Albert Bigelow Paine.

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

. (page 3 of 20)
Online LibraryAlbert Bigelow PaineMark Twain, a Biography — Volume II, Part 1: 1886-1900 → online text (page 3 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

would like to know, but there seems no good way to find out.

That first Bermuda voyage was always a happy memory to Mark Twain. To
Twichell he wrote that it was the "joyousest trip" he had ever made:

Not a heartache anywhere, not a twinge of conscience. I often come
to myself out of a reverie and detect an undertone of thought that
had been thinking itself without volition of mind - viz., that if we
had only had ten days of those walks and talks instead of four.

There was but one regret: Howells had not been with them. Clemens
denounced him for his absence:

If you had gone with us and let me pay the fifty dollars, which the
trip and the board and the various knick-knacks and mementos would
cost, I would have picked up enough droppings from your conversation
to pay me five hundred per cent. profit in the way of the several
magazine articles which I could have written; whereas I can now
write only one or two, and am therefore largely out of pocket by
your proud ways.

Clemens would not fail to write about his trip. He could not help doing
that, and he began "Some Rambling Notes of an Idle Excursion" as soon as
he landed in Hartford. They were quite what the name would signify
- leisurely, pleasant commentaries on a loafing, peaceful vacation. They
are not startling in their humor or description, but are gently amusing
and summery, reflecting, bubble-like, evanescent fancies of Bermuda.
Howells, shut up in a Boston editorial office, found them delightful
enough, and very likely his Atlantic readers agreed with him. The story
of "Isaac and the Prophets of Baal" was one that Capt. Ned Wakeman had
told to Twichell during a voyage which the latter had made to Aspinwall
with that vigorous old seafarer; so in the "Rambling Notes" Wakeman
appears as Captain Hurricane Jones, probably a step in the evolution of
the later name of Stormfield. The best feature of the series (there were
four papers in all) is a story of a rescue in mid-ocean; but surely the
brightest ripple of humor is the reference to Bermuda's mahogany-tree:

There was exactly one mahogany-tree on the island. I know this to
be reliable because I saw a man who said he had counted it many a
time and could not be mistaken. He was a man with a haze lip and a
pure heart, and everybody said he was as true as steel. Such men
are all too few.

Clemens cared less for these papers than did Howells. He had serious
doubts about the first two and suggested their destruction, but with
Howells's appreciation his own confidence in them returned and he let
them all go in. They did not especially advance his reputation, but
perhaps they did it no harm.



He wrote a short story that year which is notable mainly for the fact
that in it the telephone becomes a literary property, probably for the
first time. "The Loves of Alonzo Fitz-Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton"
employed in the consummation what was then a prospect, rather than a
reality - long-distance communication.

His work that summer consisted mainly of two extensive undertakings, one
of which he completed without delay. He still had the dramatic ambition,
and he believed that he was capable now of constructing a play entirely
from his own resources.

To Howells, in June, he wrote:

To-day I am deep in a comedy which I began this morning - principal
character an old detective. I skeletoned the first act and wrote the
second to-day, and am dog-tired now. Fifty-four pages of MS. in seven

Seven days later, the Fourth of July, he said:

I have piled up one hundred and fifty-one pages on my comedy. The first,
second and fourth acts are done, and done to my satisfaction, too.
To-morrow and next day will finish the third act, and the play. Never
had so much fun over anything in my life never such consuming interest
and delight. And just think! I had Sol Smith Russell in my mind's eye
for the old detective's part, and bang it! he has gone off pottering with
Oliver Optic, or else the papers lie.

He was working with enthusiasm, you see, believing in it with a faith
which, alas, was no warrant for its quality. Even Howells caught his
enthusiasm and became eager to see the play, and to have the story it
contained told for the Atlantic.

But in the end it proved a mistake. Dion Boucicault, when he read the
manuscript, pronounced it better than "Ah Sin," but that was only
qualified praise. Actors who considered the play, anxious enough to have
Mark Twain's name on their posters and small bills, were obliged to admit
that, while it contained marvelous lines, it wouldn't "go." John
Brougham wrote:

There is an absolute "embarrassment of riches" in your "Detective"
most assuredly, but the difficulty is to put it into profitable
form. The quartz is there in abundance, only requiring the
necessary manipulation to extract the gold.

