He had a robust, rested look; his complexion had the tints of a miniature painting. Lit by the glow of the shaded candles, relieved against the dusk richness of the walls, he made a picture of striking beauty. One could not take his eyes from it, and to one guest at least it stirred the farthest memories. I suddenly saw the interior of a farm-house sitting-room in the Middle West, where I had first heard uttered the name of Mark Twain, and where night after night a group gathered around the evening lamp to hear the tale of the first pilgrimage, which, to a boy of eight, had seemed only a wonderful poem and fairy tale. To Charles Harvey Genung, who sat next to me, I whispered something of this, and how, during the thirty-six years since then, no other human being to me had meant quite what Mark Twain had meant--in literature, in life, in the ineffable thing which means more than either, and which we call "inspiration," for lack of a truer word. Now here he was, just across the table. It was the fairy tale come true.
"You should write his life."
His remark seemed a pleasant courtesy, and was put aside as such. When he persisted I attributed it to the general bloom of the occasion, and a little to the wine, maybe, for the dinner was in its sweetest stage just then--that happy, early stage when the first glass of champagne, or the second, has proved its quality. He urged, in support of his idea, the word that Munro had brought concerning the Nast book, but nothing of what he said kindled any spark of hope. I could not but believe that some one with a larger equipment of experience, personal friendship, and abilities had already been selected for the task. By and by the speaking began-- delightful, intimate speaking in that restricted circle--and the matter went out of my mind.
When the dinner had ended, and we were drifting about the table in general talk, I found an opportunity to say a word to the guest of the evening about his Joan of Arc, which I had recently re-read. To my happiness, he detained me while he told me the long-ago incident which had led to his interest, not only in the martyred girl, but in all literature. I think we broke up soon after, and descended to the lower rooms. At any rate, I presently found the faithful Charles Genung privately reasserting to me the proposition that I should undertake the biography of Mark Twain. Perhaps it was the brief sympathy established by the name of Joan of Arc, perhaps it was only Genung's insistent purpose--his faith, if I may be permitted the word. Whatever it was, there came an impulse, in the instant of bidding good-by to our guest of honor, which prompted me to say:
"May I call to see you, Mr. Clemens, some day?"
And something--dating from the primal atom, I suppose--prompted him to answer:
"Yes, come soon."
This was on Wednesday night, or rather on Thursday morning, for it was past midnight, and a day later I made an appointment with his secretary to call on Saturday.
I can say truly that I set out with no more than the barest hope of success, and wondering if I should have the courage, when I saw him, even to suggest the thought in my mind. I know I did not have the courage to confide in Genung that I had made the appointment--I was so sure it would fail. I arrived at 21 Fifth Avenue and was shown into that long library and drawing-room combined, and found a curious and deep interest in the books and ornaments along the shelves as I waited. Then I was summoned, and I remember ascending the stairs, wondering why I had come on so futile an errand, and trying to think of an excuse to offer for having come at all.
He was propped up in bed--in that stately bed-sitting, as was his habit, with his pillows placed at the foot, so that he might have always before him the rich, carved beauty of its headboard. He was delving through a copy of Huckleberry Finn, in search of a paragraph concerning which some random correspondent had asked explanation. He was commenting unfavorably on this correspondent and on miscellaneous letter-writing in general.