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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol III, Part 1: 1900 - 1907|
CCXXXVIII. The Writer Meets Mark Twain
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|We have reached a point in this history where the narrative becomes
mainly personal, and where, at the risk of inviting the charge of
egotism, the form of the telling must change.
It was at the end of 1901 that I first met Mark Twain--at The Players
Club on the night when he made the Founder's Address mentioned in an
I was not able to arrive in time for the address, but as I reached the
head of the stairs I saw him sitting on the couch at the dining-room
entrance, talking earnestly to some one, who, as I remember it, did not
enter into my consciousness at all. I saw only that crown of white hair,
that familiar profile, and heard the slow modulations of his measured
speech. I was surprised to see how frail and old he looked. From his
pictures I had conceived him different. I did not realize that it was a
temporary condition due to a period of poor health and a succession of
social demands. I have no idea how long I stood there watching him. He
had been my literary idol from childhood, as he had been of so many
others; more than that, for the personality in his work had made him
nothing less than a hero to his readers.
He rose presently to go, and came directly toward me. A year before I
had done what new writers were always doing--I had sent him a book I had
written, and he had done what he was always doing--acknowledged it with a
kindly letter. I made my thanks now an excuse for addressing him. It
warmed me to hear him say that he remembered the book, though at the time
I confess I thought it doubtful. Then he was gone; but the mind and ear
had photographed those vivid first impressions that remain always clear.
It was the following spring that I saw him again--at an afternoon
gathering, and the memory of that occasion is chiefly important because I
met Mrs. Clemens there for the only time, and like all who met her,
however briefly, felt the gentleness and beauty of her spirit. I think I
spoke with her at two or three different moments during the afternoon,
and on each occasion was impressed with that feeling of acquaintanceship
which we immediately experience with those rare beings whose souls are
wells of human sympathy and free from guile. Bret Harte had just died,
and during the afternoon Mr. Clemens asked me to obtain for him some item
concerning the obsequies.
It was more than three years before I saw him again. Meantime, a sort of
acquaintance had progressed. I had been engaged in writing the life of
Thomas Nast, the cartoonist, and I had found among the material a number
of letters to Nast from Mark Twain. I was naturally anxious to use those
fine characteristic letters, and I wrote him for his consent. He wished
to see the letters, and the permission that followed was kindness itself.
His admiration of Nast was very great.
It was proper, under the circumstances, to send him a copy of the book
when it appeared; but that was 1904, his year of sorrow and absence, and
the matter was postponed. Then came the great night of his seventieth
birthday dinner, with an opportunity to thank him in person for the use
of the letters. There was only a brief exchange of words, and it was the
next day, I think, that I sent him a copy of the book. It did not occur
to me that I should hear of it again.
We step back a moment here. Something more than a year earlier, through
a misunderstanding, Mark Twain's long association with The Players had
been severed. It was a sorrow to him, and a still greater sorrow to the
club. There was a movement among what is generally known' as the "Round
Table Group"--because its members have long had a habit of lunching at a
large, round table in a certain window--to bring him back again. David
Munro, associate editor of the North American Review-" David," a man well
loved of men--and Robert Reid, the painter, prepared this simple
Will ye no come back again?
Will ye no come back again?
Better lo'ed ye canna be,
Will ye no come back again?
It was signed by Munro and by Reid and about thirty others, and it
touched Mark Twain deeply. The lines had always moved him. He wrote:
TO ROBT. REID & THE OTHERS--
WELL-BELOVED,--Surely those lovely verses went to Prince Charlie's
heart, if he had one, & certainly they have gone to mine. I shall
be glad & proud to come back again after such a moving & beautiful
compliment as this from comrades whom I have loved so long. I hope
you can poll the necessary vote; I know you will try, at any rate.
It will be many months before I can foregather with you, for this
black border is not perfunctory, not a convention; it symbolizes the
loss of one whose memory is the only thing I worship.
