A harvest of letters followed the wedding: a general congratulatory expression, mingled with admiration, affection, and good-will. In his interview Clemens had referred to the pain in his breast; and many begged him to deny that there was anything serious the matter with him, urging him to try this relief or that, pathetically eager for his continued life and health. They cited the comfort he had brought to world-weary humanity and his unfailing stand for human justice as reasons why he should live. Such letters could not fail to cheer him.
A letter of this period, from John Bigelow, gave him a pleasure of its own. Clemens had written Bigelow, apropos of some adverse expression on the tariff:
Thank you for any hard word you can say about the tariff. I guess the government that robs its own people earns the future it is preparing for itself.
Bigelow was just then declining an invitation to the annual dinner of the Chamber of Commerce. In sending his regrets he said:
The sentiment I would propose if I dared to be present would be the words of Mark Twain, the statesman:
“The government that robs its own people earns the future it is preparing for itself.”
Now to Clemens himself he wrote:
Rochefoucault never said a cleverer thing, nor Dr. Franklin a wiser one . . . . Be careful, or the Demos will be running you for President when you are not on your guard.
Yours more than ever, JOHN BIGELOW.
Among the tributes that came, was a sermon by the Rev. Fred Window Adams, of Schenectady, New York, with Mark Twain as its subject. Mr. Adams chose for his text, “Take Mark and bring him with thee; for he is profitable for the ministry,” and he placed the two Marks, St. Mark and Mark Twain, side by side as ministers to humanity, and characterized him as “a fearless knight of righteousness.” A few weeks later Mr. Adams himself came to Stormfield, and, like all open-minded ministers of the Gospel, he found that he could get on very well indeed with Mark Twain.
In spite of the good-will and the good wishes Clemens’s malady did not improve. As the days grew chillier he found that he must remain closer indoors. The cold air seemed to bring on the pains, and they were gradually becoming more severe; then, too, he did not follow the doctor’s orders in the matter of smoking, nor altogether as to exercise.
To Miss Wallace he wrote:
I can’t walk, I can’t drive, I’m not down-stairs much, and I don’t see company, but I drink barrels of water to keep the pain quiet; I read, and read, and read, and smoke, and smoke, and smoke all the time (as formerly), and it’s a contented and comfortable life.
But this was not altogether accurate as to details. He did come down-stairs many times daily, and he persisted in billiards regardless of the paroxysms. We found, too, that the seizures were induced by mental agitation. One night he read aloud to Jean and myself the first chapter of an article, “The Turning-Point in My Life,” which he was preparing for Harper’s Bazar. He had begun it with one of his impossible burlesque fancies, and he felt our attitude of disappointment even before any word had been said. Suddenly he rose, and laying his hand on his breast said, “I must lie down,” and started toward the stair. I supported him to his room and hurriedly poured out the hot water. He drank it and dropped back on the bed.
“Don’t speak to me,” he said; “don’t make me talk.”
Jean came in, and we sat there several moments in silence. I think we both wondered if this might not be the end; but presently he spoke of his own accord, declaring he was better, and ready for billiards.
We played for at least an hour afterward, and he seemed no worse for the attack. It is a curious malady — that angina; even the doctors are acquainted with its manifestations, rather than its cause. Clemens’s general habits of body and mind were probably not such as to delay its progress; furthermore, there had befallen him that year one of those misfortunes which his confiding nature peculiarly invited — a betrayal of trust by those in whom it had been boundlessly placed — and it seems likely that the resulting humiliation aggravated his complaint. The writing of a detailed history of this episode afforded him occupation and a certain amusement, but probably did not contribute to his health. One day he sent for his attorney, Mr. Charles T. Lark, and made some final revisions in his will.195
195 [Mark Twain’s estate, later appraised at something more than $600,000 was left in the hands of trustees for his daughters. The trustees were Edward E. Loomis, Jervis Langdon, and Zoheth S. Freeman. The direction of his literary affairs was left to his daughter Clara and the writer of this history.]
To see him you would never have suspected that he was ill. He was in good flesh, and his movement was as airy and his eye as bright and his face as full of bloom as at any time during the period I had known him; also, he was as light-hearted and full of ideas and plans, and he was even gentler — having grown mellow with age and retirement, like good wine.
And of course he would find amusement in his condition. He said:
“I have always pretended to be sick to escape visitors; now, for the first time, I have got a genuine excuse. It makes me feel so honest.”
And once, when Jean reported a caller in the livingroom, he said:
“Jean, I can’t see her. Tell her I am likely to drop dead any minute and it would be most embarrassing.”
But he did see her, for it was a poet — Angela Morgan — and he read her poem, “God’s Man,” aloud with great feeling, and later he sold it for her to Collier’s Weekly.
