Howells, in his book, refers to the Human Race Luncheon Club, which Clemens once organized for the particular purpose of damning the species in concert. It was to consist, beside Clemens himself, of Howells, Colonel Harvey, and Peter Dunne; but it somehow never happened that even this small membership could be assembled while the idea was still fresh, and therefore potent.
Out of it, however, grew a number of those private social gatherings which Clemens so dearly loved — small luncheons and dinners given at his own table. The first of these came along toward the end of 1907, when Howells was planning to spend the winter in Italy.
“Howells is going away,” he said, “and I should like to give him a stag-party. We’ll enlarge the Human Race Club for the occasion.”
So Howells, Colonel Harvey, Martin Littleton, Augustus Thomas, Robert Porter, and Paderewski were invited. Paderewski was unable to come, and seven in all assembled.
Howells was first to arrive.
“Here comes Howells,” Clemens said. “Old Howells a thousand years old.”
But Howells didn’t look it. His face was full of good-nature and apparent health, and he was by no means venerable, either in speech or action. Thomas, Porter, Littleton, and Harvey drifted in. Cocktails were served and luncheon was announced.
Claude, the butler, had prepared the table with fine artistry — its center a mass of roses. There was to be no woman in the neighborhood — Clemens announced this fact as a sort of warrant for general freedom of expression.
Thomas’s play, “The Witching Hour,” was then at the height of its great acceptance, and the talk naturally began there. Thomas told something of the difficulty which he found in being able to convince a manager that it would succeed, and declared it to be his own favorite work. I believe there was no dissenting opinion as to its artistic value, or concerning its purpose and psychology, though these had been the stumbling-blocks from a managerial point of view.
When the subject was concluded, and there had come a lull, Colonel Harvey, who was seated at Clemens’s left, said:
“Uncle Mark”— he often called him that —“Major Leigh handed me a report of the year’s sales just as I was leaving. It shows your royalty returns this year to be very close to fifty thousand dollars. I don’t believe there is another such return from old books on record.”
This was said in an undertone, to Clemens only, but was overheard by one or two of those who sat nearest. Clemens was not unwilling to repeat it for the benefit of all, and did so. Howells said:
“A statement like that arouses my basest passions. The books are no good; it’s just the advertising they get.”
Clemens said: “Yes, my contract compels the publisher to advertise. It costs them two hundred dollars every time they leave the advertisement out of the magazines.”
“And three hundred every time we put it in,” said Harvey. “We often debate whether it is more profitable to put in the advertisement or to leave it out.”
The talk switched back to plays and acting. Thomas recalled an incident of Beerbohm Tree’s performance of “Hamlet.” W. S. Gilbert, of light-opera celebrity, was present at a performance, and when the play ended Mrs. Tree hurried over to him and said:
“Oh, Mr. Gilbert, what did you think of Mr. Tree’s rendition of Hamlet?” “Remarkable,” said Gilbert. “Funny without being vulgar.”
It was with such idle tales and talk-play that the afternoon passed. Not much of it all is left to me, but I remember Howells saying, “Did it ever occur to you that the newspapers abolished hell? Well, they did — it was never done by the church. There was a consensus of newspaper opinion that the old hell with its lake of fire and brimstone was an antiquated institution; in fact a dead letter.” And again, “I was coming down Broadway last night, and I stopped to look at one of the street-venders selling those little toy fighting roosters. It was a bleak, desolate evening; nobody was buying anything, and as he pulled the string and kept those little roosters dancing and fighting his remarks grew more and more cheerless and sardonic.
“‘Japanese game chickens,’ he said; ‘pretty toys, amuse the children with their antics. Child of three can operate it. Take them home for Christmas. Chicken-fight at your own fireside.’ I tried to catch his eye to show him that I understood his desolation and sorrow, but it was no use. He went on dancing his toy chickens, and saying, over and over, ‘Chicken-fight at your own fireside.’”
The luncheon over, we wandered back into the drawing-room, and presently all left but Colonel Harvey. Clemens and the Colonel went up to the billiard-room and engaged in a game of cushion caroms, at twenty-five cents a game. I was umpire and stakeholder, and it was a most interesting occupation, for the series was close and a very cheerful one. It ended the day much to Mark Twain’s satisfaction, for he was oftenest winner. That evening he said:
“We will repeat that luncheon; we ought to repeat it once a month. Howells will be gone, but we must have the others. We cannot have a thing like that too often.”
There was, in fact, a second stag-luncheon very soon after, at which George Riggs was present and that rare Irish musician, Denis O’Sullivan. It was another choice afternoon, with a mystical quality which came of the music made by O’Sullivan on some Hindu reeds-pipes of Pan. But we shall have more of O’Sullivan presently — all too little, for his days were few and fleeting.
Howells could not get away just yet. Colonel Harvey, who, like James Osgood, would not fail to find excuse for entertainment, chartered two drawing-room cars, and with Mrs. Harvey took a party of fifty-five or sixty congenial men and women to Lakewood for a good-by luncheon to Howells. It was a day borrowed from June, warm and beautiful.
The trip down was a sort of reception. Most of the guests were acquainted, but many of them did not often meet. There was constant visiting back and forth the full length of the two coaches. Denis O’Sullivan was among the guests. He looked in the bloom of health, and he had his pipes and played his mystic airs; then he brought out the tin-whistle of Ireland, and blew such rollicking melodies as capering fairies invented a long time ago. This was on the train going down.
There was a brief program following the light-hearted feasting — an informal program fitting to that sunny day. It opened with some recitations by Miss Kitty Cheatham; then Colonel Harvey introduced Howells, with mention of his coming journey. As a rule, Howells does not enjoy speaking. He is willing to read an address on occasion, but he has owned that the prospect of talking without his notes terrifies him. This time, however, there was no reluctance, though he had prepared no speech. He was among friends. He looked even happy when he got on his feet, and he spoke like a happy man. He talked about Mark Twain. It was all delicate, delicious chaffing which showed Howells at his very best — all too short for his listeners.
Clemens, replying, returned the chaff, and rambled amusingly among his fancies, closing with a few beautiful words of “Godspeed and safe return” to his old comrade and friend.
Then once more came Denis and his pipes. No one will ever forget his part of the program. The little samples we had heard on the train were expanded and multiplied and elaborated in a way that fairly swept his listeners out of themselves into that land where perhaps Denis himself wanders playing now; for a month later, strong and lusty and beautiful as he seemed that day, he suddenly vanished from among us and his reeds were silent. It never occurred to us then that Denis could die; and as he finished each melody and song there was a shout for a repetition, and I think we could have sat there and let the days and years slip away unheeded, for time is banished by music like that, and one wonders if it might not even divert death.
It was dark when we crossed the river homeward; the myriad lights from heaven-climbing windows made an enchanted city in the sky. The evening, like the day, was warm, and some of the party. left the ferry-cabin to lean over and watch the magic spectacle, the like of which is not to be found elsewhere on the earth.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00