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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol III, Part 2: 1907 - 1910|
CCLXXXVIII. A Bermuda Birthday
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|It was the middle of November, 1909, when Clemens decided to take another
Bermuda vacation, and it was the 19th that we sailed. I went to New York
a day ahead and arranged matters, and on the evening of the 18th received
the news that Richard Watson Gilder had suddenly died.
Next morning there was other news. Clemens's old friend, William M.
Laffan, of the Sun, had died while undergoing a surgical operation. I
met Clemens at the train. He had already heard about Gilder; but he had
not yet learned of Laffan's death. He said:
"That's just it. Gilder and Laffan get all the good things that come
along and I never get anything."
Then, suddenly remembering, he added:
"How curious it is! I have been thinking of Laffan coming down on the
train, and mentally writing a letter to him on this Stetson-Eddy affair."
I asked when he had begun thinking of Laffan.
He said: "Within the hour."
It was within the hour that I had received the news, and naturally in my
mind had carried it instantly to him. Perhaps there was something
telepathic in it.
He was not at all ill going down to Bermuda, which was a fortunate thing,
for the water was rough and I was quite disqualified. We did not even
discuss astronomy, though there was what seemed most important news--the
reported discovery of a new planet.
But there was plenty of talk on the subject as soon as we got settled in
the Hamilton Hotel. It was windy and rainy out-of-doors, and we looked
out on the drenched semi-tropical foliage with a great bamboo swaying and
bending in the foreground, while he speculated on the vast distance that
the new planet must lie from our sun, to which it was still a satellite.
The report had said that it was probably four hundred billions of miles
distant, and that on this far frontier of the solar system the sun could
not appear to it larger than the blaze of a tallow candle. To us it was
wholly incredible how, in that dim remoteness, it could still hold true
to the central force and follow at a snail-pace, yet with unvarying
exactitude, its stupendous orbit. Clemens said that heretofore Neptune,
the planetary outpost of our system, had been called the tortoise of the
skies, but that comparatively it was rapid in its motion, and had become
a near neighbor. He was a good deal excited at first, having somehow the
impression that this new planet traveled out beyond the nearest fixed
star; but then he remembered that the distance to that first solar
neighbor was estimated in trillions, not billions, and that our little
system, even with its new additions, was a child's handbreadth on the
plane of the sky. He had brought along a small book called The Pith of
Astronomy--a fascinating little volume--and he read from it about the
great tempest of fire in the sun, where the waves of flame roll up two
thousand miles high, though the sun itself is such a tiny star in the
deeps of the universe.
If I dwell unwarrantably on this phase of Mark Twain's character, it is
because it was always so fascinating to me, and the contemplation of the
drama of the skies always meant so much to him, and somehow always seemed
akin to him in its proportions. He had been born under a flaming star, a
wanderer of the skies. He was himself, to me, always a comet rushing
through space, from mystery to mystery, regardless of sun and systems. It
is not likely to rain long in Bermuda, and when the sun comes back it
brings summer, whatever the season. Within a day after our arrival we
were driving about those coral roads along the beaches, and by that
marvelously variegated water. We went often to the south shore,
especially to Devonshire Bay, where the reefs and the sea coloring seem
more beautiful than elsewhere. Usually, when we reached the bay, we got
out to walk along the indurated shore, stopping here and there to look
out over the jeweled water liquid turquoise, emerald lapis-lazuli, jade,
the imperial garment of the Lord.
At first we went alone with only the colored driver, Clifford Trott,
whose name Clemens could not recollect, though he was always attempting
resemblances with ludicrous results. A little later Helen Allen, an
early angel-fish member already mentioned, was with us and directed the
drives, for she had been born on the island and knew every attractive
locality, though, for that matter, it would be hard to find there a place
that was not attractive.
Clemens, in fact, remained not many days regularly at the hotel. He kept
a room and his wardrobe there; but he paid a visit to Bay House--the
lovely and quiet home of Helen's parents--and prolonged it from day to
day, and from week to week, because it was a quiet and peaceful place
with affectionate attention and limitless welcome. Clifford Trott had
orders to come with the carriage each afternoon, and we drove down to Bay
House for Mark Twain and his playmate, and then went wandering at will
among the labyrinth of blossom-bordered, perfectly kept roadways of a
dainty paradise, that never, I believe, becomes quite a reality even to
those who know it best.
