Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine


“The Belle of New York”

Those were feverish weeks of waiting, with days of alternate depression and exaltation as the pendulum swung to and fro between hope and despair. By daylight Clemens tried to keep himself strenuously busy; evenings and nights he plunged into social activities — dinners, amusements, suppers, balls, and the like. He was be sieged with invitations, sought for by the gayest and the greatest; “Jamie” Dodge conferred upon him the appropriate title: of “The Belle of New York.” In his letters home he describes in detail many of the festivities and the wildness with which he has flung himself into them, dilating on his splendid renewal of health, his absolute immunity from fatigue. He attributes this to his indifference to diet and regularities of meals and sleep; but we may guess that it was due to a reaction from having shifted his burden to stronger financial shoulders. Henry Rogers had taken his load upon him.

“It rests me,” Rogers said, “to experiment with the affairs of a friend when I am tired of my own. You enjoy yourself. Let me work at the puzzle a little.”

And Clemens, though his conscience pricked him, obeyed, as was his habit at such times. To Mrs. Clemens (in Paris now, at the Hotel Brighton) he wrote:

He is not common clay, but fine-fine & delicate. I did hate to burden his good heart & overworked head, but he took hold with avidity & said it was no burden to work for his friends, but a pleasure. When I arrived in September, Lord! how black the prospect was & how desperate, how incurably desperate! Webster & Co. had to have a small sum of money or go under at once. I flew to Hartford — to my friends — but they were not moved, not strongly interested, & I was ashamed that I went. It was from Mr. Rogers, a stranger, that I got the money and was by it saved. And then — while still a stranger — he set himself the task of saving my financial life without putting upon me (in his native delicacy) any sense that I was the recipient of a charity, a benevolence. He gave time to me — time, which could not be bought by any man at $100,000 a month — no, nor for three times the money.

He adds that a friend has just offered to Webster & Co. a book that arraigns the Standard Oil magnates individual by individual.

I wanted to say the only man I care for in the world, the only man I would give a d —-n for, the only man who is lavishing his sweat & blood to save me & mine from starvation is a Standard Oil magnate. If you know me, you know whether I want the book or not.

But I didn’t say that. I said I didn’t want any book; I wanted to get out of this publishing business & out of all business & was here for that purpose & would accomplish it if I could.

He tells how he played billiards with Rogers, tirelessly as always, until the millionaire had looked at him helplessly and asked:

“Don’t you ever get tired?”

And he answered:

“I don’t know what it is to get tired. I wish I did.”

He wrote of going with Mr. Rogers to the Madison Square Garden to see an exhibition of boxing given by the then splendid star of pugilism, James J. Corbett. Dr. Rice accompanied him, and painters Robert Reid and Edward Simmons, from The Players. They had five seats in a box, and Stanford White came along presently and took Clemens into the champion’s dressing-room.

Corbett has a fine face and is modest and diffident, besides being the most perfectly & beautifully constructed human animal in the world. I said:

“You have whipped Mitchell & maybe you will whip Jackson in June — but you are not done then. You will have to tackle me.”

He answered, so gravely that one might easily have thought him in earnest:

“No, I am not going to meet you in the ring. It is not fair or right to require it. You might chance to knock me out, by no merit of your own, but by a purely accidental blow, & then my reputation would be gone & you would have a double one. You have got fame enough & you ought not to want to take mine away from me.”

Corbett was for a long time a clerk in the Nevada Bank, in San Francisco.

There were lots of little boxing-matches to entertain the crowd; then at last Corbett appeared in the ring & the 8,000 people present went mad with enthusiasm. My two artists went mad about his form. They said they had never seen anything that came reasonably near equaling its perfection except Greek statues, & they didn’t surpass it.

Corbett boxed 3 rounds with the middle-weight Australian champion — oh, beautiful to see! — then the show was over and we struggled out through a perfect mash of humanity. When we reached the street I found I had left my arctics in the box. I had to have them, so Simmons said he would go back & get them, & I didn’t dissuade him. I wouldn’t see how he was going to make his way a single yard into that solid incoming wave of people — yet he must plow through it full 50 yards. He was back with the shoes in 3 minutes!