It is not necessary for me to thank you--& words could not deliver
what I feel, anyway. I will put the contents of your envelope in
the small casket where I keep the things which have become sacred to
S. L. C.
So the matter was temporarily held in abeyance until he should return.
to social life. At the completion of his seventieth year the club had
taken action, and Mark Twain had been brought back, not in the regular
order of things, but as an honorary life member without dues or duties.
There was only one other member of this class, Sir Henry Irving.
The Players, as a club, does not give dinners. Whatever is done in that
way is done by one or more of the members in the private dining-room,
where there is a single large table that holds twenty-five, even thirty
when expanded to its limit. That room and that table have mingled with
much distinguished entertainment, also with history. Henry James made
his first after-dinner speech there, for one thing--at least he claimed
it was his first, though this is by the way.
A letter came to me which said that those who had signed the plea for the
Prince's return were going to welcome him in the private dining-room on
the 5th of January. It was not an invitation, but a gracious privilege.
I was in New York a day or two in advance of the date, and I think David
Munro was the first person I met at The Players. As he greeted me his
eyes were eager with something he knew I would wish to hear. He had been
delegated to propose the dinner to Mark Twain, and had found him propped
up in bed, and noticed on the table near him a copy of the Nast book. I
suspect that Munro had led him to speak of it, and that the result had
lost nothing filtered through that radiant benevolence of his.
The night of January 5, 1906, remains a memory apart from other dinners.
Brander Matthews presided, and Gilder was there, and Frank Millet and
Willard Metcalf and Robert Reid, and a score of others; some of them are
dead now, David Munro among them. It so happened that my seat was nearly
facing the guest of the evening, who, by custom of The Players, is placed
at the side and not at the end of the long table. He was no longer frail
and thin, as when I had first met him. He had a robust, rested look; his
complexion had the tints of a miniature painting. Lit by the glow of the
shaded candles, relieved against the dusk richness of the walls, he made
a picture of striking beauty. One could not take his eyes from it, and
to one guest at least it stirred the farthest memories. I suddenly saw
the interior of a farm-house sitting-room in the Middle West, where I had
first heard uttered the name of Mark Twain, and where night after night a
group gathered around the evening lamp to hear the tale of the first
pilgrimage, which, to a boy of eight, had seemed only a wonderful poem
and fairy tale. To Charles Harvey Genung, who sat next to me, I
whispered something of this, and how, during the thirty-six years since
then, no other human being to me had meant quite what Mark Twain had
meant--in literature, in life, in the ineffable thing which means more
than either, and which we call "inspiration," for lack of a truer word.
Now here he was, just across the table. It was the fairy tale come true.
"You should write his life."
His remark seemed a pleasant courtesy, and was put aside as such. When
he persisted I attributed it to the general bloom of the occasion, and a
little to the wine, maybe, for the dinner was in its sweetest stage just
then--that happy, early stage when the first glass of champagne, or the
second, has proved its quality. He urged, in support of his idea, the
word that Munro had brought concerning the Nast book, but nothing of what
he said kindled any spark of hope. I could not but believe that some one
with a larger equipment of experience, personal friendship, and abilities
had already been selected for the task. By and by the speaking began--
delightful, intimate speaking in that restricted circle--and the matter
went out of my mind.
When the dinner had ended, and we were drifting about the table in
general talk, I found an opportunity to say a word to the guest of the
evening about his Joan of Arc, which I had recently re-read. To my
happiness, he detained me while he told me the long-ago incident which
had led to his interest, not only in the martyred girl, but in all
literature. I think we broke up soon after, and descended to the lower
rooms. At any rate, I presently found the faithful Charles Genung
privately reasserting to me the proposition that I should undertake the
biography of Mark Twain. Perhaps it was the brief sympathy established
by the name of Joan of Arc, perhaps it was only Genung's insistent
purpose--his faith, if I may be permitted the word. Whatever it was,
there came an impulse, in the instant of bidding good-by to our guest of
honor, which prompted me to say:
"May I call to see you, Mr. Clemens, some day?"
And something--dating from the primal atom, I suppose--prompted him to
"Yes, come soon."
