Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCXLIX

Billiards

The return to New York marked the beginning of a new era in my relations with Mark Twain. I have not meant to convey up to this time that there was between us anything resembling a personal friendship. Our relations were friendly, certainly, but they were relations of convenience and mainly of a business, or at least of a literary nature. He was twenty-six years my senior, and the discrepancy of experience and attainments was not measurable. With such conditions friendship must be a deliberate growth; something there must be to bridge the dividing gulf. Truth requires the confession that, in this case, the bridge took a very solid, material form, it being, in fact, nothing less than a billiard-table. — [Clemens had been without a billiard-table since 1891, the old one having been disposed of on the departure from Hartford.]

It was a present from Mrs. Henry H. Rogers, and had been intended for his Christmas; but when he heard of it he could not wait, and suggested delicately that if he had it “right now” he could begin using it sooner. So he went one day with Mr. Rogers to the Balke-Collender Company, and they selected a handsome combination table suitable to all games — the best that money could buy. He was greatly excited over the prospect, and his former bedroom was carefully measured, to be certain that it was large enough for billiard purposes. Then his bed was moved into the study, and the bookcases and certain appropriate pictures were placed and hung in the billiard-room to give it the proper feeling. The billiard-table arrived and was put in place, the brilliant green cloth in contrast with the rich red wallpaper and the bookbindings and pictures making the room wonderfully handsome and inviting.

Meantime, Clemens, with one of his sudden impulses, had conceived the notion of spending the winter in Egypt, on the Nile. He had gone so far, within a few hours after the idea developed, as to plan the time of his departure, and to partially engage a traveling secretary, so that he might continue his dictations. He was quite full of the idea just at the moment when the billiard table was being installed. He had sent for a book on the subject — the letters of Lady Duff-Gordon, whose daughter, Janet Ross, had become a dear friend in Florence during the Viviani days. He spoke of this new purpose on the morning when we renewed the New York dictations, a month or more following the return from Dublin. When the dictation ended he said:

“Have you any special place to lunch to-day?”

I replied that I had not.

“Lunch here,” he said, “and we’ll try the new billiard-table.”

I said what was eminently true — that I could not play — that I had never played more “than a few games of pool, and those very long ago.

“No matter,” he answered; “the poorer you play, the better I shall like it.”

So I remained for luncheon and we began, November 2d, the first game ever played on the Christmas table. We played the English game, in which caroms and pockets both count. I had a beginner’s luck, on the whole, and I remember it as a riotous, rollicking game, the beginning of a closer understanding between us — of a distinct epoch in our association. When it was ended he said:

“I’m not going to Egypt. There was a man here yesterday afternoon who said it was bad for bronchitis, and, besides, it’s too far away from this billiard-table.”

He suggested that I come back in the evening and play some more. I did so, and the game lasted until after midnight. He gave me odds, of course, and my “nigger luck,” as he called it, continued. It kept him sweating and swearing feverishly to win. Finally, once I made a great fluke — a carom, followed by most of the balls falling into the pockets.

“Well,” he said, “when you pick up that cue this damn table drips at every pore.”

After that the morning dictations became a secondary interest. Like a boy, he was looking forward to the afternoon of play, and it never seemed to come quick enough to suit him. I remained regularly for luncheon, and he was inclined to cut the courses short, that he might the sooner get up-stairs to the billiard-room. His earlier habit of not eating in the middle of the day continued; but he would get up and dress, and walk about the dining-room in his old fashion, talking that marvelous, marvelous talk which I was always trying to remember, and with only fractional success at best. To him it was only a method of killing time. I remember once, when he had been discussing with great earnestness the Japanese question, he suddenly noticed that the luncheon was about ending, and he said:

“Now we’ll proceed to more serious matters — it’s your — shot.” And he was quite serious, for the green cloth and the rolling balls afforded him a much larger interest.

To the donor of his new possession Clemens wrote:

DEAR MRS. ROGERS — The billiard-table is better than the doctors. I have a billiardist on the premises, & walk not less than ten miles every day with the cue in my hand. And the walking is not the whole of the exercise, nor the most health giving part of it, I think. Through the multitude of the positions and attitudes it brings into play every muscle in the body & exercises them all.