In narrative structure the story would be full of life, character,
and the most exuberant fun, but it is altogether too diffuse in its
present condition for dramatic representation, and I confess I do
not feel sufficient confidence in my own experience (even if I had
the time, which on reflection I find I have not) to undertake what,
under different circumstances, would be a "labor of love."

Yours sincerely, JOHN BROUGHAM.

That was frank, manly, and to the point; it covered the ground exactly.
"Simon Wheeler, the Amateur Detective," had plenty of good material in
it - plenty of dialogue and situations; but the dialogue wouldn't play,
and the situations wouldn't act. Clemens realized that perhaps the drama
was not, after all, his forte; he dropped "Simon Wheeler," lost his
interest in "Ah Sin," even leased "Colonel Sellers" for the coming
season, and so, in a sort of fury, put theatrical matters out of his

He had entered upon what, for him, was a truer domain. One day he picked
up from among the books at the farm a little juvenile volume, an English
story of the thirteenth century by Charlotte M. Yonge, entitled, The
Prince and the Page. It was a story of Edward I. and his cousins,
Richard and Henry de Montfort; in part it told of the submerged
personality of the latter, picturing him as having dwelt in disguise as a
blind beggar for a period of years. It was a story of a sort and with a
setting that Mark Twain loved, and as he read there came a correlative
idea. Not only would he disguise a prince as a beggar, but a beggar as a
prince. He would have them change places in the world, and each learn
the burdens of the other's life. - [There is no point of resemblance
between the Prince and the Pauper and the tale that inspired it. No one
would ever guess that the one had grown out of the readings of the other,
and no comparison of any sort is possible between them.]

The plot presented physical difficulties. He still had some lurking
thought of stage performance, and saw in his mind a spectacular
presentation, with all the costumery of an early period as background for
a young and beautiful creature who would play the part of prince. The
old device of changelings in the cradle (later used in Pudd'nhead Wilson)
presented itself to him, but it could not provide the situations he had
in mind. Finally came the thought of a playful interchange of raiment
and state (with startling and unlooked-for consequence) - the guise and
personality of Tom Canty, of Offal Court, for those of the son of Henry
VIII., little Edward Tudor, more lately sixth English king of that name.
This little prince was not his first selection for the part. His
original idea had been to use the late King Edward VII. (then Prince of
Wales) at about fifteen, but he found that it would never answer to lose
a prince among the slums of modern London, and have his proud estate
denied and jeered at by a modern mob. He felt that he could not make it
seem real; so he followed back through history, looking along for the
proper time and prince, till he came to little Edward, who was too young
- but no matter, he would do.

He decided to begin his new venture in story form. He could dramatize it
later. The situation appealed to him immensely. The idea seemed a
brand-new one; it was delightful, it was fascinating, and he was
saturated with the atmosphere and literature and history - the data and
detail of that delightful old time. He put away all thought of cheap,
modern play-acting and writing, to begin one of the loveliest and most
entertaining and instructive tales of old English life. He decided to be
quite accurate in his picture of the period, and he posted himself on old
London very carefully. He bought a pocket-map which he studied in the
minutest detail.

He wrote about four hundred manuscript pages of the tale that summer;
then, as the inspiration seemed to lag a little, put it aside, as was his
habit, to wait until the ambition for it should be renewed. It was a
long wait, as usual. He did not touch it again for more than three



Some unusual happenings took place that summer of 1877. John T. Lewis
(colored), already referred to as the religious antagonist of Auntie
Cord, by great presence of mind and bravery saved the lives of Mrs.
Clemens's sister-in-law, Mrs. Charles ("Charley") Langdon, her little
daughter Julia, and her nurse-maid. They were in a buggy, and their
runaway horse was flying down East Hill toward Elmira to certain
destruction, when Lewis, laboring slowly homeward with a loaded wagon,
saw them coming and turned his team across the road, after which he
leaped out and with extraordinary strength and quickness grabbed the
horse's bridle and brought him to a standstill. The Clemens and Crane
families, who had seen the runaway start at the farm gate, arrived half
wild with fear, only to find the supposed victims entirely safe.