He still had violent rages now and then, remembering some of the most notable of his mistakes; and once, after denouncing himself, rather inclusively, as an idiot, he said:
“I wish to God the lightning would strike me; but I’ve wished that fifty thousand times and never got anything out of it yet. I have missed several good chances. Mrs. Clemens was afraid of lightning, and would never let me bare my head to the storm.”
The element of humor was never lacking, and the rages became less violent and less frequent.
I was at Stormfield steadily now, and there was a regular routine of afternoon sessions of billiards or reading, in which we were generally alone; for Jean, occupied with her farming and her secretary labors, seldom appeared except at meal-times. Occasionally she joined in the billiard games; but it was difficult learning and her interest was not great. She would have made a fine player, for she had a natural talent for games, as she had for languages, and she could have mastered the science of angles as she had mastered tennis and French and German and Italian. She had naturally a fine intellect, with many of her father’s characteristics, and a tender heart that made every dumb creature her friend.
Katie Leary, who had been Jean’s nurse, once told how, as a little child, Jean had not been particularly interested in a picture of the Lisbon earthquake, where the people were being swallowed up; but on looking at the next page, which showed a number of animals being overwhelmed, she had said:
“Why, you didn’t say that about the people!”
But Jean answered:
“Oh, they could speak.”
One night at the dinner-table her father was saying how difficult it must be for a man who had led a busy life to give up the habit of work.
“That is why the Rogerses kill themselves,” he said. “They would rather kill themselves in the old treadmill than stop and try to kill time. They have forgotten how to rest. They know nothing but to keep on till they drop.”
I told of something I had read not long before. It was about an aged lion that had broken loose from his cage at Coney Island. He had not offered to hurt any one; but after wandering about a little, rather aimlessly, he had come to a picket-fence, and a moment later began pacing up and down in front of it, just the length of his cage. They had come and led him back to his prison without trouble, and he had rushed eagerly into it. I noticed that Jean was listening anxiously, and when I finished she said:
“Is that a true story?”
She had forgotten altogether the point in illustration. She was concerned only with the poor old beast that had found no joy in his liberty.
Among the letters that Clemens wrote just then was one to Miss Wallace, in which he described the glory of the fall colors as seen from his windows.
The autumn splendors passed you by? What a pity! I wish you had been here. It was beyond words! It was heaven & hell & sunset & rainbows & the aurora all fused into one divine harmony, & you couldn’t look at it and keep the tears back.
Such a singing together, & such a whispering together, & such a snuggling together of cozy, soft colors, & such kissing & caressing, & such pretty blushing when the sun breaks out & catches those dainty weeds at it — you remember that weed-garden of mine? —& then — then the far hills sleeping in a dim blue trance — oh, hearing about it is nothing, you should be here to see it!
In the same letter he refers to some work that he was writing for his own satisfaction —‘Letters from the Earth’; said letters supposed to have been written by an immortal visitant and addressed to other immortals in some remote sphere.
I’ll read passages to you. This book will never be published — in fact it couldn’t be, because it would be felony . . . Paine enjoys it, but Paine is going to be damned one of these days, I suppose.
I very well remember his writing those ‘Letters from the Earth’. He read them to me from time to time as he wrote them, and they were fairly overflowing with humor and philosophy and satire concerning the human race. The immortal visitor pointed out, one after another, the absurdities of mankind, his ridiculous conception of heaven, and his special conceit in believing that he was the Creator’s pet — the particular form of life for which all the universe was created. Clemens allowed his exuberant fancy free rein, being under no restrictions as to the possibility of print or public offense. He enjoyed them himself, too, as he read them aloud, and we laughed ourselves weak over his bold imaginings.
One admissible extract will carry something of the flavor of these chapters. It is where the celestial correspondent describes man’s religion.
His heaven is like himself: strange, interesting, astonishing, grotesque. I give you my word it has not a single feature in it that he actually values. It consists — utterly and entirely — of diversions which he cares next to nothing about here in the earth, yet he is quite sure he will like in heaven. Isn’t it curious? Isn’t it interesting? You must not think I am exaggerating, for it is not so. I will give you the details.
Most, men do not sing, most men cannot sing, most men will not stay where others are singing if it be continued more than two hours. Note that.
Only about two men in a hundred can play upon a musical instrument, and not four in a hundred have any wish to learn how. Set that down.
Many men pray, not many of them like to do it. A few pray long, the others make a short-cut.
More men go to church than want to.
To forty-nine men in fifty the Sabbath day is a dreary, dreary bore.
Further, all sane people detest noise.
All people, sane or insane, like to have variety in their lives. Monotony quickly wearies them.
Now then, you have the facts. You know what men don’t enjoy. Well, they have invented a heaven, out of their own heads, all by themselves; guess what it is like? In fifteen hundred years you couldn’t do it. They have left out the very things they care for most their dearest pleasures — and replaced them with prayer!
