Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCLIV

Billiard-Room Notes

The billiard games went along pretty steadily that winter. My play improved, and Clemens found it necessary to eliminate my odds altogether, and to change the game frequently in order to keep me in subjection. Frequently there were long and apparently violent arguments over the legitimacy of some particular shot or play — arguments to us quite as enjoyable as the rest of the game. Sometimes he would count a shot which was clearly out of the legal limits, and then it was always a delight to him to have a mock-serious discussion over the matter of conscience, and whether or not his conscience was in its usual state of repair. It would always end by him saying: “I don’t wish even to seem to do anything which can invite suspicion. I refuse to count that shot,” or something of like nature. Sometimes when I had let a questionable play pass without comment, he would watch anxiously until I had made a similar one and then insist on my scoring it to square accounts. His conscience was always repairing itself.

He had experimented, a great many years before, with what was in the nature of a trick on some unsuspecting player. It consisted in turning out twelve pool-balls on the table with one cue ball, and asking his guest how many caroms he thought he could make with all those twelve balls to play on. He had learned that the average player would seldom make more than thirty-one counts, and usually, before this number was reached, he would miss through some careless play or get himself into a position where he couldn’t play at all. The thing looked absurdly easy. It looked as if one could go on playing all day long, and the victim was usually eager to bet that he could make fifty or perhaps a hundred; but for more than an hour I tried it patiently, and seldom succeeded in scoring more than fifteen or twenty without missing. Long after the play itself ceased to be amusing to me, he insisted on my going on and trying it some more, and he would throw himself back and roar with laughter, the tears streaming down his cheeks, to see me work and fume and fail.

It was very soon after that that Peter Dunne (“Mr. Dooley”) came down for luncheon, and after several games of the usual sort, Clemens quietly — as if the idea had just occurred to him — rolled out the twelve balls and asked Dunne how, many caroms he thought he could make without a miss. Dunne said he thought he could make a thousand. Clemens quite indifferently said that he didn’t believe he could make fifty. Dunne offered to bet five dollars that he could, and the wager was made. Dunne scored about twenty-five the first time and missed; then he insisted on betting five dollars again, and his defeats continued until Clemens had twenty-five dollars of Dunne’s money, and Dunne was sweating and swearing, and Mark Twain rocking with delight. Dunne went away still unsatisfied, promising that he would come back and try it again. Perhaps he practised in his absence, for when he returned he had learned something. He won his twenty-five dollars back, and I think something more added. Mark Twain was still ahead, for Dunne furnished him with a good five hundred dollars’ worth of amusement.

Clemens never cared to talk and never wished to be talked to when the game was actually in progress. If there was anything to be said on either side, he would stop and rest his cue on the floor, or sit down on the couch, until the matter was concluded. Such interruptions happened pretty frequently, and many of the bits of personal comment and incident scattered along through this work are the result of those brief rests. Some shot, or situation, or word would strike back through the past and awaken a note long silent, and I generally kept a pad and pencil on the window-sill with the score-sheet, and later, during his play, I would scrawl some reminder that would be precious by and by.

On one of these I find a memorandum of what he called his three recurrent dreams. All of us have such things, but his seem worth remembering.

“There is never a month passes,” he said, “that I do not dream of being in reduced circumstances, and obliged to go back to the river to earn a living. It is never a pleasant dream, either. I love to think about those days; but there’s always something sickening about the thought that I have been obliged to go back to them; and usually in my dream I am just about to start into a black shadow without being able to tell whether it is Selma bluff, or Hat Island, or only a black wall of night.

“Another dream that I have of that kind is being compelled to go back to the lecture platform. I hate that dream worse than the other. In it I am always getting up before an audience with nothing to say, trying to be funny; trying to make the audience laugh, realizing that I am only making silly jokes. Then the audience realizes it, and pretty soon they commence to get up and leave. That dream always ends by my standing there in the semidarkness talking to an empty house.

“My other dream is of being at a brilliant gathering in my night-garments. People don’t seem to notice me there at first, and then pretty soon somebody points me out, and they all begin to look at me suspiciously, and I can see that they are wondering who I am and why I am there in that costume. Then it occurs to me that I can fix it by making myself known. I take hold of some man and whisper to him, ‘I am Mark Twain’; but that does not improve it, for immediately I can hear him whispering to the others, ‘He says he is Mark Twain,’ and they all look at me a good deal more suspiciously than before, and I can see that they don’t believe it, and that it was a mistake to make that confession. Sometimes, in that dream, I am dressed like a tramp instead of being in my night-clothes; but it all ends about the same — they go away and leave me standing there, ashamed. I generally enjoy my dreams, but not those three, and they are the ones I have oftenest.”

Quite often some curious episode of the world’s history would flash upon him — something amusing, or coarse, or tragic, and he would bring the game to a standstill and recount it with wonderful accuracy as to date and circumstance. He had a natural passion for historic events and a gift for mentally fixing them, but his memory in other ways was seldom reliable. He was likely to forget the names even of those he knew best and saw oftenest, and the small details of life seldom registered at all.

He had his breakfast served in his room, and once, on a slip of paper, he wrote, for his own reminder:

The accuracy of your forgetfulness is absolute — it seems never to fail. I prepare to pour my coffee so it can cool while I shave — and I always forget to pour it.

Yet, very curiously, he would sometimes single out a minute detail, something every one else had overlooked, and days or even weeks afterward would recall it vividly, and not always at an opportune moment. Perhaps this also was a part of his old pilot-training. Once Clara Clemens remarked:

“It always amazes me the things that father does and does not remember. Some little trifle that nobody else would notice, and you are hoping that he didn’t, will suddenly come back to him just when you least expect it or care for it.”

My note-book contains the entry:

February 11, 1907. He said to-day:

“A blindfolded chess-player can remember every play and discuss the game afterward, while we can’t remember from one shot to the next.”

I mentioned his old pilot-memory as an example of what he could do if he wished.

“Yes,” he answered, “those are special memories; a pilot will tell you the number of feet in every crossing at any time, but he can’t remember what he had for breakfast.”

“How long did you keep your pilot-memory?” I asked.

“Not long; it faded out right away, but the training served me, for when I went to report on a paper a year or two later I never had to make any notes.”

“I suppose you still remember some of the river?”

“Not much. Hat Island, Helena and here and there a place; but that is about all.”

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