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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol II, Part 1: 1875 - 1886|
CLX. 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
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
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.