There was a painless stage of incubation that lasted twenty-five
years, and then it broke out on me, and people said I was It.
But they called it humor instead of measles.
The employees in the store bought a silver inkstand for the senior
partner on his fiftieth birthday. We crowded into his private office
to present it. I had been selected for spokesman, and I made a
little speech that I had been preparing for a week.
It made a hit. It was full of puns and epigrams and funny twists
that brought down the house--which was a very solid one in the
wholesale hardware line. Old Marlowe himself actually grinned, and
the employees took their cue and roared.
My reputation as a humorist dates from half-past nine o'clock on
that morning. For weeks afterward my fellow clerks fanned the flame
of my self-esteem. One by one they came to me, saying what an
awfully clever speech that was, old man, and carefully explained to
me the point of each one of my jokes.
Gradually I found that I was expected to keep it up. Others might
speak sanely on business matters and the day's topics, but from me
something gamesome and airy was required.
I was expected to crack jokes about the crockery and lighten up the
granite ware with persiflage. I was second bookkeeper, and if I
failed to show up a balance sheet without something comic about the
footings or could find no cause for laughter in an invoice of plows,
the other clerks were disappointed. By degrees my fame spread, and
I became a local "character." Our town was small enough to make this
possible. The daily newspaper quoted me. At social gatherings I was
I believe I did possess considerable wit and a facility for quick
and spontaneous repartee. This gift I cultivated and improved by
practice. And the nature of it was kindly and genial, not running to
sarcasm or offending others. People began to smile when they saw me
coming, and by the time we had met I generally had the word ready to
broaden the smile into a laugh.
I had married early. We had a charming boy of three and a girl of
five. Naturally, we lived in a vine-covered cottage, and were happy.
My salary as bookkeeper in the hardware concern kept at a distance
those ills attendant upon superfluous wealth.
At sundry times I had written out a few jokes and conceits that I
considered peculiarly happy, and had sent them to certain periodicals
that print such things. All of them had been instantly accepted.
Several of the editors had written to request further contributions.
One day I received a letter from the editor of a famous weekly
publication. He suggested that I submit to him a humorous composition
to fill a column of space; hinting that he would make it a regular
feature of each issue if the work proved satisfactory. I did so, and
at the end of two weeks he offered to make a contract with me for a
year at a figure that was considerably higher than the amount paid me
by the hardware firm.
I was filled with delight. My wife already crowned me in her mind
with the imperishable evergreens of literary success. We had lobster
croquettes and a bottle of blackberry wine for supper that night.
Here was the chance to liberate myself from drudgery. I talked over
the matter very seriously with Louisa. We agreed that I must resign
my place at the store and devote myself to humor.
I resigned. My fellow clerks gave me a farewell banquet. The speech
I made there coruscated. It was printed in full by the Gazette. The
next morning I awoke and looked at the clock.
"Late, by George!" I exclaimed, and grabbed for my clothes. Louisa
reminded me that I was no longer a slave to hardware and contractors'
supplies. I was now a professional humorist.
After breakfast she proudly led me to the little room off the kitchen.
Dear girl! There was my table and chair, writing pad, ink, and pipe
tray. And all the author's trappings--the celery stand full of fresh
roses and honeysuckle, last year's calendar on the wall, the
dictionary, and a little bag of chocolates to nibble between
inspirations. Dear girl!
I sat me to work. The wall paper is patterned with arabesques or
odalisks or--perhaps--it is trapezoids. Upon one of the figures I
fixed my eyes. I bethought me of humor.
A voice startled me--Louisa's voice.
"If you aren't too busy, dear," it said, "come to dinner."
I looked at my watch. Yes, five hours had been gathered in by the
grim scytheman. I went to dinner.
"You mustn't work too hard at first," said Louisa. "Goethe--or was it
Napoleon?--said five hours a day is enough for mental labor. Couldn't
you take me and the children to the woods this afternoon?"
