Remarkable Instances of Presence of Mind

By Mark Twain
From The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches (New York: C. H. Webb, 1867).

The steamer Ajax encountered a terrible storm on her down trip from San Francisco to the Sandwich Islands. It tore her light spars and rigging all to shreds and splinters, upset all furniture that could be upset, and spilled passengers around and knocked them hither and thither with a perfect looseness. For forty-eight hours no table could be set, and every body had to eat as best they might under the circumstances. Most of the party went hungry, though, and attended to their praying. But there was one set of "seven-up" players who nailed a card-table to the floor and stuck to their game through thick and thin. Captain F------, of a great banking-house in San Francisco, a man of great coolness and presence of mind, was of this party. One night the storm suddenly culminated in a climax of unparalleled fury; the vessel went down on her beam ends, and every thing let go with a crash -- passengers, tables, cards, bottles -- every thing came clattering to the floor in a chaos of disorder and confusion. In a moment fifty sore distressed and pleading voices ejaculated, "O Heaven! help us in our extremity!" and one voice rang out clear and sharp above the plaintive chorus and said, "Remember, boys, I played the tray for low!" It was one of the gentlemen I have mentioned who spoke. And the remark showed good presence of mind and an eye to business.

Lewis L------, of a great hotel in San Francisco, was a passenger. There were some savage grizzly bears chained in cages on deck. One night, in the midst of a hurricane, which was accompanied by rain and thunder and lightning, Mr. L. came up, on his way to bed. Just as he stepped into the pitchy darkness of the deck and reeled to the still more pitchy motion of the vessel, (bad,) the captain sang out hoarsely through his speaking-trumpet, "Bear a hand aft, there!" The words were sadly marred and jumbled by the roaring wind. Mr. L------ thought the captain said, " The bears are after you there!" and he "let go all bolts" and went down into his boots. He murmured, "I knew how it was going to be -- I just knew it from the start -- I said all along that those bears would get loose some time; and now I'll be the first man that they'll snatch. Captain! captain! -- can't hear me -- storm roars so! O God! what a fate! I have avoided wild beasts all my life, and now to be eaten by a grizzly bear in the middle of the ocean, a thousand miles from land! Captain! O captain! -- bless my soul, there's one of them -- I've got to cut and run!" And he did cut and run, and smashed through the door of the first stateroom he came to. A gentleman and his wife were in it. The gentleman exclaimed, "Who's that?" The refugee gasped out, "O great Scotland! those bears are loose, and just raising merry hell all over the ship!" and then sank down exhausted. The gentleman sprang out of bed and locked the door, and prepared for a siege. After a while, no assault being made, a reconnaissance was made from the window, and a vivid flash of lightning revealed a clear deck. Mr. L------ then made a dart for his own stateroom, gained it, locked himself in, and felt that his body's salvation was accomplished, and by little less than a miracle. The next day the subject of this memoir, though still very feeble and nervous, had the hardihood to make a joke upon his adventure. He said that when he found himself in so tight a place (as he thought) he didn't bear it with much fortitude, and when he found himself safe at last in his state-room, he regarded it as the bearest escape he had ever had in his life. He then went to bed, and did not get up again for nine days. This unquestionably bad joke cast a gloom over the whole ship's company, and no effort was sufficient to restore their wonted cheerfulness until the vessel reached her port, and other scenes erased it from their memories.

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