Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CLIX

The Life of the Pope

As Mark Twain in the earlier days of his marriage had temporarily put aside authorship to join in a newspaper venture, so now again literature had dropped into the background, had become an avocation, while financial interests prevailed. There were two chief ventures — the business of Charles L. Webster & Co. and the promotion of the Paige type-setting machine. They were closely identified in fortunes, so closely that in time the very existence of each depended upon the success of the other; yet they were quite distinct, and must be so treated in this story.

The success of the Grant Life had given the Webster business an immense prestige. It was no longer necessary to seek desirable features for publication. They came uninvited. Other war generals preparing their memoirs naturally hoped to appear with their great commander. McClellan’s Own Story was arranged for without difficulty. A Genesis of the Civil War, by Gen. Samuel Wylie Crawford, was offered and accepted. General Sheridan’s Memoirs were in preparation, and negotiations with Webster & Co. for their appearance were not delayed. Probably neither Webster nor Clemens believed that the sale of any of these books would approach those of the Grant Life, but they expected them to be large, for the Grant book had stimulated the public taste for war literature, and anything bearing the stamp of personal battle experience was considered literary legal-tender.

Moreover, these features, and even the Grant book itself, seemed likely to dwindle in importance by the side of The Life of Pope Leo XIII., who in his old and enfeebled age had consented to the preparation of a memoir, to be published with his sanction and blessing. 116 Clemens and Webster — every one, in fact, who heard of the project — united in the belief that no book, with the exception of the Holy Scripture itself or the Koran, would have a wider acceptance than the biography of the Pope. It was agreed by good judges — and they included Howells and Twichell and even the shrewd general agents throughout the country — that every good Catholic would regard such a book not only as desirable, but as absolutely necessary to his salvation. Howells, recalling Clemens’s emotions of this time, writes:

116 [By Bernard O’Reilly, D.D., LL.D. “Written with the Encouragement, Approbation, and Blessings of His Holiness the Pope.”]

He had no words in which to paint the magnificence of the project or to forecast its colossal success. It would have a currency bounded only by the number of Catholics in Christendom. It would be translated into every language which was anywhere written or printed; it would be circulated literally in every country of the globe.

The formal contract for this great undertaking was signed in Rome in April, 1886, and Webster immediately prepared to go over to consult with his Holiness in person as to certain details, also, no doubt, for the newspaper advertising which must result from such an interview.

It was decided to carry a handsome present to the Pope in the form of a specially made edition of the Grant Memoirs in a rich-casket, and it was Clemens’s idea that the binding of the book should be solid gold — this to be done by Tiffany at an estimated cost of about three thousand dollars. In the end, however, the binding was not gold, but the handsomest that could be designed of less precious and more appropriate materials.

Webster sailed toward the end of June, and was warmly received and highly honored in Rome. The great figures of the Grant success had astonished Europe even more than America, where spectacular achievements were more common. That any single publication should pay a profit to author and publisher of six hundred thousand dollars was a thing which belonged with the wonders of Aladdin’s garden. It was natural, therefore, that Webster, who had rubbed the magic lamp with this result, who was Mark Twain’s partner, and who had now traveled across the seas to confer with the Pope himself, should be received with royal honors. In letters written at the time, Webster relates how he found it necessary to have an imposing carriage and a footman to maintain the dignity of his mission, and how, after various impressive formalities, he was granted a private audience, a very special honor indeed. Webster’s letter gives us a picture of his Holiness which is worth preserving.

We 117 found ourselves in a room perhaps twenty-five by thirty-five feet; the furniture was gilt, upholstered in light-red silk, and the side-walls were hung with the same material. Against the wall by which we entered and in the middle space was a large gilt throne chair, upholstered in red plush, and upon it sat a man bowed with age; his hair was silvery white and as pure as the driven snow. His head was partly covered with a white skullcap; he was dressed in a long white cassock which reached to his feet, which rested upon a red-plush cushion and were inclosed in red embroidered slippers with a design of a cross. A golden chain was about his neck and suspended by it in his lap was a gold cross set in precious stones. Upon a finger of his right hand was a gold ring with an emerald setting nearly an inch in diameter. His countenance was smiling, and beamed with benevolence. His face at once impressed us as that of a noble, pure man who could not do otherwise than good.

117 [Mrs. Webster, who, the reader will remember, was Annie Moffett, a daughter of Pamela Clemens, was included in the invitation to the Presence Chamber.]

This was the Pope of Rome, and as we advanced, making the three genuflexions prescribed by etiquette, he smiled benignly upon us. We advanced and, kneeling at his feet, kissed the seal upon his ring. He took us each by the hand repeatedly during the audience and made us perfectly at our ease.

They remained as much as half an hour in the Presence; and the Pope conversed on a variety of subjects, including the business failure of General Grant, his last hours, and the great success of his book. The figures seemed to him hardly credible, and when Webster assured him that already a guaranteed sale of one hundred thousand copies of his own biography had been pledged by the agents he seemed even more astonished. “We in Italy cannot comprehend such things,” he said. “I know you do great work in America; I know you have done a great and noble work in regard to General Grant’s book, but that my Life should have such a sale seems impossible.”

He asked about their home, their children, and was in every way the kindly, gentle-hearted man that his pictured face has shown him. Then he gave them his final blessing and the audience closed.

We each again kissed the seal on his ring. As Annie was about to kiss it he suddenly withdrew his hand and said, “And will you, a little Protestant, kiss the Pope’s ring?” As he said this, his face was all smiles, and mischief was clearly delineated upon it. He immediately put back his hand and she kissed the ring. We now withdrew, backing out and making three genuflexions as before. Just as we reached the door he called to Dr. O’Reilly, “Now don’t praise me too much; tell the truth, tell the truth.”

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