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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol III, Part 2: 1907 - 1910|
CCLXXXVI. Autumn Days
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|A harvest of letters followed the wedding: a general congratulatory
expression, mingled with admiration, affection, and good-will. In his
interview Clemens had referred to the pain in his breast; and many begged
him to deny that there was anything serious the matter with him, urging
him to try this relief or that, pathetically eager for his continued life
and health. They cited the comfort he had brought to world-weary
humanity and his unfailing stand for human justice as reasons why he
should live. Such letters could not fail to cheer him.
A letter of this period, from John Bigelow, gave him a pleasure of its
own. Clemens had written Bigelow, apropos of some adverse expression on
Thank you for any hard word you can say about the tariff. I guess
the government that robs its own people earns the future it is
preparing for itself.
Bigelow was just then declining an invitation to the annual dinner of the
Chamber of Commerce. In sending his regrets he said:
The sentiment I would propose if I dared to be present would be the
words of Mark Twain, the statesman:
"The government that robs its own people earns the future it is
preparing for itself."
Now to Clemens himself he wrote:
Rochefoucault never said a cleverer thing, nor Dr. Franklin a wiser
one . . . . Be careful, or the Demos will be running you for
President when you are not on your guard.
Yours more than ever,
Among the tributes that came, was a sermon by the Rev. Fred Window Adams,
of Schenectady, New York, with Mark Twain as its subject. Mr. Adams
chose for his text, "Take Mark and bring him with thee; for he is
profitable for the ministry," and he placed the two Marks, St. Mark and
Mark Twain, side by side as ministers to humanity, and characterized him
as "a fearless knight of righteousness." A few weeks later Mr. Adams
himself came to Stormfield, and, like all open-minded ministers of the
Gospel, he found that he could get on very well indeed with Mark Twain.
In spite of the good-will and the good wishes Clemens's malady did not
improve. As the days grew chillier he found that he must remain closer
indoors. The cold air seemed to bring on the pains, and they were
gradually becoming more severe; then, too, he did not follow the doctor's
orders in the matter of smoking, nor altogether as to exercise.
To Miss Wallace he wrote:
I can't walk, I can't drive, I'm not down-stairs much, and I don't see
company, but I drink barrels of water to keep the pain quiet; I read, and
read, and read, and smoke, and smoke, and smoke all the time (as
formerly), and it's a contented and comfortable life.
But this was not altogether accurate as to details. He did come down-
stairs many times daily, and he persisted in billiards regardless of the
paroxysms. We found, too, that the seizures were induced by mental
agitation. One night he read aloud to Jean and myself the first chapter
of an article, "The Turning-Point in My Life," which he was preparing for
Harper's Bazar. He had begun it with one of his impossible burlesque
fancies, and he felt our attitude of disappointment even before any word
had been said. Suddenly he rose, and laying his hand on his breast said,
"I must lie down," and started toward the stair. I supported him to his
room and hurriedly poured out the hot water. He drank it and dropped
back on the bed.
"Don't speak to me," he said; "don't make me talk."
Jean came in, and we sat there several moments in silence. I think we
both wondered if this might not be the end; but presently he spoke of his
own accord, declaring he was better, and ready for billiards.
We played for at least an hour afterward, and he seemed no worse for the
attack. It is a curious malady--that angina; even the doctors are
acquainted with its manifestations, rather than its cause. Clemens's
general habits of body and mind were probably not such as to delay its
progress; furthermore, there had befallen him that year one of those
misfortunes which his confiding nature peculiarly invited--a betrayal of
trust by those in whom it had been boundlessly placed--and it seems
likely that the resulting humiliation aggravated his complaint. The
writing of a detailed history of this episode afforded him occupation and
a certain amusement, but probably did not contribute to his health. One
day he sent for his attorney, Mr. Charles T. Lark, and made some final
revisions in his will.--[Mark Twain's estate, later appraised at
something more than $600,000 was left in the hands of trustees for his
daughters. The trustees were Edward E. Loomis, Jervis Langdon, and
Zoheth S. Freeman. The direction of his literary affairs was left to his
daughter Clara and the writer of this history.]
To see him you would never have suspected that he was ill. He was in
good flesh, and his movement was as airy and his eye as bright and his
face as full of bloom as at any time during the period I had known him;
also, he was as light-hearted and full of ideas and plans, and he was
even gentler--having grown mellow with age and retirement, like good
And of course he would find amusement in his condition. He said:
"I have always pretended to be sick to escape visitors; now, for the
first time, I have got a genuine excuse. It makes me feel so honest."
And once, when Jean reported a caller in the livingroom, he said:
"Jean, I can't see her. Tell her I am likely to drop dead any minute and
it would be most embarrassing."
But he did see her, for it was a poet--Angela Morgan--and he read her
poem, "God's Man," aloud with great feeling, and later he sold it for her
to Collier's Weekly.
