The building of the new home at Redding had been going steadily forward for something more than a year. John Mead Howells had made the plans; W. W. Sunderland and his son Philip, of Danbury, Connecticut, were the builders, and in the absence of Miss Clemens, then on a concert tour, Mark Twain’s secretary, Miss I. V. Lyon, had superintended the furnishing.
“Innocence at Home,” as the place was originally named, was to be ready for its occupant in June, with every detail in place, as he desired. He had never visited Redding; he had scarcely even glanced at the plans or discussed any of the decorations of the new home. He had required only that there should be one great living-room for the orchestrelle, and another big room for the billiard-table, with plenty of accommodations for guests. He had required that the billiard-room be red, for something in his nature answered to the warm luxury of that color, particularly in moments of diversion. Besides, his other billiard-rooms had been red, and such association may not be lightly disregarded. His one other requirement was that the place should be complete.
“I don’t want to see it,” he said, “until the cat is purring on the hearth.”
“He had grown so weary of change, and so indifferent to it, that he was without interest.”
But it was rather, I think, that he was afraid of losing interest by becoming wearied with details which were likely to exasperate him; also, he wanted the dramatic surprise of walking into a home that had been conjured into existence as with a word.
It was expected that the move would be made early in the month; but there were delays, and it was not until the 18th of June that he took possession.
The plan, at this time, was only to use the Redding place as a summer residence, and the Fifth Avenue house was not dismantled. A few days before the 18th the servants, with one exception, were taken up to the new house, Clemens and myself remaining in the loneliness of No. 21, attending to the letters in the morning and playing billiards the rest of the time, waiting for the appointed day and train. It was really a pleasant three days. He invented a new game, and we were riotous and laughed as loudly as we pleased. I think he talked very little of the new home which he was so soon to see. It was referred to no oftener than once or twice a day, and then I believe only in connection with certain of the billiard-room arrangements. I have wondered since what picture of it he could have had in his mind, for he had never seen a photograph. He had a general idea that it was built upon a hill, and that its architecture was of the Italian villa order. I confess I had moments of anxiety, for I had selected the land for him, and had been more or less accessory otherwise. I did not really worry, for I knew how beautiful and peaceful it all was; also something of his taste and needs.
It had been a dry spring, and country roads were dusty, so that those who were responsible had been praying for rain, to be followed by a pleasant day for his arrival. Both petitions were granted; June 18th would fall on Thursday, and Monday night there came a good, thorough, and refreshing shower that washed the vegetation clean and laid the dust. The morning of the 18th was bright and sunny and cool. Clemens was up and shaved by six o’clock in order to be in time, though the train did not leave until four in the afternoon — an express newly timed to stop at Redding — its first trip scheduled for the day of Mark Twain’s arrival.
We were still playing billiards when word was brought up that the cab was waiting. My daughter, Louise, whose school on Long Island had closed that day, was with us. Clemens wore his white flannels and a Panama hat, and at the station a group quickly collected, reporters and others, to interview him and speed him to his new home. He was cordial and talkative, and quite evidently full of pleasant anticipation. A reporter or two and a special photographer came along, to be present at his arrival.
The new, quick train, the green, flying landscape, with glimpses of the Sound and white sails, the hillsides and clear streams becoming rapidly steeper and dearer as we turned northward: all seemed to gratify him, and when he spoke at all it was approvingly. The hour and a half required to cover the sixty miles of distance seemed very short. As the train slowed down for the Redding station, he said:
“We’ll leave this box of candy”— he had bought a large box on the way — “those colored porters sometimes like candy, and we can get some more.”
He drew out a great handful of silver.
“Give them something — give everybody liberally that does any service.”
There was a sort of open-air reception in waiting. Redding had recognized the occasion as historic. A varied assemblage of vehicles festooned with flowers had gathered to offer a gallant country welcome.
It was now a little before six o’clock of that long June day, still and dreamlike; and to the people assembled there may have been something which was not quite reality in the scene. There was a tendency to be very still. They nodded, waved their hands to him, smiled, and looked their fill; but a spell lay upon them, and they did not cheer. It would have been a pity if they had done so. A noise, and the illusion would have been shattered.
