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Mark Twain, a Biography — Volume II, Part 1: 1886-1900 online

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the wall by which we entered and in the middle space was a large
gilt throne chair, upholstered in red plush, and upon it sat a man
bowed with age; his hair was silvery white and as pure as the driven
snow. His head was partly covered with a white skullcap; he was
dressed in a long white cassock which reached to his feet, which
rested upon a red-plush cushion and were inclosed in red embroidered
slippers with a design of a cross. A golden chain was about his
neck and suspended by it in his lap was a gold cross set in precious
stones. Upon a finger of his right hand was a gold ring with an
emerald setting nearly an inch in diameter. His countenance was
smiling, and beamed with benevolence. His face at once impressed us
as that of a noble, pure man who could not do otherwise than good.

This was the Pope of Rome, and as we advanced, making the three
genuflexions prescribed by etiquette, he smiled benignly upon us.
We advanced and, kneeling at his feet, kissed the seal upon his
ring. He took us each by the hand repeatedly during the audience
and made us perfectly at our ease.

They remained as much as half an hour in the Presence; and the Pope
conversed on a variety of subjects, including the business failure of
General Grant, his last hours, and the great success of his book. The
figures seemed to him hardly credible, and when Webster assured him that
already a guaranteed sale of one hundred thousand copies of his own
biography had been pledged by the agents he seemed even more astonished.
"We in Italy cannot comprehend such things," he said. "I know you do
great work in America; I know you have done a great and noble work in
regard to General Grant's book, but that my Life should have such a sale
seems impossible."

He asked about their home, their children, and was in every way the
kindly, gentle-hearted man that his pictured face has shown him. Then he
gave them his final blessing and the audience closed.

We each again kissed the seal on his ring. As Annie was about to
kiss it he suddenly withdrew his hand and said, "And will you, a
little Protestant, kiss the Pope's ring?" As he said this, his face
was all smiles, and mischief was clearly delineated upon it. He
immediately put back his hand and she kissed the ring. We now
withdrew, backing out and making three genuflexions as before. Just
as we reached the door he called to Dr. O'Reilly, "Now don't praise
me too much; tell the truth, tell the truth."



Men are likely to be spoiled by prosperity, to be made arrogant, even
harsh. Success made Samuel Clemens merely elate, more kindly, more
humanly generous. Every day almost he wrote to Webster, suggesting some
new book or venture, but always considerately, always deferring to
suggestions from other points of view. Once, when it seemed to him that
matters were not going as well as usual, a visit from Webster showed him
that it was because of his own continued absence from the business that
he did not understand. Whereupon he wrote:

DEAR CHARLEY, - Good - it's all good news. Everything is on the
pleasantest possible basis now, and is going to stay so. I blame
myself in not looking in on you oftener in the past - that would have
prevented all trouble. I mean to stand to my duty better now.

At another time, realizing the press of responsibility, and that Webster
was not entirely well, he sent a warning from Mrs. Clemens against
overwork. He added:

Your letter shows that you need such a warning. So I warn you
myself to look after that. Overwork killed Mr. Langdon and it can
kill you.

Clemens found his own cares greatly multiplied. His connection with the
firm was widely known, and many authors sent him their manuscripts or
wrote him personal letters concerning them. Furthermore, he was beset by
all the cranks and beggars in Christendom. His affairs became so
numerous at length that he employed a business agent, F. G. Whitmore, to
relieve him of a part of his burden. Whitmore lived close by, and was a
good billiard-player. Almost anything from the morning mail served as an
excuse to send for Whitmore.

Clemens was fond of affairs when they were going well; he liked the game
of business, especially when it was pretentious and showily prosperous.
It is probable that he was never more satisfied with his share of fortune
than just at this time. Certainly his home life was never happier. Katie
Leary, for thirty years in the family service, has set down some
impressions of that pleasant period.

Mr. Clemens was a very affectionate father. He seldom left the
house at night, but would read to the family, first to the children
until bedtime, afterward to Mrs. Clemens. He usually read Browning
to her. They were very fond of it. The children played charades a
great deal, and he was wonderful at that game and always helped
them. They were very fond of private theatricals. Every Saturday
of their lives they had a temporary stage put up in the school-room
and we all had to help. Gerhardt painted the scenery. They
frequently played the balcony scene from "Romeo and Juliet" and
several plays they wrote themselves. Now and then we had a big
general performance of "The Prince and the Pauper." That would be
in the library and the dining-room with the folding-doors open. The
place just held eighty-four chairs, and the stage was placed back
against the conservatory. The children were crazy about acting and
we all enjoyed it as much as they did, especially Mr. Clemens, who
was the best actor of all. I had a part, too, and George. I have
never known a happier household than theirs was during those years.