The games begin right after luncheons, daily, & continue until midnight, with 2 hours’ intermission for dinner & music. And so it is 9 hours’ exercise per day & 10 or 12 on Sunday. Yesterday & last night it was 12 —& I slept until 8 this morning without waking. The billiard-table as a Sabbath-breaker can beat any coal-breaker in Pennsylvania & give it 30 in the game. If Mr. Rogers will take to daily billiards he can do without the doctors & the massageur, I think.

We are really going to build a house on my farm, an hour & a half from New York. It is decided.

With love & many thanks. S. L. C.

Naturally enough, with continued practice I improved my game, and he reduced my odds accordingly. He was willing to be beaten, but not too often. Like any other boy, he preferred to have the balance in his favor. We set down a record of the games, and he went to bed happier if the tally-sheet showed him winner.

It was natural, too, that an intimacy of association and of personal interest should grow under such conditions — to me a precious boon — and I wish here to record my own boundless gratitude to Mrs. Rogers for her gift, which, whatever it meant to him, meant so much more to me. The disparity of ages no longer existed; other discrepancies no longer mattered. The pleasant land of play is a democracy where such things do not count.

To recall all the humors and interesting happenings of those early billiard-days would be to fill a large volume. I can preserve no more than a few characteristic phases.

He was not an even-tempered player. When the balls were perverse in their movements and his aim unsteady, he was likely to become short with his opponent — critical and even fault-finding. Then presently a reaction would set in, and he would be seized with remorse. He would become unnecessarily gentle and kindly — even attentive — placing the balls as I knocked them into the pockets, hurrying from one end of the table to render this service, endeavoring to show in every way except by actual confession in words that he was sorry for what seemed to him, no doubt, an unworthy display of temper, unjustified irritation.

Naturally, this was a mood that I enjoyed less than that which had induced it. I did not wish him to humble himself; I was willing that he should be severe, even harsh, if he felt so inclined; his age, his position, his genius entitled him to special privileges; yet I am glad, as I remember it now, that the other side revealed itself, for it completes the sum of his great humanity.

Indeed, he was always not only human, but superhuman; not only a man, but superman. Nor does this term apply only to his psychology. In no other human being have I ever seen such physical endurance. I was comparatively a young man, and by no means an invalid; but many a time, far in the night, when I was ready to drop with exhaustion, he was still as fresh and buoyant and eager for the game as at the moment of beginning. He smoked and smoked continually, and followed the endless track around the billiard-table with the light step of youth. At three or four o’clock in the morning he would urge just one more game, and would taunt me for my weariness. I can truthfully testify that never until the last year of his life did he willingly lay down the billiard-cue, or show the least suggestion of fatigue.

He played always at high pressure. Now and then, in periods of adversity, he would fly into a perfect passion with things in general. But, in the end, it was a sham battle, and he saw the uselessness and humor of it, even in the moment of his climax. Once, when he found it impossible to make any of his favorite shots, he became more and more restive, the lightning became vividly picturesque as the clouds blackened. Finally, with a regular thunder-blast, he seized the cue with both hands and literally mowed the balls across the table, landing one or two of them on the floor. I do not recall his exact remarks during the performance; I was chiefly concerned in getting out of the way, and those sublime utterances were lost. I gathered up the balls and we went on playing as if nothing had happened, only he was very gentle and sweet, like the sun on the meadows after the storm has passed by. After a little he said:

“This is a most amusing game. When you play badly it amuses me, and when I play badly and lose my temper it certainly must amuse you.”

His enjoyment of his opponent’s perplexities was very keen. When he had left the balls in some unfortunate position which made it almost impossible for me to score he would laugh boisterously. I used to affect to be injured and disturbed by this ridicule. Once, when he had made the conditions unusually hard for me, and was enjoying the situation accordingly, I was tempted to remark:

“Whenever I see you laugh at a thing like that I always doubt your sense of humor.” Which seemed to add to his amusement.

Sometimes, when the balls were badly placed for me, he would offer ostensible advice, suggesting that I should shoot here and there — shots that were possible, perhaps, but not promising. Often I would follow his advice, and then when I failed to score his amusement broke out afresh.

