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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol III, Part 1: 1900 - 1907|
CCXL. The Definition of a Gentleman
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|That was a busy winter for him socially. He was constantly demanded for
this thing and that--for public gatherings, dinners--everywhere he was a
central figure. Once he presided at a Valentine dinner given by some
Players to David Munro. He had never presided at a dinner before, he
said, and he did it in his own way, which certainly was a taking one,
suitable to that carefree company and occasion--a real Scotch occasion,
with the Munro tartan everywhere, the table banked with heather, and a
wild piper marching up and down in the anteroom, blowing savage airs in
honor of Scotland's gentlest son.
An important meeting of that winter was at Carnegie Hall--a great
gathering which had assembled for the purpose of aiding Booker T.
Washington in his work for the welfare of his race. The stage and the
auditorium were thronged with notables. Joseph H. Choate and Mark Twain
presided, and both spoke; also Robert C. Ogden and Booker T. Washington
himself. It was all fine and interesting. Choate's address was ably
given, and Mark Twain was at his best. He talked of politics and of
morals--public and private--how the average American citizen was true to
his Christian principles three hundred and sixty-three days in the year,
and how on the other two days of the year he left those principles at
home and went to the tax-office and the voting-booths, and did his best
to damage and undo his whole year's faithful and righteous work.
I used to be an honest man, but I am crumbling--no, I have crumbled.
When they assessed me at $75,000 a fortnight ago I went out and
tried to borrow the money and couldn't. Then when I found they were
letting a whole crowd of millionaires live in New York at a third of
the price they were charging me I was hurt, I was indignant, and
said, this is the last feather. I am not going to run this town all
by myself. In that moment--in that memorable moment, I began to
crumble. In fifteen minutes the disintegration was complete. In
fifteen minutes I was become just a mere moral sand-pile, and I
lifted up my hand, along with those seasoned and experienced
deacons, and swore off every rag of personal property I've got in
I had never heard him address a miscellaneous audience. It was marvelous
to see how he convulsed it, and silenced it, and controlled it at will.
He did not undertake any special pleading for the negro cause; he only
prepared the way with cheerfulness.
Clemens and Choate joined forces again, a few weeks later, at a great
public meeting assembled in aid of the adult blind. Helen Keller was to
be present, but she had fallen ill through overwork. She sent to Clemens
one of her beautiful letters, in which she said:
I should be happy if I could have spelled into my hand the words as
they fall from your lips, and receive, even as it is uttered, the
eloquence of our newest ambassador to the blind.
Clemens, dictating the following morning, told of his first meeting with
Helen Keller at a little gathering in Lawrence Hutton's home, when she
was about the age of fourteen. It was an incident that invited no
elaboration, and probably received none.
Henry Rogers and I went together. The company had all assembled and
had been waiting a while. The wonderful child arrived now with her
about equally wonderful teacher, Miss Sullivan, and seemed quite
well to recognize the character of her surroundings. She said, "Oh,
the books, the books, so many, many books. How lovely!"
The guests were brought one after another. As she shook hands with
each she took her hand away and laid her fingers lightly against
Miss Sullivan's lips, who spoke against them the person's name.
Mr. Howells seated himself by Helen on the sofa, and she put her
fingers against his lips and he told her a story of considerable
length, and you could see each detail of it pass into her mind and
strike fire there and throw the flash of it into her face.
After a couple of hours spent very pleasantly some one asked if
Helen would remember the feel of the hands of the company after this
considerable interval of time and be able to discriminate the hands
and name the possessors of them. Miss Sullivan said, "Oh, she will
have no difficulty about that." So the company filed past, shook
hands in turn, and with each hand-shake Helen greeted the owner of
the hand pleasantly and spoke the name that belonged to it without
By and by the assemblage proceeded to the dining-room and sat down
to the luncheon. I had to go away before it was over, and as I
passed by Helen I patted her lightly on the head and passed on.
Miss Sullivan called to me and said, "Stop, Mr. Clemens, Helen is
distressed because she did not recognize your hand. Won't you come
back and do that again?" I went back and patted her lightly on the
head, and she said at once, "Oh, it's Mr. Clemens."
Perhaps some one can explain this miracle, but I have never been
able to do it. Could she feel the wrinkles in my hand through her
hair? Some one else must answer this.
It was three years following this dictation that the mystery received a
very simple and rather amusing solution. Helen had come to pay a visit
to Mark Twain's Connecticut home, Stormfield, then but just completed.
He had met her, meantime, but it had not occurred to him before to ask
her how she had recognized him that morning at Hutton's, in what had
seemed such a marvelous way. She remembered, and with a smile said:
"I smelled you." Which, after all, did not make the incident seem much
On one of the mornings after Miss Hobby had gone Clemens said:
"A very curious thing has happened--a very large-sized-joke." He was
shaving at the time, and this information came in brief and broken
relays, suited to a performance of that sort. The reader may perhaps
imagine the effect without further indication of it.