Mr. Clemens spent most of his time up in the billiard-room, writing
or playing billiards. One day when I went in, and he was shooting
the balls around the tables, I noticed smoke coming up from the
hearth. I called Patrick, and John O'Neill, the gardener, and we
began taking up the hearth to see what was the matter. Mr. Clemens
kept on playing billiards right along and paid no attention to what
we were doing. Finally, when we got the hearth up, a lot of flame
and smoke came out into the room. The house was on fire. Mr.
Clemens noticed then what we were about, and went over to the corner
where there were some bottle fire-extinguishers. He took one down
and threw it into the flames. This put them out a good deal, and he
took up his cue, went back to the table, and began to shoot the
balls around again as if nothing had happened. Mrs. Clemens came in
just then and said, "Why, the house is afire!"

"Yes, I know it," he said, but went on playing.

We had a telephone and it didn't work very well. It annoyed him a
good deal and sometimes he'd say:

"I'll tear it out."

One day he tried to call up Mrs. Dr. Tafft. He could not hear
plainly and thought he was talking to central. "Send down and take
this d - -thing out of here," he said; "I'm tired of it." He was
mad, and using a good deal of bad language. All at once he heard
Mrs. Dr. Tafft say, "Oh, Mr. Clemens, good morning." He said, "Why,
Mrs. Tafft, I have just come to the telephone. George, our butler,
was here before me and I heard him swearing as I came up. I shall
have to talk to him about it."

Mrs. Tafft often told it on him. - [ Mark Twain once wrote to the
telephone management: "The time is coming very soon when the
telephone will be a perfect instrument, when proximity will no
longer be a hindrance to its performance, when, in fact, one will
hear a man who is in the next block just as easily and comfortably
as he would if that man were in San Francisco."]
Mrs. Clemens, before I went there, took care of his desk, but little
by little I began to look after it when she was busy at other
things. Finally I took care of it altogether, but he didn't know it
for a long time. One morning he caught me at it. "What are you
doing here?" he asked.

"Dusting, Mr. Clemens," I said.

"You have no business here," he said, very mad.

"I've been doing it for a year, Mr. Clemens," I said. "Mrs. Clemens
told me to do it."

After that, when he missed anything - and he missed things often - he
would ring for me. "Katie," he would say, "you have lost that

"Oh, Mr. Clemens,", I would say, "I am sure I didn't touch it."

"Yes, you did touch it, Katie. You put it in the fire. It is

He would scold then, and fume a great deal. Then he would go over
and mark out with his toe on the carpet a line which I was never to
cross. "Katie," he would say, "you are never to go nearer to my
desk than that line. That is the dead-line." Often after he had
scolded me in the morning he would come in in the evening where I
was dressing Mrs. Clemens to go out and say, "Katie, I found that
manuscript." And I would say, "Mr. Clemens, I felt so bad this
morning that I wanted to go away."

He had a pipe-cleaner which he kept on a high shelf. It was an
awful old dirty one, and I didn't know that he ever used it. I took
it to the balcony which was built out into the woods and threw it
away as far as I could throw it. Next day he asked, "Katie, did you
see my pipe-cleaner? You did see it; I can tell by your looks."

I said, "Yes, Mr. Clemens, I threw it away."

"Well," he said, "it was worth a thousand dollars," and it seemed so
to me, too, before he got done scolding about it.

It is hard not to dwell too long on the home life of this period. One
would like to make a long chapter out of those play-acting evenings
alone. They remained always fresh in Mark Twain's memory. Once he wrote
of them:

We dined as we could, probably with a neighbor, and by quarter to
eight in the evening the hickory fire in the hall was pouring a
sheet of flame up the chimney, the house was in a drench of gas-
light from the ground floor up, the guests were arriving, and there
was a babble of hearty greetings, with not a voice in it that was
not old and familiar and affectionate; and when the curtain went up
we looked out from the stage upon none but faces that were dear to
us, none but faces that were lit up with welcome for us.



