Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCXLV

In the Day’s Round

A number of dictations of this period were about Susy, her childhood, and the biography she had written of him, most of which he included in his chapters. More than once after such dictations he reproached himself bitterly for the misfortunes of his house. He consoled himself a little by saying that Susy had died at the right time, in the flower of youth and happiness; but he blamed himself for the lack of those things which might have made her childhood still more bright. Once he spoke of the biography she had begun, and added:

“Oh, I wish I had paid more attention to that little girl’s work! If I had only encouraged her now and then, what it would have meant to her, and what a beautiful thing it would have been to have had her story of me told in her own way, year after year! If I had shown her that I cared, she might have gone on with it. We are always too busy for our children; we never give them the time nor the interest they deserve. We lavish gifts upon them; but the most precious gift-our personal association, which means so much to them-we give grudgingly and throw it away on those who care for it so little.” Then, after a moment of silence: “But we are repaid for it at last. There comes a time when we want their company and their interest. We want it more than anything in the world, and we are likely to be starved for it, just as they were starved so long ago. There is no appreciation of my books that is so precious to me as appreciation from my children. Theirs is the praise we want, and the praise we are least likely to get.”

His moods of remorse seemed to overwhelm him at times. He spoke of Henry’s death and little Langdon’s, and charged himself with both. He declared that for years he had filled Mrs. Clemens’s life with privations, that the sorrow of Susy’s death had hastened her own end. How darkly he painted it! One saw the jester, who for forty years had been making the world laugh, performing always before a background of tragedy.

But such moods were evanescent. He was oftener gay than somber. One morning before we settled down to work he related with apparent joy how he had made a failure of story-telling at a party the night before. An artist had told him a yarn, he said, which he had considered the most amusing thing in the world. But he had not been satisfied with it, and had attempted to improve on it at the party. He had told it with what he considered the nicest elaboration of detail and artistic effect, and when he had concluded and expected applause, only a sickening silence had followed.

“A crowd like that can make a good deal of silence when they combine,” he said, “and it probably lasted as long as ten seconds, because it seemed an hour and a half. Then a lady said, with evident feeling, ‘Lord, how pathetic!’ For a moment I was stupefied. Then the fountains of my great deeps were broken up, and I rained laughter for forty days and forty nights during as much as three minutes. By that time I realized it was my fault. I had overdone the thing. I started in to deceive them with elaborate burlesque pathos, in order to magnify the humorous explosion at the end; but I had constructed such a fog of pathos that when I got to the humor you couldn’t find it.”

He was likely to begin the morning with some such incident which perhaps he did not think worth while to include in his dictations, and sometimes he interrupted his dictations to relate something aside, or to outline some plan or scheme which his thought had suggested.

Once, when he was telling of a magazine he had proposed to start, the Back Number, which was, to contain reprints of exciting events from history — newspaper gleanings — eye-witness narrations, which he said never lost their freshness of interest — he suddenly interrupted himself to propose that we start such a magazine in the near future — he to be its publisher and I its editor. I think I assented, and the dictation proceeded, but the scheme disappeared permanently.

He usually had a number of clippings or slips among the many books on the bed beside him from which he proposed to dictate each day, but he seldom could find the one most needed. Once, after a feverishly impatient search for a few moments, he invited Miss Hobby to leave the room temporarily, so, as he said, that he might swear. He got up and we began to explore the bed, his profanity increasing amazingly with each moment. It was an enormously large bed, and he began to disparage the size of it.

“One could lose a dog in this bed,” he declared.

Finally I suggested that he turn over the clipping which he had in his hand. He did so, and it proved to be the one he wanted. Its discovery was followed by a period of explosions, only half suppressed as to volume. Then he said:

“There ought to be a room in this house to swear in. It’s dangerous to have to repress an emotion like that.”

A moment later, when Miss Hobby returned, he was serene and happy again. He was usually gentle during the dictations, and patient with those around him — remarkably so, I thought, as a rule. But there were moments that involved risk. He had requested me to interrupt his dictation at any time that I found him repeating or contradicting himself, or misstating some fact known to me. At first I hesitated to do this, and cautiously mentioned the matter when he had finished. Then he was likely to say:

“Why didn’t you stop me? Why did you let me go on making a jackass of myself when you could have saved me?”

So then I used to take the risk of getting struck by lightning, and nearly always stopped him at the time. But if it happened that I upset his thought the thunderbolt was apt to fly. He would say:

“Now you’ve knocked everything out of my head.”

Then, of course, I would apologize and say I was sorry, which would rectify matters, though half an hour later it might happen again. I became lightning-proof at last; also I learned better to select the psychological moment for the correction.

There was a humorous complexion to the dictations which perhaps I have not conveyed to the reader at all; humor was his natural breath and life, and was not wholly absent in his most somber intervals.

