Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCLX

Matters Psychic and Otherwise

He returned to Tuxedo and took up his dictations, and mingled freely with the social life; but the contrast between his recent London experience and his semi-retirement must have been very great. When I visited him now and then, he seemed to me lonely — not especially for companionship, but rather for the life that lay behind him — the great career which in a sense now had been completed since he had touched its highest point. There was no billiard-table at Tuxedo, and he spoke expectantly of getting back to town and the games there, also of the new home which was then building in Redding, and which would have a billiard-room where we could assemble daily — my own habitation being not far away. Various diversions were planned for Redding; among them was discussed a possible school of philosophy, such as Hawthorne and Emerson and Alcott had established at Concord.

He spoke quite freely of his English experiences, but usually of the more amusing phases. He almost never referred to the honors that had been paid to him, yet he must have thought of them sometimes, and cherished them, for it had been the greatest national tribute ever paid to a private citizen; he must have known that in his heart. He spoke amusingly of his visit to Marie Corelli, in Stratford, and of the Holy Grail incident, ending the latter by questioning — in words at least — all psychic manifestations. I said to him:

“But remember your own dream, Mr. Clemens, which presaged the death of your brother.”

He answered: “I ask nobody to believe that it ever happened. To me it is true; but it has no logical right to be true, and I do not expect belief in it.” Which I thought a peculiar point of view, but on the whole characteristic.

He was invited to be a special guest at the Jamestown Exposition on Fulton Day, in September, and Mr. Rogers lent him his yacht in which to make the trip. It was a break in the summer’s monotonies, and the Jamestown honors must have reminded him of those in London. When he entered the auditorium where the services were to be held there was a demonstration which lasted more than five minutes. Every person in the hall rose and cheered, waving handkerchiefs and umbrellas. He made them a brief, amusing talk on Fulton and other matters, then introduced Admiral Harrington, who delivered a masterly address and was followed by Martin W. Littleton, the real orator of the day. Littleton acquitted himself so notably that Mark Twain conceived for him a deep admiration, and the two men quickly became friends. They saw each other often during the remainder of the Jamestown stay, and Clemens, learning that Littleton lived just across Ninth Street from him in New York, invited him to come over when he had an evening to spare and join the billiard games.

So it happened, somewhat later, when every one was back in town, Mr. and Mrs. Littleton frequently came over for billiards, and the games became three-handed with an audience — very pleasant games played in that way. Clemens sometimes set himself up as umpire, and became critic and gave advice, while Littleton and I played. He had a favorite shot that he frequently used himself and was always wanting us to try, which was to drive the ball to the cushion at the beginning of the shot.

He played it with a good deal of success, and achieved unexpected results with it. He was even inspired to write a poem on the subject.


When all your days are dark with doubt, And dying hope is at its worst; When all life’s balls are scattered wide, With not a shot in sight, to left or right, Don’t give it up; Advance your cue and shut your eyes, And take the cushion first.

The Harry Thaw trial was in progress just then, and Littleton was Thaw’s chief attorney. It was most interesting to hear from him direct the day’s proceedings and his views of the situation and of Thaw.

Littleton and billiards recall a curious thing which happened one afternoon. I had been absent the evening before, and Littleton had been over. It was after luncheon now, and Clemens and I began preparing for the customary games. We were playing then a game with four balls, two white and two red. I began by placing the red balls on the table, and then went around looking in the pockets for the two white cue-balls. When I had made the round of the table I had found but one white ball. I thought I must have overlooked the other, and made the round again. Then I said:

“There is one white ball missing.”

Clemens, to satisfy himself, also made the round of the pockets, and said:

“It was here last night.” He felt in the pockets of the little white-silk coat which he usually wore, thinking that he might unconsciously have placed it there at the end of the last game, but his coat pockets were empty.

He said: “I’ll bet Littleton carried that ball home with him.”