Suzy, in her biography, which she continued through this period, writes:

Mama and I have both been very much troubled of late because papa,
since he had been publishing General Grant's books, has seemed to
forget his own books and works entirely; and the other evening, as
papa and I were promonading up and down the library, he told me that
he didn't expect to write but one more book, and then he was ready
to give up work altogether, die, or, do anything; he said that he
had written more than he had ever expected to, and the only book
that he had been pertickularly anxious to write was one locked up in
the safe downstairs, not yet published.

The book locked in the safe was Captain Stormfield, and the one he
expected to write was A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. He
had already worked at it in a desultory way during the early months of
1886, and once wrote of it to Webster:

I have begun a book whose scene is laid far back in the twilight of
tradition; I have saturated myself with the atmosphere of the day
and the subject and got myself into the swing of the work. If I peg
away for some weeks without a break I am safe.

But he could not peg away. He had too many irons in the fire for that.
Matthew Arnold had criticized General Grant's English, and Clemens
immediately put down other things to rush to his hero's defense. He
pointed out that in Arnold's criticism there were no less than "two
grammatical crimes and more than several examples of very crude and
slovenly English," and said:

There is that about the sun which makes us forget his spots, and
when we think of General Grant our pulses quicken and his grammar
vanishes; we only remember that this is the simple soldier, who, all
untaught of the silken phrase-makers, linked words together with an
art surpassing the art of the schools, and put into them a something
which will still bring to American ears, as long as America shall
last, the roll of his vanished drums and the tread of his marching
hosts. - [Address to Army and Navy Club. For full text see

Clemens worked at the Yankee now and then, and Howells, when some of the
chapters were read to him, gave it warm approval and urged its

Howells was often in Hartford at this time. Webster & Co. were planning
to publish The Library of Humor, which Howells and "Charley" Clark had
edited several years before, and occasional conferences were desirable.
Howells tells us that, after he and Clark had been at great trouble to
get the matter logically and chronologically arranged, Clemens pulled it
all to pieces and threw it together helter-skelter, declaring that there
ought to be no sequence in a book of that sort, any more than in the
average reader's mind; and Howells admits that this was probably the
truer method in a book made for the diversion rather than the instruction
of the reader.

One of the literary diversions of this time was a commentary on a
delicious little book by Caroline B. Le Row - English as She Is Taught
- being a compilation of genuine answers given to examination questions
by pupils in our public schools. Mark Twain was amused by such
definitions as: "Aborigines, system of mountains"; "Alias - a good man in
the Bible"; "Ammonia - the food of the gods," and so on down the alphabet.

Susy, in her biography, mentions that her father at this is time read to
them a little article which he had just written, entitled "Luck," and
that they thought it very good. It was a story which Twichell had heard
and told to Clemens, who set it down about as it came to him. It was
supposed to be true, yet Clemens seemed to think it too improbable for
literature and laid it away for a number of years. We shall hear of it
again by and by.

From Susy's memoranda we gather that humanity at this time was to be
healed of all evils and sorrows through "mind cure."

Papa has been very much interested of late in the "mind-cure"
theory. And, in fact, so have we all. A young lady in town has
worked wonders by using the "mind cure" upon people; she is
constantly busy now curing peoples' diseases in this way - and curing
her own, even, which to me seems the most remarkable of all.

A little while past papa was delighted with the knowledge of what he
thought the best way of curing a cold, which was by starving it.
This starving did work beautifully, and freed him from a great many
severe colds. Now he says it wasn't the starving that helped his
colds, but the trust in the starving, the "mind cure" connected with
the starving.

I shouldn't wonder if we finally became firm believers in "mind
cure." The next time papa has a cold I haven't a doubt he will send
for Miss Holden, the young lady who is doctoring in the "mind-cure"
theory, to cure him of it.

Again, a month later, she writes:

April 19, 1886. Yes, the "mind cure" does seem to be working
wonderfully. Papa, who has been using glasses now for more than a
year, has laid them off entirely. And my near-sightedness is really
getting better. It seems marvelous. When Jean has stomack-ache
Clara and I have tried to divert her by telling her to lie on her
side and try "mind cure." The novelty of it has made her willing to
try it, and then Clara and I would exclaim about how wonderful it
was she was getting better. And she would think it realy was
finally, and stop crying, to our delight.

The other day mama went into the library and found her lying on the
sofa with her back toward the door. She said, "Why, Jean, what's
the matter? Don't you feel well?" Jean said that she had a little
stomack-ache, and so thought she would lie down. Mama said, "Why
don't you try 'mind cure'?" "I am," Jean answered.

