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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol II, Part 2: 1886 - 1900|
CLXXXVI. "The Bell of New York"
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|Those were feverish weeks of waiting, with days of alternate depression
and exaltation as the pendulum swung to and fro between hope and despair.
By daylight Clemens tried to keep himself strenuously busy; evenings and
nights he plunged into social activities--dinners, amusements, suppers,
balls, and the like. He was be sieged with invitations, sought for by
the gayest and the greatest; "Jamie" Dodge conferred upon him the
appropriate title: of "The Belle of New York." In his letters home he
describes in detail many of the festivities and the wildness with which
he has flung himself into them, dilating on his splendid renewal of
health, his absolute immunity from fatigue. He attributes this to his
indifference to diet and regularities of meals and sleep; but we may
guess that it was due to a reaction from having shifted his burden to
stronger financial shoulders. Henry Rogers had taken his load upon him.
"It rests me," Rogers said, "to experiment with the affairs of a friend
when I am tired of my own. You enjoy yourself. Let me work at the
puzzle a little."
And Clemens, though his conscience pricked him, obeyed, as was his habit
at such times. To Mrs. Clemens (in Paris now, at the Hotel Brighton) he
He is not common clay, but fine-fine & delicate. I did hate to
burden his good heart & overworked head, but he took hold with
avidity & said it was no burden to work for his friends, but a
pleasure. When I arrived in September, Lord! how black the prospect
was & how desperate, how incurably desperate! Webster & Co. had to
have a small sum of money or go under at once. I flew to Hartford--
to my friends--but they were not moved, not strongly interested, & I
was ashamed that I went. It was from Mr. Rogers, a stranger, that I
got the money and was by it saved. And then--while still a
stranger--he set himself the task of saving my financial life
without putting upon me (in his native delicacy) any sense that I
was the recipient of a charity, a benevolence. He gave time to me--
time, which could not be bought by any man at $100,000 a month--no,
nor for three times the money.
He adds that a friend has just offered to Webster & Co. a book that
arraigns the Standard Oil magnates individual by individual.
I wanted to say the only man I care for in the world, the only man I
would give a d---n for, the only man who is lavishing his sweat &
blood to save me & mine from starvation is a Standard Oil magnate.
If you know me, you know whether I want the book or not.
But I didn't say that. I said I didn't want any book; I wanted to
get out of this publishing business & out of all business & was here
for that purpose & would accomplish it if I could.
He tells how he played billiards with Rogers, tirelessly as always, until
the millionaire had looked at him helplessly and asked:
"Don't you ever get tired?"
And he answered:
"I don't know what it is to get tired. I wish I did."
He wrote of going with Mr. Rogers to the Madison Square Garden to see an
exhibition of boxing given by the then splendid star of pugilism, James
J. Corbett. Dr. Rice accompanied him, and painters Robert Reid and
Edward Simmons, from The Players. They had five seats in a box, and
Stanford White came along presently and took Clemens into the champion's
Corbett has a fine face and is modest and diffident, besides being
the most perfectly & beautifully constructed human animal in the
world. I said:
"You have whipped Mitchell & maybe you will whip Jackson in June--
but you are not done then. You will have to tackle me."
He answered, so gravely that one might easily have thought him in
"No, I am not going to meet you in the ring. It is not fair or
right to require it. You might chance to knock me out, by no merit
of your own, but by a purely accidental blow, & then my reputation
would be gone & you would have a double one. You have got fame
enough & you ought not to want to take mine away from me."
Corbett was for a long time a clerk in the Nevada Bank, in San
There were lots of little boxing-matches to entertain the crowd;
then at last Corbett appeared in the ring & the 8,000 people present
went mad with enthusiasm. My two artists went mad about his form.
They said they had never seen anything that came reasonably near
equaling its perfection except Greek statues, & they didn't surpass
Corbett boxed 3 rounds with the middle-weight Australian champion--
oh, beautiful to see!--then the show was over and we struggled out
through a perfect mash of humanity. When we reached the street I
found I had left my arctics in the box. I had to have them, so
Simmons said he would go back & get them, & I didn't dissuade him.
