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    Chapter LXXVIII

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    Chapter 82
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    After half a year's luxurious vagrancy in the islands, I took shipping in
    a sailing vessel, and regretfully returned to San Francisco--a voyage in
    every way delightful, but without an incident: unless lying two long
    weeks in a dead calm, eighteen hundred miles from the nearest land, may
    rank as an incident. Schools of whales grew so tame that day after day
    they played about the ship among the porpoises and the sharks without the
    least apparent fear of us, and we pelted them with empty bottles for lack
    of better sport. Twenty-four hours afterward these bottles would be
    still lying on the glassy water under our noses, showing that the ship
    had not moved out of her place in all that time. The calm was absolutely
    breathless, and the surface of the sea absolutely without a wrinkle.
    For a whole day and part of a night we lay so close to another ship that
    had drifted to our vicinity, that we carried on conversations with her
    passengers, introduced each other by name, and became pretty intimately
    acquainted with people we had never heard of before, and have never heard
    of since. This was the only vessel we saw during the whole lonely
    voyage. We had fifteen passengers, and to show how hard pressed they
    were at last for occupation and amusement, I will mention that the
    gentlemen gave a good part of their time every day, during the calm, to
    trying to sit on an empty champagne bottle (lying on its side), and
    thread a needle without touching their heels to the deck, or falling
    over; and the ladies sat in the shade of the mainsail, and watched the
    enterprise with absorbing interest. We were at sea five Sundays; and
    yet, but for the almanac, we never would have known but that all the
    other days were Sundays too.

    I was home again, in San Francisco, without means and without employment.
    I tortured my brain for a saving scheme of some kind, and at last a
    public lecture occurred to me! I sat down and wrote one, in a fever of
    hopeful anticipation. I showed it to several friends, but they all shook
    their heads. They said nobody would come to hear me, and I would make a
    humiliating failure of it.

    They said that as I had never spoken in public, I would break down in the
    delivery, anyhow. I was disconsolate now. But at last an editor slapped
    me on the back and told me to "go ahead." He said, "Take the largest
    house in town, and charge a dollar a ticket." The audacity of the
    proposition was charming; it seemed fraught with practical worldly
    wisdom, however. The proprietor of the several theatres endorsed the
    advice, and said I might have his handsome new opera-house at half price
    --fifty dollars. In sheer desperation I took it--on credit, for
    sufficient reasons. In three days I did a hundred and fifty dollars'
    worth of printing and advertising, and was the most distressed and
    frightened creature on the Pacific coast. I could not sleep--who could,
    under such circumstances? For other people there was facetiousness in
    the last line of my posters, but to me it was plaintive with a pang when
    I wrote it:

    "Doors open at 7 1/2. The trouble will begin at 8."

    That line has done good service since. Showmen have borrowed it
    frequently. I have even seen it appended to a newspaper advertisement
    reminding school pupils in vacation what time next term would begin. As
    those three days of suspense dragged by, I grew more and more unhappy.
    I had sold two hundred tickets among my personal friends, but I feared
    they might not come. My lecture, which had seemed "humorous" to me, at
    first, grew steadily more and more dreary, till not a vestige of fun
    seemed left, and I grieved that I could not bring a coffin on the stage
    and turn the thing into a funeral. I was so panic-stricken, at last,
    that I went to three old friends, giants in stature, cordial by nature,
    and stormy-voiced, and said:

    "This thing is going to be a failure; the jokes in it are so dim that
    nobody will ever see them; I would like to have you sit in the parquette,
    and help me through."

    They said they would. Then I went to the wife of a popular citizen, and
    said that if she was willing to do me a very great kindness, I would be
    glad if she and her husband would sit prominently in the left-hand stage-
    box, where the whole house could see them. I explained that I should
    need help, and would turn toward her and smile, as a signal, when I had
    been delivered of an obscure joke--"and then," I added, "don't wait to
    investigate, but respond!"

    She promised. Down the street I met a man I never had seen before. He
    had been drinking, and was beaming with smiles and good nature. He said:

    "My name's Sawyer. You don't know me, but that don't matter. I haven't
    got a cent, but if you knew how bad I wanted to laugh, you'd give me a
    ticket. Come, now, what do you say?"

    "Is your laugh hung on a hair-trigger?--that is, is it critical, or can
    you get it off easy?"

    My drawling infirmity of speech so affected him that he laughed a
    specimen or two that struck me as being about the article I wanted, and I
    gave him a ticket, and appointed him to sit in the second circle, in the
    centre, and be responsible for that division of the house. I gave him
    minute instructions about how to detect indistinct jokes, and then went
    away, and left him chuckling placidly over the novelty of the idea.

    I ate nothing on the last of the three eventful days--I only suffered.
    I had advertised that on this third day the box-office would be opened
    for the sale of reserved seats. I crept down to the theater at four in
    the afternoon to see if any sales had been made. The ticket seller was
    gone, the box-office was locked up. I had to swallow suddenly, or my
    heart would have got out. "No sales," I said to myself; "I might have
    known it." I thought of suicide, pretended illness, flight. I thought
    of these things in earnest, for I was very miserable and scared. But of
    course I had to drive them away, and prepare to meet my fate. I could
    not wait for half-past seven--I wanted to face the horror, and end it--
    the feeling of many a man doomed to hang, no doubt. I went down back
    streets at six o'clock, and entered the theatre by the back door.
    I stumbled my way in the dark among the ranks of canvas scenery, and
    stood on the stage. The house was gloomy and silent, and its emptiness
    depressing. I went into the dark among the scenes again, and for an hour
    and a half gave myself up to the horrors, wholly unconscious of
    everything else. Then I heard a murmur; it rose higher and higher, and
    ended in a crash, mingled with cheers. It made my hair raise, it was so
    close to me, and so loud.

    There was a pause, and then another; presently came a third, and before I
    well knew what I was about, I was in the middle of the stage, staring at
    a sea of faces, bewildered by the fierce glare of the lights, and quaking
    in every limb with a terror that seemed like to take my life away. The
    house was full, aisles and all!

    The tummult in my heart and brain and legs continued a full minute before
    I could gain any command over myself. Then I recognized the charity and
    the friendliness in the faces before me, and little by little my fright
    melted away, and I began to talk Within three or four minutes I was
    comfortable, and even content. My three chief allies, with three
    auxiliaries, were on hand, in the parquette, all sitting together, all
    armed with bludgeons, and all ready to make an onslaught upon the
    feeblest joke that might show its head. And whenever a joke did fall,
    their bludgeons came down and their faces seemed to split from ear to
    ear.

    Sawyer, whose hearty countenance was seen looming redly in the centre of
    the second circle, took it up, and the house was carried handsomely.
    Inferior jokes never fared so royally before. Presently I delivered a
    bit of serious matter with impressive unction (it was my pet), and the
    audience listened with an absorbed hush that gratified me more than any
    applause; and as I dropped the last word of the clause, I happened to
    turn and catch Mrs.--'s intent and waiting eye; my conversation with her
    flashed upon me, and in spite of all I could do I smiled. She took it
    for the signal, and promptly delivered a mellow laugh that touched off
    the whole audience; and the explosion that followed was the triumph of
    the evening. I thought that that honest man Sawyer would choke himself;
    and as for the bludgeons, they performed like pile-drivers. But my poor
    little morsel of pathos was ruined. It was taken in good faith as an
    intentional joke, and the prize one of the entertainment, and I wisely
    let it go at that.

    All the papers were kind in the morning; my appetite returned; I had a
    abundance of money. All's well that ends well.
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    Chapter 82
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