Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CVII

Howells, Clemens, and “George”

Howells and Clemens were visiting back and forth rather oftener just then. Clemens was particularly fond of the Boston crowd — Aldrich, Fields, Osgood, and the rest — delighting in those luncheons or dinners which Osgood, that hospitable publisher, was always giving on one pretext or another. No man ever loved company more than Osgood, or to play the part of host and pay for the enjoyment of others. His dinners were elaborate affairs, where the sages and poets and wits of that day (and sometimes their wives) gathered. They were happy reunions, those fore-gatherings, though perhaps a more intimate enjoyment was found at the luncheons, where only two or three were invited, usually Aldrich, Howells, and Clemens, and the talk continued through the afternoon and into the deepening twilight, such company and such twilight as somehow one seems never to find any more.

On one of the visits which Howells made to Hartford that year he took his son John, then a small boy, with him. John was about six years old at the time, with his head full of stories of Aladdin, and of other Arabian fancies. On the way over his father said to him:

“Now, John, you will see a perfect palace.”

They arrived, and John was awed into silence by the magnificence and splendors of his surroundings until they went to the bath-room to wash off the dust of travel. There he happened to notice a cake of pink soap.

“Why,” he said, “they’ve even got their soap painted!” Next morning he woke early — they were occupying the mahogany room on the ground floor — and slipping out through the library, and to the door of the dining-room, he saw the colored butler, George — the immortal George — setting the breakfast-table. He hurriedly tiptoed back and whispered to his father:

“Come quick! The slave is setting the table!”

This being the second mention of George, it seems proper here that he should be formally presented. Clemens used to say that George came one day to wash windows and remained eighteen years. He was precisely the sort of character that Mark Twain loved. He had formerly been the body-servant of an army general and was typically racially Southern, with those delightful attributes of wit and policy and gentleness which go with the best type of negro character. The children loved him no less than did their father. Mrs. Clemens likewise had a weakness for George, though she did not approve of him. George’s morals were defective. He was an inveterate gambler. He would bet on anything, though prudently and with knowledge. He would investigate before he invested. If he placed his money on a horse, he knew the horse’s pedigree and the pedigree of the horses against it, also of their riders. If he invested in an election, he knew all about the candidates. He had agents among his own race, and among the whites as well, to supply him with information. He kept them faithful to him by lending them money — at ruinous interest. He buttonholed Mark Twain’s callers while he was removing their coats concerning the political situation, much to the chagrin of Mrs. Clemens, who protested, though vainly, for the men liked George and his ways, and upheld him in his iniquities.

Mrs. Clemens’s disapproval of George reached the point, now and then, where she declared he could not remain.

She even discharged him once, but next morning George was at the breakfast-table, in attendance, as usual. Mrs. Clemens looked at him gravely:

“George,” she said, “didn’t I discharge you yesterday?”

“Yes, Mis’ Clemens, but I knew you couldn’t get along without me, so I thought I’d better stay a while.”

In one of the letters to Howells, Clemens wrote:

When George first came he was one of the most religious of men. He had but one fault — young George Washington’s. But I have trained him; and now it fairly breaks Mrs. Clemens’s heart to hear him stand at that front door and lie to an unwelcome visitor.

George was a fine diplomat. He would come up to the billiard-room with a card or message from some one waiting below, and Clemens would fling his soul into a sultry denial which became a soothing and balmy subterfuge before it reached the front door.

The “slave” must have been setting the table in good season, for the Clemens breakfasts were likely to be late. They usually came along about nine o’clock, by which time Howells and John were fairly clawing with hunger.

Clemens did not have an early appetite, but when it came it was a good one. Breakfast and dinner were his important meals. He seldom ate at all during the middle of the day, though if guests were present he would join them at luncheon-time and walk up and down while they were eating, talking and gesticulating in his fervent, fascinating way. Sometimes Mrs. Clemens would say:

“Oh, Youth, do come and sit down with us. We can listen so much better.”

But he seldom did. At dinner, too, it was his habit, between the courses, to rise from the table and walk up and down the room, waving his napkin and talking! — talking in a strain and with a charm that he could never quite equal with his pen. It’s the opinion of most people who knew Mark Twain personally that his impromptu utterances, delivered with that ineffable quality of speech, manifested the culmination of his genius.

When Clemens came to Boston the Howells household was regulated, or rather unregulated, without regard to former routine. Mark Twain’s personality was of a sort that unconsciously compelled the general attendance of any household. The reader may recall Josh Billings’s remark on the subject. Howells tells how they kept their guest to themselves when he visited their home in Cambridge, permitting him to indulge in as many unconventions as he chose; how Clemens would take a room at the Parker House, leaving the gas burning day and night, and perhaps arrive at Cambridge, after a dinner or a reading, in evening dress and slippers, and joyously remain with them for a day or more in that guise, slipping on an overcoat and a pair of rubbers when they went for a walk. Also, how he smoked continuously in every room of the house, smoked during every waking moment, and how Howells, mindful of his insurance, sometimes slipped in and removed the still-burning cigar after he was asleep.

Clemens had difficulty in getting to sleep in that earlier day, and for a time found it soothing to drink a little champagne on retiring. Once, when he arrived in Boston, Howells said:

“Clemens, we’ve laid in a bottle of champagne for you.”

But he answered:

“Oh, that’s no good any more. Beer’s the thing.”

So Howells provided the beer, and always afterward had a vision of his guest going up-stairs that night with a pint bottle under each arm.

He invented other methods of inducing slumber as the years went by, and at one time found that this precious boon came more easily when he stretched himself on the bath-room floor.

He was a perpetual joy to the Howells family when he was there, even though the household required a general reorganization when he was gone.

Mildred Howells remembers how, as a very little girl, her mother cautioned her not to ask for anything she wanted at the table when company was present, but to speak privately of it to her. Miss Howells declares that while Mark Twain was their guest she nearly starved because it was impossible to get her mother’s attention; and Mrs. Howells, after one of those visits of hilarity and disorder, said:

“Well, it ‘most kills me, but it pays,” a remark which Clemens vastly enjoyed. Howells himself once wrote:

Your visit was a perfect ovation for us; we never enjoy anything so much as those visits of yours. The smoke and the Scotch and the late hours almost kill us; but we look each other in the eyes when you are gone, and say what a glorious time it was, and air the library, and begin sleeping and longing to have you back again. . . .

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00