Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCXCI

Letters from Bermuda

Stormfield was solemn and empty without Mark Twain; but he wrote by every steamer, at first with his own hand, and during the last week by the hand of one of his enlisted secretaries — some member of the Allen family usually Helen. His letters were full of brightness and pleasantry — always concerned more or less with business matters, though he was no longer disturbed by them, for Bermuda was too peaceful and too far away, and, besides, he had faith in the Mark Twain Company’s ability to look after his affairs. I cannot do better, I believe, than to offer some portions of these letters here.

He reached Bermuda on the 7th of January, 1910, and on the 12th he wrote:

Again I am living the ideal life. There is nothing to mar it but the bloody-minded bandit Arthur, 198 who still fetches and carries Helen. Presently he will be found drowned. Claude comes to Bay House twice a day to see if I need any service. He is invaluable. There was a military lecture last night at the Officers’ Mess Prospect; as the lecturer honored me with a special urgent invitation, and said he wanted to lecture to me particularly, I naturally took Helen and her mother into the private carriage and went.

198 [A small playmate of Helen’s of whom Clemens pretended to be fiercely jealous. Once he wrote a memorandum to Helen: “Let Arthur read this book. There is a page in it that is poisoned.”]

As soon as we landed at the door with the crowd the Governor came to me& was very cordial. I “met up” with that charming Colonel Chapman [we had known him on the previous visit] and other officers of the regiment & had a good time.

A few days later he wrote:

Thanks for your letter & for its contenting news of the situation in that foreign & far-off & vaguely remembered country where you & Loomis & Lark and other beloved friends are.

I had a letter from Clara this morning. She is solicitous & wants me well & watchfully taken care of. My, my, she ought to see Helen & her parents & Claude administer that trust. Also she says, “I hope to hear from you or Mr. Paine very soon.”

I am writing her & I know you will respond to your part of her prayer. She is pretty desolate now after Jean’s emancipation — the only kindness that God ever did that poor, unoffending child in all her hard life.

Send Clara a copy of Howells’s gorgeous letter.

The “gorgeous letter” mentioned was an appreciation of his recent Bazar article, “The Turning-Point in My Life,” and here follows:

January 18, 1910.

DEAR CLEMENS — While your wonderful words are warm in my mind yet I want to tell you what you know already: that you never wrote anything greater, finer, than that turning-point paper of yours.

I shall feel it honor enough if they put on my tombstone “He was born in the same century and general section of Middle Western country with Dr. S. L. Clemens, Oxon., and had his degree three years before him through a mistake of the University.”

I hope you are worse. You will never be riper for a purely intellectual life, and it is a pity to have you lagging along with a worn-out material body on top of your soul.

Yours ever, W. D. HOWELLS.

On the margin of this letter Clemens had written:

I reckon this spontaneous outburst from the first critic of the day is good to keep, ain’t it, Paine?

January 24th he wrote again of his contentment:

Life continues here the same as usual. There isn’t a fault in it — good times, good home, tranquil contentment all day & every day without a break. I know familiarly several very satisfactory people & meet them frequently: Mr. Hamilton, the Sloanes, Mr. & Mrs. Fells, Miss Waterman, & so on. I shouldn’t know how to go about bettering my situation.

On February 5th he wrote that the climate and condition of his health might require him to stay in Bermuda pretty continuously, but that he wished Stormfield kept open so that he might come to it at any time. And he added:

Yesterday Mr. Allen took us on an excursion in Mr. Hamilton’s big motor-boat. Present: Mrs. Allen, Mr. & Mrs. & Miss Sloane, Helen, Mildred Howells, Claude, & me. Several hours’ swift skimming over ravishing blue seas, a brilliant sun; also a couple of hours of picnicking & lazying under the cedars in a secluded place.

The Orotava is arriving with a6o passengers-I shall get letters by her, no doubt.

