I Meet John Sargent
In May of 1879 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was selling tolerably well, making my peculiar blend of tragedy and frivolity welcome on the lecture circuit. I voyaged from my home in the Sandwich Islands to San Francisco to deliver another round of travel lectures in the Republic of Alta California. That winter I had changed my name legally to Mark Twain, and was resolved to leave that dour old humbug Sam Clemens behind me in the wake.
I was traveling with my new Submarine Super Camera, a tiny, cunning instrument, with which I made of our vessel, the steamer Jupiter. When I developed the negatives later, I found that the still images failed to capture the vessel’s essential meanness. The ship was of the tramp variety: too small for sugar, too large for coffee, too Spartan for passengers, and so she specialized in a little of each. She was about as long as two streetcars and about as wide as one. I could reach the water when she lay over sideways in the swells, which she did constantly, to the detriment of one’s digestion. Turned to meet the mountainous peaks of the Pacific head-on, the Jupiter pitched like a see-saw. At one moment the bowsprit was taking a deadly aim at the sun in midheaven, and at the next it was trying to harpoon a shark in the bottom of the ocean.
I spent most of my time in the saloon, waiting for the bar to open, playing euchre, droughts, and dominoes with my fellow passengers. There I first met , three days out from Honolulu, when he emerged from his cabin, green as spring grass, and staggered into the saloon in search of sustenance and entertainment. He was pale as any ghost, and in fact reminded me strongly of my own personal ghost, the shade of my brother Henry. Sargent had the same clear brow, the same open, innocent, quizzical expression.
He was a polished, charming young man of about 25 years of age, earnest, poised, and confident; but I am always prepared to forgive that in a tenderfoot. There was something energetic and engaging about the sprout that made it hard to get shut of him. As to character, he was a raw nerve, an empty vessel, a swelling bud, and my old pal Colonel Sutherland and I took pity on him. We resolved to soothe his nerves, fill his emptiness, and tap the swelling bud of his purse with a friendly game of Molokai Scratch.
At our invitation he demurred with the usual tenderfoot’s protestations, as easily overcome as the average Sunday school teacher’s claims of ignorance of drink, dice, or damsels of uneasy virtue.
“You would do us great honor if you would agree to complete our circle,” I insisted.
“The honor is mine, Mr. Twain.” He took his seat in surrender, running up the white flag and spiking all his guns.
Scratch is the preferred game of Honolulu’s card sharks because it is Episcopal in its complexity, Presbyterian in its flexibility, and Quakerish in the silent, covert cooperation that is possible between two experienced devotees. Scratch is the bastard son of Euchre out of Stud Poker while Whist wasn’t watching. Compared to Scratch, all other card games are like dancing with your sister. Colonel Sutherland and I were confirmed Scratchers and young Sargent was the perfect Itch.
“I beg your pardon, Mr. Twain,” John asked, “But did you say that fives and sevens are wild?”
“Only black fives and sevens, and only for face cards.”
“Then I believe I have four Kings,” he said, laying down his hand.
“Normally that would be true, but this is the third rubber, in which wild cards apply only to black queens. In this instance you have two fives and two kings, and the Colonel takes the pot with three queens.”
“I see. Thank you for the clarification.”
He was wonderfully polite, reminding me again of my poor late brother Henry. Someone, probably his maternal relative, had trained him well, but with application he would soon learn to overcome his limited upbringing. When we had cleaned him out he retired with good grace to his sketchbook. The next morning he presented me with a wonderfully detailed drawing of myself dealing three-handed Whist. I accepted it with thanks and admiration, and thus I first introduced the camel’s nose of trust into my tent of native caution.
© Patrick Fanning, 2012