This was on Wednesday night, or rather on Thursday morning, for it was
past midnight, and a day later I made an appointment with his secretary
to call on Saturday.
I can say truly that I set out with no more than the barest hope of
success, and wondering if I should have the courage, when I saw him, even
to suggest the thought in my mind. I know I did not have the courage to
confide in Genung that I had made the appointment--I was so sure it would
fail. I arrived at 21 Fifth Avenue and was shown into that long library
and drawing-room combined, and found a curious and deep interest in the
books and ornaments along the shelves as I waited. Then I was summoned,
and I remember ascending the stairs, wondering why I had come on so
futile an errand, and trying to think of an excuse to offer for having
come at all.
He was propped up in bed--in that stately bed-sitting, as was his habit,
with his pillows placed at the foot, so that he might have always before
him the rich, carved beauty of its headboard. He was delving through a
copy of Huckleberry Finn, in search of a paragraph concerning which some
random correspondent had asked explanation. He was commenting
unfavorably on this correspondent and on miscellaneous letter-writing in
general. He pushed the cigars toward me, and the talk of these matters
ran along and blended into others more or less personal. By and by I
told him what so many thousands had told him before: what he had meant to
me, recalling the childhood impressions of that large, black-and-gilt-
covered book with its wonderful pictures and adventures--the
Mediterranean pilgrimage. Very likely it bored him--he had heard it so
often--and he was willing enough, I dare say, to let me change the
subject and thank him for the kindly word which David Munro had brought.
I do not remember what he said then, but I suddenly found myself
suggesting that out of his encouragement had grown a hope--though
certainly it was something less--that I might some day undertake a book
about himself. I expected the chapter to end at this point, and his
silence which followed seemed long and ominous.
He said, at last, that at various times through his life he had been
preparing some autobiographical matter, but that he had tired of the
undertaking, and had put it aside. He added that he had hoped his
daughters would one day collect his letters; but that a biography--
a detailed story of personality and performance, of success and failure--
was of course another matter, and that for such a work no arrangement had
been made. He may have added one or two other general remarks; then,
turning those piercing agate-blue eyes directly upon me, he said:
"When would you like to begin?"
There was a dresser with a large mirror behind him. I happened to catch
my reflection in it, and I vividly recollect saying to it mentally: "This
is not true; it is only one of many similar dreams." But even in a dream
one must answer, and I said:
"Whenever you like. I can begin now."
He was always eager in any new undertaking.
"Very good," he said. "The sooner, then, the better. Let's begin while
we are in the humor. The longer you postpone a thing of this kind the
less likely you are ever to get at it."
This was on Saturday, as I have stated. I mentioned that my family was
still in the country, and that it would require a day or two to get
established in the city. I asked if Tuesday, January 9th, would be too
soon to begin. He agreed that Tuesday would do, and inquired something
about my plan of work. Of course I had formed nothing definite, but I
said that in similar undertakings a part of the work had been done with a
stenographer, who had made the notes while I prompted the subject to
recall a procession of incidents and episodes, to be supplemented with
every variety of material obtainable--letters and other documentary
accumulations. Then he said:
"I think I should enjoy dictating to a stenographer, with some one to
prompt me and to act as audience. The room adjoining this was fitted up
for my study. My manuscripts and notes and private books and many of my
letters are there, and there are a trunkful or two of such things in the
attic. I seldom use the room myself. I do my writing and reading in
bed. I will turn that room over to you for this work. Whatever you need
will be brought to you. We can have the dictation here in the morning,
and you can put in the rest of the day to suit yourself. You can have a
key and come and go as you please."
That was always his way. He did nothing by halves; nothing without
unquestioning confidence and prodigality. He got up and showed me the
lovely luxury of the study, with its treasures of material. I did not
believe it true yet. It had all the atmosphere of a dream, and I have no
distinct recollection of how I came away. When I returned to The Players
and found Charles Harvey Genung there, and told him about it, it is quite
certain that he perjured himself when he professed to believe it true and
pretended that he was not surprised.