Clemens had an occasional paroxysm during these weeks, but they were not
likely to be severe or protracted; and I have no doubt the peace of his
surroundings, the remoteness from disturbing events, as well as the balmy
temperature, all contributed to his improved condition.
He talked pretty continuously during these drives, and he by no means
restricted his subjects to juvenile matters. He discussed history and
his favorite sciences and philosophies, and I am sure that his drift was
rarely beyond the understanding of his young companion, for it was Mark
Twain's gift to phrase his thought so that it commanded not only the
respect of age, but the comprehension and the interest of youth.
I remember that once he talked, during an afternoon's drive, on the
French Revolution and the ridiculous episode of Anacharsis Cloots,
"orator and advocate of the human race," collecting the vast populace of
France to swear allegiance to a king even then doomed to the block. The
very name of Cloots suggested humor, and nothing could have been more
delightful and graphic than the whole episode as he related it.
Helen asked if he thought such a thing as that could ever happen in
"No," he said, "the American sense of humor would have laughed it out of
court in a week; and the Frenchman dreads ridicule, too, though he never
seems to realize how ridiculous he is--the most ridiculous creature in
On the morning of his seventy-fourth birthday he was looking wonderfully
well after a night of sound sleep, his face full of color and freshness,
his eyes bright and keen and full of good-humor. I presented him with a
pair of cuff-buttons silver-enameled with the Bermuda lily, and I thought
he seemed pleased with them.
It was rather gloomy outside, so we remained indoors by the fire and
played cards, game after game of hearts, at which he excelled, and he was
usually kept happy by winning. There were no visitors, and after dinner
Helen asked him to read some of her favorite episodes from Tom Sawyer, so
he read the whitewashing scene, Peter and the Pain-killer, and such
chapters until tea-time. Then there was a birthday cake, and afterward
cigars and talk and a quiet fireside evening.
Once, in the course of his talk, he forgot a word and denounced his poor
"I'll forget the Lord's middle name some time," he declared, "right in
the midst of a storm, when I need all the help I can get."
Later he said:
"Nobody dreamed, seventy-four years ago to-day, that I would be in
Bermuda now." And I thought he meant a good deal more than the words
It was during this Bermuda visit that Mark Twain added the finishing
paragraph to his article, "The Turning-Point in My Life," which, at
Howells's suggestion, he had been preparing for Harper's Bazar. It was a
characteristic touch, and, as the last summary of his philosophy of human
life, may be repeated here.
Necessarily the scene of the real turning-point of my life (and of
yours) was the Garden of Eden. It was there that the first link was
forged of the chain that was ultimately to lead to the emptying of
me into the literary guild. Adam's temperament was the first
command the Deity ever issued to a human being on this planet. And
it was the only command Adam would never be able to disobey. It
said, "Be weak, be water, be characterless, be cheaply persuadable."
The later command, to let the fruit alone, was certain to be
disobeyed. Not by Adam himself, but by his temperament--which he
did not create and had no authority over. For the temperament is
the man; the thing tricked out with clothes and named Man is merely
its Shadow, nothing more. The law of the tiger's temperament is,
Thou shaft kill; the law of the sheep's temperament is, Thou shalt
not kill. To issue later commands requiring the tiger to let the
fat stranger alone, and requiring the sheep to imbrue its hands in
the blood of the lion is not worth while, for those commands can't
be obeyed. They would invite to violations of the law of
temperament, which is supreme, and takes precedence of all other
authorities. I cannot help feeling disappointed in Adam and Eve.
That is, in their temperaments. Not in them, poor helpless young
creatures--afflicted with temperaments made out of butter, which
butter was commanded to get into contact with fire and be melted.
What I cannot help wishing is, that Adam and Eve had been postponed,
and Martin Luther and Joan of Arc put in their place--that splendid
pair equipped with temperaments not made of butter, but of asbestos.
By neither sugary persuasions nor by hell-fire could Satan have
beguiled them to eat the apple.
There would have been results! Indeed yes. The apple would be
intact to-day; there would be no human race; there would be no you;
there would be no me. And the old, old creation-dawn scheme of
ultimately launching me into the literary guild would have been