Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCXLVI

The Second Summer at Dublin

The Upton House stands on the edge of a beautiful beech forest some two or three miles from Dublin, just under Monadnock — a good way up the slope. It is a handsome, roomy frame-house, and had a long colonnaded veranda overlooking one of the most beautiful landscape visions on the planet: lake, forest, hill, and a far range of blue mountains — all the handiwork of God is there. I had seen these things in paintings, but I had not dreamed that such a view really existed. The immediate foreground was a grassy slope, with ancient, blooming apple-trees; and just at the right hand Monadnock rose, superb and lofty, sloping down to the panorama below that stretched away, taking on an ever deeper blue, until it reached that remote range on which the sky rested and the world seemed to end. It was a masterpiece of the Greater Mind, and of the highest order, perhaps, for it had in it nothing of the touch of man. A church spire glinted here and there, but there was never a bit of field, or stone wall, or cultivated land. It was lonely; it was unfriendly; it cared nothing whatever for humankind; it was as if God, after creating all the world, had wrought His masterwork here, and had been so engrossed with the beauty of it that He had forgotten to give it a soul. In a sense this was true, for He had not made the place suitable for the habitation of men. It lacked the human touch; the human interest, and I could never quite believe in its reality.

The time of arrival heightened this first impression. It was mid-May and the lilacs were prodigally in bloom; but the bright sunlight was chill and unnatural, and there was a west wind that laid the grass flat and moaned through the house, and continued as steadily as if it must never stop from year’s end to year’s end. It seemed a spectral land, a place of supernatural beauty. Warm, still, languorous days would come, but that first feeling of unreality would remain permanent. I believe Jean Clemens was the only one who ever really loved the place. Something about it appealed to her elemental side and blended with her melancholy moods. She dressed always in white, and she was tall and pale and classically beautiful, and she was often silent, like a spirit. She had a little retreat for herself farther up the mountain-side, and spent most of her days there wood-carving, which was her chief diversion.

Clara Clemens did not come to the place at all. She was not yet strong, and went to Norfolk, Connecticut, where she could still be in quiet retirement and have her physician’s care. Miss Hobby came, and on the 21st of May the dictations were resumed. We began in his bedroom, as before, but the feeling there was depressing — the absence of the great carved bed and other furnishings, which had been so much a part of the picture, was felt by all of us. Nothing of the old luxury and richness was there. It was a summer-furnished place, handsome but with the customary bareness. At the end of this first session he dressed in his snowy flannels, which he had adopted in the place of linen for summer wear, and we descended to the veranda and looked out over that wide, wonderful expanse of scenery.

“I think I shall like it,” he said, “when I get acquainted with it, and get it classified and labeled, and I think we’ll do our dictating out here hereafter. It ought to be an inspiring place.”

So the dictations were transferred to the long veranda, and he was generally ready for them, a white figure pacing up and down before that panoramic background. During the earlier, cooler weeks he usually continued walking with measured step during the dictations, pausing now and then to look across the far-lying horizon. When it stormed we moved into the great living-room, where at one end there was a fireplace with blazing logs, and at the other the orchestrelle, which had once more been freighted up those mountain heights for the comfort of its harmonies. Sometimes, when the wind and rain were beating outside, and he was striding up and down the long room within, with only the blurred shapes of mountains and trees outlined through the trailing rain, the feeling of the unreality became so strong that it was hard to believe that somewhere down below, beyond the rain and the woods, there was a literal world — a commonplace world, where the ordinary things of life were going on in the usual way. When the dictation finished early, there would be music — the music that he loved most — Beethoven’s symphonies, or the Schubert impromptu, or the sonata by Chopin. 175 It is easy to understand that this carried one a remove farther from the customary things of life. It was a setting far out of the usual, though it became that unique white figure and his occupation. In my notes, made from day to day, I find that I have set down more than once an impression of the curious unreality of the place and its surroundings, which would show that it was not a mere passing fancy.

175 [Schubert, Op. 142, No. 2; Chopin, Op. 37, No. 2.]