I wouldn't see how he was going to make his way a single yard into
that solid incoming wave of people--yet he must plow through it full
50 yards. He was back with the shoes in 3 minutes!
How do you reckon he accomplished that miracle? By saying:
"Way, gentlemen, please--coming to fetch Mr. Corbett's overshoes."
The word flew from mouth to mouth, the Red Sea divided, & Simmons
walked comfortably through & back, dry-shod. This is Fire-escape
Simmons, the inveterate talker, you know: Exit--in case of Simmons.
I had an engagement at a beautiful dwelling close to The Players for
10.30; I was there by 10.45. Thirty cultivated & very musical
ladies & gentlemen present--all of them acquaintances & many of them
personal friends of mine. That wonderful Hungarian band was there
(they charge $500 for an evening). Conversation and band until
midnight; then a bite of supper; then the company was compactly
grouped before me & I told them about Dr. B. E. Martin & the
etchings, & followed it with the Scotch-Irish christening. My, but
the Martin is a darling story! Next, the head tenor from the Opera
sang half a dozen great songs that set the company wild, yes, mad
with delight, that nobly handsome young Damrosch accompanying on the
Just a little pause, then the band burst out into an explosion of
weird and tremendous dance-music, a Hungarian celebrity & his wife
took the floor; I followed--I couldn't help it; the others drifted
in, one by one, & it was Onteora over again.
By half past 4. I had danced all those people down--& yet was not
tired; merely breathless. I was in bed at 5 & asleep in ten
minutes. Up at 9 & presently at work on this letter to you. I
think I wrote until 2 or half past. Then I walked leisurely out to
Mr. Rogers's (it is called 3 miles, but is short of it), arriving at
3.30, but he was out--to return at 5.30--so I didn't stay, but
dropped over and chatted with Howells until five.
--[Two Mark Twain anecdotes are remembered of that winter at The Players:
Just before Christmas a member named Scott said one day:
"Mr. Clemens, you have an extra overcoat hanging in the coatroom. I've
got to attend my uncle's funeral and it's raining very hard. I'd like to
The coat was an old one, in the pockets of which Clemens kept a
melancholy assortment of pipes, soiled handkerchiefs, neckties, letters,
and what not.
"Scott," he said, "if you won't lose anything out of the pockets of that
coat you may wear it."
An hour or two later Clemens found a notice in his mail-box that a
package for him was in the office. He called for it and found a neat
bundle, which somehow had a Christmas look. He carried it up to the
reading-room with a showy, air.
"Now, boys," he said, "you may make all the fun of Christmas you like,
but it's pretty nice, after all, to be remembered."
They gathered around and he undid the package. It was filled with the
pipes, soiled handkerchiefs, and other articles from the old overcoat.
Scott had taken special precautions against losing them.
Mark Twain regarded them a moment in silence, then he drawled:
"Well--, d---n Scott. I hope his uncle's funeral will be a failure!"
The second anecdote concerns The Player egg-cups. They easily hold two
eggs, but not three. One morning a new waiter came to take the breakfast
order. Clemens said:
"Boy, put three soft eggs in that cup for me."
By and by the waiter returned, bringing the breakfast. Clemens looked at
the egg portion and asked:
"Boy, what was my order?"
"Three soft eggs broken in the cup, Mr. Clemens."
"And you've filled that order, have you?"
"Yes, Mr. Clemens."
"Boy, you are trifling with the truth; I've been trying all winter to get
three eggs into that cup."]
In one letter he tells of a dinner with his old Comstock friend, John
Mackay--a dinner without any frills, just soup and raw oysters and corned
beef and cabbage, such as they had reveled in sometimes, in prosperous
moments, thirty years before.
"The guests were old gray Pacific coasters," he said, "whom I knew when
they were young and not gray. The talk was of the days when we went
gipsying-along time ago--thirty years."
Indeed, it was a talk of the dead. Mainly that. And of how they looked
& the harum-scarum things they did & said. For there were no cares in
that life, no aches & pains, & not time enough in the day (& three-
fourths of the night) to work off one's surplus vigor & energy. Of the
midnight highway-robbery joke played upon me with revolvers at my head on
the windswept & desolate Gold Hill Divide no witness was left but me, the
victim. Those old fools last night laughed till they cried over the
particulars of that old forgotten crime.