How do you reckon he accomplished that miracle? By saying:

“Way, gentlemen, please — coming to fetch Mr. Corbett’s overshoes.”

The word flew from mouth to mouth, the Red Sea divided, & Simmons walked comfortably through & back, dry-shod. This is Fire-escape Simmons, the inveterate talker, you know: Exit — in case of Simmons.

I had an engagement at a beautiful dwelling close to The Players for 10.30; I was there by 10.45. Thirty cultivated & very musical ladies & gentlemen present — all of them acquaintances & many of them personal friends of mine. That wonderful Hungarian band was there (they charge $500 for an evening). Conversation and band until midnight; then a bite of supper; then the company was compactly grouped before me & I told them about Dr. B. E. Martin & the etchings, & followed it with the Scotch-Irish christening. My, but the Martin is a darling story! Next, the head tenor from the Opera sang half a dozen great songs that set the company wild, yes, mad with delight, that nobly handsome young Damrosch accompanying on the piano.

Just a little pause, then the band burst out into an explosion of weird and tremendous dance-music, a Hungarian celebrity & his wife took the floor; I followed — I couldn’t help it; the others drifted in, one by one, & it was Onteora over again.

By half past 4. I had danced all those people down —& yet was not tired; merely breathless. I was in bed at 5 & asleep in ten minutes. Up at 9 & presently at work on this letter to you. I think I wrote until 2 or half past. Then I walked leisurely out to Mr. Rogers’s (it is called 3 miles, but is short of it), arriving at 3.30, but he was out — to return at 5.30 — so I didn’t stay, but dropped over and chatted with Howells until five.

[Two Mark Twain anecdotes are remembered of that winter at The Players:

Just before Christmas a member named Scott said one day:

“Mr. Clemens, you have an extra overcoat hanging in the coatroom. I’ve got to attend my uncle’s funeral and it’s raining very hard. I’d like to wear it.”

The coat was an old one, in the pockets of which Clemens kept a melancholy assortment of pipes, soiled handkerchiefs, neckties, letters, and what not.

“Scott,” he said, “if you won’t lose anything out of the pockets of that coat you may wear it.”

An hour or two later Clemens found a notice in his mail-box that a package for him was in the office. He called for it and found a neat bundle, which somehow had a Christmas look. He carried it up to the reading-room with a showy, air.

“Now, boys,” he said, “you may make all the fun of Christmas you like, but it’s pretty nice, after all, to be remembered.”

They gathered around and he undid the package. It was filled with the pipes, soiled handkerchiefs, and other articles from the old overcoat. Scott had taken special precautions against losing them.

Mark Twain regarded them a moment in silence, then he drawled:

“Well — d —-n Scott. I hope his uncle’s funeral will be a failure!”

The second anecdote concerns The Player egg-cups. They easily hold two eggs, but not three. One morning a new waiter came to take the breakfast order. Clemens said:

“Boy, put three soft eggs in that cup for me.”

By and by the waiter returned, bringing the breakfast. Clemens looked at the egg portion and asked:

“Boy, what was my order?”

“Three soft eggs broken in the cup, Mr. Clemens.”

“And you’ve filled that order, have you?”

“Yes, Mr. Clemens.”

“Boy, you are trifling with the truth; I’ve been trying all winter to get three eggs into that cup.”]

In one letter he tells of a dinner with his old Comstock friend, John Mackay — a dinner without any frills, just soup and raw oysters and corned beef and cabbage, such as they had reveled in sometimes, in prosperous moments, thirty years before.

“The guests were old gray Pacific coasters,” he said, “whom I knew when they were young and not gray. The talk was of the days when we went gipsying-along time ago — thirty years.”

Indeed, it was a talk of the dead. Mainly that. And of how they looked & the harum-scarum things they did & said. For there were no cares in that life, no aches & pains, & not time enough in the day (& three-fourths of the night) to work off one’s surplus vigor & energy. Of the midnight highway-robbery joke played upon me with revolvers at my head on the windswept & desolate Gold Hill Divide no witness was left but me, the victim. Those old fools last night laughed till they cried over the particulars of that old forgotten crime.