Everybody contributed in rewarding Lewis. He received money ($1,500) and
various other presents, including inscribed books and trinkets, also,
what he perhaps valued more than anything, a marvelous stem-winding gold
watch. Clemens, writing a full account to Dr. Brown of the watch, says:

And if any scoffer shall say, "behold this thing is out of
character," there is an inscription within which will silence him;
for it will teach him that this wearer aggrandizes the watch, not
the watch the wearer.

In another paragraph he says:

When Lewis arrived the other evening, after having saved those lives
by a feat which I think is the most marvelous I can call to mind,
when he arrived hunched up on his manure-wagon and as grotesquely
picturesque as usual, everybody wanted to go and see how he looked.
They came back and said he was beautiful. It was so, too, and yet
he would have photographed exactly as he would have done any day
these past seven years that he has occupied this farm.

Lewis acknowledged his gifts in a letter which closed with a paragraph of
rare native loftiness:

But I beg to say, humbly, that inasmuch as divine Providence saw fit
to use me as an instrument for the saving of those preshious lives,
the honner conferd upon me was greater than the feat performed.

Lewis lived to enjoy his prosperity, and the honor of the Clemens and
Langdon households, for twenty-nine years. When he was too old to work
there was a pension, to which Clemens contributed; also Henry H. Rogers.
So the simple-hearted, noble old negro closed his days in peace.

Mrs. Crane, in a letter, late in July, 1906, told of his death:

He was always cheerful, and seemed not to suffer much pain, told
stories, and was able to eat almost everything.

Three days ago a new difficulty appeared, on account of which his
doctor said he must go to the hospital for care such as it was quite
impossible to give in his home.

He died on his way there.

Thus it happened that he died on the road where he had performed his
great deed.

A second unusual incident of that summer occurred in Hartford. There had
been a report of a strange man seen about the Clemens place, thought to
be a prospecting burglar, and Clemens went over to investigate. A little
searching inquiry revealed that the man was not a burglar, but a mechanic
out of employment, a lover of one of the house-maids, who had given him
food and shelter on the premises, intending no real harm. When the girl
found that her secret was discovered, she protested that he was her
fiance, though she said he appeared lately to have changed his mind and
no longer wished to marry her.

The girl seemed heartbroken, and sympathy for her was naturally the first
and about the only feeling which Clemens developed, for the time being.
He reasoned with the young man, but without making much headway. Finally
his dramatic instinct prompted him to a plan of a sort which would have
satisfied even Tom Sawyer. He asked Twichell to procure a license for
the couple, and to conceal himself in a ground floor bath-room. He
arranged with the chief of police to be on hand in another room; with the
rest of the servants quietly to prepare a wedding-feast, and finally with
Lizzie herself to be dressed for the ceremony. He had already made an
appointment with the young man to come to, see him at a certain hour on a
"matter of business," and the young man arrived in the belief, no doubt,
that it was something which would lead to profitable employment. When he
came in Clemens gently and quietly reviewed the situation, told him of
the young girl's love for him; how he had been sheltered and fed by her;
how through her kindness to him she had compromised her reputation for
honesty and brought upon her all the suspicion of having sheltered a
burglar; how she was ready and willing to marry him, and how he (Clemens)
was ready to assist them to obtain work and a start in life.

But the young man was not enthusiastic. He was a Swede and slow of
action. He resolutely declared that he was not ready to marry yet, and
in the end refused to do so. Then came the dramatic moment. Clemens
quietly but firmly informed him that the wedding ceremony must take
place; that by infesting his premises he had broken the law, not only
against trespass, but most likely against house-breaking. There was a
brief discussion of this point. Finally Clemens gave him five minutes to
make up his mind, with the statement that he had an officer in waiting,
and unless he would consent to the wedding he would be taken in charge.
The young man began to temporize, saying that it would be necessary for
him to get a license and a preacher. But Clemens stepped to the door of
the bath-room, opened it, and let out Twichell, who had been sweltering
there in that fearful place for more than an hour, it being August. The
delinquent lover found himself confronted with all the requisites of
matrimony except the bride, and just then this detail appeared on the
scene, dressed for the occasion. Behind her ranged the rest of the
servants and a few invited guests. Before the young man knew it he had a
wife, and on the whole did not seem displeased. It ended with a gay
supper and festivities. Then Clemens started them handsomely by giving
each of them a check for one hundred dollars; and in truth (which in this
case, at least, is stranger than fiction) they lived happily and
prosperously ever after.

