It was precisely the kind of thing that would appeal to him--the delicate moral difference between a demand thirteen times as great as it should be and a demand that was only one and a third times the correct amount. "To My Missionary Critics," in the North American Review for April (1901), was his formal and somewhat lengthy reply.

"I have no prejudice against apologies," he wrote. "I trust I shall never withhold one when it is due."

He then proceeded to make out his case categorically. Touching the exaggerated indemnity, he said:

To Dr. Smith the "thirteen-fold-extra" clearly stood for "theft and extortion," and he was right, distinctly right, indisputably right. He manifestly thinks that when it got scaled away down to a mere "one-third" a little thing like that was some other than "theft and extortion." Why, only the board knows!

I will try to explain this difficult problem so that the board can get an idea of it. If a pauper owes me a dollar and I catch him unprotected and make him pay me fourteen dollars thirteen of it is "theft and extortion." If I make him pay only one dollar thirty-three and a third cents the thirty-three and a third cents are "theft and extortion," just the same.

I will put it in another way still simpler. If a man owes me one dog-- any kind of a dog, the breed is of no consequence--and I--but let it go; the board would never understand it. It can't understand these involved and difficult things.

He offered some further illustrations, including the "Tale of a King and His Treasure" and another tale entitled "The Watermelons."

I have it now. Many years ago, when I was studying for the gallows, I had a dear comrade, a youth who was not in my line, but still a scrupulously good fellow though devious. He was preparing to qualify for a place on the board, for there was going to be a vacancy by superannuation in about five years. This was down South, in the slavery days. It was the nature of the negro then, as now, to steal watermelons. They stole three of the melons of an adoptive brother of mine, the only good ones he had. I suspected three of a neighbor's negroes, but there was no proof, and, besides, the watermelons in those negroes' private patches were all green and small and not up to indemnity standard. But in the private patches of three other negroes there was a number of competent melons. I consulted with my comrade, the understudy of the board. He said that if I would approve his arrangements he would arrange. I said, "Consider me the board; I approve; arrange." So he took a gun and went and collected three large melons for my brother-on-the- halfshell, and one over. I was greatly pleased and asked:

"Who gets the extra one?" "Widows and orphans."

"A good idea, too. Why didn't you take thirteen?"

"It would have been wrong; a crime, in fact-theft and extortion."

"What is the one-third extra--the odd melon--the same?"

It caused him to reflect. But there was no result.

The justice of the peace was a stern man. On the trial he found fault with the scheme and required us to explain upon what we based our strange conduct--as he called it. The understudy said:

"On the custom of the niggers. They all do it."--[The point had been made by the board that it was the Chinese custom to make the inhabitants of a village responsible for individual crimes; and custom, likewise, to collect a third in excess of the damage, such surplus having been applied to the support of widows and orphans of the slain converts.]

The justice forgot his dignity and descended to sarcasm.

"Custom of the niggers! Are our morals so inadequate that we have to borrow of niggers?"

Then he said to the jury: "Three melons were owing; they were collected from persons not proven to owe them: this is theft; they were collected by compulsion: this is extortion.

Mark Twain
Classic Literature Library

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