In still another letter he told of a very wonderful entertainment at Robert Reid’s studio. There were present, he says:

Coquelin; Richard Harding Davis; Harrison, the great outdoor painter; Wm. H. Chase, the artist; Bettini, inventor of the new phonograph; Nikola Tesla, the world-wide illustrious electrician; see article about him in Jan. or Feb. Century. John Drew, actor; James Barnes, a marvelous mimic; my, you should see him! Smedley, the artist; Zorn, “ ” Zogbaum, “ ” Reinhart, “ ” Metcalf, “ ” Ancona, head tenor at the Opera;

Oh, & a great lot of others. Everybody there had done something & was in his way famous.

Somebody welcomed Coquelin in a nice little French speech, John Drew did the like for me in English, & then the fun began. Coquelin did some excellent French monologues — one of them an ungrammatical Englishman telling a colorless historiette in French. It nearly killed the fifteen or twenty people who understood it.

I told a yarn, Ancona sang half a dozen songs, Barnes did his darling imitations, Handing Davis sang the hanging of Danny Deever, which was of course good, but he followed it with that mast fascinating (for what reason I don’t know) of all Kipling’s poems, “On the Road to Mandalay,” sang it tenderly, & it searched me deeper & charmed me more than the Deever.

Young Gerrit Smith played some ravishing dance-music, & we all danced about an hour. There couldn’t be a pleasanter night than that one was. Some of those people complained of fatigue, but I don’t seem to know what the sense of fatigue is.

In his reprieve he was like some wild thing that had regained liberty.

He refers to Susy’s recent illness and to Mrs. Clemens’s own poor state of health.

Dear, dear Susy! My strength reproaches me when I think of her and you.

It is an unspeakable pity that you should be without any one to go about with the girls, & it troubles me, & grieves me, & makes me curse & swear; but you see, dear heart, I’ve got to stick right where I am till I find out whether we are rich or whether the poorest person we are acquainted with in anybody’s kitchen is better off than we are. . I stand on the land-end of a springboard, with the family clustered on the other end; if I take my foot ——

He realized his hopes to her as a vessel trying to make port; once he wrote:

The ship is in sight now . . . .

When the anchor is down then I shall say:

“Farewell — a long farewell — to business! I will never touch it again!”

I will live in literature, I will wallow in it, revel in it; I will swim in ink! ‘Joan of Arc’— but all this is premature; the anchor is not down yet.

Sometimes he sent her impulsive cables calculating to sustain hope. Mrs. Clemens, writing to her sister in January, said:

Mr. Clemens now for ten days has been hourly expecting to send me word that Paige had signed the (new) contract, but as yet no despatch comes . . . . On the 5th of this month I received a cable, “Expect good news in ten days.” On the 15th I receive a cable, “Look out for good news.” On the 19th a cable, “Nearing success.”

It appealed to her sense of humor even in these dark days. She added:

They make me laugh, for they are so like my beloved “Colonel.”

Mr. Rogers had agreed that he would bring Paige to rational terms, and with Clemens made a trip to Chicago. All agreed now that the machine promised a certain fortune as soon as a contract acceptable to everybody could be concluded — Paige and his lawyer being the last to dally and dicker as to terms. Finally a telegram came from Chicago saying that Paige had agreed to terms. On that day Clemens wrote in his note-book:

This is a great date in my history. Yesterday we were paupers with but 3 months’ rations of cash left and $160,000 in debt, my wife & I, but this telegram makes us wealthy.

But it was not until a fortnight later that Paige did actually sign. This was on the 1st of February, ’94, and Clemens that night cabled to Paris, so that Mrs. Clemens would have it on her breakfast-plate the morning of their anniversary:

“Wedding news. Our ship is safe in port. I sail the moment Rogers can spare me.”

So this painted bubble, this thing of emptiness, had become as substance again — the grand hope. He was as concerned with it as if it had been an actual gold-mine with ore and bullion piled in heaps — that shadow, that farce, that nightmare. One longs to go back through the years and face him to the light and arouse him to the vast sham of it all.

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