Some years later Mark Twain based a story on this episode, but it was
never entirely satisfactory and remains unpublished.



It was the night of December 17, 1877, that Mark Twain made his
unfortunate speech at the dinner given by the Atlantic staff to John G.
Whittier on his seventieth birthday. Clemens had attended a number of
the dinners which the Atlantic gave on one occasion or another, and had
provided a part of the entertainment. It is only fair to say that his
after-dinner speeches at such times had been regarded as very special
events, genuine triumphs of humor and delivery. But on this particular
occasion he determined to outdo himself, to prepare something unusual,
startling, something altogether unheard of.

When Mark Twain had an impulse like that it was possible for it to result
in something dangerous, especially in those earlier days. This time it
produced a bombshell; not just an ordinary bombshell, or even a
twelve-inch projectile, but a shell of planetary size. It was a sort of
hoax-always a doubtful plaything - and in this case it brought even
quicker and more terrible retribution than usual. It was an imaginary
presentation of three disreputable frontier tramps who at some time had
imposed themselves on a lonely miner as Longfellow, Emerson, and Holmes,
quoting apposite selections from their verses to the accompaniment of
cards and drink, and altogether conducting themselves in a most unsavory
fashion. At the end came the enlightenment that these were not what they
pretended to be, but only impostors - disgusting frauds. A feature like
that would be a doubtful thing to try in any cultured atmosphere. The
thought of associating, ever so remotely, those three old bummers which
he had conjured up with the venerable and venerated Emerson, Longfellow,
and Holmes, the Olympian trinity, seems ghastly enough to-day, and must
have seemed even more so then. But Clemens, dazzled by the rainbow
splendor of his conception, saw in it only a rare colossal humor, which
would fairly lift and bear his hearers along on a tide of mirth. He did
not show his effort to any one beforehand. He wanted its full beauty to
burst upon the entire company as a surprise.

It did that. Howells was toastmaster, and when he came to present
Clemens he took particular pains to introduce him as one of his foremost
contributors and dearest friends. Here, he said, was "a humorist who
never left you hanging you head for having enjoyed his joke."

Thirty years later Clemens himself wrote of his impressions as he rose to
deliver his speech.

I vaguely remember some of the details of that gathering: dimly I
can see a hundred people - no, perhaps fifty - shadowy figures,
sitting at tables feeding, ghosts now to me, and nameless
forevermore. I don't know who they were, but I can very distinctly
see, seated at the grand table and facing the rest of us, Mr.
Emerson, supernaturally grave, unsmiling; Mr. Whittier, grave,
lovely, his beautiful spirit shining out of his face; Mr.
Longfellow, with his silken-white hair and his benignant face; Dr.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, flashing smiles and affection and all good-
fellowship everywhere, like a rose-diamond whose facets are being
turned toward the light, first one way and then another - a charming
man, and always fascinating, whether he was talking or whether he
was sitting still (what he would call still, but what would be more
or less motion to other people). I can see those figures with
entire distinctiness across this abyss of time.

William Winter, the poet, had just preceded him, and it seemed a moment
aptly chosen for his so-different theme. "And then," to quote Howells,
"the amazing mistake, the bewildering blunder, the cruel catastrophe was
upon us."

After the first two or three hundred words, when the general plan and
purpose of the burlesque had developed, when the names of Longfellow,
Emerson, and Holmes began to be flung about by those bleary outcasts, and
their verses given that sorry association, those Atlantic diners became
petrified with amazement and horror. Too late, then, the speaker
realized his mistake. He could not stop, he must go on to the ghastly
end. And somehow he did it, while "there fell a silence weighing many
tons to the square inch, which deepened from moment to moment, and was
broken only by the hysterical and blood-curdling laughter of a single
guest, whose name shall not be handed down to infamy."