"I am a little tired," I admitted. So we went to the woods.
But I soon got the swing of it. Within a month I was turning out
copy as regular as shipments of hardware.
And I had success. My column in the weekly made some stir, and I was
referred to in a gossipy way by the critics as something fresh in the
line of humorists. I augmented my income considerably by contributing
to other publications.
I picked up the tricks of the trade. I could take a funny idea and
make a two-line joke of it, earning a dollar. With false whiskers
on, it would serve up cold as a quatrain, doubling its producing
value. By turning the skirt and adding a ruffle of rhyme you would
hardly recognize it as ~vers de societe~ with neatly shod feet and a
I began to save up money, and we had new carpets, and a parlor organ.
My townspeople began to look upon me as a citizen of some consequence
instead of the merry trifier I had been when I clerked in the
After five or six months the spontaniety seemed to depart from my
humor. Quips and droll sayings no longer fell carelessly from my
lips. I was sometimes hard run for material. I found myself
listening to catch available ideas from the conversation of my
friends. Sometimes I chewed my pencil and gazed at the wall paper
for hours trying to build up some gay little bubble of unstudied
And then I became a harpy, a Moloch, a Jonah, a vampire, to my
acquaintances. Anxious, haggard, greedy, I stood among them like a
veritable killjoy. Let a bright saying, a witty comparison, a piquant
phrase fall from their lips and I was after it like a hound springing
upon a bone. I dared not trust my memory; but, turning aside guiltily
and meanly, I would make a note of it in my ever-present memorandum
book or upon my cuff for my own future use.
My friends regarded me in sorrow and wonder. I was not the same man.
Where once I had furnished them entertainment and jollity, I now
preyed upon them. No jests from me ever bid for their smiles now.
They were too precious. I could not afford to dispense gratuitously
the means of my livelihood.
I was a lugubrious fox praising the singing of my friends, the crow's,
that they might drop from their beaks the morsels of wit that I
Nearly every one began to avoid me. I even forgot how to smile, not
even paying that much for the sayings I appropriated.
No persons, places, times, or subjects were exempt from my plundering
in search of material. Even in church my demoralized fancy went
hunting among the solemn aisles and pillars for spoil.
Did the minister give out the long-meter doxology, at once I began:
"Doxology --sockdology--sockdolager--meter--meet her."
The sermon ran through my mental sieve, its precepts filtering
unheeded, could I but glean a suggestion of a pun or a ~bon mot~.
The solemnest anthems of the choir were but an accompaniment to my
thoughts as I conceived new changes to ring upon the ancient
comicalities concerning the jealousies of soprano, tenor, and basso.
My own home became a hunting ground. My wife is a singularly feminine
creature, candid, sympathetic, and impulsive. Once her conversation
was my delight, and her ideas a source of unfailing pleasure. Now I
worked her. She was a gold mine of those amusing but lovable
inconsistencies that distinguish the female mind.
I began to market those pearls of unwisdom and humor that should have
enriched only the sacred precincts of home. With devilish cunning I
encouraged her to talk. Unsuspecting, she laid her heart bare. Upon
the cold, conspicuous, common, printed page I offered it to the
A literary Judas, I kissed her and betrayed her. For pieces of silver
I dressed her sweet confidences in the pantalettes and frills of folly
and made them dance in the market place.
Dear Louisa! Of nights I have bent over her cruel as a wolf above
a tender lamb, hearkening even to her soft words murmured in sleep,
hoping to catch an idea for my next day's grind. There is worse to
God help me! Next my fangs were buried deep in the neck of the
fugitive sayings of my little children.
Guy and Viola were two bright fountains of childish, quaint thoughts
and speeches. I found a ready sale for this kind of humor, and was
furnishing a regular department in a magazine with "Funny Fancies of
Childhood." I began to stalk them as an Indian stalks the antelope.