"I was going on a yachting trip once, with Henry Rogers, when a reporter
stopped me with the statement that Mrs. Astor had said that there had
never been a gentleman in the White House, and he wanted me to give him
my definition of a gentleman. I didn't give him my definition; but he
printed it, just the same, in the afternoon paper. I was angry at first,
and wanted to bring a damage suit. When I came to read the definition it
was a satisfactory one, and I let it go. Now to-day comes a letter and a
telegram from a man who has made a will in Missouri, leaving ten thousand
dollars to provide tablets for various libraries in the State, on which
shall be inscribed Mark Twain's definition of a gentleman. He hasn't got
the definition--he has only heard of it, and he wants me to tell him in
which one of my books or speeches he can find it. I couldn't think, when
I read that letter, what in the nation the man meant, but shaving somehow
has a tendency to release thought, and just now it all came to me."
It was a situation full of amusing possibilities; but he reached no
conclusion in the matter. Another telegram was brought in just then,
which gave a sadder aspect to his thought, for it said that his old
coachman, Patrick McAleer, who had begun in the Clemens service with the
bride and groom of thirty-six years before, was very low, and could not
survive more than a few days. This led him to speak of Patrick, his
noble and faithful nature, and how he always claimed to be in their
service, even during their long intervals of absence abroad. Clemens
gave orders that everything possible should be done for Patrick's
comfort. When the end came, a few days later, he traveled to Hartford to
lay flowers on Patrick's bier, and to serve, with Patrick's friends--
neighbor coachmen and John O'Neill, the gardener--as pall-bearer, taking
his allotted place without distinction or favor.
It was the following Sunday, at the Majestic Theater, in New York, that
Mark Twain spoke to the Young Men's Christian Association. For several
reasons it proved an unusual meeting. A large number of free tickets had
been given out, far more than the place would hold; and, further, it had
been announced that when the ticket-holders had been seated the admission
would be free to the public. The subject chosen for the talk was
When we arrived the streets were packed from side to side for a
considerable distance and a riot was in progress. A great crowd had
swarmed about the place, and the officials, instead of throwing the doors
wide and letting the theater fill up, regardless of tickets, had locked
them. As a result there was a shouting, surging human mass that
presently dashed itself against the entrance. Windows and doors gave
way, and there followed a wild struggle for entrance. A moment later the
house was packed solid. A detachment of police had now arrived, and in
time cleared the street. It was said that amid the tumult some had lost
their footing and had been trampled and injured, but of this we did not
learn until later. We had been taken somehow to a side entrance and
smuggled into boxes.--[The paper next morning bore the head-lines:
"10,000 Stampeded at the Mark Twain Meeting. Well-dressed Men and Women
Clubbed by Police at Majestic Theater." In this account the paper stated
that the crowd had collected an hour before the time for opening; that
nothing of the kind had been anticipated and no police preparation had
It was peaceful enough in the theater until Mark Twain appeared on the
stage. He was wildly greeted, and when he said, slowly and seriously,
"I thank you for this signal recognition of merit," there was a still
noisier outburst. In the quiet that followed he began his memories, and
went wandering along from one anecdote to another in the manner of his
At last it seemed to occur to him, in view of the character of his
audience, that he ought to close with something in the nature of counsel
suited to young men.
It is from experiences such as mine [he said] that we get our
education of life. We string them into jewels or into tinware, as
we may choose. I have received recently several letters asking for
counsel or advice, the principal request being for some incident
that may prove helpful to the young. It is my mission to teach, and
I am always glad to furnish something. There have been a lot of
incidents in my career to help me along--sometimes they helped me
along faster than I wanted to go.
He took some papers from his pocket and started to unfold one of them;
then, as if remembering, he asked how long he had been talking. The
answer came, "Thirty-five minutes." He made as if to leave the stage,
but the audience commanded him to go on.
"All right," he said, "I can stand more of my own talk than any one I
ever knew." Opening one of the papers, a telegram, he read:
"In which one of your works can we find the definition of a gentleman?"
Then he added:
I have not answered that telegram. I couldn't. I never wrote any
such definition, though it seems to me that if a man has just,
merciful, and kindly instincts he would be a gentleman, for he would
need nothing else in this world.
He opened a letter. "From Howells," he said.
My old friend, William Dean Howells--Howells, the head of American
literature. No one is able to stand with him. He is an old, old
friend of mine, and he writes me, "To-morrow I shall be sixty-nine
years old." Why, I am surprised at Howells writing so. I have
known him myself longer than that. I am sorry to see a man trying
to appear so young. Let's see. Howells says now, "I see you have
been burying Patrick. I suppose he was old, too."
The house became very still. Most of them had read an account of Mark
Twain's journey to Hartford and his last service to his faithful
servitor. The speaker's next words were not much above a whisper, but
every syllable was distinct.
No, he was never old-Patrick. He came to us thirty-six years ago.
He was our coachman from the day that I drove my young bride to our
new home. He was a young Irishman, slender, tall, lithe, honest,
truthful, and he never changed in all his life. He really was with
us but twenty-five years, for he did not go with us to Europe; but
he never regarded that a separation. As the children grew up he was
their guide. He was all honor, honesty, and affection. He was with
us in New Hampshire last summer, and his hair was just as black, his
eyes were just as blue, his form just as straight, and his heart
just as good as on the day we first met. In all the long years
Patrick never made a mistake. He never needed an order; he never
received a command. He knew. I have been asked for my idea of an
ideal gentleman, and I give it to you--Patrick McAleer.
It was the sort of thing that no one but Mark Twain has quite been able
to do, and it was just that recognized quality behind it that had made
crowds jam the street and stampede the entrance to be in his presence-to
see him and to hear his voice.