Howells and Twichell were invited to try the "mind cure," as were all
other friends who happened along. To the end of his days Clemens would
always have some panacea to offer to allay human distress. It was a good
trait, when all is said, for it had its root in his humanity. The "mind
cure" did not provide all the substance of things hoped for, though he
always allowed for it a wide efficacy. Once, in later years, commenting
on Susy's record, he said:

The mind cannot heal broken bones, and doubtless there are many
other physical ills which it cannot heal, but it can greatly help to
modify the severities of all of them without exception, and there
are mental and nervous ailments which it can wholly heal without the
help of physician or surgeon.

Susy records another burning interest of this time:

Clara sprained her ankle a little while ago by running into a tree
when coasting, and while she was unable to walk with it she played
solotaire with cards a great deal. While Clara was sick and papa
saw her play solotaire so much he got very much interested in the
game, and finally began to play it himself a little; then Jean took
it up, and at last mama even played it occasionally; Jean's and
papa's love for it rapidly increased, and now Jean brings the cards
every night to the table and papa and mama help her play, and before
dinner is at an end papa has gotten a separate pack of cards and is
playing alone, with great interest. Mama and Clara next are made
subject to the contagious solotaire, and there are four
solotarireans at the table, while you hear nothing but "Fill up the
place," etc. It is dreadful!

But a little further along Susy presents her chief subject more
seriously. He is not altogether absorbed with "mind cure" and solitaire,
or even with making humorous tales.

Papa has done a great deal in his life I think that is good and very
remarkable, but I think if he had had the advantages with which he
could have developed the gifts which he has made no use of in
writing his books, or in any other way, for peoples' pleasure and
benefit outside of his own family and intimate friends, he could
have done more than he has, and a great deal more, even. He is
known to the public as a humorist, but he has much more in him that
is earnest than that is humorous. He has a keen sense of the
ludicrous, notices funny stories and incidents, knows how to tell
them, to improve upon them, and does not forget them.

And again:

When we are all alone at home nine times out of ten he talks about
some very earnest subject (with an occasional joke thrown in), and
he a good deal more often talks upon such subjects than upon the
other kind.

He is as much of a philosopher as anything, I think. I think he
could have done a great deal in this direction if he had studied
while young, for he seems to enjoy reasoning out things, no matter
what; in a great many such directions he has greater ability than in
the gifts which have made him famous.

It was with the keen eyes and just mind of childhood that Susy estimated,
and there is little to add to her valuation.

Susy's biography came to an end that summer after starting to record a
visit which they all made to Keokuk to see Grandma Clemens. They went by
way of the Lakes and down the Mississippi from St. Paul. A pleasant
incident happened that first evening on the river. Soon after nightfall
they entered a shoal crossing. Clemens, standing alone on the
hurricane-deck, heard the big bell forward boom out the call for leads.
Then came the leadsman's long-drawn chant, once so familiar, the
monotonous repeating in river parlance of the depths of water. Presently
the lead had found that depth of water signified by his nom de plume and
the call of "Mark Twain, Mark Twain" floated up to him like a summons
from the past. All at once a little figure came running down the deck,
and Clara confronted him, reprovingly:

"Papa," she said, "I have hunted all over the boat for you. Don't you
know they are calling for you?"

They remained in Keokuk a week, and Susy starts to tell something of
their visit there. She begins:

"We have arrived in Keokuk after a very pleasant - - "

The sentence remains unfinished. We cannot know what was the
interruption or what new interest kept her from her task. We can only
regret that the loving little hand did not continue its pleasant history.
Years later, when Susy had passed from among the things we know, her
father, commenting, said:

When I look at the arrested sentence that ends the little book it
seems as if the hand that traced it cannot be far - it is gone for a
moment only, and will come again and finish it. But that is a
dream; a creature of the heart, not of the mind - a feeling, a
longing, not a mental product; the same that lured Aaron Burr, old,
gray, forlorn, forsaken, to the pier day after day, week after week,
there to stand in the gloom and the chill of the dawn, gazing
seaward through veiling mists and sleet and snow for the ship which
he knew was gone down, the ship that bore all his treasure - his

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Online LibraryAlbert Bigelow PaineMark Twain, a Biography — Volume II, Part 1: 1886-1900 → online text (page 20 of 20)