All Rights Reserved.
Site last updated
13 January, 2012
Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 1: 1835 - 1866|
XLVI. Getting Settled in San Francisco
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|This was near the end of May, 1864. The intention of both Gillis and
Clemens was to return to the States; but once in San Francisco both
presently accepted places, Clemens as reporter and Gillis as compositor,
on the 'Morning Call'.
From 'Roughing It' the reader gathers that Mark Twain now entered into a
life of butterfly idleness on the strength of prospective riches to be
derived from the "half a trunkful of mining stocks," and that presently,
when the mining bubble exploded, he was a pauper. But a good many
liberties have been taken with the history of this period. Undoubtedly
he expected opulent returns from his mining stocks, and was disappointed,
particularly in an investment in Hale and Norcross shares, held too long
for the large profit which could have been made by selling at the proper
The fact is, he spent not more than a few days--a fortnight at most--in
"butterfly idleness," at the Lick House before he was hard at work on the
'Call', living modestly with Steve Gillis in the quietest place they
could find, never quiet enough, but as far as possible from dogs and cats
and chickens and pianos, which seemed determined to make the mornings
hideous, when a weary night reporter and compositor wanted to rest. They
went out socially, on occasion, arrayed in considerable elegance; but
their recreations were more likely to consist of private midnight orgies,
after the paper had gone to press--mild dissipations in whatever they
could find to eat at that hour, with a few glasses of beer, and perhaps a
game of billiards or pool in some all-night resort. A printer by the
name of Ward--"Little Ward,"--[L. P. Ward; well known as an athlete in
San Francisco. He lost his mind and fatally shot himself in 1903.]--
they called him--often went with them for these refreshments. Ward and
Gillis were both bantam game-cocks, and sometimes would stir up trouble
for the very joy of combat. Clemens never cared for that sort of thing
and discouraged it, but Ward and Gillis were for war. "They never
assisted each other. If one had offered to assist the other against some
overgrown person, it would have been an affront, and a battle would have
followed between that pair of little friends."--[S. L. C., 1906.]--
Steve Gillis in particular, was fond of incidental encounters, a
characteristic which would prove an important factor somewhat later in
shaping Mark Twain's career. Of course, the more strenuous nights were
not frequent. Their home-going was usually tame enough and they were
glad enough to get there.
Clemens, however, was never quite ready for sleep. Then, as ever, he
would prop himself up in bed, light his pipe, and lose himself in English
or French history until sleep conquered. His room-mate did not approve
of this habit; it interfered with his own rest, and with his fiendish
tendency to mischief he found reprisal in his own fashion. Knowing his
companion's highly organized nervous system he devised means of torture
which would induce him to put out the light. Once he tied a nail to a
string; an arrangement which he kept on the floor behind the bed.
Pretending to be asleep, he would hold the end of the string, and lift it
gently up and down, making a slight ticking sound on the floor, maddening
to a nervous man. Clemens would listen a moment and say:
"What in the nation is that noise"
Gillis's pretended sleep and the ticking would continue.
Clemens would sit up in bed, fling aside his book, and swear violently.
"Steve, what is that d--d noise?" he would say.
Steve would pretend to rouse sleepily.
"What's the matter, Sam? What noise? Oh, I guess that is one of those
death-ticks; they don't like the light. Maybe it will stop in a minute."
It usually did stop about that time, and the reading would be apt to
continue. But no sooner was there stillness than it began again--tick,
tick, tick. With a wild explosion of blasphemy, the book would go across
the floor and the light would disappear. Sometimes, when he couldn't
sleep, he would dress and walk out in the street for an hour, while the
cruel Steve slept like the criminal that he was.
At last, one night, he overdid the thing and was caught. His tortured
room-mate at first reviled him, then threatened to kill him, finally put
him to shame. It was curious, but they always loved each other, those
two; there was never anything resembling an estrangement, and to his last
days Mark Twain never could speak of Steve Gillis without tenderness.
They moved a great many times in San Francisco. Their most satisfactory
residence was on a bluff on California Street. Their windows looked down
on a lot of Chinese houses--"tin-can houses," they were called--small
wooden shanties covered with beaten-out cans. Steve and Mark would look
down on these houses, waiting until all the Chinamen were inside; then
one of them would grab an empty beer-bottle, throw it down on those tin
can roofs, and dodge behind the blinds. The Chinamen would swarm out and
look up at the row of houses on the edge of the bluff, shake their fists,
and pour out Chinese vituperation. By and by, when they had retired and
everything was quiet again, their tormentors would throw another bottle.
This was their Sunday amusement.
At a place on Minna Street they lived with a private family. At first
Clemens was delighted.
"Just look at it, Steve," he said. "What a nice, quiet place. Not a
thing to disturb us."
But next morning a dog began to howl. Gillis woke this time, to find his
room-mate standing in the door that opened out into a back garden,
holding a big revolver, his hand shaking with cold and excitement.
"Came here, Steve," he said. "Come here and kill him. I'm so chilled
through I can't get a bead on him."
"Sam," said Steve, "don't shoot him. Just swear at him. You can easily
kill him at that range with your profanity."
Steve Gillis declares that Mark Twain then let go such a scorching,
singeing blast that the brute's owner sold him next day for a Mexican
We gather that they moved, on an average, about once a month. A home
letter of September 25, 1864, says:
We have been here only four months, yet we have changed our lodging
five times. We are very comfortably fixed where we are now and have
no fault to find with the rooms or the people. We are the only
lodgers-in a well-to-do private family . . . . But I need change
and must move again.
This was the Minna Street place--the place of the dog. In the same
letter he mentions having made a new arrangement with the Call, by which
he is to receive twenty-five dollars a week, with no more night-work; he
says further that he has closed with the Californian for weekly articles
at twelve dollars each.