The Five Boons of Life
by Mark Twain
A “boon” (noun) is something that is considered beneficial or helpful.
In the morning of life came a good fairy with her basket, and said:
“Here are gifts. Take one, leave the others. And be wary, chose wisely; oh, choose wisely! for only one of them is valuable.”
The gifts were five: Fame, Love, Riches, Pleasure, Death. The youth said, eagerly:
“There is no need to consider”; and he chose Pleasure.
He went out into the world and sought out the pleasures that youth delights in. But each in its turn was short-lived and disappointing, vain and empty; and each, departing, mocked him. In the end he said: “These years I have wasted. If I could but choose again, I would choose wisely.
The fairy appeared, and said:
“Four of the gifts remain. Choose once more; and oh, remember– time is flying, and only one of them is precious.”
The man considered long, then chose Love; and did not mark the tears that rose in the fairy’s eyes.
After many, many years the man sat by a coffin, in an empty home. And he communed with himself, saying: “One by one they have gone away and left me; and now she lies here, the dearest and the last. Desolation after desolation has swept over me; for each hour of happiness the treacherous trader, Love, as sold me I have paid a thousand hours of grief. Out of my heart of hearts I curse him.”
“Choose again.” It was the fairy speaking.
“The years have taught you wisdom–surely it must be so. Three gifts remain. Only one of them has any worth–remember it, and choose warily.”
The man reflected long, then chose Fame; and the fairy, sighing, went her way.
Years went by and she came again, and stood behind the man where he sat solitary in the fading day, thinking. And she knew his thought:
“My name filled the world, and its praises were on every tongue, and it seemed well with me for a little while. How little a while it was! Then came envy; then detraction; then calumny; then hate; then persecution. Then derision, which is the beginning of the end. And last of all came pity, which is the funeral of fame. Oh, the bitterness and misery of renown! target for mud in its prime, for contempt and compassion in its decay.”
“Chose yet again.” It was the fairy’s voice.
“Two gifts remain. And do not despair. In the beginning there was but one that was precious, and it is still here.”
“Wealth–which is power! How blind I was!” said the man. “Now, at last, life will be worth the living. I will spend, squander, dazzle. These mockers and despisers will crawl in the dirt before me, and I will feed my hungry heart with their envy. I will have all luxuries, all joys, all enchantments of the spirit, all contentments of the body that man holds dear. I will buy, buy, buy! deference, respect, esteem, worship–every pinchbeck grace of life the market of a trivial world can furnish forth. I have lost much time, and chosen badly heretofore, but let that pass; I was ignorant then, and could but take for best what seemed so.”
Three short years went by, and a day came when the man sat shivering in a mean garret; and he was gaunt and wan and hollow-eyed, and clothed in rags; and he was gnawing a dry crust and mumbling:
“Curse all the world’s gifts, for mockeries and gilded lies! And miscalled, every one. They are not gifts, but merely lendings. Pleasure, Love, Fame, Riches: they are but temporary disguises for lasting realities–Pain, Grief, Shame, Poverty. The fairy said true; in all her store there was but one gift which was precious, only one that was not valueless. How poor and cheap and mean I know those others now to be, compared with that inestimable one, that dear and sweet and kindly one, that steeps in dreamless and enduring sleep the pains that persecute the body, and the shames and griefs that eat the mind and heart. Bring it! I am weary, I would rest.”
The fairy came, bringing again four of the gifts, but Death was wanting. She said:
“I gave it to a mother’s pet, a little child. It was ignorant, but trusted me, asking me to choose for it. You did not ask me to choose.”
“Oh, miserable me! What is left for me?”
“What not even you have deserved: the wanton insult of Old Age.”
The Five Boons of Life was featured as The Short Story of the Day on Sun, Sep 24, 2017
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A Telephonic Conversation
by Mark Twain
Consider that a conversation by telephone–when you are simply sitting by and not taking any part in that conversation–is one of the solemnest curiosities of modern life. Yesterday I was writing a deep article on a sublime philosophical subject while such a conversation was going on in the room. I notice that one can always write best when somebody is talking through a telephone close by. Well, the thing began in this way. A member of our household came in and asked me to have our house put into communication with Mr. Bagley’s downtown. I have observed, in many cities, that the sex always shrink from calling up the central office themselves. I don’t know why, but they do. So I touched the bell, and this talk ensued:
CENTRAL OFFICE. (gruffy.) Hello!
I. Is it the Central Office?
C. O. Of course it is. What do you want?
I. Will you switch me on to the Bagleys, please?
C. O. All right. Just keep your ear to the telephone.
Then I heard k-look, k-look, k’look–klook-klook-klook-look-look! then a horrible “gritting” of teeth, and finally a piping female voice: Y-e-s? (rising inflection.) Did you wish to speak to me?
Without answering, I handed the telephone to the applicant, and sat down. Then followed that queerest of all the queer things in this world– a conversation with only one end of it. You hear questions asked; you don’t hear the answer. You hear invitations given; you hear no thanks in return. You have listening pauses of dead silence, followed by apparently irrelevant and unjustifiable exclamations of glad surprise or sorrow or dismay. You can’t make head or tail of the talk, because you never hear anything that the person at the other end of the wire says. Well, I heard the following remarkable series of observations, all from the one tongue, and all shouted– for you can’t ever persuade the sex to speak gently into a telephone:
Yes? Why, how did that happen?
What did you say?
Oh no, I don’t think it was.
No! Oh no, I didn’t mean that. I meant, put it in while it is still boiling–or just before it comes to a boil.
I turned it over with a backstitch on the selvage edge.