But poetry was there as well. His presence was full of it: the grandeur of his figure; the grace of his movement; the music of his measured speech. Sometimes there were long pauses when he was wandering in distant valleys of thought and did not speak at all. At such times he had a habit of folding and refolding the sleeve of his dressing-gown around his wrist, regarding it intently, as it seemed. His hands were so fair and shapely; the palms and finger-tips as pink as those of a child. Then when he spoke he was likely to fling back his great, white mane, his eyes half closed yet showing a gleam of fire between the lids, his clenched fist lifted, or his index-finger pointing, to give force and meaning to his words. I cannot recall the picture too often, or remind myself too frequently how precious it was to be there, and to see him and to hear him. I do not know why I have not said before that he smoked continually during these dictations — probably as an aid to thought — though he smoked at most other times, for that matter. His cigars were of that delicious fragrance which characterizes domestic tobacco; but I had learned early to take refuge in another brand when he offered me one. They were black and strong and inexpensive, and it was only his early training in the printing-office and on the river that had seasoned him to tobacco of that temper. Rich, admiring friends used to send him quantities of expensive imported cigars; but he seldom touched them, and they crumbled away or were smoked by visitors. Once, to a minister who proposed to send him something very special, he wrote:

I should accept your hospitable offer at once but for the fact that I couldn’t do it and remain honest. That is to say, if I allowed you to send me what you believed to be good cigars it would distinctly mean that I meant to smoke them, whereas I should do nothing of the kind. I know a good cigar better than you do, for I have had 60 years’ experience.

No, that is not what I mean; I mean I know a bad cigar better than anybody else. I judge by the price only; if it costs above 5 cents I know it to be either foreign or half foreign & unsmokable — by me. I have many boxes of Havana cigars, of all prices from 20 cents apiece up to $1.66 apiece; I bought none of them, they were all presents; they are an accumulation of several years. I have never smoked one of them & never shall; I work them off on the visitor. You shall have a chance when you come.

He smoked a pipe a good deal, and he preferred it to be old and violent; and once, when he had bought a new, expensive English brier-root he regarded it doubtfully for a time, and then handed it over to me, saying:

“I’d like to have you smoke that a year or two, and when it gets so you can’t stand it, maybe it will suit me.”

I am happy to add that subsequently he presented me with the pipe altogether, for it apparently never seemed to get qualified for his taste, perhaps because the tobacco used was too mild.

One day, after the dictation, word was brought up that a newspaper man was down-stairs who wished to see him concerning a report that Chauncey Depew was to resign his Senatorial seat and Mark Twain was to be nominated in his place. The fancy of this appealed to him, and the reporter was allowed to come up. He was a young man, and seemed rather nervous, and did not wish to state where the report had originated. His chief anxiety was apparently to have Mark Twain’s comment on the matter. Clemens said very little at the time. He did not wish to be a Senator; he was too busy just now dictating biography, and added that he didn’t think he would care for the job, anyway. When the reporter was gone, however, certain humorous possibilities developed. The Senatorship would be a stepping-stone to the Presidency, and with the combination of humorist, socialist, and peace-patriot in the Presidential chair the nation could expect an interesting time. Nothing further came of the matter. There was no such report. The young newspaper man had invented the whole idea to get a “story” out of Mark Twain. The item as printed next day invited a good deal of comment, and Collier’s Weekly made it a text for an editorial on his mental vigor and general fitness for the place.

If it happened that he had no particular engagement for the afternoon, he liked to walk out, especially when the pleasant weather came. Sometimes we walked up Fifth Avenue, and I must admit that for a good while I could not get rid of a feeling of self-consciousness, for most people turned to look, though I was fully aware that I did not in the least come into their scope of vision. They saw only Mark Twain. The feeling was a more comfortably one at The Players, where we sometimes went for luncheon, for the acquaintance there and the democracy of that institution had a tendency to eliminate contrasts and incongruities. We sat at the Round Table among those good fellows who were always so glad to welcome him.

Once we went to the “Music Master,” that tender play of Charles Klein’s, given by that matchless interpreter, David Warfield. Clemens was fascinated, and said more than once:

“It is as permanent as ‘Rip Van Winkle.’ Warfield, like Jefferson, can go on playing it all his life.”

We went behind when it was over, and I could see that Warfield glowed with Mark Twain’s unstinted approval. Later, when I saw him at The Players, he declared that no former compliment had ever made him so happy.

There were some billiard games going on between the champions Hoppe and Sutton, at the Madison Square Garden, and Clemens, with his eager fondness for the sport, was anxious to attend them. He did not like to go anywhere alone, and one evening he invited me to accompany him. Just as he stepped into the auditorium there was a vigorous round of applause. The players stopped, somewhat puzzled, for no especially brilliant shot had been made. Then they caught the figure of Mark Twain and realized that the game, for the moment, was not the chief attraction. The audience applauded again, and waved their handkerchiefs. Such a tribute is not often paid to a private citizen.

Clemens had a great admiration for the young champion Hoppe, which the billiardist’s extreme youth and brilliancy invited, and he watched his game with intense eagerness. When it was over the referee said a few words and invited Mark Twain to speak. He rose and told them a story — probably invented on the instant. He said:

“Once in Nevada I dropped into a billiard-room casually, and picked up a cue and began to knock the balls around. The proprietor, who was a red-haired man, with such hair as I have never seen anywhere except on a torch, asked me if I would like to play. I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Knock the balls around a little and let me see how you can shoot.’ So I knocked them around, and thought I was doing pretty well, when he said, ‘That’s all right; I’ll play you left-handed.’ It hurt my pride, but I played him. We banked for the shot and he won it. Then he commenced to play, and I commenced to chalk my cue to get ready to play, and he went on playing, and I went on chalking my cue; and he played and I chalked all through that game. When he had run his string out I said:

“That’s wonderful! perfectly wonderful! If you can play that way left-handed what could you do right-handed?’

“‘Couldn’t do anything,’ he said. ‘I’m a left-handed man.’”

How it delighted them! I think it was the last speech of any sort he made that season. A week or two later he went to Dublin, New Hampshire, for the summer — this time to the Upton House, which had been engaged a year before, the Copley Greene place being now occupied by its owner.

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