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13 January, 2012
Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 2: 1866 - 1875|
LXIV. Olivia Langdon
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|Clemens did in fact go to New York that same evening, to spend Christmas
with Dan Slote, and missed Bliss's second letter. It was no matter.
Fate had his affairs properly in hand, and had prepared an event of still
larger moment than the publication even of Innocents Abroad. There was a
pleasant reunion at Dan Slote's. He wrote home about it:
Charley Langdon, Jack Van Nostrand, Dan and I (all Quaker City
night-hawks) had a blow-out at Dan's house and a lively talk over
old times. I just laughed till my sides ached at some of our
reminiscences. It was the unholiest gang that ever cavorted through
Palestine, but those are the best boys in the world.
This, however, was not the event; it was only preliminary to it. We are
coming to that now. At the old St. Nicholas Hotel, which stood on the
west of Broadway between Spring and Broome streets, there were stopping
at this time Jervis Langdon, a wealty coal-dealer and mine-owner of
Elmira, his son Charles and his daughter Olivia, whose pictured face
Samuel Clemens had first seen in the Bay of Smyrna one September day.
Young Langdon had been especially anxious to bring his distinguished
Quaker City friend and his own people together, and two days before
Christmas Samuel Clemens was invited to dine at the hotel. He went very
willingly. The lovely face of that miniature had been often a part of
his waking dreams. For the first time now he looked upon its reality.
Long afterward he said:
"It is forty years ago. From that day to this she has never been out of
Charles Dickens was in New York then, and gave a reading that night in
Steinway Hall. The Langdons went, and Samuel Clemens accompanied them.
He remembered afterward that Dickens wore a black velvet coat with a
fiery red flower in his buttonhole, and that he read the storm scene from
Copperfield--the death of James Steerforth. But he remembered still more
clearly the face and dress of that slender girlish figure at his side.
Olivia Langdon was twenty-two years old at this time, delicate as the
miniature he had seen, fragile to look upon, though no longer with the
shattered health of her girlhood. At sixteen, through a fall upon the
ice, she had become a complete invalid, confined to her bed for two
years, unable to sit, even when supported, unable to lie in any position
except upon her back. Great physicians and surgeons, one after another,
had done their best for her but she had failed steadily until every hope
had died. Then, when nothing else was left to try, a certain Doctor
Newton, of spectacular celebrity, who cured by "laying on of hands," was
brought to Elmira to see her. Doctor Newton came into the darkened room
"Open the windows--we must have light!"
They protested that she could not bear the light, but the windows were
opened. Doctor Newton came to the bedside of the helpless girl,
delivered a short, fervent prayer, put his arm under her shoulders, and
bade her sit up. She had not moved for two years, and the family were
alarmed, but she obeyed, and he assisted her into a chair. Sensation
came back to her limbs. With his assistance she even made a feeble
attempt to walk. He left then, saying that she would gradually improve,
and in time be well, though probably never very strong. On the same day
he healed a boy, crippled and drawn with fever.
It turned out as he had said. Olivia Langdon improved steadily, and now
at twenty-two, though not robust--she was never that--she was
comparatively well. Gentle, winning, lovable, she was the family idol,
and Samuel Clemens joined in their worship from the moment of that first
Olivia Langdon, on her part, was at first dazed and fascinated, rather
than attracted, by this astonishing creature, so unlike any one she had
ever known. Her life had been circumscribed, her experiences of a simple
sort. She had never seen anything resembling him before. Indeed, nobody
had. Somewhat carelessly, even if correctly, attired; eagerly, rather
than observantly, attentive; brilliant and startling, rather than
cultured, of speech--a blazing human solitaire, unfashioned, unset,
tossed by the drift of fortune at her feet. He disturbed rather than
gratified her. She sensed his heresy toward the conventions and forms
which had been her gospel; his bantering, indifferent attitude toward
life--to her always so serious and sacred; she suspected that he even
might have unorthodox views on matters of religion. When he had gone she
somehow had the feeling that a great fiery meteor of unknown portent had
swept across her sky.
To her brother, who was eager for her approval of his celebrity, Miss
Langdon conceded admiration. As for her father, he did not qualify his
opinion. With hearty sense of humor, and a keen perception of verity and
capability in men, Jervis Langdon accepted Samuel Clemens from the start,
and remained his stanch admirer and friend. Clemens left that night with
an invitation to visit Elmira by and by, and with the full intention of
going--soon. Fate, however, had another plan. He did not see Elmira for
the better part of a year.
He saw Miss Langdon again within the week. On New-Year's Day he set
forth to pay calls, after the fashion of the time--more lavish then than
now. Miss Langdon was receiving with Miss Alice Hooker, a niece of Henry
Ward Beecher, at the home of a Mrs. Berry; he decided to go there first.
With young Langdon he arrived at eleven o'clock in the morning, and they
did not leave until midnight. If his first impression upon Olivia
Langdon had been meteoric, it would seem that he must now have become to
her as a streaming comet that swept from zenith to horizon. One thing is
certain: she had become to him the single, unvarying beacon of his future
years. He visited Henry Ward Beecher on that trip and dined with him by
invitation. Harriet Beecher Stowe was present, and others of that
eminent family. Likewise his old Quaker City comrades, Moses S. and
Emma Beach. It was a brilliant gathering, a conclave of intellectual
gods--a triumph to be there for one who had been a printer-boy on the
banks of the Mississippi, and only a little while before a miner with
pick and shovel. It was gratifying to be so honored; it would be
pleasant to write home; but the occasion lacked something too--
everything, in fact--for when he ran his eye around the board the face of
the minature was not there.
Still there were compensations; inadequate, of course, but pleasant
enough to remember. It was Sunday evening and the party adjourned to
Plymouth Church. After services Mr. Beecher invited him to return home
with him for a quiet talk. Evidently they had a good time, for in the
letter telling of these things Samuel Clemens said: "Henry Ward Beecher
is a brick."