I had lodgings in the village, and drove out mornings for the dictations, but often came out again afoot on pleasant afternoons; for he was not much occupied with social matters, and there was opportunity for quiet, informing interviews. There was a woods path to the Upton place, and it was a walk through a fairyland. A part of the way was through such a growth of beech timber as I have never seen elsewhere: tall, straight, mottled trees with an undergrowth of laurel, the sunlight sifting through; one found it easy to expect there storybook ladies, wearing crowns and green mantles, riding on white palfreys. Then came a more open way, an abandoned grass-grown road full of sunlight and perfume; and this led to a dim, religious place, a natural cathedral, where the columns were stately pine-trees branching and meeting at the top: a veritable temple in which it always seemed that music was about to play. You crossed a brook and climbed a little hill, and pushed through a hedge into a place more open, and the house stood there among the trees.

The days drifted along, one a good deal like another, except, as the summer deepened, the weather became warmer, the foliage changed, a drowsy haze gathered along the valleys and on the mountain-side. He sat more often now in a large rocking-chair, and generally seemed to be looking through half-dosed lids toward the Monadnock heights, that were always changing in aspect-in color and in form — as cloud shapes drifted by or gathered in those lofty hollows. White and yellow butterflies hovered over the grass, and there were some curious, large black ants — the largest I have ever seen and quite harmless — that would slip in and out of the cracks on the veranda floor, wholly undisturbed by us. Now and then a light flutter of wind would come murmuring up from the trees below, and when the apple-bloom was falling there would be a whirl of white and pink petals that seemed a cloud of smaller butterflies.

On June 1st I find in my note-book this entry:

Warm and pleasant. The dictation about Grant continues; a great privilege to hear this foremost man, of letters review his associations with that foremost man of arms. He remained seated today, dressed in white as usual, a large yellow pansy in his buttonhole, his white hair ruffled by the breeze. He wears his worn morocco slippers with black hose; sits in the rocker, smoking and looking out over the hazy hills, delivering his sentences with a measured accuracy that seldom calls for change. He is speaking just now of a Grant dinner which he attended where Depew spoke. One is impressed with the thought that we are looking at and listening to the war-worn veteran of a thousand dinners — the honored guest of many; an honored figure of all. Earlier, when he had been chastising some old offender, he added, “However, he’s dead, and I forgive him.” Then, after a moment’s reflection, “No; strike that last sentence out.” When we laughed, he added, “We can’t forgive him yet.”

A few days later — it was June 4th, the day before the second anniversary of the death of Mrs. Clemens — we found him at first in excellent humor from the long dictation of the day before. Then his mind reverted to the tragedy of the season, and he began trying to tell of it. It was hard work. He walked back and forth in the soft sunlight, saying almost nothing. He gave it up at last, remarking, “We will not work to-morrow.” So we went away.

He did not dictate on the 5th or the 6th, but on the 7th he resumed the story of Mrs. Clemens’s last days at Florence. The weather had changed: the sunlight and warmth had all gone; a chill, penetrating mist was on the mountains; Monadnock was blotted out. We expected him to go to the fire, but evidently he could not bear being shut in with that subject in his mind. A black cape was brought out and thrown about his shoulders, which seemed to fit exactly into the somberness of the picture. For two hours or more we sat there in the gloom and chill, while he paced up and down, detailing as graphically as might be that final chapter in the life of the woman he had loved.

It is hardly necessary to say that beyond the dictation Clemens did very little literary work during these months. He had brought his “manuscript trunk” as usual, thinking, perhaps, to finish the “microbe” story and other of the uncompleted things; but the dictation gave him sufficient mental exercise, and he did no more than look over his “stock in trade,” as he called it, and incorporate a few of the finished manuscripts into “autobiography.” Among these were the notes of his trip down the Rhone, made in 1891, and the old Stormfield story, which he had been treasuring and suppressing so long. He wrote Howells in June:

The dictating goes lazily and pleasantly on. With intervals. I find that I’ve been at it, off & on, nearly two hours for 155 days since January 9. To be exact, I’ve dictated 75 hours in 80 days & loafed 75 days. I’ve added 60,000 words in the month that I’ve been here; which indicates that I’ve dictated during 20 days of that time — 40 hours, at an average of 1,500 words an hour. It’s a plenty, & I’m satisfied.