I would hide behind sofas and doors, or crawl on my hands and knees
among the bushes in the yard to eavesdrop while they were at play.
I had all the qualities of a harpy except remorse.
Once, when I was barren of ideas, and my copy must leave in the next
mail, I covered myself in a pile of autumn leaves in the yard, where
I knew they intended to come to play. I cannot bring myself to
believe that Guy was aware of my hiding place, but even if he was,
I would be loath to blame him for his setting fire to the leaves,
causing the destruction of my new suit of clothes, and nearly
cremating a parent.
Soon my own children began to shun me as a pest. Often, when I was
creeping upon them like a melancholy ghoul, I would hear them say
to each other: "Here comes papa," and they would gather their toys
and scurry away to some safer hiding place. Miserable wretch that
And yet I was doing well financially. Before the first year had
passed I had saved a thousand dollars, and we had lived in comfort.
But at what a cost! I am not quite clear as to what a pariah is,
but I was everything that it sounds like. I had no friends, no
amusements, no enjoyment of life. The happiness of my family had
been sacrificed. I was a bee, sucking sordid honey from life's
fairest flowers, dreaded and shunned on account of my stingo.
One day a man spoke to me, with a pleasant and friendly smile. Not
in months had the thing happened. I was passing the undertaking
establishment of Peter Heffelbower. Peter stood in the door and
saluted me. I stopped, strangely wrung in my heart by his greeting.
He asked me inside.
The day was chill and rainy. We went into the back room, where a
fire burned, in a little stove. A customer came, and Peter left me
alone for a while. Presently I felt a new feeling stealing over me
--a sense of beautiful calm and content, I looked around the place.
There were rows of shining rosewood caskets, black palls, trestles,
hearse plumes, mourning streamers, and all the paraphernalia of the
solemn trade. Here was peace, order, silence, the abode of grave
and dignified reflections. Here, on the brink of life, was a little
niche pervaded by the spirit of eternal rest.
When I entered it, the follies of the world abandoned me at the door.
I felt no inclination to wrest a humorous idea from those sombre and
stately trappings. My mind seemed to stretch itself to grateful
repose upon a couch draped with gentle thoughts.
A quarter of an hour ago I was an abandoned humorist. Now I was a
philosopher, full of serenity and ease. I had found a refuge from
humor, from the hot chase of the shy quip, from the degrading pursuit
of the panting joke, from the restless reach after the nimble
I had not known Heffelbower well. When he came back, I let him talk,
fearful that he might prove to be a jarring note in the sweet,
dirgelike harmony of his establishment.
But, no. He chimed truly. I gave a long sigh of happiness. Never
have I known a man's talk to be as magnificently dull as Peter's was.
Compared with it the Dead Sea is a geyser. Never a sparkle or a
glimmer of wit marred his words. Commonplaces as trite and as
plentiful as blackberries flowed from his lips no more stirring in
quality than a last week's tape running from a ticker. Quaking a
little, I tried upon him one of my best pointed jokes. It fell back
ineffectual, with the point broken. I loved that man from then on.
Two or three evenings each week I would steal down to Heffelbower's
and revel in his back room. That was my only joy. I began to rise
early and hurry through my work, that I might spend more time in my
haven. In no other place could I throw off my habit of extracting
humorous ideas from my surroundings. Peter's talk left me no opening
had I besieged it ever so hard.
Under this influence I began to improve in spirits. It was the
recreation from one's labor which every man needs. I surprised one
or two of my former friends by throwing them a smile and a cheery
word as I passed them on the streets. Several times I dumfounded
my family by relaxing long enough to make a jocose remark in their
I had so long been ridden by the incubus of humor that I seized my
hours of holiday with a schoolboy's zest.
Mv work began to suffer. It was not the pain and burden to me that
it had been. I often whistled at my desk, and wrote with far more
fluency than before. I accomplished my tasks impatiently, as anxious
to be off to my helpful retreat as a drunkard is to get to his tavern.