He still had violent rages now and then, remembering some of the most
notable of his mistakes; and once, after denouncing himself, rather
inclusively, as an idiot, he said:
"I wish to God the lightning would strike me; but I've wished that fifty
thousand times and never got anything out of it yet. I have missed
several good chances. Mrs. Clemens was afraid of lightning, and would
never let me bare my head to the storm."
The element of humor was never lacking, and the rages became less violent
and less frequent.
I was at Stormfield steadily now, and there was a regular routine of
afternoon sessions of billiards or reading, in which we were generally
alone; for Jean, occupied with her farming and her secretary labors,
seldom appeared except at meal-times. Occasionally she joined in the
billiard games; but it was difficult learning and her interest was not
great. She would have made a fine player, for she had a natural talent
for games, as she had for languages, and she could have mastered the
science of angles as she had mastered tennis and French and German and
Italian. She had naturally a fine intellect, with many of her father's
characteristics, and a tender heart that made every dumb creature her
Katie Leary, who had been Jean's nurse, once told how, as a little child,
Jean had not been particularly interested in a picture of the Lisbon
earthquake, where the people were being swallowed up; but on looking at
the next page, which showed a number of animals being overwhelmed, she
"Why, you didn't say that about the people!"
But Jean answered:
"Oh, they could speak."
One night at the dinner-table her father was saying how difficult it must
be for a man who had led a busy life to give up the habit of work.
"That is why the Rogerses kill themselves," he said. "They would rather
kill themselves in the old treadmill than stop and try to kill time.
They have forgotten how to rest. They know nothing but to keep on till
I told of something I had read not long before. It was about an aged
lion that had broken loose from his cage at Coney Island. He had not
offered to hurt any one; but after wandering about a little, rather
aimlessly, he had come to a picket-fence, and a moment later began pacing
up and down in front of it, just the length of his cage. They had come
and led him back to his prison without trouble, and he had rushed eagerly
into it. I noticed that Jean was listening anxiously, and when I
finished she said:
"Is that a true story?"
She had forgotten altogether the point in illustration. She was
concerned only with the poor old beast that had found no joy in his
Among the letters that Clemens wrote just then was one to Miss Wallace,
in which he described the glory of the fall colors as seen from his
The autumn splendors passed you by? What a pity! I wish you had
been here. It was beyond words! It was heaven & hell & sunset &
rainbows & the aurora all fused into one divine harmony, & you
couldn't look at it and keep the tears back.
Such a singing together, & such a whispering together, & such a
snuggling together of cozy, soft colors, & such kissing & caressing,
& such pretty blushing when the sun breaks out & catches those
dainty weeds at it--you remember that weed-garden of mine?--& then--
then the far hills sleeping in a dim blue trance--oh, hearing about
it is nothing, you should be here to see it!
In the same letter he refers to some work that he was writing for his own
satisfaction--'Letters from the Earth'; said letters supposed to have
been written by an immortal visitant and addressed to other immortals in
some remote sphere.
I'll read passages to you. This book will never be published--
in fact it couldn't be, because it would be felony . . . Paine
enjoys it, but Paine is going to be damned one of these days, I
I very well remember his writing those 'Letters from the Earth'. He read
them to me from time to time as he wrote them, and they were fairly
overflowing with humor and philosophy and satire concerning the human
race. The immortal visitor pointed out, one after another, the
absurdities of mankind, his ridiculous conception of heaven, and his
special conceit in believing that he was the Creator's pet--the
particular form of life for which all the universe was created. Clemens
allowed his exuberant fancy free rein, being under no restrictions as to
the possibility of print or public offense. He enjoyed them himself,
too, as he read them aloud, and we laughed ourselves weak over his bold
One admissible extract will carry something of the flavor of these
chapters. It is where the celestial correspondent describes man's
His heaven is like himself: strange, interesting, astonishing,
grotesque. I give you my word it has not a single feature in it
that he actually values. It consists--utterly and entirely--of
diversions which he cares next to nothing about here in the earth,
yet he is quite sure he will like in heaven. Isn't it curious?
Isn't it interesting? You must not think I am exaggerating, for it
is not so. I will give you the details.
Most, men do not sing, most men cannot sing, most men will not stay
where others are singing if it be continued more than two hours.
Only about two men in a hundred can play upon a musical instrument,
and not four in a hundred have any wish to learn how. Set that
Many men pray, not many of them like to do it. A few pray long, the
others make a short-cut.
More men go to church than want to.
To forty-nine men in fifty the Sabbath day is a dreary, dreary bore.
Further, all sane people detest noise.
All people, sane or insane, like to have variety in their lives.
Monotony quickly wearies them.
Now then, you have the facts. You know what men don't enjoy. Well,
they have invented a heaven, out of their own heads, all by
themselves; guess what it is like? In fifteen hundred years you
couldn't do it. They have left out the very things they care for
most their dearest pleasures--and replaced them with prayer!
