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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol III, Part 2: 1907 - 1910|
CCLXIII. Some Literary Luncheons
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|Howells, in his book, refers to the Human Race Luncheon Club, which
Clemens once organized for the particular purpose of damning the species
in concert. It was to consist, beside Clemens himself, of Howells,
Colonel Harvey, and Peter Dunne; but it somehow never happened that even
this small membership could be assembled while the idea was still fresh,
and therefore potent.
Out of it, however, grew a number of those private social gatherings
which Clemens so dearly loved--small luncheons and dinners given at his
own table. The first of these came along toward the end of 1907, when
Howells was planning to spend the winter in Italy.
"Howells is going away," he said, "and I should like to give him a stag-
party. We'll enlarge the Human Race Club for the occasion."
So Howells, Colonel Harvey, Martin Littleton, Augustus Thomas, Robert
Porter, and Paderewski were invited. Paderewski was unable to come, and
seven in all assembled.
Howells was first to arrive.
"Here comes Howells," Clemens said. "Old Howells a thousand years old."
But Howells didn't look it. His face was full of good-nature and
apparent health, and he was by no means venerable, either in speech or
action. Thomas, Porter, Littleton, and Harvey drifted in. Cocktails
were served and luncheon was announced.
Claude, the butler, had prepared the table with fine artistry--its center
a mass of roses. There was to be no woman in the neighborhood--Clemens
announced this fact as a sort of warrant for general freedom of
Thomas's play, "The Witching Hour," was then at the height of its great
acceptance, and the talk naturally began there. Thomas told something of
the difficulty which he found in being able to convince a manager that it
would succeed, and declared it to be his own favorite work. I believe
there was no dissenting opinion as to its artistic value, or concerning
its purpose and psychology, though these had been the stumbling-blocks
from a managerial point of view.
When the subject was concluded, and there had come a lull, Colonel
Harvey, who was seated at Clemens's left, said:
"Uncle Mark"--he often called him that--"Major Leigh handed me a report
of the year's sales just as I was leaving. It shows your royalty returns
this year to be very close to fifty thousand dollars. I don't believe
there is another such return from old books on record."
This was said in an undertone, to Clemens only, but was overheard by one
or two of those who sat nearest. Clemens was not unwilling to repeat it
for the benefit of all, and did so. Howells said:
"A statement like that arouses my basest passions. The books are no
good; it's just the advertising they get."
Clemens said: "Yes, my contract compels the publisher to advertise. It
costs them two hundred dollars every time they leave the advertisement
out of the magazines."
"And three hundred every time we put it in," said Harvey. "We often
debate whether it is more profitable to put in the advertisement or to
leave it out."
The talk switched back to plays and acting. Thomas recalled an incident
of Beerbohm Tree's performance of "Hamlet." W. S. Gilbert, of light-
opera celebrity, was present at a performance, and when the play ended
Mrs. Tree hurried over to him and said:
"Oh, Mr. Gilbert, what did you think of Mr. Tree's rendition of Hamlet?"
"Remarkable," said Gilbert. "Funny without being vulgar."
It was with such idle tales and talk-play that the afternoon passed. Not
much of it all is left to me, but I remember Howells saying, "Did it ever
occur to you that the newspapers abolished hell? Well, they did--it was
never done by the church. There was a consensus of newspaper opinion
that the old hell with its lake of fire and brimstone was an antiquated
institution; in fact a dead letter." And again, "I was coming down
Broadway last night, and I stopped to look at one of the street-venders
selling those little toy fighting roosters. It was a bleak, desolate
evening; nobody was buying anything, and as he pulled the string and kept
those little roosters dancing and fighting his remarks grew more and more
cheerless and sardonic.
"'Japanese game chickens,' he said; 'pretty toys, amuse the children with
their antics. Child of three can operate it. Take them home for
Christmas. Chicken-fight at your own fireside.' I tried to catch his eye
to show him that I understood his desolation and sorrow, but it was no
use. He went on dancing his toy chickens, and saying, over and over,
'Chicken-fight at your own fireside.'"
The luncheon over, we wandered back into the drawing-room, and presently
all left but Colonel Harvey. Clemens and the Colonel went up to the
billiard-room and engaged in a game of cushion caroms, at twenty-five
cents a game. I was umpire and stakeholder, and it was a most
interesting occupation, for the series was close and a very cheerful one.
It ended the day much to Mark Twain's satisfaction, for he was oftenest
winner. That evening he said:
"We will repeat that luncheon; we ought to repeat it once a month.
Howells will be gone, but we must have the others. We cannot have a
thing like that too often."
There was, in fact, a second stag-luncheon very soon after, at which
George Riggs was present and that rare Irish musician, Denis O'Sullivan.
It was another choice afternoon, with a mystical quality which came of
the music made by O'Sullivan on some Hindu reeds-pipes of Pan. But we
shall have more of O'Sullivan presently--all too little, for his days
were few and fleeting.
Howells could not get away just yet. Colonel Harvey, who, like James
Osgood, would not fail to find excuse for entertainment, chartered two
drawing-room cars, and with Mrs. Harvey took a party of fifty-five or
sixty congenial men and women to Lakewood for a good-by luncheon to
Howells. It was a day borrowed from June, warm and beautiful.
The trip down was a sort of reception. Most of the guests were
acquainted, but many of them did not often meet. There was constant
visiting back and forth the full length of the two coaches. Denis
O'Sullivan was among the guests. He looked in the bloom of health, and
he had his pipes and played his mystic airs; then he brought out the tin-
whistle of Ireland, and blew such rollicking melodies as capering fairies
invented a long time ago. This was on the train going down.
There was a brief program following the light-hearted feasting--an
informal program fitting to that sunny day. It opened with some
recitations by Miss Kitty Cheatham; then Colonel Harvey introduced
Howells, with mention of his coming journey. As a rule, Howells does not
enjoy speaking. He is willing to read an address on occasion, but he has
owned that the prospect of talking without his notes terrifies him. This
time, however, there was no reluctance, though he had prepared no speech.
He was among friends. He looked even happy when he got on his feet, and
he spoke like a happy man. He talked about Mark Twain. It was all
delicate, delicious chaffing which showed Howells at his very best--all
too short for his listeners.
Clemens, replying, returned the chaff, and rambled amusingly among his
fancies, closing with a few beautiful words of "Godspeed and safe return"
to his old comrade and friend.
Then once more came Denis and his pipes. No one will ever forget his
part of the program. The little samples we had heard on the train were
expanded and multiplied and elaborated in a way that fairly swept his
listeners out of themselves into that land where perhaps Denis himself
wanders playing now; for a month later, strong and lusty and beautiful as
he seemed that day, he suddenly vanished from among us and his reeds were
silent. It never occurred to us then that Denis could die; and as he
finished each melody and song there was a shout for a repetition, and I
think we could have sat there and let the days and years slip away
unheeded, for time is banished by music like that, and one wonders if it
might not even divert death.
It was dark when we crossed the river homeward; the myriad lights from
heaven-climbing windows made an enchanted city in the sky. The evening,
like the day, was warm, and some of the party. left the ferry-cabin to
lean over and watch the magic spectacle, the like of which is not to be
found elsewhere on the earth.