In still another letter he told of a very wonderful entertainment at
Robert Reid's studio. There were present, he says:
Richard Harding Davis;
Harrison, the great outdoor painter;
Wm. H. Chase, the artist;
Bettini, inventor of the new phonograph;
Nikola Tesla, the world-wide illustrious electrician; see article
about him in Jan. or Feb. Century.
John Drew, actor;
James Barnes, a marvelous mimic; my, you should see him!
Smedley, the artist;
Zorn, " "
Zogbaum, " "
Reinhart, " "
Metcalf, " "
Ancona, head tenor at the Opera;
Oh, & a great lot of others. Everybody there had done something &
was in his way famous.
Somebody welcomed Coquelin in a nice little French speech, John Drew
did the like for me in English, & then the fun began. Coquelin did
some excellent French monologues--one of them an ungrammatical
Englishman telling a colorless historiette in French. It nearly
killed the fifteen or twenty people who understood it.
I told a yarn, Ancona sang half a dozen songs, Barnes did his
darling imitations, Handing Davis sang the hanging of Danny Deever,
which was of course good, but he followed it with that mast
fascinating (for what reason I don't know) of all Kipling's poems,
"On the Road to Mandalay," sang it tenderly, & it searched me deeper
& charmed me more than the Deever.
Young Gerrit Smith played some ravishing dance-music, & we all
danced about an hour. There couldn't be a pleasanter night than
that one was. Some of those people complained of fatigue, but I
don't seem to know what the sense of fatigue is.
In his reprieve he was like some wild thing that had regained liberty.
He refers to Susy's recent illness and to Mrs. Clemens's own poor state
Dear, dear Susy! My strength reproaches me when I think of her and
It is an unspeakable pity that you should be without any one to go
about with the girls, & it troubles me, & grieves me, & makes me
curse & swear; but you see, dear heart, I've got to stick right
where I am till I find out whether we are rich or whether the
poorest person we are acquainted with in anybody's kitchen is better
off than we are. . I stand on the land-end of a springboard, with
the family clustered on the other end; if I take my foot----
He realized his hopes to her as a vessel trying to make port; once he
The ship is in sight now ....
When the anchor is down then I shall say:
"Farewell--a long farewell--to business! I will never touch it
I will live in literature, I will wallow in it, revel in it; I will
swim in ink! 'Joan of Arc'--but all this is premature; the anchor
is not down yet.
Sometimes he sent her impulsive cables calculating to sustain hope. Mrs.
Clemens, writing to her sister in January, said:
Mr. Clemens now for ten days has been hourly expecting to send me
word that Paige had signed the (new) contract, but as yet no
despatch comes . . . . On the 5th of this month I received a
cable, "Expect good news in ten days." On the 15th I receive a
cable, "Look out for good news." On the 19th a cable, "Nearing
It appealed to her sense of humor even in these dark days. She added:
They make me laugh, for they are so like my beloved "Colonel."
Mr. Rogers had agreed that he would bring Paige to rational terms, and
with Clemens made a trip to Chicago. All agreed now that the machine
promised a certain fortune as soon as a contract acceptable to everybody
could be concluded--Paige and his lawyer being the last to dally and
dicker as to terms. Finally a telegram came from Chicago saying that
Paige had agreed to terms. On that day Clemens wrote in his note-book:
This is a great date in my history. Yesterday we were paupers with but
3 months' rations of cash left and $160,000 in debt, my wife & I, but
this telegram makes us wealthy.
But it was not until a fortnight later that Paige did actually sign.
This was on the 1st of February, '94, and Clemens that night cabled to
Paris, so that Mrs. Clemens would have it on her breakfast-plate the
morning of their anniversary:
"Wedding news. Our ship is safe in port. I sail the moment Rogers can
So this painted bubble, this thing of emptiness, had become as substance
again--the grand hope. He was as concerned with it as if it had been an
actual gold-mine with ore and bullion piled in heaps--that shadow, that
farce, that nightmare. One longs to go back through the years and face
him to the light and arouse him to the vast sham of it all.