In man's heaven everybody sings. There are no exceptions. The man
who did not sing on earth sings there; the man who could not sing on
earth sings there. Thus universal singing is not casual, not
occasional, not relieved by intervals of quiet; it goes on all day
long and every day during a stretch of twelve hours. And everybody
stays where on earth the place would be empty in two hours. The
singing is of hymns alone. Nay, it is one hymn alone. The words
are always the same in number--they are only about a dozen--there is
no rhyme--there is no poetry. "Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna unto the
highest!" and a few such phrases constitute the whole service.
Meantime, every person is playing on a harp! Consider the deafening
hurricane of sound. Consider, further, it is a praise service--a
service of compliment, flattery, adulation. Do you ask who it is
that is willing to endure this strange compliment, this insane
compliment, and who not only endures it but likes it, enjoys it,
requires it, commands it? Hold your breath: It is God! This race's
God I mean--their own pet invention.
Most of the ideas presented in this his last commentary on human
absurdities were new only as to phrasing. He had exhausted the topic
long ago, in one way or another; but it was one of the themes in which he
never lost interest. Many subjects became stale to him at last; but the
curious invention called man remained a novelty to him to the end.
From my note-book:
October 25. I am constantly amazed at his knowledge of history--all
history--religious, political, military. He seems to have read
everything in the world concerning Rome, France, and England
Last night we stopped playing billiards while he reviewed, in the
most vivid and picturesque phrasing, the reasons of Rome's decline.
Such a presentation would have enthralled any audience--I could not
help feeling a great pity that he had not devoted some of his public
effort to work of that sort. No one could have equaled him at it.
He concluded with some comments on the possibility of America
following Rome's example, though he thought the vote of the people
would always, or at least for a long period, prevent imperialism.
November 1. To-day he has been absorbed in his old interest in
shorthand. "It is the only rational alphabet," he declared. "All
this spelling reform is nonsense. What we need is alphabet reform,
and shorthand is the thing. Take the letter M, for instance; it is
made with one stroke in shorthand, while in longhand it requires at
least three. The word Mephistopheles can be written in shorthand
with one-sixth the number of strokes that is required in longhand.
I tell you shorthand should be adopted as the alphabet."
I said: "There is this objection: the characters are so slightly
different that each writer soon forms a system of his own and it is
seldom that two can read each other's notes."
"You are talking of stenographic reporting," he said, rather warmly.
"Nothing of the kind is true in the case of the regular alphabet.
It is perfectly clear and legible."
"Would you have it in the schools, then?"
"Yes, it should be taught in the schools, not for stenographic
purposes, but only for use in writing to save time."
He was very much in earnest, and said he had undertaken an article
on the subject.
November 3. He said he could not sleep last night, for thinking
what a fool he had been in his various investments.
"I have always been the victim of somebody," he said, "and always an
idiot myself, doing things that even a child would not do. Never
asking anybody's advice--never taking it when it was offered. I
can't see how anybody could do the things I have done and have kept
right on doing."
I could see that the thought agitated him, and I suggested that we
go to his room and read, which we did, and had a riotous time over
the most recent chapters of the 'Letters from the Earth', and some
notes he had made for future chapters on infant damnation and other
distinctive features of orthodox creeds. He told an anecdote of an
old minister who declared that Presbyterianism without infant
damnation would be like the dog on the train that couldn't be
identified because it had lost its tag.
Somewhat on the defensive I said, "But we must admit that the so-
called Christian nations are the most enlightened and progressive."
He answered, "Yes, but in spite of their religion, not because of
it. The Church has opposed every innovation and discovery from the
day of Galileo down to our own time, when the use of anesthetics in
child-birth was regarded as a sin because it avoided the biblical
curse pronounced against Eve. And every step in astronomy and
geology ever taken has been opposed by bigotry and superstition.
The Greeks surpassed us in artistic culture and in architecture five
hundred years before the Christian religion was born.
"I have been reading Gibbon's celebrated Fifteenth Chapter," he said
later, "and I don't see what Christians found against it. It is so
mild--so gentle in its sarcasm." He added that he had been reading
also a little book of brief biographies and had found in it the
saying of Darwin's father, "Unitarianism is a featherbed to catch
"I was glad to find and identify that saying," he said; "it is so
He finished the evening by reading a chapter from Carlyle's French
Revolution--a fine pyrotechnic passage--the gathering at Versailles.
I said that Carlyle somehow reminded me of a fervid stump-speaker
who pounded his fists and went at his audience fiercely, determined
to convince them.
"Yes," he said, "but he is the best one that ever lived."
November 10. This morning early he heard me stirring and called. I
went in and found him propped up with a book, as usual. He said:
"I seldom read Christmas stories, but this is very beautiful. It
has made me cry. I want you to read it." (It was Booth
Tarkington's 'Beasley's Christmas Party'.) "Tarkington has the true
touch," he said; "his work always satisfies me." Another book he
has been reading with great enjoyment is James Branch Cabell's
Chivalry. He cannot say enough of the subtle poetic art with which
Cabell has flung the light of romance about dark and sordid chapters