My wife had some anxious hours in conjecturing where I spent my
afternoons. I thought it best not to tell her; women do not
understand these things. Poor girl!--she had one shock out of it.
One day I brought home a silver coffin handle for a paper weight and
a fine, fluffy hearse plume to dust my papers with.
I loved to see them on my desk, and think of the beloved back room
down at Heffelbower's. But Louisa found them, and she shrieked with
horror. I had to console her with some lame excuse for having them,
but I saw in her eyes that the prejudice was not removed. I had to
remove the articles, though, at double-quick time.
One day Peter Heffelbower laid before me a temptation that swept me
off my feet. In his sensible, uninspired way he showed me his books,
and explained that his profits and his business were increasing
rapidly. He had thought of taking in a partner with some cash. He
would rather have me than any one he knew. When I left his place that
afternoon Peter had my check for the thousand dollars I had in the
bank, and I was a partner in his undertaking business.
I went home with feelings of delirious joy, mingled with a certain
amount of doubt. I was dreading to tell my wife about it. But I
walked on air. To give up the writing of humorous stuff, once more
to enjoy the apples of life, instead of squeezing them to a pulp for
a few drops of hard cider to make the pubic feel funny--what a boon
that would be!
At the supper table Louisa handed me some letters that had come during
my absence. Several of them contained rejected manuscript. Ever
since I first began going to Heffelbower's my stuff had been coming
back with alarming frequency. Lately I had been dashing off my jokes
and articles with the greatest fluency. Previously I had labored like
a bricklayer, slowly and with agony.
Presently I opened a letter from the editor of the weekly with which I
had a regular contract. The checks for that weekly article were still
our main dependence. The letter ran thus:
As you are aware, our contract for the year expires with the present
month. While regretting the necessity for so doing, we must say that
we do not care to renew same for the coming year. We were quite
pleased with your style of humor, which seems to have delighted quite
a large proportion of our readers. But for the past two months we
have noticed a decided falling off in its quality. Your earlier work
showed a spontaneous, easy, natural flow of fun and wit. Of late it
is labored, studied, and unconvincing, giving painful evidence of hard
toil and drudging mechanism.
Again regretting that we do not consider your contributions
available any longer, we are, yours sincerely,
I handed this letter to my wife. After she had read it her face grew
extremely long, and there were tears in her eyes.
"The mean old thing!" she exclaimed indignantly. "I'm sure your
pieces are just as good as they ever were. And it doesn't take you
half as long to write them as it did." And then, I suppose, Louisa
thought of the checks that would cease coming. "Oh, John," she
wailed, "what will you do now?"
For an answer I got up and began to do a polka step around the supper
table. I am sure Louisa thought the trouble had driven me mad; and
I think the children hoped it had, for they tore after me, yelling
with glee and emulating my steps. I was now something like their old
playmate as of yore.
"The theatre for us to-night!" I shouted; "nothing less. And a late,
wild, disreputable supper for all of us at the Palace Restaurant.
And then I explained my glee by declaring that I was now a partner in
a prosperous undertaking establishment, and that written jokes might
go hide their heads in sackcloth and ashes for all me.
With the editor's letter in her hand to justify the deed I had done,
my wife could advance no objections save a few mild ones based on
the feminine inability to appreciate a good thing such as the little
back room of Peter Hef--no, of Heffelbower & Co's. undertaking
In conclusion, I will say that to-day you will find no man in our
town as well liked, as jovial, and full of merry sayings as I. My
jokes are again noised about and quoted; once more I take pleasure
in my wife's confidential chatter without a mercenary thought, while
Guy and Viola play at my feet distributing gems of childish humor
without fear of the ghastly tormentor who used to dog their steps,
notebook in hand.
Our business has prospered finely. I keep the books and look after
the shop, while Peter attends to outside matters. He says that my
levity and high spirits would simply turn any funeral into a regular