As Mark Twain in the earlier days of his marriage had temporarily put
aside authorship to join in a newspaper venture, so now again literature
had dropped into the background, had become an avocation, while financial
interests prevailed. There were two chief ventures--the business of
Charles L. Webster & Co. and the promotion of the Paige type-setting
machine. They were closely identified in fortunes, so closely that in
time the very existence of each depended upon the success of the other;
yet they were quite distinct, and must be so treated in this story.
The success of the Grant Life had given the Webster business an immense
prestige. It was no longer necessary to seek desirable features for
publication. They came uninvited. Other war generals preparing their
memoirs naturally hoped to appear with their great commander.
McClellan's Own Story was arranged for without difficulty. A Genesis of
the Civil War, by Gen. Samuel Wylie Crawford, was offered and accepted.
General Sheridan's Memoirs were in preparation, and negotiations with
Webster & Co. for their appearance were not delayed. Probably neither
Webster nor Clemens believed that the sale of any of these books would
approach those of the Grant Life, but they expected them to be large, for
the Grant book had stimulated the public taste for war literature, and
anything bearing the stamp of personal battle experience was considered
Moreover, these features, and even the Grant book itself, seemed likely
to dwindle in importance by the side of The Life of Pope Leo XIII., who
in his old and enfeebled age had consented to the preparation of a
memoir, to be published with his sanction and blessing. --[By Bernard
O'Reilly, D.D., LL.D. "Written with the Encouragement, Approbation, and
Blessings of His Holiness the Pope."]-- Clemens and Webster--every one,
in fact, who heard of the project--united in the belief that no book,
with the exception of the Holy Scripture itself or the Koran, would have
a wider acceptance than the biography of the Pope. It was agreed by good
judges--and they included Howells and Twichell and even the shrewd
general agents throughout the country--that every good Catholic would
regard such a book not only as desirable, but as absolutely necessary to
his salvation. Howells, recalling Clemens's emotions of this time,
He had no words in which to paint the magnificence of the project or
to forecast its colossal success. It would have a currency bounded
only by the number of Catholics in Christendom. It would be
translated into every language which was anywhere written or
printed; it would be circulated literally in every country of the
The formal contract for this great undertaking was signed in Rome in
April, 1886, and Webster immediately prepared to go over to consult with
his Holiness in person as to certain details, also, no doubt, for the
newspaper advertising which must result from such an interview.
It was decided to carry a handsome present to the Pope in the form of a
specially made edition of the Grant Memoirs in a rich-casket, and it was
Clemens's idea that the binding of the book should be solid gold--this to
be done by Tiffany at an estimated cost of about three thousand dollars.
In the end, however, the binding was not gold, but the handsomest that
could be designed of less precious and more appropriate materials.
Webster sailed toward the end of June, and was warmly received and highly
honored in Rome. The great figures of the Grant success had astonished
Europe even more than America, where spectacular achievements were more
common. That any single publication should pay a profit to author and
publisher of six hundred thousand dollars was a thing which belonged with
the wonders of Aladdin's garden. It was natural, therefore, that
Webster, who had rubbed the magic lamp with this result, who was Mark
Twain's partner, and who had now traveled across the seas to confer with
the Pope himself, should be received with royal honors. In letters
written at the time, Webster relates how he found it necessary to have an
imposing carriage and a footman to maintain the dignity of his mission,
and how, after various impressive formalities, he was granted a private
audience, a very special honor indeed. Webster's letter gives us a
picture of his Holiness which is worth preserving.
We--[Mrs. Webster, who, the reader will remember, was Annie Moffett,
a daughter of Pamela Clemens, was included in the invitation to the
Presence Chamber.]--found ourselves in a room perhaps twenty-five by
thirty-five feet; the furniture was gilt, upholstered in light-red
silk, and the side-walls were hung with the same material. Against
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
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."