His carriage led away on the three-mile drive to the house on the hilltop, and the floral turnout fell in behind. No first impression of a fair land could have come at a sweeter time. Hillsides were green, fields were white with daisies, dog-wood and laurel shone among the trees. And over all was the blue sky, and everywhere the fragrance of June.
He was very quiet as we drove along. Once with gentle humor, looking over a white daisy field, he said:
“That is buckwheat. I always recognize buckwheat when I see it. I wish I knew as much about other things as I know about buckwheat. It seems to be very plentiful here; it even grows by the roadside.” And a little later: “This is the kind of a road I like; a good country road through the woods.”
The water was flowing over the mill-dam where the road crosses the Saugatuck, and he expressed approval of that clear, picturesque little river, one of those charming Connecticut streams. A little farther on a brook cascaded down the hillside, and he compared it with some of the tiny streams of Switzerland, I believe the Giessbach. The lane that led to the new home opened just above, and as he entered the leafy way he said, “This is just the kind of a lane I like,” thus completing his acceptance of everything but the house and the location.
The last of the procession had dropped away at the entrance of the lane, and he was alone with those who had most anxiety for his verdict. They had not long to wait. As the carriage ascended higher to the open view he looked away, across the Saugatuck Valley to the nestling village and church-spire and farm-houses, and to the distant hills, and declared the land to be a good land and beautiful — a spot to satisfy one’s soul. Then came the house — simple and severe in its architecture — an Italian villa, such as he had known in Florence, adapted now to American climate and needs. The scars of building had not all healed yet, but close to the house waved green grass and blooming flowers that might have been there always. Neither did the house itself look new. The soft, gray stucco had taken on a tone that melted into the sky and foliage of its background. At the entrance his domestic staff waited to greet him, and then he stepped across the threshold into the wide hall and stood in his own home for the first time in seventeen years. It was an anxious moment, and no one spoke immediately. But presently his eye had taken in the satisfying harmony of the place and followed on through the wide doors that led to the dining-room — on through the open French windows to an enchanting vista of tree-tops and distant farmside and blue hills. He said, very gently:
“How beautiful it all is? I did not think it could be as beautiful as this.”
He was taken through the rooms; the great living-room at one end of the hall — a room on the walls of which there was no picture, but only color-harmony — and at the other end of the hall, the splendid, glowing billiard-room, where hung all the pictures in which he took delight. Then to the floor above, with its spacious apartments and a continuation of color — welcome and concord, the windows open to the pleasant evening hills. When he had seen it all — the natural Italian garden below the terraces; the loggia, whose arches framed landscape vistas and formed a rare picture-gallery; when he had completed the round and stood in the billiard-room — his especial domain — once more he said, as a final verdict:
“It is a perfect house — perfect, so far as I can see, in every detail. It might have been here always.”
He was at home there from that moment — absolutely, marvelously at home, for he fitted the setting perfectly, and there was not a hitch or flaw in his adaptation. To see him over the billiard-table, five minutes later, one could easily fancy that Mark Twain, as well as the house, had “been there always.” Only the presence of his daughters was needed now to complete his satisfaction in everything.
There were guests that first evening — a small home dinner-party — and so perfect were the appointments and service, that one not knowing would scarcely have imagined it to be the first dinner served in that lovely room. A little later; at the foot of the garden of bay and cedar, neighbors, inspired by Dan Beard, who had recently located near by, set off some fireworks. Clemens stepped out on the terrace and saw rockets climbing through the summer sky to announce his arrival.
“I wonder why they all go to so much trouble for me,” he said, softly. “I never go to any trouble for anybody”— a statement which all who heard it, and all his multitude of readers in every land, stood ready to deny.
That first evening closed with billiards — boisterous, triumphant billiards — and when with midnight the day ended and the cues were set in the rack, there was none to say that Mark Twain’s first day in his new home had not been a happy one.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00