There’s a good deal of “fat.” I’ve dictated (from January 9) 210,000 words, & the “fat” adds about 50,000 more.

The “fat” is old pigeonholed things of the years gone by which I or editors didn’t das’t to print. For instance, I am dumping in the little old book which I read to you in Hartford about 30 years ago & which you said “publish & ask Dean Stanley to furnish an introduction; he’ll do it” (Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven). It reads quite to suit me without altering a word now that it isn’t to see print until I am dead.

To-morrow I mean to dictate a chapter which will get my heirs & assigns burned alive if they venture to print it this side of A.D. 2006 — which I judge they won’t. There’ll be lots of such chapters if I live 3 or 4 years longer. The edition of A.D. 2006 will make a stir when it comes out. I shall be hovering around taking notice, along with other dead pals. You are invited.

The chapter which was to invite death at the stake for his successors was naturally one of religious heresies a violent attack on the orthodox, scriptural God, but really an expression of the highest reverence for the God which, as he said, had created the earth and sky and the music of the constellations. Mark Twain once expressed himself concerning reverence and the lack of it:

“I was never consciously and purposely irreverent in my life, yet one person or another is always charging me with a lack of reverence. Reverence for what — for whom? Who is to decide what ought to command my reverence — my neighbor or I? I think I ought to do the electing myself. The Mohammedan reveres Mohammed — it is his privilege; the Christian doesn’t — apparently that is his privilege; the account is square enough. They haven’t any right to complain of the other, yet they do complain of each other, and that is where the unfairness comes in. Each says that the other is irreverent, and both are mistaken, for manifestly you can’t have reverence for a thing that doesn’t command it. If you could do that you could digest what you haven’t eaten, and do other miracles and get a reputation.”

He was not reading many books at this time — he was inclined rather to be lazy, as he said, and to loaf during the afternoons; but I remember that he read aloud ‘After the Wedding’ and ‘The Mother’— those two beautiful word-pictures by Howells — which he declared sounded the depths of humanity with a deep-sea lead. Also he read a book by William Allen White, ‘In Our Town’, a collection of tales that he found most admirable. I think he took the trouble to send White a personal, hand-written letter concerning them, although, with the habit of dictation, he had begun, as he said, to “loathe the use of the pen.”

There were usually some sort of mild social affairs going on in the neighborhood, luncheons and afternoon gatherings like those of the previous year, though he seems to have attended fewer of them, for he did not often leave the house. Once, at least, he assisted in an afternoon entertainment at the Dublin Club, where he introduced his invention of the art of making an impromptu speech, and was assisted in its demonstration by George de Forest Brush and Joseph Lindon Smith, to the very great amusement of a crowd of summer visitors. The “art” consisted mainly of having on hand a few reliable anecdotes and a set formula which would lead directly to them from any given subject.

Twice or more he collected the children of the neighborhood for charades and rehearsed them, and took part in the performance, as in the Hartford days. Sometimes he drove out or took an extended walk. But these things were seldom.

Now and then during the summer he made a trip to New York of a semi-business nature, usually going by the way of Fairhaven, where he would visit for a few days, journeying the rest of the way in Mr. Rogers’s yacht. Once they made a cruise of considerable length to Bar Harbor and elsewhere. Here is an amusing letter which he wrote to Mrs. Rogers after such a visit:

DEAR MRS. ROGERS — In packing my things in your house yesterday morning I inadvertently put in some articles that was laying around, I thinking about theology & not noticing, the way this family does in similar circumstances like these. Two books, Mr. Rogers’ brown slippers, & a ham. I thought it was ourn, it looks like one we used to have. I am very sorry it happened, but it sha’n’t occur again & don’t you worry. He will temper the wind to the shorn lamb & I will send some of the things back anyway if there is some that won’t keep.

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