From the Bible to Mark Twain, Notes On: “Well done, [thou] good and faithful servant”

Mathew 25: 21 [King James Version]

His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.

The Chicago Republican, May 19, 1868

[Courtesy of LOC &]

Once in Washington, during the winter, Riley a fellow-correspondent, who stayed in the same house with me, rushed into my room — it was past midnight — and said, “Great God, what can the matter be! What makes that awful smell?”

I said, “Calm yourself, Mr. Riley. There is no occasion for alarm. You smell about as usual.”

But he said there was no joke about this matter — the house was full of smoke — he had heard dreadful screams — he recognized the odor of burning human flesh. We soon found out that he was right. A poor old negro woman, a servant in the next house, had fallen on the stove and burned herself so badly that she soon died. It was a sad case, and at breakfast all spoke gloomily of the disaster, and felt low-spirited. The landlady even cried, and that depressed us still more. She said:

“Oh, to think of such a fate! She was so good, and so kind and so faithful. She had worked hard and honestly in that family for twenty-eight long years, and now she is roasted to death — yes, roasted to crisp, like 80 much beef.”

In a grave voice and without even the shadow of a smile, Riley said:

Well done, good and faithful servant !”

It sounded like a benediction, and the landlady never perceived the joke, but I never came so near choking in my life.

– End –

THE GALAXY, November 1870




[Courtesy & Google Books]

Riley has a ready wit, a quickness and aptness at selecting and applying quotations, and a countenance that is as solemn and as blank as the back side of a tombstone when he is delivering a particularly exasperating joke. One night a negro woman was burned to death in a house next door to us, and Riley said that our landlady would be oppressively emotional at breakfast, because she generally made use of such opportunities as offered, being of a morbidly sentimental turn, and so we would find it best to let her talk along and say nothing back — it was the only way to keep her tears out of the gravy. Riley said there never was a funeral in the neighborhood but that the gravy was watery for a week.

And sure enough, at breakfast the landlady was down in the very sloughs of woe — entirely broken-hearted. Every thing she looked at reminded her of that poor old negro woman, and so the buckwheat cakes made her sob, the coffee forced a groan, and when the beefsteak came on she fetched a wail that made our hair rise. Then she got to talking about deceased, and kept up a steady drizzle till both of us were soaked through and through. Presently she took a fresh breath and said, with a world of sobs:

“Ah, to think of it, only to think of it! — the poor old faithful creature. For she was so faithful. Would you believe it, she had been a servant in that self-same house and that self-same family for twenty-seven years come Christmas, and never a cross word and never a lick! And oh to think she should meet such a death at last! — a-sitting over the red-hot stove at three o’clock in the morning and went to sleep and fell on it and was actually roasted! not just frizzled up a bit, but literally roasted to a crisp! Poor faithful creature, how she was cooked! I am but a poor woman, but even if I have to scrimp to do it, I will put up a tombstone over that lone sufferer’s grave — and Mr. Riley, if you would have the goodness to think up a little epitaph to put on it which would sort of describe the awful way in which she met her –”

“Put it ‘Well done, good and faithful servant!’ ” said Riley, and never smiled.

[I have either printed that anecdote once before or told it in company so many thousand times as to carry that seeming to my mind, but it is of no consequence — it is worth printing half a dozen times.]

– End –

This story was included in Mark Twain’s Sketches, New & Old (1875)

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