Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCXXVI

“Was it Heaven? Or Hell?”

The Christmas number of Harper’s Magazine for 1902 contained the story, “Was it Heaven? or Hell?” and it immediately brought a flood of letters to its author from grateful readers on both sides of the ocean. An Englishman wrote: “I want to thank you for writing so pathetic and so profoundly true a story”; and an American declared it to be the best short story ever written. Another letter said:

I have learned to love those maiden liars — love and weep over them — then put them beside Dante’s Beatrice in Paradise.

There were plenty of such letters; but there was one of a different sort. It was a letter from a man who had but recently gone through almost precisely the experience narrated in the tale. His dead daughter had even borne the same name — Helen. She had died of typhus while her mother was prostrated with the same malady, and the deception had been maintained in precisely the same way, even to the fictitiously written letters. Clemens replied to this letter, acknowledging the striking nature of the coincidence it related, and added that, had he invented the story, he would have believed it a case of mental telegraphy.

I was merely telling a true story just as it had been told to me by one who well knew the mother and the daughter & all the beautiful & pathetic details. I was living in the house where it had happened, three years before, & I put it on paper at once while it was fresh in my mind, & its pathos still straining at my heartstrings.

Clemens did not guess that the coincidences were not yet complete, that within a month the drama of the tale would be enacted in his own home. In his note-book, under the date of December 24(1902), he wrote:

Jean was hit with a chill: Clara was completing her watch in her mother’s room and there was no one able to force Jean to go to bed. As a result she is pretty ill to-day-fever & high temperature.

Three days later he added:

It was pneumonia. For 5 days jean’s temperature ranged between 103 & 104 2/5, till this morning, when it got down to 101. She looks like an escaped survivor of a forest fire. For 6 days now my story in the Christmas Harper’s “Was it Heaven? or Hell?”— has been enacted in this household. Every day Clara & the nurses have lied about Jean to her mother, describing the fine times she is having outdoors in the winter sports.

That proved a hard, trying winter in the Clemens home, and the burden of it fell chiefly, indeed almost entirely, upon Clara Clemens. Mrs. Clemens became still more frail, and no other member of the family, not even her husband, was allowed to see her for longer than the briefest interval. Yet the patient was all the more anxious to know the news, and daily it had to be prepared — chiefly invented — for her comfort. In an account which Clemens once set down of the “Siege and Season of Unveracity,” as he called it, he said:

Clara stood a daily watch of three or four hours, and hers was a hard office indeed. Daily she sealed up in her heart a dozen dangerous truths, and thus saved her mother’s life and hope and happiness with holy lies. She had never told her mother a lie in her life before, and I may almost say that she never told her a truth afterward. It was fortunate for us all that Clara’s reputation for truthfulness was so well established in her mother’s mind. It was our daily protection from disaster. The mother never doubted Clara’s word. Clara could tell her large improbabilities without exciting any suspicion, whereas if I tried to market even a small and simple one the case would have been different. I was never able to get a reputation like Clara’s. Mrs. Clemens questioned Clara every day concerning Jean’s health, spirits, clothes, employments, and amusements, and how she was enjoying herself; and Clara furnished the information right along in minute detail — every word of it false, of course. Every day she had to tell how Jean dressed, and in time she got so tired of using Jean’s existing clothes over and over again, and trying to get new effects out of them, that finally, as a relief to her hard-worked invention, she got to adding imaginary clothes to Jean’s wardrobe, and probably would have doubled it and trebled it if a warning note in her mother’s comments had not admonished her that she was spending more money on these spectral gowns and things than the family income justified.

Some portions of detailed accounts of Clara’s busy days of this period, as written at the time by Clemens to Twichell and to Mrs. Crane, are eminently worth preserving. To Mrs. Crane:

Clara does not go to her Monday lesson in New York today [her mother having seemed not so well through the night], but forgets that fact and enters her mother’s room (where she has no business to be) toward train-time dressed in a wrapper.

LIVY. Why, Clara, aren’t you going to your lesson? CLARA (almost caught). Yes. L. In that costume? CL. Oh no. L. Well, you can’t make your train; it’s impossible. CL. I know, but I’m going to take the other one. L. Indeed that won’t do — you’ll be ever so much too late for your lesson. CL. No, the lesson-time has been put an hour later. L. (satisfied, then suddenly). But, Clara, that train and the late lesson together will make you late to Mrs. Hapgood’s luncheon. CL. No, the train leaves fifteen minutes earlier than it used to. L. (satisfied). Tell Mrs. Hapgood, etc., etc., etc. (which Clara promises to do). Clara, dear, after the luncheon — I hate to put this on you — but could you do two or three little shopping-errands for me? CL. Oh, it won’t trouble me a bit-I can do it. (Takes a list of the things she is to buy-a list which she will presently hand to another.)

At 3 or 4 P.M. Clara takes the things brought from New York, studies over her part a little, then goes to her mother’s room.

LIVY. It’s very good of you, dear. Of course, if I had known it was going to be so snowy and drizzly and sloppy I wouldn’t have asked you to buy them. Did you get wet? CL. Oh, nothing to hurt. L. You took a cab both ways? CL. Not from the station to the lesson-the weather was good enough till that was over. L. Well, now, tell me everything Mrs. Hapgood said.

Clara tells her a long yarn-avoiding novelties and surprises and anything likely to inspire questions difficult to answer; and of course detailing the menu, for if it had been the feeding of the 5,000 Livy would have insisted on knowing what kind of bread it was and how the fishes were served. By and by, while talking of something else:

LIVY. Clams! — in the end of December. Are you sure it was clams? CL. I didn’t say cl —-I meant Blue Points. L. (tranquilized). It seemed odd. What is Jean doing? CL. She said she was going to do a little typewriting. L. Has she been out to-day? CL. Only a moment, right after luncheon. She was determined to go out again, but ——

L. How did you know she was out? CL. (saving herself in time). Katie told me. She was determined to go out again in the rain and snow, but I persuaded her to stay in. L. (with moving and grateful admiration). Clara, you are wonderful! the wise watch you keep over Jean, and the influence you have over her; it’s so lovely of you, and I tied here and can’t take care of her myself. (And she goes on with these undeserved praises till Clara is expiring with shame.)

To Twichell:

I am to see Livy a moment every afternoon until she has another bad night; and I stand in dread, for with all my practice I realize that in a sudden emergency I am but a poor, clumsy liar, whereas a fine alert and capable emergency liar is the only sort that is worth anything in a sick-chamber.

Now, Joe, just see what reputation can do. All Clara’s life she has told Livy the truth and now the reward comes; Clara lies to her three and a half hours every day, and Livy takes it all at par, whereas even when I tell her a truth it isn’t worth much without corroboration . . . .

Soon my brief visit is due. I’ve just been up listening at Livy’s door.

5 P.M. A great disappointment. I was sitting outside Livy’s door waiting. Clara came out a minute ago and said L ivy is not so well, and the nurse can’t let me see her to-day.

That pathetic drama was to continue in some degree for many a long month. All that winter and spring Mrs. Clemens kept but a frail hold on life. Clemens wrote little, and refused invitations everywhere he could. He spent his time largely in waiting for the two-minute period each day when he could stand at the bed-foot and say a few words to the invalid, and he confined his writing mainly to the comforting, affectionate messages which he was allowed to push under her door. He was always waiting there long before the moment he was permitted to enter. Her illness and her helplessness made manifest what Howells has fittingly characterized as his “beautiful and tender loyalty to her, which was the most moving quality of his most faithful soul.”

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