P. S.-Please send me the Standard Unabridged that is on the table in my bedroom. I have no dictionary here.

There is no mention in any of these letters of his trouble; but he was having occasional spasms of pain, though in that soft climate they would seem to have come with less frequency, and there was so little to disturb him, and much that contributed to his peace. Among the callers at the Bay House to see him was Woodrow Wilson, and the two put in some pleasant hours at miniature golf, “putting” on the Allen lawn. Of course a catastrophe would come along now and then — such things could not always be guarded against. In a letter toward the end of February he wrote:

It is 2.30 in the morning & I am writing because I can’t sleep. I can’t sleep because a professional pianist is coming to-morrow afternoon to play for me. My God! I wouldn’t allow Paderewski or Gabrilowitsch to do that. I would rather have a leg amputated. I knew he was coming, but I never dreamed it was to play for me. When I heard the horrible news 4 hours ago, be d —-d if I didn’t come near screaming. I meant to slip out and be absent, but now I can’t. Don’t pray for me. The thing is just as d —-d bad as it can be already.

Clemens’s love for music did not include the piano, except for very gentle melodies, and he probably did not anticipate these from a professional player. He did not report the sequel of the matter; but it is likely that his imagination had discounted its tortures. Sometimes his letters were pure nonsense. Once he sent a sheet, on one side of which was written:

BAY HOUSE, March s, 1910. Received of S. L. C. Two Dollars and Forty Cents in return for my promise to believe everything he says hereafter. HELEN S. ALLEN.

and on the reverse:

FOR SALE

The proprietor of the hereinbefore mentioned Promise desires to part with it on account of ill health and obliged to go away somewheres so as to let it recipricate, and will take any reasonable amount for it above 2 percent of its face because experienced parties think it will not keep but only a little while in this kind of weather & is a kind of proppity that don’t give a cuss for cold storage nohow.

Clearly, however serious Mark Twain regarded his physical condition, he did not allow it to make him gloomy. He wrote that matters were going everywhere to his satisfaction; that Clara was happy; that his household and business affairs no longer troubled him; that his personal surroundings were of the pleasantest sort. Sometimes he wrote of what he was reading, and once spoke particularly of Prof. William Lyon Phelps’s Literary Essays, which he said he had been unable to lay down until he had finished the book.199

199 [To Phelps himself he wrote: “I thank you ever so much for the book, which I find charming — so charming, indeed, that I read it through in a single night, & did not regret the lost night’s sleep. I am glad if I deserve what you have said about me; & even if I don’t I am proud & well contented, since you think I deserve it.”]

So his days seemed full of comfort. But in March I noticed that he generally dictated his letters, and once when he sent some small photographs I thought he looked thinner and older. Still he kept up his merriment. In one letter he said:

While the matter is in my mind I will remark that if you ever send me another letter which is not paged at the top I will write you with my own hand, so that I may use with utter freedom & without embarrassment the kind of words which alone can describe such a criminal, to wit, —— ——; you will have to put into words those dashes because propriety will not allow me to do it myself in my secretary’s hearing. You are forgiven, but don’t let it occur again.

He had still made no mention of his illness; but on the 25th of March he wrote something of his plans for coming home. He had engaged passage on the Bermudian for April 23d, he said; and he added:

But don’t tell anybody. I don’t want it known. I may have to go sooner if the pain in my breast does not mend its ways pretty considerable. I don’t want to die here, for this is an unkind place for a person in that condition. I should have to lie in the undertaker’s cellar until the ship would remove me & it is dark down there & unpleasant.

The Colliers will meet me on the pier, & I may stay with them a week or two before going home. It all depends on the breast pain. I don’t want to die there. I am growing more and more particular about the place.

But in the same letter he spoke of plans for the summer, suggesting that we must look into the magic-lantern possibilities, so that library entertainments could be given at Stormfield. I confess that this letter, in spite of its light tone, made me uneasy, and I was tempted to sail for Bermuda to bring him home. Three days later he wrote again:

I have been having a most uncomfortable time for the past four days with that breast pain, which turns out to be an affection of the heart, just as I originally suspected. The news from New York is to the effect that non-bronchial weather has arrived there at last; therefore, if I can get my breast trouble in traveling condition I may sail for home a week or two earlier than has been proposed.

The same mail that brought this brought a letter from Mr. Allen, who frankly stated that matters had become very serious indeed. Mr. Clemens had had some dangerous attacks, and the physicians considered his condition critical.

These letters arrived April 1st. I went to New York at once and sailed next morning. Before sailing I consulted with Dr. Quintard, who provided me with some opiates and instructed me in the use of the hypodermic needle. He also joined me in a cablegram to the Gabrilowitsches, then in Italy, advising them to sail without delay.

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