Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCXXXI

The Close of a Beautiful Life

In one of his notes near the end of April Clemens writes that once more, as at Riverdale, he has been excluded from Mrs. Clemens’s room except for the briefest moment at a time. But on May 12th, to R. W. Gilder, he reported:

For two days now we have not been anxious about Mrs. Clemens (unberufen). After 20 months of bedridden solitude & bodily misery she all of a sudden ceases to be a pallid, shrunken shadow, & looks bright & young & pretty. She remains what she always was, the most wonderful creature of fortitude, patience, endurance, and recuperative power that ever was. But ah, dear! it won’t last; this fiendish malady will play new treacheries upon her, and I shall go back to my prayers again — unutterable from any pulpit!

May 13, A.M. I have just paid one of my pair of permitted 2-minute visits per day to the sick-room. And found what I have learned to expect — retrogression.

There was a day when she was brought out on the terrace in a wheel-chair to see the wonder of the early Italian summer. She had been a prisoner so long that she was almost overcome with the delight of it all — the more so, perhaps, in the feeling that she might so soon be leaving it.

It was on Sunday, the 5th of June, that the end came. Clemens and Jean had driven out to make some calls, and had stopped at a villa, which promised to fulfil most of the requirements. They came home full of enthusiasm concerning it, and Clemens, in his mind, had decided on the purchase. In the corridor Clara said:

“She is better to-day than she has been for three months.”

Then quickly, under her breath, “Unberufen,” which the others, too, added hastily — superstitiously.

Mrs. Clemens was, in fact, bright and cheerful, and anxious to hear all about the new property which was to become their home. She urged him to sit by her during the dinner-hour and tell her the details; but once, when the sense of her frailties came upon her, she said they must not mind if she could not go very soon, but be content where they were. He remained from half past seven until eight — a forbidden privilege, but permitted because she was so animated, feeling so well. Their talk was as it had been in the old days, and once during it he reproached himself, as he had so often done, and asked forgiveness for the tears he had brought into her life. When he was summoned to go at last he chided himself for remaining so long; but she said there was no harm, and kissed him, saying: “You will come back,” and he answered, “Yes, to say good night,” meaning at half past nine, as was the permitted custom. He stood a moment at the door throwing kisses to her, and she returning them, her face bright with smiles.

He was so hopeful and happy that it amounted to exaltation. He went to his room at first, then he was moved to do a thing which he had seldom done since Susy died. He went to the piano up-stairs and sang the old jubilee songs that Susy had liked to hear him sing. Jean came in presently, listening. She had not done this before, that he could remember. He sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “My Lord He Calls Me.” He noticed Jean then and stopped, but she asked him to go on.

Mrs. Clemens, in her room, heard the distant music, and said to her attendant:

“He is singing a good-night carol to me.”

The music ceased presently, and then a moment later she asked to be lifted up. Almost in that instant life slipped away without a sound.

Clemens, coming to say good night, saw a little group about her bed, Clara and Jean standing as if dazed. He went and bent over and looked into her face, surprised that she did not greet him. He did not suspect what had happened until he heard one of the daughters ask:

“Katie, is it true? Oh, Katie, is it true?”

He realized then that she was gone.

In his note-book that night he wrote:

At a quarter past 9 this evening she that was the life of my life passed to the relief & the peace of death after as months of unjust & unearned suffering. I first saw her near 37 years ago, & now I have looked upon her face for the last time. Oh, so unexpected! . . . I was full of remorse for things done & said in these 34 years of married life that hurt Livy’s heart.

He envied her lying there, so free from it all, with the great peace upon her face. He wrote to Howells and to Twichell, and to Mrs. Crane, those nearest and dearest ones. To Twichell he said:

How sweet she was in death, how young, how beautiful, how like her dear girlish self of thirty years ago, not a gray hair showing! This rejuvenescence was noticeable within two hours after her death; & when I went down again (2.3o) it was complete. In all that night & all that day she never noticed my caressing hand — it seemed strange.

To Howells he recalled the closing scene:

I bent over her & looked in her face & I think I spoke — I was surprised & troubled that she did not notice me. Then we understood & our hearts broke. How poor we are to-day!

But how thankful I am that her persecutions are ended! I would not call her back if I could.

To-day, treasured in her worn, old Testament, I found a dear & gentle letter from you dated Far Rockaway, September 13, 1896, about our poor Susy’s death. I am tired & old; I wish I were with Livy.

And in a few days:

It would break Livy’s heart to see Clara. We excuse ourself from all the friends that call — though, of course, only intimates come. Intimates — but they are not the old, old friends, the friends of the old, old times when we laughed. Shall we ever laugh again? If I could only see a dog that I knew in the old times & could put my arms around his neck and tell him all, everything, & ease my heart!

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