Luck by Mark Twain
(NOTE.—This is not a fancy sketch. I got it from a clergyman who was
an instructor at Woolwich forty years ago, and who vouched for its truth.—M.T.)
It was at a banquet in London in honour of one of the two or three
conspicuously illustrious English military names of this generation. For
reasons which will presently appear, I will withhold his real name and
titles, and call him Lieutenant-General Lord Arthur Scoresby, V.C.,
K.C.B., etc., etc., etc. What a fascination there is in a renowned name!
There say the man, in actual flesh, whom I had heard of so many thousands
of times since that day, thirty years before, when his name shot suddenly
to the zenith from a Crimean battle-field, to remain for ever celebrated.
It was food and drink to me to look, and look, and look at that demigod;
scanning, searching, noting: the quietness, the reserve, the noble gravity
of his countenance; the simple honesty that expressed itself all over him;
the sweet unconsciousness of his greatness—unconsciousness of the
hundreds of admiring eyes fastened upon him, unconsciousness of the deep,
loving, sincere worship welling out of the breasts of those people and
flowing toward him.
The clergyman at my left was an old acquaintance of mine—clergyman
now, but had spent the first half of his life in the camp and field, and
as an instructor in the military school at Woolwich. Just at the moment I
have been talking about, a veiled and singular light glimmered in his
eyes, and he leaned down and muttered confidentially to me—indicating
the hero of the banquet with a gesture,—'Privately—his glory
is an accident—just a product of incredible luck.'
This verdict was a great surprise to me. If its subject had been Napoleon,
or Socrates, or Solomon, my astonishment could not have been greater.
Some days later came the explanation of this strange remark, and this is
what the Reverend told me.
About forty years ago I was an instructor in the military academy at
Woolwich. I was present in one of the sections when young Scoresby
underwent his preliminary examination. I was touched to the quick with
pity; for the rest of the class answered up brightly and handsomely, while
he—why, dear me, he didn't know anything, so to speak. He was
evidently good, and sweet, and lovable, and guileless; and so it was
exceedingly painful to see him stand there, as serene as a graven image,
and deliver himself of answers which were veritably miraculous for
stupidity and ignorance. All the compassion in me was aroused in his
behalf. I said to myself, when he comes to be examined again, he will be
flung over, of course; so it will be simple a harmless act of charity to
ease his fall as much as I can.
I took him aside, and found that he knew a little of Caesar's history; and
as he didn't know anything else, I went to work and drilled him like a
galley-slave on a certain line of stock questions concerning Caesar which
I knew would be used. If you'll believe me, he went through with flying
colours on examination day! He went through on that purely superficial
'cram', and got compliments, too, while others, who knew a thousand times
more than he, got plucked. By some strangely lucky accident—an
accident not likely to happen twice in a century—he was asked no
question outside of the narrow limits of his drill.
It was stupefying. Well, although through his course I stood by him, with
something of the sentiment which a mother feels for a crippled child; and
he always saved himself—just by miracle, apparently.
Now of course the thing that would expose him and kill him at last was
mathematics. I resolved to make his death as easy as I could; so I drilled
him and crammed him, and crammed him and drilled him, just on the line of
questions which the examiner would be most likely to use, and then
launched him on his fate. Well, sir, try to conceive of the result: to my
consternation, he took the first prize! And with it he got a perfect
ovation in the way of compliments.
Sleep! There was no more sleep for me for a week. My conscience tortured
me day and night. What I had done I had done purely through charity, and
only to ease the poor youth's fall—I never had dreamed of any such
preposterous result as the thing that had happened. I felt as guilty and
miserable as the creator of Frankenstein. Here was a wooden-head whom I
had put in the way of glittering promotions and prodigious
responsibilities, and but one thing could happen: he and his
responsibilities would all go to ruin together at the first opportunity.
The Crimean war had just broken out. Of course there had to be a war, I
said to myself: we couldn't have peace and give this donkey a chance to
die before he is found out. I waited for the earthquake. It came. And it
made me reel when it did come. He was actually gazetted to a captaincy in
a marching regiment! Better men grow old and gray in the service before
they climb to a sublimity like that. And who could ever have foreseen that
they would go and put such a load of responsibility on such green and
inadequate shoulders? I could just barely have stood it if they had made
him a cornet; but a captain—think of it! I thought my hair would
Consider what I did—I who so loved repose and inaction. I said to
myself, I am responsible to the country for this, and I must go along with
him and protect the country against him as far as I can. So I took my poor
little capital that I had saved up through years of work and grinding
economy, and went with a sigh and bought a cornetcy in his regiment, and
away we went to the field.
And there—oh dear, it was awful. Blunders? why, he never did
anything but blunder. But, you see, nobody was in the fellow's secret—everybody
had him focused wrong, and necessarily misinterpreted his performance
every time—consequently they took his idiotic blunders for
inspirations of genius; they did honestly! His mildest blunders were
enough to make a man in his right mind cry; and they did make me cry—and
rage and rave too, privately. And the thing that kept me always in a sweat
of apprehension was the fact that every fresh blunder he made increased
the lustre of his reputation! I kept saying to myself, he'll get so high
that when discovery does finally come it will be like the sun falling out
of the sky.
He went right along up, from grade to grade, over the dead bodies of his
superiors, until at last, in the hottest moment of the battle of... down
went our colonel, and my heart jumped into my mouth, for Scoresby was next
in rank! Now for it, said I; we'll all land in Sheol in ten minutes, sure.
The battle was awfully hot; the allies were steadily giving way all over
the field. Our regiment occupied a position that was vital; a blunder now
must be destruction. At this critical moment, what does this immortal fool
do but detach the regiment from its place and order a charge over a
neighbouring hill where there wasn't a suggestion of an enemy! 'There you
go!' I said to myself; 'this is the end at last.'
And away we did go, and were over the shoulder of the hill before the
insane movement could be discovered and stopped. And what did we find? An
entire and unsuspected Russian army in reserve! And what happened? We were
eaten up? That is necessarily what would have happened in ninety-nine
cases out of a hundred. But no; those Russians argued that no single
regiment would come browsing around there at such a time. It must be the
entire English army, and that the sly Russian game was detected and
blocked; so they turned tail, and away they went, pell-mell, over the hill
and down into the field, in wild confusion, and we after them; they
themselves broke the solid Russia centre in the field, and tore through,
and in no time there was the most tremendous rout you ever saw, and the
defeat of the allies was turned into a sweeping and splendid victory!
Marshal Canrobert looked on, dizzy with astonishment, admiration, and
delight; and sent right off for Scoresby, and hugged him, and decorated
him on the field in presence of all the armies!
And what was Scoresby's blunder that time? Merely the mistaking his right
hand for his left—that was all. An order had come to him to fall
back and support our right; and instead he fell forward and went over the
hill to the left. But the name he won that day as a marvellous military
genius filled the world with his glory, and that glory will never fade
while history books last.
He is just as good and sweet and lovable and unpretending as a man can be,
but he doesn't know enough to come in when it rains. He has been pursued,
day by day and year by year, by a most phenomenal and astonishing
luckiness. He has been a shining soldier in all our wars for half a
generation; he has littered his military life with blunders, and yet has
never committed one that didn't make him a knight or a baronet or a lord
or something. Look at his breast; why, he is just clothed in domestic and
foreign decorations. Well, sir, every one of them is a record of some
shouting stupidity or other; and, taken together, they are proof that the
very best thing in all this world that can befall a man is to be born