In man’s heaven everybody sings. There are no exceptions. The man who did not sing on earth sings there; the man who could not sing on earth sings there. Thus universal singing is not casual, not occasional, not relieved by intervals of quiet; it goes on all day long and every day during a stretch of twelve hours. And everybody stays where on earth the place would be empty in two hours. The singing is of hymns alone. Nay, it is one hymn alone. The words are always the same in number — they are only about a dozen — there is no rhyme — there is no poetry. “Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna unto the highest!” and a few such phrases constitute the whole service.
Meantime, every person is playing on a harp! Consider the deafening hurricane of sound. Consider, further, it is a praise service — a service of compliment, flattery, adulation. Do you ask who it is that is willing to endure this strange compliment, this insane compliment, and who not only endures it but likes it, enjoys it, requires it, commands it? Hold your breath: It is God! This race’s God I mean — their own pet invention.
Most of the ideas presented in this his last commentary on human absurdities were new only as to phrasing. He had exhausted the topic long ago, in one way or another; but it was one of the themes in which he never lost interest. Many subjects became stale to him at last; but the curious invention called man remained a novelty to him to the end.
From my note-book:
October 25. I am constantly amazed at his knowledge of history — all history — religious, political, military. He seems to have read everything in the world concerning Rome, France, and England particularly.
Last night we stopped playing billiards while he reviewed, in the most vivid and picturesque phrasing, the reasons of Rome’s decline. Such a presentation would have enthralled any audience — I could not help feeling a great pity that he had not devoted some of his public effort to work of that sort. No one could have equaled him at it. He concluded with some comments on the possibility of America following Rome’s example, though he thought the vote of the people would always, or at least for a long period, prevent imperialism.
November 1. To-day he has been absorbed in his old interest in shorthand. “It is the only rational alphabet,” he declared. “All this spelling reform is nonsense. What we need is alphabet reform, and shorthand is the thing. Take the letter M, for instance; it is made with one stroke in shorthand, while in longhand it requires at least three. The word Mephistopheles can be written in shorthand with one-sixth the number of strokes that is required in longhand. I tell you shorthand should be adopted as the alphabet.”
I said: “There is this objection: the characters are so slightly different that each writer soon forms a system of his own and it is seldom that two can read each other’s notes.”
“You are talking of stenographic reporting,” he said, rather warmly. “Nothing of the kind is true in the case of the regular alphabet. It is perfectly clear and legible.”
“Would you have it in the schools, then?”
“Yes, it should be taught in the schools, not for stenographic purposes, but only for use in writing to save time.”
He was very much in earnest, and said he had undertaken an article on the subject.
November 3. He said he could not sleep last night, for thinking what a fool he had been in his various investments.
“I have always been the victim of somebody,” he said, “and always an idiot myself, doing things that even a child would not do. Never asking anybody’s advice — never taking it when it was offered. I can’t see how anybody could do the things I have done and have kept right on doing.” I could see that the thought agitated him, and I suggested that we go to his room and read, which we did, and had a riotous time over the most recent chapters of the ‘Letters from the Earth’, and some notes he had made for future chapters on infant damnation and other distinctive features of orthodox creeds. He told an anecdote of an old minister who declared that Presbyterianism without infant damnation would be like the dog on the train that couldn’t be identified because it had lost its tag.
Somewhat on the defensive I said, “But we must admit that the so-called Christian nations are the most enlightened and progressive.”
He answered, “Yes, but in spite of their religion, not because of it. The Church has opposed every innovation and discovery from the day of Galileo down to our own time, when the use of anesthetics in child-birth was regarded as a sin because it avoided the biblical curse pronounced against Eve. And every step in astronomy and geology ever taken has been opposed by bigotry and superstition. The Greeks surpassed us in artistic culture and in architecture five hundred years before the Christian religion was born.
“I have been reading Gibbon’s celebrated Fifteenth Chapter,” he said later, “and I don’t see what Christians found against it. It is so mild — so gentle in its sarcasm.” He added that he had been reading also a little book of brief biographies and had found in it the saying of Darwin’s father, “Unitarianism is a featherbed to catch falling Christians.”
“I was glad to find and identify that saying,” he said; “it is so good.”
He finished the evening by reading a chapter from Carlyle’s French Revolution — a fine pyrotechnic passage — the gathering at Versailles. I said that Carlyle somehow reminded me of a fervid stump-speaker who pounded his fists and went at his audience fiercely, determined to convince them.
“Yes,” he said, “but he is the best one that ever lived.”
November 10. This morning early he heard me stirring and called. I went in and found him propped up with a book, as usual. He said:
“I seldom read Christmas stories, but this is very beautiful. It has made me cry. I want you to read it.” (It was Booth Tarkington’s ‘Beasley’s Christmas Party’.) “Tarkington has the true touch,” he said; “his work always satisfies me.” Another book he has been reading with great enjoyment is James Branch Cabell’s Chivalry. He cannot say enough of the subtle poetic art with which Cabell has flung the light of romance about dark and sordid chapters of history.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00