Other billiardists came from time to time: Colonel Harvey, Mr. Duneka, and Major Leigh, of the Harper Company, and Peter Finley Dunne (Mr. Dooley); but they were handicapped by their business affairs, and were not dependable for daily and protracted sessions. Any number of his friends were willing, even eager, to come for his entertainment; but the percentage of them who could and would devote a number of hours each day to being beaten at billiards and enjoy the operation dwindled down to a single individual. Even I could not have done it — could not have afforded it, however much I might have enjoyed the diversion — had it not been contributory to my work. To me the association was invaluable; it drew from him a thousand long-forgotten incidents; it invited a stream of picturesque comments and philosophies; it furnished the most intimate insight into his character.

He was not always glad to see promiscuous callers, even some one that he might have met pleasantly elsewhere. One afternoon a young man whom he had casually invited to “drop in some day in town” happened to call in the midst of a very close series of afternoon games. It would all have been well enough if the visitor had been content to sit quietly on the couch and “bet on the game,” as Clemens suggested, after the greetings were over; but he was a very young man, and he felt the necessity of being entertaining. He insisted on walking about the room and getting in the way, and on talking about the Mark Twain books he had read, and the people he had met from time to time who had known Mark Twain on the river, or on the Pacific coast, or elsewhere. I knew how fatal it was for him to talk to Clemens during his play, especially concerning matters most of which had been laid away. I trembled for our visitor. If I could have got his ear privately I should have said: “For heaven’s sake sit down and keep still or go away! There’s going to be a combination of earthquake and cyclone and avalanche if you keep this thing up.”

I did what I could. I looked at my watch every other minute. At last, in desperation, I suggested that I retire from the game and let the visitor have my cue. I suppose I thought this would eliminate an element of danger. He declined on the ground that he seldom played, and continued his deadly visit. I have never been in an atmosphere so fraught with danger. I did not know how the game stood, and I played mechanically and forgot to count the score. Clemens’s face was grim and set and savage. He no longer ventured even a word. By and by I noticed that he was getting white, and I said, privately, “Now, this young man’s hour has come.”

It was certainly by the mercy of God just then that the visitor said:

“I’m sorry, but I’ve got to go. I’d like to stay longer, but I’ve got an engagement for dinner.”

I don’t remember how he got out, but I know that tons lifted as the door closed behind him. Clemens made his shot, then very softly said:

“If he had stayed another five minutes I should have offered him twenty-five cents to go.”

But a moment later he glared at me.

“Why in nation did you offer him your cue?”

“Wasn’t that the courteous thing to do?” I asked.

“No!” he ripped out. “The courteous and proper thing would have been to strike him dead. Did you want to saddle that disaster upon us for life?”

He was blowing off steam, and I knew it and encouraged it. My impulse was to lie down on the couch and shout with hysterical laughter, but I suspected that would be indiscreet. He made some further comment on the propriety of offering a visitor a cue, and suddenly began to sing a travesty of an old hymn:

“How tedious are they Who their sovereign obey,”

and so loudly that I said:

“Aren’t you afraid he’ll hear you and come back?” Whereupon he pretended alarm and sang under his breath, and for the rest of the evening was in boundless good-humor.

I have recalled this incident merely as a sample of things that were likely to happen at any time in his company, and to show the difficulty one might find in fitting himself to his varying moods. He was not to be learned in a day, or a week, or a month; some of those who knew him longest did not learn him at all.

We celebrated his seventy-first birthday by playing billiards all day. He invented a new game for the occasion; inventing rules for it with almost every shot.

It happened that no member of the family was at home on this birthday. Ill health had banished every one, even the secretary. Flowers, telegrams, and congratulations came, and there was a string of callers; but he saw no one beyond some intimate friends — the Gilders — late in the afternoon. When they had gone we went down to dinner. We were entirely alone, and I felt the great honor of being his only guest on such an occasion. Once between the courses, when he rose, as usual, to walk about, he wandered into the drawing-room, and seating himself at the orchestrelle began to play the beautiful flower-song from “Faust.” It was a thing I had not seen him do before, and I never saw him do it again. When he came back to the table he said:

“Speaking of companions of the long ago, after fifty years they become only shadows and might as well be in the grave. Only those whom one has really loved mean anything at all. Of my playmates I recall John Briggs, John Garth, and Laura Hawkins — just those three; the rest I buried long ago, and memory cannot even find their graves.”

He was in his loveliest humor all that day and evening; and that night, when he stopped playing, he said:

“I have never had a pleasanter day at this game.”

I answered, “I hope ten years from to-night we shall still be playing it.”

“Yes,” he said, “still playing the best game on earth.”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05