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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol II, Part 1: 1875 - 1886
A Great Publisher at Home
by Paine, Albert Bigelow

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 manuscript."

"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 gone."

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.


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