Howells can remember little more than that, but Clemens recalls that one
speaker made an effort to follow him - Bishop, the novelist, and that
Bishop didn't last long.

It was not many sentences after his first before he began to
hesitate and break, and lose his grip, and totter and wobble, and at
last he slumped down in a limp and mushy pile.

The next man had not strength to rise, and somehow the company broke up.

Howells's next recollection is of being in a room of the hotel, and of
hearing Charles Dudley Warner saying in the gloom:

"Well, Mark, you're a funny fellow."

He remembers how, after a sleepless night, Clemens went out to buy some
bric-a-brac, with a soul far from bric-a-brac, and returned to Hartford
in a writhing agony of spirit. He believed that he was ruined forever,
so far as his Boston associations were concerned; and when he confessed
all the tragedy to Mrs. Clemens it seemed to her also that the mistake
could never be wholly repaired. The fact that certain papers quoted the
speech and spoke well of it, and certain readers who had not listened to
it thought it enormously funny, gave very little comfort. But perhaps
his chief concern was the ruin which he believed he had brought upon
Howells. He put his heart into a brief letter:

MY DEAR HOWELLS, - My sense of disgrace does not abate. It grows.
I see that it is going to add itself to my list of permanencies, a
list of humiliations that extends back to when I was seven years
old, and which keep on persecuting me regardless of my repentances.

I feel that my misfortune has injured me all over the country;
therefore it will be best that I retire from before the public at
present. It will hurt the Atlantic for me to appear in its pages
now. So it is my opinion, and my wife's, that the telephone story
had better be suppressed. Will you return those proofs or revises
to me, so that I can use the same on some future occasion?

It seems as if I must have been insane when I wrote that speech and
saw no harm in it, no disrespect toward those men whom I reverenced
so much. And what shame I brought upon you, after what you said in
introducing me! It burns me like fire to think of it.

The whole matter is a dreadful subject. Let me drop it here - at
least on paper.

Penitently yours, MARK

So, all in a moment, his world had come to an end - as it seemed. But
Howells's letter, which came rushing back by first mail, brought hope.

"It was a fatality," Howells said. "One of those sorrows into which a
man walks with his eyes wide open, no one knows why."

Howells assured him that Longfellow, Emerson, and Holmes would so
consider it, beyond doubt; that Charles Eliot Norton had already
expressed himself exactly in the right spirit concerning it. Howells
declared that there was no intention of dropping Mark Twain's work from
the Atlantic.

You are not going to be floored by it; there is more justice than
that even in this world. Especially as regards me, just call the
sore spot well. I can say more, and with better heart, in praise of
your good feeling (which was what I always liked in you), since this
thing happened than I could before.

It was agreed that he should at once write a letter to Longfellow,
Emerson, and Holmes, and he did write, laying his heart bare to them.
Longfellow and Holmes answered in a fine spirit of kindliness, and Miss
Emerson wrote for her father in the same tone. Emerson had not been
offended, for he had not heard the speech, having arrived even then at
that stage of semi-oblivion as to immediate things which eventually so
completely shut him away. Longfellow's letter made light of the whole
matter. The newspapers, he said, had caused all the mischief.

A bit of humor at a dinner-table talk is one thing; a report of it
in the morning papers is another. One needs the lamplight and the
scenery. These failing, what was meant in jest assumes a serious

I do not believe that anybody was much hurt. Certainly I was not,
and Holmes tells me that he was not. So I think you may dismiss the
matter from your mind, without further remorse.

It was a very pleasant dinner, and I think Whittier enjoyed it very

Holmes likewise referred to it as a trifle.

It never occurred to me for a moment to take offense, or to feel
wounded by your playful use of my name. I have heard some mild
questioning as to whether, even in fun, it was good taste to
associate the names of the authors with the absurdly unlike

1 3 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Online LibraryAlbert Bigelow PaineMark Twain, a Biography — Volume II, Part 1: 1886-1900 → online text (page 3 of 20)