Skip to content
Print E-mail
American Short Stories | Distinguished American Series | Edgar Allan Poe Storyteller | News Reports | Words And Their Stories


Listening Library

American Short Stories
Bartleby | Blanket | Feathertop | Keesh | Lawoflife | Luck | Owlcreek | Sleepy

Luck (Mark Twain)

Image 13:31


Now, the weekly Special English program of American stories. Our story today is called "Luck." It was written by Mark Twain. Here is Maurice Joyce with the story.


I was at a banquet in London given in honor of one of the most celebrated English military men of his time. I do not want to tell you his real name and titles. I will just call him Lieutenant-General Lord Arthur Scoresby, Y.C., K.C.B., etc., etc. . . .


I can't describe my excitement when I saw this great and famous man. There he sat, the man himself, in person, all covered with medals. I could not take my eyes off him. He seemed to show the true mark of greatness. His fame had no effect on him. The hundreds of admiring eyes, the worship of so many people seemed to make little difference to him.


Next to me sat a clergyman who was an old friend of mine. He was not always a clergyman. During the first half of his life he was a teacher in the military school at Woolwich. There was a strange look in his eye as he leaned toward me and whispered "Privately -- he is a complete fool." He meant, of course, the hero of our banquet.


This came as a shock to me. I looked hard at him, puzzled. I could not have been more surprised if he had said the same thing about Napoleon, or Socrates, or Solomon. But I was sure of two things about the clergyman. He always spoke the truth. And his judgment of men was good. Therefore, I wanted to find out more about our hero as soon as I could. Some days later I got a chance to talk with the clergyman, and this is what he told me. These are his exact words:


"About forty years ago, I was an instructor in the military academy at Woolwich when young Scoresby took his first examination. I felt extremely sorry for him. Everybody answered the questions well, intelligently, while he -- why, dear me -- he did not know anything, so to speak. He was a nice, pleasant young man. It was painful to see him stand there like a dummy and give answers that were miracles of stupidity and ignorance.


"I knew, of course, that when examined again he would fail and be thrown out. So, I said to myself, it would be a simple, harmless act of charity to help him as much as I could.


"I took him aside and found he knew a little of Caesar's history. And as he did not know anything else, I went to work and drilled and tested him and worked him like a galley slave. I made him work, over and over again, on a few questions about Caesar which I knew would be used.


"If you will believe me, he came through with flying colors on examination day. He got high praise, too, while others who knew a thousand times more than he got their feathers plucked. By some strange, lucky accident, he was asked no questions but those I made him work on. Such an accident does not happen more than once in a hundred years.


"Well, all through his studies, I stood by him with the feeling a mother has for a crippled child. And he always saved himself by some miracle.


"I thought that what in the end would destroy him would be mathematics. I decided to make his end as painless as possible. So I drilled him and I crammed things into his dull head for hours. I crammed him and drilled him just on the kind of questions the examiners would be most likely to use. Then, finally, I let him take his medicine. Well, sir, try to imagine the result. I was shocked out of my wits. He took first prize! And he got the highest praise.


"My conscience tortured me day and night -- what I was doing was not right. But I only wanted to make his dismissal a little less painful for him. It was pure charity. I never dreamed it would lead to such strange, laughable results. I thought that sooner or later one thing was sure to happen: The first real test would ruin him.


"Then, the Crimean War broke out. I felt that it was sad for him that there had to be a war. Peace would have given this donkey a chance to escape from ever being, found out as an idiot. Nervously I waited for the worst to happen. It did. And it made my head spin with fear when it did happen. He was appointed to a captaincy. A captain, of all things! Who could have dreamed that they would place such a responsibility on such feeble shoulders as his? A captain! I thought my hair would turn white.


"Consider what I did then! I said to myself that I was responsible to the country for this: I must go with him and protect the nation against him as far as I could. So I joined up with him. And away we went to the field.


"And there -- oh, dear, it was terrible. Blunders, fearful mistakes -- why, he never did anything that was right nothing but blunders. But, you see, nobody knew the secret of how stupid he really was. Everybody had him wrong and, of course, misunderstood his actions. They saw his idiotic blunders as works of genius. They did, honestly! His smallest blunders made, a man in his right mind cry -- and rage and rave, too -- to himself, of course. And what kept me in a continual sweat of fear was the fact that every blunder he made increased his glory and fame.


"I kept saying to myself that when at last they find out about him, it will be like the sun falling out of the sky.


"He continued to climb up over the dead bodies of his superiors. Then, in the hottest moment of one battle down went our colonel. My heart jumped into my mouth, for Scoresby was the next in line to take his place. 'Now, we are in for it,' I said. . . .


"The battle grew hotter. The English and their allies were steadily retreating all over the field. Our regiment occupied a position that was extremely important. One blunder now would bring total disaster. And what did Scoresby do this time? -- just mistook his left hand for his right hand . . . that was all. An order came for him to fall back and support our right. Instead, he moved forward and went over the hill to the left. We were over the hill before this insane movement could be discovered and stopped. And what did we find? An entire, unsuspected Russian army waiting in reserve! And what happened -- were we eaten up? That is exactly what would have happened in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred. But no -- those surprised Russians argued that no single regiment by itself would come browsing around there at such a time. It must be the whole British army, they thought. They turned tail and away they went, pell-mell, over the hill and down into the field in wild disorder, and we after them. In no time, there was the most tremendous rout and disaster you ever saw. The allies turned defeat into a sweeping and shining victory.


"Marshal Canrobert looked on, his head spinning with wonder, surprise and joy. He sent right off for Scoresby, and put his arms around him and hugged him on the field in front of all the armies.


"The name that Scoresby won that day as a great military genius filled the world with his glory. That glory will never disappear while history books last.


"He is just as nice and pleasant as ever, but he still does not know enough to come in out of the rain. He is the supremest jackass in the universe.


"Until now, nobody knew it but Scoresby and myself. He has been followed, day by day, year by year, by a strange luck. He has been a shining soldier in all our wars for years. He has covered his whole military life with blunders. Every one of them made him a knight or a baronet or a lord or something. Look at his chest, flooded with domestic and foreign decorations. Well, sir, every one of them is the record of some great stupidity or other. They are proof that the best thing that can happen to a man is to be born lucky. I say again, as I did at the banquet, Scoresby's an absolute fool."


You have just heard Mark Twain's story "Luck." Your narrator was Maurice Joyce. Listen again to this Special English program next week at the same time for another American story. This is Dick Morgan.


Listening Library

American Short Stories
Bartleby | Blanket | Feathertop | Keesh | Lawoflife | Luck | Owlcreek | Sleepy


American Short Stories | Distinguished American Series | Edgar Allan Poe Storyteller | News Reports | Words And Their Stories