sister; her full name was Mary——. Now do you remember me?”

“Yes,” I said, “I do remember you now; and you are as hard-headed as you were thirteen years ago in that ship, else you wouldn’t have punished me so. You haven’t changed your nature nor your person, in any way at all; you look as young as you did then, you are just as beautiful as you were then, and you have transmitted a deal of your comeliness to this fine boy. There—if that speech moves you any, let’s fly the flag of truce, with the understanding that I am conquered and confess it.”

All of which was agreed to and accomplished, on the spot. When I went back to Harris, I said:

“Now you see what a person with talent and address can do.”

“Excuse me, I see what a person of colossal ignorance and simplicity can do. The idea of your going and intruding on a party of strangers, that way, and talking for half an hour; why I never heard of a man in his right mind doing such a thing before. What did you say to them?”

“I never said any harm. I merely asked the girl what her name was.”

“I don’t doubt it. Upon my word I don’t. I think you were capable of it. It was stupid in me to let you go over there and make such an exhibition of yourself. But you know I couldn’t really believe you would do such an inexcusable thing. What will those people think of us? But how did you say it?—I mean the manner of it. I hope you were not abrupt.”

“No, I was careful about that. I said, ‘My friend and I would like to know what your name is, if you don’t mind.’“

“No, that was not abrupt. There is a polish about it that does you infinite credit. And I am glad you put me in; that was a delicate attention which I appreciate at its full value. What did she do?”

“She didn’t do anything in particular. She told me her name.”

“Simply told you her name. Do you mean to say she did not show any surprise?”

“Well, now I come to think, she did show something; maybe it was surprise; I hadn’t thought of that—I took it for gratification.”

“Oh, undoubtedly you were right; it must have been gratification; it could not be otherwise than gratifying to be assaulted by a stranger with such a question as that. Then what did you do?”

“I offered my hand and the party gave me a shake.”

“I saw it! I did not believe my own eyes, at the time. Did the gentleman say anything about cutting your throat?”

“No, they all seemed glad to see me, as far as I could judge.”

“And do you know, I believe they were. I think they said to themselves, ‘Doubtless this curiosity has got away from his keeper—let us amuse ourselves with him.’ There is no other way of accounting for their facile docility. You sat down. Did they ask you to sit down?”

“No, they did not ask me, but I suppose they did not think of it.”

“You have an unerring instinct. What else did you do? What did you talk about?”

“Well, I asked the girl how old she was.”

Undoubtedly. Your delicacy is beyond praise. Go on, go on—don’t mind my apparent misery—I always look so when I am steeped in a profound and reverent joy. Go on—she told you her age?”

“Yes, she told me her age, and all about her mother, and her grandmother, and her other relations, and all about herself.”

“Did she volunteer these statistics?”

“No, not exactly that. I asked the questions and she answered them.”

“This is divine. Go on—it is not possible that you forgot to inquire into her politics?”

“No, I thought of that. She is a Democrat, her husband is a Republican, and both of them are Baptists.”

“Her husband? Is that child married?”

“She is not a child. She is married, and that is her husband who is there with her.”

“Has she any children.”

“Yes—seven and a half.”

“That is impossible.”

“No, she has them. She told me herself.”

“Well, but seven and a half? How do you make out the half? Where does the half come in?”

“There is a child which she had by another husband—not this one but another one—so it is a stepchild, and they do not count in full measure.”

“Another husband? Has she another husband?”

“Yes, four. This one is number four.”

“I don’t believe a word of it. It is impossible, upon its face. Is that boy there her brother?”

“No, that is her son. He is her youngest. He is not as old as he looks; he is only eleven and a half.”

“These things are all manifestly impossible. This is a wretched business. It is a plain case: they simply took your measure, and concluded to fill you up. They seem to have succeeded. I am glad I am not in the mess; they may at least be charitable enough to think there ain’t a pair of us. Are they going to stay here long?”

“No, they leave before noon.”

“There is one man who is deeply grateful for that. How did you find out? You asked, I suppose?”

“No, along at first I inquired into their plans, in a general way, and they said they were going to be here a week, and make trips round about; but toward the end of the interview, when I said you and I would tour around with them with pleasure, and offered to bring you over and introduce you, they hesitated a little, and asked if you were from the same establishment that I was. I said you were, and then they said they had changed their mind and considered it necessary to start at once and visit a sick relative in Siberia.”

“Ah, me, you struck the summit! You struck the loftiest altitude of stupidity that human effort has ever reached. You shall have a monument of jackasses’ skulls as high as the Strasburg spire if you die before I do. They wanted to know if I was from the same ‘establishment’ that you hailed from, did they? What did they mean by ‘establishment’?”

“I don’t know; it never occurred to me to ask.”

“Well I know. They meant an asylum—an idiot asylum, do you understand? So they do think there’s a pair of us, after all. Now what do you think of yourself?”

“Well, I don’t know. I didn’t know I was doing any harm; I didn’t mean to do any harm. They were very nice people, and they seemed to like me.”

Harris made some rude remarks and left for his bedroom—to break some furniture, he said. He was a singularly irascible man; any little thing would disturb his temper.

I had been well scorched by the young woman, but no matter, I took it out on Harris. One should always “get even” in some way, else the sore place will go on hurting.

From A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain*

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