Bank Balance

‘Well, then, good fellow, holy father, or whatever thou art,’ quoth Robin, ‘I would know whether this same Friar is to be found upon this side of the river or the other.’

‘Truly, the river hath no side but the other,’ said the Friar.

‘How dost thou prove that?’ asked Robin.

‘Why, thus,’ said the Friar, noting the points upon his fingers. ‘The other side of the river is the other, thou grantest?’

‘Yea, truly.’

‘Yet the other side is but one side, thou dost mark?’

‘No man could gainsay that,’ said Robin.

‘Then if the other side is one side, this side is the other side. But the other side is the other side, therefore both sides of the river are the other side. Q.E.D.’

”Tis well and pleasantly argued,’ quoth Robin, ‘yet I am still in the dark as to whether this same Curtal Friar is upon the side of the river on which we stand or upon the side of the river on which we do not stand.’

‘That,’ quoth the Friar, ‘is a practical question upon which the cunning rules appertaining to logic touch not. I do advise thee to find that out by the aid of thine own five senses; sight, feeling, and what not.’

— Howard Pyle, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, 1883


In 1989, Jules Verne’s great-grandson opened a disused family safe and found a forgotten manuscript. Composed in 1863, Paris in the Twentieth Century imagines the remote future of August 1960 — a world illuminated by electric lights in which people drive horseless carriages powered by internal combustion and ride in automatic, driverless trains.

In Verne’s vision, the citizens of Paris use copiers, calculators, and fax machines; inhabit skyscrapers equipped with elevators and television; and execute their criminals in electric chairs. Twenty-six years before the Eiffel Tower was erected, Verne described “an electric lighthouse, no longer much used, [that] rose into the sky to a height of 152 meters. This was the highest monument in the world, and its lights could be seen, forty leagues away, from the towers of Rouen Cathedral.”

Verne’s publisher had returned the manuscript because he found it too dark — in addition to the city’s technological wonders, it describes overcrowding, pollution, the dissolution of social institutions, and “machines advantageously replacing human hands.”

“No one today,” he had written, “will believe your prophecy.”

A Higher Star

At a dinner, Oliver Herford found himself sitting next to a very serious young woman.

“Tell me, Mr. Herford,” she said. “Have you no ambition beyond making people laugh?”

“Yes, I have,” he replied. “And someday I hope to gratify it.”

“Please tell me,” she said eagerly. “What is it?”

He said, “I want to throw an egg into an electric fan.”


One day there was a traveller in the woods in California, in the dry season, when the Trades were blowing strong. He had ridden a long way, and he was tired and hungry, and dismounted from his horse to smoke a pipe. But when he felt in his pocket he found but two matches. He struck the first, and it would not light.

‘Here is a pretty state of things!’ said the traveller. ‘Dying for a smoke; only one match left; and that certain to miss fire! Was there ever a creature so unfortunate? And yet,’ thought the traveller, ‘suppose I light this match, and smoke my pipe, and shake out the dottle here in the grass – the grass might catch on fire, for it is dry like tinder; and while I snatch out the flames in front, they might evade and run behind me, and seize upon yon bush of poison oak; before I could reach it, that would have blazed up; over the bush I see a pine tree hung with moss; that too would fly in fire upon the instant to its topmost bough; and the flame of that long torch – how would the trade wind take and brandish that through the inflammable forest! I hear this dell roar in a moment with the joint voice of wind and fire, I see myself gallop for my soul, and the flying conflagration chase and outflank me through the hills; I see this pleasant forest burn for days, and the cattle roasted, and the springs dried up, and the farmer ruined, and his children cast upon the world. What a world hangs upon this moment!’

With that he struck the match, and it missed fire.

‘Thank God!’ said the traveller, and put his pipe in his pocket.

— Robert Louis Stevenson, “Fables,” Longman’s Magazine, August 1895

Good Point's_Ghost.JPG

People go into ecstasies over the famous soliloquy ‘To be or not to be.’ I cannot myself know if our souls are annihilated after death or not. But if any one is well informed upon that point, it is Hamlet, who talks every day with his defunct father.

— Victorien Sardou, quoted in William Shepard Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, 1892

The Editorial Lash

Thomas Jefferson writhed under the criticisms of the Continental Congress as it reviewed his draft of the Declaration of Independence. Seeing this, Benjamin Franklin took him aside. “I have made it a rule,” he said, “whenever in my power, to avoid becoming the draftsman of papers to be reviewed by a public body. I took my lesson from an incident which I will relate to you.

“When I was a journeyman printer, one of my companions, an apprenticed hatter, having served out his time, was about to open shop for himself. His first concern was to have a handsome signboard, with a proper inscription. He composed it in these words: John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money, with a figure of a hat subjoined. But he thought he would submit it to his friends for their amendments.

“The first he showed it to thought the word hatter tautologous, because followed by the words makes hats, which showed he was a hatter. It was struck out. The next observed that the word makes might as well be omitted, because his customers would not care who made the hats; if good and to their mind they would buy, by whomsoever made. He struck it out. A third said he thought the words for ready money were useless, as it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. Every one who purchased expected to pay. They were parted with, and the inscription now stood, John Thompson sells hats. ‘Sells hats?’ says his next friend; ‘why, nobody will expect you to give them away. What, then, is the use of that word?’ It was stricken out, and hats followed, the rather as there was one painted on the board.

“So his inscription was ultimately reduced to John Thompson, with the figure of a hat subjoined.”

Short Order

A servant maid was sent by her mistress to Ben Johnson, for an epitaph on her departed husband. She could only afford to pay half-a-guinea, which Ben refused, saying he never wrote one for less than double that sum; but recollecting he was going to dine that day at a tavern, he ran down stairs and called her back. ‘What was your master’s name?’–‘Jonathan Fiddle, sir.’–‘When did he die?’–‘June the 22nd, sir.’ Ben took a small piece of paper, and wrote with his pencil, while standing on the stairs, the following:–

On the twenty-second of June,
Jonathan Fiddle went out of tune.

— Horatio Edward Norfolk, Gleanings in Graveyards, 1861

In a Word

n. careless handwriting

Of all editorial writers, Horace Greeley was most noted for illegible copy. On one occasion the ‘modern Franklin’ penned something about ‘Suburban journalism advancing,’ but the typesetter, thinking it one of his famous agricultural articles, launched out wildly with the words, ‘Superb Jerusalem artichokes.’ The stories of the wild work made by compositors with Mr. Greeley’s writing are endless, and probably most of them inventions; but the fiction cannot possibly outdo the reality. One of his editorial headings, ‘William H. Seward,’ was turned into ‘William the Third’; and the quotation from Shakespeare, ”Tis true, ’tis pity, and pity ’tis ’tis true,’ came out ”Tis two, ’tis fifty and fifty, ’tis fifty-two.’ That a sign-painter turned the placard ‘Entrance on Spruce’ to put up on the Nassau Street door during repairs, into ‘Editors on a Spree,’ is probably apocryphal; but the familiar legend that a discharged printer took his note of dismissal and used it for a letter of recommendation, securing a place on the strength of the signature, which was all anybody could read, is likely enough to have been true.

Travelers’ Record, April 1889

See Pen Mystique.