Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter XLVI

Getting Settled in San Francisco

This was near the end of May, 1864. The intention of both Gillis and Clemens was to return to the States; but once in San Francisco both presently accepted places, Clemens as reporter and Gillis as compositor, on the ‘Morning Call’.

From ‘Roughing It’ the reader gathers that Mark Twain now entered into a life of butterfly idleness on the strength of prospective riches to be derived from the “half a trunkful of mining stocks,” and that presently, when the mining bubble exploded, he was a pauper. But a good many liberties have been taken with the history of this period. Undoubtedly he expected opulent returns from his mining stocks, and was disappointed, particularly in an investment in Hale and Norcross shares, held too long for the large profit which could have been made by selling at the proper time.

The fact is, he spent not more than a few days — a fortnight at most — in “butterfly idleness,” at the Lick House before he was hard at work on the ‘Call’, living modestly with Steve Gillis in the quietest place they could find, never quiet enough, but as far as possible from dogs and cats and chickens and pianos, which seemed determined to make the mornings hideous, when a weary night reporter and compositor wanted to rest. They went out socially, on occasion, arrayed in considerable elegance; but their recreations were more likely to consist of private midnight orgies, after the paper had gone to press — mild dissipations in whatever they could find to eat at that hour, with a few glasses of beer, and perhaps a game of billiards or pool in some all-night resort. A printer by the name of Ward —“Little Ward,”34 they called him — often went with them for these refreshments. Ward and Gillis were both bantam game-cocks, and sometimes would stir up trouble for the very joy of combat. Clemens never cared for that sort of thing and discouraged it, but Ward and Gillis were for war. “They never assisted each other. If one had offered to assist the other against some overgrown person, it would have been an affront, and a battle would have followed between that pair of little friends.”35 Steve Gillis in particular, was fond of incidental encounters, a characteristic which would prove an important factor somewhat later in shaping Mark Twain’s career. Of course, the more strenuous nights were not frequent. Their home-going was usually tame enough and they were glad enough to get there.

34[L. P. Ward; well known as an athlete in San Francisco. He lost his mind and fatally shot himself in 1903.]

35 [S. L. C., 1906.]

Clemens, however, was never quite ready for sleep. Then, as ever, he would prop himself up in bed, light his pipe, and lose himself in English or French history until sleep conquered. His room-mate did not approve of this habit; it interfered with his own rest, and with his fiendish tendency to mischief he found reprisal in his own fashion. Knowing his companion’s highly organized nervous system he devised means of torture which would induce him to put out the light. Once he tied a nail to a string; an arrangement which he kept on the floor behind the bed. Pretending to be asleep, he would hold the end of the string, and lift it gently up and down, making a slight ticking sound on the floor, maddening to a nervous man. Clemens would listen a moment and say:

“What in the nation is that noise”

Gillis’s pretended sleep and the ticking would continue.

Clemens would sit up in bed, fling aside his book, and swear violently.

“Steve, what is that d — d noise?” he would say.

Steve would pretend to rouse sleepily.

“What’s the matter, Sam? What noise? Oh, I guess that is one of those death-ticks; they don’t like the light. Maybe it will stop in a minute.”

It usually did stop about that time, and the reading would be apt to continue. But no sooner was there stillness than it began again — tick, tick, tick. With a wild explosion of blasphemy, the book would go across the floor and the light would disappear. Sometimes, when he couldn’t sleep, he would dress and walk out in the street for an hour, while the cruel Steve slept like the criminal that he was.

At last, one night, he overdid the thing and was caught. His tortured room-mate at first reviled him, then threatened to kill him, finally put him to shame. It was curious, but they always loved each other, those two; there was never anything resembling an estrangement, and to his last days Mark Twain never could speak of Steve Gillis without tenderness.

They moved a great many times in San Francisco. Their most satisfactory residence was on a bluff on California Street. Their windows looked down on a lot of Chinese houses —“tin-can houses,” they were called — small wooden shanties covered with beaten-out cans. Steve and Mark would look down on these houses, waiting until all the Chinamen were inside; then one of them would grab an empty beer-bottle, throw it down on those tin can roofs, and dodge behind the blinds. The Chinamen would swarm out and look up at the row of houses on the edge of the bluff, shake their fists, and pour out Chinese vituperation. By and by, when they had retired and everything was quiet again, their tormentors would throw another bottle. This was their Sunday amusement.

At a place on Minna Street they lived with a private family. At first Clemens was delighted.

“Just look at it, Steve,” he said. “What a nice, quiet place. Not a thing to disturb us.”

But next morning a dog began to howl. Gillis woke this time, to find his room-mate standing in the door that opened out into a back garden, holding a big revolver, his hand shaking with cold and excitement.

“Came here, Steve,” he said. “Come here and kill him. I’m so chilled through I can’t get a bead on him.”

“Sam,” said Steve, “don’t shoot him. Just swear at him. You can easily kill him at that range with your profanity.”

Steve Gillis declares that Mark Twain then let go such a scorching, singeing blast that the brute’s owner sold him next day for a Mexican hairless dog.

We gather that they moved, on an average, about once a month. A home letter of September 25, 1864, says:

We have been here only four months, yet we have changed our lodging five times. We are very comfortably fixed where we are now and have no fault to find with the rooms or the people. We are the only lodgers-in a well-to-do private family . . . . But I need change and must move again.

This was the Minna Street place — the place of the dog. In the same letter he mentions having made a new arrangement with the Call, by which he is to receive twenty-five dollars a week, with no more night-work; he says further that he has closed with the Californian for weekly articles at twelve dollars each.

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