Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine


The Return to the Invisible

There would be two days more before Ossip and Clara Gabrilowitsch could arrive. Clemens remained fairly bright and comfortable during this interval, though he clearly was not improving. The physicians denied him the morphine, now, as he no longer suffered acutely. But he craved it, and once, when I went in, he said, rather mournfully:

“They won’t give me the subcutaneous any more.”

It was Sunday morning when Clara came. He was cheerful and able to talk quite freely. He did not dwell upon his condition, I think, but spoke rather of his plans for the summer. At all events, he did not then suggest that he counted the end so near; but a day later it became evident to all that his stay was very brief. His breathing was becoming heavier, though it seemed not to give him much discomfort. His articulation also became affected. I think the last continuous talking he did was to Dr. Halsey on the evening of April 17th — the day of Clara’s arrival. A mild opiate had been administered, and he said he wished to talk himself to sleep. He recalled one of his old subjects, Dual Personality, and discussed various instances that flitted through his mind — Jekyll and Hyde phases in literature and fact. He became drowsier as he talked. He said at last:

“This is a peculiar kind of disease. It does not invite you to read; it does not invite you to be read to; it does not invite you to talk, nor to enjoy any of the usual sick-room methods of treatment. What kind of a disease is that? Some kinds of sicknesses have pleasant features about them. You can read and smoke and have only to lie still.”

And a little later he added:

“It is singular, very singular, the laws of mentality — vacuity. I put out my hand to reach a book or newspaper which I have been reading most glibly, and it isn’t there, not a suggestion of it.”

He coughed violently, and afterward commented:

“If one gets to meddling with a cough it very soon gets the upper hand and is meddling with you. That is my opinion — of seventy-four years’ growth.”

The news of his condition, everywhere published, brought great heaps of letters, but he could not see them. A few messages were reported to him. At intervals he read a little. Suetonius and Carlyle lay on the bed beside him, and he would pick them up as the spirit moved him and read a paragraph or a page. Sometimes, when I saw him thus-the high color still in his face, and the clear light in his eyes — I said: “It is not reality. He is not going to die.” On Tuesday, the 19th, he asked me to tell Clara to come and sing to him. It was a heavy requirement, but she somehow found strength to sing some of the Scotch airs which he loved, and he seemed soothed and comforted. When she came away he bade her good-by, saying that he might not see her again.

But he lingered through the next day and the next. His mind was wandering a little on Wednesday, and his speech became less and less articulate; but there were intervals when he was quite clear, quite vigorous, and he apparently suffered little. We did not know it, then, but the mysterious messenger of his birth-year, so long anticipated by him, appeared that night in the sky.200

200 [The perihelion of Halley’s Comet for 1835 was November 16th; for 1910 it was April 20th.]

On Thursday morning, the 21st, his mind was generally clear, and it was said by the nurses that he read a little from one of the volumes on his bed, from the Suetonius, or from one of the volumes of Carlyle. Early in the forenoon he sent word by Clara that he wished to see me, and when I came in he spoke of two unfinished manuscripts which he wished me to “throw away,” as he briefly expressed it, for he had not many words left now. I assured him that I would take care of them, and he pressed my hand. It was his last word to me.

Once or twice that morning he tried to write some request which he could not put into intelligible words.

And once he spoke to Gabrilowitsch, who, he said, could understand him better than the others. Most of the time he dozed.

Somewhat after midday, when Clara was by him, he roused up and took her hand, and seemed to speak with less effort.

“Good-by,” he said, and Dr. Quintard, who was standing near, thought he added: “If we meet”— but the words were very faint. He looked at her for a little while, without speaking, then he sank into a doze, and from it passed into a deeper slumber, and did not heed us any more.

Through that peaceful spring afternoon the life-wave ebbed lower and lower. It was about half past six, and the sun lay just on the horizon when Dr. Quintard noticed that the breathing, which had gradually become more subdued, broke a little. There was no suggestion of any struggle. The noble head turned a little to one side, there was a fluttering sigh, and the breath that had been unceasing through seventy-four tumultuous years had stopped forever.

He had entered into the estate envied so long. In his own words — the words of one of his latest memoranda:

“He had arrived at the dignity of death — the only earthly dignity that is not artificial — the only safe one. The others are traps that can beguile to humiliation.

“Death — the only immortal who treats us all alike, whose pity and whose peace and whose refuge are for all — the soiled and the pure — the rich and the poor — the loved and the unloved.”

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