Yes, I like that way, too; but I think it’s better to baste it on with Valenciennes or bombazine, or something of that sort. It gives it such an air–and attracts so much noise.
It’s forty-ninth Deuteronomy, sixty-forth to ninety-seventh inclusive. I think we ought all to read it often.
Perhaps so; I generally use a hair pin.
What did you say? (aside.) Children, do be quiet!
Oh! B flat! Dear me, I thought you said it was the cat!
Why, I never heard of it.
You astound me! It seems utterly impossible!
Well, what is this world coming to? Was it right in church?
And was her mother there?
Why, Mrs. Bagley, I should have died of humiliation! What did they do?
I can’t be perfectly sure, because I haven’t the notes by me; but I think it goes something like this: te-rolly-loll-loll, loll lolly-loll-loll, O tolly-loll-loll-lee-ly-li-I-do! And then repeat, you know.
Yes, I think it is very sweet–and very solemn and impressive, if you get the andantino and the pianissimo right.
Oh, gum-drops, gum-drops! But I never allow them to eat striped candy. And of course they can’t, till they get their teeth, anyway.
Oh, not in the least–go right on. He’s here writing–it doesn’t bother him.
Very well, I’ll come if I can. (aside.) Dear me, how it does tire a person’s arm to hold this thing up so long! I wish she’d–
Oh no, not at all; I like to talk–but I’m afraid I’m keeping you from your affairs.
No, we never use butter on them.
Yes, that is a very good way; but all the cook-books say they are very unhealthy when they are out of season. And he doesn’t like them, anyway–especially canned.
Oh, I think that is too high for them; we have never paid over fifty cents a bunch.
Must you go? Well, good-by.
Yes, I think so. Good-by.
Four o’clock, then–I’ll be ready. Good-by.
Thank you ever so much. Good-by.
Oh, not at all!–just as fresh–which? Oh, I’m glad to hear you say that. Good-by.
(Hangs up the telephone and says, “Oh, it does tire a person’s arm so!”)
A man delivers a single brutal “Good-by,” and that is the end of it. Not so with the gentle sex–I say it in their praise; they cannot abide abruptness.
by Mark Twain
Once upon a time an artist who had painted a small and very beautiful picture placed it so that he could see it in the mirror. He said, “This doubles the distance and softens it, and it is twice as lovely as it was before.”
The animals out in the woods heard of this through the housecat, who was greatly admired by them because he was so learned, and so refined and civilized, and so polite and high-bred, and could tell them so much which they didn’t know before, and were not certain about afterward. They were much excited about this new piece of gossip, and they asked questions, so as to get at a full understanding of it. They asked what a picture was, and the cat explained.
“It is a flat thing,” he said; “wonderfully flat, marvelously flat, enchantingly flat and elegant. And, oh, so beautiful!”
That excited them almost to a frenzy, and they said they would give the world to see it. Then the bear asked:
“What is it that makes it so beautiful?”
“It is the looks of it,” said the cat.
This filled them with admiration and uncertainty, and they were more excited than ever. Then the cow asked:
“What is a mirror?”
“It is a hole in the wall,” said the cat. “You look in it, and there you see the picture, and it is so dainty and charming and ethereal and inspiring in its unimaginable beauty that your head turns round and round, and you almost swoon with ecstasy.”
The ass had not said anything as yet; he now began to throw doubts. He said there had never been anything as beautiful as this before, and probably wasn’t now. He said that when it took a whole basketful of sesquipedalian adjectives to whoop up a thing of beauty, it was time for suspicion.
It was easy to see that these doubts were having an effect upon the animals, so the cat went off offended. The subject was dropped for a couple of days, but in the meantime curiosity was taking a fresh start, aid there was a revival of interest perceptible. Then the animals assailed the ass for spoiling what could possibly have been a pleasure to them, on a mere suspicion that the picture was not beautiful, without any evidence that such was the case. The ass was not, troubled; he was calm, and said there was one way to find out who was in the right, himself or the cat: he would go and look in that hole, and come back and tell what he found there. The animals felt relieved and grateful, and asked him to go at once–which he did.
But he did not know where he ought to stand; and so, through error, he stood between the picture and the mirror. The result was that the picture had no chance, and didn’t show up. He returned home and said:
“The cat lied. There was nothing in that hole but an ass. There wasn’t a sign of a flat thing visible. It was a handsome ass, and friendly, but just an ass, and nothing more.”
The elephant asked:
“Did you see it good and clear? Were you close to it?”
“I saw it good and clear, O Hathi, King of Beasts. I was so close that I touched noses with it.”
“This is very strange,” said the elephant; “the cat was always truthful before–as far as we could make out. Let another witness try. Go, Baloo, look in the hole, and come and report.”
So the bear went. When he came back, he said:
“Both the cat and the ass have lied; there was nothing in the hole but a bear.”
Great was the surprise and puzzlement of the animals. Each was now anxious to make the test himself and get at the straight truth. The elephant sent them one at a time.
First, the cow. She found nothing in the hole but a cow.
The tiger found nothing in it but a tiger.
The lion found nothing in it but a lion.
The leopard found nothing in it but a leopard.
The camel found a camel, and nothing more.
Then Hathi was wroth, and said he would have the truth, if he had to go and fetch it himself. When he returned, he abused his whole subjectry for liars, and was in an unappeasable fury with the moral and mental blindness of the cat. He said that anybody but a near-sighted fool could see that there was nothing in the hole but an elephant.
MORAL, BY THE CAT
You can find in a text whatever you bring, if you will stand between it and the mirror of your imagination. You may not see your ears, but they will be there.
A Fable was featured as The Short Story of the Day on Fri, Sep 14, 2018
“ Grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with. ”
― Mark Twain