Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter XLIII

Artemus Ward

Madame Caprell’s warning concerning Mark Twain’s health at twenty-eight would seem to have been justified. High-strung and neurotic, the strain of newspaper work and the tumult of the Comstock had told on him. As in later life, he was subject to bronchial colds, and more than once that year he found it necessary to drop all work and rest for a time at Steamboat Springs, a place near Virginia City, where there were boiling springs and steaming fissures in the mountain-side, and a comfortable hotel. He contributed from there sketches somewhat more literary in form than any of his previous work. “Curing a Cold” is a more or less exaggerated account of his ills.

[Included in Sketches New and Old. “Information for the Million,” and “Advice to Good Little Girls,” included in the “Jumping Frog” Collection, 1867, but omitted from the Sketches, are also believed to belong to this period.]

A portion of a playful letter to his mother, written from the springs, still exists.

You have given my vanity a deadly thrust. Behold, I am prone to boast of having the widest reputation as a local editor of any man on the Pacific coast, and you gravely come forward and tell me “if I work hard and attend closely to my business, I may aspire to a place on a big San Francisco daily some day.” There’s a comment on human vanity for you! Why, blast it, I was under the impression that I could get such a situation as that any time I asked for it. But I don’t want it. No paper in the United States can afford to pay me what my place on the Enterprise is worth. If I were not naturally a lazy, idle, good-for-nothing vagabond, I could make it pay me $20,000 a year. But I don’t suppose I shall ever be any account. I lead an easy life, though, and I don’t care a cent whether school keeps or not. Everybody knows me, and I fare like a prince wherever I go, be it on this side of the mountain or the other. And I am proud to say I am the most conceited ass in the Territory.

You think that picture looks old? Well, I can’t help it — in reality I’m not as old as I was when I was eighteen.

Which was a true statement, so far as his general attitude was concerned. At eighteen, in New York and Philadelphia, his letters had been grave, reflective, advisory. Now they were mostly banter and froth, lightly indifferent to the serious side of things, though perhaps only pretendedly so, for the picture did look old. From the shock and circumstance of his brother’s death he — had never recovered. He was barely twenty-eight. From the picture he might have been a man of forty.

It was that year that Artemus Ward (Charles F. Browne) came to Virginia City. There was a fine opera-house in Virginia, and any attraction that billed San Francisco did not fail to play to the Comstock. Ward intended staying only a few days to deliver his lectures, but the whirl of the Comstock caught him like a maelstrom, and he remained three weeks.

He made the Enterprise office his headquarters, and fairly reveled in the company he found there. He and Mark Twain became boon companions. Each recognized in the other a kindred spirit. With Goodman, De Quille, and McCarthy, also E. E. Hingston — Ward’s agent, a companionable fellow — they usually dined at Chaumond’s, Virginia’s high-toned French restaurant.

Those were three memorable weeks in Mark Twain’s life. Artemus Ward was in the height of his fame, and he encouraged his new-found brother-humorist and prophesied great things of him. Clemens, on his side, measured himself by this man who had achieved fame, and perhaps with good reason concluded that Ward’s estimate was correct, that he too could win fame and honor, once he got a start. If he had lacked ambition before Ward’s visit, the latter’s unqualified approval inspired him with that priceless article of equipment. He put his soul into entertaining the visitor during those three weeks; and it was apparent to their associates that he was at least Ward’s equal in mental stature and originality. Goodman and the others began to realize that for Mark Twain the rewards of the future were to be measured only by his resolution and ability to hold out. On Christmas eve Artemus lectured in Silver City and afterward came to the Enterprise office to give the boys a farewell dinner. The Enterprise always published a Christmas carol, and Goodman sat at his desk writing it. He was just finishing as Ward came in:

“Slave, slave,” said Artemus. “Come out and let me banish care from you.”

They got the boys and all went over to Chaumond’s, where Ward commanded Goodman to order the dinner. When the cocktails came on, Artemus lifted his glass and said:

“I give you Upper Canada.”

The company rose, drank the toast in serious silence; then Goodman said:

“Of course, Artemus, it’s all right, but why did you give us Upper Canada?”

“Because I don’t want it myself,” said Ward, gravely.

Then began a rising tide of humor that could hardly be matched in the world to-day. Mark Twain had awakened to a fuller power; Artemus Ward was in his prime. They were giants of a race that became extinct when Mark Twain died. The youth, the wine, the whirl of lights and life, the tumult of the shouting street-it was as if an electric stream of inspiration poured into those two human dynamos and sent them into a dazzling, scintillating whirl. All gone — as evanescent, as forgotten, as the lightnings of that vanished time; out of that vast feasting and entertainment only a trifling morsel remains. Ward now and then asked Goodman why he did not join in the banter. Goodman said:

“I’m preparing a joke, Artemus, but I’m keeping it for the present.”

It was near daybreak when Ward at last called for the bill. It was two hundred and thirty-seven dollars.

“What”’ exclaimed Artemus.

“That’s my joke.” said Goodman.

“But I was only exclaiming because it was not twice as much,” returned Ward.

He paid it amid laughter, and they went out into the early morning air. It was fresh and fine outside, not yet light enough to see clearly. Artemus threw his face up to the sky and said:

“I feel glorious. I feel like walking on the roofs.”

Virginia was built on the steep hillside, and the eaves of some of the houses almost touched the ground behind them.

“There is your chance, Artemus,” Goodman said, pointing to a row of these houses all about of a height.

Artemus grabbed Mark Twain, and they stepped out upon the long string of roofs and walked their full length, arm in arm. Presently the others noticed a lonely policeman cocking his revolver and getting ready to aim in their direction. Goodman called to him:

“Wait a minute. What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to shoot those burglars,” he said.

“Don’t for your life. Those are not burglars. That’s Mark Twain and Artemus Ward.”

The roof-walkers returned, and the party went down the street to a corner across from the International Hotel. A saloon was there with a barrel lying in front, used, perhaps for a sort of sign. Artemus climbed astride the barrel, and somebody brought a beer-glass and put it in his hand. Virginia City looks out over the Eastward Desert. Morning was just breaking upon the distant range-the scene as beautiful as when the sunrise beams across the plain of Memnon. The city was not yet awake. The only living creatures in sight were the group of belated diners, with Artemus Ward, as King Gambrinus, pouring a libation to the sunrise.

That was the beginning of a week of glory. The farewell dinner became a series. At the close of one convivial session Artemus went to a concert-hall, the “Melodeon,” blacked his face, and delivered a speech. He got away from Virginia about the close of the year.

A day or two later he wrote from Austin, Nevada, to his new-found comrade as “My dearest Love,” recalling the happiness of his stay:

“I shall always remember Virginia as a bright spot in my existence, as all others must or rather cannot be, as it were.”

Then reflectively he adds:

“Some of the finest intellects in the world have been blunted by liquor.”

Rare Artemus Ward and rare Mark Twain! If there lies somewhere a place of meeting and remembrance, they have not failed to recall there those closing days of ’63.

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