That's the only test! People may shout, clap their hands, stamp, wave their napkins, but none but the master can make them get up on their feet.
Clemens's own speech came last. He had been placed at the end to hold the house. He was preceded by a dull speaker, and his heart sank, for it was two o'clock and the diners were weary and sleepy, and the dreary speech had made them unresponsive.
They gave him a round of applause when he stepped up upon the table in front of him--a tribute to his name. Then he began the opening words of that memorable, delightful fancy.
"We haven't all had the good-fortune to be ladies; we haven't all been generals, or poets, or statesmen; but when the toast works down to the babies--we stand on common ground--"
The tired audience had listened in respectful silence through the first half of the sentence. He made one of his effective pauses on the word "babies," and when he added, in that slow, rich measure of his, "we stand on common ground," they let go a storm of applause. There was no weariness and inattention after that. At the end of each sentence, he had to stop to let the tornado roar itself out and sweep by. When he reached the beginning of the final paragraph, "Among the three or four million cradles now rocking in the land are some which this nation would preserve for ages as sacred things if we could know which ones they are," the vast audience waited breathless for his conclusion. Step by step he led toward some unseen climax--some surprise, of course, for that would be his way. Then steadily, and almost without emphasis, he delivered the opening of his final sentence:
"And now in his cradle, somewhere under the flag, the future illustrious commander-in-chief of the American armies is so little burdened with his approaching grandeurs and responsibilities as to be giving his whole strategic mind, at this moment, to trying to find out some way to get his own big toe into his mouth, an achievement which (meaning no disrespect) the illustrious guest of this evening also turned his attention to some fifty-six years ago."
He paused, and the vast crowd had a chill of fear. After all, he seemed likely to overdo it to spoil everything with a cheap joke at the end. No one ever knew better than Mark Twain the value of a pause. He waited now long enough to let the silence become absolute, until the tension was painful, then wheeling to Grant himself he said, with all the dramatic power of which he was master:
"And if the child is but the father of the man, there are mighty few who will doubt that he succeeded!"
The house came down with a crash. The linking of their hero's great military triumphs with that earliest of all conquests seemed to them so grand a figure that they went mad with the joy of it. Even Grant's iron serenity broke; he rocked and laughed while the tears streamed down his cheeks.
They swept around the speaker with their congratulations, in their efforts to seize his hand. He was borne up and down the great dining- hall. Grant himself pressed up to make acknowledgments.
"It tore me all to pieces," he said; and Sherman exclaimed, "Lord bless you, my boy! I don't know how you do it!"
The little speech has been in "cold type" so many years since then that the reader of it to-day may find it hard to understand the flame of response it kindled so long ago. But that was another day--and another nation--and Mark Twain, like Robert Ingersoll, knew always his period and his people.
ANOTHER "ATLANTIC" SPEECH
The December good-fortune was an opportunity Clemens had to redeem himself with the Atlantic contingent, at a breakfast given to Dr. Holmes.
Howells had written concerning it as early as October, and the first impulse had been to decline. It would be something of an ordeal; for though two years had passed since the fatal Whittier dinner, Clemens had not been in that company since, and the lapse of time did not signify. Both Howells and Warner urged him to accept, and he agreed to do so on condition that he be allowed to speak.