Then I suggested that near the end of the game it might have jumped off the table, and I looked carefully under the furniture and in the various corners, but without success. There was another set of balls, and out of it I selected a white one for our play, and the game began. It went along in the usual way, the balls constantly falling into the pockets, and as constantly being replaced on the table. This had continued for perhaps half an hour, there being no pocket that had not been frequently occupied and emptied during that time; but then it happened that Clemens reached into the middle pocket, and taking out a white ball laid it in place, whereupon we made the discovery that three white balls lay upon the table. The one just taken from the pocket was the missing ball. We looked at each other, both at first too astonished to say anything at all. No one had been in the room since we began to play, and at no time during the play had there been more than two white balls in evidence, though the pockets had been emptied at the end of each shot. The pocket from which the missing ball had been taken had been filled and emptied again and again. Then Clemens said:

“We must be dreaming.”

We stopped the game for a while to discuss it, but we could devise no material explanation. I suggested the kobold — that mischievous invisible which is supposed to play pranks by carrying off such things as pencils, letters, and the like, and suddenly restoring them almost before one’s eyes. Clemens, who, in spite of his material logic, was always a mystic at heart, said:

“But that, so far as I know, has never happened to more than one person at a time, and has been explained by a sort of temporary mental blindness. This thing has happened to two of us, and there can be no question as to the positive absence of the object.”

“How about dematerialization?”

“Yes, if one of us were a medium that might be considered an explanation.”

He went on to recall that Sir Alfred Russel Wallace had written of such things, and cited instances which Wallace had recorded. In the end he said:

“Well, it happened, that’s all we can say, and nobody can ever convince me that it didn’t.”

We went on playing, and the ball remained solid and substantial ever after, so far as I know.

I am reminded of two more or less related incidents of this period. Clemens was, one morning, dictating something about his Christian Union article concerning Mrs. Clemens’s government of children, published in 1885. I had discovered no copy of it among the materials, and he was wishing very much that he could see one. Somewhat later, as he was walking down Fifth Avenue, the thought of this article and his desire for it suddenly entered his mind. Reaching the corner of Forty-second Street, he stopped a moment to let a jam of vehicles pass. As he did so a stranger crossed the street, noticed him, and came dodging his way through the blockade and thrust some clippings into his hand.

“Mr. Clemens,” he said, “you don’t know me, but here is something you may wish to have. I have been saving them for more than twenty years, and this morning it occurred to me to send them to you. I was going to mail them from my office, but now I will give them to you,” and with a word or two he disappeared. The clippings were from the Christian Union of 1885, and were the much-desired article. Clemens regarded it as a remarkable case of mental telegraphy.

“Or, if it wasn’t that,” he said, “it was a most remarkable coincidence.”

The other circumstance has been thought amusing. I had gone to Redding for a few days, and while there, one afternoon about five o’clock, fell over a coal-scuttle and scarified myself a good deal between the ankle and the knee. I mention the hour because it seems important. Next morning I received a note, prompted by Mr. Clemens, in which he said:

Tell Paine I am sorry he fell and skinned his shin at five o’clock yesterday afternoon.

I was naturally astonished, and immediately wrote:

I did fall and skin my shin at five o’clock yesterday afternoon, but how did you find it out?

I followed the letter in person next day, and learned that at the same hour on the same afternoon Clemens himself had fallen up the front steps and, as he said, peeled off from his “starboard shin a ribbon of skin three inches long.” The disaster was still uppermost in his mind at the time of writing, and the suggestion of my own mishap had flashed out for no particular reason.

Clemens was always having his fortune told, in one way or another, being superstitious, as he readily confessed, though at times professing little faith in these prognostics. Once when a clairvoyant, of whom he had never even heard, and whom he had reason to believe was ignorant of his family history, told him more about it than he knew himself, besides reading a list of names from a piece of paper which Clemens had concealed in his vest pocket he came home deeply impressed. The clairvoyant added that he would probably live to a great age and die in a, foreign land — a prophecy which did not comfort him.

Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55